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“MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT” – Revelation 17:1-8

Posted by Pastor Greg Allen on August 10, 2016 under AM Bible Study |

AM Bible Study Group; August 10, 2016 from Revelation 17:1-8

Theme: In this chapter, John is given a vision of the great ‘harlot’ Babylon, which the Antichrist will exploit and the Lord destroy at His coming.

(All Scripture is taken from The New King James Version, unless otherwise indicated).

Chapters 17-18 constitute another parenthesis in the flow of the book of Revelation. The judgment of “great Babylon” was mentioned in 16:19; and now, in these two chapters, the story of this mysterious city is told in greater detail. Chapter 17 describes its nature and history, and chapter 18 describes its judgment and destruction.

Many people assume that the end-times will be characterized by prevailing ‘irreligion’. But as this passage shows us, the opposite will prove to be true. It will be a time characterized by unprecedented ‘religiousness’—but the religion that will seem to prevail over the times will be a ‘harlot’ religion of unfaithfulness to God.


A. This invitation was given to John by one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls (see 15:1; 16:1-21). Which of the seven angels this is isn’t told us; but because some of the bowls involved the judgment being described in chapters 17-18 (see also 16:10, 19), it’s clear that we’re to see the judgment being revealed in this disclosure as having a continuity with the bowl judgments (v. 1).

B. The angel tells John to come, and that he would show him the judgment that is depicted in the verses that follow. Note that what John is told in Chapter 17 is that he will be shown a “judgment”; but this judgment is more fully described in chapter 18.

1. John is told that it is the judgment of “the great harlot” (v. 1). Harlotry is a figure in Scripture for spiritual unfaithfulness (“playing the harlot” by taking the trust and devotion that belongs only to God and giving it to something else instead; see Judges 2:17; 8:27, 33; Ezekiel 16:28-43, Hosea 4:11-14). The “great harlot”, though depicted as literal in Revelation 17, is clearly meant to be understood as symbolic of “that great city which reigns over the kings of the earth” (v. 18). But more than that, it is a city in which will be centered the political, religious and material deceptions of the Antichrist—truly turning people from God and leading them to commit spiritual unfaithfulness toward Him.

2. She is depicted as siting “on many waters” (v. 1). Some have suggested that the “many waters” described the Euphrates River, where the ancient city of Babylon rested. Others see “many waters” as descriptive of how the city will draw into its influence a wide spread of the inhabited earth. The angel himself is clear: “The waters which you saw, where the harlot sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations, and tongues” (v. 15; see also 7:9). Thus, the ‘harlot-city’ is being described as one in which the largest part of the Gentile world will become consolidated (just like the world was consolidated at the tower at Babel of old; see Genesis 11:1-4).

3. Her allure as a harlot is described as being profound. The angel tells us that the kings of the earth “committed fornication” with her (v. 2)—suggesting that they consciously left the truth of God in order to enter into relations with her. And we’re told that the “inhabited earth” (that is, the people of it, who were under these kings) were “made drunk with the wine of her harlotries”. In Jeremiah 51:7, speaking of the former kingdom of Babylon, we read, “Babylon was a golden cup in the LORD’s hand, that made all the earth drunk. The nations drank her wine; therefore the nations are deranged.” And so again it will be in times to come.


A. In being shown the judgment of this harlot by the angel, John says that he was carried away “in the Spirit” (see Revelation 1:10; 4:2; 21:10). The translations of the Bible that capitalize “Spirit” interpret John to be saying that he was carried away through the Holy Spirit. Other translations that do not capitalize the word interpret John to be saying that he was in a state of being in which his own spirit was caught up with ecstasy in this vision (see a similar situation in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4). Either interpretation is possible.

B. The “carrying away” was into the wilderness” (v. 3). The wilderness here may be meant to symbolize a desolate place. In Revelation 12:6 and 14, it was to the wilderness that the the symbolic woman of that passage (Israel) fled for protection from the dragon (Antichrist). But here, it may also refer to a literal place of an actual future city called Babylon.

C. John—in this wilderness place—saw a women sitting on “a scarlet beast which was full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns” (v. 3). Clearly, she is shown to be riding on the Antichrist who was so vividly described in 13:1. The fact that she is sitting on the beast—and even being carried by him (v. 7)—means that the beast and his kingdom is parading her to the world’s view, and is intending that the attention of the world be drawn to her.

1. Note that she is described as “arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls” (v. 4). These are symbols of this city’s great wealth and luxury (see 18:16).

2. But also note that she is presented as bearing a golden cup in her hand. The fact that it is gold doesn’t hide the fact that it is “full of abominations and the filthiness of her fornications” (v. 4). Great wickedness and the murder of the saints—presented, nevertheless, in an attractive package—will characterize the nature of this city.

3. Just as harlots sometimes did in those days, the true nature of this city is presented as if written on her forehead (v. 5)—unashamedly and openly: “MYSTERY” (that is, a hidden truth), “BABYLON THE GREAT” (that wicked city from which the rebellion of humanity against God took collective shape; see Genesis 10:9-10; 11:1-9), “THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS” (that is, from whom all forms of spiritual harlotry are born), “AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH” (that is, from whom all forms of wickedness and idolatry spring up in the form of false religion and ungodly human philosophy).

4. Most grotesque of all the aspects of this woman is that she was drunk—not with wine, but with “the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (cf. 13:7). This city will be characterized by the brutal murder of God’s people (see 6:9-11; 18:24). The result of all this was that John was left in a state of astonishment at what he saw; and he “marveled with great amazement” (v. 6). Who could blame him?


A. We’re not left to guess at the meaning of all this. The angel himself tells John what he saw. “Why did you marvel?” he asked. “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” (v. 7).

B. The explanation can be broken up as follows:

The Beast (vv. 8-11).

a. He “was” (that is, he at one time existed on the earth—suggesting that he is the reappearance of an entity from the past; see Daniel 11:20-35), “is not” (meaning that he did not yet exist on the earth at the time John was given this vision), “and will ascend out of the bottomless pit” (see Revelation 13:1; also Daniel 11:36ff), “and goes to perdition” (that is, to destruction; see 2 Thessalonians 2:3, 8; Revelation 19:20; Daniel 11:45). The effect of his appearance (perhaps because of his seeming death and resurrection described in 13:3) will be that the unredeemed world will marvel at him (2 Thessalonians 2:9-12; Revelation 13:4, 8, 14).

b. John is further told, “Here is the mind which has wisdom” (v. 9; suggesting a crucial element in the right interpretation of this beast; see a similar statement in 13:18): “The seven heads” are explained to be “seven mountains on which the woman sits”. The woman is said to be crucially related—and even based upon—these seven mountains. Some see this as a picture of the Roman empire (note the classic ‘seven hills of Rome’: Palatine, Capitoline, Aventine, Caelian [or Caelius], Esquiline, Viminal, Quirinal.) But note also that “mountains” are often presented in Scripture as figures of a kingdom rule of some kind (see Psalm 30:7; Isaiah 2:2; Jeremiah 51:25; Daniel 2:35); and this may reflect the seven great ‘world empires’ that will have reigned throughout the history of mankind. So, we’re told next, “These are also seven kings”. We’re told that “five have fallen” (which may represent the first five world empires of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Media-Persia, and Greece), “one is” (which may represent the Roman empire), “and the other has not yet come” (which may suggest a revived Roman empire that continues for a short time).

c. Note that the beast is also presented, curiously, as being identified as one of its own heads. He is said to be “of the seven”; but “is himself also the eighth”. This surprising mention of an ‘eighth’ head may be because the Antichrist lives first as the seventh king, then appears to have been killed (Revelation 13:3, 14), and then lives again as the eighth. But we’re told that his destiny is that of “going to perdition” (that is, destruction).

2. The Ten Horns (v. 12-17). These are presented as ten kings. It’s no use trying to speculate who they are, because they do not receive their authority until the beast gives it to them (v.12). They only have authority with him (that is, as his co-regents) “for an hour” (that is, for only a short time). These are said to be of one mind, and they give their total devotion to the beast (see the prophecy of the “ten toes” in Daniel 2:33-35, 42-43). They will make war with Christ at His return (see Rev. 19:19-21); but will be utterly defeated because “He is Lord of lords and King of kings; and those who are with Him are called, chosen and faithful” (v. 14). The relationship of the ten kings to the world is shown in the fact that the harlot—the culminating product of the seven world empires—sits, as it were, “upon the peoples, multitudes, nations, and tongues” (v. 15). But note that the kings—and the beast—have no love for the “harlot” city with its religion, riches and system of politics. She is only a tool that they will use; and when the time is right, they will “make her desolate and naked, eat her flesh and burn her with fire” (v. 16)—thus fulfilling God’s purpose against her through their own hands (v. 17).

3. The Woman (v. 18). She is said to be, clearly, “that great city which reigns over the kings of the earth.” Her destruction is described in literal terms in 18:9-24.

* * * * * * * * * *

God has given us a picture of this future ungodly “harlot” city, so that we would not fall victim to its deceptiveness. Instead, we are to wait “for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:10). “For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come” (Hebrews 13:14).

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