As the bowls of wrath cycle brings home to us the finality, universality, and horror of divine judgment it concludes: “God remembered great Babylon and gave her the wine-cup of the fury of his wrath.” Here the vision brings this symbol in greater focus.
The historical Babylon is long gone at this point but its symbolic value as “the” Empire continued on and is here applied to Rome. For us today the Roman Empire is long gone but “Empire: has not vanished. We live in one today in America (which is our focus of concern). Babylon = Rome = America = future empires. That’s how we have to read this symbolism today.
We met the Beast in Rev.13 (actually the two Beast; one from the sea, another from the earth). They are the Dragon’s minions. “In the Spirit” the Seer is taken to the “wilderness” and enabled to perceive the true nature of this Beast. “Harlot,” “prostitute,” and “whore” are what John sees. Ugly words; ugly reality. These terms are not directed to women or sex. They are intrinsic to the symbol of harlotry elsewhere in the Bible. That term can mean idolatry, and social, political, economic, military oppression. Probably all are involved here, though the emphasis is on the latter four realities.
This harlot sits on a scarlet beast creating an imposing though repugnant image. Blasphemous names pervade her. The worship of Rome and the occasional claims of some emperors to be divine ae chief among such monikers. Its seven heads and ten horns mean what we have seen them mean elsewhere in Revelation. The seven heads = the fullness of authority. The ten horns = fullness of strength and power. Adorned with all sorts of precious jewels, this harlot carries a cup, “a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication.”
But more than that, there is a double drunkenness at work here. The kings and inhabitants of the earth are drunk with Babylon’s wine (V.2) and Babylon herself is drunk with “the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus” (v.6). And drunk, each is liable to deception. Babylon deceives the kings and people to follow her. But the harlot herself is drunk and deceived by her own lies and illusions about who she is and what she can do. And both make themselves liable to judgment by these deceptions. And the outcomes of these drunken delusions are a big part of the judgment they receive.
The Demise of the Beast (17:7-14)
Another “mystery” is revealed here: this impressive and overwhelming entity, this beast, will be destroyed! I agree with Grimsrud that we probably cannot sort out the imagery here. Nor do we have to. The mystery is that this seemingly invincible reality will bite the dust! Certainty about God’s power and victory will always be in question. In our hearts and in the world at large. That’s why the so-called problem of evil has such bite. It directly contests this basic Christian truth. So the vision reinforces that here but in a way that reinforces God’s own peculiar way of dealing with evil.
Wisdom is needed here. To ally with the Beast will seem the most normal, natural, and desirable thing in the world. The “seven mountains” identify this beast as Rome, “the city set on seven hills.” While the imagery here is difficult and there is no consensus on it, the punch line is in v.13: “These are united in yielding their power and authority to the beast.” All earthly power and authority is rooted in the beast and his dragon patron.
Further, this beastly power will contest the reality, presence, and power of God and the Lamb. Earthly Empires and the divine Empire do not mix, oil and water-like. Yet astonishingly, the Lamb will conquer them! Here John harks back to one of favorite themes – conquering. And we are reminded that in Revelation, as well as the rest of the New Testament, conquering means living in the self-sacrificial loving way of Jesus. And that’s the way his people conquer too. “And they conquered him by the blood of the Lamb (Rev.12:11). God’s promised and certain triumph comes not through a mighty display of “shock and awe.” Rather it comes in the most unlikely and implausible way – through a people living by the power of One who gave his life for others and thus set God’s redeeming and reconciling love free in the world. And that’s a force none can finally withstand!
But there is more here. The Beast rules over “many peoples and multitudes and nations and languages” (v.15). Now hears the stinger in the tail. These “authorities” who have given themselves to the Beast (Rome) will ultimately turn on it and do it in. Evil cannibalizes itself – that seems a law of history. “For God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by agreeing to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God will be fulfilled.” There is a moral order to God’s world that will not allow evil to triumph forever. Evil will turn on itself and destroy itself. Rome’s come-uppance will come several centuries hence – but it will come through powers that take advantage of the unraveling of Rome’s internal life. I encourage you to pray and seek wisdom concerning where our own country may be in this ineluctable process.
More on this beast/Rome/Empire in the next chapter!