“At thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Ps. 16:11).
“And there came one of the seven angels which had the seven vials, and talked with me, saying unto me, Come hither; I will shew unto thee the judgment of the great whore that sitteth upon many waters: With whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication. So he carried me away in the spirit into the wilderness: and I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication: And upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus: and when I saw her, I wondered with great admiration” (Rev. 17:1–6).
After the last bowl had been poured out, one of the angels who had had one of the bowls came to John and talked to him. He said that he would show him the judgment of the great whore, the woman who sat upon many waters.
To help us keep things straight, I will begin with how I identify the figures in this passage. I take the harlot as the apostate city of Jerusalem, the one under judgment. This has been the great theme of the book of Revelation, and it would be odd to change the subject at this late point. I take the beast that she is sitting on as the beast from the sea, introduced to us in chapter 13. So I believe we are talking about both Rome and Jerusalem, but Jerusalem as riding upon, dependent upon, the imperial city.
Some reasons for identifying this harlot as Jerusalem can be quickly summarized. The central point of Revelation deals with things that will “shortly” take place (Rev. 1:1). The fall of Jerusalem fits this description, while the fall of Rome occurs centuries later. In terms of literary structure, we are being introduced to the contrast between the harlot and the bride. Because the bride, descending out of Heaven, is the New Jerusalem, it stands to reason that the harlot is the Old Jerusalem. Jerusalem is called that “great city” earlier (Rev. 11:8), which is how “Babylon” is described in this section. The use of the word harlot fits with the Old Testament usage by the prophets. Harlotry presupposes a covenant relationship with God that was violated by spiritual adulteries (see Is. 1:21; 57:8; Jer. 2:2, 20). And the central charge made against her was that she was guilty of the blood of the prophets, saints, and apostles ((Rev. 17:6; 18:20, 24). This was not yet true of Rome, but it had been true of Jerusalem for generations (Matt. 23:35-36).
This said, what are we told in this passage? Instead of being a light to the Gentiles, Jerusalem had led the kings of the earth astray, not to mention the inhabitants of the earth. They all had been made drunk with the wine of her fornication. The angel then led John into the wilderness, a fitting place for a revelation of this nature. It was not a heavenly vision, but rather a vision given in a place of owls and jackals. The woman was sitting on a scarlet colored beast. The color given is new, but in every other respect, the beast is same as before (seven heads, ten horns). The woman riding on the beast is distinct from it, and she was arrayed in scarlet and purple. She was decked out with gold, gems, and pearls, clearly given over to ostentatious and luxurious living. She had a golden cup in her hand, exquisite on the outside, and full of filth on the inside (Matt. 23:25).
She was a wanton, and her name was emblazoned on her forehead. The first thing about her name is that she was a mystery. How was it that the people of Israel, delivered by Jehovah so many times, had now come to this? This is the vision that Ezekiel had seen. When God had first seen Israel, she was nothing, polluted in her own blood (Eze. 16:6). But it was not long before she was seduced by her own beauty (Eze. 16:14), which was what led to her becoming seductive to everyone else. She was also identified as Babylon the Great. We have already considered how that epithet readily applied to Jerusalem, in much the same way that the names of other older pagan entities did—e.g. Sodom and Egypt (Rev. 11:8). She is the Mother of Harlots, as well as the Mother of Abominations on the Earth.
When John saw her, he was amazed. The woman was regal, clothed in royal splendor, covered in jewelry, but her behavior was that of a slattern. She was drunk. Not only was she drunk, but what had made her drunk? She was drunk on the blood of the saints, and on the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. A moment before we had been told that her golden cup was filled with abomination and filthiness of her fornication (v. 4), and earlier it had referred to the wine of her fornication (v. 2). Putting all this together, her abominable lusts appeared to focus on the deaths of the saints—which are precious in the sight of the Lord (Ps. 116:15), and prized by this harlot for a completely different reason.