From Revelation 6:1-16:21, John’s vision is punctuated by three cycles of seven judgments: the seven seals (Revelation 6:1-8:1), the seven trumpets (Revelation 8:2-11:19), and the seven bowls (Revelation 14:1-16:21). The rest of John’s vision will feature pictures of the Jesus the Lamb and two women: the faithful woman of Revelation 12:1-14 who will become the Bride of the Lamb in Revelation 19:5-10, 21:1-22:6, and Babylon, the woman empowered by the dragon and his beasts, of whom and whose fate John sees in Revelation 17:1-19:5.
John is carried in the Spirit into the wilderness where he sees the woman Babylon (Revelation 17:1-18). Babylon derives from Hebrew babel, “confusion,” so named because of the Tower of Babel and the confusion of languages there (Genesis 11:1-9). The Chaldean, Neo-Babylonian Empire will overthrow the Kingdom of Judah and destroy Jerusalem and its Temple in 586 BCE. The prophets of Israel frequently denounced Babylon for its arrogance, idolatry, and behavior toward Israel (Isaiah 13:1-14:23, Jeremiah 50:1-51:64); John is thus shown a picture of the “new Babylon,” Rome, in very much the same way: Rome is now the human world power empowered by the Evil One who is hostile toward God and His people.
Babylon is described as a whore, seducing all the people of the world into coming and participating in her sexual immorality (Revelation 17:1-5). She is described as drunk on the blood of the saints (Revelation 17:6). She exhibits great pride in her standing and power (Revelation 18:7). When she is mourned by kings and merchants, it is because of the loss of the great market for all sorts of luxury items and slaves (Revelation 18:9-20). Plenty of actual prostitution went on in the Roman Empire; the luxurious, debauched lifestyle of the Romans is well-attested in ancient literature. The mention of slaves is important since the entire Roman enterprise was built on the back of slaves (Revelation 18:13). Yet the full concern of the whoredom of Babylon is her idolatry: she promulgates the service of many idols, including Rome herself and her emperors, represented by the beast, and persecutes the Christians, the people of the True God, because of her devotion to her idols and the power provided by the Evil One. Idolatry described in terms of whoredom and sexual immorality is pervasive in the Old Testament (Isaiah 1:21, Ezekiel 16:15-43, 23:1-49, Hosea 1:1-3:5), as well as the nations acting as whores on account of idolatry (Isaiah 23:15-17, 47:5-15, Nahum 3:1, 4).
Babylon is supported by the beast envisioned in Revelation 13:1-10. We are given the picture of what the beast’s heads and horns mean in Revelation 17:9-13: the seven mountains upon which Babylon is seated/seven kings and ten successive kings. Rome is famous for being settled upon seven hills; its Empire was established and perpetuated by the efforts of its emperors. Speculation abounds regarding the specifics of the kings, but we do well to see in them that the Roman power has existed, exists at the present, and has a future before it will ultimately be vanquished. Its end will come from those within it who support it as well as its surrounding enemies: the lust for power consumes the one who maintains it, and so it will be with Rome, all according to the purpose of God’s will (Revelation 17:15-18).
As the luxuriantly dressed whore, Rome as Babylon attempts to appear as legitimate, wealthy, beautiful, enticing, and worth the investment, yet internally is corrupt, evil, illegitimate, and seeking after the wrong pursuits with the wrong means, and thus incurring God’s condemnation. The angels proclaim the destruction of the new Babylon as accomplished fact: it will be desolate, even though it once enriched the kings and merchants of the earth, sharing the fate of old Babylon (Revelation 18:1-3; cf. Isaiah 13:19-22, 14:3-23, 34:11-15, Jeremiah 50:2, Zephaniah 2:13-15). God’s people are exhorted to come out of new Babylon, lest they share in the plagues and judgments coming upon her, just as with old Babylon (Revelation 18:4-6; cf. Isaiah 48:20, 52:11, Jeremiah 50:8, 51:6-9, 45, Zechariah 2:7). The judgment comes quickly; the smoke of her burning will go up forever, and the sounds of joy, commerce, and life will not be heard in her again (Revelation 18:7-9, 21-24). The merchants enriched by the new Babylon will stand afar off and mourn and weep for their lost income (Revelation 18:11-17), just as their ancestors did for Tyre in Ezekiel 26:1-28:19 (and there is a school of thought which suggests that Ezekiel uses Tyre as a cipher for old Babylon), a powerfully evocative message for those of us who lived through the economic challenges of 2008-2009. The kings, the merchants, and the mariners may weep over the new Babylon, but only inasmuch as they have personally experienced loss; they seek to stay away from the devastation, demonstrating the ephemeral nature of their attachment to the whore Babylon (Revelation 18:10-17). The whore Babylon, Rome in the first century, shared the fate of old Babylon, and every “Babylon” which as arisen after her will suffer the same. The reason is succinct: in her was found the blood of the saints (Revelation 18:24).
While the condemnation of Babylon has caused great mourning and lamentation from those seduced by her on the earth, it is the cause of great rejoicing in heaven and among the people of God (Revelation 18:19-20). The scene returns to heaven, and John hears the threefold hallelujahs of the heavenly multitude, the twenty-four elders, and the four living creatures (Revelation 19:1-5). This is the only time “hallelujah” is found in the New Testament, and it is upon the occasion of God’s true and righteous judgments upon Babylon the whore, her corruption of the earth, and her persecution of the saints.
Babylon the whore, the Satanically empowered imitation of the good, the fraudulent mistress who seduced so many to follow after her, is therefore destroyed; the Lord God Almighty reigns, and therefore the time of the marriage of the Lamb will be soon (Revelation 19:6-7). At this time the scene then shifts to the Bride, the honest and good woman who has persevered in her trust in God and the Lamb from beginning to end: she has made herself ready, and she is clothed with bright and pure linen, the good works of the saints (Revelation 19:7-8). The fourth of seven beatitudes in Revelation is offered to those invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9).
John is understandably overcome with joy and exaltation, and bows down before the angelic messenger; he is told not to do so, since he is a fellow servant of God with him and all who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Instead he is to bow down before God (Revelation 19:10). John is then told that the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy, and we do well to keep that in mind. Those who accept and proclaim the testimony of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, will be invited to the marriage supper and make up the Bride of Christ, His church (2 Corinthians 11:2-3, Ephesians 5:22-33). Those who reject the testimony of the Lamb are under the power of the dragon, having been seduced by whichever “Babylon the whore” is presently ascendant. Let us be encouraged in our faith in the Lamb, come out and stay away from Babylon the whore, and strive to be part of the Bride of Christ!