Revelation 17:15-18 interprets the phrase “many waters” from 17:1. The great prostitute was seated on the waters indicates she rules over the nations.
Waters are a common metaphor for the nations in apocalyptic literature. Both Isaiah and Jeremiah describe the coming armies of the Assyrians (Isaiah 8:6-8) the Babylonians (Jeremiah 47:2), David Aune points out a similar interpretation of Nahum 1:4, the Lord roars and the seas dry up. In 4Q Nahum Pesher (4Q169 Frags. 1–2:3) the sea refers to the Kittim, the Romans. God roars “to car[ry out] judgment against them and to eliminate them from the face of [the earth.]” In the third Sibylline Oracle, “Beliar will come from the Sebastēnoi and he will raise up the height of mountains, he will raise up the sea” (Sib. Or. 3.63–64), referring to the armies of Rome.
The woman sits on many waters, upon the beast, and upon seven hills (17:1, 3, 9) and in 18:7 the prostitute boasts she “sits as a queen.” The word here is the common verb κάθημαι. In Revelation, either God or the Lamb is seated on the throne (4:2, 3, 9, 10; 5:1, 7, 13; 6:16; 7:10, 15; 19:4, 20:11, 21:5) and three times the word is used for the “son of man” seated on a cloud. The word therefore has a connotation of authority, the one who is “seated” has some sort of authority associated with their location (Schneider, TDNT 3:441-42). The “one on the throne” is sovereign because he is enthroned in Heaven, as is the Lamb since he too is seated on the heavenly throne. The elders have some rulership since they also sit on thrones around the throne of God (4:4) The dead who are raised after the final judgment are seated on thrones and are given authority (20:4). This future enthronement is promised 3:21 where those who overcome are promised “the right” to sit on the Father’s throne.
In the light of these observations, “seated” in Revelation 17 is an “anti-enthronement” of the great prostitute. She claims to be the queen of the word (18:7) therefore she is “enthroned” on many waters, on the “beast”, and on seven hills. If the authority comes from where one is seated, there is a clear contrast between God’s sovereignty, enthroned in heaven, and the prostitute’s authority, seated on earth.
The readers of Revelation know who is really enthroned above creation, but on earth the great prostitute appears sovereign. Her authority, however, is derived from the beast (the location of her enthronement). The beast in turn received his authority from the dragon (13:4) who we know to be Satan himself (12:9). Chapter 17-18 forms a culmination of the enthronement theme as Satan’s representative is clearly seen for what she is, a drunken whore who makes the nations mad with her wine.
The ten horns from 17:3 are kings or nations allied with the Beast (17:12). But now both the ten kings and the beast “will hate the prostitute. It is possible rumor this is another allusion to the Return of Nero myth, this time coming from the east with Parthian armies to conquer Rome (Aune, 3:957).
The ten kings will make the great prostitute “desolate and naked and devour her flesh and burn her up with fire.” Aune sees this as an allusion to Ezekiel 23:26-29, those who survive the fall of Jerusalem will be treated like a prostitute, stripped naked and driven through the streets (cf. Jer 13:26-27; Ezek 16:37-38; Hosea 2:5, 12; Nahum 2). Beale, on the other hand, argues this text alludes to Isaiah 23 (Revelation 850). Although the trade of Tyre is described as the wages of a prostitute (23:18), Tyre is not personified as prostitute. Julia Myers O’Brien argues Tyre is not punished for her promiscuity, but rather the wages of her prostitution is dedicated to the Lord, in Nahum (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), 69.
Beale suggests “eating flesh” is an allusion to Elijah’s prediction dogs would eat the flesh of Jezebel (2 Kings 9:36). The Baal worship promoted by Jezebel was as much economic as idolatrous and Revelation has already used the name Jezebel to describe a prophetess who likely promoted Christian participation in Roman cultic activity (perhaps for economic reasons). Like the fall of the great prostitute, Jezebel’s grisly death was “according to the word of the Lord” (Revelation, 883-84).
The eighth Sibylline Oracle predicts the destruction of Rome by fire when Nero returns from the end of the earth (Sib. Or. 8.68–72). Although this apocalyptic text is later than Revelation, the immediately preceding section in the Oracle is a warning against greed and the following section describes Rome as the “luxurious one.” Like Revelation 18, Rome’s opulence and economic oppressive will result in her destruction; she will be “utterly ravaged.”
Sib. Or. 8.37–41 One day, proud Rome, there will come upon you from above an equal heavenly affliction, and you will first bend the neck and be razed to the ground, and fire will consume you, altogether laid low on your floors, and wealth will perish and wolves and foxes will dwell in your foundations.
Sib. Or. 8.128–130 You will be utterly ravaged and destroyed for what you did. Groaning in panic, you will give until you have repaid all, and you will be a triumph-spectacle to the world and a reproach of all.
This rebellion against the great prostitute was prompted God. God “put it into their hearts” is a “Semitic idiom” (See Neh 2:12; 7:5, for example; Aune 3:958). They have one mind and handing over their royal power to the beast. These infinitive clauses explain what God has prompted the nations to do.
The fall of Babylon / Rome results in great economic loss for the empire (Rev 18). Although the Roman imperial cult is certainly in the background of Revelation 17, it is important to not separation religious duty from political loyalty and economic prosperity. The reason people worshiped the goddess Roma, the empire and its emperors was to ensure their own continued peace and prosperity. Political loyalty, religion and economic prosperity were as incestuously intertwined in the Roman world as they are in our own.