Revelation Chapter 17 (Part 1: Verses 1-6)


REVELATION 17

Adam Maarschalk: December 3, 2009

Scripture text for this study: Revelation 17

UPDATE: This post was written when I understood the scarlet beast of Revelation 17 to be the same as the sea beast of Revelation 13:1-10, the seven kings of Revelation 17:10 to be the first seven Roman emperors, and the 10 horns of Revelation 17:12-14 to be the rulers of Rome’s 10 Senatorial Provinces. I now understand the seven kings to Revelation 17:10 to be the high priests of the house of Annas, and the 10 horns to be 10 Jewish generals (named by Josephus) who were appointed around January 67 AD to oversee specific territories and to prepare for war with Rome. This post will be updated accordingly when time allows.

A. The Scarlet Woman and the Scarlet Beast (Rev. 17:1-6)

Verse 1: At this point, the seven bowl judgments have been poured out on Babylon the Great (Rev. 16:19) by seven angels. One of these angels now takes John to see her judgment. Babylon, whose identity we will soon discuss, is referred to as “the great prostitute who is seated on many waters.” Steve Gregg, in his book “Revelation: Four Views (A Parallel Commentary),” reminds us that the fall of Babylon was first announced in Rev. 14:8 (p. 400). He then adds,

Chapters 17-19 reveal the destruction of Babylon in greater detail, the precursor to the marriage of the Lamb to a new bride. Appropriately, the chaste bride is contrasted with the wicked city depicted as a great harlot (v. 1). In order to gain this insight, John is transported in vision into the wilderness (v. 3). David S. Clark points out that “sometimes he was carried away into heaven to see visions; but the thing he was about to see now had no affinity with heaven, and he could not see such a scene as this in heaven, so he was taken to a wilderness as a more appropriate place, and one more in congruity with what he was about to see.”

Verse 2: Babylon is indicted for its sexual immorality, by which “the dwellers on earth” and “the kings of the earth” were made guilty. In our study of Revelation so far, we have suggested that many of the references to “the earth” in the book of Revelation are not meant to be taken as worldwide in scope, but as dealing instead with the land of Israel/Palestine. In a 3-part study on this subject beginning with this post, I have outlined nearly 20 instances where this appears to be the case. Notice that the reference to “the kings of the earth” here is distinct from the reference to “the kings of the whole world” in Revelation 16:14, where that reference was to the provincial kings of the entire Roman Empire.

We have also noted a couple of times that at this point in John’s narrative, there is division in the preterist camp regarding who judgment is being poured out upon. Some say it’s the Roman Empire, and others say it’s Jerusalem (this is my view). Steve Gregg (pp. 402-406) summarizes J. Stuart Russell’s arguments on why Babylon is to be identified with Jerusalem, and not with Rome. He lists 13 such reasons[1], which are reproduced here:

#1: The fall of Rome [in 476 AD] does not fall within the things “which must shortly take place,” which is the stated subject matter of the Apocalypse (cf. 1:1). [The fall of Jerusalem does, as it occurred in 70 AD, in John’s own day];

#2: The Olivet Discourse, which Russell conceives as a shorter treatment of the same subject matter as Revelation, does not include a discussion of the fate of Rome (see Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21);

#3: As Revelation presents a series of contrasts—a Lamb vs. a dragon; the Father’s name vs. the beast’s name on people’s foreheads; the bride vs. the harlot—so also the Apocalypse contrasts two cities, Babylon and the New Jerusalem. The latter is the church. The earthly Jerusalem is clearly in view in earlier chapters. To bring Rome into the picture at this point would introduce a third city and destroy the symmetry of the book;

#4: As a symbolic name for Jerusalem, Babylon would be as fitting as Sodom and Egypt, which were applied to Jerusalem earlier (11:8);

#5: The phrase “that great city” was used of Jerusalem earlier (11:8), as it is used repeatedly in these chapters regarding Babylon;

#6: In chapter 14, the winepress was trodden “outside the city” (14:20), which almost all understand to refer to Jerusalem, yet the only “city” named earlier in that chapter is Babylon (14:8), hence, Babylon equals Jerusalem;

#7: The division of Babylon into “three parts” in 16:19 best fits Jerusalem… (cf. Ezek. 5:1-12). [By this, Steve Gregg is also referring to the historical fact of three warring factions in Jerusalem during the siege leading up to Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 AD, which literally carved up the city into three parts. See previous post on chapter 16.];

#8: The appellation “the harlot” is an established label for Jerusalem from the Old Testament (cf. Isa. 1:21; 57:8; Jer. 2:2, 20); it could never be applied to Rome or any Gentile city, since they have never been in a covenant relationship with God. As Chilton writes: “The metaphor of harlotry is exclusively used in the Old Testament for a city or nation that has abandoned the Covenant and turned toward false gods; and with only two exceptions…[2] the term is always used for faithless Israel;

#9: Jerusalem sat upon seven hills as truly as did Rome [SEE FINAL NOTE at the end of this post];

#10: If “the kings of the earth” [verse 2] be understood to mean “the rulers of the land (Israel),” then Jerusalem, as appropriately as Rome, could be said to be “that great city” in 17:18 [more on this later];

#11: The expression “that great city which reigns over the rulers of the land” (v. 18) is fully equivalent to that which is said of Jerusalem in Lamentations 1:1—“Who was great among the nations! The princess among the provinces”;

#12: The Jews of Jerusalem were idolatrous, as was Rome;

#13: No city other than Jerusalem could be charged with the blood of the prophets and saints and apostles (see 17:6; 18:20, 24).

Verse 3: John then sees a woman sitting on a scarlet (red) beast with seven heads and ten horns. We already discussed the identity of this beast at length in Revelation 13 (See Post #1 here and Post #5 here), seeing a compelling case for its identity as Nero in the specific sense and the Roman Empire in the general sense. The woman here in verse 3 is seen as a prostitute (verse 1), and the fact that she is sitting on the beast does not mean that she is one and the same with the beast. Rather it suggests a very close relationship between the woman and the beast, who are both distinct in their identity. In my term paper on the events of 70 AD, I wrote the following regarding the significance of the woman (Jerusalem, as representing Israel) riding the beast (Rome):

In what sense might Jerusalem have sat on the beast with seven heads (mountains), the beast that would ultimately turn on her and destroy her (Rev. 17:3, 9, 16-18)? Israel had enjoyed a good relationship with Rome until the Jewish revolt began in 66 AD, and Judaism was recognized as a valid religion within the Roman Empire. Josephus wrote of this relationship, “It seems to me to be necessary here to give an account of all the honors that the Romans and their emperors paid to our nation [Israel], and of the leagues of mutual assistance they have made with it” (Antiquities, 14.10.1-2). The Jews frequently took advantage of this relationship to induce persecution against Jesus and His followers (Luke 23:2; John 18:28-31, 19:15; Acts 4:27, 16:20, 17:7, 18:12, 21:11, 24:1-9, 25:1-2). W.H.C. Frend even writes that “the promptings of orthodox Jews in the capitol had something to do with” Nero’s decision to begin persecuting Christians in 64 AD (The Rise of Christianity [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984], 109; quoted in Kenneth Gentry, 2002, p. 63).

Kenneth Gentry suggests that the beast is seen as scarlet for any (or all) of the following reasons: [1] The robes worn by Roman emperors were red in color [2] Rome, led by Nero, was responsible for shedding much blood among God’s people [3] Nero was famous for his red beard. Regarding this last point, Gentry says, “It would seem most appropriate to expect the red color of the beast to also correspond to the person designated as the beast whose number is 666” (Before Jerusalem Fell, p. 217). In other words, this is likely one more means by which John made known to his first-century readers exactly who the beast was (in the singular sense) without saying so explicitly.

Verses 4-5: The woman is seen to be wearing purple and scarlet, and gold, jewels, and pearls. She has in her hand a golden cup “full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality.” Her forehead proclaimed that she was “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations.” In my term paper on the events of 70 AD, I noted some observations made by Todd Dennis, the founder of the Preterist Archive:

…the description of the harlot’s attire (purple, scarlet, gold, jewels, and pearls) was nearly identical to the ephod worn by the high priest (Revelation 17:4; cf. Exodus 28:5-21). The golden cup she held was likely symbolic of the temple vessels, the greatest part of which were gold and silver, according to the Jewish historian Josephus (Wars 5.4.4). On Aaron’s forehead was the inscription “Holy to the Lord” (Exodus 28:36). The harlot’s forehead, on the other hand, bore the title “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations” (Rev. 17:5).

The attire of the harlot was also similar to what Josephus said was discovered “in the midst [of the inmost court], that most sacred part of the temple” when Jerusalem was captured by the Romans in 70 AD:

“The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls” (Revelation 17:4).

“But then this house, as it was divided into two parts, the inner part was lower than the appearance of the outer, and had golden doors of fifty-five cubits altitude, and sixteen in breadth; but before these doors there was a veil of equal largeness with the doors. It was a Babylonian curtain, embroidered with blue, and fine linen, and scarlet, and purple, and of a contexture that was truly wonderful” (Wars 5.5.4).

In Jeremiah’s day, Judah (with its capital of Jerusalem) was indicted because it had “played the whore with many lovers” and “polluted the land with…vile whoredom” (Jeremiah 3:1-2). Like Israel in John’s day, Judah prior to its fall in 586 BC had “the forehead of a whore” (verse 3).

Duncan McKenzie’s article has helped me to understand that “Babylon the Great” here was more than just a physical city in its identity. It was also a religious system full of abominations. That system, I believe, was Old Covenant temple-based Judaism. In the next chapter, we will see a command from God regarding Babylon, saying, “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues” (Rev. 18:4). We know from chapter 1 that John’s immediate audience did not live in Jerusalem (or Rome), but in Asia Minor. The believers in Jerusalem did flee, as we noted in chapter 7, but what did this message mean to believers already living outside of Jerusalem and Judea?

God’s message was about breaking completely free from Old Covenant temple-based Judaism. Babylon represented not only Jerusalem, but also the unfaithful community which had rejected Jesus in order to maintain corrupted Old Covenant practices. Both physical Jerusalem and temple-based Judaism were judged and destroyed in 70 AD. In Daniel 9:26-27 we see that it is on “the wing of abominations” that one comes “who makes desolate” (cf. Rev. 17:16, Matt. 23:38). This is in reference to the destruction of “the city and the sanctuary” (as related to Daniel’s own people and his holy city—Dan. 9:24). What are the abominations spoken of in both Daniel and Revelation? Regarding Daniel 9, John Calvin several centuries ago remarked:

I have no hesitation in referring this language of the angel to that profanation of the Temple which happened after the manifestation of Christ, when sacrifices ceased, and the shadows of the law were abolished. From the time, therefore, at which the sacrifice really ceased to be offered; this refers to the period at which Christ by his advent should abolish the shadows of the law, thus making all offering of sacrifices to God totally valueless… God’s wrath followed the profanation of the Temple. The Jews never anticipated the final cessation of their ceremonies, and always boasted in their peculiar external worship, and unless God had openly demonstrated it before their eyes, they would never have renounced their sacrifices and rites as mere shadowy representations. Hence Jerusalem and their Temple were exposed to the vengeance of the Gentiles.

As Russell pointed out earlier, John is being shown a contrasting picture of two women: the harlot of chapters 17 and 18, and the bride in chapter 19 clothed with “fine linen, bright and pure…the righteous deeds of the saints” (see verses 1-8). One (the harlot, representing Judaism) persecuted the other (the bride, Christ’s Church), as we will see again in the next verse. What is most fascinating is Paul’s own contrasting of two women in his epistle to the Galatians:

Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons,one by a slave woman andone by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, whilethe son of the free woman was born through promise. Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are twocovenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia;she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written, “Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear; break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor. For the children of the desolate one will be more than those of the one who has a husband.” Now you, brothers,like Isaac, are children of promise. But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. But what does the Scripture say?”Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” So, brothers, we are not children of the slave butof the free woman (Galatians 4:21-31, emphasis added).

Note how the following passages contrast each other:

A. Revelation 17:1: “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 prostitute who is seated on many waters.’”

A. Revelation 21:9: “Then came one of the seven angels which had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, ‘Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.’”

B. Revelation 17:3: “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.”

B. Revelation 21:10: “And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.”

On these matters, Duncan McKenzie concludes:

Revelation is talking about the same subject as Galatians; both books are contrasting two “cities” (physical Jerusalem and heavenly Jerusalem in Galatians, Babylon and the New or heavenly Jerusalem in Revelation) that are two “wives” (Hagar and Sarah in Galatians, the widowed harlot and the bride in Revelation).  These two women of Galatians and Revelation represent two communities, those of the old and new covenants…  In the book of Revelation, as in Galatians (4:29), one woman persecutes the other (i.e. the harlot persecutes the bride, Rev. 17:6).  Similarly in Revelation, as in Galatians, one of the two women is cast out (and destroyed—Rev. 18:21) while the other woman receives her inheritance (i.e. the Lord takes her as His bride).  This explains why the very next subject in Revelation after Babylon is destroyed is the wedding of the bride (Rev. 19:1-10).  God deposes of His unfaithful old covenant wife (who irrevocably broke her covenant of marriage with God and became a widow when she had Jesus killed) and then marries His faithful new covenant bride…

Just as the New Jerusalem is not a literal city but a community of people (the bride, the new covenant community) so Babylon was not a literal city but a community of people (the harlot, the unfaithful old covenant community)… While Babylon was centered in Jerusalem, its citizens were all those of unfaithful Israel that were rejecting Jesus for the temple system.

When the earthly Jerusalem fell, God’s true people were in possession of “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Hebrews 12:18-28). Upon the removal of that which could be shaken (vs. 27; cf. Hebrews 9:8-10), there remained “a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (vs. 28; cf. Daniel 7:21-22, Matthew 21:43).

Verse 6: The woman is said to be “drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.” This same charge was laid upon those of “the earth” (Rev. 16:1) in the previous chapter, where it was said that “they have shed the blood of saints and prophets (16:4-7).” In chapter 18 we will see that “in her was found the blood of prophets and of saints, and of all who have been slain on the earth” (18:24), and that the “saints and apostles and prophets” were told to rejoice over her destruction (18:20). Who was responsible for shedding all the blood of the prophets and the saints, according to Jesus, and who would receive judgment as a result? David Lowman, a Presbyterian pastor, aptly points out that the answer can be found in Matthew 23:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets’” Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! See, your house is left to you desolate (Matthew 23:29-38, emphasis added).

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In Part 2 of our study on Revelation 17 we will see how the angel unveils to John the meaning of the prostitute (Babylon) and the beast…

All of our Revelation chapter-by-chapter studies, and any other posts related to the book of Revelation, can be found here.


[1] Kenneth Gentry, in his book Before Jerusalem Fell, lists his own set of reasons (pp. 240-241): “Briefly, the evidence for the identifying of Jerusalem as the Harlot is based on the following: (1) Both are called ‘the great city’ (Rev. 14:8; 11:8). (2) The Harlot is filled with the blood of the saints (cp. Rev. 16:6; 17:6, 18:21, 24; with Matt. 23:34-38; Luke 13:33; Acts 7:51-52). Jerusalem had previously been called by pagan names quite compatible with the designation ‘Babylon’ (cp. Rev. 14:8 and 17:5 with 11:8). (4) Rome could not fornicate against God, for only Jerusalem was God’s wife (Rev. 17:2-5, cp. Isa. 1:20; Jer. 31:31). (5) There is an obvious contrast between the Harlot and the chaste bride (cp. Rev. 17:2-5 with Rev. 21:1ff.) that suggests a contrast with the Jerusalem below and the Jerusalem above (Rev. 21:2; cp. Gal. 4:24ff.; Heb. 12:18ff.). The fact that the Harlot is seated on the seven-headed Beast (obviously representative of Rome) indicates not identity with Rome, but alliance with Rome against Christianity (cp. Matt. 23:37ff.; John 19:6-16; Acts 17:7).” SEE ALSO QUESTION #9 HERE: http://www.forerunner.com/beast/beastfaq.html.

[2] Note from Steve Gregg: “The two exceptions are Tyre (Isaiah 23:15-17) and Nineveh (Nahum 3:4). It is notable that both of these pagan cities, Tyre (See I Kings 5:1-12; 9:13; Amos 1:9) and Nineveh (Jonah 3:5-10), had at one time been in covenant with God.”

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FINAL NOTE: Regarding J. Stuart Russell’s 13 arguments for identifying Babylon with Jerusalem, there was one that I wasn’t quite on board with earlier (i.e. I thought it shouldn’t belong to his list). That was #9, which stated, “Jerusalem sat upon seven hills as truly as did Rome.” Then today I came across this information at the site of Australian Pastor Andrew Corbett:

The City of Jerusalem as it existed in the time of Christ Jesus was widely reckoned to be the “City of Seven Hills.” This fact was well recognized in Jewish circles. In the Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer, an eighth century midrashic narrative (section 10), the writer mentioned without commentary (showing that the understanding was well known and required no defense) that “Jerusalem is situated on seven hills” (recorded in The Book of Legends, edited by Bialik and Ravnitzky, p. 371, paragraph 111). And, so it was. Those “seven hills” are easy to identify. If one starts with the Mount of Olives just to the east of the main City of Jerusalem (but still reckoned to be located within the environs of Jerusalem), there are three summits to that Mount of Olives. The northern summit (hill) is called Scopus [Hill One], the middle summit (hill) was called Nob [Hill Two], the highest point of Olivet itself, and the southern summit (hill) was called in the Holy Scriptures the “Mount of Corruption” or “Mount of Offence” [Hill Three] (II Kings 23:13). On the middle ridge between the Kedron and the Tyropoeon Valleys there was (formerly) in the south “Mount Zion” [Hill Four] (the original “Mount Zion” and not the later southwest hill that was later called by that name), then the “Ophel Mount” [Hill Five] and then to the north of that the “Rock” around which “Fort Antonia” was built [Hill Six]. And finally, there was thesouthwest hill itself [Hill Seven] that finally became known in the time of Simon the Hasmonean as the new “Mount Zion.” This makes “Seven Hills” in all.

So, indeed, J. Stuart Russell was correct. Still, as we will see in the following post, there is another sense also in which the woman (apostate Israel) can be seen as seated on the seven mountains of Rome (if Rome is in view in Revelation 17:9).

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One thought on “Revelation Chapter 17 (Part 1: Verses 1-6)

  1. […] “So he carried me away in the Spirit into the wilderness. And I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast which was full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls, having in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the filthiness of her fornication. And on her forehead a name was written: MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. And when I saw her, I marveled with great amazement” (Rev. 17:3-6). […]

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