Babylon the Great, the Infamous Harlot.[a] 1 One of the seven angels who held the seven bowls approached me and said, “Come here and I will show you the judgment on the great harlot who is enthroned over many waters. 2 The kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the inhabitants of the earth have become drunk on the wine of her harlotry.”
3 Then he carried me away in the spirit[b] into the wilderness, and I saw a woman seated on a scarlet beast that had seven heads and ten horns and was covered with blasphemous names. 4 The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls. In her hand she held a gold cup filled with accursed things and the impurities of her harlotry.
5 On her forehead was written a mysterious name: “Babylon the Great, the mother of harlots and of every abomination on the earth.” 6 And I noticed that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of those who had borne witness to Jesus.
When I saw her, I was utterly astounded. 7 But the angel said to me, “Why are you astounded? I will explain to you the mystery of the woman and of the beast with the seven heads and the ten horns that carries her. 8 The beast that you saw was once alive but is now alive no longer. It is about to ascend from the abyss and go to its destruction. All the inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life since the foundation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast, because it was once alive but is now alive no longer, and yet it is still to come.
9 “This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads represent seven hills upon which the woman is seated. They also represent seven kings. 10 Five have already fallen, one is still living, and the other has not yet come. When he does come, he must remain only for a short while. 11 As for the beast that was alive but is now alive no longer, it is at the same time the eighth and one of the seven, and it is headed for destruction.
12 “The ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have not yet begun to reign. They will have royal authority for only a single hour together with the beast. 13 They are all of the same mind and will confer their power and authority on the beast. 14 They will wage war against the Lamb, but because the Lamb is Lord of lords and King of kings,[c] he will overcome them—he and those who are with him, the called, the chosen, and the faithful.”
15 The angel continued, “The waters that you saw, where the harlot sits, represent peoples, multitudes, nations, and languages. 16 The ten horns that you saw and the beast will hate the harlot. They will render her desolate and naked; after they devour her flesh, they will burn her up with fire.
17 “For God has influenced their hearts to carry out his purpose by agreeing to confer their royal powers upon the beast until the words of God will be fulfilled. 18 The woman you saw is the great city that has authority over the kings of the earth.”
- Revelation 17:1 Harlot and mother of harlots: such is Babylon because it is the wellspring of idolatry, especially by imposing emperor worship; and for the people of the Bible an idol is an abomination, and idolatry is prostitution (Ezek, chs. 16 and 23). The woman on the beast is named Babylon, a name that stands for all oppressions and all sufferings; the real reference is to imperial Rome, the famous city on the seven hills (v. 9), the center of the great empire that has enslaved the peoples of the Mediterranean basin (vv. 1, 15). She will drink the blood of Christians, especially during the terrible persecutions of Nero and Domitian.
The beast that once was and now is not, but is returning—a parody of God who is described as “hIm who is, who was, and who is to come” (Rev 1:4)—is probably Nero (A.D. 54–68), whose resurrection was predicted in some popular legends. And if the seven kings need to be identified (vv. 9-11), the list is as follows: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Vespasian, and Titus (omitting Galba, Otho, and Vitellius, interim emperors, who ruled in quick succession in A.D. 68–69, after the death of Nero). The eighth emperor acts as people would expect Nero to act if he returned to life, i.e., as a beast; we can give him a name: Domitian (A.D. 81–96), during whose reign the Book of Revelation was probably composed. The other ten kings (v. 12) lead peoples subject to the empire. Empires and governors waste the political and cultural patrimony of Rome (v. 16): tyranny and bullying will be the cause of its destruction.
- Revelation 17:3 In the spirit: see note on Rev 1:10.
- Revelation 17:14 Lord of lords and King of kings: a title that stresses the Lamb’s supreme sovereignty (see Deut 10:17; Ps 136:2-3; Dan 2:47; 1 Tim 6:15).