Posted by: stpowen | December 6, 2013

Revelation (12). Babylon the Great

Jeremiah 51:6-8. ‘Flee from the midst of Babylon, and everyone save his life! Do not be cut off in her iniquity, for this is the time of the LORD’s vengeance; He shall recompense her. Babylon was a golden cup in the LORD’s hand that made all the earth drunk. The nations drank her wine; therefore the nations are deranged. Babylon has suddenly fallen and been destroyed. Wail for her.’

Read Revelation 17.

It may be as well to remind ourselves once again of the primary hermeneutical principle that is being used in these articles on Revelation. The book is not a continuous narrative, but a series of seven parallel visions of the Last Days, that is, those times between the ascension of Christ and His second coming. In Chapters 12 & 13, we looked at the dragon, who is Satan, and two of his helpers, the beast from the sea and the beast from the earth also referred to as the False Prophet; the former personifying anti-Christian political government, and the latter, false religion. These are two of the ways in which Satan deceives the people of the world and persecutes those who follow the Lamb.

Chapter 17 seems to mark the sixth of these divisions and introduces another of the dragon’s allies; the Great Harlot, alias Babylon the Great. Who can this be? She is a woman and also a city, and has been briefly mentioned in 14:8. The first thing to notice is that only the Elect, true Christians, can know her. Look at verse 3. John had to go into the wilderness in order to see her. OK, so what does the wilderness represent? When we looked at Chapter 12, we saw a very different woman, clothed with the sun and with a garland of twelve stars upon her head. This woman represents the Bride of Christ, the Messianic Line, the Elect of God, and she is persecuted by Satan (12:13ff). To escape the persecution the woman flies into the wilderness. This wilderness then is the home for God’s people until the Lord’s return. Like the Israelites, Christians have left their old life of slavery in Egypt. They are on their way to the Promised land, but until then their home is in the wilderness; they are ‘sojourners and pilgrims’ (1 Peter 2:11) in this world. Like the writer to the Hebrews they say (Heb. 13:14), ‘Here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come.’

So John goes into the wilderness, where he can see the woman clearly, and what a sight he sees! First of all she is sitting on this amazing scarlet creature ‘Which was full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns.’ If your memory is good, your mind may turn back to 13:1. This is surely the same beast and if so it represents secular government, particularly as it persecutes Christians. So Babylon is not herself a government, but she is supported by secular, humanistic, anti-God powers. It is worth remembering, however, that this beast is a servant of the great dragon of Chapter 12 who is revealed to be Satan (12:9), and the dragon itself also has seven heads and ten horns. The beast therefore somehow personifies the devil.

The woman initially shows an attractive picture. She is beautifully and elegantly dressed in purple and scarlet, with lots of jewellery and an expensive golden cup in her hand. Now the expression ‘scarlet woman,’ meaning a prostitute, is a 19th Century term which is drawn from this very text that we are reading. We shouldn’t think that this is a picture of a typical 1st Century courtesan. No, No. Apart from the beast she rides, this is a portrait of a lady of high class and good taste. Purple and scarlet were colours worn by wealthy women of that time, but they didn’t suggest depravity in the way they might have in Britain 150 years ago. This is an attractive, even desirable picture until we look inside that beautiful golden cup- it is filled with foul and disgusting things! ‘Full of abominations and the filthiness of her fornications.’

To find out what these ‘abominations’ might be, one can easily do a word-search. Things which God regards as abominations include idol-worship, sexual perversions, the wages of prostitution, witchcraft and divination, lies, violence and pride. So what does this woman represent? Well, she is called Babylon- named after that city which was a byword in the ancient world for luxury, worldly pleasures, depravity and seduction. She is also called, ‘the mother of harlots,’ so she represents, I believe, the world as it lies under Satan- especially that which allures, tempts and seduces people away from God. Look for a moment at 1 John 2:15-17.

‘Do not love the world or the things of the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world- the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life- is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.’

That’s Babylon! The lust of the flesh- our old unredeemed nature; the lust of the eyes- things we look at to desire and covet; the pride of life- “If it feels good, do it!” How apt to compare her to a great city- the excitement, the bustle, the bright lights, the fascination; but when you look closer, the human misery, the sin and the degradation that every great city contains.

Now there are many evangelicals who take a quite different view from this; they think of Babylon as representing false religion, specifically the Church of Rome. Perhaps this is because the woman is dressed in purple like a bishop or a cardinal. However, the beast from the earth (13:11ff) depicts false religion, being actually described as the false prophet (19:20; 20:10). If Babylon were false religion she would be described as an adulteress rather than a harlot. She would be the one who left her first love. No, she is the world, that which seduces us from our first love. ‘Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world’ (2 Tim. 4:10). Of course, those who leave Christ for the world may still have religious tendencies, so one aspect of Babylon may well be worldly religion, including the so-called Prosperity Gospel and Scientology, but her chief aspect is that of the world.

Babylon the Great is to be viewed as past, present and future. She was there in John’s day- indeed, she has been present ever since Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and built himself a city (Gen 4:16-17). We can think of Babel and we can think of Ur of the Chaldees, and of course, the people of God throughout all generations are those who spiritually leave the city and, like Abraham, live in the wilderness, living, as it were, in tents while they look for the city, ‘Whose builder and maker is God’ (Heb. 11:10). And today, Babylon still calls to us and lures us, perhaps more today than ever before, with her glitter and her promise of excitement, easy money and even easier sex, and God still calls to us, saying, “Come out of her, My people lest you share in her sins and you receive of her plagues” (18:4). It might be worth pausing here and taking time to read Proverbs 7 & 8.

Now when John sees this woman, he observes that she is tipsy- drunk with the blood of the saints and martyrs (v. 6a). All who refuse to drink from her golden cup, who are not seduced by the attractions of the world, may expect to suffer some form of discrimination. Does not Paul say, ‘Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution’ (2 Tim. 3:12)? Think of Daniel in the Babylon of old. If he had compromised his life-style and his witness, he could have avoided any persecution. If his faith and rectitude had not stood out, he would not have attracted the hostility of his colleagues in government and found himself in the lion’s den (Dan. 6:1-9). Think of the Apostles- the chief priests ‘took note that they had been with Jesus’ (Acts 4:13). They stood out because of their devotion to their Lord and they suffered for it. In England, in the times of Henry VIII and many of the monarchs who came after him, there was a lot of religion on show, a lot of luxury and jollity in the court, but those who tried to worship God in simplicity and in truth were tracked down and persecuted. Today, there are those of us who have left churches which we have felt to be too worldly and who have tried to keep ourselves, as James puts it, ‘Unspotted from the world,’ and although we do not yet experience much in the way of persecution in this country, are we not considered oddballs, contentious, fundamentalists and just miserable so-and-sos because we keep ourselves apart from Churches Together or whatever? And persecution may be closer than we think.

John is just utterly amazed at this vision (v. 6b). Well, so might you be if you saw a woman in a posh ball gown sitting on top of a beast with seven heads, so the angel explains it to him.

V.8. ‘The beast that you saw was and is not, and will ascend out of the bottomless pit and go to perdition. And those who dwell on the earth will marvel, whose names are not written in the Book of Life from the foundation of the world, when they see the beast that was, and is not and yet is.’

How shall we interpret such a Delphic interpretation? Well, it may be helpful to look back to 13:4, where we see that the beast has received a mortal wound which has somehow been healed. When I wrote on that chapter, I suggested that meant that Satan, along with all his works, had received his death-blow from Christ at the cross (cf. 1 John 3:8). Yet from the view-point of this world, Satan still seems to be very much alive, but in fact he is bound (Mark 3:27) and imprisoned so that he can no longer prevent the Gospel going out into the world (6:2) and his subjects from being set free and coming to Christ (Luke 4:18-21). So from an earthly point of view, Satan is very much alive, but from a heavenly perspective, he is mortally wounded and his doom is certain (Rom. 16:20). The Lamb that was slain, not the beast, is in control of our destinies (5:5-10). But to the unsaved, those who do not know Christ, the beast, the dragon and Babylon the Great seem much more remarkable and fascinating than Jesus of Nazareth.

V.9. ‘Here is the mind that has wisdom; the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits. There are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, and the other is yet to come. And when he comes, he must continue a short time.’

So the seven heads of the beast are first of all seven hills. Rome was famously built on seven hills, so in John’s day and for many years afterwards, Rome would personify the beast in the minds of most Christians. The Roman Empire supported every kind of luxury and pleasure, and tolerated almost every religion except the true one. Shortly before Revelation was written, under the Emperor Nero, Christians were coated in tar and set alight to illuminate his palace and the public parks. From then until its downfall in the 5th Century there would be sporadic persecution of God’s people. So Rome certainly fits the bill for the beast; but not only Rome. In Old Testament times, Babylon was the city that was a by-word for luxury and wickedness: ‘Babylon was a golden cup in the LORD’s hand, that made all the world drunk. The nations drank her wine; therefore the nations are deranged’ (Jer. 51:7). Today, London or Paris might come to mind. But it need not necessarily be a great city in terms of population; in 2:13, Pergamos is described as being where Satan’s throne is, and I believe that anywhere where worldliness prevails and is encouraged and supported by its government could be described as Babylon.

But we read that the seven heads of the beast are also seven kings or kingdoms. Five had fallen at the time Revelation was written, one was in power and one was to come. If the one that now is, is Rome, then the five may represent earlier kingdoms or empires which ruled over or oppressed the people of God in Old Testament times. We might think of Egypt, Nineveh, Babylon, Persia and Greece, the latter being particularly represented by Antiochus Epiphanes who persecuted the Jews during the period between the Testaments. If Rome is the sixth king, then one is still to come.

Why could this seventh kingdom not be the Arabs or Turks who ruled Jerusalem on and off for more than 1,000 years? Well, firstly because the Jews and Christians were spread all over the earth after Jerusalem was largely destroyed by the Romans in AD 70 and again in 136. No one earthly ruler has ruled over all of God’s people since then. Secondly, because Satan has been bound since Christ defeated him on the cross. I have mentioned this earlier, but let’s look at it in more detail. First, Matthew 12:29 and Rev. 20:1-3:-

‘….How can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his goods.’

‘Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, having a key to the bottomless pit [or ‘abyss’] and a great chain in his hand. He laid hold of the dragon, that serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years; and he cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal on him, so that he should no more deceive the nations until the thousand years were finished. But after these things he must be released for a little while.’

I suggest that these two events are the same. During the Old Testament period, God had chosen Israel for Himself and Satan was permitted to rule over the other nations (cf. Luke 4:5-7). But Christ has now defeated Satan on the cross and now has all authority in heaven and earth (Matt. 28:18). So Satan has been bound during the Gospel Age inasmuch as he cannot stop the Lord Jesus building His kingdom and taking the elect out of his clutches. But: ‘Now when the thousand years have expired, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations…..’ (20:7-8). Compare this now with 17:8: ‘The beast that you saw was and is not, and will ascend out of the bottomless pit and go to perdition.’ Almost at the end of time, Satan will be freed and the Beast will arise again in some sort of world government to oppress the people of God. This then, is the seventh kingdom which will ‘continue a short time’ before the end of the age. It is worth considering these things in conjunction with 11:7 and 13:6-8.

V.11. ‘The beast that was and is not, is also himself the eighth, and is of the seven and is going to perdition.’

I confess that I find this verse difficult. Perhaps this is to show that although the beast will appear in great power just before the end, nonetheless he is ‘of the seven’ and his kingdom, like the others will be finally and utterly defeated by Christ (20:9-10).

Vs. 12-14. ‘The ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have received no kingdom as yet, but they receive authority for one hour as kings with the beast. These will be of one mind, and they will give their power and authority to the beast. These will make war against the Lamb and the Lamb will overcome them, for He is Lord of lords and King of kings; and those who are with Him are called, chosen and faithful’

John is drawing heavily from Daniel 7. I am torn between two possible interpretations of these verses. One is that that they refer to the kingdoms and nations that have arisen since the fall of the Roman Empire and before the time of ‘Satan’s little season’ that we were considering above. These rulers come and go, but however religious they may profess to be, they are fundamentally worldly and opposed to true godliness. Therefore God’s people are urged; ‘Do not put your trust in princes, nor in a son of man in whom there is no help’ (Psalm 146:3).

The alternative view, and the one which I favour, is that these verses and the ‘one hour’ of these kingdoms’ authority, speak of ‘Satan’s Little Season’ when the nations of the world will be deceived (20:8) by Satan and join in some sort of alliance against God and against His rule. It is important to note that their authority is given to them; all power comes ultimately from God (cf. Rom. 13:1). It is He who will free Satan from his bondage and lead him into utter defeat (17:8; 20:7ff) for he is the Lord of all earthly lords and the King of all worldly kings. So there is a time coming when their will be an unparalleled time of wickedness in the world and a time when the persecution of Christians will become even worse than it is now. Where will we be if this time comes during our lives? Will we find the pressure too great and worship the beast with the rest of mankind (13:4) or will we be found with those who are ‘called, chosen and faithful’ and share in the victory of the Lamb. The duration of Satan’s Little Season is short; it is variously described as being ‘one hour’ or ‘three and a half days’ (11:9); these are symbolic descriptions to be compared with the three and a half years and the thousand years of the Gospel age (11:2-3; 20:2). No doubt the period will seem more than long enough to those Christians who have to endure it, yet, ‘He who endures to the end shall be saved’ (Matt. 24:13). For as we shall see, ‘The world is passing away, and the lust of it, but he who does the will of God abides forever’ (1 John 2:17).

V.15. ‘Then he [the angel] said to me, “The waters which you saw, where the harlot sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations and tongues.”’

Babylon the Great then, holds sway over the whole human race (for there are four descriptions of the waters, and four is the symbolic number of the world, representing north, south, east and west). Worldliness and the desire of riches and pleasure dominate the hearts of all those who do not belong to Christ.

V.16. ‘”And the ten horns which you saw on the beast, these will hate the harlot, make her desolate and naked, eat her flesh and burn her with fire; for God has put it into their hearts to fulfil His purpose, to be of one mind, and to give their kingdom to the beast until the words of God are fulfilled.”’

The punishment of the harlot is modelled on the punishment of Jerusalem prophesied by Ezekiel (compare Ezek. 16:39; 23:29). Because of the shameful sins of Israel, God gave her over to be ransacked, abused and taken into exile by other nations. This was also the fate of ancient Babylon, ancient Rome, and is the destiny of the harlot Babylon the Great. In some way, these nations, being brought perhaps to financial disaster, will bring an end to the luxury and profligacy that they have previously supported. It is hard to know how this will come about, but doubtless we shall know it when we see it.

V.17. ‘For God has put it into their hearts to fulfil His purpose, to be of one mind, and to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled.’

Despite all the wickedness and rebellion against God that we see around us, and which is likely to get much worse, we may be assured that God is in full control. The nations of the world are actually fulfilling His plans. ‘The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD; like the rivers of water He turns it wherever He wishes’ (Prov. 21:1; cf. Isaiah 10:5-11). The most wicked actions of Man will eventually glorify God.

V.18. ‘And the woman that you saw is that great city which reigns over the kingdoms of the world.’

Babylon, the ‘great city’(cf. 11:8; 18:10) is to be contrasted with the ‘holy city’ of 11:2, which is the new Jerusalem, the city of God (21:2). The one is the city of sin and darkness, the other of purity and light. The one is on its way to judgement and destruction; the other endures forever (Heb. 12:22ff). The one is all too visible today; the other is seen only with the eye of faith. Christians are no longer citizens of Babylon, and are strangers and pilgrims on the earth as they wend their way to the city that has foundations, whose maker and builder is God (1 Peter 2:11; Phil. 3:20; Heb. 11:9-10).

I’d like to finish with three pieces of application: First of all, whatever difficulties and discouragements we may face as Christians, we know how the story ends and we know that the good guys win. I know how discouraging it can be to be part of just a small fellowship and to see no growth despite every effort, and to wonder what you can do about it, but look again at 17:14. The Lamb will overcome becauseHe is Lord of lords and King of kings. However long and however hard the road may be, we will be vindicated in Christ Jesus.

Secondly, Babylon the Great will be with us constantly until almost the end of time. The temptations of the world will always be trying to allure us, to lure us into compromising our standards, to shift our ground in the direction of worldliness. ‘But you, O man of God, flee these things and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life’ (1 Tim. 6:11-12). Let us not forget- the proof that we are truly God’s people is that we are faithful. ‘He that endures to the end shall be saved.’

Finally, if real persecution comes, as seems more and more likely, where shall we be? If we are required to read from a truncated or modified Bible, or to abstain from preaching certain doctrines, what will we do? Christians in China and elsewhere are faced with similar decisions today. May the Lord give us wisdom in these matters, should they come upon us, and courage to follow our Saviour come what may.


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