Revelation 17 introduces us to the symbol of a woman referred to as the Great Harlot. She is one of several nefarious symbols in Revelation, along with the Beast from the Sea, the Beast from the Earth, as well as the term Babylon. The Great Harlot is not the only woman in the book of Revelation. There is another woman mentioned in chapter 12. She symbolizes true faith and worship of the true God. But, as we shall see in this article, the Great Harlot woman is just the opposite. She symbolizes false faith that seduces toward worship of everything that is not God – prostituted religion.
The reason for studying the Great Harlot is to gain understanding of the end-times. The different aspects of her character gives us perspective on many of the unfolding end-time events in the book of Revelation and help prepare the church for what is yet to come.
#1 Her Title: Mystery, Babylon the GreatWe begin our study by considering her name, ‘Mystery, Babylon the Great.’ Let’s read Revelation 17:1-6:
“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.’ So he carried me away in the Spirit into the wilderness. And I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast which was full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls, having in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the filthiness of her fornication. And on her forehead a name was written: MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. And when I saw her, I marveled with great amazement.” Revelation 17:1-6 NKJVThe Apostle John had a vision in which he sees a woman with a name written on her forehead: “Mystery, Babylon the Great, The Mother of Harlots and of the Abominations of the Earth.” Let’s look at the first part of her name “Mystery, Babylon the Great.” What does this mean? We will consider two fundamental points about the place of Babylon from Holy Scripture. The roots of Babylon’s civilization go back to Genesis 11:1-9 where we read about the Tower of Babel. God had told mankind in Genesis 1:28, to be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it. But instead of doing what God had said, Nimrod, who founded Babel/Babylon, led them into rebellion. Instead of “filling” the earth they gathered together to build false religion to reach heaven and make a name “for themselves” i.e. Babylon.
“Now the whole earth used the same language and the same words. It came about as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there….They said, ‘Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.’…The LORD said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ So, the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. Therefore, its name was called Babel…” Genesis 11:1-9Interestingly, the native name of Babylon was Bab-ilim meaning “gate to god,” and we see in Genesis 11 that the people of the earth attempted to build such. They desired to become one people and build for themselves one city with a built connection to heaven. This “gate to god” which was in the form of a ziggurat (popularly called a tower) was an attempt to reach to heaven. It was their own doing and was of their own making. It was a man-made attempt to provide a gate to heaven. This was the city known as Babylon. Consequently, God confused the people’s language and scattered them Himself. But they, the Babylonians, “played the harlot” and committed idolatry many times after. This idea of a harlot as those who rebel against God is also seen throughout the Old Testament in reference to the Israelites when they worshipped and served false gods. “Thus, they were defiled by their own works, and played the harlot by their own deeds.” Psalm 106:39. In their unbelief and rebellion, they became a “harlot” before God.
“Now, then, hear this, you sensual one, Who dwells securely, Who says in your heart, I am, and there is no one besides me….You felt secure in your wickedness and said, ‘No one sees me,’ Your wisdom and your knowledge, they have deluded you; For you have said in your heart, ‘I am, and there is no one besides me.'” Isaiah 47:8a, 10 NASBThis text of Scripture is about the creature declaring itself equal to God. This is what fallen human nature does. Rather than finding true union with God by trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ for our salvation, we continue on in our pattern of displacing God with ourselves. It started back in Genesis where Eve wanted to be like God:
“The woman said to the serpent, ‘From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it or you will die.’ The serpent said to the woman, ‘You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate.” Genesis 3:2-6 NASBRebellion to God has many avenues of expression in various religions and ideologies, but its core is self-exaltation, worship of the image of God in us. It is the deification of self. Since we were created to worship, we end up worshipping self instead of the One True God. It is the “great exchange” as seen in Romans 1.
“For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. Therefore, God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.” Romans 1:20-25 NASB [emphasis added]Mankind finds itself in a sinful dilemma. We have what is called “natural revelation” which is given through the creation. God puts into every one the knowledge of His greatness via the things He has created which display his majesty and power. We have also been given a sense of “natural law,” knowing the difference between right and wrong in our conscience. But we only respond to this natural revelation in darkness, with the pursuits and ideas of the fallen creatures that we are. Further, natural revelation is not a personal knowing of God in salvation. We do not have the light of truth as given to us in the gospel, unless that gospel is preached/taught to us and received by us. In the original creation in Adam, we were made to worship the true and living God. But we end up worshiping what is not God because of sin and rebellion. The whole time we are doing this we are simply exercising our core rebellion of disobeying God’s direct command by displacing Him with ourselves. We see a rather obvious instance of self-exaltation in Isaiah 14. Here is recorded a taunt against the King of Babylon. (It is believed by many theologians that this text also refers to the fall of Lucifer i.e. Satan.)
“How you have fallen from heaven, O star of the morning, son of the dawn! You have been cut down to the earth, You who have weakened the nations! But you said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God, And I will sit on the mount of the assembly, In the recesses of the north. I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.” Isaiah 14:12-14 NASBTherefore, the Great Harlot in Revelation is the representation of any rebellion toward God whether it be past, present, or future. She gets her title “Mystery, Babylon the Great” from the ancient Babylonian civilization which was the birthplace of many forms of false religion and self-exaltation. She is called this because the empire of Babylon was a people establishing their own religion to the point of man calling himself God – the extreme of man’s self-exaltation. The Great Harlot signifies the fact that there will be a final displacing of God by a world united in idolatry and self-worship. The application for us is to know that there will be a culminating final religion of any and all who refuse to honor and worship God as God.
#2 Her Influence: Mother of Harlots and of the Abominations of the EarthWe now expound upon the fact that this woman has had tremendous impact throughout all levels of society and over all the world. She is quite literally the mother of many forms of abominations before God. We read again Revelation 17:1-5:
“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.’ So he carried me away in the Spirit into the wilderness. And I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast which was full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls, having in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the filthiness of her fornication. And on her forehead a name was written: MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.”Again, Babylon was the place that spawned much false worship and self-exaltation. It was their rebellion that lead the way for many other cultures to follow suit. The title of the god may have changed, or the nuances may have been tweaked, but it was their formation of different deities and icons that lead the way. Included in this was creation worship. All of these abominations permeated into every level of society and most all cultures. As is often the case, when people have idols in their minds and hearts, it leads them to literally carving images of various gods and goddesses. By not receiving the revelation of God as given or worshiping Him, humans, in sinful rebellion, foolishly give themselves over in their darkness to create idols. Romans 1:21 gives the source of the deluding storyline:
“For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.” Romans 1:21 NASBThis is exactly what harlots want – to keep people in their darkness. They are seducers. This is what the Great Harlot does. She seduces people away from the light of the gospel. She is a cohort with Satan and the powers of darkness to keep people from seeing the glory of the gospel in the face of Christ Jesus our Lord! She is inundated with the powers of darkness rather than light. Paul speaks of such a reality in 2 Corinthians:
“And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 NASBThus, the Great Harlot is “the mother” of harlots and of abominations in that from her comes all the things of darkness: false religion, pagan worship, rebellion, self-exaltation, creation worship, etc. She is the depiction of that which is in the human heart.
And I saw the woman drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus. When I saw her, I wondered greatly. And the angel said to me, ‘Why do you wonder? I will tell you the mystery of the woman and of the beast that carries her, which has the seven heads and the ten horns.” “The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to come up out of the abyss and go to destruction. And those who dwell on the earth, whose name has not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, will wonder when they see the beast that he was and is not and will come. Here is the mind which has wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits, and they are seven kings; five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain a little while. The beast which was and is not, is himself also an eighth and is one of the seven, and he goes to destruction. The ten horns which you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but they receive authority as kings with the beast for one hour. These have one purpose, and they give their power and authority to the beast.” Revelation 17:6-13 NASB
Side note: The Great Harlot’s relationship with the Beast from the Sea is mentioned in this text. We discuss that relationship more fully later. It should be noted that this woman persecuted the saints of God (17:6).In verse 7 it says “the beast that carries her.” This beast, with seven heads and ten horns, is also known as the Beast from the Sea which you can read about in Revelation 13. Now, things might sound confusing with talk of heads, horns, mountains, and kings. You can read more about that in The Beast from the Sea, with Seven Heads (1/1). What we need to know here is that the Beast (a kingdom) has seven heads/mountains (kings). We should not be confused when we see this Beast that has (present tense) seven heads. This is a literary device used to show that the same thing that happened six different times in history (with Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, Rome) is represented again in this seventh and final head. Thus, the Great Harlot sits upon ‘the Beast and Seven Mountains.’ The term mountain is used figuratively to express the idea of reign or rule. For example, in Daniel 2:35 the Scripture uses the term mountain to describe God’s kingdom crushing the final kingdom of the earth. (cf. Revelation 17:14) Not only is mountain used figuratively in Daniel but also as a designation for Babylon, her symbolic name, in Jeremiah:
“But I will repay Babylon and all the inhabitants of Chaldea for all their evil that they have done in Zion before your eyes,” declares the LORD. Behold, I am against you, O destroying mountain,” Jeremiah 51:24-25So, to recap, the Great Harlot “sits” upon three things:
1. Many Waters (Rev 17:1) – She has and still does influence the whole known world.
2. Seven Mountains (Rev 17:9-10) – She “sat” on each of the first 6 heads (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, Rome) when they persecuted the people of God.
3. The Beast (Rev 17:7) – She will take her position upon the last head of the beast as it allows her to do so.Thus, this Great Harlot, which is false religion, has widespread and long-term influence and power in the earth.
#3 Her Characteristics: Power and SplendorWe read in Revelation 17:
“Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and spoke with me, saying, ‘Come here, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot who sits on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth committed acts of immorality, and those who dwell on the earth were made drunk with the wine of her immorality.’ And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness; and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast, full of blasphemous names, having seven heads and ten horns. The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls, having in her hand a gold cup full of abominations and of the unclean things of her immorality,” Revelation 17:1-4 NASBHere we see that the harlot woman is dressed in both scarlet and purple. These colors represent royalty and splendor. In the ancient world, purple and scarlet could only be afforded and worn by the wealthy. Therefore, this most likely expresses her luxury and power among leaders and nations. Notice that the Beast she sits upon (the final Beast/Kingdom of this present evil age as discussed in The Beast from the Sea) is also described as scarlet. This is because the Beast’s power and majesty supports the Great Harlot (at least for a time).
“And I saw the woman drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus. When I saw her, I wondered greatly.” Revelation 17:6 NASBRemember, this woman is the very essence of false religion. Acting upon her hate of the saints of Jesus Christ, those who have true faith, she actually had been killing them. We continue reading:
“And he said to me, ‘The waters which you saw where the harlot sits are peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues.’” Revelation 17:15 NASBAs previously mentioned, the Great Harlot sits, not only upon the Beast, but upon many waters. This means she has been associated with and made comfortable and welcomed throughout the entire world. Her seductive religion was enjoyed by a wide variety: “peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues.” She took root in and influenced every level of society and people group. Thus, this woman is:
• Wealthy, Powerful, and Royal in Splendor • Zealously Religious (though actually immoral) • A murderer of true saints of Jesus Christ • Spread all over the earth (“upon many waters”) – influential among nations, citizens, cultural and language groups, etc.
#4 Her Current Status: Roman CatholicismIs the Great Harlot still on the scene in our 21st century? Is she on the horizon of civilization? Or have we seen her presence unfold in history up until now, filling the above criteria? If so, will she become an even greater influence into the future? It would seem she has already had extensive sway in past history. Let us consider something else very interesting that the Apostle Peter said:
“She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings, and so does my son, Mark.” 1 Peter 5:13 NASBPeter is writing at the end of his life from a prison in Rome. He refers to the city of Rome as Babylon, figuratively speaking. (Note that the “she” in this verse refers to the church – chosen together with you). So, we see that early in the church the name Babylon was used figuratively, not literally. It is used to describe a civilization in rebellion to God. As we read that text now, 2,000 years later, could we still say Rome ‘is Babylon.’ Is there anything about Rome that defines it as in rebellion to God? Is there anything about Rome that might represent false religion spread out through the entire earth? The Roman Catholic Church fits the bill. It has gained influence over all the earth for many centuries, its wealth and splendor are beyond measure, and it is a religion of a man-made gateway to God. Pastor of Moody Church in the 1930-40’s, Harry Ironside, reveals great insight about the Great Harlot in his book Revelation: An Ironside Expository Commentary:
“There is no mistaking her identity. Pagan Rome was the lineal successor of Babylon. Papal Rome absorbed the Babylonian mysteries; and the Rome of the Beast in the last days will be the seat of the revived satanic system that began with Nimrod and his infamous consort Semiramis, which has from that day to this been opposed to everything that is of God and which changed the truth of God into a lie, worshiping and serving the creature more than the Creator.” (p.171)In referring to Babylon in Jeremiah 50:38, “It is the land of graven images, they are mad upon their idols,” Pastor Ironside continues on about Catholicism:
“It was she who taught the nations to substitute idolatry for spiritual worship,…” (p.171-172)Pastor Ironside relates the fact that Papal Rome has helped nearly 2/3s of Christendom incorporate images and idols and pictures and icons into the “Christian” faith. He says:
“Nothing of the kind was known in the churches of God until the heathen mysteries were grafted into Christianity. The images of the mother and child that are enshrined in Rome’s temples are only different in name from the images worshiped in the groves and temples of Semiramis,……Tammuz……” (p.172) And speaking of Mary, the mother of Jesus, he writes:
“Of the fable of her assumption and crowning as Queen of Heaven the Bible gives no hint. It is Babylonianism pure and simple.” (p.172)Pastor Ironside continues:
“It is a lamentable fact that Babylon’s principles and practices are rapidly but surely pervading the churches that escaped from Rome at the time of the Reformation.” (p. 172)Mind you, he is saying this in the middle part of the 20th century about the Protestant church. So where are we now? In recent years, we have seen within seeker sensitive churches, in charismatic churches, and even in neo-evangelical churches, a willingness to lay aside some of the key Protestant Reformation beliefs and tenets that separated it from those of the Catholic Church. We have seen the influences of mysticism and psychology from men like the catholic priest Henri Nouwen. He was influenced by the Trappist Monk, Thomas Merton, who was also a mystic and social activist. We were introduced to the visually stunning display/spirit-experiences of the “stations of the cross” in the movie The Passion of the Christ by the catholic Mel Gibson. (There are a couple of great reviews of The Passion of the Christ here and here.) This and other “Christian” teachings introduced into the visible church have allowed a growing emphasis on “experience-based” faith (perhaps labeled “awakening” or “mystical-experience”). Thus, a mystically seduced “church” is being led back to eventual fellowship with the Catholicism of Rome. When you see it happen, you can be assured that a neo-evangelicalism has decided that experience trumps doctrine. John, sitting in Rome where he wrote his epistles, names the place. Babylon, this Great Harlot, is now fulfilled in the Catholic Church. And she will play even a greater role in future end time events.
For expert information on Catholicism, please go to the following: Berean Beacon – Richard Bennett, former Catholic priest Proclaiming the Gospel – Mike Gendron, former Catholic Catholic Contemplative Meditation Techniques Explode Top Down… – Orrel Steinkamp
#5 Her Demise: Destroyed by the BeastNow, we are going to dive further into the Great Harlot’s relationship with the Beast. This will give us insight into how things might look at the end of this present evil age. We have not gone into great detail about the Beast, but we have seen there is some kind of relationship between the Great Harlot and the Beast (ten-horned Beast from the Sea) which is tenuous in nature. It turns out that while the Beast uses the Woman for its own purposes initially, it will end up hating and destroying her as it draws close to its own destruction. For this, we look again at Revelation 17.
“And the angel said to me, ‘Why do you wonder? I will tell you the mystery of the woman and of the beast that carries her, which has the seven heads and the ten horns.’” NASBThe ten-horned Beast from the Sea willingly carries the woman upon his back. This suggests the Beast plays a supportive role for the false-religious system described as the Great Harlot. Their initial mutual relationship, however, changes drastically. Notice the difference just several verses later in Revelation 17:15-18.
“And he said to me, ‘The waters which you saw where the harlot sits are peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues. And the ten horns which you saw, and the beast, these will hate the harlot and will make her desolate and naked, and will eat her flesh and will burn her up with fire. For God has put it in their hearts to execute His purpose by having a common purpose, and by giving their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God will be fulfilled. The woman whom you saw is the great city, which reigns over the kings of the earth.’” NASBAll this takes place during the last few years of the tribulation period in which the world will be going through tremendous upheaval (see Revelation 8, 9 and 16). Those times will display and make obvious who has ultimate power and control–the Beast. (Make no mistake, this happens under the sovereignty of God.) The Beast, after having carried the Great Harlot, turns on her and “will make her desolate and naked, and will eat her flesh and will burn her up with fire.”