Read the Passage: Revelation 17-18
Reminder: The book of Revelation is structured around seven parallel sections, each describing the time between Jesus’ first and second comings. These sections can be delineated into chapters 1–3, 4–7, 8–11, 12–14, 15–16, 17–19, and 20–22.
Harlot’s Seduction (17:1–11)
This sixth cycle of the telling of the story of history begins as one of the seven angels who had poured out a bowl judgment in Rev. 16 approached John and offered to show him the judgment of Babylon, the great harlot. In Scripture, Babylon is the epitome of a worldly city and represents that which tempts, seduces, and draws peopled away from God. Next, John sees a woman, who is Babylon, riding a scarlet beast, who is the beast from the sea of Rev. 13:1–4. This beast depicts the persecuting power of Satan as seen in the nations of the world. John encounters this beast in the wilderness, for the radiant woman, who is the church (who is not to be confused with the harlot or scarlet woman of this chapter), had fled there in Rev. 12:14. The picture, then, is one of the seduction and persecution of the church by the world. Hence, John sees, and is confused by, the scarlet woman who is drunk by the blood of believers, of martyrs, and of Jesus (cf. Rev. 17:6).
In Rev. 17:7–18 John is taught the meaning of the scarlet woman and the beast he viewed in Rev. 17:1–6. As was the case with understanding the beast’s number in Rev. 13:18, so here John is reminded of the necessity of wisdom for understanding the vision. The seven heads of the beast stand for seven mountains, or secular kings, with seven representing the comprehensive reach of the beast. The picture of seven mountains is clearly a reference to Rome, the city built on seven hills. After mentioning Babylon in Rev. 17:5, the reference to Rome here may seem surprising; yet Rome was the center of anti-Christian sentiment for many of John’s original readers. Regarding the seven rulers, although some have been tempted to try and identify them, it seems the larger point here is to show that Satanic rule and persecution is worldwide in scope yet fixed in duration (cf. Rev. 17:10).
Kings’ Identity (17:12–18)
The ten horns are also identified as kings, but since they have no kingdom, they are best viewed as aspects of culture over and through which evil rules, such as art, education, commerce, government, and so forth. The seven kings and ten kings emphasize the pervasiveness and effect of sin and Satan in the world. This is one of the reasons why John “marveled” (Rev. 17:6–7) and the inhabitants of the city of this world “will marvel” (Rev. 17:8). Indeed, throughout history, whenever a worldly king dies or an evil kingdom comes to an end, it is replaced with an equally evil (if not worse) king or kingdom. Yet, John twice reminds his readers that the beast will eventually go “to perdition” (Rev. 17:8, 11). Surprisingly, Rev. 17:16–17 reports division between the woman and the beast, with the woman being destroyed, which is what the angel promised to show John at Rev. 17:1.
Babylon’s Fall (18:1–24)
While Rev. 17:16–17 reports enmity between Babylon and the beast, Rev. 18:1–8 records the utter devastation of Babylon in what is certainly an act of divine judgment. Recall that Babylon represents that which tempts, seduces, and draws people away from God—namely, the world. From this chapter it seems that Babylon is not just an end-times city, but the center of all worldliness, seduction, and sin in any age. The divine exhortation to leave Babylon in Rev. 18:4–5 is a call to holiness and to purity, as well as a reminder that the world has been, is being, and will be judged for sin. Note, then, that the call to leave Babylon is not just an historical reference to Israel’s return from exile, nor is it a future reference to God’s people being separate from the world. Rather, in all Scripture the call to leave Babylon is a call to sanctification (cf. Isa. 48:20; 52:11; Jer. 50:8; Zech. 2:7).
Rev. 18:9–19 reports the sorrowful reaction of those who had put their trust in worldly goods, for Babylon will ultimately fail to deliver on her promise of satisfaction. In this passage John records a tri-fold lament of those who supported, or were supported by, Babylon. First, John notes the lament of the kings of the earth who partook of the luxuries of Babylon (cf. Rev. 18:9–10). Second, John records the lament of the merchants who became wealthy trading in the merchandise of Babylon (cf. Rev. 18:11–18). In this passage we read of merchandise of minerals, merchandise of plants, merchandise of animals, and even merchandise of men. Third, John notes the lament of the ship owners who profited from commercial transportation of Babylonian goods (cf. Rev. 18:19). In contrast, Rev. 18:20–24 notes rejoicing in heaven on account of the justice of God.
- How do you deal with suffering and the effects of sin in the world? Are you comforted or concerned at the thought of Jesus’ return?
- Why type of things does the world use to draw believers away from the church? With what types of temptations do you struggle?
- How can we explain the enmity between the woman and the beast described in Rev. 17:16–17? How can we distinguish between apostates and backsliders?
- Given the pervasiveness of sin and evil in the world, how can believers maintain hope and be encouraged about the triumph of God’s kingdom?
- What aspects of the world, if any, do you find it hard to leave behind as you purse holiness and purity?