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The whore of Babylon as illustrated in Hortus deliciarum by Herrad of Landsberg, 1180

One of the seven angels who held the seven bowls went to John and said to him, “Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute who sits by many waters. With her, the kings of the earth committed adultery and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries.”

The angel carried John away in the Spirit into a wilderness. John saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet and was glittering with gold, precious stones, and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. The name written on her forehead was a mystery: Babylon the Great, the mother of prostitutes and the abominations of the earth.

John saw the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus. When John saw her, he was astonished. The angel said to John,

“Why are you astonished? I will explain to you the mystery of the woman and of the beast she rides, which has seven heads and ten horns. The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and yet will come up out of the Abyss and go to its destruction. The inhabitants of earth whose names have not been written in the book of life will be astonished when they see the beast, because it once was, now is not, and yet will come.

This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are the seven hills on which the woman sits. They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for only a little while. The beast who once was, and now is not, is the eighth king. He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction.

The ten horns you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but who for one hour will receive authority as kings along with the beast. They have one purpose and will give their power and authority to the beast. They will wage was against the Lamb, but the Lamb will triumph over them because he is lord of lords and King of kings and with him will be his called, chosen, and faithful followers.”

Then the angel said to John,

“The waters you saw, where the prostitute sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations, and languages. The beast and the ten horns you saw will hate the prostitute. They will bring her to ruin and leave her naked; they will eat her flesh and burn her with fire. For God has put into their hearts to accomplish his purpose by agreeing to hand over to the beast their royal authority, until God’s words are fulfilled. The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.”

What the story means to us today

Babylon as a central theme – evil will fall and be conquered

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem, by David Roberts (1850)Revelation 17 is an important prophetical chapter. The interpretations here touch many themes presented throughout Revelation and in some ways, act as an extension to the seventh and final bowl judgement.

Babylon is a central theme. It is described as the city that rules over the leaders of earth. The city name is written on the Great Prostitute’s forehead. Its symbolism is broken down into seven kings and ten lesser leaders who temporarily give their power to the beast.

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Babylon is used throughout the Bible to symbolize evil and satanic influence. We cannot conclusively declare what Babylon and the Great Prostitute symbolize but likely they refer to all components of earth that do not coexist with God. As John writes, ultimately Babylon falls, and evil is conquered.

Additional thoughts and considerations

Revelation’s applicability to ancient Rome

It has been proposed that Babylon and the Great Prostitute represent ancient Rome. The seven heads would represent the seven Roman emperors from Augustus to Domitian, the seven hills upon which the woman sits would represent the seven hills of Rome, and the beast who “once was, now is not, and yet will go to its destruction” would be king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, emperor Vespasian, or Nero. However, John provides details that do not fit entirely with Rome – nor Egypt, Sodom, Gomorrah, Nineveh, Jerusalem, or any other city. Ancient readers would have immediately noticed the discrepancy. While we cannot know for certain, indications hint that the events in Revelation have yet to take place.

The Great Prostitute (aka Great Whore, Great Idolatress) sitting by many waters

John tells us that the waters the Great Prostitute sits by represent many nations. According to John, the Great Prostitute is the “great city that rules over the kings of the earth”. She is a symbolization of an evil, fallen people, possibly a geographical city or country, possibly a culture or planet-wide group. We know this from prior references in the Bible.

Throughout the Bible, “prostitute” is used to symbolize the evil of a city and its people. We see this metaphor used for Nineveh (Nahum 3:4), Tyre (Isaiah 23:16), Babylon (Jeremiah 51) and Jerusalem (Ezekiel 16:15). John uses the same symbolism here to represent an unspecified group of people who have turned their backs on God and his plan for mankind.

John tells us that the prostitute-like people are prosperous, boastful, proud, brutally repressive, and violent. Other prophetic references in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel describe similar circumstances.

olored version of the Whore of Babylon illustration from Martin Luther's 1534 translation of the Bible - 1534The adultery kings of the earth commit with the Great Prostitute

Johns says, “the kings of the earth committed adultery with the Great Prostitute and the people of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries.” In other words, leaders and citizens look up to the evil culture led by the Great Prostitute. Her pride, boastfulness, wealth, and violence are attributes the people of earth not only accept, but openly approve of and desire.

The Scarlet Beast with the blasphemous names, seven heads, and ten horns

John is spiritually whisked away from the Great Prostitute sitting by the waters, possibly to draw his attention away from her and to the next interpretation that is about to be delivered to him. He sees a woman, we presume the Great Prostitute, sitting on a red beast that is covered with blasphemous names and has seven heads and ten horns.

Later in the chapter, it is revealed that the seven heads represent seven hills on which the woman sits. The seven heads also represent seven kings, five of which have fallen, one that is currently a king, and one that has yet to come.

We are told that the ten horns represent ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom. Some researchers believe these are 10 lesser Roman leaders. For one hour (i.e. a short time), they will receive authority as kings along with the beast. They will wage war against the Lamb. They will hate the Great Prostitute and will strive to bring her to ruin, eat her flesh, and burn her with fire.

It is important to note that God led the participants to their purpose by agreeing to hand over their authority to the beast.

“Babylon the Great, the Mother of Prostitutes and of the abominations of the Earth.”

Written on the Great Prostitute’s forehead are the words “Babylon the Great, the Mother of Prostitutes and of the abominations of the Earth.” Revelation tells us that outwardly the woman on the red beast is beautiful, but inwardly she is filled with evil. This is also an accurate description of ancient Babylon. The similarities between the Antichrist, the apocalyptical empire, and the ancient city of Babylon serve as clues to the Antichrist’s identity. The traits they have in common include pride, arrogance, overabundance, oppression, power, violence, and idolatry.

The Great Prostitute is drunk with the blood of God’s people

Revelation tells us the Great Prostitute was “drunk with blood”, a common metaphor for a lust for violence. The verse is important because it reveals that the Great Prostitute is the one responsible for the death of Christians.

The beast who once was, now is not, and yet will come up out of the Abyss and go to its destruction

The angel explains to John, “the beast who once was, now is not, and yet will come up out of the Abyss and go to its destruction”. This enigmatic phrase could have several meanings but most likely refers to a summary timeline of the beast’s life. For instance, the beast once was, then suffered a mortal head wound, and now is not. That the beast will come up out of the Abyss could refer to the healing of his head wound or, as we will discover in later verses, his release from Hell for a second opportunity to wreak havoc on mankind.

The Judgment of the Great Prostitute - Artist unknownThose whose names have not bee written in the Book of Life

The Book of Life is mentioned often in the Bible as a record of those who follow God. The angel tells John that “the inhabitants of earth whose names have not been written in the book of life will be astonished when they see the beast.” Those that are stunned by the beast’s acts are limited to people whose names have not been recorded in the Book of Life. This statement suggests that Christians will not be easily influenced by the beast and his miracles. The study of Revelation, as we are doing here, serves to enlighten Christians and make it less likely that the beast will be able to deceive them.

The seven hills upon which the woman sits

John is told that the revealing of the woman on the red beast requires a mind with wisdom. He is told that the seven heads of the beast represent seven hills upon which the woman sits. This verse is the basis for those who believe Revelation is pronouncing the destruction of ancient Rome. To early readers, the seven hills could indeed represent the seven hills of Rome. However, it makes little sense that the woman, who herself could be said to represent Rome, would sit upon it. Additionally, to early readers, this knowledge would require no special wisdom as the angel proclaims. Rome was commonly known as the city built on seven hills.

Finally, the word that translates to hills is translated in other areas of the Bible as “mountain”. In this context, the woman would be ruling over seven mountains, not hills. This is a much clearer reference to seven world leaders.

The ten kings

Revelation 17:12 explains that the ten horns are “ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but for one hour will receive authority as kings along with the beast. They will wage war against the Lamb.” The number 10 could be a literal count of the number of leaders who partner with the beast. More likely, the number 10 is symbolic, indicating a multiplicity of leaders who contribute to the beast’s power base. Similarly, the authority they receive lasts for one hour. This too is likely symbolic, indicating their time of power will be brief.

The beast and the 10 horns will hate the prostitute

Revelation tells us “the beast and the ten horns will hate the prostitute. They will bring her to ruin and leave her naked. They will eat her flesh and burn her with fire.” This verse often causes confusion to readers who may think the prostitute is not allied with the beast. More likely, this represents a conflict within Satan’s ranks as the beast and his cohorts turn against the great empire. It suitably demonstrates that evil is self-destroying and by God’s plan, the beast’s empire will feed upon itself.

The science and history behind the story

The words on the Great Prostitute’s forehead

John describes the Great Prostitute with the following words written across her forehead: “”Babylon the Great, the Mother of Prostitutes and of the abominations of the Earth.” Modern readers may envision the words tattooed on the woman’s head. This is likely not the case. The Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger and the Roman poet Juvenal both wrote that ancient Roman prostitutes wore bands across their heads that bore their name. In ancient Rome, it was customary for prostitutes to wear ribbons around their head that identified who they were.

Woodcut by Hans Burgkmair, for Martin Luther's translation of the New Testament, depicting the Whore of Babylon riding the seven-headed Beast - 1523Notes on Biblical translation

The name written on the Great Prostitute’s head

The verses are generally translates as “The name written on her forehead was a mystery: Babylon the Great, the mother of prostitutes, and of the abominations of the earth.” Some believe that the word “mystery” is part of the city name, as in “The name written on the forehead was Mystery Babylon the Great”, and not a prefix to the description of the land.

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Seven hills

The original words translated as “seven hills” on which the woman stands can also be translated as “seven mountains”.

Bible Text

NIV

17 One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits by many waters. 2 With her the kings of the earth committed adultery, and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries.”

3 Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. 4 The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. 5 The name written on her forehead was a mystery:

BABYLON THE GREAT

THE MOTHER OF PROSTITUTES

AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.

6 I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus.

When I saw her, I was greatly astonished. 7 Then the angel said to me: “Why are you astonished? I will explain to you the mystery of the woman and of the beast she rides, which has the seven heads and ten horns. 8 The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and yet will come up out of the Abyss and go to its destruction. The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast, because it once was, now is not, and yet will come.

9 “This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits. 10 They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for only a little while. 11 The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king. He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction.

12 “The ten horns you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but who for one hour will receive authority as kings along with the beast. 13 They have one purpose and will give their power and authority to the beast. 14 They will wage war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will triumph over them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings—and with him will be his called, chosen and faithful followers.”

15 Then the angel said to me, “The waters you saw, where the prostitute sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations and languages. 16 The beast and the ten horns you saw will hate the prostitute. They will bring her to ruin and leave her naked; they will eat her flesh and burn her with fire. 17 For God has put it into their hearts to accomplish his purpose by agreeing to hand over to the beast their royal authority, until God’s words are fulfilled. 18 The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.”

The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.

The NET Bible

17:1 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, 17:2 with whom the kings of the earth committed sexual immorality and the earth’s inhabitants got drunk with the wine of her immorality.” 17:3 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. 17:4 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. 17:5 On her forehead was written a name, a mystery: “Babylon the Great, the Mother of prostitutes and of the detestable things of the earth.” 17:6 I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of those who testified to Jesus. I was greatly astounded when I saw her. 17:7 But the angel said to me, “Why are you astounded? I will interpret for you the mystery of the woman and of the beast with the seven heads and ten horns that carries her. 17:8 The beast you saw was, and is not, but is about to come up from the abyss and then go to destruction. The inhabitants of the earth—all those whose names have not been written in the book of life since the foundation of the world—will be astounded when they see that the beast was, and is not, but is to come. 17:9 (This requires a mind that has wisdom.) The seven heads are seven mountains the woman sits on. They are also seven kings: 17:10 five have fallen; one is, and the other has not yet come, but whenever he does come, he must remain for only a brief time. 17:11 The beast that was, and is not, is himself an eighth king and yet is one of the seven, and is going to destruction. 17:12 The ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but will receive ruling authority as kings with the beast for one hour. 17:13 These kings have a single intent, and they will give their power and authority to the beast. 17:14 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.”

17:15 Then the angel said to me, “The waters you saw (where the prostitute is seated) are peoples, multitudes, nations, and languages. 17:16 The ten horns that you saw, and the beast—these will hate the prostitute and make her desolate and naked. They will consume her flesh and burn her up with fire. 17:17 For God has put into their minds to carry out his purpose by making a decision to give their royal power to the beast until the words of God are fulfilled. 17:18 As for the woman you saw, she is the great city that has sovereignty over the kings of the earth.”

Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.

Whore of Babylon wearing the papal tiara from a woodcut in Luther BibleNew King James Version

17 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and talked with me, saying to me, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot who sits on many waters, 2 with whom the kings of the earth committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth were made drunk with the wine of her fornication.”

3 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. 4 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. 5 And on her forehead a name was written:

MYSTERY,

BABYLON THE GREAT,

THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH

6 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.

7 But the angel said to me, “Why did you marvel? I will tell you the mystery of the woman and of the beast that carries her, which has the seven heads and the ten horns. 8 The beast that you saw was, and is not, and will ascend out of the bottomless pit and go to perdition. And those who dwell on the earth will marvel, whose names are not written in the Book of Life from the foundation of the world, when they see the beast that was, and is not, and yet is.

9 “Here is the mind which has wisdom: The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits. 10 There are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, and the other has not yet come. And when he comes, he must continue a short time. 11 The beast that was, and is not, is himself also the eighth, and is of the seven, and is going to perdition.

12 “The ten horns which you saw are ten kings who have received no kingdom as yet, but they receive authority for one hour as kings with the beast. 13 These are of one mind, and they will give their power and authority to the beast. 14 These will make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them, for He is Lord of lords and King of kings; and those who are with Him are called, chosen, and faithful.”

15 Then he said to me, “The waters which you saw, where the harlot sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations, and tongues. 16 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. 17 For God has put it into their hearts to fulfill His purpose, to be of one mind, and to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled. 18 And the woman whom you saw is that great city which reigns over the kings of the earth.”

The New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982. Print.

The Message

17 One of the Seven Angels who carried the seven bowls came and invited me, “Come, I’ll show you the judgment of the great Whore who sits enthroned over many waters, the Whore with whom the kings of the earth have gone whoring, show you the judgment on earth dwellers drunk on her whorish lust.”

3–6 In the Spirit he carried me out in the desert. I saw a woman mounted on a Scarlet Beast. Stuffed with blasphemies, the Beast had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, festooned with gold and gems and pearls. She held a gold chalice in her hand, brimming with defiling obscenities, her foul fornications. A riddle-name was branded on her forehead: GREAT BABYLON, MOTHER OF WHORES AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. I could see that the woman was drunk, drunk on the blood of God’s holy people, drunk on the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.

6–8 Astonished, I rubbed my eyes. I shook my head in wonder. The Angel said, “Does this surprise you? Let me tell you the riddle of the woman and the Beast she rides, the Beast with seven heads and ten horns. The Beast you saw once was, is no longer, and is about to ascend from the Abyss and head straight for Hell. Earth dwellers whose names weren’t written in the Book of Life from the foundation of the world will be dazzled when they see the Beast that once was, is no longer, and is to come.

9–11 “But don’t drop your guard. Use your head. The seven heads are seven hills; they are where the woman sits. They are also seven kings: five dead, one living, the other not yet here—and when he does come his time will be brief. The Beast that once was and is no longer is both an eighth and one of the seven—and headed for Hell.

12–14 “The ten horns you saw are ten kings, but they’re not yet in power. They will come to power with the Scarlet Beast, but won’t last long—a very brief reign. These kings will agree to turn over their power and authority to the Beast. They will go to war against the Lamb but the Lamb will defeat them, proof that he is Lord over all lords, King over all kings, and those with him will be the called, chosen, and faithful.”

15–18 The Angel continued, “The waters you saw on which the Whore was enthroned are peoples and crowds, nations and languages. And the ten horns you saw, together with the Beast, will turn on the Whore—they’ll hate her, violate her, strip her naked, rip her apart with their teeth, then set fire to her. It was God who put the idea in their heads to turn over their rule to the Beast until the words of God are completed. The woman you saw is the great city, tyrannizing the kings of the earth.”

Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.

King James Version

17 And there came one of the seven angels which had the seven vials, and talked with me, saying unto me, Come hither; I will shew unto thee the judgment of the great whore that sitteth upon many waters: 2 With whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication. 3 So he carried me away in the spirit into the wilderness: and I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, nhaving seven heads and oten horns. 4 And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication: 5 And upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. 6 And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus: and when I saw her, I wondered with great admiration. 7 And the angel said unto me, Wherefore didst thou marvel? I will tell thee the mystery of the woman, and of the beast that carrieth her, which hath the seven heads and ten horns. 8 The beast that thou sawest was, and is not; and shall ascend out of the bottomless pit, and go into perdition: and they that dwell on the earth shall wonder, whose names were not written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, when they behold the beast that was, and is not, and yet is. 9 And here is the mind which hath wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth. 10 And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a short space. 11 And the beast that was, and is not, even he is the eighth, and is of the seven, and goeth into perdition. 12 And kthe ten horns which thou sawest are ten kings, which have received no kingdom as yet; but receive power as kings one hour with the beast. 13 These have one mind, and shall give their power and strength unto the beast. 14 These shall make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them: for he is qLord of lords, and rKing of kings: and they that are with him are tcalled, and uchosen, and faithful. 15 And he saith unto me, The waters which thou sawest, where the whore sitteth, are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues. 16 And the ten horns which thou sawest upon the beast, these shall hate the whore, and shall make her desolate and naked, and shall eat her flesh, and burn her with fire. 17 For God hath put in their hearts to fulfil his will, and to agree, and give their kingdom unto the beast, until the words of God shall be fulfilled. 18 And the woman which thou sawest is that great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth.

The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.

Sources: NIV, The Message, The NET Bible, King James Version, NET Bible Notes, Faithlife Study Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Commentary, The Bible Reader’s Companion, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Holman Concise Bible Commentary, The Bible Exposition Commentary, The Teacher’s Bible Commentary, The Teacher’s Commentary, The Bible Guide, Word Studies in the New Testament, Holman Bible Handbook, Calvin Commentaries, Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines, The New Manner and Customs of the Bible, Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Bible Dictionary, Easton’s Bible Dictionary, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, The Archaeological Encyclopedia, Biblical Archeology Review, The New Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Analytical Lexicon, Glossary of Morpho-Syntactic Database
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