Scripture quotations are from English Standard Version (ESV) unless otherwise state.
Chapter 17 is a complex chapter that may be a little difficult to follow. Nevertheless it contains valuable information. It contains several symbols, but is careful to define or explain those symbols. Although, at first reading, there does not seem to be any action, when one carefully reads the chapter, one can discern either certain actions or preparation for actions.
In presenting this chapter, I shall divide it into four functional sections. These sections do not follow the order of the chapter throughout, but they are helpful in understanding the role of each part of the chapter. The four functional sections are “Title/Introduction,” “Description,” “Transition to Explanation,” and “The Explanation.” Again, note that these sections will not follow the verses in strict order.
The first two verses serve as the introduction. Verse 17:1 refers back to the seven angels with the seven bowls of wrath. One of those angels will be John’s tour guide to characters of this chapter. The angel is not interested so much in showing John the Great Prostitute, but, rather, he will show him the judgment of the Great Prostitute. This prostitute sits on many waters. This will be explained later.
In verse 17:2 the prostitute is, well, a prostitute, so her sexual immorality is defined as ensnaring two groups of people. First, “the kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality with her.” This expression depicts her as having the characteristics of a prostitute. A prostitute is someone who has intimate relations for hire. This means that a person who hires a prostitute crosses the boundary into forbidden sexual behavior with someone who is not his or her spouse.
It is jumping ahead of the story, but we need to recognize that this “woman” is a metaphorical representation of a “city.” It is possible that the “city” is also really a metaphor, but I shall discuss that later. The present point is this: the “woman” is a metaphor and, therefore, her prostitution is a metaphor. The “kings of the earth” likely are those persons who exercise political power throughout the earth, whether or not they are designated “kings.” These powerful people have entered into a relationship with the “woman” that has the characteristics of prostitution. If we think of a prostitute as one who sells sexual favors, then the powerful of the world have bought favors from this woman.
It is possible that her “favors” are one of two kinds. It may be that power and influence are the favors she is selling. The “kings” have sought the power and influence of the “woman.” Perhaps, they have paid a price of liberty and independence. They have agreed to give up their independence in order to be in on “what is happening.” They lusted to be a part of enormous success of this “woman” and sold their souls—and the souls of those within their spheres of influence—in order to have a share of the shimmering glory and power of this “woman.”
It is also possible that this woman is simply selling degeneracy. The kings are giving up their independence as they slip into the oblivion of a party-hardy atmosphere. This seems to be the case of the other group of persons who fall under the spell of the woman.
Not only have the powerful rulers of the world entered into this fornication with the “woman,” but also the earth-dwellers have become drunk with the “wine” of her “sexual immorality.” The imagery has shifted somewhat now. Rather than a transaction of prostitution, there is now the free-flowing wine of a party. This woman is the hostess, generously filling everyone’s cup. And everyone—all the “earth-dwellers” are drinking thirstily of her cup. In verse 4, the woman is said to hold a cup “full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality.” The wine that makes the world drunk is “abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality.” The abominations may include religious abomination as well as common immorality.
Thus, we are introduced to the central character of the chapter—the woman filled with abomination and immorality and dragging the rest of the world down with her.
Although there is no cross-reference within the chapter to other parts of the book, this chapter is the beginning of the fulfillment of what has been anticipated earlier in Revelation. In 14:8 we read: “Another angel, a second, followed, saying, ‘Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, she who made all nations drink the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality.’” And 16:19 says: “and God remembered Babylon the great, to make her drain the cup of the wine of the fury of his wrath.”
I have labeled 17:3-6a as the “Description.” I mean the description of the “great prostitute.”
In order to see the prostitute, John must be transported “in the Spirit” to a wilderness. It seems strange that this woman is in a wilderness. The fact that John travels there in the Spirit may imply that this scene is a spiritual display. In order to understand the prostitute, one must visit her in the Spirit and see, in the power of the Spirit, her full significance. Thus, the Spirit takes John away from all other distractions to see the prostitute. The wilderness may also signify the spiritual emptiness of the prostitute.
The description in these verses is really of two of the characters of the chapter—a woman and a beast, which she sits on. As the chapter progresses, it becomes evident that the prostitute has a very integral relationship with the beast she is riding.
The beast is described as “scarlet,” which may signify boldness and perhaps immorality. Sins are said to be “red like crimson” (Isaiah 1:18b). In the Septuagint (the Greek version of the OT), the word for “crimson” is the same as the word for “scarlet” in Revelation 17:3. The dragon of Revelation 12:3 is described with a word meaning “fiery red.” Probably, neither the exact color nor the exact significance of the color is being communicated. More likely, the reader is told that this beast’s color is similar to the dragon of chapter 12. Moreover, a bold, brazen entity is being described.
The beast is “full of blasphemous names.” Blasphemy involves pride and presumption in elevating oneself to a place of contempt for God. It is the direct opposite of the Biblical concept of the fear of God. The Beast of Revelation 13 gives us examples of blasphemy in 13:5-6: “And the beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven.”
The beast has seven heads and ten horns. It quite obvious that that this beast corresponds to the Beast of chapter 13, with similarities to the dragon of chapter 12. See the following.
Color: Dragon of 12—fiery red, Beast of 13—no color, Beast of 17—scarlet
Heads: Dragon of 12—seven, Beast of 13—seven, Beast of 17—seven
Horns: Dragon of 12—ten, Beast of 13—ten, Beast of 17—ten
Diadems: Dragon of 12—seven on his heads, Beast of 13—ten on his horns, Beast of 17—not mentioned
Blasphemy: Dragon of 12—not mentioned, Beast of 13—blasphemous names on his heads, Beast of 17—full of blasphemous names
The woman was clothed (ESV: “arrayed”) with “purple and scarlet.” Purple suggests royalty, for this woman has rulership (see verse 18). The scarlet may refer to her brazen immorality. She is adorned with precious jewels, which reflect tremendous wealth which is flaunted. She is holding a golden cup, and it is filled with abominations and uncleanness. This cup is what she drinks: She fills herself with all the filth of the world.
The woman has her name written on her forehead. The older versions, especially King James Version, include “Mystery” as part of the name. The modern versions (including NIV and ESV) consider the word “mystery” to be a modifier of “name.” So, ESV reads as follows: “And on her forehead was written a name of mystery: ‘Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations.’” King James Version reads as follows: “And upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.” I’m not sure the manuscripts help with this. It seems more natural to me that “mystery” should be included in the name. “Mystery” is removed some distance from “name.” That does not always count for much in Greek. But the fact that “Mystery” begins the series of names also persuades me that it should be part of the name. Whether it should be rendered “Mystery Babylon” or “Mystery, Babylon…”—I’m not so sure.
Mystery could refer to the mystery religions, which were getting started in the first century. These religions specialized in secret knowledge that was known only by the initiated. The Gnostics also emphasized knowledge as the key to salvation. Salvation for them was freedom from the material realm. This notion grew from the idea that matter is evil and spirit is good. These ideas led either to asceticism or libertinism (see Stott, 45ff, and Carson, 15, ff).
Although modern-day “mystery” does not seem to correspond to the ancient cults, we can certainly see some similarities. The ancient mystery cults made THE mystery—a secret known only to the initiated—to be central to their cult. Mystery today is often associated with religious practices. Some versions of Christianity emphasize mystery in worship--that we are in awe of the greatness of God, who is beyond our understanding. Other forms of Christianity seek to be open and emphasize that Christ has opened up the way to God and made that way available to all who receive Christ. Rather than shroud God in mystery, the emphasis of this style of the faith is see all as understandable and available. One can see a need for both emphases. Mystery reminds us that we are finite and limited in our grasp of God. Openness reminds us that we follow a revealed religion that God has made known to us through Christ, the Word, and the church.
The final observation in the description of the woman is that she is “drunk.” She is not drunk with wine; she is drunk “with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.” The word “martyr” is from the Greek word (martus in the nominative, but marturos in genitive) that means “witness.” The verb form means to “bear witness,” and there is a cognate noun for “testimony” or “witness.” However, the word for “witness” also could mean “martyr” in some places, such as Acts 22:20 and Revelation 2:13. Thus, there is a close connection between “witness” and “martyr.” Some translations render Revelation 17:6 “the martyrs of Jesus” (ESV and King James Version”), and others translate the phrase as “witnesses of Jesus” or an equivalent (New American Standard Bible, New Revised Standard Version, and New International Version). Probably both are implied. In many cases, to be a witness is to risk martyrdom. One does not think that drinking blood makes one drunk. But there is a form of drunkenness that comes from habituation to evil. Like all habits, the need to do evil must be satisfied again and again. So, this woman must get her fix by killing more Christians.
As much as anything, this is the “back story” of Revelation: the martyrdom of those who stand for Jesus. As John and the churches he oversaw faced the threat of the pagan Roman system, the Lord assured the church that the he always is acutely aware of the suffering of his saints, his witnesses, his martyrs. That was true in the first century and will be true in the last days.
TRANSITION TO EXPLANATION:
Verses 6b-7 are a transition from the description to the explanation. In the description, the two major characters are a “woman” and a “beast.” Such characters cause consternation, so John “marveled.” The guiding angel responds by saying that these characters are really a “mystery.” The use of the word here seems to mean: a symbol or riddle that needs to be explained. The angel responds to the fact that John marvels by promising to unravel the mystery. Whether this means that John marveled at how perplexing were the things he had seen or that he marveled at how frightening and horrifying they were is not clear. It may mean both. Unraveling the mystery does not seem to reduce the horror quotient. So, perhaps the angel responded to John’s perplexity by explaining these mysteries.
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Carson, Herbert M. The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and Philemon. Tyndale
New Testament Commentaries. Vol. 12. R. V. G. Tasker, Gen. Ed. Grand
Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1980.
Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ of the
United States of America. New Revised Standard Version. 1989.
The Lockman Foundation. New American Standard Bible. LaHabra, CA: Lockman
Stott, John R. W. The Epistles of John. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Vol. 20. R. V. G. Tasker, Gen. Ed. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1980.
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