The Fall of the Great Prostitute – Revelation 17:15-18

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.

Great Whore of Babylon

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.

Who are the Kings in Revelation 17?

John is greatly astonished by the great prostitute. The angel who showed him the woman riding the scarlet beast (17:3) explains some of the elements of the vision. Like the meaning of the mark of the beast, the identity of the beast’s seven heads and kings “calls for wisdom” (17:9, cf., 13:18). And like the meaning of the mark of the beast, there are many suggestions for who these seven kings are.

The great prostitute riding the beast

The phrase translated “greatly amazed” (θαυμάζω…θαῦμα μέγα) in the NRSV could have the sense of “greatly disturbed,” the context determines θαυμάζω is used in a good or bad sense (BDAG). Some scholars consider this phrase reflect a Hebrew phrase (NewDocs 5, 35). The LXX uses θαυμάζω with the sense of “appalled” (Lev 26:32, translating שׁמם, “to shudder, be appalled”). What John sees in 17:2-6a is shocking and he needs the angel to explain the terrifying vision. In 17:8 the nations will “marvel” at the scarlet beast, although this still could be read as “were appalled” when they saw the beast. Although this might be overinterpreting the text, perhaps the point is John is appalled by the great prostitute drink on the blood of the saints, but the world is amazed and worships her and the beast she rides.

The scarlet beast “was, and is not, and is about to rise from the bottomless pit and go to destruction” (ESV), a phrase repeated three times in this paragraph. This odd phrase is similar to Greek epitaphs, such as “I was not, I was born, I was, I am not; so much for that” (Aune, Revelation, 3:940). However, in the context of Revelation, God is described as “who is and who was and who is to come” (Rev 1:4, 8; 11:17; 16:5).

Is the scarlet beast the same as the great red dragon introduced in Revelation 12? The dragon is red (πυρρός); the beast in Revelation 17 is scarlet (κόκκινος). John identified the dragon as Satan (12:9; 20:2), but this scarlet beast is an empire ruled by kings. The dragon is one of the clear symbols in the book, so it does not seem to fit this scarlet beast.

Is the scarlet beast the same as the beast from the sea introduced in Revelation13? This seems more likely since there are a number of parallels between Revelation 13 and 17. Like the beast in 13:1, this scarlet beast the bottomless pit, or the Abyss (ἄβυσσος). In Revelation 11 the bottomless pit is the home of the demonic locust horde, ruled by Abaddon. It is possible this beast is the king of the Abyss, but it is more likely the Abyss and the Sea as parallel terms. This beast rises a last time to go to his destruction (ἀπώλεια), a word related to the name of the king of the Abyss, Apollyon (Rev 9:11).  All the inhabitants of earth who are not in the Lamb’s book of life are “astonished” at this beast. This is parallel to Revelation 13:3 when the beast from the sea is wounded and appears dead yet appears to come back to life. The “names written in the Lamb’s book of life” is repeated from Revelation 13:8.

Like the mark of the beast, the angel reveals the mystery of the woman and the beast she rides (17:7). The beast has seven heads and ten horns. The heads are the seven hills on which she sits but also seven kings. The horns are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom (17:12-14). The waters on which she sits are the great multitudes of the nations (17:15).

I have dealt with some of the details in an earlier post. The common view is the city on seven hills refers to Rome. In this example from Juvenal Rome is the city on seven hills and traders flock to the city by ship and coach (cf. Rev 18:9-10).

Juvenal, Satires 9.130 “Never fear: so long as these Seven Hills stand fast you’ll always have friends in the trade, they’ll still come flocking from near and far, by ship or by coach, these gentry who scratch their heads with one finger.”

The seven hills are a problem for expositors who interpret the city as Jerusalem since the city is not built on seven hills. Despite attempts to identify seven hills (the lists vary), I know of no ancient source that describes Jerusalem as a city on seven hills.

For many expositors, the seven hills refer to Rome and the kings are a series of kings in Roman history. The trouble is where to start the sequence and who to include in the series. Aune offers nine variations, some beginning as early as Julius Caesar and others terminating as late as Nevra. Some of the schemes include Galba, Otho, and Vitellus, others omit these three minor emperors who rule briefly in the year between Nero’s death and Vespasian’s ascension to the throne.

Greg Beale, on the other hand, takes the mountains as symbolic of strength in Apocalyptic literature and the number seven as referring to completeness (cf. Aune 3:948). For Beale, this text does not refer to seven kings in any sequence but rather the mountains and kings “represent the oppressive power of world government throughout the ages” (Beale, Revelation 889).

It is also possible to focus on the sixth king as John’s main interest and ignore the first five. It is this sixth king who is well known to the readers (Nero or Domitian, depending on the date of the book). A final king will come soon but will only remain a short time. Bauckham pointed out the odd wording of seven kings, then an eighth is a “‘graded numerical saying,’ which uses two consecutive numbers as parallels” (cited in Aune, 3:950). Smalley suggested the “eighth king” is probably Domitian as Nero redivivus (Thunder and Love, 135-36).

This seems hopelessly complicated. But the point of the vision is not far from Daniel’s visions of empires in Daniel 2, 7 and 11. The kingdom of man will not stand long, nor will God allow the final kingdom to continue to persecute his people. Babylon is about to fall!

The Final Visions: Revelation 17-22

The final chapters of Revelation are another seven-element cycle serving as the climax to the book. Chapter 16 ended with the nations gathering at Armageddon and the announcement from the heavenly temple that “it is done.” God has remembered Babylon the great and the stage is set for the final judgment of the kingdom of the beast. Like Daniel 7, the kingdom of Babylon and the nations will finally be replaced by God’s kingdom.

Denarius, Roma, four horsemen

Roma on a denarius struck in Rome 116-115 BCE, with four horses on the reverse

Using the phrase “and I saw” or “and I heard,” the final seven units of Revelation can be outlined as follows:

  • 17:1-18 – The Great Whore and the Scarlet Beast
  • 18:1-24 – The Fall of Babylon the Great
  • 19:1-10 – Worship over God’s Just Judgment
  • 19:11-21 – The Final Victory over Babylon
  • 20:1-10 – The Thousand Year Reign
  • 20:11-15 – The Great White Throne Judgment
  • 21:1-22:5 – The New Heavens and New Earth

There are several unique features in Revelation 17. First, angelic guides are common in apocalyptic, but they are usually used differently in Revelation. In other apocalyptic (Ezekiel 37, Daniel 8, Zechariah 1-6), someone has a vision, then asks questions (“what does that mean?”), and the angelic guide gives an explanation. In the rest of Revelation angels are usually part of the vision, but in chapter 17 the angel is an apocalyptic host. John is shown the judgement of the prostitute and then then angel gives John an explanation of the vision. This explanation identifies key symbolic elements, some of which are clear, but others are still obscure. Like Daniel 8 or Daniel 10-12, the angel’s explanation often generates more questions than answers (for the modern reader).

Second, the image described in Revelation 17:1-6 is picture rather than an action. In other visions, John sees something happening. But the image of the prostitute is like a description of a painting or fresco. David Aune therefore suggests this is a specialized form of apocalyptic vision known as an ekphrasis, a literary description of a work of art (Revelation, 3:919). There is an old saying, “a picture paints a thousand words.” Think of an ekphrasis is the thousand words. What is John seeing? As I have said in another post, John is seeing some form of imperial propaganda, whether a coin depicting the goddess Roma or some statue or frieze showing the goddess sitting on the seven hills of Rome.

Third, Revelation 17:1-19:10 finally makes the identity of the enemy clear: Babylon is Rome. Just as Babylon was the great evil empire oppressing God’s people in Daniel, now Rome is the ultimate anti-God empire oppressing God’s people. The book has been hinting at the identity of the beast and the kingdom of the beast in chapters 12-16, now in chapters 17-19 it becomes clear John calls Rome a great prostitute drink on the blood of the saints.

The Seventh Bowl: It is Done! Revelation 16:17-21

With the pouring of the bowl a loud voice came out from the temple, from the throne announcing, “it is done!” This is immediately followed by lightning, thunder and a great earthquake.

Fiery Hailstines Revelation

Unlike the seventh seal (silence) or the seventh trumpet (jubilant worship), when the seventh angel pours out the final bowl of God’s wrath, John hears a loud voice from the temple and throne. “It is done” translates a single word, a perfect active indicative of γίνομαι. Although this sounds like Jesus’s final words from the cross, the John 19:30 has τετέλεσται, a perfect passive indicative from τελέω, “it is finished.” Like John 19:30, the word means something like, “it has been accomplished.” The same word in Revelation 21:6 when the one seated on the throne announces he is making all things new.

Verse 19 is another interpretive problem. John says the earthquake was so powerful “the great city splits into three parts.” As with other unidentified cities in Revelation, some scholars suggest this refers to Jerusalem, others suggest Babylon. But depending on the interpreter, Babylon is a metaphor for Jerusalem or Rome. If this great city is the same as Revelation 11:8, then it is Jerusalem. However, the key is “God remembered Babylon the Great and gave her the cup filled with the wine of the fury of his wrath.” In Revelation 17:18 (and many times in chapter 18) the great city of Babylon refers to Rome.

That God “remembers” Babylon is significant. First, the verb is another example of the divine passive in Revelation (ἐμνήσθη is aorist passive of μιμνῄσκομαι). Most modern translations change the verb to active. Second, when God remembers in the Old Testament, it is often for salvation. God remembers his promises in his covenants and keeps them (Exod 2:24). In Jeremiah 31:20 God remembers his “darling child” Ephraim and will have mercy on him.

However, there are examples of God’s “punitive remembrance” (Aune 2:901). In Hosea 7:1 God remembers Israel’s sin and will punish them nation. In 1 Maccabees 7:38, the army of Judas prays “Take vengeance on this man [Nicanor] and on his army and let them fall by the sword; remember their blasphemies and let them live no longer.” In a similar context in 2 Maccabees 8:4, Judas and his army call on God “to remember also the lawless destruction of the innocent babies and the blasphemies committed against his name.” Notice God is to remember the blasphemies of the Seleucids. In Revelation 16:19 he remembers the blasphemies of the kingdom of the beast and the great whore of Babylon (Rev 17).

The chapter ends with an allusion to the seventh plague (Exod 9:13-35), apocalyptic hailstones weighing hundred pounds. Massive hailstones appear in several Old Testament contexts (Josh 10:11; Isa 28:17; Hag 2:17). David Aune has several references to unusual hail in the Roman word as a sign of “a disruption in relations with the gods requiring diagnosis and reparation” (2:902). Massive hailstones and earthquakes are common in Jewish apocalyptic as well:

Sib. Or. 3.689–699 God will judge all men by war and sword and fire and torrential rain. There will also be brimstone from heaven and stone and much grievous hail. Death will come upon four-footed creatures. Then they will recognize the immortal God who judges these things. Wailing and tumult will spread throughout the boundless earth at the death of men. All the impious will bathe in blood. The earth itself will also drink of the blood of the dying; wild beasts will be sated with flesh. God himself, the great eternal one, told me to prophesy all these things. These things will not go unfilfilled.

In the fifth Sibylline Oracle, the return of Nero is accompanied by hail and bloody violence:

Sib. Or. 5.93–96 For the Persian will come onto your soil like hail, and he will destroy your land and evil-devising men with blood and corpses, by terrible altars, a savage-minded mighty man, much-bloodied, raving nonsense…

The Apocalypse of Abraham lists ten plagues on the earth, including increased snow and hail, thunder and earthquakes.

Apoc. Abraham 30.4–8 The first: sorrow from much need. The second: fiery conflagrations for the cities. The third: destruction by pestilence among the cattle. The fourth: famine of the world, of their generation The fifth: among the rulers, destruction by earthquake and the sword. The sixth: increase of hail and snow. The seventh: wild beasts will be their grave. The eighth: pestilence and hunger will change their destruction. The ninth: execution by the sword and flight in distress. The tenth: thunder, voices, and destroying earthquakes.

The section ends with the people of the earth cursing God “because the plague was so terrible.” The verb curse here is often translated “blaspheme” (βλασφημέω), anticipating the blasphemy of the great whore in Revelation 17. Humanity’s response to God’s plagues is not repentance, but continued reject of God.

What is Armageddon?  Revelation 16:16

 Revelation 16:16 Then they gathered the kings together to the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon.

“Thus far there has been no satisfactory explanation of the name.” Joachim Jeremias, “Ἃρ Μαγεδών,” TDNT 1:468.

After the sixth bowl of God’s wrath has been poured out on the earth, the nations are deceived by demonic signs gather at a place called Armageddon. The word Armageddon has become part of western apocalyptic vocabulary, but books and films describing the “end of the world” as Armageddon do not reflect the use of the word in Revelation 16:16.

Satan attacks Jerusalem

John tells the reader the word Armageddon (Ἁρμαγεδών) is Hebrew or Aramaic (Ἑβραϊστί can mean either). The Hebrew, presumably, would be Har-Megiddo, or the Mount Megiddo. Megiddo is a well-known location in central Israel, bordering the broad Valley of Jezreel. The valley had been the site of numerous battles, from Egyptian battles in 1500 B.C. to a British conflict in 1917. Those who have visited Megiddo on an Israel tour might recall the lurid video in the visitor’s center suggesting this is the location of the “end of the world.”

But there is no Mount Megiddo. Megiddo was a city and occasionally a plain (2 Chron 35:22; Zech 12:11). Perhaps the Hebrew word could be A’r-Megiddo, the city of Megiddo, but this does not seem likely. John may not intend for Armageddon as a literal place name, but as a metaphor for the conflict between the forces of evil and the forces of God in a final battle.

It is tempting to understand Mount Megiddo as a reference to the Carmel range near Megiddo. The traditional site of Elijah’s confrontation with the priests of Baal at Carmel overlooks the plain of Jezreel (1 Kings 18:16-45). Like the book Revelation, Elijah faces a challenge to the worship of the Lord from Ahab and Jezebel. Who is the God who is worthy of Israel’s worship? Elijah proves it is only the Lord, the God of Israel and not Baal when God sends fire from heaven to consume his sacrifice. The story has a three-year drought, famine, miraculous protect of God’s servant Elijah, and a climactic bloody slaughter of those who worship Baal.  Many of these resonate with the conflict between the kingdom of the Beast and the Lamb in Revelation.

Following a 1938 article by C. C. Torrey, Meredith Kline suggested the word should be read as har môʿēd, “Mount of Assembly.” If this is the case, then Revelation 16:16 would allude to Isaiah 14:13, one of the boasts of the king of Babylon is that he would ascend to heaven and set his throne on the high, “I will sit on the mount of assembly, I the far reaches of the north.” The Hebrew phrase בְּהַר־מוֹעֵ֖ד  (“on the mount of assembly”) is render as ἐν ὄρει ὑψηλῷ (“on the high mountain”) in the LXX. The Greek ὑψηλός refers to a high or lofty mountain, but also to arrogance or presumption (BrillDAG).

Kline points out Isaiah 14:13 has “the far reaches of the north” in parallel to the mount of assembly. The high mountain in the north (צָפוֹן, zaphon) is where the gods lived in Ugaritic mythology. Whatever real-world mountain this might refer to, in Isaiah 14 the king of Babylon is ultimately arrogant in his desire to set his throne in the place of the gods. Rather than sit in the place of the gods, the king of Babylon will be brought down to the pit (Isa 14:14).

Kline then connects Mount Zaphon (the abode of the gods in Canaanite mythology) with Mount Zion, the abode of God. Psalm 48:1 calls Mount Zion God’s holy mountain, “beautiful in elevation” and “in the far north (zaphon).” At least in this psalm, Zion is like Zaphon. But in many other texts Zion is God’s meeting place with his people.

Like the king of Babylon in Isaiah 14, Revelation 16:16 refers to the ultimate arrogant attempt to demand the worship God himself deserves. “Satan will make his last attempt to usurp Har Magedon” (p. 213). For Kline, “The typological Zion/Jerusalem provides the symbolic scenery for prophecies of the climactic conflict in the war of the ages” (p. 213). Kline supports this view by examining Gog and Magog in Ezekiel 38-39.

I find Kline’s suggestion intriguing because the allusion to Isaiah 14 describes an arrogant king of Babylon who will demand to be worshiped as God. This is similar to the arrogant little horn in Daniel 7 as well as the willful king in Daniel 11. In the very next section of Revelation John describes Babylon as a whore drunk on the blood of the saints and the fall of Babylon dominates Revelation 17-19:10. However, it is difficult for me to move from Har Moed to Har Magedon.

The name of the mountain is obscure. Along with Jeremias, BDAG says the interpretation of the word is “beset with difficulties that have not yet been surmounted.” Robert Mounce agrees, the meaning of Armageddon is like the mystery of the name of the beast. There are many suggestions, but few are satisfying.

Whatever Armageddon refers to, the kingdom of the beast will gather for a final confrontation with the Lamb that was slain in order to finally show who is worthy of the worship of the nations.

Bibliography: Meredith G. Kline, “Har Magedon: The End of the Millennium” JETS 39 (1996): 207-223; C. C. Torrey, “Armageddon,” HTR 31 (1938): 237-248.