Rev 17; Jeremiah 51:6-10
Most of the mysteries unveiled in the Apocalypse have to do with God’s glory, worship in heaven, the Lion-Lamb, and the Church who is the Bride of Christ. However, the curtain is also drawn back so that we can see something we might prefer to ignore: the dark “mystery” of Babylon, that woman-city who opposes God, in league with the scarlet beast, and seducing the mighty of this world. Some of this distressing mystery we have glimpsed already, since we have beent told in chapters 10 through 14, during the opening of the “little scroll,” of the beast with seven heads and ten horns. But in chapter 16 we resumed our “reading” of the “sealed scroll,” which began with seven seals in chapter 6, moved on to seven trumpets, and ended with the casting of the contents of the seven bowls upon earth. Chapter 17 is explicitly linked to the seven bowls, since its secrets are disclosed by one of the seven angels carrying the bowls. Here is Revelation chapter 17, in all its darkness and mystery:
Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great whore who is seated upon many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality, and with the wine of whose sexual immorality the dwellers on earth have become drunk.” And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality. And on her forehead was written a name, a mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth’s abominations.” And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.
When I saw her, I was greatly astonished. But the angel said to me, “Why are you astonished? I will tell you the mystery of the woman, and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her. The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to rise from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the dwellers on earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world will marvel to see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come. This calls for a mind of wisdom: the seven heads are seven hills upon which the woman is seated; they are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he does come he must remain only a little while. As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction. And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have not yet received royal power, but they are to receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast. These are of one mind, and they hand over their power and authority to the beast. They will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.”
And the angel said to me, “The waters that you saw, where the prostitute is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages. And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the whore. They will make her desolate and naked, and devour her flesh and burn her up with fire, for God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by being of one mind and handing over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled. And the woman that you saw is the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth.”
We may see this “woman” in contrast with the noble lady of chapter 12, who, we recall, was a picture of God’s people. That woman’s sign was seen in the heavens, while Babylon sits in the heights. Instead of being pursued by the scarlet beast, as was the woman in chapter 12, Babylon riots on its back, and sits upon many waters. The woman clothed with the sun was associated with the Lamb, whereas this woman’s beast sports blasphemous names: indeed, in chapter 14 of Revelation we hear that the children of the woman of chapter 12, those who belong to the church, stand with the Lamb on Mount Zion, and have the Father’s name written on their foreheads. This is in marked contrast to the woman, who has upon her forehead an abominable name. Whereas the woman in chapter 12 is given eagle’s wings from God Himself, the “great whore” is dressed in artifice, as she consorts with all the inhabitants of the world. Her mysterious name is “Mother of prostitutes” (17:1-5), but her maternal instinct is self-serving and murderous rather than nurturing: she continually helps herself to a cup full of “abominations,” “impurity,” and “the blood of the saints.” Her wealth, moreover, is not substantial. While Babylon pretends to be a great and affluent city, she actually dwells “in the wilderness” (17:3). The glorious woman of chapter 12, of course, also sojourned in the desert, but that is not her true home or final dwelling place. When we reach the end of the book of Revelation, we will see that her true dwelling is with God, and that the desert has simply been a place of preparation for her —the time will come when she will truly be a sight to marvel at. In contrast, the angel tells John the seer not to marvel over Babylon (17:7), for her glory is not permanent.
Babylon, then, is associated with the “beast” who is doomed, along with those “whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world” (17:8). She seems to have a large retinue of followers. However, her days are numbered, for “God has put … into” the hearts of those whom she oppresses (17:17) the plan to destroy her. Though at the current time she feasts on the blood of the martyrs, and exploits those who think that they can gain from association with her, she herself will eventually be devoured by those with whom she consorts! Her pride is born of self-deception, for she does not truly possess life, for the foundation of her power is that of a beast “who is not.” His strength and hers merely depends upon the harm done to others.
In his own day, the prophet Jeremiah also spoke about the doom of the historical Babylon, picturing that nation (not just a city) as being like a “cup” that made the nations drunk and even insane, and whose judgment would come at the hand of God (Jer 51:7). When John writes, of course, Babylon is no longer a going concern; rather, the mega-city known to all was Rome. The details that he gives in his vision may lead us naturally to associate his Babylon with the old city of Rome, which sat upon seven hills. However, as many commentators, ancient and contemporary, have pointed out, this one-to-one correspondence does not fully capture the depth of the evil mystery put before our eyes. Rome, with its idolatry and emperor-worship, was only one instantiation of godless society. John gives us a clue to the extendable nature of the vision when the angel tells us that the seven hills are both the seven heads of the beast and seven kings. In this visionary Babylon, then, we glimpse rebellious and proud human society at its height. Here is a grotesque metropolis that has followed the dream of the tower of Babel, trying to find a path to divinity on its own steam, and in defiance of God. That rebellion and pride is expressed in blasphemy, in claims to power beyond what humans possess on their own, and in the blithe oppression of others—even those who are supposedly allies. Its entire modus operandi is a kind of spiritual fornication—that is, infidelity to the true God. This is not to say that the assortment of words used here to describe sexual perversion are merely symbolic of idolatry. Indeed, St. Paul in Romans 1 shows us that idolatry (mistaking God) and sexual immorality (mistaking the nature of humanity) are inter-related. Thus it is that idolatry is frequently expressed in actual sexual immorality of various kinds, as human beings come to worship sensual experience and power rather than the God of all bounty. The description of Babel as one who is consumed by sexual abominations is not merely symbolic, but dramatically appropriate. Nor is the prevalence of idolatry and sexual sin restricted to John’s vision: we know it all too well in our current decadent and self-absorbed world.
Whereas the woman clothed with the sun has true “children,” those who follow the Lamb, this dark woman-city simply uses her associates, whatever their station. An up-to-date illustration of this may be seen in Rowling’s Voldemort, whose name many are afraid to speak, and who lightly murders even his closest supporters for his own benefit. There is, in Babylon, no natural affection or concern, but the seduction and attraction of others whose sole purpose, from Babylon’s perspective, is to secure that city’s continued status. “For the greater good” becomes a cynical motto for indecent and inexcusable actions. And so she has seven kings who attend her, but their days are numbered. The seven, of course, is in imitation of the fullness of God, to whose might Babylon aspires. Some have, in times past, tried to correlate these kings to actual emperors in Rome, but the number of competing interpretations warns us against being too confident of such explicit historical readings. Instead, we read the numbering of the kings, with the eighth to come, as an assurance that God has all this in His view, and that Babylon’s days are not eternal, but she will be judged. She has, after all, made an unholy alliance not only with human leaders (who are seeking their own gain), but also with the pretending beast who “was, is not, and is to come.” She, like the beast, as no real life, and thus will become, as is fitting, nothing! Only the triune God has life in Himself. Human Babylon, and her demonic escort, have no such true foundation, present substance, or future fulfillment. Those who gather around to support such a society, too, are intent only on their own self-gain, and cannot participate in true fellowship or coordination. The “mind of wisdom” to which we are called will recognize that any society centered on its own might cannot stand.
Instead, a godless society founded upon arrogance and oppression will implode, will be destroyed from within. For God has the means to bring about a rebellion in its midst, so that the very leaders who have pledged to serve Babylon will be delighted to bring about her ruin. This is in the nature of things: that which only pretends to be eternal is sure to fail, for it does not have the substance, the light, the life, the true communion necessary to continue. Babylon cannot commend true loyalty or affection from those who serve her: in the end, even her henchmen will turn upon her. It may be, then, that such a society is far-reaching, cosmopolitan, and even world-wide. We see some of such huge alliances in the economic realities of our own day. Babylon, in John’s vision, sits on many waters, in supposedly an ideal place to thrive: “The waters that you saw, where the prostitute is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages.” In the end, though, this ideal situation will be her ruin. The dark “deal” that has been made between human leaders and the prince of darkness has no staying power. Consider the words of the prophet Jeremiah concerning the first Babylon:
We tried to heal Babylon,
but she could not be healed.
Forsake her, and let each of us go
to our own country;
for her judgment has reached up to heaven
and has been lifted up even to the skies.
The LORD has brought forth our vindication;
come, let us declare in Zion
the work of the LORD our God (Jer 51:6-10)
She could not be healed. A humanly constructed society ranged against God, and empowered by the Enemy is, by its nature, bound to fail, and then the light of righteousness of the Lamb will triumph. For He alone “is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.”