Who or What is Babylon the Great?
Revelation 17:3-18 – Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. 4The 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. 5 The name written on her forehead was a mystery:
babylon the great
the mother of prostitutes
and of the abominations of the earth.
6 I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus.
When I saw her, I was greatly astonished. 7 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. 8 The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and yet will come up out of the Abyss and go to its 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 it once was, now is not, and yet will come.
9 “This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits. 10 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 only a little while. 11 The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king. He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction.
12 “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. 13 They have one purpose and will give their power and authority to the beast. 14 They will wage war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will triumph over them because He is Lord of lords and King of kings —and with Him will be His called, chosen and faithful followers.”
15 Then the angel said to me, “The waters you saw, where the prostitute sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations and languages. 16 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. 17 For God has put it into their hearts to accomplish His purpose by agreeing to hand over to the beast their royal authority, until God’s words are fulfilled. 18 The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.”
What is Babylon?
This vision has a lot of symbolism. Thankfully, the angel explains the symbolism and gives us some very definitive clues as to what Babylon is.
She is a prostitute and the mother of prostitutes (verses 1, 5). In Scripture, the idea of a prostitute is one who is unfaithful to God and, instead, worships other gods. “Babylon,” therefore, is the pinnacle of idolatry.
She leads other nations astray (verse 2) and is the city who rules over the kings of the earth ( verse 18). This tells us that she is influential and powerful over other countries. Furthermore, she is one particular city.
She sits by many waters (verse 1), meaning nations and languages (verse 5). I take this to mean that she is on the coast and is surrounded by other nations.
She is rich (verse 4).
She rides a scarlet beast that has seven heads and ten horns and is blasphemous (verse 3). The angel explains that the scarlet beast is the Anti-Christ, someone who once was, now is not (at least not during the time of John’s writing), will come out of the Abyss, will be destroyed (verse 8), and is a king after the seven (verse 11). As we have seen, this describes Emperor Nero. He was alive, was not alive during the writing of Revelation, but will be brought back to life at some point in the future to take power once again, and will then be destroyed.
The seven heads of the beast are seven hills (verse 9), meaning that the city “Babylon” is founded on or stretches over seven hills. This again points to Emperor Nero. There are many cities that have been founded on seven hills, but the most famous is Rome itself. Known in the ancient world as the city of seven hills, situated on the coast of Italy, ancient, rich, powerful, and influential both with the world, and its neighbors, as well as being the former kingdom of the coming Anti-Christ, Rome is a strong candidate for being the city “Babylon.”
So, why didn’t John just say Rome instead of Babylon? Babylon was code to protect the writer and readers of Revelation. Israel and most of the world where Christians lived at the time was controlled by Rome. Rome was also persecuting Christians at the time for refusing to follow the Roman deities, idols. If Revelation had specifically named Rome as an enemy and predicted its downfall, this would have given the Roman authorities even more reason to persecute Christians, seeing them as political rebels and propagandists. Therefore, “Babylon” was used, since Babylon was the ancient pagan Empire who had conquered and oppressed the Israelites before. Rome, in many ways, was the new Babylon.
The beast’s seven heads also represent seven kings. Five kings have already died, one is reigning (at the time of writing), and one is still to come (verse 10).
The beast’s ten horns are ten kings without a kingdom who will receive power alongside the eighth king in order to give power to the eighth king, like a yes-man council of different nations (verses 12-13). My guess is that this is how the Anti-Christ (Nero) rises to power. When he rises, he is without power or country but is able to quickly gain a following because of his obvious resurrection. It sounds to me as if 10 nations give him their allegiance, and it is with these 10 nations that he forms his military coup against Rome (verse 14).
The eighth king (Nero) and the 10 kings will destroy “Babylon”, Rome (verse 16). Nero will take his 10-nation alliance and invade the “North” (Daniel 11:21), burning Rome in the process, but only so that he can regain it as his capital.
This blog post is included in my book, Last Days: A Biblical Guide to the End Times.
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