Throughout history, sexual immorality, greed, and covetousness strongly motivated the people of the world. Satan has used these unholy desires “to make the world go round”. The last world empire immediately preceding Christ’s return will function likewise only more vigorously than ever before so as to deceive all the world leaders and all the people of the world. The lone exception will be Christ’s faithful followers. Revelation 17, the focus of this article, foretells what will happen. To gain a comprehensive understanding of the chapter, reading all the preceding chapters in Revelation will be most helpful.
This chapter is divided into two parts – verses 1-6, John’s vision, and 7-18, the interpretation of the vision. Scripture quotations are from the ESV.
Revelation 17:1. Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great prostitute who is seated on many waters,
The angels deliver the seven bowls of God’s wrath that end this evil world and usher in God’s Kingdom. What is revealed in the vision is the prostitute’s destructive impact on the world stated above - sexual immorality, greed, and covetousness. The interpretation in verse 18 reveals that the prostitute (also called the woman) is not a person, rather “the great city”. The many waters that she is seated on, according to verse 15, “are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages.” The evil that will flood the world will emanate from this city.
Revelation 17:2. with whom the kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality, and with the wine of whose sexual immorality the dwellers on earth have become drunk.”
History reveals that many monarchs have been seduced into sexual immorality such as David, Solomon, Ahab, Herod, (and more recently) John Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Mobutu, Prince Andrew, King Charles, and so on. National leaders often influence their people, and this will certainly be the case in the last world empire. Sexual immorality is referenced four times in this chapter and again in 19:2.
Revelation 2:14. …you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality.
What happened with Balaam is relevant as it serves as an example for the end times. Balak, the king of Moab, fearful that Israel might war against his people, hired a man from Mesopotamia named Balaam, renowned as having supernatural powers, to curse the Israelites. He tried three times, but Yahweh intervened and had Balaam bless, not curse them. Balaam, strongly motivated by greed, devised a plan that he knew would work. He told Balak to have his women seduce the Israelite men with sexual immorality and lead them to worship their false gods. The plan worked, resulting in 24,000 Israelites dying. Sexual immorality, greed, and idolatry where the central components in this debacle. This event took place shortly before they entered the Promised Land and as such is a type for what will occur shortly before God’s Kingdom comes.
Revelation 17:3. And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns.
In chapter 13, the beast is identified as the last tyrant, world emperor. The seven heads and ten horns represent his kingdom. The end times prophecy recorded in Daniel corresponds with the book of Revelation and explains this image.
Daniel 7:7-8. After this I saw in the night visions, and behold, a fourth beast [world emperor], terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth; it devoured and broke in pieces and stamped what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that were before it, and it had ten horns. I considered the horns, and behold, there came up among them another horn, a little one, before which three of the first horns were plucked up by the roots…
Daniel 7:19-20. “Then I desired to know the truth about the fourth beast, which was different from all the rest…and about the ten horns that were on its head, and the other horn that came up and before which three of them fell, the horn that had eyes and a mouth that spoke great things, and that seemed greater than its companions.
The beast, also called the little horn, defeats three of the ten kings and rules in their stead. So, the seven heads and ten horns represent the last world empire.
Revelation 17:4-5. The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality. And on her forehead was written a name of mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations.”
Hold in mind that the woman, the mother of prostitutes, is the great city. Apparently, this end time city is going to become the vehicle by which the devil, working through the beast, will entice the kings and the people of the world with greed and sexual immorality. She is adorned with riches (gold, jewels, and pearls) and the golden cup designed to allure people to drink. The word “abominations” is most often connected to sexual and spiritual immorality. She leads people away from the true God to worship the beast as God. 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 and Revelation 13:4-15 corroborate these abominations that will impact everyone in the world except those written in the book of life.
Revelation 17:6. And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. When I saw her, I marveled greatly.
In this city, the saints were persecuted and martyred and will be again in the end.
Revelation 17:7-8. But the angel said to me, “Why do you marvel? I will tell you the mystery of the woman, and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her. The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to rise from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the dwellers on earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world will marvel to see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come.
The phrase “you saw was, and is not, and is about to rise” refers back to chapter 13:3,12-14. The beast will be killed by the sword and then raised from the dead signaling to all that he is uniquely God-like. The “bottomless pit” symbolizes horrendous evil. See 9:1, 2; 11:7. When he is raised from the dead, the world begins to worship him as God, and he will cause enormous destruction.
Revelation 17:9. This calls for a mind with wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated;
Wisdom is required to understand. Many theological debates have ensued regarding where this city with seven mountains is located. Rome is known as the city of seven hills. The Vatican sits on one side of the Tiber River, facing the seven hills. In ancient times, hills were considered sacred high places and were used to worship and offer sacrifices to deities. Therefore, many theologians think the great city is Rome. However, seven mountains’ peaks also surround Jerusalem. Albany New York claims to be upon seven mountains as do other cities. Some think the city of Babylon will be rebuilt and fulfill the prophecy. We will see more as we go on.
Revelation 17:10-11. they are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he does come he must remain only a little while. As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction.
The seven heads represent two distinct things – 1) the great city on seven mountains and 2) seven kings. The kings that have fallen begin with Nimrod recorded in Genesis 10-11. This kingdom ended with the Tower of Babel. The four successive world empires were Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, and Grecian. They have fallen. The one that existed in the time of John’s writing was the Roman Empire. The one that has not yet come refers to the final world empire under the rule of the beast, the same kingdom prophesied in the book of Daniel.
In the end, there will be ten kings over ten kingdoms. A separate man defeats three of the ten kings, takes their place, and thus becomes the eighth.
Revelation 17:12-13. And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have not yet received royal power, but they are to receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast. These are of one mind, and they hand over their power and authority to the beast.
The ten kingdoms were not yet in John’s time and still are not. They will all unite under the rule of the beast but only for a short time, seven years.
Revelation 17:14. They will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.”
Jesus will destroy them at Armageddon (16:16)
Revelation 17:15-18. And the angel said to me, “The waters that you saw, where the prostitute is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages. And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the prostitute. They will make her desolate and naked, and devour her flesh and burn her up with fire, for God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by being of one mind and handing over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled. “The woman whom you saw is the great city, which reigns over the kings of the earth.”
Throughout the Scriptures, Jerusalem is distinguished as God’s holy city where He connects with His people. Some of her names included holy city, city of God, city of Yahweh, and Yahweh is there. However, due to Israel’s continuous idolatrous ways, Ezekiel tells us God removed His glory from the city, and according to Hosea and Romans, it has not yet returned. Thereafter, she has received derogatory names such as Sodom, Gomorrah, Egypt, and in the Book of Revelation, Babylon. According to 2 Thessalonians 2, the Book of Daniel, Jesus’ Olivet discourse, and the book of Revelation, the beast will rule his kingdom from the temple in Jerusalem until he turns against the great city and destroys it. To have Jerusalem as his capitol city desecrates the once holy place in the face of God. The beast is the personification of Satan who hates Jerusalem. Ezekiel 28 tells us that the fallen cherub once was on “the holy mountain of God” in Eden; however, because of his sin, God “cast you as profane from this mountain of God”. Where evil began with the cherub’s prideful rebellion is also the place it will all end. The great city will be destroyed, but King Jesus will revive and restore it to glory when He reigns as King of kings over God’s coming Kingdom.
One final closing thought to consider – sexual immorality and greed was, is, and will continue to be the downfall of many. Beware!