Exposition of Revelation: Revelation 17:1–5

Revelation 17:1–5
Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and spoke to me. “Come,” he said, “I will show you the condemnation and punishment of the great prostitute who sits on many waters, 2 with whom the kings of the earth committed sexual immorality and the earth’s inhabitants got drunk with the wine of her immorality.” 3 So he carried me away in the Spirit to a wilderness, and there I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. 4 Now the woman was dressed in purple and scarlet clothing, and adorned with gold, precious stones, and pearls. She held in her hand a golden cup filled with detestable things and unclean things from her sexual immorality. 5 On her forehead was written a name, a mystery: “Babylon the Great, the Mother of prostitutes and of the detestable things of the earth.”
(NET Bible)

Babylon the Great: Prostitute

“Not all that glitters is gold.” I invite you to think about the scramble for gold that is currently going in. Seeking gold, hording it and spending it are activities that drive multitudes today.

The Great Prostitute and the beast heartily approve! Does that give you pause?

Grant Osborne provides a great summary of chapters 17–18: “Chapter 17 centers on Rome as the ‘great prostitute’ who is drunk on the blood of the saints, while chapter 18 then looks at Rome as ‘the great city’ destroyed. . . . Chapter 17 is complex and hard to understand while chapter 18 is far more clear.”[1] The angel says, “I will show you the condemnation [chapter 17] and punishment [chapter 18] of the great prostitute who sits on many waters” (17:1).

To interpret this difficult chapter (17) requires all the help available. So, we immediately note that verse 15 defines the waters in verse 1 to be “peoples, multitudes, nations, and languages” on which the prostitute sits. We are also told in 17:18 that the woman ? identified in 17:5 as “Babylon the Great, the Mother of prostitutes” ?  is “the great city that has sovereignty over the kings of the earth.” But which city?

Though the name Babylon is given, all agree the name is symbolic. The definitive clue comes in the clause “The seven heads are seven mountains the woman sits on” (17:9). The Seven Hills of Rome are legendary.

But in this case Babylon/Rome represents two kingdoms. First, it symbolizes the Roman Empire which persecuted the seven churches in John’s day. But we are also being informed about the nature of the beast’s kingdom near the end of history. The beast’s kingdom will have wealth, power and sexual depravity similar to that displayed by ancient Rome.

It is difficult for contemporary readers to understand what is meant by the prostitution depicted in Revelation 17. In the NT world much of the prostitution was carried out by temple prostitutes whose income helped support pagan temples. So, fornication was often an overtly religious matter as well as a sexual one.

Be clear on the fact that God expects and deserves exclusive worship from all humanity, and he regards worship of other gods as entirely illicit. This is conveyed using metaphors of practicing immorality and harlotry. Such metaphors relied upon the common knowledge of how sexual and polytheistic Roman culture was. The Roman Empire was filled with religions from other cultures.

Literal prostitution was pervasive in Rome. Indeed, our word fornication derives from the arched alcoves (called fornices) of the Circus Maximus — the chariot racing venue — where brothels set up shop during the frequent races. Scholars have found that brothels also riddled the urban area of ancient Pompeii (near modern Naples, Italy). An exhibit of Pompeii’s artifacts and business signs, unless severely restricted, is not fit for adults, much less a family.

Two broad issues remain: (1) the relationship between the prostitute and the beast, and (2) the dramatic fall of the prostitute at the hands of the beast. Concerning the first, Osborne says:

While the beast is the political ruler of the empire, the woman represents the blasphemous religion that seduces the nations and the economic system that draws them into its earthly luxury.[2]

Clearly the beast plans to exploit the prostitute’s allure of worldly wealth to entrap many in his schemes. That sounds familiar, does it not?

All in all, Revelation 17 presents a bleak picture of the world in the final days. Yet 17:16 offers a beautiful contrast: “They will make war with the Lamb, but the Lamb will conquer them, because he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those accompanying the Lamb are the called, chosen, and faithful.” Do not forget that God will fully and finally deal with the beast and the great prostitute whose wealth and power so entice humanity.

Staying out of the trap

Sometimes people complain that Washington has been bought by the rich and powerful. The truth is that it is easier to talk about that than to focus attention to how much we have personally invested into the world’s values and pleasures.

Whether we are managing what we have for Christ or being used by our worldly holdings to strengthen the dark kingdom ruled by Satan is a live question. Make sure you are among the “called, chosen and faithful” (17:16).

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.



[1] Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002) 605.

[2] Osborne, Revelation, 610.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!