Read Revelation 17
What is Babylon? This is a question we have to address in chapter 17. We have seen several references to it during our journey through Revelation, but as we near the end the focus shifts onto Babylon and it’s eventual demise.
Babylon is described as a prostitute sitting by “many waters.” In the Old Testament, those of the people of God or other nations who worship idols and followed false gods were often described as “prostituting themselves” before those gods. This language of sexual intimacy as it relations to our relationship with God is not at all accidental. Indeed there is nothing in the human experience that can really relate the depth of intimacy that God desires with us than that of a monogamous relationship between husband and wife.
Scripture uses such language to talk about God’s love for Israel which is described as a “bride” waiting for her groom. In the same way, when Israel commits idolatry, it is as if she were committing adultery; the depth of the betrayal and hurt is that intense. This, however, only further reveals the love that God has for His people as He continues to pursue them, working for their salvation.
Babylon, though, is the “great prostitute.” The “many waters” that she sits by are the “inhabitants of the earth,” all those who have turned away from God. When the angel takes John into the wilderness he sees this woman who is sitting on the beast, an interesting metaphor for showing that her actions and the beasts are very much related. The beast being scarlet shows a similarity to the dragon we met earlier in chapter 12; the beast is the beast from the earth, that is the false prophet who led many astray to worship the other beast.
The women, whose name here is “Babylon the great,” is adorned with many great looking things. Just as the things of this world often look great on the outside, so too does the great prostitute entice the people of the world to join her. It seems also that she has partaken in the persecution and murder of God’s people again solidifying the idea that her actions and that of the beast are one and the same.
As the angel is explaining the mystery of the woman and the beast, we get a sense of imitation that is going on here. The beast “once was, now is not, and yet will come.” This could be a two-fold description of an imitation of Jesus who lived, died, and rose from the dead as well as perhaps being significant of a set of time periods where the beast will be present, then will not be prominent for a while, and then will return. Evil is certainly persistent, and we can probably look back through history to see times when it seemed like evil was much more prevalent than at other times.
Following this is a series of references to seven hills, seven kings, an eighth king, and then ten more kings. These have been interpreted in a number of different ways. Seven hills could be an obvious reference to Rome, a city built on seven hills. Hills and mountains, though, are also a reference to royalty and power, something that coincides with the references to kings. The seven kings have been interpreted as seven emperors of Rome and also as rulers of some of the empires that had come before. An eighth king comes along, a reference to the antichrist, to whom all the other kings give their power.
So, is Rome (the city or the empire) actually what is being referenced when we say “Babylon?” Perhaps. It is difficult to identify one specific interpretation that fits everything. As we have seen throughout Revelation, though, these references to royal and political power that resist and stand in opposition to God could very easily be speaking to the totality of political, economic, and other worldly powers that turn from Christ and resist both God and oppress the people of God. We can see examples of this throughout history and even in our present day governments. Revelation could be revealing the trajectory of secular power, the governments of the world, that move away from Christian principles and even go so far as to oppress Christians.
If that is the case, it is also possible that the woman that is depicted here could be representative of the people of God. As I said, this image of an elegantly adorned woman is one that is used in the Old Testament to describe Israel. Perhaps what John is seeing here is not just the city of Babylon but rather, the people of God who have sold themselves out to the secular powers of politics, culture, civil religion, and anything else that promises some sort of hope but ultimately, as John records at the end of chapter 17, leaves her naked and ruined.
In this instance, perhaps Revelation is issuing a warning to the people of God not to follow the currents of the world, to stay separate and chaste from the idolatry that the world offers. Certainly, this has implications for the church today as we have seen a dramatic shift toward cultural trends that demand we stay “relevant” and “up to date” on things. Often times our emphasis on such things leads us away from the truths of Scripture for the sake of contemporary (here and now) significance. When we turn toward these things as our hope and strength… perhaps we become the prostitute?