Chapter 17

Introduction

As explained at toward the end of the chapter 16 commentary, we are continuing the bowl period as we begin chapter 17, even though we saw the seventh (and final) bowl event mentioned at the end of chapter 16. The seventh bowl was only started in chapter 16; it will conclude in chapter 19. The seventh bowl has been paused in order to present the bowl interlude.

The Bowl Interlude

Chapters 17 and 18 constitute the interlude associated with the bowls.

  • The seals had an interlude (chapter 7) that spoke broadly about the time period of the seals (the entire seven-year 70th Week of Daniel).
  • The trumpets had an interlude (chapter 10 through 11:13) that spoke broadly about the time period of the trumpets (the time, times and half a time, which includes the 42 months of great tribulation).
  • In the same manner, this bowl interlude speaks broadly about the time period of the bowls, which is the time of God’s wrath following the great tribulation. The bowls were referred to by the prophets as the Day of the Lord.

Afterwards, in chapter 19, the narration of the bowl events will resume from where it left off at the end of chapter 16. The seventh and final bowl event will be continued and concluded in chapter 19.

Commentary

The Great Harlot and the Scarlet Beast

1Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and spoke with me, saying, “Come here, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot who sits on many waters, 2with whom the kings of the earth committed acts of immorality, and those who dwell on the earth were made drunk with the wine of her immorality.” 3And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness; and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast, full of blasphemous names, having seven heads and ten horns. 4The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls, having in her hand a gold cup full of abominations and of the unclean things of her immorality,

v1 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and spoke with me, saying, “Come here, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot who sits on many waters – One of the angels who had a bowl speaks to John, and takes him to see what he calls “the judgment of the great harlot”. However, we won’t actually see her judgment until chapter 18.

First, we need to understand the meaning of the symbolic harlot and the scarlet beast. The main objective of chapter 17 is to provide that understanding. As explained in The Great Harlot and Babylon, the harlot is best understood to be the idolatrous “anti-church”, discussed below:

  • The church (represented by a bride) is
    (1) the collection of believers who desire to be faithful to God,
    (2) the true gospel that unites them,
    (3) the kingdom of God, in which Christ reigns and is worshiped by His subjects.
  • The anti-church (represented by the harlot) is
    (1) the collection of unbelievers who do not desire to be faithful to God,
    (2) the various false beliefs (idolatries) that unite them,
    (3) the kingdom of Satan, in which Antichrist will reign and be worshiped by his subjects.

A harlot is an apt metaphor. Although she may seem alluring and exciting, she invariably leads her customers to corruption and ruin. The same can be said about idolatry, which explains why harlotry is used throughout the Bible to symbolize idolatry.

v2 with whom the kings of the earth committed acts of immorality, and those who dwell on the earth were made drunk with the wine of her immorality – Clearly, this harlot is the same feminine symbol associated with “Babylon the great” in Rev 14:8.

v3 And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness; and I saw a woman – The Bible commonly associates a “wilderness” with temptation and hardship (e.g. Hagar in Gen 16:7, Israel in Num 14:29, Jesus in Matt 4:1). This is where we see the harlot, and temptation is the main theme in this case.

Side Note: The introduction of the harlot here, and the introduction of the bride in chapter 21, use very similar language, strongly suggesting that these two women are meant to be held in contrast. This is discussed further in The Great Harlot and Babylon.

v3 sitting on a scarlet beast, full of blasphemous names, having seven heads and ten horns – This associates harlot with the scarlet beast, which itself is associated with the similarly described dragon with seven heads and ten horns in Rev 12:3, and the beast rising from the sea in Rev 13:1. An explanation for this imagery is provided in verses 7-13 below.

v4 The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls – The purple and scarlet represent influence, beauty, and status. The gold and jewels represent wealth. Her description makes it easy to see how worldly people are attracted to her. Of course, since she is called a “harlot”, we can assume that sensual pleasures are a further attraction to them.

v4 having in her hand a gold cup full of abominations and of the unclean things of her immorality – The gold cup holds the “wine of the passion of her immorality”, as it was called in Rev 14:8. In contrast to the attractive things, this cup represents the snare that captivates people, as it were, as if in a drunken stupor. Having lost their judgment, they end up on their way to ruin, and they won’t even realize it until it’s too late.

The Great Harlot’s Babylon Connection

5and on her forehead a name was written, a mystery, “BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.” 6And I saw the woman drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus. When I saw her, I wondered greatly.

v5-6 5on her forehead a name was written, a mystery, “BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. 6And I saw the woman drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus – While this is not the first time “Babylon” is mentioned in Revelation, this is the first time we have seen such an amplification of the term. This passage gives us insight into what Babylon means in the context of Revelation.

These verses tell us two things about this symbolic harlot named “Babylon”:

  1. In some way, “Babylon” gave birth to other harlots (verse 5).
  2. In some way, “Babylon” is behind abominations, which would include the murder of Christians (verse 6).

It seems difficult to imagine how these two rather disjointed things are wrapped up in the one term “Babylon“. However, the understanding of this two-fold meaning of “Babylon” is remarkably provided in the Old Testament. This is explained in The Great Harlot and Babylon.

v6 When I saw her, I wondered greatly – John’s reaction is one of wonder, and his wonderment will evoke an explanation, which we see in the passage that follows.  First, the scarlet beast will be explained (starting in verse 8), and then more will be said about the harlot (starting in verse 15).

The Angel Offers Explanations

7And the angel said to me, “Why do you wonder? I will tell you the mystery of the woman and of the beast that carries her, which has the seven heads and the ten horns.

v6 I will tell you the mystery of the woman and of the beast that carries her, which has the seven heads and the ten horns – This is one of the rare occasions when Revelation offers to explains its own imagery. Usually, the imagery in Revelation either doesn’t require such explanation because it’s reasonably self-evident, or the imagery is borrowed from the Old Testament and the reader is expected to understand it by making the metaphorical connection. However, in this case, an angel provides a direct explanation, just as the prophet Daniel received an angelic explanation (Dan 7:16) several centuries earlier.

Explanation of the Scarlet Beast

8“The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to come up out of the abyss and go to destruction. And those who dwell on the earth, whose name has not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, will wonder when they see the beast, that he was and is not and will come.

v8 The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to come up out of the abyss and go to destruction – The phrase “was, is not, and is about to come” is being used with regard to the “beast from the abyss”. As we’ll soon see, this scarlet beast is best understood to be the same beast introduced in Rev 13:1-3, where a beast with seven heads and ten horns was seen rising from the sea (or the “abyss” per Rev 11:7).

That beast of chapter 13 had one head that was slain, and yet came back to life (Rev 13:3). This can be described in three stages:

  1. It “was” – This beast was formerly alive.
  2. It “is not” – This beast has since passed away.
  3. It “will come” – This beast will somehow be restored.

As discussed in Chapter 13, this three-stage concept seems to apply both to a specific kingdom (Rome), and a specific king (Antichrist). This verse emphasizes Antichrist who will appear to have a death and resurrection of his own. As we know, the kingdom of the Antichrist will ultimately go to destruction, in agreement with verse 8.

v8 And those who dwell on the earth, whose name has not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, will wonder when they see the beast, that he was and is not and will come – This speaks about how people will react to the beast, and it supports the claim that this scarlet beast is the same as the beast of chapter 13, because the descriptions are so similar.

Compare this verse to the description of the beast’s worshipers in chapter 13:

  • They are those who dwell on the earth and are amazed by the beast (Rev 13:3-4), and
  • Their names are not in the book of life from the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8).

It’s very unlikely that chapter 17 would use such similar descriptions if it intended to introduce some different beast. The similar descriptions lets us know that it is the same beast.

9“Here is the mind which has wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits, 10and they are seven kings; five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain a little while. 11“The beast which was and is not, is himself also an eighth and is one of the seven, and he goes to destruction.

v9 Here is the mind which has wisdom – While the understanding of this imagery is not beyond us, it does call for wisdom. Wisdom comes from scripture, and that is what we shall use.

v9-10 9The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits, 10and they are seven kings five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain a little while – The seven mountains are best understood as seven kingdoms (kingdoms are often symbolized by mountains in the Old Testament). The idea of seven kingdoms fits hand in glove with the “seven kings” mentioned in verse 10. These are seven actual earthly kings and kingdoms which have come and gone over time. What they all have in common is a Satanic influence under which they each dominated and persecuted Israel.

For explanations of these things and the identity of these kingdoms, please see The Seven Heads and Ten Horns.

11“The beast which was and is not, is himself also an eighth and is one of the seven, and he goes to destruction. 12“The ten horns which you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but they receive authority as kings with the beast for one hour. 13“These have one purpose, and they give their power and authority to the beast.

v11 The beast which was and is not .. and he goes to destruction – This clearly refers back to verse 8, and (as explained there), this beast refers to Antichrist.

v11 is himself also an eighth and is one of the seven – Antichrist’s kingdom in the end times shall be the eighth Satanic kingdom that persecutes Israel (or more generally, God’s representatives on earth). The translation rendered as “is one of the seven” is a bit misleading. Preferable is “He belongs to (or with) the seven” (NIV, ESV, ISV) or simply “is of the seven” (KJV, ASV) or “out of the seven” (YLT). The correct idea is that this is definitely an eighth actual kingdom distinct from the first seven, and yet it emerges from the same Satanic motivation that inspired the first seven kingdoms. The eighth kingdom thus belongs to the same group.

v12-13 12The ten horns which you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but they receive authority as kings with the beast for one hour. 13“These have one purpose, and they give their power and authority to the beast. – The ten horns are explained, and we see that they are the same ten horns of which Daniel spoke (Dan 7:24). They are ten kings and kingdoms that will be contemporaries of Antichrist’s kingdom, and they will come under his authority (either submissively or by form of coercion). Daniel adds the clarification that these ten kings in some sense come forth from the Roman empire, and that Antichrist will actually subdue three of them (Dan 7:23,24).

14“These will wage war against the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them, because He is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those who are with Him are the called and chosen and faithful.”

v14 These will wage war against the Lamb – “These” refer to the ten kings and Antichrist who rules over the others. In this sense, Antichrist may be called a counterfeit “king of kings”. They will all be present at the Battle of Armageddon (Rev 16:14,16) to wage war against Israel, and thus against the Lamb who is the king of Israel.

v14 the Lamb will overcome them, because He is Lord of lords and King of kings – As Daniel also foretold (Dan 7:13,14, Dan 7:26,27), these earthly kingdoms shall fall and be replaced by the eternal kingdom of God (the fulfillment of the Great Promise). Christ will emerge as the one true King of Kings (Rev 19:16).

v14 and those who are with Him are the called and chosen and faithful – “those who are with him” would seem to be Christ’s army, which shall include glorified saints (who by that time are either resurrected or raptured). See Rev 19:14, Joel 2:11, Isa 13:4). The “chosen and faithful” succinctly addresses them both as the elect and the willing.

More About the Great Harlot

Now, after having described the beast with its seven heads and ten horns, the angel offers some further explanation of the harlot, who is symbolically named “Babylon”, and how she relates to the kings symbolized by the ten horns.

15And he said to me, “The waters which you saw where the harlot sits, are peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues. 16“And the ten horns which you saw, and the beast, these will hate the harlot and will make her desolate and naked, and will eat her flesh and will burn her up with fire. 17“For God has put it in their hearts to execute His purpose by having a common purpose, and by giving their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God will be fulfilled. 18“The woman whom you saw is the great city, which reigns over the kings of the earth.”

v15 And he said to me, “The waters which you saw where the harlot sits, are peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues – The “many waters” (from verse 1) is explained to mean people all over the world, which is consistent with its use elsewhere (e.g. Num 24:7, Psalm 29:3). That the symbolic harlot sits on many waters shows that the harlot’s influence is strong and worldwide. Of course, this is true of the “anti-church” that she represents.

v16 the ten horns which you saw, and the beast, these will hate the harlot and will make her desolate and naked, and will eat her flesh and will burn her up with fire – At first, this verse seems surprising.  The beast and ten horns represent the political power of Satan’s final kingdom, and the harlot represents the anti-church, which comprises all false religions (or world-views) as well as their deceived adherents. Since the Satanic kingdom and the anti-church are united in opposing God, why would the Satanic kingdom hate the anti-church and destroy her?

For one thing, one must recognize the difference between the church and the anti-church. We know that Christ loves his church, but does it doesn’t necessarily follow that Antichrist will love his anti-church:

  • Christ is motivated by love for us, and He was willing to suffer the humiliation and death that we deserve. He desires our worship because He is worthy of it.
  • In contrast, Antichrist (like Satan) is motivated by love for himself. He desires our worship out of pride. But Satan does not love his followers — he hates them. We shall see the reason in the next verse.

v17 For God has put it in their hearts to execute His purpose by having a common purpose, and by giving their kingdom to the beast – The word “For” connects the hatred for the harlot (seen in verse 16) with the reason for the hatred (in verse 17). Specifically, the Satanic kingdom hates the harlot because the harlot stands in the way of unity under Antichrist.

Although Antichrist shall have political unity when the ten kings give him their kingdoms, he will still lack religious unity. He hates the harlot because she represents people who have been deceived into worshiping him (Rev 13:14). These people still represent many different false religions — even false forms of Christianity. Many of these people have been duped into thinking that Antichrist is the Christ or that he speaks on God’s behalf.

I believe that Satan is ultimately unsatisfied with being worshiped by means of deception. He desires to be worshiped openly for who he is, because when that happens he shall have both political unity (obedience) and religious unity (being worshiped in a true sense). He desires this true and complete unity among his people because he aspires to be like God (Isa 14:14).

When verse 16 speaks about destroying the harlot, I believe it means that they will destroy the religious deception through which people have come to worship Antichrist. The day may come (perhaps during the time of the bowl judgments) when Antichrist will remove the deception by making it clear that his god is Satan. For a brief time, the ungodly world will openly worship Satan in spirit and truth rather than by deception.

Note that the verse says “God has put it in their hearts to execute His purpose“. Again, this may seem surprising. How can this Satanic unity serve God’s purposes? Simply put, God doesn’t want any deception either. He desires for people to place their trust in Him and be saved, but if they refuse, He wants them to know that they have rejected God and have placed their trust in Satan. Thus, when they stand condemned before God, they shall have nothing to say (Rom 3:19).

v17 until the words of God will be fulfilled – The worship and glorification of Satan will last a short time, specifically “until the words of God will be fulfilled”. These are the words of scripture that foretell the doom of Satan’s kingdom, e.g. Dan 7:26-27, Dan 9:27, Rom 16:20, 2 Thes 2:8.

v18 The woman whom you saw is the great city, which reigns over the kings of the earth – The harlot is further identified as the great city that rules over the kings of the earth. There could be several such cities throughout history that fit this description. However, the present tense language indicates that it must be the city fitting that description at the time John wrote Revelation. Thus, this city could only be Rome.

How can it be that the harlot who has worldwide influence (“sits on many waters”) is identified by a specific city, such as Rome?

False religions and their followers (represented by the harlot) are indeed worldwide. However, a false religion can also be centered in one specific place, and this has happened at various times in the past. For example, other cities that have been centers of false religion include Nineveh of Assyria, Heliopolis of Egypt, and of course Babel, where it all began.

So verse 18 is saying is that in the end times, the worldwide false religion that worships Antichrist will also be centered in one specific city, and that city will be Rome. Of course, the idea of Rome being a religious center certainly brings to mind that a few centuries after John wrote Revelation, Rome did indeed become the center of a religion which has grown to have enormous worldwide influence on “many waters”: Roman Catholicism.

Summary

We have been introduced to this harlot and seen her associated with the name Babylon. Despite this association, I believe it is best to understand them as separate entities.

  • In Revelation, the harlot is associated with idolatry. She is depicted as having been around for a long time (e.g. in Rev 18:20 she is implicated in the sufferings of prophets and apostles). As the “mother of harlots“, she is the source of several forms of idolatry. She is described as having led the kings of the earth into immorality. All of this indicates her continuous presence on earth.
  • In contrast, Babylon is a temporal kingdom. Of course, a kingdom called Babylon rose and fell in the past, but its use as a metaphor informs us that another kingdom like it will rise and fall again in the end times.
  • The established connection between the harlot and Babylon informs us that there will be a particular form of idolatry that is intimately associated with the future Babylon-like kingdom. Of course, we know from chapter 13 that there will indeed be two beasts who work in unison. The first beast will be the ruler of the Babylon-like kingdom, and the second beast will be the False Prophet who deceives the world into the particular idolatry of worshiping the first beast.

As discussed above, I believe that the the Babylon/Harlot idolatry will be based in Rome, strongly suggesting that Roman Catholicism will be implicated in the deception. This is not to say that Roman Catholicism is the harlot (or that it is Babylon). I believe the harlot herself represents all forms of idolatry. And yet, there will be an unprecedented measure of unity among false religions because of the false signs and wonders performed by the Rome-based False Prophet of the end times.

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