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The Scarlet Woman (Revelation 17)

Revelation 17:1-3
"And there came one of the seven angels that had the seven bowls, and spake with me, saying, Come hither, I will show thee the judgment of the great harlot that sitteth upon many waters; 2 with whom the kings of the earth committed fornication, and they that dwell in the earth were made drunken with the wine of her fornication."

Chapter 17 opens with one of the angels bearing God's bowls of wrath coming near to John with the intention of showing him the "judgment of the great harlot that sitteth on many waters."  The King James version refers to this woman as a "whore."  There is some dispute in the religious world today as to who is to be the recipient of God's wrath as pictured in the Revelation.  When looking at the characteristics of this woman and comparing her to what we know of the Roman Empire, there can be little doubt as to who this infamous woman represents.  The angel goes to great lengths to identify her throughout the chapter.  In verse 18, the angel removes all doubt as to who this woman is. 

Revelation 17:18
"And the woman whom thou sawest is the great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth."

There was only one city on earth in the time of John's letter that fit that description.  The woman can only be the city of Rome.  So with this in mind, we will look at the characteristics of this woman and examine just how closely she really resembles the imperial city. 

She is introduced as a "harlot" in verse 1.  In verse 5 she is labeled on her forehead as the "Mother of the harlots."  Being the mother of harlots means being responsible for the procreation of harlots.  Harlotry in this case being descriptive of spiritual fornication or unfaithfulness to the Lord (Ezekiel 16, Jeremiah 2:1, Hosea 1:1). Imperial Rome compelled the conquered kings to enter into fornication with her in the form of emperor worship and she tried to force it upon her citizenry.  Thus we have the imagery of a woman who by her actions spawned spiritual harlots who worshipped the emperor instead of Jehovah. 

The "many waters" upon which the scarlet woman sits is explained in verse 15: "And he saith unto me, The waters which thou sawest, where the whore sitteth, are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues."  This leads right into verse 2 where the angel says "with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication."  The key words being "with whom."  The imagery here is that the rulers of the people represented by the "many waters" were guilty of fornication with the "mother of harlots" and they were specifically mentioned by the angel, signifying this was coming from the highest levels of government.  The spiritual fornication in view here was mandated from the leadership of the people down to the citizenry. 

Revelation 17:3
"And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness: and I saw a woman sitting upon a scarlet-colored beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns."

In the vision, the angel removes John from where he was and takes him into a wilderness where he sees "a woman."  The question immediately arises, is this the same woman previously mentioned?  A closer examination of her characteristics reveals that she is bedecked with those items signifying royalty.  Verse 4 describes her in terms of being "arrayed in purple (meaning royalty) and scarlet (meaning deadly), and decked with gold and precious stone and pearls."  This is most certainly an image of the top of the hierarchy of Roman authority.  The woman in view here is representative of none other than the Roman emperor himself.

"...[S]itting upon a scarlet colored beast...." This beast bears a striking resemblance to the beast mentioned in Revelation 13:1.  The scarlet color would indicate that the beast was deadly and wicked. Like the previous beast, this one has seven heads and ten horns.  The seven heads are later described in Revelation 17:9-10, "Here is the mind that hath wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth: and they are seven kings...."  We don't need to speculate any on what this means.  It obviously refers to the emperors of the Roman Empire. 

The "ten horns" are explained in verse 12: "And the ten horns which thou sawest are ten kings." The Roman Empire as a republic was organized as a provincial government.  Each province was ruled by a governor appointed by the Emperor.  There were many more than just ten provinces in the Roman Empire, and there were not exactly seven emperors at the time of John's letter.  A figurative view of the imagery would be that the beast had 7 (perfect) heads and 10 (complete) horns (authority).  The imagery will be something that is easily pictured in the imaginations the first readers.  It is likely the complete sum of all the Roman provinces were represented by the number ten with the seven mountains which were also kings being the Emperors reigning over the kings of the provinces.  The discussion of the ten horns is taken up in more detail later in this study.   

"Full of the names of blasphemy" would be a reference to the names the beast called himself.  Domitian, during his reign issued his decrees as "Lord God Domitianus" and such.  Therefore it would have been unmistakable in the minds of the first readers of John's letter that he was referring to the emperor.  

Revelation 17:4
"And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and decked with gold and precious stone and pearls, having in her hand a golden cup full of abominations, even the unclean things of her fornication,"

The woman sitting on the beast is arrayed in royal trappings. This imagery is descriptive of the Roman leadership.  She is carrying a "golden cup full of abominations".  In verse 6 we see that this woman is "drunken in the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus" signifying some of the contents of the golden cup.  The "unclean things of her fornication" would represent all the evils which have come from her idolatry and persecution.

Revelation 17:5-6
"And upon her forehead a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF THE HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. 6 And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. And when I saw her, I wondered with a great wonder."

God is giving this description as an identification of the scarlet woman.  She is the main harlot of John's Revelation, she is the main one responsible for idolatry, referred to as the "mother of the harlots."  In Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon made a statue roughly 90 feet tall and 9 feet wide.  He set this huge statue up in the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon.  Everybody is familiar with the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego.  They refused to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar's statue and worship it and were thrown into the fiery furnace (Daniel 3).  The scarlet woman, this mother of harlots, was named Babylon the great.  What did real Babylon and the great harlot named Babylon in Revelation 17 share in common?  They both imposed forced worship of an idol of the king of their country on their citizenry.  Looking back on the lesser land beast described in Revelation 13, we see in verse 14 that the lesser beast, which has been identified as the Roman Imperial cult known as the Concilia, made images, or statues to the greater beast and required these statues to be worshipped.  They had the power to cause those who refused to worship the images to be killed (Revelation 13:15).  This is identical to what happened in Babylon under the reign of king Nebuchadnezzar.   Thus the great whore is identified with Babylon who forced her people to worship idols.

In Peter's epistle, he made a reference to Babylon in 1 Peter 5:13.   Although questioned by some who would see this verse as a reference to Peter's wife, the best view is almost certainly that the church in Babylon is meant.  At the time of this writing Babylon had been destroyed never to be rebuilt and was nothing more than an isolated military outpost at best.  There is no evidence anywhere that Peter was literally in Babylon at any time.  There is evidence that Peter did travel to Rome and this evidence predates the apostate church.  Tradition places the death of Peter in Rome by the order of Nero.  At the time Peter wrote this epistle it was necessary to speak in guarded terms about the city of Rome in view of the persecution of Nero.  

There are a number of reasons why Peter would refer to Rome as Babylon.  Ancient Babylon was a center of enmity and oppression of God's people, so Rome had become in the times of the apostles.  Peter referred to his readers as "strangers and pilgrims" in a foreign land (1 Peter 2:11) as were the Israelites in Babylon.  Babylon was well known to the Jews as being a nation who worshipped many false gods as was Rome.  All these considerations taken together have great weight in indicating that the Peter's meaning was the city of Rome.  It is most significant here in this examination to recognize the fact that Jerusalem was never referred to as Babylon in scripture.  Peter almost certainly had Rome in mind when he spoke allegorically of Babylon.   His readership would have known this which strongly indicates that it was a well known and commonly understood reference to the city of Rome among the Jewish Christians which the Romans would be unable to understand.  This well known reference to the city of Rome certainly carried over to John's Jewish readership and there is every reason to believe that when the name of Babylon was given to the harlot, the city of Rome came to the minds of the Christians.  We must keep in mind that what Revelation meant to them is what it must mean to us.  It was written specifically to them, with applications for us. 

In addition to being named "BABYLON THE GREAT", the scarlet woman is called "THE MOTHER OF THE HARLOTS".  A mother is responsible for producing offspring.  She forms a mental image of someone from whom others come forth.  Nebuchadnezzar's forced idol worship proliferated and produced idol worshippers out of her citizenry.  The scarlet woman, who is identified by name with Babylon, was said to have made the inhabitants of the earth "drunk with the wine of her fornication"  Fornication in this context is representative of idol worship or the worship of a false god.  The Scarlet Woman, the great harlot, was guilty of forced idolatry. 

Moreover, this woman delights to drink or partake of the blood of God's saints.  This certainly fits the city of Rome and her severe oppression of the 1st century Christians.  She has spilled so much blood and partaken of so much bloodshed that she is intoxicated by it.  The blood of the saints is all over her.   The scarlet woman's identity is further determined by the explanation given to John by the angel beginning in verse 7. 

Revelation 17:7-8
"And the angel said unto me, Wherefore didst thou wonder? I will tell thee the mystery of the woman, and of the beast that carrieth her, which hath the seven heads and the ten horns. 8 The beast that thou sawest was, and is not; and is about to come up out of the abyss, and to go into perdition. And they that dwell on the earth shall wonder, (they) whose name hath not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, when they behold the beast, how that he was, and is not, and shall come. "

"and of the beast that carrieth her"
This imagery is of the scarlet woman being born upon or supported by the beast.  This certainly fits the relationship between the city of Rome and the empire.

"The beast that thou sawest was, and is not; and is about to come up out of the abyss, and to go into perdition."
The beast that was and is not and is about to come and then go is probably a reference to the changing leadership of the Empire.  Emperors came and emperors went.  It is obvious that the imagery here is one of the changing nature of the beast.  The line of evil Roman emperors certainly fits this description.  History records that there was some controversy around the death of Nero.  Many people doubted that he was really dead from suicide.  It was suspected that he actually fled to Parthia where he was gathering an army from among them to return to Rome and unseat whatever emperor was in control and rule over the Roman Empire again.  Domitian claimed in his early years as emperor to be Nero returned so it was a common superstition among the people of the time that Domitian was thought to be Nero either returned or reincarnated.  The allusion to the "was, and is not; and is about to come" certainly appears to fit the text.  We must keep in mind the writer is appealing to the imaginations of his first readers and they would certainly be familiar with the general superstitions and be able to understand what was being illustrated here.   

"And they that dwell on the earth shall wonder, (they) whose name hath not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world"

Obviously those who never had their names written in the book of life is a reference to the infidels.  Their "wonder" may be an expression of amazement at the beast's vitality and ability to die or disappear and then return in another form to continue his deadly designs on the Christians.  Those who do have their names written in the book of life (the faithful) understand that as terrible and tenacious as the beast appears to be, his end is going to be perdition.  The Greek word for perdition here means destruction, utter ruin and loss of well being.  This also fits well with the superstitions of a returning Nero as Domitian who would rule again and then disappear into ruin. 

Revelation 17:9-11
"Here is the mind that hath wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth: 10 and they are seven kings; the five are fallen, the one is, the other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a little while. 11 And the beast that was, and is not, is himself also an eighth, and is of the seven; and he goeth into perdition."

The seven heads of the beast were seven heads of the Roman empire.  The first emperor who was emperor under constitutional law was Augustus.  He was the first one that was elected by the senate and approved by the military.  Election and military approval were necessary by Roman law.  Julius Caesar was a dictator before Rome was a republic and was only in office because of popular demand.  He was never legally appointed to his position under constitutional law.  So with this in mind, we start our counting with the first legally elected head of the Roman Empire, as a republic, under the government in force at the time of the writing of John's revelation. 

The first five emperors are Augustus (26BC-13AD), Tiberius (14AD-37AD), Caligula (37AD-41AD), Claudius (41AD-64AD)  and Nero (64AD-68AD).  Verse 10 says these five are fallen thus out of the picture.  "The one is" in verse 10 would be Vespasian, the sixth king/emperor, who ruled from 69AD-79AD.  The "other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a little while" would be Titus who only reigned from 79AD-81.  His reign was short, only a "little while", and he was the seventh king.  Now we come to the king in verse 11 who is the "eighth".  This is the first mention of this king, who would have been Domitian.  He is the one that "was and is not" which refers back to Domitian's claim that he was the reincarnation of Nero. Also the eighth king was "of the seven"  which means that he was related to them.  Domitian was the brother of Titus and the son of Vespasian of the Flavian dynasty. 

Clearly the text appears by all points to date the writing of the Revelation during the reign of Vespasian.  This creates a difficulty in that tradition places John on the island of Patmos when the letter was written, having been exiled there by Domitian himself.  The Revelation is believed by the majority of scholars to have been written toward the end of Domitian's reign based largely on secular writings. There are some difficulties with John writing the revelation at that time, chiefly that one must ask what good it would do to write the book in 95-96AD, when the fiercest persecutions were almost over?  Additionally, how much time would it take to copy and distribute this letter to the churches in Asia to which the letter was addressed?   

Here is a possible explanation.  Secular writing states that "Revelation was written in the days of Domitian." It's hard to tell in the original Greek if that means it was WRITTEN then or SEEN then.  John could have been sent to Patmos by the local authorities there in Ephesus rather than by Vespasian himself sometime during his reign.  The Gnostics in Ephesus felt John was causing problems as he was exposing the error of their thinking.  John being on Patmos during Vespasianís reign would make the writing of the book in the late 70ís very possible.  John may have still been there during the reign of Titus and then allowed back to the mainland around 81 AD. The book at that point could have been copied and dispersed to the churches in Asia to be "SEEN in the days of Domitian." Domitianís worst persecutions started later into his reign, so that would have given the Christians time to read the book and know what was coming "shortly" and help them get ready for the intense persecutions to come. 

Revelation 17:12-13
"And the ten horns that thou sawest are ten kings, who have received no kingdom as yet; but they receive authority as kings, with the beast, for one hour.  13 These have one mind, and they give their power and authority unto the beast."

This is an explanation of the of the ten horns of the beast mentioned back in verse 3.  The ten horns represent the power of the empire which was concentrated in the provinces and not in the city of Rome herself.  The ten kings who had not yet received a kingdom were the vassal kings/leaders who ruled over the provinces and received authority from Rome, basking in this authority for a short period of time (one hour).  These vassal kings realizing their power and authority came directly from Rome were eager to please those in power in the imperial city.  This would explain why they were so zealous to persecute Christians.  When recruited by Rome to respond to insurrection they viewed the Christians as easy targets, thus being able to curry the favor of the Emperor easily.  Leaders of Provinces ruled longer with the favor of the emperor.

Daniel prophecies of a great beast in Daniel 7:23, "Thus he said, The fourth beast shall be the fourth kingdom upon earth, which shall be diverse from all kingdoms, and shall devour the whole earth, and shall tread it down, and break it in pieces."  The "beast" of Daniel is the same as the "beast" of Revelation.  This is an unmistakable reference to the Roman Empire.  No other empire fitting this description devoured the whole earth.  Daniel goes on to say that out of this 4th kingdom will arise one who will "speak great words against the most High, and shall wear out the saints of the most High, and think to change times and laws" (Daniel 7:25). This can be no other person but an emperor of the 4th kingdom; The beast of Daniel; the beast of Revelation.  No other imagery would come to mind in the imaginations of the first readers of Revelation.

Revelation 17:14
"These shall war against the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them, for he is Lord of lords, and King of kings; and they (also shall overcome) that are with him, called and chosen and faithful."

The leaders of these provinces rose up against the Christians to the call of the Imperial city.  However, the faithful Christians, against all odds will prevail against them and win in the end.  The lamb in this verse is obviously Jesus who was portrayed in other New Testament as a lamb (John 1:29; 1:36). 

Revelation 17:15
"And he saith unto me, The waters which thou sawest, where the harlot sitteth, are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues."

This was the explanation of the waters upon which the harlot sat, given to John by the angel in verse 1.  Commentaries on Revelation are a lot easier when it explains itself from within.  There is little room for error in such instances. 

Revelation 17:16
"And the ten horns which thou sawest, and the beast, these shall hate the harlot, and shall make her desolate and naked, and shall eat her flesh, and shall burn her utterly with fire."

The kings of the provinces will ultimately turn against Rome.  One of Rome's greatest fears was insurrection and turmoil in the provinces.  History records that is precisely what happened to the Roman Empire.  She was defeated from within by her own subjects. 

Revelation 17:17
"For God did put in their hearts to do his mind, and to come to one mind, and to give their kingdom unto the beast, until the words of God should be accomplished."

This was John's way of saying, "God's will be done."  To ask how God did this is but an exercise in futility.  Throughout history God used men and nations to carry out His purpose.  He could turn a nation to fighting within itself, as in the case of Midian during the time of Gideon (Judges 7:22), and of the Philistines in the days of Saul (1 Samuel 14:20).  In the battle of Moab and Ammon against Mount Sier, God gave victory to king Jehoshaphat without the army of Judah lifting a sword (2 Chronicles 20:23).  God's objective of putting in the hearts of the kings in Revelation 17 to do his mind is merely an example of His divine guidance in everything.  God is in charge and His will shall be accomplished.  Not one word shall fail, all will come to pass.

Revelation 17:18
"And the woman whom thou sawest is the great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth."

If one shred of doubt remains as to the identity of this woman, it should here be solved once and for all.  This verse was mentioned at the onset of the study on chapter 17 in order to give a positive identification to her identity for the purpose of firmly establishing who she was in our minds as we work through the text.  The woman is here identified for us as the "city that reigneth over the kings of the earth."  Rome ruled her empire through a government system made up of several geographic territories called provinces. Each province fell under the control of a provincial governor. The governors of these provinces were completely at the whim of the Emperor and could serve from 1 to 5 years.  There were about 28 imperial provinces at the height of the empire.  All of these provinces were subject to Roman rule.

There is some thinking in the brotherhood that names the Jewish nation as the identity of the great whore and the recipients of God's wrath in the revelation pertains to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70.  Jerusalem did not reign over the kings of the earth.  Jerusalem was not forcing anybody to worship a false god.  They were worshipping the one true and living God falsely.   The Jews were in God's disfavor from their rejection of Christ and His Gospel message and found themselves under Roman authority.  They were not ruling over the kings of the earth, rather they were vassal nation within and under the subjection of the Roman Empire and they were crushed because of their revolt against Roman authority. 

In addition to this, the Revelation was written in symbolic language which Jews would have been able to understand.  God always expressed His will in this manner when His people were in distress.  This was the way God used to communicate to His people without placing them in danger from their enemies.  God's will was revealed to His faithful children in ways only they would be able to understand while keeping it concealed from their enemies.  The immediate problem with Jerusalem being the Harlot is that the Jews still worshipping under the Mosaic Law would have been perfectly well able to understand all the symbols used in the Revelation.  God's purpose for using Apocalyptic language would have been self defeating if the Harlot was the city of Jerusalem. 

God's judgment was coming on the "great harlot that sitteth on many waters" (Revelation 17:1); "BABYLON THE GREAT" who forced idol worship on her citizens on pain of death, just like the real Babylon did.  There can be no doubt this is referring to the Imperial City of Rome.  She with "whom the kings of the earth committed fornication" (17:2); She who was "drunken with the blood of the saints" (17:6); and who sits "upon a scarlet colored beast" (17:3); She who was the "Mother of the Harlots" (17:5); and she who is "the city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth" (Revelation 17:18).

The Downfall of Imperial Rome

Such great significance has been attached to Imperial Rome as the center of the persecuting power toward Christianity in the latter half of the first century, that three chapters of the Revelation are given to portray her downfall.  Chapter 17 appears to be intent on identifying Rome as the recipient of God's judgment and portraying just how evil an adversary she is to the saints.  Verse 14 reassures the Christians that God will be victorious in the end.  Those who are "called and chosen and faithful" will overcome and emerge victorious.

Church of Christ Lessons on the Revelation of Jesus Christ

1.  Understanding Revelation
2.  Symbolic Objects in Revelation
3.  Understanding the Numerical Symbolism in Revelation
4.  Identifying the Opposition Characters in Revelation
John's Introduction to the Churches of Asia

6.  John's Vision of Jesus Christ
7. The Church who Left Her First Love, Ephesus
8.  Smyrna, the Suffering Church
9.  Pergamum, the church in Hell's Headquarter
10.  Thyatira, the church that Condoned Sin
11. Sardis (The Dead Church)
12. Philadelphia (The Church With Opportunity)
13.  Laodicea (The Lukewarm Church)

14.  Letter to Your Church
15.  John's Throne Vision (chapter 4)
16.  God the Redeemer Revealed  (chapter 5)
17.  God the Avenger of His Children (Chapter 6)
18.  Who Will Be Able To Stand  (Chapter 7)
19.  The First Four Trumpets
(Chapter 8)
20.  The Fifth Trumpet (Chapter 9:1-12)
21.  The Sixth Trumpet Announcement (Chapter 9:13-21)
22. The Little Book and the Unutterable Thunders (Rev 10)
23.  The Seventh Trumpet Announcement (Rev 11)
24. The Conflict (Revelation 12)
25.  Revelation 13 (Identification of the First Beast)

26.  Revelation 13 (Identification of the Second Beast)

27.  Chapter 14 (The Victorious Lamb and the Redeemed)
28.  Revelation 14 (The Turning Point)
29.  Revelation 14 (The Sickle and the Winepress)
30.  Chapter 15 (Comfort for the Saints)
31.  Chapter 16 (Bowls of Wrath)
32.  Chapter 16 (The Battle of Armageddon)
33.  Chapter 17 (The Scarlet Woman)
34.  Chapter 18 (Fallen  is Babylon)

35.  King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Chapter 19)
36.  The Fall of Satan  (Chapter 20)
37.  Heaven, the Home of the Soul  (Chapter 21)
38.  The Spirit and the Bride Say Come  (Chapter 22)
39.  The Dating of the Revelation

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Revelation 21:5-7

And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful.  And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely.  He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son.