In chapters 17-18 of Revelation St John uses several ancient rhetorical techniques. The first technique, in modern terms, would be a type of comparison and contrast. The second is a vivid description of blame or vice showing how undesirable and unworthy the city of Rome is. We must remember the importance of the city to the ancients. These chapters will contrast the evils of the city of Rome which was allegedly founded by the Roman gods, and was titled the eternal city with the coming New Jerusalem which truly is eternal (21:2).
In the opening words of chapter 17, John tells us that one of the seven angels holding the seven bowls appears and tells him, “Come here. I will show you the judgment on the great harlot who lives near the many waters” (17:1). The fact that this is one of the earlier seven angels indicates that chapter 17 further amplifies and explains the judgments of the sixth and seventh bowls from the previous chapter. This is not new material but a close up of the previous judgment.
In a further vision John is carried to a deserted place, presumably to be able to see the truth about the seductive woman. He sees her “seated on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names” (17:3). The ‘beast’ she rides is the description of Rome found earlier in Revelation 13:1, and the “blasphemous names” are the titles ascribed to the Roman emperor who himself claims to be a god.
John’s vision also echoes the Old Testament judgment “against the inhabitants of Babylon dwelling on many waters” found in the prophecy of Jeremiah (Jer. 28:11–13; 51:13). The ancient city of Babylon developed its prosperity through an impressive system of irrigation. Rome and its seductive prosperity is now compared to the evil and oppressive nation Babylon, who was judged by God through the prophets. Israel’s repeated unfaithfulness to their God by worshiping pagan deities is often described as fornication in the Old Testament (Hosea 2:5; Isaiah 1:21; Jeremiah 2:2; Ezekiel 16:36).
Rome is described in this imagery as the great whore who is guilty of seducing all nations through the worship of false gods. The kings of the earth have “fornicated” with her and the inhabitants of the earth became drunk on the wine of her harlotry (17:2). She is clothed in purple and scarlet (17:4; 18:12) and uses luxury and rich goods as a means of seduction (18:12). John tells us that this harlot is also drunk on the blood of the saints (17:6).
After this vivid description of the city of Rome, the angel offers some clues for the interpretation of these images (17:9). Although some aspects are clarified, many commentators are still left puzzled over some of the angel’s clues and explanations of these images.
The woman is seated on seven hills (17:9; 17:18). Rome had for centuries been known as the city of seven hills. In fact the Roman historian Suetonius tells us that there was a yearly festival celebrating the enclosure of the seven hills with the Roman walls.
The next part is less clear. Seven also represents seven kings; “five have already fallen, one still lives, and the last has not yet come.” There is little agreement over which kings are represented here. Do we start numbering with Julius Caesar or Augustus? Perhaps we should see the number seven as symbolic of fullness or completeness representing all the Roman rulers. The focus would then be on the eighth ruler. Is he a future antichrist? Or is the eighth ruler the Emperor Domitian as a type of all antichrists? The angel says that the eighth king is “the beast that existed once but exists no longer” (17:11). Is this a reference to the Nero-return-from-the-dead myth?
The ten horns appear to be rulers subordinate to the emperor who at first work together under his authority and prosper and then later rebel against the authority of the harlot and devour her (17:16). While the waters represent large numbers of peoples, nations, and tongues.
A strong angel, or an angel having great authority descends from heaven in Chapter 18. This angel is illuminated by his own radiance. The general principle at work in John’s vision is that the greater the angel the greater the importance of the message. This section begins with the angels declaration that Babylon has fallen (18:1-3), and this is followed by a heavenly voice calling God’s people to “depart from her” (18:4). In divine judgment, Babylon will be paid back double for her sins and boasting. Three groups of people will offer laments for her, the Kings of the earth who fornicated with her (18:9-10), the merchants of the earth who have lost their markets for expensive luxuries (18:11-17), and ship captains and sailors who would no longer grow rich from her wealth (18:17b-24).
At the heart of Rome’s seduction was immense wealth (18:12-13). The lament of the sea captains points out the evil that the misuse of this wealth caused. “Because your merchants were the great ones of the world, all nations were led astray by your magic potion. In her was found the blood of prophets and holy ones and all who have been slain on the earth” (18:23b-24). First, Rome is judged because of its self-glorification (11:8; 14:8; 16:19; 17:1, 5, 18; 18:2, 10, 16, 19, 21, 23) but also because of its evil ‘magic’ or sorcery implying that Rome influenced the nations to worship idols through sorcery.
Cooperation with idol worship was seen as seen as participation in the demonic realm (Acts 15:20; 1 Thessalonians 1: 9b-10; 1 Corinthians 10:14-16). One must remember that simply belonging to a trade guild, would necessitate worshiping the patron deity of that guild or facing negative social consequences and a possible loss of income. The seriousness of this issue for the early Christians is shown at the final judgment, where sorcerers and idol-worshipers are specifically named among those who do not inherit life in the New Jerusalem (21:8).
Scott McKellar is associate director of the Bishop Helmsing Institute.