The Harlot of Revelation 17 and its Relationship to Old Covenant Israel


Series: “Little Gems from Our Study of the Book of Revelation”

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 family dynasty of Hezekiah the Zealot, 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.

The following study was published yesterday in The Fulfilled Connection (TFC) Magazine, and is adapted from our study of Revelation 17 (Part 1):

In Revelation 17, John was shown a woman known as “Babylon the Great”, “the mother of harlots,” and “the great city.” This woman/city has been interpreted in various ways, from the Roman Catholic Church, to New York City, to modern Iraq, to the church in America, etc. This article will discuss a number of reasons why “Babylon the Great” was first century Jerusalem and old covenant Judaism. In doing so, we will look at the first six verses of Revelation 17.

The fall of Babylon was first announced in Revelation 14:8, and Revelation 11:8 identified “the great city” as the place “where also our Lord was crucified,” which, of course, was Jerusalem. Revelation 17-19 describes Babylon’s fall in more detail. This is then followed by a description of the bride, the wife of Jesus, who stands in contrast to the harlot. Note how the following passages deliberately 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.”

In Revelation 17:2, Babylon is prosecuted for its sexual immorality, by which “the dwellers on earth” and “the kings of the earth” were made guilty. 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 Roman Empire. In an earlier 3-part series, I discussed 20 instances in Revelation where the phrase “those who dwell on the earth” refers to first century Israel rather than to everyone on the planet (see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). 

Verse 3: John then sees a woman sitting on a scarlet beast with seven heads and ten horns. One of my previous articles, “Ten Fulfilled Prophecies Concerning the Beast from the Sea,” makes the case that the beast was Nero in the specific sense and the Roman Empire in the general sense. The fact that the woman is sitting on the beast suggests a very close relationship between the woman and the beast, who are both distinct in their identity. On this topic, I wrote the following elsewhere regarding the woman (Jerusalem) riding the beast (Rome):

In what sense might Jerusalem have sat on 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, Before Jerusalem Fell, 2002, p. 63).

Kenneth Gentry suggests that the beast was the color scarlet for any 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.

Verses 4-5: The woman wore purple, scarlet, gold, jewels, and pearls. She had 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.” According to 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).

In Jeremiah’s day, Judah (with its capital of Jerusalem) was prosecuted 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. It was also a religious system full of abominations, old covenant temple-based Judaism. In Revelation 18 God commands His people regarding Babylon, “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 Revelation 1 that John’s immediate audience didn’t live in Jerusalem, but in Asia Minor. So this was not a command to flee from the city of Jerusalem.

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 and the new covenant. 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” (see also Rev. 17:16, Matt. 23:38). This was related to the destruction of “the city and the sanctuary” (Daniel 9:24). The abominations of the earth (land) were the apostate practices of old covenant Judaism.

As mentioned earlier, John was 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) persecuted the other (the bride, Christ’s Church). 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 and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. 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 but of the free woman (Galatians 4:21-31).

Just as Paul wrote in Galatians 4, we see in Revelation that God casts out and destroys the harlot (Revelation 18:21), but the bride inherits the Lamb as her husband.

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” in the previous chapter (Rev. 16:1), where it was said that “they have shed the blood of saints and prophets (16:4-7).” In chapter 18 we also 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, apostles, and the saints, according to Jesus, and who would receive judgment as a result? 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).

The harlot is not a 21st century entity, but was the first century old covenant community. As God’s people, those of us who are in Christ today have the privilege of being part of the pure woman, God’s bride.

The Significance of the Word “Desolate” in the New Testament


Series: “Little Gems from Our Study of the book of Revelation”

The word “desolate” (or the related word “desolation”) only appears 12 times in the New Testament. Seven of these appearances are in the gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and five of them are references to Jerusalem’s condition in Jesus’ day and to what was about to happen to that city. This word does not appear in John’s gospel account, but its final two appearances in the New Testament demonstrate that John, in the book of Revelation, was showing Jerusalem to be every bit the desolate place that Jesus said it was.

Like the previous post, this one is also inspired by a recent discussion here. PJ Miller, of Sola Dei Gloria, observed the similarity between Matthew’s use of the word “desolate” in both chapters 23 and 24:

[1] “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! See! Your house is left to you desolate” (Matthew 23:37-38).

[2] “Therefore when you see the ‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place” (whoever reads, let him understand), “then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains” (Matthew 24:15-16).

[1] In Matthew 23:38, Jesus summed up what had become of Jerusalem in His lament over that city. Although formerly God’s house, Jesus now spoke of Jerusalem (and/or the temple) as “your house,” for He had abandoned it and left it to them as “desolate.”  About 650 years earlierGod said the same to Jeremiah just before Babylon destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BC:

I have forsaken My house, I have left My heritageI have given the dearly beloved of My soul into the hand of her enemies… ‘Many rulers have destroyed My vineyard, they have trodden My portion underfoot; They have made My pleasant portion a desolate wilderness. They have made it desolate; Desolate, it mourns to Me; The whole land is made desolate, because no one takes it to heart” (Jeremiah 12:7-11).

(In two recent posts, we discussed how first century Jerusalem became infested with demons, but how God chose new Jerusalem, the bride of Christ, as His house and His dwelling place.)

Strong’s Concordance defines the word “desolate” (#2048), used in Matthew 23:38, as “lonesome, waste, desert, solitary, wilderness.”

[2] In Matthew 24:15, Jesus warned His followers living in Judea to flee to the mountains when they saw the “abomination of desolation.” Matthew’s Jewish audience was familiar with this phrase, and would understand the reference to Daniel, but Luke quotes Jesus differently for his mostly Gentile audience:

But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains…” (Luke 21:20-21).

So the “abomination of desolation” was in the hands of foreign armies coming to complete Jerusalem’s desolation. The warnings of Matthew and Luke, stated differently, were to bring about the same response: immediate flight. In 314 AD, Eusebius, known as the father of church history, wrote the following about the obedience of Jesus’ followers to His words in Matthew 24:

“The people of the church at Jerusalem, in accordance with a certain oracle that was vouchsafed by way of revelation to the approved men there, had been commanded to depart from the city before the [Jewish-Roman war of 67-73 AD], and to inhabit a certain city of Peraea. They called it Pella [in modern-day Jordan]. And when those who believed in Christ had removed from Jerusalem, as if holy men had utterly deserted both the royal metropolis of the Jews itself and the whole land of Judaea, the Justice of God then visited upon them all their acts of violence to Christ and his apostles, by destroying that generation of wicked persons root and branch from among men” (see here for more about this event).

The word “desolation” in Matthew 24:15 is #2049 in Strong’s Concordance, and the definition there is: “from 2048; to lay waste (lit. or fig.): -(bring to, make) desolate (-ion), come to nought.” The word “desolation” in Luke 21:20 is entry #2050, and Strong’s simply points back to #2049. So we can see that all three entries (#2048, #2049, and #2050) are essentially the same word, just as the words “desolate” and “desolation” are essentially the same in English.

“Desolate” and “desolation” appear in Mark 13:14 and Luke 13:35 as direct parallels to Matthew 24 and Matthew 23, respectively. Otherwise, these words only appear six other times in the New Testament.* We’ll look briefly at four of these instances, before looking at their two appearances in Revelation: 

The word “desolation” appears in Matthew 12:25 and Luke 11:17 (parallel passages), where Jesus responds to the Pharisees who question by what power He was casting out demons: “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.”

The word “desolate” appears in Acts 1:20 regarding Judas Iscariot: “’For it is written in the Book of Psalms: ‘Let his dwelling place be desolate, and let no one live in it.”

It also shows up in Galatians 4:27, in Paul’s argument that God’s people belong to the Jerusalem above, and not the Jerusalem below. He quotes Isaiah 54: “For it is written: ‘Rejoice, O barren, you who do not bear! Break forth and shout, you who are not in labor! For the desolate has many more children than she who has a husband.’”

The Strong’s entry for Acts 1:20 and Galatians 4:27 is #2048, and the entry for Matthew 12:25 and Luke 11:17 is #2049.

*A different Greek word for “desolate” appears in I Timothy 5:5, and refers to a widow’s grief.

The final two places where this word shows up in the New Testament are in Revelation 17:16 and Revelation 18:19 (Strong’s #2049), regarding the burning of the harlot and the great city:

And the ten horns which you saw on the beast, these will hate the harlot, make her desolate and naked, eat her flesh and burn her with fire.”

They threw dust on their heads and cried out, weeping and wailing, and saying, ‘Alas, alas, that great city, in which all who had ships on the sea became rich by her wealth! For in one hour she is made desolate.’”

As we discussed in a recent post (“Jerusalem, a Dwelling Place of Demons“), “the great city” was first identified as the place “where also our Lord was crucified (Rev. 11:8).” Of course, Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem. This city was also aptly named “the harlot,” the same name given to it by Jeremiah (3:6-8), Ezekiel (16:15), and Hosea (6:10) because it was full of spiritual adultery at that time. Revelation 16-19 repeatedly holds “the great city”, “the harlot,” and “Babylon the great” (different names for the same entity) responsible for shedding the blood of God’s saints, prophets, and apostles. Jesus left no doubt who was responsible for shedding this blood, and when the resulting judgment would come: Israel, in His generation (Matthew 23:29-38).

Jesus declared Jerusalem in His day to be a desolate house, and He warned that “the abomination of desolation” would come and complete its desolation in His own generation. John, in his visions of “things which must shortly take place…for the time is near…at hand” (Rev. 1:1, 3; 22:10), saw the outcome of what Jesus prophesied, Jerusalem made desolate and burned to the ground.

Seeing how the word “desolate” is used here in Revelation 17 and 18, concerning the harlot and the great city, is good confirmation that John was showing Jerusalem to be every bit the desolate place that Jesus said it was in Matthew 23 and 24. This desolation was made complete in the year 70 AD. Gratefully, we can rejoice that we are children of the Jerusalem above (Galatians 4:26), the new Jerusalem aligned with the new covenant established by the blood of our Savior (Hebrews 12:22-24).