“The Harlot and the Beast” (Revelation 17)

“The Harlot and the Beast” (Revelation 17)

The Harlot and the Beast

The Harlot and the Beast

Brad Mills / General



The best classic novels represent excellent writing and story telling, but those with the greatest impact typically illustrate some moral purpose. One of my favorite novels portraying the devastating consequences of immorality is Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

The story follows the lives of two main characters. Anna, a disenchanted housewife, has an extra-marital affair with another member of the upper-class. Konstantin Levin, a down-to-earth landowner, struggles with his own doubts of faith, but remains content with simple living. Their decisions shape the quality of the rest of their lives.

Like other popular Russian novelists Tolstoy has a way with dragging out the details well beyond what is necessary. The forty page section describing Levin harvesting his field, was not easy reading. The last 100 pages make the first 800 worth your time.

Thankfully, John’s vision in Revelation 17 takes a very different approach to illustrating immorality. In a few brief chapters Scripture reveals the empty promises of sin and the consequences of following the corrupt course of this world. The vision portrays the fruit of worldly living and Satan’s deceptive strategies.

The focus of chapters 17 & 18 is the judgment of the great prostitute, Babylon. It precedes a series of judgments that fall upon the dragon, beast, and false prophet. Although the prostitute is not technically part of that “unholy trinity,” she is used by Satan to promote his evil intentions. Babylon is the counterfeit church promoting counterfeit worship.

Read Revelation 17.

The  Seduction  of the World (1-6)

One of the seven angels from the previous chapter reveals further judgment. The great prostitute is sitting beside many waters (1). Those waters are defined as “peoples and multitudes and nations and languages” (15). This woman’s corruption has worldwide influence. However, it is ironic that she is found in the wilderness where her luxury is worthless. Who needs jewelry when you are starving?

Ignoring the obvious, the kings of the earth are seduced into committing adultery with her (2). Babylon is the epitome of seduction. Inhabitants of earth become intoxicated with her wine. She traps people in a cycle of evil that prevents them from turning to God. As they grow more accustomed to their sinful lifestyle, they become less satisfied by it. It is called the law of diminishing returns. Each bite of your favorite candy bar becomes less satisfying than the previous one. And yet we still have a hard time stopping until we are sick from over indulgence. That is the empty promise of sin’s seduction.

The woman is arrayed in the royal colors of purple and scarlet (4). She is adorned in luxurious gold, gemstones, and pearls. This is the same language that describes priestly attire. She literally offers the worship of sinful inclinations. Like the sirens in Homer’s Odyssey, the woman charms people to destroy themselves.

She holds a golden cup filled with adulteries that she pours into the mouths of her addicted lovers. Like Roman harlots, her name is written on her forehead: “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations” (5). This is her identity as a servant of the beast.

She herself is drunk with blood of Christian martyrs (6). Rome, like Ancient Babylon, had already claimed the lives of a few saints, and many more followed. The harlot represents various spheres of immoral society working together to promote the beast’s evil state power. Immorality and tyranny make a great team. America’s founding father were right to suggest that a morally corrupt nation would lose her freedom (Phillips). No government, republic or otherwise, is capable of withstanding rampant immorality.

Babylon offers prosperity mixed with all manner of immorality. She specifically targets the church by whatever means necessary. Her wealth lures those who worship luxury. She offers her cup of abominations to quench lustful appetites. She will accept the worship of anyone, but she especially wants “to destroy the purity of the saints” (Poythress).

John marvels. The same verb is used of the infatuation of unbelievers (8; 13:3). It is as if John himself is about to be seduced by her hypnotizing beauty. The angel will quickly rebuke him (7), but the point is clear. If John “marveled greatly” at this blood thirsty prostitute, we must recognize our own vulnerability to her attack as well. Seduction is one unguarded moment away!

Babylon is more than sexual immorality, but it is also that. The letter to the church in Pergamum rebuked them for allowing the teaching of Balaam which included the practice of sexual immorality (Re 2:14). The internet has multiplied her reach exponentially. Half of the homes in America report dealing with a porn problem, that typically begins at the age of 11. More than half of the divorces in America report porn addiction as a contributing factor.

Babylon is alive and well in the Church today, and her purity remains at stake. God’s good gift of marriage has been corrupted by false depictions of love. The only solution is a Savior who promises to cleanse us with the washing of the word. The sanctification of Jesus Christ maintains our purity against the prostitute’s onslaught. Lustful desires can be transformed by the superior love of Christ!

And one of Christ’s greatest resources is the gift of community. In fact, it is the beauty of the bride of Christ that the harlot so desperately tries to mimic (Re 12:1; 21:11). Babylon offers a counterfeit beauty. True beauty is the radiant Church shining in the splendor of holiness. If we could see the church as John saw her, we would realize the superior love that conquers the fleeting pleasures of lust.

The prostitute holds forth her cup of immoralities, but her charms will only leave your mouth parched for the real thing. Imbibing in her evil results in ever weakening desires for holiness. Jesus Christ, through the administration of his church, holds forth the cup of the new covenant in His blood, shed for many for the remission of sins. The cup of Christ raises our desires and purifies them. This morning you have the privilege of drinking from the cup that can quench your thirst for true beauty. Drink from it, and look to the cup of immorality no more!

› The alternative track is to allow the seduction of the world to lead you down the path of destruction.

The  Destruction  of the World (7-14)

The angel snaps John out of his marveling trance with a rebuke: “Why do you marvel?” This woman rides upon the beast that is bent on destroying our King!But, this vision reveals the beast’s own destruction (8, 11). The beast, covered with blasphemous names (3), becomes a counterfeit savior. “He was, and is not, and is about to rise…”

The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits (9), but they are also seven kings (10). Five of them had already fallen, one was in power, and another had not yet appeared. This future king would only remain in power for a short time. The beast is an eighth king who will appear to be revived but is going to his destruction (11). Although hard to visualize, the beast is the culmination of all the kings.

Rome was the city of seven hills. It had various examples of corrupt emperors. Jewish and Christian writing referred to Rome as Babylon. However, any attempt at precision breaks down when considering all of the facts. It leads interpreters to selectively ignore some emperors that do not happen to fit their preferred scheme.

If John is being precise here, he leaves his calculations so vague that the church has never reached a consensus. If, as I suspect, he’s using seven as a symbol of totality, then Rome is simply one example among many corrupt states that persecute the Church throughout this age.

The ten horns represent ten more kings who do not have their own kingdoms (12). They receive brief authority alongside the beast. These kings agree to promote the authority of the beast (13). They will war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will triumph over them with his own followers (14).

Whereas the prostitute corrupts through immorality, the beast corrupts through fear. Those not destroyed by their lust, are silenced by fear.

Fear is a motivating factor behind many of our actions. For me, the fear of failure can be debilitating. While it probably accounts for the fact that I never broke a bone growing up, it also explains why I’m ruthless in Monopoly!

On a more serious note, the fear of failure oftentimes prevents me from taking even the slightest risk. Out of a desire to preserve and maintain “my kingdom” I retreat from the faintest threat of opposition. That fear can lead to a tendency to camp out, content to maintain any ground already gained. Venturing out further seems suicidal.

But this fear, like all inferior fears, simply plays into the beast’s strategy. The fear of persecution, real of perceived, effectively eliminates my witness. Evil produces in all kinds of misplaced fears such as this.

Jesus Christ teaches us that the only legitimate fear is the fear of “him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell” (Lk 12:5). If you have placed your faith in Christ, then you have nothing to fear. He has promised to bring to perfection the work that he began in you (Phil. 1:6). Why would anyone fear losing something in this life, that is promised to be perfected for all eternity in the life to come?

› God sovereignly orchestrates a chain reaction so that idols destroy the idolaters (17:16-17).

The  Orchestration  of the World (15-18)

Since the prostitute and the beast’s influence spans the globe (15), the vision cannot be contained by Rome alone. Rome would have been the world power at the time the original audience was reading Revelation. Much of what is described here has been shown to be compatible with Roman politics. The only problem is that it has also been shown to be compatible with other world powers throughout history. It seems unlikely that this great judgment was exhausted by the defeat of Rome and that all world conflict since then is simply the aftershocks of that battle.

If all of this was fulfilled by Rome, then ongoing conflict really has no bearing on these prophecies and our present battles are out of accord with the dominion that Christ and his Church should gradually enjoy. Are we supposed to assume that the martyr’s who cried out “how long?” were answered more than 1500 years ago with the fall of Rome, but the reign of Christ seems to be no closer now than it was back then?

Many fascist, communist, and Islamic regimes have been just as corrupt and terrifying as Rome. The list of past and modern examples continues to grow as Babylon rides the beast across the globe. The Church has been under constant attack, but the gates of hell have not prevailed against her!

Just when it seems like the harlot and the beast’s expanding influence will amount in their victory, we read the shocking description of verses 16-17. This beast along with the ten horns will hate the prostitute and bring her to ruin, eating her flesh and burning her with fire (16). This is part of how God will accomplish his purpose causing the ten kings hand their authority over to the beast (13, 17).

This represents the self-destructive power of sin. Judas was enticed by the god of money. He sold the Savior for thirty pieces of silver. Yet, once he possessed the silver, it ate a hole through his soul. Filled with disgust, he flung it at the priests (Mt 27:3-5). The money never brought satisfaction. Sin never satisfies, it merely quickens our demise.

John Yates, in his introduction to Jeremiah Burroughs, The Evil of Evils writes,

Never, until sin is seen and sorrowed for as the greatest evil, will Christ be seen and rejoiced in as the greatest Good.

› The depiction of Babylon riding the beast serves to reveal the heinous nature of sin. Evil is self-defeating.


God orchestrates the collapse of evil by allowing its corruption to lead to its destruction.

The gospel shows us the penalty all sin deserves in the cross of Jesus Christ. The evil of sin could only be conquered by the death of the perfect Son of God. And because Jesus conquered sin and death, he is presently seated at the right hand of God the Father. He lives to intercede for you, providing through his resurrection life the only escape from sins penalty and power!

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast, save in the death of Christ my God: all the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood.


Exported from Logos Bible Software, 8:13 AM January 20, 2020.