One of the seven angels who participated in pouring out the bowls of God’s anger invited John to come and then see the judgment to befall the great harlot who sits on many waters. With her, the kings of the earth whored, and she made earth’s inhabitants drunk with the wine of her harlotry. In spirit, John was transported into the wilderness and saw a woman seated on a seven-headed, ten-horned, scarlet-colored beast filled with blasphemous names. The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold, precious stones, and pearls. In her hand, she held a golden cup filled with the abominable and impure things of her harlotry. The name written on her forehead, “Babylon the great,” was designated as a mystery. She was both a harlot and the mother of harlots and of earthly abominations. John observed that the woman was drunk with the blood of the holy ones and the witnesses of Jesus. Upon seeing her, he was struck with great astonishment. (17:1-6)
Earlier, John had seen the woman that gave birth to the baby boy flee into the wilderness. (12:6) He knew how the once-approved people of God, under the figure of a woman represented by the capital city Jerusalem, had in previous centuries become a harlot. The word of YHWH through the prophet Isaiah (1:21, NRSV) was, “How the faithful city has become a whore!” (See also Ezekiel 23:5-45.) The course of the many among those professing to be God’s people was one of unfaithfulness to him. Instead of relying on the Most High for aid and protection, they looked to foreign nations and their military strength for security. They failed to remain exclusively devoted to their God and engaged in idolatry and the moral corruption associated therewith. In failing to live up to their covenant obligations that bound them to their God as a wife is bound to her husband, they, as a corporate whole, proved themselves to be a prostitute. Still, individual Israelites continued to be loyal to God.
Seemingly, the great astonishment to which John gave way came about from his perceiving the change that had taken place regarding the woman he had earlier seen flee into the wilderness and the enormity of her guilt. Like unfaithful Jerusalem, she had entered into a partnership with the beast, the ruling element of the world, and evidently for the same reason — protection. She had exchanged the heavenly light or glory with which she had once been adorned for worldly splendor — purple, scarlet, gold and gems. Like unfaithful Jerusalem, “the killer of the prophets and stoner of those sent to her” (Matthew 23:37), she had made herself guilty of shedding the blood of “holy ones and the witnesses of Jesus.”
She was drunk with blood, the blood of God’s faithful servants (wheat among weeds) in her midst. That holy ones and witnesses of Jesus were to be found as part of the changed woman (just as a faithful remnant existed in the midst of unfaithful Jerusalem) is shown by the later command, “Get out of her, my people.” (18:4) She was still a woman, outwardly appearing to be Christ’s congregation or church but, in practice, she was a blood-spilling harlot and friend of the world. As the mother of harlots and abominations, she was responsible for disobedience and unfaithfulness to God among many and gave birth to movements that manifested her adulterous and murderous spirit. Instead of being a strong influence for good, the transformed woman would make herself the handmaiden and prostitute of corrupt rulers, aiding and abetting them in their ruthless oppression, and stupefying people with the wine of her harlotry and contributing to their wayward course.
The seven heads, ten horns, and blasphemous names (names to which only God is entitled) suggest that the beast on which the harlot sits is the same one that ascended out of the sea. Her partnership with the beast evidently would not mitigate its fierceness, as its scarlet color is likely indicative of much bloodshed.
The angel noted John’s astonishment and told him that he would reveal to him the mystery of the woman and the seven-headed, ten-horned beast. This beast, the angel explained, “was and is not and is about to ascend out of the abyss, and is to go into destruction.” The ascending out of the abyss appears to parallel the recovery from the fatal blow to one of the seven heads. (13:3) Apparently because of the beast’s ascent as if raised out of the abyss and restored to life, earth’s inhabitants would be amazed. Those who give way to worshipful wonderment would not have their names written in the scroll of life. (17:7, 8) From the foundation of the world or before the world of mankind came into existence, the Most High’s determination has been that life would be forfeited whenever his ways are deliberately disregarded. It may be that the description of the beast’s being in the abyss represents a period during which the ruling element of the world does not function as an active persecuting power. In its final phase, however, before it heads for destruction, the beast would rise from the abyss as a vicious persecutor, ruthlessly directing its initial fury against Christ’s loyal disciples.
Apparently for those having a mind guided by wisdom, the angel’s explanatory words that follow would clarify matters regarding the beast and the harlot. The beast’s seven heads are seven mountains and represent kings or ruling powers. Of the seven, five had already fallen, one existed, another was yet to come but remain only a short time. As for the beast that was and is not, this is an eighth king or ruling power and has its source in the previous seven and, as the embodiment of the entire beast, would be the most vicious and God-dishonoring phase of the ruling power of the world. (17:9-11)
The ten horns are ten kings, seemingly a complete number of governing powers that had at that time not as yet received ruling authority, but they would receive such for a short time, “one hour,” with the beast (in its final and worst phase of existence). These ten kings would have one thought or be of one mind in the decision to yield their authority to the beast, apparently acting out of self-interest so as to share in the beast’s all-embracing authority. As part of the persecuting power of the world that directs its rage against Christ’s disciples, these “kings” range themselves in battle against the Lamb. But the Lamb has powers far greater than theirs. He is King of kings and Lord of lords and will conquer them. Those with him or his followers are “called” (out of this world), “chosen” (as his disciples and servants and sons of his Father) and “faithful” (to God and Christ) and share in the victory. (17:12-14)
The angel’s explanation leaves the impression that the harlot has been sitting on all seven mountains, representing kings or ruling powers of which the majority (five) had already fallen. In the first century CE, Rome occupied the position of dominant ruling power. It was preceded by other successive powers (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Medo-Persia, and Greece). All these earlier ruling powers had a significant impact on the lives of God’s faithful servants and those who merely professed to be his people. Throughout the centuries, professed servants of God or those falsely claiming to be his people, repeatedly allied themselves with the dominant political powers, adopted their practices, and persecuted and oppressed God’s faithful servants in their midst, making themselves guilty of harlotry and bloodshed. (Compare Isaiah 1:10-17, 21; 3:14, 15; 30:1-3; 31:1-3; Jeremiah 2:18, 19; Ezekiel 20:4-9, 27-38; 23:2-49; Hosea 7:11; Zephaniah 1:4-9; Matthew 23:29-37.) As a corporate whole, therefore, the harlot could be regarded as having existed in prior centuries. In the stage of development in which John saw her, however, she appears primarily to represent the faithless and worldly portion of the Christian congregation, the adulterous friend of the world. (Compare James 4:4.)
“Seven” is a number of completeness, and so the seven heads of the beast do not necessarily mean seven distinct world powers. They could simply represent all the successive powers that have dominated and would dominate humans. That the majority are represented as having fallen apparently should not be taken as an indicator of the closeness of the end. The final manifestation of the beast in its most vicious state is yet future, and the time for that event has not been disclosed. (Compare 1 Thessalonians 5:1-3.)
The waters, where the harlot sits, signify peoples, crowds, nations, and language groups, indicating her extensive influence and the many who are part of her domain. She is described as a great city having a kingdom over the kings of the earth, suggestive of the tremendous power she wields. The “ten horns” (all the ruling powers) that give their authority to the beast and the beast itself (the monstrous final stage of the worldly ruling authority) will hate the harlot, strip her naked, devour her flesh, and burn whatever may be left of her. This indicates that every vestige of the harlot will be destroyed, nothing will remain of her former worldly splendor. Although the horrific judgment is portrayed as being carried out by the beast and the ten horns, it is actually God’s judgment. He is the one who will put it in their hearts to act against the harlot, carrying out his will respecting her even though they would not of themselves be inclined to execute divine judgment but would act in their own interests. (Compare Isaiah 10:5-7.) According to God’s will, future developments will cause the “ten horns” to come to be of one mind in yielding their authority to the beast, making it possible for the full power of the beast’s fury to be unleashed against the harlot and thus to fulfill God’s judgment against her. (17:15-18)
Note: The focus is on the final development of the “beast” in relation to the destruction of Babylon the great. This final phase, the “eighth king,” is “out of the seven.” (17:11) If the number seven is representative of all the ruling powers, as seems likely based on the way numbers are used in the book of Revelation, the final development is not being portrayed as an immediate successor of seven specific ruling powers but only as arising from all the ruling powers that preceded it. The Scriptures do not place the final phase within the framework of a fixed timetable. (Acts 1:7) Therefore, in the absence of a fixed termination point, the reference to “seven,” with five having fallen, does not provide a basis for determining the nearness of the destruction of Babylon the great. Of necessity, the “five” would not be specific fallen world powers if the number “seven” is to be regarded as being representative. The mention of the “five” would then only serve to indicate that a significant portion of the ruling powers had already fallen.