Mystery Babylon
Part 1—The Great Harlot: Revelation Chapter 17

by Joel Richardson

Part 2—The Great Harlot: Revelation Chapter 18  |  Part 3—Mecca/Saudi Arabia as the Great Harlot

Essential to the study of the final Antichrist system is a proper understanding of Mystery Babylon—also sometimes referred to as the Great Harlot or the Great Prostitute. According to the biblical passages that describe her, who or what exactly is this "Great Prostitute"? What is her function and what is it exactly that she does? Is this Great Harlot active in the world today? Can she be identified? These are actually fairly difficult questions.

The prophetic portion of Scripture that speaks of the Great Harlot, as found in the Book of Revelation, is actually the longest prophecy in the entire New Testament. In studying this prophecy, various commentators and Bible teachers have arrived at many different conclusions. Perhaps the most common interpretation popular among Protestants has been that the Great Harlot is the Roman Catholic Church or some form of apostate ecumenical Christianity.

Others see this passage as referring to the United States of America. Our position here is that the Harlot is none of the above mentioned entities but something entirely different. We understand that anytime a newer interpretation is submitted to the Church, that it will likely be met with a strong measure of skepticism.

Whenever long held positions are challenged, there will be an inevitable backlash. It is thus with all humility that we submit to you the reader, our own position here for your careful consideration. Our intention is not to belittle those who have long held to any of the above mentioned positions, but to challenge the existing paradigms using the Scriptures of course as our adjudicator. Beyond this, we do not dogmatically declare our position here to be the final word on the matter—though we do feel very strongly that it is the most likely position and that it should be strongly considered.

As we consider the meaning of the following passages together, we carry with us the conviction that we all see "as through a glass darkly." It is the conviction of the authors that unless one is open to the idea of being wrong—particularly with regard to the nature and character of the last days—then one is in clear danger of deception. We most certainly include ourselves here. Over confidence can easily slip over the line into pride—and in the simplest of terms, pride is spiritual blindness—certainly the very last spiritual ailment that one would wish to be impaired by in the last days. This is not to say, however, that we should refrain from exploring this passage of Scripture together.

In fact, in order to unlock this portion of Revelation, it is absolutely necessary that the body of Christ—all students of Scripture—explores it and heartily debates it together. Therefore, in the next three chapters, we explore what we feel is the most likely solution to the prophetic puzzle of "Mystery Babylon." Our argument is indeed that the Harlot is alive and active in the world today and that she can be identified.

In order to demonstrate our claims of course, we need first to examine the primary verses that speak of the Harlot. They are found primarily—though not exclusively—in the Book of Revelation chapters 17 and 18. Because, as was mentioned, this passage is the longest prophecy in the New Testament, maintaining your full attention as we examine this very important passage may require a bit more focus on your part than in some of the previous chapters. Try to push through and stay focused—it'll be worth it. Hopefully to make it easier, rather than walk though the entire prophecy at once, we will attempt to break it down into smaller portions with explanations interspersed as we go.

Revelation 17:1-6

Let's begin with the first portion of Revelation 17. The author of the passage of course, is the apostle John. Here he is first introduced to the Great Harlot:

One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, "Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits on many waters. With her the kings of the earth committed adultery and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries." Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a desert. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. This title was written on her forehead:

"Mystery Babylon The Great—The Mother of Prostitutes and of the Abominations of the Earth." (Revelation 17:5)

I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus. (Revelation 17:6)

As we examine these verses together, our simple goal will be to understand the general nature of the Harlot. What does this passage reveal about the nature, the goals, the actions and the role of the Great Harlot in the last-days?

The Great Harlot: Who is She and What Does She Do?

"Come, I will show you...the Great Prostitute.... With her the kings of the earth committed adultery and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries."

The woman is symbolically pictured as a prostitute who seduces the inhabitants of the earth to commit adultery with her. By adultery, the Bible of course is referring to a spiritual adultery or infidelity. Throughout the Bible, worship of God is often described with terms that reflect the intimacy of a marriage relationship. God is portrayed as the loving Bridegroom who yearns for the day when He can "marry" that collective group of people from among humanity that say "yes" to Him.

As such, the Harlot or Prostitute motif is used here to describe an entity that lures men away from the call of their Creator to unite themselves to Him—the One True God—and Him alone. (Deuteronomy 6:4)

Many who have argued that the Harlot represents the apostate Church have argued that because God refers to the nation of Israel as a harlot in the writings of several Old Testament prophets, that the word harlot here (porne) should rightly be understood as referring to an apostasy as well—a breaking of a prior covenant. However, if such were the case, it is more likely that the much more specific Greek word for adultery (moicheia) would have been used. Such would have offered a far more specific term for an apostate covenant breaker—if such were the intention of this passage. Also, when we review the usage of the word harlot throughout the Old Testament, we find that the word is also used to refer to at least two other significant pagan cities: both Tyre and Nineveh (Isaiah 23, Nahum 3). As such, it cannot be rightly claimed that the Harlot motif is used exclusively to indicate apostasy. Apostasy certainly may be included here in the sins of the Harlot, but it certainly is not the primary purpose of this passage. It seems more likely that the usage of this word is simply referring to idolatry in general.

It is important that we note here that because the Harlot seduces the peoples of the earth into idolatry—the worshipping of another god (or gods) other than Yahweh, the God of the Bible—it is most likely that the Harlot represents a formalized religion.

Many Bible scholars and commentators have expressed that while the Beast represents the political and military dimensions of the last days empire, it is the Harlot that moreso represents the religious and financial dimensions. The Beast is a ten nation coalition of nations under the authority of the Antichrist, while the Harlot is a geographical entity that represents the primary religious and financial source of the Beast's Empire.

While here in Chapter 17 the Harlot's effects are emphasized as a spiritual seduction, in Chapter 18 it is primarily an economic fornication. The fact that the Harlot's seductions extend beyond spiritual adultery and also include a financial adultery is very telling as to the nature of the corruption that the Harlot's seductions will generate.

In the most overt ways, spiritual adultery refers to any form of worship or devotion that is given to anyone other than the God of the Bible. But it need not be restricted only to blatant acts of worship. In this particular prophecy, it is also referring to diverse forms of support. Some may object that mere "support" does not merit the label of adultery or fornication.

But imagine, if you would, a husband who is caught financially supporting another women other than his wife. What if he was supporting her both financially and emotionally? While this may not involve the technical act of fornication, very few would deny that this could rightly be described as unfaithfulness, infidelity or adultery. Likewise, it is fair to view the "adultery" that the Harlot lures mankind into as involving any number of acts, from worship to various forms of support.

We have often heard the phrase used to describe an ever-present principle within Middle Eastern politics: "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." Likewise, what this passage is pointing to is that the friends and supporters of God's enemies are indeed setting themselves up as God's enemies as well. Though many nations will commit overt adultery with the Harlot—literally join with her in her religious idolatry—this does not necessarily indicate that all the nations will be fully engaged in this form of anti-Yahweh religion and false worship; many will merely give their support to these enemies of God—the Harlot and the Beast.

This support will likely come in the form of political, financial and even military support. Some acts of fornication are less overt than others, but God views them all as fornication and deserving of His full condemnation.

"This title was written on her forehead: 'Mystery Babylon The Great—The Mother of Prostitutes and of the Abominations of the Earth'."

On the forehead of the Harlot is the identifying phrase, "Mystery Babylon The Great—The Mother of Prostitutes and of the Abominations of the Earth." For now, we will refrain from exploring the meaning of the phrase "Mystery Babylon" (or simply "Babylon," depending on how the phrase is interpreted).

This however is an essential key to understanding and deciphering the identity of the Harlot. As such, we will return in detail to this phrase later, in the next chapter.

The next portion of the phrase however, "The Mother of all Prostitutes and Abominations of the Earth" is a typical Eastern sort of phrase.

Remember Saddam Hussein's comments in the days leading up to the first Gulf War? He declared that the US and Iraq were about to engage in "The Mother of all Battles"? Of course, in typical megalomaniacal "game talk," he also declared that America would experience "The Mother of all Defeats." The term "Mother of…" is simply an Eastern way of expressing a superlative; it is the biggest, unmatched and most significant of all.

I point this out because it might be easy to interpret "Mother" as meaning the source of all other forms of infidelity toward God. While this could possibly be to some degree a secondary meaning of the phrase, it is unlikely that it is its primary meaning.

The eastern-minded reader immediately recognizes that the purpose of this phrase is to portray the Great Harlot as the greatest manifestation of spiritual infidelity against God that has ever existed throughout the history of the world.

The Harlot of Revelation is the greatest of all spiritual prostitutes, but she is not necessarily the source of all others. Throughout history and throughout the world, many "prostitutes" exist and have existed, but the Great Harlot is portrayed here as being by far the worst, the most unsurpassed and the most significant of all of them.

"There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns." (Revelation 17:3)

We see that the Harlot is sitting atop a scarlet Beast. This beast is the same beast that we have identified in previous chapters as being the final Islamic Empire of the Antichrist. So she is said to be riding on top of this Islamic Beast. This speaks of a very close relationship between the two.

This symbiotic relationship between the Harlot and the Beast—this relationship of rider and steed—should not be dismissed as an irrelevant component of this picture. For beyond the fact that the woman is riding the Beast, there also exist a few noteworthy similarities that the Harlot and the Beast share.

Firstly, even as the woman is dressed in scarlet, so the Beast is also portrayed as a scarlet Beast. The two match. They appear as if they belong together. And secondly, it is also important to point out that even as the Beast will trample down and kill God's people, so the Harlot is also drunk on the blood of Christians.

They share in the bloodguilt of God's people. Yet despite this very close relationship, as we will see later as we explore more of the Harlot prophecy, the Beast actually hates the women.

In fact, it says that the Beast will actually turn on her and devour her. Thus in light of the closeness and the apparent similarities shared by the two, it almost comes as a surprise when the Beast turns on the Woman.

This strange and shocking development is an important key as we attempt to reveal the identity of the Harlot.

"Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a desert." (Revelation 17:3)

Of all of the descriptions of the women, this one, though seemingly minor, is actually a significant detail regarding the identity of the Harlot. The angel takes John into a desert—or "wilderness" as the King James Version puts it—to observe the Harlot. There in the desert, she is also seen to be "sitting on many waters."

The combination of these two descriptions together is a direct allusion to a much older prophecy regarding ancient Babylon found in Isaiah 21. It is there that the city of Babylon is identified specifically as "the desert by the sea." In Isaiah 21, this was simply a literal, physical, geographical description. Babylon sat next to a great desert and was located close to seaports via the Euphrates River, which was easily navigable by ship.

Here in Revelation, John is shown by his angel guide a similar picture of a city that is sitting by (or on) many waters and is also situated in an actual desert. The allusion is clear.

Later in verse 15, however, the angel explains to John that "the waters" which the Harlot sits upon are allegorical waters which represent "peoples, multitudes, nations and languages." The woman exerts a strong measure of influence over a great many various peoples and nations. Unlike the explanation regarding the waters, however, the description of the women as being in a desert is never specified as being allegorical. It is therefore to be taken simply at face value—the Harlot is geographically located in a desert region—even as the original Babylon was. This is a very important clue in helping us to identify the Harlot.

However, those who hold to the belief that America is the Harlot argue that the word used here for desert (eremos) should not be seen as referring to a literal desert but rather merely a "wilderness" as it is translated in the King James Version. And by wilderness, we are to imagine a forested wilderness—America, as it was when first discovered by the various European explorers.

But there are some very clear problems with this. If a forested entity was the intent of the passage, the Hebrew word ya'ar, or the Greek word hule would have been used. They both speak of a wooded forest and are both used in the Bible to refer to such. So while eremos may be used in a broader way, allowing in various contexts to refer to any sort of barren and uninhabitable place, in this particular passage it is referring very specifically to what we would understand as a desert proper.

Again, we know this because here in Revelation 17, we have an obvious and direct allusion to Isaiah 21, where Isaiah is specifically addressing a city that exists geographically in a desert.

One of the more common rules of interpreting biblical prophecy is that Scripture often helps to interpret Scripture. In this case, the older prophecy sheds light on the meaning of the newer prophecy. In the passage in Isaiah, desert simply means a desert.

And thus, we should not change the meaning in Revelation simply to make it conform to our position. Rather, whatever position we take, it must conform to the prophetic intent of the text. The Harlot will be found in a literal desert region.

Others yet who interpret Rome as the Harlot however, have recognized the difficulty that this verse presents to their paradigm—the city of Rome is most certainly not located in a desert.

Thus the claim has been made that the desert that John was taken to was merely the location where he had his vision, but that it is actually irrelevant to the vision itself.

The desert is rendered as merely a movie theater of sorts, where John experienced a vision entirely unrelated to the desert itself. However, further study shows this interpretation to be biblically indefensible. Beyond being generally hard to accept anyway, it also violates the pattern found in other portions of Scripture where very similar experiences are recorded.

For example:

The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. (Ezekiel 37:1 NIV)

The word used here for valley (biq'ah) refers to either a valley—essentially the opposite of a mountain—or more often to an extended open plain. This would match the geographic layout of Babylon where the Israelites had been exiled. The bones represented the Israelites (verse 11) who had been exiled to Babylon, which straddled the Euphrates River and sat on the plains of Shinar. The valley (or plain) was not merely an irrelevant theatre where the vision was shown to Ezekiel, but was instead an integral aspect of the vision itself.

Or in another example again found in Revelation, John is carried away to a specific location. This time, it was a high mountain:

And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. (Revelation 21:10 NIV)

Again, the mountain was not merely a theatre that was unrelated to the vision, but the actual location where the New Jerusalem would come to rest.

There are other examples as well. (See Ezekiel 40, for example.) But the point here is that the desert where John was taken—where he saw the Harlot to be located—cannot be separated from the content of the vision and relegated to irrelevancy. Details like this cannot be simply brushed aside or overlooked.

They have a purpose. They are intended to give us insight into the identity of the Harlot—specifically where she would be located. Whatever our interpretation regarding the Harlot might be, it must be an entity that is geographically located in a desert.

"The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls." (Revelation 17:4)

We also see that the Prostitute is dressed in purple and red garments. These colors may be interpreted two different ways. Firstly, they are the colors of royalty. When Jesus was taken prisoner, the Roman centurions dressed Jesus in a robe that is described as scarlet in one gospel (Matthew 27:28) and purple in another (Mark 15:17). The robe was in essence a mock royal-garment. Likewise, they fashioned for him a "crown" made of thorns and a mock scepter made from a reed:

They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand and knelt in front of him and mocked him. "Hail, king of the Jews!" they said. (Matthew 27:28,29 NIV)

The purple and scarlet clothes of the Harlot then are also likely an allusion to the royalty of the Harlot. And because the Harlot's clothes are also portrayed as literally glittering with gold, jewels and pearls, we see that she is also portrayed as being rich beyond measure.

She is both fabulously wealthy and likely royalty as well. But there is also another way to interpret the purpose behind the use of the colors purple and scarlet.

This would be to see the color as representing sinfulness—"Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. Though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool." (Isaiah 1:18)

Of course, this interpretation would also be completely legitimate and supportable by the passage—she is after all, a corrupt and murderous prostitute.

"She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries… I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus." (Revelation 17:4)

With a dramatic dash of macabre imagery, she is also described as being drunk on the blood of Christians. She is a persecutor and a murderer of the people of God. But rather than feeling any guilt for the blood that she has spilled—rather then feeling what most would assume to be the natural human response to the guilt of murder—instead she is proud, intoxicated, even invigorated, and lusting for more.

In her hand she holds a golden cup that is filled "with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries." She proudly flaunts and raises her golden cup—seemingly completely unaware that, in God's eyes, the cup is filled with abominations and filth. And even more strangely, to many of the earth's inhabitants, the cup that she holds is alluring and full of promise.

At this point, let's summarize and review what we have learned thus far about the Harlot. She displays the following characteristics:

"I will explain to you the Mystery of the woman...." (Revelation 17:7)

Now let's examine the next portion (Revelation 17:6-18) of this very long prophecy. What else can we learn about the Harlot?

As the passage continues, the Apostle John expresses how astonished he is by the vision of the Harlot. The angel responds by offering John the interpretation and thus helping him to understand the vision. When I saw her, I was greatly astonished. Then the angel said to me: "Why are you astonished? I will explain to you the mystery of the woman and of the beast she rides, which has the seven heads and ten horns.

The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and will come up out of the Abyss and go to his destruction. The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast, because he once was, now is not, and yet will come.

"This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits. They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for a little while. The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king.

He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction. "The ten horns you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but who for one hour will receive authority as kings along with the beast. They have one purpose and will give their power and authority to the beast. They will make war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will overcome them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings-and with him will be his called, chosen and faithful followers."

Then the angel said to me, "The waters you saw, where the prostitute sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations and languages. The beast and the ten horns you saw will hate the prostitute. They will bring her to ruin and leave her naked; they will eat her flesh and burn her with fire. For God has put it into their hearts to accomplish his purpose by agreeing to give the beast their power to rule, until God's words are fulfilled.

The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth." (Revelation 17:6 18)

"Why are you astonished? I will explain to you the mystery of the woman and of the beast she rides, which has the seven heads and ten horns." (Revelation 17:7)

In what almost sounds like a casual tone, the angel expresses to John (my paraphrase), "Don't worry, I know this may seem confusing, but I'll explain it to you." Of course this seems a bit ironic, as the explanation that the angel gives seems as if it is really just another extended prophetic riddle. And even more interesting is the fact that rather than ever really explaining who the Harlot is, instead, the emphasis of the explanation is geared towards all sorts of details regarding the Beast that she is riding.

In fact, one might even be tempted to see this as a bit of a joke or even a mistake. But if we pay attention here, what we learn from this is that the key to understanding the nature and identity of the mysterious Harlot is a proper understanding of who the Beast is.

The Harlot is intimately related to the final Islamic Beast Empire of the last days. The two are a team of sorts; she the rider and the Beast the steed. We will discuss this interdependent relationship in much greater detail in the next chapter. For now, let's continue examining what the passage has to say about the Harlot in order to add this information to what we have already discovered.

"The waters you saw, where the prostitute sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations and languages." (Revelation 17:15)

Firstly, we see in verse 15 that the waters that the Harlot sits on represent peoples, nations and kings. Of course, we've already discussed this above.

"The beast and the ten horns you saw will hate the prostitute. They will bring her to ruin and leave her naked; they will eat her flesh and burn her with fire."

The next crucial thing that we learn is that the Beast and the ten horns, which we have already learned are the ten kings that make up the Antichrist's coalition, hate the Harlot.

In fact, it says that they will they will "bring her to ruin and leave her naked; they will eat her flesh and burn her with fire." This is very strong language. The Antichrist and his ten kingdom coalition will bring the Harlot to ruin; they will strip her of her wealth and her royalty and they will literally kill her and burn her with fire.

"The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth." (Revelation 17:18)

And lastly, it says that the Harlot is "the great city that rules over the kings of the earth." To what degree or measure the Harlot rules is possibly up for debate. Should we conclude that the Harlot literally "rules" over every last "king" or ruler in the earth, or should we simply conclude that she exerts a very significant measure of control and influence over a great number of world rulers?

Based on typical patterns of language in ancient near-eastern literature, it is likely the later, yet we cannot be entirely sure just from this passage alone. What we do know is that the Harlot exerts a great enough control over a significant enough of a portion of the rulers of the world that the Bible merits using such strong language. Again, it reads that, "she rules over the Kings of the earth."

Polis = City?

Word study on Polis. Initial word studies show that it could be used for a city-state, which is more in line with how nations existed prior to the more modern nation states. A segment of an empire that does not have to mean a mere literal town or city.

It was an entity that held a certain measure of political and military power, etc. Contextually, however, the primary purpose of this mega polis is to contrast it to the other Great City of Revelation: Jerusalem, the city of God. One is the city of Satan while the other is the city of the Great King.

So to our previous list of descriptions about the Harlot, we may now also add the following:

Part 2—The Great Harlot: Revelation Chapter 18  |  Part 3—Mecca/Saudi Arabia as the Great Harlot

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