Harry Whittaker
Revelation - A Biblical Approach

Chapter 34 - Babylon The Great (ch. 17, 18)

Revelation 17 presents a lurid picture of a gorgeously arrayed harlot riding on a scarlet beast, which is readily identifiable with the Beast of the sea already described in chapter 13. The harlot's confidence is the prelude to her downfall. The Beast has ten horns that represent ten kings accepting his authority. This confederacy turns against her and ravages her to destruction. They then turn against ‘the Lamb'' but are overcome. Chapter 18 expands the brief intimation of the harlot's destruction into an awe-inspiring description of pomp and circumstance being swept away into oblivion.


This section of Revelation is usually regarded as one of the least problematical of the whole book. The harlot is Babylon, that is, Catholic Rome priding itself on its independence, power and influence, and glorying in persecution of the faithful. All this is to meet with a dramatic and well-merited judgement in the Last Days when desolation and fiery destruction put a final end to an evil history.

On the strength of this Scripture there have been many confident expectations of a sensational increase in Papal power in the Last Days. Speculation has often run on to forecast a grand alliance between the church of Rome and the dominant political powers of the world against the authority of Christ when he is revealed in divine glory.

The daring character of these speculations is hard to match in all the history of the interpretation of Bible prophecy. Especially is this seen to be so when re-consideration is given to the interpretation (which usually goes with it) of Revelation 13 - the Beast of the sea and the two-horned Beast of the earth; for by far the commonest exposition of chapter 13 equates its details about these Beasts with the Catholic church and the Holy Roman Empire. One is left guessing as to how the Babylonian harlot riding the Beast and then ravaged by the ten kings can represent the Papacy controlling the Roman church and then destroyed by those who are themselves subject to it. Indeed, how harlot and Beast can both be identified with the apostasy of Rorme deserves the name Mystery nearly as much as the woman in the vision! And the Biblical grounds for the sublime expectations that the Papacy will yet come to new heights of power and will somehow form a wondrous Entente Cordiale with the forces of God-less communism are remarkable for their obscurity.

There has been a great deal of wishful thinking and ill-founded guesswork associated with the “exposition” of this part of Revelation. To a greater extent than is commonly realized the anti-papal assertions of orthodox Protestant commentators have been uncritically accepted, usually more out of personal inclination than by reason of clear-cut Biblical support. Yet would it not be strange indeed if those who share so many of the blatant errors of Catholic dogma should prove to be the most dependable guides in the interpretation of the most complex of all Bible prophecies?


It is necessary, then, to get back to bed-rock by enquiring first of all what evidence there is for the almost universal assumption that “Babylon”, the harlot on the Beast, represents apostate Christianity. A careful examination of Revelation 18 fails to bring to light a single detail, which signifies a false religion. Even the familiar phrase “bodies and souls of men” has to be given a very un-Biblical Protestant flavour (immortal souls!) before it can be effectively interpreted regarding the spiritual despotism of Rome. It is true that there are several indications that the “Babylon” described here is a persecuting power - “in her was found the blood of prophets and of saints” - but this is not necessarily an identification mark of the apostasy, for the same was true also of Judaism and pagan Rome.

The name Babylon is no help here, either, for in the Old Testament there is remarkably little emphasis on the religious character of that ancient city and empire. Instead, the prophets denounced Babylon over and over again as “the golden city” which preyed on lesser nations and sucked their material prosperity to itself. The long chapters in Isaiah (13, 14, 47) and in Jeremiah (50, 51) which foretell retribution on Babylon, carry hardly any phrases which can be read as a reprobation of false worship (four in nearly 200 verses!). And even if they did, honesty should compel the student to see a drastic difference between a pagan religion which had no connection whatever with divine truth and a spiritual system which claims to have a monopoly of truth, whilst being at the same time a wholesale perversion and corruption of the way of salvation. Then why should one Babylon be regarded as a prototype of the other when the most essential resemblances arc missing?

Further, it will be demonstrated by and by that many of the vivid phrases used in chapter 18 to describe the splendour of Babylon are taken straight out of Ezekiel’s description of the commercial prosperity of Tyre (Ezekiel 26, 27). What compatibility with or appropriateness to the spiritual perversions of Rome arc to be found in ancient Tyre?

But the Beast, who with his allies “hates the whore, and makes her naked and desolate”, has a most emphatic description of false religion used regarding him. A re-reading of Revelation 13 makes this fact abundantly evident.

Indeed, when it comes to citing point-blank evidence from the text that Babylon stands for a false religious system, Christian in name only, the most pointed expression appears to be: “Mother of Harlots and Abominations of the Earth.” It is true that language of this kind is used in the Old Testament regarding idolatrous Israel (e.g. Ezekiel 16 and 23, time after time), but in all such places the reason for language of this character is on the surface-the abominable pagan practices adopted by the Chosen People at such times involved not only spiritual infidelity but the actual practice of ritual fornication and promiscuity. With hardly an exception this is the background to Old Testament usage and to most in the New Testament. In the First Century a high proportion of the converts made were called out of a life of precisely this character. To them this symbolism in Revelation would have specially significant overtones.

Summing up so far, it would appear that the evidence to support an application of chapters 17, 18 to the splendour and inevitable destruction of the Catholic Church is decidedly meagre. Is there really justification for the supremely confident reference of this prophecy to Papal Rome? A little more diffidence and caution would surely be appropriate.

But, then, the same sentiment is just as germane to any alternative interpretation.


It would seem almost inescapable that this part of Revelation was framed with primary reference to the city of Rome, whatever further interpretation may evolve from that basic idea: “The seven heads (of the Beast) are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth” (17:9). “The woman which thou sawest is that great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth” (17:18). Could any early Christian, reading his copy of the Apocalypse for the first time, think of anything but Imperial Rome?

The references to persecution (18:20, 24; 19:2) also come in very appropriately, for at the time when Revelation was first given (whether the early date 66 or the late 95 be adopted), Rome was busy harassing the Christians.

The allusion to Babylon at the end of 1 Peter may possibly point to Rome: “She that is at Babylon, elect together with you, saluteth you; and so doth Marcus my son” (1 Peter 5:13). The plain references in this epistle to persecution make it almost certain that the date is the time of the emperor Nero. Also, John Mark is known to have been in Rome about that time (2 Timothy 4:11). And since there is excellent external evidence that Peter was put to death in Rome in the Nero persecution, there is here a conjunction of details suggesting that the early believers may have understood “Babylon” to be “pagan Rome”.

The copious Biblical allusions, scattered throughout Revelation 18, to imperial Babylon and commercial Tyre, the purpose of which is so difficult to evaluate as long as eyes are kept on papal Rome, are now seen to be intensely relevant. The Rome of the emperors was in all essential respects the contemporary counterpart of the massive grandeur and resourceful brilliance of Babylon and Tyre.

Thus, to the early Christian the prophecies in Revelation concerning the Harlot on the Beast may have suggested Rome, the queen of the world, their declared enemy. And to them the Beast, commanding the allegiance of the kings of the world, would be the Empire. These early brethren would then infer that in due time God would bring judgement on the persecuting city by causing it to be ravaged by the nations of the Empire. This happened. Indeed, it happened more than once - in 410, by the Visigoths led by Alaric; and in 455, by Gaiseric and his hordes. But it has to be conceded that in each case these invaders did not belong to the Empire, but came from outside it. Neither did they utterly destroy the city, as the language of Revelation 18 seems to require.


The obvious next task of the Twentieth-Century expositor would appear to be to identify the counterpart of Rome and Empire in the Last Days. But first another altogether astonishing line of investigation suggests itself.

Reference has already been made to the mosaic of Old Testament phrases employed in the vivid description of the destruction of Babylon. When these are followed up with care, an unexpected result emerges. The following tabulation will demonstrate:

References to ancient Babylon

Babylon is fallen, is fallen.
Isa. 21:9

Is become the habitation of devils and the hold of every foul spirit.
Jer. 50:39; Isa.13: 21

All nations drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication.
Jer. 51:57.

Come out of her, my people ...
Jer. 51:6,45; 50: 8

Her sins have reached unto heaven.
Jer. 51:9

Reward her even as she rewarded you.
Jer. 50:29; Ps. 137: 8

I sit a queen and am no widow...
Isa. 47: 8

Therefore shall her plagues come in one day.
Isa. 47:9

Rejoice over her, thou heaven.
Jer. 51:48

A stone ... cast into the sea.
Jer. 51:63

Thus shall that great city, Babylon, be thrown down.
Jer. 51:64

All that were slain upon the earth.
Jer. 51:49

References to Tyre

Kings of the earth committed fornication with her.
Isa. 23:17

The kings of the earth shall wail and lament her.
Ezek. 26:16, 17

Gold, precious stones, spices...
Ezek. 27:22, 24, etc.

Bodies and souls of men.
Ezek. 27:13

Merchants weeping and lamenting.
Ezek. 27:31

Every ship master and all the company of ships, etc.
Ezek. 27:29, 30

And they cried out, What city is like unto this great city?
Ezek. 27:32

They cast dust on their heads, weeping and wailing.
Ezek. 27:30

The voice of harpers heard no more at all in thee.
Ezek. 26:13

Thy merchants were the great men of the earth.
Isa. 23: 8

References to Jerusalem

Double unto her double.
Jer. 16:18; Isa. 40: 2

The sound of the millstone no more heard ... and the light of a candle shall shine no more in thee.
Jer. 25:10

The voice of the bridegroom ...
Jer. 25:10

In her was found the blood of prophets and of saints ...
Jer. 2:34


Two of these three groups of passages present a problem. Why should prophecies originally about Tyre and Jerusalem be given a further application to the apocalyptic Babylon? In the First Century the commercial dominance of Tyre was already gone. It had been very largely taken over by New Tyre - the city of Carthage, founded by Phoenicians. Indeed, but for the Punic Wars Carthage would have displaced Rome from its proud position as the world’s chief city. So Rome’s appropriation of Carthaginian prosperity and influence might make intelligible the use of prophecies about the downfall of commercial Tyre.

But this still leaves unexplained the undoubted allusions to Jeremiah’s prophecies about Jerusalem.

The idea must be rejected out of hand that the New Testament uses passages from the Old without any regard to context or original meaning and simply because the words “happen to fit” the new occasion for which they are being employed. All that is known about the inspiration of the

Scriptures and about the marvellous inter-relation of widely separated parts of the Bible makes such a drastic solution to the problem altogether unacceptable.


Then is it possible that here is a lead to another completely different identification of the Harlot? When this working hypothesis, that “Babylon” is Jerusalem, is tried out, a quite surprising number of details fall together into a harmonious pattern of a marked Biblical character. These are best exhibited in a verse-by-verse commentary on the two chapters.

The great whore. Whilst it is true that language of this kind is used in the Old Testament concerning both Tyre (Isaiah 23: 17) and Nineveh (Nahum 3: 4), the really eloquent passages of this character in the prophets are applied to unfaithful Israel. Long and graphically realistic chapters are given over to this theme: Ezekiel 16 and 23; Jeremiah 2 and 3; Hosea 1, 2, 3, and 4.

That sitteth upon many waters. The influence of Jerusalem throughout the Roman Empire was amazing. Every city of any size had its colony of Jews, and through the synagogue these all gave allegiance to Jerusalem, making direct annual payments to the temple and accepting the jurisdiction of the Sanhedrin.

Into the wilderness. The woman of Revelation 12, identified with Israel by the mention of sun, moon and twelve stars, was last seen being pursued into the wilderness by the Dragon. Now she appears again, this time riding on the Beast.

Arrayed in purple and scarlet. These are garments of the Jewish priesthood; Exodus 28: 5, 6, 8 etc. Compare also Jeremiah’s description of ‘the daughter of Zion’: “Though thou clothest thyself with scarlet, though thou deckest thee with ornaments of gold, though thou enlargest thine eyes with paint, in vain dost thou make thyself fair; thy lovers despise thee, they seek thy life” (4:30).

Gold and precious stones and pearls. ‘I’he stones of the high-priest’s breastplate.

A golden cup full of abominations. This is the cup of jealousy, the trial of the bitter waters (Numbers 5) alluded to in Ezekiel 23: 25, 32-34. “Fill ye up the measure of your fathers,” prophesied Jesus (Matthew 23 :28).

Upon her forehead a name written, Mystery ... - with obvious allusion to the crown of the high-priest on which was written the Ineffable Name; Exodus 28:36.

The Mother of Harlots. The language of Ezekiel 16:44-52.

John marvels at the Woman but not at the Beast.

Drunk with the blood of the saints ... and of the martyrs of Jesus. However true this might be of Rome, it was much more true of Jerusalem: “Upon you will come all the righteous blood shed upon the face of the earth” (Matthew 23:35). “I will send them prophets and apostles, and some of them they shall slay and persecute” (Luke 11:49) - words spoken about Jerusalem. The word “prophets” here and in Revelation 18: 24 is specially significant. Rome slew apostles. But were not the prophets, both Old Testament and New Testament, sent to Israel?

The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sitteth. Rome is not the only city in the world built on seven hills. Is not the same true of Jerusalem? What expositors very often overlook is the fact that the hills of Rome arc hardly hills, they are certainly not mountains, which is the word used in Revelation 17:9. Indeed, the highest of the seven hills of Rome is a mere 150 feet. Italy has the Apennines, so even by Italian standards these are only trivial undulations. In sharp contrast with Rome, Jerusalem is built on seven mountains. The city stands at an altitude of 2400 feet above sea-level.

These (kings) shall hate the whore, and make her naked and desolate. This follows the “war with the Lamb” (verse 14), and since the Lamb overcomes them, the prophecy appears to mention these details in the wrong order. But it is noteworthy that in the First Century the Beast (Rome) and its provinces did make war with the Lamb first ~ the persecution of the Faith in the time of Nero, but Christianity emerged stronger than ever. Immediately after this, when Nero was dead, the three-and-a-half years’ war in Galilee and Judaea began. It ended with the utter destruction of Jerusalem. It is important to note that even if this view be adopted, it should be regarded as a primary fulfilment only. The true fulfilment is yet to come.

Burn her with fire. This was the penalty, which the Law of Moses prescribed for harlotry in a priest’s daughter (Leviticus 21: 9). The greater appropriateness to Jerusalem than to Rome does not need to be emphasized. Ezekiel 16:37-41 should certainly be given careful consideration here.

Babylon ... is become the habitation of devils (demons). Whilst there is general reference here to such passages as Jeremiah 50:39 and Isaiah 13:21, already listed, the words go back more specifically to the macabre parable of Christ about the unclean spirit returning with seven others worse than himself (Matthew 12:43-45; and compare Revelation 17:11). That parable was a solemn prophecy of the future of Jerusalem: “even thus shall it be with this generation.”

Come out of her, my people, that ... ye receive not of her plagues. This repeats Luke 21: 20, 21: “And when ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, know that the desolation thereof is nigh. Then let them which be in Judaea flee to the mountains.” By contrast, it is difficult to know what meaning these words might have if Babylon is either the literal Rome or the Catholic church, for those described as “my people” are not in either.

Double unto her double according to her works. This language comes in three places in the Old Testament, and always with reference to judgement on Jerusalem and unfaithful Israel: Isaiah 40: 2; Jeremiah 16:18; 17:18.

Her plagues ... death, mourning, and famine, as in Jeremiah 18:21 and elsewhere.

18:12, 13:
“Gold, silver, precious stones, pearls, fine linen, purple, silk, scarlet, thyine wood (incense wood), vessels of precious wood, brass, iron, marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, ointment, wine, oil, fine flour, wheat, cattle, sheep.” It is difficult to associate many of these with papal pomp and ceremony, but the connection with the splendour and ritual of the temple is obvious enough. The details of 2 Chronicles 2:4, 7, 8 are decidedly impressive in this connection.

Rejoice over her, thou heaven ... for God hath avenged you on her. This is very close to the Septuagint of Deuteronomy 32:43, at the end of a vivid prophecy of retribution on faithless Israel.

A stone like a great millstone cast into the sea. Two passages in the gospel of Matthew are remarkably akin: “Whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea” (18:6); and, “If you have faith, and doubt not... ye shall say to this mountain (mount Zion! with its temple and its Judaism), Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done” (21: 21).

Harpers, etc. Not wonderfully appropriate to papal Rome, but very apposite to Jerusalem and its temple service.

A candle ... no more at all in thee. The seven-branched candlestick?

18: 24:
In her was found the blood of prophets and of saints and of all that were slain on the earth (in the Land). The words are difficult of application to the Catholic church, but are the exact equivalent of: “it cannot be that a prophet shall perish out of Jerusalem,’ (Luke 13: 33).

18: 10, 16, 19.
Here is a three-fold Woe (see the modern versions) “doubled unto her” (v. 6). The earlier three-fold Woe (8: 13) was identified as a climactic judgement on Jerusalem. This in Revelation 18 reads like its counterpart in the Last Days.

The city where the Two Witnesses lie slain is clearly identifiable as Jerusalem - see the evidence in Chapter 25. But the description: “the great city”, is precisely that which is used eight times over with reference to “Babylon” in ch. 14, 17, 18. (The seeming exception - 21:10 - is textually uncertain; see the modern versions.)

In the Seventh Vial “Babylon” is “divided into three parts.” This is exactly the mode of divine judgement meted out to the people of Jerusalem, in Ezekiel 5:1-4.


The fore-going are the most important details which can be cited in support of this unusual thesis which identifies “Babylon” with Jerusalem. Many of these are impressive. But there are difficulties also. The name Babylon itself is a problem. So also is the long series of allusions to the Babylon and Tyre prophecies in the Old Testament. What is the relevance of these to a denunciation of Jerusalem?

A possible explanation appears to be on these lines: the early church regarded itself as the true Israel of God (1 Peter 2:5-10; James 1: 1; Galatians 6:16, etc.). It took to this idea in a really big way. Thus any enemies of the Truth of Christ whether Jew or Gentile, were regarded as in the same category as the enemies of ancient Israel. In this way there would be considerable fitness in re-reading the prophecies about judgement on Israel’s oppressors as being prophecies also of God’s later judgements on the persecutors of the faithful in Christ.

It may be appropriate also to enquire why in Luke 10:15, 18 Jesus applies to contemporary Jewish resistance to the gospel an Old Testament prophecy about Babylon (Isaiah 14:12,13,15).

It is time to sum up. So far as a primary First Century reference goes a choice has to be made. The Beast answers to the Empire, and
the Harlot represents either the Apostasy (already well entrenched whilst the apostles were alive) in Rome the capital, or Judaistic
Jerusalem, carried by the Beast and yet ravaged by it. The last suggestion runs fairly smoothly most of the way, and may commend
itself to those who insist that the Old Testament allusions must be found room for. But certain difficulties still remain.

Especially there is the problem of the much more important application of this prophecy to the Last Days. This must now be attempted in the next Chapter.


The Bride
The Whore

New Jerusalem.

Sea of glass.
Sits on many waters.

A bride adorned for her husband.
“I sit a queen and am no widow.”

Married to the Lamb.
Commits fornication with kings of the earth.

Hunger no more, neither thirst any more.
Makes people drunk with her wine.

In fine linen, the righteousness of saints.
Purple and scarlet, yet made desolate and naked.

Adorned with jasper stone.
Gold, precious stones, pearls.

Clear as crystal.
A gold cup - abominations.

The mystery of God finished.

With her, the redeemed, virgins.
Mother of harlots.

Guided by “the spirit of prophecy.”
Drunk with blood of saints and martyrs.

Having the glory of God.
Burned with fire.

The Spirit and the Bride say, Come.
“Come out of her, my people.”
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