Chapter 21: The Great Harlot (Revelation 17-19)

David Chilton

Narrated By: Daniel Sorenson
Book: Paradise Restored: A Biblical Theology of Dominion
Topics: , ,


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Chapter Text

A king who has founded a city, so far from neglecting it when through the carelessness of the inhabitants it is attacked by robbers, avenges it and saves it from destruction, having regard rather to his own honour than to the people’s neglect. Much more, then, the Word of the All-good Father was not unmindful of the human race that He had called to be; but rather, by the offering of His own body He abolished the death which they had incurred, and corrected their neglect by His own teaching. Thus by His own power He restored the whole nature of man.
–St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation [10]


(Revelation 17-19)

The Book of Revelation presents us with two great cities, antithetical to each other: Babylon and New Jerusalem. As we will see in a later chapter, the New Jerusalem is Paradise Consummated, the community of the saints, the City of God. The other city, which is continually contrasted to the New Jerusalem, is the old Jerusalem, which has become unfaithful to God. If we knew our Bibles better this would be immediately apparent, for most of the language describing “Babylon” is taken from other Biblical descriptions of Jerusalem. Let’s consider some of the information John provides about this evil city.

First, we are told that she is “the great Harlot… with whom the kings of the earth committed fornication” (Rev. 17:1-2). This striking picture of a Harlot-city fornicating with the nations comes from Isaiah 57 and Ezekiel 16 and 23, where Jerusalem is represented as God’s Bride who has turned to harlotry. The people of Jerusalem had abandoned the true faith and had turned to heathen gods and ungodly nations for help, rather than trusting in God to be their protector and deliverer. Using language so explicit that most modern pastors won’t preach from these chapters, Ezekiel condemns Jerusalem as a degraded, wanton whore: “You spread your legs to every passer-by to multiply your harlotry” (Ezek. 16:25). John saw the harlot sitting in a wilderness, a symbol we have already considered at length as an image of the Curse; moreover, the specific picture of Jerusalem as a harlot in a wilderness is used in Jeremiah 2-3 and Hosea 2.

The Harlot in the wilderness, John says, is seated on the Beast (Rev. 17:3), representing her dependence upon the Roman Empire for her national existence and power; from the testimony of the New Testament there is no doubt that Jerusalem was politically and religiously “in bed” with the pagan Empire, cooperating with Rome in the crucifixion of Christ and the murderous persecution of Christians. Developing this aspect of the symbolism further, an angel tells John more about the Beast: “The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits, and they are seven kings; five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain a little while” (Rev. 17:9-10). The “seven mountains” again identify the Beast as Rome, famous for its “seven hills”; but these also correspond to the line of the Caesars. Five have fallen: the first five Caesars were Julius, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius. One now is: Nero, the sixth Caesar, was on the throne as John was writing the Revelation. The other... must remain a little while: Galba, the seventh Caesar, reigned for seven months.

The symbolic name given to the Harlot was Babylon the Great (Rev. 17:5), a reminder of the Old Testament city which was the epitome of rebellion against God (cf. Gen. 11:1-9; Jer. 50-51). This new and greater Babylon, the “Mother of harlots,” is “drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus” (Rev. 17:6). Later John tells us that “in her was found the blood of prophets and of saints and of all who have been slain on the earth” (Rev. 18:24). That statement has a familiar ring, doesn’t it? It comes from a passage we have considered several times before: Jesus’ condemnation of Jerusalem.

Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city, that upon you may fall all the righteous blood shed on the earth…. Truly I say to you, all these things shall come upon this generation. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her!
–Matt. 23:34-37

Historically, it was Jerusalem which had always been the great harlot, continually falling into apostasy and persecuting the prophets (Acts 7:51-52); Jerusalem was the place where the prophets were killed (Luke 13:33). We cannot grasp the message of Revelation if we fail to recognize its central character as a covenantal, legal document; like the writings of Amos and other Old Testament prophets, it represents a covenant lawsuit, charging Jerusalem with breaches of the covenant and declaring her judgment.

John records that the “ten kings,” the rulers subject to the Empire, join with the Beast against Christ: “These have one purpose and they give their power and authority to the Beast. These will wage war against the Lamb” – and what is to be the outcome? ”And the Lamb will overcome them, because He is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those who are with Him are the called and chosen and faithful” (Rev. 17:13-14). John assures the Church that in their terrible and terrifying conflict with the awesome might of imperial Rome, the victory of Christianity is guaranteed.

At this point the focus seems to shift. Just as the war between Caesar and Christ is heating up, John says, the peoples of the Empire “will hate the Harlot and will make her desolate [cf. Matt. 24:15] and naked, and will eat her flesh and burn her up with fire. For God has put it into their hearts to execute His purpose by having a common purpose, and by giving their kingdom to the Beast, until the words of God should be fulfilled” (Rev. 17:16-17; cf. 18:6-8). Jerusalem had committed fornication with the heathen nations, but in A.D. 70 they turned against her and destroyed her. Again, this picture is taken from the Old Testament prophets who spoke of Jerusalem as the Whore: they said that just as a priest’s daughter who became a harlot was to be “burned with fire” (Lev. 21:9), so God would use Jerusalem’s former “lovers,” the heathen nations, to destroy her and burn her to the ground (Jer. 4:11-13, 30-31; Ezek. 16:37-41; 23:22, 25-30). It is noteworthy, however, that the Beast destroys Jerusalem as part of his war against Christ; early historians report that the Roman leaders’ motive in destroying the Temple was not only to destroy the Jews, but to obliterate Christianity. The Beast thought that he could kill the Whore and the Bride in one stroke! But when the dust settled, the scaffolding of old, apostate Jerusalem lay in ruins, and the Church was revealed as the new and most glorious Temple, God’s eternal dwelling place.

John tells us that the Harlot “is the great city, which has a kingdom over all the kings of the earth” (Rev. 17:18). This verse has thrown some interpreters. Even though all the other signs point to Jerusalem as the Harlot, how can she be said to wield this kind of worldwide political power? The answer is that Revelation is not a book about politics; it is a book about the covenant. Jerusalem did reign over the nations. She had a covenantal priority over the kingdoms of the earth. It is rarely appreciated sufficiently that Israel was a kingdom of priests (Ex. 19:6), exercising this ministry on behalf of the nations of the world. When Israel was faithful to God, offering up sacrifices for the nations, the world was at peace; when Israel broke the covenant, the world was in turmoil. The Gentile nations recognized this (1 Kings 10:24; Ezra 1; 4-7; cf. Rom. 2:17-24). Yet, perversely, they would seek to seduce Israel to commit whoredom against the covenant – and when she did, they would turn on her and destroy her. That pattern is repeated several times, until Israel’s final excommunication in A.D. 70, when Jerusalem was destroyed as God’s sign that the Kingdom had been transferred to His new people, the Church (Rev. 11:19; 15:5; 21:3).

Since Israel was to be destroyed, the apostles spent much of their time during the last days warning God’s people to separate themselves from her and align themselves with the Church (cf. Acts 2:37-40; 3:19, 26; 4:8-12; 5:27-32). This is John’s message in Revelation. Jerusalem’s apostasy has become so great, he says, that her judgment is permanent and irrevocable. She is now Babylon, the implacable enemy of God. “And she has become a dwelling place of demons and a prison of every unclean spirit, and a prison of every unclean and hateful bird” (Rev. 18:2). Because Israel rejected Christ, the entire nation has become demon-possessed, utterly beyond hope (cf. Matt. 12:38-45; Rev. 9:1-11). Therefore, God’s people must not seek to reform Israel, but to abandon her to her fate. Salvation is with Christ and the Church, and only destruction awaits those who are aligned with the Harlot: “Come out of her, my people, that you may not participate in her sins and that you may not receive of her plagues” (Rev. 18:4; cf. Heb. 10:19-39; 12:15-29; 13:10-14).

And so Jerusalem is destroyed, never to rise again: “And a strong angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea [cf. Luke 17:2], saying, ‘Thus will Babylon, the great city, be thrown down with violence, and will not be found any longer’ ” (Rev. 18:21). But “Jerusalem” is still standing in the twentieth century, is it not? How was it destroyed forever in A.D. 70? What this means is that Israel, as the covenant people, will cease to exist. Jerusalem – as the great city, the holy city –  “will not be found any longer.” True, as we have seen from Romans 11, the descendants of Abraham will come into the covenant again. But they will not be a distinct, holy nation of special priests. They will join the peoples of the world in the saved multitude, with no distinction (Isa. 19:19-25; cf. Eph. 2:11-22). Thus Jerusalem, which left the covenant religion and turned to a demonic cult of sorcery, witchcraft, and state-worship, will be forever ruined. What was once a paradise will never again know the blessings of the Garden of Eden (Rev. 18:22-23).

God’s people had been praying for Jerusalem’s destruction (Rev. 6:9-11). Now that their prayers are answered, the great multitude of the redeemed breaks out into antiphonal praise:

“Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God; because His judgments are true and righteous; for He has judged the great Harlot who was corrupting the earth with her fornication, and He has avenged the blood of His bondservants on her.” And a second time they said, “Hallelujah! Her smoke rises up forever and ever.”
–Rev. 19:1-3; cf. 18:20

Contrary to the expectations of Rome, the destruction of Jerusalem was not the end for the Church. Instead, it was the Church’s full establishment as the new Temple, the final declaration that the Harlot has been divorced and executed, and God has taken to Himself a new Bride. Judgment and salvation are inseparable. The collapse of the ungodly culture is not the end of the world but its re-creation, as in the Flood and the Exodus. God’s people have been saved from the whoredoms of the world to become His wife; and the constant token of this fact is the Church’s celebration of Communion, the “Marriage Supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:7-9).

But there is another great feast recorded here, the “Great Supper of God,” in which the scavengers of the earth are invited to “eat the flesh of kings and the flesh of commanders and the flesh of mighty men and the flesh of horses and of those who sit on them and the flesh of all men, both free men and slaves, and small and great” (Rev. 19:17-18) – all the enemies of Christ, those who refuse to submit to His rule. For He is riding out on His war-horse, followed by His army of saints, conquering the nations with the Word of God, the gospel, symbolized by a sword proceeding from His mouth (Rev. 19:11-16). This is not the Second Coming; rather, it is a symbolic declaration of hope, the assurance that the Word of God will be victorious throughout the world, so that Christ’s rule will be established universally. Christ will be acknowledged everywhere as King of all kings, Lord over all lords. From the beginning of Revelation, Christ’s message to His Church had been a command to overcome, to conquer (Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 26-28; 3:5, 12, 21); here, He assures the suffering Church that, regardless of the fierce persecution by Israel and Rome, Christ and His people will be victorious over all enemies. The destiny of the Beast, the False Prophet, and all who oppose Christ’s lordship is death and destruction, in time and in eternity (Rev. 19:19-21).

The first-century Christians, surrounded by persecution and apostasy, could easily have been tempted to see their generation as the End. The great testimony of Revelation was that these things were not the End, but the Beginning. At their worst, the Beast and his co-conspirators are merely fulfilling the decrees of the sovereign God (Rev. 17:17). He has ordained their every move, and He has ordained their destruction. The nations rage, but God laughs: He has already set up His King on His holy mountain, and all nations will be ruled by Him (Ps. 2). All power in heaven and earth has been given to Christ (Matt. 28:18); as Martin Luther sang, “He must win the battle.” As the gospel progresses throughout the world it will win, and win, and win, until all kingdoms become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever. We must not concede to the enemy even one square inch of ground in heaven or on earth. Christ and His army are riding forth, conquering and to conquer, and we through Him will inherit all things.

And I saw heaven opened; and behold, a white horse, and He who sat upon it is called Faithful and True; and in righteousness He judges and wages war. And His eyes are a flame of fire, and upon His head are many diadems; and He has a name written which no one knows except Himself. And He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood; and His name is called the Word of God. And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses. And from His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may smite the nations; and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the winepress of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty. And on His robe and on His thigh he has a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.
–Rev. 19:11-16