Babylon and the Beast (Rev. 17)

One of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s most famous literary works is the poem “Ozymandias,” which is about a monument discovered in the deserts of Africa dedicated to the ancient Pharaoh, Ramesses the Great, who was known by the Greeks as Ozymandias. It goes like this:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone 
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand, 
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, 
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed; 
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The poem is a moving reminder that power and might do not often survive the years. Once the head of a mighty empire that must have created feelings of panic in the hearts of his enemies, nothing now remains of Ozymandias’s empire, just broken monuments surrounded by vast oceans of sand.

You could say that in a sense Rev. 17-18 is a Biblical version of Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” In Revelation chapter 17, John is in a sense taken to a desert in “an antique land” to imagine a godless empire which, like all the empires before it, will, despite its power and glory and might and influence, be destroyed and wiped off the face of the earth. It is the kingdom of a harlot and a beast, whose vast domain stretches over all the inhabitants of the earth (ver. 8), over all “peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues” (ver. 15).

In 17:3, we are told that one of the seven angels with the seven golden vials came to carry John “away in the spirit into the wilderness: and I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns.” We’ve noted that the book of Revelation is organized around four visions, each of which begins when John is caught up “in the Spirit.” The first is the vision of the risen Christ in chapters 1-3 which gives us the letters of Christ to the seven churches; the second the vision from heaven in chapters 4-16 which gives us the three cycles of seven judgments. The third begins here in chapter 17 and goes to 21:8. This section gives us a picture of two women, the harlot Babylon (along with the beast on which she rides) and the Lamb’s bride and the future of them both. The last vision will go from 21:9 to almost the end of the book which will give us a picture of the final state in a new heavens and a new earth.

What is the point of this section of Scripture? Well, the point is this: we are meant to be motivated here not to join the beast and Babylon in their godless cause by considering their end. If we’re going to do this, though, we need to understand what John says about the identity of the woman (Babylon) and the beast, and what he says about the heads and horns of the beast. Once we do that, we’ll come back to ask the following questions: Why would someone be attracted to Babylon and the Beast in the first place? Then we want to ask: how do we resist the attractions of Babylon and the Beast? So we want to consider three things, then: the important identification of, the deadly attraction to, and the necessary opposition against Babylon and the beast.

The Identification of Babylon and the Beast

Let’s start with the woman. She is identified as a harlot who sits upon many waters (1) which is identified in verse 15 with the nations of the earth. This is the same language the prophet Jeremiah uses of Babylon in Jer. 51:13. Hence, it wouldn’t have surprised John’s readers when the mystery of the woman is described by the words: “Babylon The Great, The Mother Of Harlots And Abominations Of The Earth” (5). She is decked out in luxurious clothing with a golden goblet in her hands (4). The woman sits on seven mountains (9) and rules over all the kings of the earth (18).

John clearly means his readers to think of Rome, the city which in the first century did in fact rule over much of the known world at the time. Rome was also known in ancient literature as the city built on seven hills. The identification with Babylon, the great city, indicates that Rome in the first century A.D. functioned as Babylon did in the sixth century B.C. Babylon had been the origin of persecution for God’s people as well as being a center of idolatrous worship which was a constant temptation for the people of God. In the same way, Rome was the center of emperor worship, and it was the commercial and political center of the world, using its power and influence both to corrupt and to persecute believers. This woman is seen to be drunk with the blood of believers, the martyrs of Jesus (6). If they will not be tempted by its paganism, they will be trampled by its power.

The woman rides a beast, now seen in verse 3 as a scarlet-colored beast (and therefore in color like the red dragon who gave him his power), but which we have already seen in previous chapters (esp. chap. 13). We have seen that this beast is modeled after imagery in the prophesy of Daniel, and that he is meant to represent antichristian, totalitarian systems and governments in all of history, but which will culminate in the reign of the Antichrist at the end of history.

Now although we have a fuller description of the beast here in chapter 17, John’s descriptions have tended to baffle interpreters. The interpretation of the seven heads is in particular difficult. Tom Schreiner, for example, in his commentary on this chapter [ESV Expository Commentary] says, “Here we come face to face with one of the most difficult texts in the entire book.” There are three things about the beast that are explained but which in some ways leave us scratching our heads even more. They are first, the description of the beast as the one who was, is not, and is to come; second, the seven heads; and third, the ten horns.

First, we are told that the “beast that thou sawest was, and is not; and shall ascend out of the bottomless pit, and go into perdition: and they that dwell on the earth shall wonder, whose names were not written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, when they behold the beast that was, and is not, and yet is” (8). Now some interpreters tend to want to drag Nero into this. There was a conspiracy theory in the first century that Nero was going to come back from the dead at the head of a Parthian army and retake his throne in Rome. So they apply this to Nero as the one who was (during his reign from 54-68), who is not (when John was writing), but who is going to come back (who shall ascend to his throne again). Those who take this interpretative approach also tie it to the meaning of the seven heads and make Nero to be one of the heads of the beast.

There are numerous problems with this, but I think the biggest mistake here is to think that our Lord intended to spread a conspiracy theory about Nero! No, as bad as Nero was, this is bigger than any one particular Roman emperor. Rather, this is probably a reference to the fact that totalitarian regimes tend to come and go, and that as soon as you think one regime has been put down forever, another rises up. The beast has come and gone in many kings and kingdoms throughout human history, it will keep coming back until the end of history, ultimately and finally in the Antichrist who will be destroyed and “go into perdition.” In other words, the beast keeps rising, but there will be a last time.

What about the seven heads? Well, there have been many attempts to tie this to different lists of Roman emperors and to use it to identify the time when John wrote Revelation. But it seems to me that there are numerous problems with this approach. For example, it’s not clear who you start with: Julius Caesar or Augustus or someone else? Do you include the three emperors whose very brief reigns in the years 68- 69 are reasons some give to exclude them from an official list of Roman rulers? It’s not clear. One approach is to start with Augustus, leave out the three Roman emperors in the years 68-69 (Galba, Otho, and Vitellius[1]). If you do that, Nero is number five, Titus is the seventh, and Domitian is the eighth (and therefore the beast?). That would also mean that John is writing sometime between 68 and 69 corresponding to the time when the beast is not.

But personally I think this is all a bit much. Any choice of Roman emperors is the end product of a number of what seems to me to be arbitrary decisions, and at the end of the day, there is nothing in the text itself to indicate that this particular reading is the correct one. Furthermore, it is simply incommensurate with what Revelation has to say about the beast to identify him with any one of the Roman emperors.

Again, the problem here is that folks aren’t reading this in light of its OT background in the book of Daniel. In Daniel (see Dan. 7), the beasts are called kings (as the heads of Rev. 17 are, see ver. 10) but it’s clear that Daniel is not just talking about particular rulers but of the kingdoms which they rule. The seven heads of the beast are not meant therefore to point us to individuals who ruled a particular empire; they are meant to point us to kingdoms and the fulness of the beast’s power in antichristian totalitarian states. This is, after all, corresponds to the way the number seven is used in Revelation. The fact that five of the heads have fallen, one is, and one is to rule for a short period of time in the future is meant, I think, to teach us that the beast’s rule is going to come to an end. His time is running short. It’s almost as if John is saying that the beast doesn’t have nine lives; he has seven, and he’s already used five!

One more puzzling thing said about the beast is that he is one of the seven heads and is an eighth – what does that mean? Again, I think you have a problem here if you try to identify the heads with Roman emperors.[2] But if this is talking about godless kingdoms, it is simply meant to say that the final antichristian kingdom, the rule of the Antichrist, will be the culmination and end-product of all the previous wicked empires of men. He is one of the seven in the sense that the final reign of the Antichrist will be like its previous manifestations (in terms of its totalitarianism and wickedness), but it will be an eighth in the sense that it will be much worse and more wicked than all the previous ones put together. 

The fact that the woman Babylon is Rome and rides the beast indicates that Rome (with all her emperors!) was the current incarnation of the beast’s demonic power. But even this will end. And this brings us to the ten kings (again, probably a symbolic number). For we are told of ten horns which are ten kings who will receive their rule at some point in the future from the beast and who will turn with the beast to destroy the harlot Rome (12-17). You see, the wicked, like gangsters, will eventually turn on each other. It is the nature of evil to eat itself. In the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s, the Republican army was composed of two groups of communists who lost the war to the Nationalists under Franco because they attacked and killed each other as much as they did their common enemy. Hitler and Stalin were officially friends as the Second World War commenced, but it didn’t take long before Germany attacked Russia. And so it goes throughout history. So it will go with Babylon and the beast.

The Attraction of Babylon and the Beast

It is easy to get caught up in the interpretive difficulties of passages like this and miss the point it is trying to make. Of course you have to interpret it correctly to make the proper application. We can’t afford to skip the interpretative part. But we do want to apply it. So let’s ask the question: what does this have to do with us?

In John’s day, Rome was the political and commercial and religious power through which antichristian and godless forces sought to influence, corrupt, and coerce the church. Rome was to the church in the first century what Babylon was to Israel in the sixth century before Christ. The problem was that professing Christians were in danger of joining forces with Babylon (Rome) and the beast instead of standing against it. We have seen the very real danger of this in the letters to the seven churches. The churches of Thyatira and Pergamum, for example, were clearly compromising with the idolatrous culture with which they were surrounded.

Though there will be a final manifestation of the beast’s power in the rule of the end-times Antichrist, we’ve been arguing all along that the beast represents all the antichristian states and systems throughout all of human history that seek to allure the Christian to abandon the faith or to attach those who won’t. It is the perennial problem of worldliness and idolatry, of turning from the worship of God to the worship of the creature.

The imagery of the harlot in this chapter is not just meant to make us think of immorality. In the OT, prostitution was the symbol for idolatry. When the children of Israel transferred their affections and their loyalty from the true God to false gods, it was like a woman leaving the protection and provision and love of a good husband for the life of a prostitute. The danger presented before here, therefore, in this imagery, is not just sexual sin but idolatry (though the two almost always go together). The danger here is loving other things and purng them in the place of God. The danger here is conformity to the world rather than conformity to Christ.

We need to understand that the danger John is warning against is not just missing out on a few spiritual blessings. Those who apostatize and turn to join themselves with the harlot Babylon and the beast and don’t repent will participate in their eternal ruin. So this can be an infinitely and eternally serious issue. And even if a person is a true Christian and doesn’t apostatize, they can still suffer serious spiritual damage to their own lives, witness, and homes if they compromise – even temporarily – with the world. The church must be separate from the world, no matter what the earthly cost is.

However, the apostle recognizes that people really are attracted to the things that Babylon offers and this makes the danger of Babylon more perilous. What does Babylon offer? It offers – at the cost of course of abandoning faithfulness to Jesus – worldly power, worldly prosperity, and worldly pleasure. Babylon is powerful, this city which sits on the waters and rules over the nations. The kings of the earth bow to her wishes and drink from her cup. If you want earthly security, if you want to avoid difficulty in this life and persecution, if you just want to go along to get along, you are going to have to kowtow to Rome, to the religious, political, and commercial powers of your day.

Babylon is prosperous. You see that in the clothing of the harlot. She is dressed in luxury, in gold, pearls, and purple. She has a golden cup in her hand. She offers earthly comfort and riches to people who drink from her cup.

Babylon is a purveyor of pleasure; she is a harlot after all. She offers enough wine to get intoxicated on. She says, “Follow me and I’ll make you happy.”

And the thing is that she offers all these things now. Love this world, she says, for all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, belongs to the present order of things, and if you give yourself to it you can have it all now. On the other hand, the world mocks those who hold out for future blessing, for eternal life on the other side of death. It argues, “Why should you risk missing out on so much pleasure and fun now for a future that you might never have?”

These things are like the siren song that can bewitch us and turn our hearts to love this present evil world. John doesn’t just assume that we will say no, and what he does here therefore is to help us say no.

How does he do this? How do we avoid the siren song? How do we join John in saying, “No, I am not going to love this world or the things in the world, for all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not from the Father but is of this world. And the world passes away along with its lusts, but the one who does the will of God abides forever” (cf. 1 Jn. 2:15-17). We see how by paying attention to the imagery of the vision.

The Opposition to Babylon and the Beast

Let John give you three strategies to fight the allurement of Babylon and the beast.

Learn to be disgusted by the evil of their perversity.

John wants to you to be disgusted by the harlot. She is not a nice woman. She is a prostitute. She is drunk with the blood of the saints. The luxurious clothing is a thin disguise for a filthy woman. She doesn’t ride on a white horse but on a seven-headed beast that takes its cue from Satan himself.

The imagery itself is really enough to turn your stomach, but the Holy Spirit doesn’t want to leave you in any doubt, and so we are told that the “golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication” (4). The word “abomination” literally means “something detestable.” The word is used again in verse 5: “And upon her forehead was a name written, Mystery, Babylon The Great, The Mother Of Harlots And Abominations Of The Earth.”

When we read in verse 6, that John, when he “saw her . . . wondered with great admiration,” we are not meant to think that John actually admired her, as if he saw something positive and wonderful and admirable in her. This is an old seventeenth century use of the word “admiration,” and really is meant to convey the thought that John was taken aback by this. In other words, he was stunned, shocked. We should be too.

I think one of the problems of modern Christianity is that we aren’t as shocked by sin as we ought to be. We’ve lost the “ick” factor. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that we look down our noses at sinners or forget that if not for the grace of God there go I. I’m not saying that we don’t have to be respecsul to people, even to those who are living in sin. But what I am saying is that something is wrong in us if sin doesn’t make our stomach churn, especially the types of open, in-your-face profligacy that we are seeing literally paraded around in our streets. The prophet warns us, “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Isa. 5:20). We should not taste what God has forbidden and call it sweet. And woe to us if we taste wickedness and actually think it is sweet!

Rather, let us be disgusted by sin. Some of the imprecatory Psalms can be helpful here. For example: “I have not sat with vain persons, neither will I go in with dissemblers. I have hated the congregation of evil doers; and will not sit with the wicked” (Ps. 26:4-5). Or: “I look at the faithless with disgust, because they do not keep your commands” (Ps. 119:158, ESV). Or: “Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate thee? and am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee? I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them mine enemies” (Ps. 139:21-22). Now these passages don’t abrogate the Biblical obligation of the Christian to love their enemies (cf. Mt. 5:43). But they also demonstrate that we can’t love what God hates. Anytime we see open, unrepentant rebellion in ourselves or others, we ought to hate it. It ought to disgust us.

The reason why this is so important is that you will never be really protected against the deception of sin if you have not learned to hate it in your heart. Disgust with sin, hating what God hates, is a bullet-proof vest against the arrows of evil which want to poison our hearts and turn them against God. “Ye that love the Lord, hate evil” (Ps. 97:10). “Abhor that which is evil; cling to that which is good” (Rom. 12:9). The two go together; you cannot love the Lord or cling to the good if you do not hate and abhor evil.

If you ask me how you become disgusted with evil, I think the first thing is that you have to be born again. When a person is born again in a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit, God gives them a new heart. Which means that we are all of us utterly and fundamentally dependent upon the grace of God here. If this is the case, the starting point for any of us is to depend upon the Lord and be always asking for his grace and help.

But I don’t think that means we do nothing. Those who are born again are not automatically immune from the assaults of Satan or the temptation of worldliness. We need to take measures and the first thing is to make sure that we are not drunk on the wine of worldliness and idolatry but that we are seeing things for what they are, that our vision and mind is clear. And of course the way we do that is by having our eyes opened to see God’s word clearly. We need the eyes of our hearts to be constantly calibrated by the eye-glasses of God’s word in the Scripture. Read it, meditate upon it, practice it, memorize it, sing it, tell it to others. Let the word of Christ dwell richly in you. That is the first step: be disgusted by sin by delighting in the Scriptures.

Learn to be disenchanted by the end of their perdition

John wants us not only to be disgusted; he wants us to be disenchanted with Babylon and the beast by considering their end. The reality is that no matter how much power, privilege, prosperity, and pleasure Babylon and the beast wield now, they will be eternally judged. Fast forward a bit and we see it: “And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (Rev. 20:10). Texts like that ought to make our hearts tremble with horror and to make us realize that it just isn’t worth it to join the beast.

Learn to be discipled by the encouragement of God’s promise

Finally, it’s important that we are discipled by the encouragement of God’s promise. In a world that is cold and hostile against the Christian, we need to learn to live next to the windows of God’s promises that let in the light and heat of God’s love and faithfulness. There are three ways we find that kind of encouragement here, especially in the promise of God’s sovereignty over all things for his glory and the good of his people.

First, you see it in the implied description of God’s people as those whose names are written in the book of life from the foundation of the world (8). Our Lord told his disciples to rejoice, not because the demons were subject to them but because their names were written in heaven (Lk. 10:20). And he told his disciples on another occasion that “there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect” (Mt. 24:24). In other words, what these texts tell us is that God’s people are ultimately secure from the power of Satan. Their names are known by God, he has chosen them from eternity, and he will keep them. God is the one “that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy” (Jude 24). It is good to remember that even though we live in a world that seems to be defined by chaos, where nothing seems to be certain, God’s promise to his people that nothing can separate them from his love is more certain than life itself. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything for us to do to resist the devil and the world, but it does mean that we can fight against it knowing that in Christ we are more than conquerors through him that loves us.

Second, we see it in the description of God’s people in verse 14. Though the kings of the earth join to beast to fight with the Lord at Armageddon, they will be defeated. But note this: our Lord defeats them through the army of his people: “These shall make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them: for he is Lord of lords, and King of kings: and they that are with him are called, and chosen, and faithful.” We are called to be faithful but note that the faithful are first the chosen and called. God has elected a people before the foundation of the world, and in time he calls them effectually by the gospel to faith in Christ. These are the people who are faithful, and they are faithful because underneath their faithfulness is the faithfulness of God. Can we not rejoice in that?

Finally, we see it in the description of God’s sovereign control even over his enemies in verses 16-17: “And the ten horns which thou sawest upon the beast, these shall hate the whore, and shall make her desolate and naked, and shall eat her flesh, and burn her with fire. For God hath put in their hearts to fulfil his will, and to agree, and give their kingdom unto the beast, until the words of God shall be fulfilled.” Here we see the enemies of God and his people turn on each other. Why did they do this? “For God hath put it in their hearts to fulfill his will.” Can you get a better statement of the sovereignty of God than that? God is in control, not only of the good things, but even over the evil actions of men. This doesn’t make God the author of sin. Nor does it take away the responsibility of men for their own actions. But in a mysterious way, God’s will rules over the wills of men. God’s freedom, not man’s, is decisive! Again, in a world that seems to have gone crazy, in a world that seems to be given over to the evil of men, we can rest in God’s sovereign plan that will take what men mean for evil and bring about much good, to glorify his name and to do good to his people.

Here in Rev. 17, we see a woman astride a beast. But Revelation 17-19 really ends up presenting us with the picture of two women, not just one. One woman, in chapters 17-18, is the picture of Babylon as a harlot. But then we see in chapter 19 another woman: it is the bride of the Lamb, clothed in fine linen, clean and white. The book of Revelation puts these two women before us to help us to see that you can either follow the harlot and share her awful end or you can be united to Christ and be part of his church, his bride and share her bright and glorious future. Where are you this morning? Are you following the harlot or are you a member of the bride of Christ? As the prophet put it, don’t hesitate between two opinions this morning. Here is how the book of Revelation ends: “And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely” (22:17). Don’t go after the harlot; come to Christ, embrace him by faith, and take the water of life freely!

[1] One should note that Vitellius was officially recognized as a Roman emperor by the Roman senate, so it’s not clear to me why he should be disregarded from any list.

[2] Though I suppose that some could argue that since Domitian was the brother of Titus that would make him “one of the seven,” but still an eighth emperor in his own right. However, this still runs into the problem of identifying Domitian with the beast in an absolute sense. Domitian, as bad as he may have been, was not the Antichrist.


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