The Description of the Harlot
Revelation 17:3 says,
3 And he [the angel] carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness; and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast, full of blasphemous names, having seven heads and ten horns.
In verse 5 this woman is identified as “Babylon.” John had to be taken to the wilderness to see her. Recall that in Rev. 12:6 the woman who gave birth to the male child (Christ) “fled into the wilderness.” Later in Rev. 12:14 we read that this same woman was “nourished for a time and times and half a time” in the wilderness.
The question is this: Is the Babylonian woman in Revelation 12 the same as the woman in Revelation 17? Both are in the wilderness. We are not told how the Babylonian woman arrived in the wilderness. The angel simply shows John the woman while she was in the wilderness. Those who place their faith in the church may have difficulty seeing them as the same woman, insisting that there were two women in the wilderness.
Yet when we consider the fact that this is obviously patterned after Israel’s wilderness experience under Moses, we should ask ourselves WHY this woman is in the wilderness? Israel had to go through the wilderness to get to the Promised Land, but if she had been able to hear the voice of God in Exodus 20:18-21, she would have had the faith to enter the Promised Land after just 490 days (from Pentecost of the first year to Tabernacles of the second year). She would not have had to spend 40 years in the wilderness.
In Rev. 12:6 John implies that the church-woman fled from the serpent’s persecution. But why would she need to spend so much time in the wilderness? Did she share Israel’s lack of faith? Was she afraid to hear God’s voice and be led by the Spirit? We know this has been a church problem, not only because she was following Israel’s lead, but also because actual history proves this. Quite early, church officials removed from the people the right to hear God’s voice for themselves. The people were told to listen to their leaders, who were supposed to tell them what God said.
The only possible difference is that Israel was too afraid to hear God for themselves, whereas the church was not allowed to hear God for themselves. Yet the result was the same, because lack of hearing will always result in a shortage of faith to enter the Promised Land. It is not that Israel lacked justifying faith, for they had all kept Passover. But at Mount Sinai nearly all of them were too afraid of hearing God for themselves and thus lacked Pentecostal faith which would have trained them for the highest level—Tabernacles faith. This was why they were unable to enter God’s rest at that time.
Paul says in Rom. 1:17 that “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith.” It seems to me that there are three main levels of faith, each necessary to experience a different feast day.
Israel’s lack of faith caused them to worship the golden calf shortly after failing to hear God for themselves. In fact, their shortage of faith during their entire wilderness wandering meant that most were led by the flesh, rather than by the Spirit. The flesh is always an inner “harlot” that leads us to worship the golden calf, for she is motivated by the love of money, which is the root of all evil. On a corporate scale, the church has had the same problem throughout the entire church age. In fact, this is one of the main themes of John’s Revelation.
The same Israel (including Judah) that brought forth both David and Jesus is the nation that worshiped the golden calf under Moses and later became Hosea’s harlot. Is it then difficult to believe that the same carnality and harlotry might be found in the church? Just as Israel and Judah were cast out for their national harlotry, so also has the church as a whole been disqualified from ruling the Kingdom. Paul says that only the remnant of grace—the overcomers—were truly “chosen” in the days of Elijah. The same is true today in the context of the church.
There are always two men, two women, two cities, or two other manifestations (natural and spiritual) which compete for the inheritance. In each dispute, both characters believe that they are called or “chosen” to be the inheritor of the earth. But only one is truly called. The other usurps the calling, but must give way at some point in time.
So here in Rev. 17:3 we see that the church, which fled into the wilderness shortly after Pentecost in Acts 2, was not able to enter the Kingdom at that time, but like Israel, she had to spend a long time in the wilderness. That in itself is an indictment upon the church. Whereas Israel spent just 40 years in the wilderness, the church spent 40 Jubilee cycles in the wilderness.
The time given by John for her wilderness experience is “a time and times and half a time” (12:14). As we noted in Revelation 13, the religious (church) beast rising from the sea spoke arrogantly and blasphemously for 42 months, which is 1,260 years or 3½ “times.” In other words, the church came into power in 529-534 A.D. under Justinian, and became known in Daniel’s revelation as the “little horn.” This was when the church, on account of its religious carnality, became part of the Babylonian succession of empires.
So the harlot is pictured sitting (or really riding) on a beast, rather than upon a throne. She is carried by the beast system. Because a throne is a symbol of law, she is, in essence, lawless, but yet she follows the carnal laws of the beast system. She is begotten by flesh, not by the Spirit. The red beast that she rides is “full of blasphemous names,” showing that there are many manifestations of immorality and lawlessness in this beast.
Because she rides this beast, her throne is pictured as movable. This contrasts with the throne of the Ancient of Days that is immovable, being built upon a sure foundation. The law depicts the character of God, which is unchanging (Mal. 3:6), though its forms and applications changed in the ways shown in the book of Hebrews. Hence, the law is also pictured as fire, which changes its appearance and its form, but not its character.
The beast itself is a corporate beast, for it has “seven heads and ten horns,” which are later interpreted to mean “seven mountains” (17:9), i.e., “seven kings” (17:10). The ten horns are “ten kings” (17:12). We will say more of this later. It is enough for now to point out that the harlot rides this corporate beast that includes many kings or kingdoms.
The great harlot is more than the church, but it certainly includes it. Even so, there are also overcomers in each generation, whom God has raised up, like the 7,000 in the days of Elijah, to carry the word of the Lord and to be the actual inheritors of the Kingdom. Hence, the overcomers are not to be viewed as being part of this harlot city.
The Description of the Harlot
Revelation 17:4 describes the harlot’s clothing this way:
4 And the woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls, having in her hand a gold cup full of abominations and of the unclean things of her immorality.
Purple and scarlet robes speak of royalty, while “gold and precious stones and pearls” speak of great wealth. The red robes of the Roman cardinals and the pope’s purple robes indicate a literal fulfillment of John’s description.
The “gold cup” in the harlot’s hand is more symbolic and prophetic than literal, although there is no doubt that literal gold cups have been used, not only in Rome, but also in most royal houses. The important thing is to see that John’s reference to the gold cup is taken from Jer. 51:7,
7 Babylon has been a golden cup in the hand of the Lord, intoxicating all the earth. The nations have drunk of her wine; therefore the nations are going mad.
Earlier, the prophet told Jerusalem in Jer. 25:15,
15 For thus the Lord, the God of Israel, says to me, “Take this cup of the wine of wrath from My hand, and cause all the nations, to whom I send you, to drink it. 16 And they shall drink and stagger and go mad because of the sword that I will send among them.” 17 Then I took the cup from the Lord’s hand and made all the nations drink, to whom the Lord sent me: 18 Jerusalem and the cities of Judah…
The prophecy shows that Babylon itself is compared to a golden cup in God’s hand. In other words, Babylon was the instrument of divine judgment upon Judah, and all the nations were required to drink from it (Jer. 25:28). So it is called the “cup of the wine of wrath,” designed to make the nations drunk and “go mad.”
In Rev. 17:4 the harlot holds the golden cup, by which “those who dwell on the earth were made drunk with the wine of her immorality” (Rev. 17:2). Wine and other forms of alcohol tend to break down one’s inhibitions and moral standards, so we find the harlot giving the nations her “wine.” Yet we should not lose sight of the fact that the gold cup belonged to God, who then gave it to the harlot in order to bring judgment upon the nations.