1 – Introduction
2 – Symbolism: Whoremonger and Warmonger
3 – Startling Vision Confronts the Apostle (17:1-6)
4A – Angel Explains the Mystery (17:7-11)
4B – Angel Explains the Mystery (17:12-18)
Appendix 1 – Ancient Babylon, Forerunner to Modern Babylon
Appendix 2 – Harlot/Beast History
Appendix 3 – Cataloguing the Harlot’s Crimes: News Excerpts
Appendix 2: Harlot-Beast History
In Revelation 17, John the apostle wrote, “I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast which was full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns.” (17:3)
The Beast and its “seven heads” or “mountains” are commonly understood to symbolize the seven empires that have ruled, or will rule, in the Middle East and who also ruled over Israel when the Israeli people were together as a nation; these are the empires of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, Rome, and the final one at the End of the Age. The apostle had already seen the same Beast in chapter 13. There his attention was focused on one of the Beast’s “heads” – the final one.
According to these passages, the different “heads” represent different historical eras and empires, but they all belong to the same Beast who has existed throughout history. This is further clarified in chapter 17 where we read about “the beast that was, and is not, and yet is” – which again points to the fact that the different Heads, appearing at different times in history, are all part of the same Beast. (17:8)
Then we read that “the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits.” (17:9). So, if the Woman is sitting on all the Heads/Mountains, then she too must have existed throughout history. As the Beast has manifested itself in different ways (with its “seven heads”), she also has manifested, and will manifest, in different ways.
The Great Harlot and the Beast are ruling systems that have been around a long time. Throughout history, the Harlot has squatted on one empire after another. This symbolic picture portrays the commercial realm, with its “merchants”, as a sort of parasite, oppressing and sapping the strength of the governments of the world.
The role of “merchants” – those who manage the Harlot – is described in the Bible in none too complimentary fashion: “The merchant uses dishonest scales; he loves to defraud.” (Hosea 12:7, NIV) “For your merchants were the great men of the earth, for by your sorcery all the nations were deceived.” (Revelation 18:23) To get what she wants, the Harlot seduces the nations and their peoples through her crafty use of the art of deception.
(This term “merchants” by the way, does not refer to those businessmen who make an honest living, working hard to provide needed goods and services to their communities. There is a world of difference between them and the ultra-rich “merchants” spoken of in the Revelation Book, those who are deceiving and corrupting the world for the sake of their own greed and lust for power.)
So, if the Beast and the Harlot have been around all through history, then we should be able to trace that history. And for this, we can start all the way back in the Book of Genesis. There we learn about Cain’s exile after killing his brother. And what was the first thing Cain did when he “went out from the presence of the LORD”?… “He built a city.” (Genesis 4:16-17) Since the beginning, if one wanted to hide from God, the city was the place to do it.
Cities seem to have a way of drawing people away from their roots of faith in God. Building the city, taking care of it, ruling it, enjoying it, worshiping it, all these are distractions that God did not intend for man to pursue. Man’s original job in the earthly realm was to spread out and populate the earth, not to bunch up in cities; he was to take care of God’s Creation, not build his own. (Genesis 1:28, 2:15)
It’s not that people shouldn’t live in communities, but when the community becomes too big in the eyes of its builders and inhabitants, then it has crossed the line into self-worship; human society and creations are getting too much emphasis. The Lord made this an important lesson in the early days after the Flood by calling a halt to the construction of the tower of Babel. Here was an early manifestation of “Babylon the Great, the Mother of Harlots and… Abominations”. (Revelation 17:5)
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.”
But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built.
And the LORD said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them.
Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city.
However, this was not the end of the matter. The original city of Babel was a rather small-scale version of the kind of city system that rules our world nowadays, described long ago in Revelation 17-18. This Woman, the Great Harlot of modern times, is an elaborate extension of what human society, when detached from God’s presence, has done since the Beginning. She provides the “refuge” into which a person can hide from the presence of God and do his own thing. This is not freedom; it’s captivity by the forces of spiritual Darkness. But a person who comes under God’s control, is set free!
So, despite the fall of the Tower of Babel, people kept on building cities. One city in particular, Tyre, became a great commercial hub for many centuries. Known as the Phoenecian civilization, this city and its far-flung empire, consisting of a number of independent city-states, dominated trade throughout the Mediterranean world.
In the 1400’s B.C., after Phoenecia had established her trading empire, she was obliged to become a province of the rising superpower (Beast) of the day, Egypt. This probably meant that Egypt herself was about to transform into the Harlot of the ancient world.
Can Beast Empires Turn into Harlot Empires?
It seems to be a pattern common to the Beast empires that, as they became established and more corrupt and interested in the riches that their power was making available to them, they would transform from Beast into Harlot. And this usually meant their downfall was imminent.
And this pattern has continued throughout history: The rising superpower starts off in zealous, almost idealistic fashion, transforming and conquering the world of their day. Then, as the new empire gets established, it becomes wealthy and settled down; the merchant class becomes more prominent.
As the years pass, the rulers and people become indolent and corrupted by their power and riches. At this stage, the superpower Beast transforms and takes on the role of a Harlot. Or, maybe it should be said that the Merchants, having seen the arrival of a new power base (in the new up-and-coming “beast”), have moved in and started using it as their base as well. The Harlot sits on the Beast whoever or wherever that Beast is.
Now, in ancient times the Merchants in any particular kingdom had to have strong ties with the Phoenecian empire if they wanted to carry out their commercial and trading activities. But whatever empire managed to rule over Tyre (or Phoenecia), that conquest was sure to transform that empire into a whorish power eventually.
Like ancient Israel, the transition of the Beast superpowers into spiritual harlotry manifested itself as a downward slide into greed, decadence, and tyranny. In one aspect though, these Beasts were different from the nation of Israel in that they couldn’t descend into idol worship; they were already worshiping idols.
However, much depended on how they treated the people of God – in those days the Israeli people. If they were good to them, then God allowed their kingdoms to stand – and even sometimes when they were bad to them (because God needed to use them as a rod of chastisement on His own people).
The pattern was always the same: as empires became more whorish in their ways, they would go too far in their oppression of the Jewish people; and once that happened, the empire’s downfall was imminent.
This pattern appears all through ancient history: whether it was the Egyptian Pharaoh slave-driving the children of Israel, the Assyrian advance on Judah, the Babylonian king’s mockery of the Temple vessels, the Syrian Greek king’s attempt to replace Judaism with the Greek religion, and after Christ’s coming, the Roman Caesars’ persecution against Christians, it was always the same. God would always find some way to set that empire back on its heels.
In about 1100 B.C., as Egypt was declining, the Phoenecian cities achieved once more their independence, reaching a peak around 1000 B.C. (during the reigns of kings David and Solomon); for about 250 years the trading empire stood at the height of prosperity until the rise of Assyria. Phoenecia’s decline began then in 842 B.C. when the up and coming “beast” of Assyria captured some of her cities and controlled the Mideast for the next 200 years. Nevertheless, the Mediterranean Sea remained a “Phoenecian lake”.
Although Assyria started out as a Beast superpower in the ancient Mideast, as time went on, as she became corrupted in her ways, she too began to resemble more and more the Phoenecian power, the harlot that she had subdued. Assyria’s declining years were marked by the prominence of the merchant class, and she began to resemble the Great Harlot of Revelation 17-18, as seen in the following Old Testament passages:
Woe to the bloody city! [Nineveh, capital of Assyria] It is all full of lies and robbery… Because of the multitude of harlotries of the seductive harlot, the mistress of sorceries, who sells nations through her harlotries, and families through her sorceries… It shall come to pass that all who look upon you will flee from you, and say, “Nineveh is laid waste! Who will bemoan her?”… You have multiplied your merchants more than the stars of heaven… (Nahum 3:1,4,7,16)
And He will stretch out His hand against the north, destroy Assyria, and make Nineveh a desolation, as dry as the wilderness… This is the rejoicing city that dwelt securely, that said in her heart, “I am it, and there is none besides me.” How has she become a desolation, a place for beasts to lie down! Everyone who passes by her shall hiss and shake his fist. (Zephaniah 2:13,15)
But no sooner had the Assyrian empire begun to fade than Tyre’s role as the Harlot of the ancient world bounced back into the forefront:
“And it shall be… [Tyre] will return to her hire [as a harlot], and commit fornication with all the kingdoms of the world on the face of the earth.” (Isaiah 23:17)
After Assyria, Babylon conquered the Mideast and the city of Tyre. And, of course, the cycle again went into motion as the new Beast soon transformed into a harlot. Again, the description resembles that of the Great Harlot in Revelation 17-18:
Sit in silence, and go into darkness, O daughter of the Chaldeans [ancient Babylon]; for you shall no longer be called The Lady of Kingdoms… you said, “I shall be a lady forever,” so that you did not take these things to heart… Therefore hear this now, you who are given to pleasures, who dwell securely, who say in your heart, “I am, and there is no one else besides me; I shall not sit as a widow, nor shall I know the loss of children”…
For you have trusted in your wickedness; you have said, “No one sees me”; your wisdom and your knowledge have warped you; and you have said in your heart, “I am, and there is no one else besides me.” Therefore evil shall come upon you; you shall not know from where it arises. And trouble shall fall upon you; you will not be able to put it off. And desolation shall come upon you suddenly, which you shall not know…
Let now the astrologers, the stargazers, and the monthly prognosticators stand up and save you… your merchants… No one shall save you.
(Isaiah 47:5,7-8,10-11, 13,15)
By the time Babylon came along, Israel herself had turned into a Harlot. The once loyal bride, beautiful in God’s sight, a nation founded on the Laws of God, had corrupted herself to the point that the only cure left was to endure the chastening of the Assyrian and Babylonian Beasts. These ancient superpowers pillaged Israel’s cities and temple and led her people captive into other lands.
There are many passages about the transformation of Israel from Bride to Harlot in the Old Testament. Not pleasant reading, but worth going over some of them, since they provide some background that will help us understand more about the modern day Great Harlot of Revelation 17-18:
Ezekiel, chapter 16, contains the most vivid indictment of ancient Israel, coming just prior to the invasion/destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian conquerors.
“When I… looked upon you, indeed your time was the time of love [the time of Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt]… Yes, I swore an oath to you and entered into a covenant with you, and you became Mine,” says the Lord GOD… You were exceedingly beautiful, and succeeded to royalty. Your fame went out among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through My splendor which I had bestowed on you,” says the Lord GOD.
“But you trusted in your own beauty, played the harlot because of your fame, and poured out your harlotry on everyone passing by who would have it. [It didn’t matter if they were evil-doers, idol-worshippers, or who they were, as long as she could win their favor for gain of some kind.] (Ezekiel 16:8,13-15)
“Moreover you took your sons and your daughters, whom you bore to Me, and these you sacrificed to them [false gods] to be devoured. Were your acts of harlotry a small matter, that you have slain My children and offered them up to them by causing them to pass through the fire? And in all your abominations and acts of harlotry you did not remember the days of your youth…” [In following the religious practices of their neighbors, God’s people were stooping to the vile practice of sacrificing their own children to demon gods.] (16:20-22)
“You offered yourself to everyone who passed by, and multiplied your acts of harlotry… the daughters of the Philistines… were ashamed of your lewd behavior… You are an adulterous wife, who takes strangers instead of her husband.” (16:25,27,32)
“Because you did not remember the days of your youth, but agitated Me with all these things, surely I will also recompense your deeds on your own head,” says the Lord GOD… Look, this was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: she and her daughter had pride, fullness of food, and abundance of idleness; neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy. And they were haughty and committed abomination before Me; therefore I took them away as I saw fit. Samaria did not commit half of your sins; but you have multiplied your abominations more than they, and have justified your sisters by all the abominations which you have done.” (16:43,49-51)
Some other passages along the same line from Isaiah and Jeremiah:
How the faithful city has become a harlot! It was full of justice; righteousness lodged in it, but now murderers. (Isaiah 1:21)
You have had a harlot’s forehead; you refuse to be ashamed…” The LORD said… “Have you seen what backsliding Israel has done? She has … played the harlot. And I said, after she had done all these things, ‘Return to Me.’ But she did not return. And her treacherous sister Judah saw it. Then I saw that for all the causes for which backsliding Israel had committed adultery, I had put her away and given her a certificate of divorce; yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but went and played the harlot also.” (Jeremiah 3:3,6-8)
Although other nations had come to resemble the Harlot (especially in their declining years), it was a different issue when the same happened to ancient Israel. Since she had been the Bride of God but, in seeking after other gods, had turned away from her Maker, she then became the epitome of the Harlot symbolism. And this version of the Harlot symbolism applies also to the Great Harlot coming at the End of the Age era.
Ancient Israel could not belong in the Beast category because, no matter how downgraded she had allowed herself to become, she was still the nation that contained the Word of God and His Name in the midst of a world of Darkness. Unlike the Beast empires, her kings never dared to set themselves up as gods. She was not a Beast in that sense, “full of names of blasphemy”. [See Footnote.] However, by compromising with the nations around her and following their gods, she did descend from beautiful bride status in God’s eyes into an ugly old Harlot – no better than the Beast nations that surrounded her.
Continuing then with our ancient history of the Harlot, there arose after Babylon the Medo-Persian empire. The new superpower began on the right foot, liberating the Jewish captives and giving protection to the revived Jewish state. As time went on, Persia too became indolent and self-satisfied, and she eventually collapsed under the zealous leadership and disciplined armies of Alexander the Great. Tyre also fell before the Greeks’ strategic advances.
But again, as time rolled on, the Syrian branch of the Greek empire, in its last stages under Antiochus Epiphanes, played the Harlot role. The Greek tyrant tried to impose Hellenic culture on Israel, hoping to lure devout Jews away from their faith through the glamor of Greek civilization and pantheon of gods. But Antiochus Epiphanes encountered stiff opposition from the Jewish Maccabee brothers who at that time stood up bravely for their faith and repelled the Syrian onslaughts.
Here the emphasis was on the Harlot’s influence from the cultural and religious side. But while the Syrian-Greek empire was playing the role of cultural Harlot, elsewhere in the Mediterranean world, the Phoenecian port of Carthage was playing the role of commercial Harlot. Like all whorish nations, she too fell before the imperial might of the up-and-coming Beast – in this case, Rome. Because Carthage under Hannibal had tried to oppress and even attack Rome, she suffered a huge defeat: Carthage was plowed under and sown with salt, never to rise again. Not long afterwards, the Greek empires in Egypt and Syria also fell before the rising superpower of Rome.
And the story continues. Rome, in her dying days, became self-satisfied. The growing power of the merchant system had softened the Roman populace into becoming idle, more interested in circuses and bread, and no more the industrious citizenry of former years. And because of Rome’s descent into decadence and corruption, she became helpless before the invading barbarian armies of Goths, Vandals, Huns, and others.
By this time the Christian Church had become the accepted, official religion of the Roman empire. In the power gap left by the Roman Empire’s collapse, the Roman Catholic church in western Europe rose to supremacy in the Middle Ages. As time went on, she took on the Harlot role. Like Israel of old, she had started as a godly empire but in time forgot her God, worshiping Him in name only, dedicated instead to material and political gain, and worst of all, guilty of persecuting and martyring the true children of God. The only difference was, now her deeds were cloaked hypocritically under the garb of Christianity instead of Judaism.
Finally, the power of the Catholic Church declined in the 16th Century with the advent of the Reformation. And where did the spirit of the Harlot move to next? She quickly found a new host – or hosts, in this case. Great colonial empires in Europe were forming and gathering wealth hand over fist from all the new territories that were being discovered around the world during the age of exploration, the Colonial Age. Here is where all the wealth and power were to be found. And so, here is where the Harlot set up her new headquarters.
To understand this new version of the Harlot, we can look at one example, typical of what was going on around the world. In 1600 the East India Company – not the British government, just a business corporation out to make a fast buck – arrived in India. By about 1750, with the help of British troops, the Company had become the rulers of India and remained so until 1857. After a century of exploitation, India was left poverty-stricken, supplying Britain with raw materials while restricted from manufacturing her own goods, having to purchase them from Britain instead.
The merchants were so much in control that they did not even allow missionary activity until 1813 for fear that would hinder their plundering of the nation’s wealth. Finally, the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 forced the British government to cut back on the Company’s power and establish a new government system in India, one that wasn’t quite so dominated by commercial interests. There was some improvement, but in many ways things carried on in the same old way.
The colonial empires persisted for quite some time until World Wars 1 and 2, wars that shattered the power of the European nations. Like all the other Harlot-like empires of the past, colonial Europe experienced disastrous decline at the hands of the new and upcoming Beast-like power, Germany. So, in the years following World War 2, Europe’s colonies started breaking away from their colonial masters. They gained political independence, but economic control did not come so easily. In fact, many former colonies are still poor, continuing to supply the Great Harlot (in her final incarnation) with plenty of cheap labor and raw materials.
So where, after Europe’s collapse, did the Harlot set up her new headquarters? The ascending power of the day, America, became her next destination. In fact, she appears to be the final fulfillment of the Great Harlot revelation. And indeed, the text in Revelation 17 makes a definite switch away from the overall historical view. From verse 12 on, the description of the Beast and the Harlot’s fate contains details, pointing to specific nations, and specific events that are taking place even now… at the End of the Age. Anyway, that is a big subject, covered in greater detail elsewhere (in Post 4A and 4B), so this discussion about the history of the Great Harlot and the Beast can end here.
But now, just to summarize: the Harlot/Beast personification is there in the Bible to clarify for us how the real state of the world looks in God’s eyes – not a pretty picture. And we see the wide scope of influence, exercised by the powers of Darkness, over nations… on three levels: 1) that of religion – Materialism and Demagoguery 2) of the ruling power of the ultra-rich who try to control the Beast governments of the world 3) of the ruling power of the ultra-powerful who try to overthrow the Harlot that has been oppressing them.
And we learn that the Harlot-Beast presence has been around all through history; the Harlot sits on the “seven heads/mountains” of the Beast – meaning she has sat on Mideast empires ever since Egypt. And “on his [the Beast’s] heads a blasphemous name” is found – meaning that each “head” represented a demagogue or dynasty with enough political power to become objects of worship to their people. (Revelation 17:9, 13:1)
The Harlot, however, is born in the economic system, not the political system. She encourages worship of wealth (Materialism) rather than worship of herself as a demagogue, so she doesn’t require a Head as such. If she could be said to have a “head”, it would have to be the Dragon, the evil spirit of Darkness, who also controls the Beast. “The dragon gave [the Beast] his power, his throne, and great authority.” (Revelation 13:2)
Although the spirit of the Harlot has not changed – Materialism has been around since the Beginning – she has been quite adaptable, able to sit on whatever power base was prevalent at different times in history. Jesus said about Materialism, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matthew 6:24)
This desire towards material welfare and survival has such a strong pull, Christ was saying, that it is His main rival. And here we have in Revelation 17-18 an incredible vision of this very Materialism, personified as a Harlot, an ancient metaphor for that false religion found in any culture – powerful enough to pull people away from Christ and the Father, able also to exercise control over governments and human society.
The vision also portrays this Harlot of Materialism as the cause behind so much that is vile, selfish, corrupt, oppressive in our world: “having in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the filthiness of her fornication… For her sins have reached to heaven.” (Revelation 17:4, 18:5)
But thankfully, God’s Word does not leave us with this depressing view of the world situation. In the chapters that follow the description of the ugly old Harlot, we are given the astounding vision of Christ’s Return and removal of the kingdom of Darkness from the earthly realm. Righteous government and peace on Earth are established in the glorious future Age of the Millennium. In the final chapters of the Revelation Book, these are God’s promises and plan of history which, in our present Age, are seen through the eyes of faith.
This term “blasphemy” could be defined as “sacrilegious or reproachful speaking against the majesty of God”. And amongst the Jews the act of making oneself a god was the most common way, or the worst way, to utter blasphemy. This is the “crime” that Jesus was accused of, the penalty for which was death. (John 10:33, Mark 2:7, 14:61-64) Of course, the Jewish religious leaders erred greatly by failing to realize that Jesus was their Messiah, the Son of God, and one with God Himself.