17:1-19:10 BABYLON THE GREAT
The prostitute and the beast (17:1-6)
John’s next vision is of a lavishly adorned prostitute. She is symbolic of Babylon (see v. 5, 18), which in turn is symbolic of human society organized independently of God.
In different eras and cultures Babylon shows itself in different ways. In John’s day it stood for Rome, but its fullest expression will be at the end of the age as it heads for inevitable judgment. The picture is of the human race’s pursuit of prosperity and power through collective effort. Rulers make decisions based on self-interest, and their people support them. Nations seek selfish gain through political and economic treaties, but such unions are likened to sexual relations with a prostitute. They are unions of shame and dishonour, for they ignore God’s standards and oppose his authority (17:1-2).
An angel then carries John to a place where, looking from God’s point of view, he sees the truth about the woman. She is supported by none other than the beast, the antichrist. An arrogant and defiant humanity seeks greatness, but the spirit that supports and directs it is anti-God (3; cf. 13:1). The woman looks splendid to the world, but John sees that she is full of wickedness. She delights in slaughtering the people of God, as a drunkard delights in drinking wine (4-6).
Power of the beast (17:7-14)
The angel now explains the meaning of the beast and the prostitute. The antichrist, empowered by Satan, controls human society, using his power to fight against the authority of God. His attacks on God’s people may die down for a period, but after he gains fresh life and strength the attacks will be renewed. In
the end God will destroy him (7-8; cf. 13:3-4). (For believers of John’s time this illustration was full of meaning. The calm that followed Nero’s death was not permanent. Persecution was renewed under the Emperor Domitian, who appeared to the Christians to be a second Nero – Nero come back to life, so to speak.)
First century Rome, with its advanced civilization and organized opposition to God, was a clear expression of the anti-God spirit symbolized by the beast, the prostitute and Babylon. The seven heads of the beast, explained as representing both seven hills and seven rulers, symbolized the strength and stability of Rome. But in any age or society, as people’s sense of collective self-sufficiency increases, they inevitably set themselves against God (9).
Interpreting the vision becomes more difficult when the angel gives further details of the seven rulers.
Most of them already belong to the past. Only one is yet to appear, though he will be replaced by an eighth, who will display even greater satanic power than the previous seven. But God will destroy him. Again, events of the first century may have given this vision special meaning for Christians who experienced persecution under several emperors. No doubt the climax of evil at the end of the age will give the vision much fuller meaning. However, in any era Christians can look back on a line of ungodly rulers and look for relief in the future, even though the final ruler may embody the antichrist more than all who have gone before him. Rulers who become too harsh in their exercise of power usually bring about their own destruction (10-11).
There will always be rulers and nations who want to join forces with the antichrist. They see benefits for themselves in being part of the ungodly power system. They give wholehearted support to the antichrist, but their apparent success is only brief (12-13). In deciding to attack Christ, they guarantee their own destruction. Real power in the kingdoms of the world rests not with the beast (the antichrist) but with the Lamb (the true Christ) (14).
The beast destroys the prostitute (17:15-18)
In their pursuit of power and prosperity, people may develop international cooperation (15), but hatred and jealousy eventually bring disunity and conflict (cf. James 4:1-2). As the prostitute has relied on the beast to carry her, so the human race has relied on the forces of Satan to achieve stability, growth, wealth and power. But as the prostitute is killed by the beast that supported her, so the human race is destroyed by the very forces it has used to advance itself (16). People have a desire to build a society that is independent of God, and in the end God uses that desire to bring about their punishment (17-18).