Following the final Bowl Judgment recorded at the end of chapter 16, for the last time, John takes another parenthetic break in order to color in a few additional details critical to our understanding of the Great Tribulation. In fact, in the chronological sequence of events, Revelation 19:11 and the Second Coming of Jesus pick up where chapter 16 left off.
As to the need for this particular break… On two separate occasions, John has casually mentioned the judgment of what he refers to as Babylon the Great. In Revelation 14:8, he writes, “An angel followed, saying, ‘Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city, because she has made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication.’” Then, in his record of the last Bowl Judgment, John notes in Revelation 16:19, “And great Babylon was remembered before God, to give her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of His wrath.”
Before John finishes the book by documenting Christ’s return to earth, the establishing of His Kingdom, and the beginning of His Millennial Reign, in Revelation 17 and 18, he first takes a moment to explain who this city represented and why she was judged so harshly.
While there are several ways you can approach these two chapters, this morning I want to start by defining what it is John is specifically referencing when he observes in verse 5, “Mystery, Babylon the Great, the Mother of Harlots and of the Abominations of the Earth.”
In order to unpack this, we should acknowledge the obvious… Babylon was an ancient city of massive influence! With roots steaming back to the early developments of a post-flood world by the descendants of Noah, Babylon (originally known as the city of Babel) was constructed “in the land of Shinar” along the banks of the Euphrates River.
The city itself was founded by a mighty but wicked leader named Nimrod in direct defiance of God’s instructions for mankind to “bring forth abundantly in the earth and multiply in it.” (Genesis 9:7) The sad tale is recorded in Genesis 11, “The whole earth had one language and speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and dwelt there… They had brick for stone and asphalt for mortar. And they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.’”
When it was all said and done, man’s rebellion against God in the “building of this tower” in order to “make a name for themselves” eventually necessitated the Lord directly intervene by “confusing their language.” As a result of their inability to communicate, man ceased the construction of this city and tower and instead scattered across the face of the earth.
Over the centuries that followed, the people who remained in the plains of Shinar known as the Chaldeans would build upon the ruins of Babel a new city they named Babylon (the ancient word means confusion). While Babylon would always prove to be a regional power, by the 6th century BC, this city would not only find herself being the largest, most powerful in the world, but Babylon would become the capital of a new empire led by King Nebuchadnezzar.
Even when the Babylonians tragically fell in a night to the Medes and Persians, the city was spared destruction and allowed to remain an important global hub. Historically, we know Babylon’s significant place on the world stage would remain well into the Hellenistic period.
That said, after Alexander’s death in Babylon and the power-struggle that commenced, within a few short years, this famous city would become a ghost town. By the time John receives this revelation, Babylon was being slowly overcome by creeping desert sands.
The second point that must be made when seeking to define what John is referencing when he mentions Babylon is that, presently, this ancient city does not exist! Obviously, the reality the ruins of Babylon remain undisturbed 50-miles south of Baghdad adds an interesting wrinkle to these two important chapters. You have to ask… when John mentions a future Babylon is he speaking of a literal city or is he using figurative language?
Though it’s entirely possible at some point we see Babylon rise from the ashes of history in order to become a religious and economic center for the world — scholars misinterpreted the Book of Revelation for centuries because the idea of Israel reemerging was inconceivable — there are simply too many elements within these two chapters that indicate Babylon represented something much greater than being a literal place.
This leads us to the third and final consideration in our quest to define the term… When the Apostle John references “Babylon the Great” he knew the title itself possessed a deep literary significance to the larger Biblical narrative. It’s an interesting thought to chew on but, second only to the city of Jerusalem, Babylon is mentioned in the Bible an astounding 287 times. As such, it’s been said, “The Bible is really a tale of two cities.”
Though Babylon was indeed a physical place, like Egypt of old, figuratively this city always represented the world and a moral system directly antithetical to the purposes of God. In fact, “Babylon” was synonymous with both idolatry and false religion. In a way, Babylon represented an alternative norm and a counterculture to what God was offering man.
Instead of using the term Babylon, more typically, the New Testament writers would simply refer to the same concept as being “the world” and then contrast Godliness (life with God) with worldliness (life in rebellion against God). In John 18, Jesus would declare for all to hear, “My kingdom is not of this world!” With that in mind, in Romans 12:2, every believer is encouraged “not to be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”
Regarding the use of language, the Apostle Paul would take these things one step further in his first letter to the Corinthians when he contrasted “the Spirit of God” with “the spirit of this world.” Babylon the Great was simply another way of referring to the same influence!
As we approach these two important chapters, it’s vitally important you see what John is referencing using the term Babylon the Great as being intentionally broad and far-reaching. In fact, one of the unforced errors I think Biblical scholars make in their expositions of Revelation 17 and 18 is when they define Babylon too narrowly.
For example, there are those who try to define religious Babylon as being some type of End Times perversion of Roman Catholicism. And yet, the problem is this religious system has existed since the Fall and has manifested throughout the ages in all kinds of ways. You see any moral system apart from a relationship with Jesus is part of Babylon the Great making such a narrow interpretation of her being one particular religious expression so confusing!
When we get to chapter 18 and examine commercial Babylon the same rule will apply. While the systems of capitalism and communism may be two separate and vastly different branches, they are both connected to the same fallen tree fed by the same rotten roots. They are both worldly systems devised by sinful men with serious and obvious flaws.
You see from her very inception by Nimrod and one could argue first manifestation in the lie Satan told Eve in the Garden of Eden, Babylon has always represented an alternative lifestyle, a counterculture, a secular societal structure, and a humanistic take on morality directly opposed to the one God offers humanity and articulates in His Word.
Whether it be the ancient Egyptian, Canaanite, Buddhist, Hindu, Assyrian, Babylonian, Grecian, Roman, or Muslim cults or more modern moral expressions found in Humanism, Liberal Progressivism, Secularism, or for that matter Atheism, Babylon is behind them all!
Back when this system was first known as Babel, Babylon is a way of living void of Jesus’ influence. She represents a god-rejecting world. She is the moral framework for the society man builds for himself. Birthed from the original lie that man could be or make his own god, Babylon has always represented the system that facilitates this perversion.
Revelation 17:1-2, “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, with whom the kings of the earth committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth were made drunk with the wine of her fornication.’”
John begins by saying “one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls” (presumably after pouring out his judgment on the earth) comes over and invites this old man to “come and see” a very specific occurrence… “The judgment of the great harlot.” Not only does this set the context for the chapter, but it provides the thesis — the great harlot will be judged!
In light of this, there are a few things to keep in mind before we see John’s vision play itself out… First, since this woman that will be named in verse 5 as “Babylon the Great” is this worldly, moral system that offers mankind an alternative to the life offered by the Lord, she is revealed to John in this vision the way God sees her — she is a “great whore” (KJV).
Secondly, in the vision, John is told the harlot “sits on many waters.” On account of what the angel articulates in verse 15, we have no need to speculate what this means… “The waters which you saw, where the harlot sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations, and tongues.”
Ultimately this tells us this godless, moral system represented by this great whore is universal and the undercurrent by which the various cultures, national norms, religions, and customs of the world ride. She is the undercurrent for every way of living apart from God.
Third, the angel confirms right from the beginning “the kings of the earth (which would be the world leaders) committed fornication” with her (they facilitated an unholy union) and “the inhabitants of the earth” found the entire thing to be intoxicating (they were led astray).
Revelation 17:3, “So he (the angel) carried me away in the Spirit (John’s experience will be spiritual in nature) into the wilderness (this word presents a place of complete and total desolation). And I saw a woman (this would be the great whore) sitting on a scarlet beast which was full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns.”
In showing John the ultimate judgment of this worldly, secular, moral system represented by the “great harlot,” the vision opens in a desolate place with the “woman” sitting upon “a scarlet beast.” In light of our understanding that this “beast full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns” represents the Antichrist, we know the beginning of the end for this woman will be initiated when the system rides upon the back of this final world leader to great prominence during a season of immense difficulty on the earth.
Revelation 17:4-5, “The woman (again this secular, moral system) was arrayed in purple and scarlet (she had the appearance of nobility), and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls (she possessed power and wealth), having in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the filthiness of her fornication (what she’s offering is defiling).
And on her forehead a name was written (this was likely a headband typically warn of prostitutes in Rome): MYSTERY (the thing hidden), BABYLON THE GREAT (this identifies what was hidden), THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH (Babylon is the system that births all the spiritual idolatry that exists in this world).”
Revelation 17:6, “I saw the woman, drunk with (she was continually drinking) the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus (this godless, worldly morality based in the great lie has always been hostile to those who stand for the truth). And when I saw her, I marveled with great amazement (in the Greek language the doubling of the word “marveled with a great marveling” added intensity — John was staggered).”
Revelation 17:7-8, “But the angel said to me, ‘Why did you marvel? I will tell you the mystery of the woman (how this worldly system will be judged) and of the beast that carries her (the Antichrist), which has the seven heads and the ten horns.
The beast that you saw was, and is not, and will ascend out of the bottomless pit and go to perdition (basically this is the general story-arch of the Antichrist). 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 (this is a reference back to chapter 13 and the mortal head-wound the Antichrist survives.).”
Revelation 17:9-11, “Here is the mind which has wisdom: The seven heads (again of the beast) are seven mountains on which the woman sits. There are also seven kings (the idea is these seven heads also reference seven kings in addition to the mountains).
(With regards to the seven mountains and these kings, the angel continues…) Five have fallen, one is, and the other (the seventh) has not yet come (will rise up in the future). And when he comes (seventh king), he must continue a short time. The beast that was, and is not, is himself also the eighth, and is of the seven, and is going to perdition.”
I know these verses initially sound confusing so let’s unpack them line-by-line… “The seven heads” of the beast “on which the woman sits” (this secular moral system) representing the Antichrist “are seven mountains” and “also seven kings.” There are some scholars who love to point to the fact Rome was known as the city set on seven hills. Aside from the Antichrist being Roman, they’ll also claim the woman must reference the Roman Catholic Church.
This obvious problem with such a position is that Rome didn’t sit on “seven mountains.” In fact, since there is an entirely different Greek word for hills, it’s hard to substantiate a clear connection to Rome. Instead, the more accurate interpretation would be to see these “seven mountains” as a figurative way of describing seven governments or world empires.
The notion of this man-exalting, moral system dominating the world through the reign of seven empires seemingly ties into the existence of these “seven kings.” According to the angel, throughout human history, this great whore that has led man in his rebellion against God has ridden on “five kings” who “have fallen” (likely Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and Greece), “one” that existed in John’s day (Rome), “and the other” that “has not yet come.”
In the original language, the phrase “and the other” used to describe this future kingdom literally means this seventh kingdom will be similar to Rome. She will be a revised Roman Empire rising from Europe. The angel then tells John “the beast is of the seven” but will “himself” become “the eighth” before “going to perdition” or receiving eternal judgment.
Revelation 17:12-13, “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. These are of one mind, and they will give their power and authority to the beast.”
Regarding this kingdom led by the Antichrist this worldly system rides upon, the angel tells John “the ten horns” of the beast represent “ten kings” who will “receive authority for one hour” from the Antichrist in this last and final superpower. In the end, all ten will “give their power and authority” back “to the beast,” but again his reign will only last “a short time.”
Prophetically, this exposition of John’s vision is completely consistent with what the prophet Daniel described with the reference of “ten toes” in chapter 2 and “ten horns” in Daniel 7.
Revelation 17:14, “These (this final 10-nation world power led by the Antichrist) will make war with the Lamb (the Battle of Armageddon), and the Lamb will overcome them (the angel is making it clear this will be the inescapable fate for the Antichrist and his kingdom), for He (the Lamb — Jesus the Christ) is Lord of lords and King of kings (Jesus is the supreme power and authority); and those who are with Him (presumably with Him in His second coming — you and I) are called (we have been invited), chosen (we’ve been hand-selected), and faithful (we’ve maintained our faith in what really matters — Jesus).”
Revelation 17:15-18, “Then he (the angel) said to me, “The waters which you saw, where the harlot sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations, and tongues. 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. 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. And the woman whom you saw is (her present manifestation) that great city which reigns (presently) over the kings of the earth (currently the Roman Empire).”
Again, the entire purpose of the chapter is this angel revealing to John how “the woman, the great harlot, Babylon the Great” which represented this worldly system of morality will be judged. In what can only be described as an ironic twist to the story, while this system had ridden on the back of a succession of world empires throughout the centuries, this final kingdom led by the Antichrist will be her ultimate downfall.
The angel says in verse 16, “The ten horns will hate the harlot.” The power-brokers of the world will come to detest the entire system. As such, they will “make her desolate (bring her to ruin) and naked (she will be stripped down and laid bare for all to see).” They will “eat her flesh and burn her with fire.” This system will eat itself and be utterly consumed.
Specifically, how will they accomplish this… The angel says the great whore, Babylon the Great, the Mother of Harlots, the moral current upon which the fallen world has ridden since the beginning will come to an end the moment “they give their kingdom to the beast!”
Again, this is what makes the overarching storyline of the Bible and specifically the fate of Babylon so ironic. You would have thought Babylon would have been destroyed by Jesus. And yet, while it’s true it was “God who put it into their hearts to fulfill His purposes,” when it’s all said and done, Babylon will be destroyed by the very beast it rode to power!
It really is a fascinating twist at the end that this worldly, moral system started by Satan in the Garden with the lie that man could be his own god will end up exalting one man as god! When we get to the close of history secular humanism (the moral structure which exalted man in place of god) will give way to a twisted monotheism (the worship of one man)!
While religious Babylon (this worldly, man-made moral system diametrically contrarian to the standards of God’s Word) has always existed and manifested throughout time in a myriad of varying ways, I want to bring this passage home by applying it to our day in age.
Over the last 50 years, as the West has grown more secular and in turn become less Christian, moral standards haven’t become more relative and subjective as one would have expected but have become even more absolute. I mean it really is astounding in a secular society how many of our policies are not only justified using moral terms by our leaders and influencers but have zero room for or tolerance of any dissenting views.
Wear a mask or you’re complicit in killing grandma — actually, you’re a better person if you wear two. If you don’t support a perpetual war in Afghanistan, you don’t believe little girls should have the right to self-determination. The belief that human beings that are biological male might have an inherent athletic advantage over biological girls makes you a bigot.
Driving an SUV or supporting fracking technology reveals you actually want to destroy the planet. For 100 years no one thought it was immoral to call the Spanish Flu by its country of origin. Today, it’s xenophobic to acknowledge COVID-19 likely originated in China. Within our current political and cultural context, there is no middle ground on which to stand!
Moral standards and absolutes are everywhere… White people who refuse to acknowledge they are racist are in fact proving their racism. In fact, it’s now morally incumbent that all white people confess the generational sin of slavery and as an act of repentance embrace restorative measures whether they be financial reparations or affirmative actions.
It’s inhuman to believe a physical barrier along the southern border might help add order to a chaotic and broken immigration system. For an entire summer, we saw the secular media argue that disenfranchised, minority communities were morally justified in looting Footlocker because it was the only way they could truly express the need for societal change.
Aside from these things, Babylon has made it clear love only wins when it manifests through the complete acceptance and total celebration of homosexuality. In fact, there is no room for any type of dissent or disagreement from the orthodoxy. This belief is now part of the secular cannon — an absolute truth. Any contrary position is seen as utter hate.
I could go on and on with examples, but there is an audacity to the fact the secular world has made it clear God’s position on sexuality, marriage, and gender is morally reprehensible.
From the macro-perspective, this chapter presents three incontrovertible truths… First, there are without a doubt two contrary versions of morality at play in our world. And if you thought progressive, liberal ideals would free mankind from the strict moral absolutes characteristic of religion, think again! Because God has been removed as the chief moral-law giver in America, secular man has simply taken that mantle for himself. As a Christian, you really can feel this current carrying our society into unknown places. This is Babylon!
Two, because Babylon the Great was originally founded upon a lie that man could be his own god, in every manifestation of this system (ours included) she proves to be actively hostile to all those who stand for the truth. Again, in Revelation 17:6, John provides a startling reminder. He says, “I saw the woman” and she was “drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.” Friend, never forget this world is not our home and as such Babylon sees our influence as a threat to its dominion.
In John 15:18-20, Jesus cautioned, “If the world hates you, know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also.”
Finally, the cancel-culture of Babylon will ultimately cancel itself. Here’s the truth and the definitive fallacy of secular humanism… The system allows men to think they can be their own god all the while knowing man can never be god! In a lot of ways, Babylon the Great is a grand trickster. She promises to provide mankind what she simply cannot have.
Understand, at best, all humanity can ever truly achieve is deciding which master he wants to be enslaved to. You are free to choose the system of Babylon and allow the great whore to dictate your moral standards until you ultimately worship the Antichrist or you can tether yourself to the unchanging truth as articulated in God’s Word and worship Jesus Christ.
As you weigh your options, don’t forget what the angel says in Revelation 17:14, “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.”
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