The Great Prostitute (Revelation 17)

Revelation 16 described the fall of Babylon the great. We noticed in chapter 13 that the beast called Babylon the great refers to the Roman Empire that ruled from approximately 27 BC to 476 AD. Chapters 17 and 18 of Revelation reveal the details of the collapse of the Roman Empire. The details concerning the pouring out of the seven bowls of wrath are now given and explained in chapters 17-18. This is the point of the first two verses of Revelation 17. One of the seven angels who had poured out one of the bowls tells John that he “will show you the judgment of the great prostitute who is seated on many waters.”

The image of the great prostitute sitting on many waters immediately indicates for us what the great prostitute represents. The harlot/prostitute image is used of wicked cities by the Old Testament prophets. Ninevah (Nahum 3:4), Tyre (Isaiah 23:16-17), and Jerusalem (Ezekiel 16:15) are a few cities that are called harlots because of their great immoralities. This great harlot in Revelation 17:1 is described as “sitting on many waters.” Verse 15 tells us what this image means. “The waters that you saw, where the prostitute is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages.” The great harlot is the city that is ruling over the peoples, multitudes, nations, and languages of the earth. Therefore, the wicked city in view is Rome. This fits our context well. Remember that the angel is explaining the details of the judgment in the seven bowls of wrath. The seven bowls of wrath were judgments against the Roman Empire, the beast. It would not make sense to see the great prostitute as another worldly city. Rather, the city of Rome is the heart of the problem and the center of the immorality and idolatry. This is the image of verse 2 concerning the great prostitute. She is the one whom “the kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality and with the wine of whose sexual immorality the dwellers on earth have become drunk.” We have noted throughout this study that sexual immorality is a symbol for the idolatry that is being committed (Hosea 4:11-12; Ezekiel 6:9; Ezekiel 16:15-17; Revelation 2:14,20). Notice that Revelation 17:2 is the same description that was given in Revelation 14:8. “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, she who made all nations drink the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality” (Revelation 14:8 ESV). This is Rome that has been causing the world to worship the emperor and be involved in idolatry. Therefore, we know the great prostitute is the city of Rome and the beast is the empire that Rome ruled. The rest of this chapter is going to give us the details about these two entities and their coming judgment.

Describing The Prostitute and The Beast (17:3-6)

John is carried away in the Spirit. We noted this image back in Revelation 1:10. Being in the Spirit means that John is seeing a vision, an inspired message from God (cf. Ezekiel 2:2). The scarlet beast has the same description as the first beast in Revelation 13. The beast is full of blasphemous names (13:1) and has seven heads and ten horns (13:1). The woman in verse 4 is dressed like a prostitute. And you, O desolate one, what do you mean that you dress in scarlet, that you adorn yourself with ornaments of gold, that you enlarge your eyes with paint? In vain you beautify yourself. Your lovers despise you; they seek your life. (Jeremiah 4:30 ESV) The same language used of Babylon of ancient times is applied to Rome. Notice the language that Jeremiah used of Babylon back in his day. Babylon was a golden cup in the LORD’s hand, making all the earth drunken; the nations drank of her wine; therefore the nations went mad. Suddenly Babylon has fallen and been broken; wail for her! (Jeremiah 51:7–8 ESV) The descriptions emphasize the great immorality generated from this city. It is appropriate to describe Rome with similar language because of its great immoralities and idolatries. The name of the great prostitute is, “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations.” The word “mystery” in front of this description shows that this name is a symbol for a worldly, wicked city. The great prostitute is drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. This is the same description given in Revelation 16:6 and this is the reason for the judgment against Babylon the great, that is, Rome and her empire.

The Explanation (17:7-18)

The angel tells John in verse 7 that he will explain the mystery of the woman and the beast. We are not left to wonder what these things mean. It is important to keep in mind again that what we are told is not intended to conceal information but reveal information about the woman and the beast. Clarity is being given to the readers and to John.

The first explanation about the beast is given in verse 8. The beast “was, and is not, and is about to rise from the bottomless pit and go to destruction.” This sounds like the description we first noted with the beast in Revelation 13. Remember that we saw this terrifying beast that has a fatal wound to one of its heads. But then the fatal wound heals and the earth marvels at the strength and power of the beast. I believe this fatal wound imagery is the same meaning as “was, and is not, and is about to rise from the bottomless pit.” Both events result in the people of the earth marveling over the beast (13:4).

The focus of the last few chapters has been the persecution of the people of God by the beast. Judgment is coming upon the beast because it is killing the people of God. The people of God would be prevented from buying and selling and would suffer death for remaining faithful to the Lamb. The beast seems that it will collapse. But it only rises up with greater strength and continues the persecution of God’s people. It continues to be destined for destruction as it persecutes and its emperors call themselves divine, blaspheming the true and living God.

In verses 9-11 John is receiving some details about this. The angel calls for wisdom. The last time we saw this call was in Revelation 13:18. The meaning was for the people to have spiritual perception and insight about the deceptive nature of the beast. The angel begins with the seven heads. Remember that the beast has seven heads and ten horns. The angel is giving us an explanation about these images. When we first read the description of the beast in chapter 13 we noted that the heads, horns, and crowns represented the beast’s great authority, strength, and power. The angel tells us much more about the seven heads and the ten horns now. The seven heads represent the seven mountains on which the woman is seated.

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary states, “Most scholars have no doubt that the seven hills refer to the seven hills of Rome and the seven kings to seven successive emperors of that nation. Mounce states, ‘There is little doubt that a first-century reader would understand this reference in any way other than as a reference to Rome, the city built upon seven hills’ (Revelation, pp. 313-14).” History and literature refers to Rome repeatedly as the city on seven mountains.  In fact, a Roman coin depicted the goddess Roma sitting on seven mountains. To know that we are right, notice that the end of verse 9 tells us that the woman is seated on the seven mountains. Go back to verse 1 of Revelation 17 and recall that the woman is the great prostitute, representing the city of Rome. Rome and its empire is in view. The seven heads represent Rome.

However, there is more meaning to the seven heads. The seven heads, we are told, are also seven kings. Throughout our study I have been adamant about the fact that these numbers and images are to be understood as symbols. Revelation 1:1 told us that these things were put into signs. Revelation 17:3 reminds us that John is seeing a vision as he is carried away by the Spirit. Everything we read in Revelation is a symbol for a historical reality unless the text demands otherwise. We have understood all the sevens in the book (seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls) as symbolically representing a complete judgment against a nation. However, there is one seven that we took literally. Back in chapter 1 we read about the seven churches of Asia. We understood these churches to be actual churches and not symbolic of all churches for all time because each church was named. The naming of each of the churches is the text demanding to understand the seven churches to refer to seven literal churches.

In the same way, we are told about the seven heads representing seven kings. If the angel had left the image at this we would be forced to understand the seven kings as a symbol representing all the kings of the Roman Empire and what they would do. However, the angel goes on and numbers the seven kings and gives details about them. The angel says of the seven kings, “Five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he does come he must remain only a little while.” Verse 11 tells us more that the eighth king belongs to the seven and goes to destruction. These details do not make any sense in a generic, symbolic way. If seven king represents all the kings of the Roman Empire, then what does it mean that five have fallen, one is, and one is yet to come that must rule for a little while? These is no way to symbolically apply these images. We are forced to understand these kings as literal emperors of the Roman Empire and something about their rule is being told to the people of God. Since something is being told to us about the actual kings that ruled over the Roman Empire, it is important that we learn about the timeframe of the emperors of Rome. Below is a list of relevant rulers for our study.

Time of Reign

  • Julius (48-44 BC) as dictator
  • Augustus (27 BC-14 AD) as emperor
  • Tiberius (14-37 AD)
  • Caligula (37-41 AD)
  • Claudius (41-54 AD)
  • Nero (54-68 AD)
  • Galba (68-69 AD)
  • Otho (69 AD)
  • Vitellius (69 AD)
  • Vespasian (69-79 AD)
  • Titus (79-81 AD)
  • Domitian (81-96 AD)

There are a number of reasons to exclude Julius from the count. Julius was appointed as dictator over the Roman Republic, not emperor over the empire. There was a 17 year gap of time before Augustus was established as emperor. Also, if Julius is counted, then why wouldn’t Sulla and Marius who also seized power to themselves to rule the republic also be counted? Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius state that Augustus was the first emperor. As we will see the counting of seven emperors only works properly if Julius is excluded. If we leave the list as is but with Julius removed, the five fallen kings would be from Augustus to Nero. The one king who is would be Galba and the one yet to come would be Otho. This would put the writing of the book of Revelation at 68-69 AD.

However, there are a couple of reasons to consider removing Galba, Otho, and Vitellius. While these three emperors were approved by the senate, their reigns would have been hardly known throughout the empire. Remember that the year 69 AD is the year of four emperors. It was a time of civil war as these emperors all laid claim to being emperor, yet were murdered or committed suicide. Each of their reigns is of no consequences. Further, it is possible that the prophet Daniel was speaking about these three emperors being uprooted quickly.

“Then I desired to know the truth about the fourth beast, which was different from all the rest, exceedingly terrifying, with its teeth of iron and claws of bronze, and which devoured and broke in pieces and stamped what was left with its feet, and about the ten horns that were on its head, and the other horn that came up and before which three of them fell, the horn that had eyes and a mouth that spoke great things, and that seemed greater than its companions. (Daniel 7:19–20 ESV)

Daniel says that one horn uproots the other three horns because he is greater than them. Daniel may be speaking about the rise of emperor Vespasian who established his reign during the year of the four emperors. During this civil war it is his armies that are victorious as he successfully claims the title of emperor. If this is correct, then the counting of the seven emperors works well. Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero are the five who have fallen. The one who is reigning now is Vespasian because Daniel told us not to count those three emperors Galba, Otho, and Vitellius, who were of no consequence. Then the one to come who will “remain only a little while” is Titus who ruled only from 79-81 AD. After Titus is Domitian. He is the eighth emperor who is like the beast, belongs to the seven, and goes to destruction. Domitian will begin to carry out these prophecies that we have read about in the previous chapters. He will claim to be God and demand divine honors and sacrifices to be made toward him.

The ten horns in verses 12-14 sound like the description to the second beast, also called the false prophet. These ten horns represent the localities and provinces that ruled within the Roman empire. Johnson rightly notes, “The multiplicity of sovereignties in confederacy that enhance the power of the beast” (Johnson, 560). Rome had given power to various regents and procurators, like the Herods, to rule over the regions and provinces. Yet their power was only from the Roman empire itself and was not their own. These rulers gave their allegiance to the Roman Empire (the beast) and would make war against God and his people who did not worship the beast.

Verses 16-17 show that the world is going to turn against Rome. The imagery is similar to Ezekiel’s prophecy against Jerusalem.

“Therefore, O prostitute, hear the word of the LORD: Thus says the Lord GOD, Because your lust was poured out and your nakedness uncovered in your whorings with your lovers, and with all your abominable idols, and because of the blood of your children that you gave to them, therefore, behold, I will gather all your lovers with whom you took pleasure, all those you loved and all those you hated. I will gather them against you from every side and will uncover your nakedness to them, that they may see all your nakedness. (Ezekiel 16:35–37 ESV)

The description given is one of the primary reasons for Rome’s fall. The inner decadence and inner strife are a couple reasons why Rome fell. Daniel prophesied that this was the nature of Rome and would lead to its collapse. We read of the fourth kingdom (the Roman Empire) made of iron and clay so that is was partly strong and partly brittle. Notice verse 43, “As you saw the iron mixed with clay, so will they mix with one another in marriage, but they will not hold together, just as iron does not mix with clay.” The Roman Empire would not hold together but fall apart because of the way it was built. One of the greatest strengths of Rome was that it incorporated all the languages and nations of the world under it. However, this also was its weakness, leading to perpetual internal problems until it finally fell. Provinces and nations under the power of Rome will turn and fight against Rome. Verse 17 points out that this is God’s doing. God is the one who brought about the fall of Rome and its empire.

The chapter concludes definitely stating who the woman, the great prostitute, is. She is the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth. It is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth (NRSV), reigns over the kings of the earth (NASB), and has an empire over the kings of the earth (HCSB). The only city that has an empire over the kings of the earth at the time of the writing of Revelation is the city of Rome. Rome is the great prostitute. Her demise will come when those nations and peoples under the empire turn against her and make her desolate.

Life Lesson

It is interesting to note that God declares his involvement in the affairs of the world. Too often we can think that God is not active in the rise and fall of nations or the affairs and events that occur on the earth. Verse 17 reminds us that God would put it in the hearts of the leaders of the earth to turn against Rome for its destruction. Our Lord is alive and active. He is involved in the affairs of this world and we should pray that God act for his glory and purpose. Consider that there was nothing miraculous about the fall of Rome, yet it was God’s purpose and God’s doing.