Today is Sunday and I am bummed out that I had to “cut” the whore of Babylon out of my sermon. There just wasn’t time to get into it, not properly, and getting into it poorly or dismissively would only obfuscate this powerful truth: everyone who rides the beast will be eaten by it.
The beast in this chapter is the same beast (out of the sea) from chapter 13. It’s best understood as ‘dragon-inspired’ political power, which—in John’s day—was exemplified by the Roman Empire and its persistent persecution of Christians. In chapter 17 the beast is described as being ‘scarlet’, which is to say it has been drenched in the blood of the martyrs. If that sounds gory, consider that the whore of Babylon is here drunk on the blood of the martyrs and ‘gore’ is a big part of this equation.
Who is this woman? She’s not an actual person, but a personification of those who cooperate with the Empire. She’s the antithesis of the woman in Revelation 12 that represented God’s people. Just like in the First Testament where God’s faithful people were called his ‘Bride’ and his apostate people labelled ‘Adulteress’, John is describing the behavior of humanity and their fidelity. Some choose the Lamb, becoming his bride and dwelling forever in the New Jerusalem. Others choose the beast, becoming his whore, and suffering forever in the abyss.
Actually, it was a tough choice. When John wrote the Revelation the beast was winning. The Empire was at its most powerful and the church was still weak and mewling. The Empire offered opportunity, privilege, and wealth. The church offered community, hope, and new life…but it would cost you your present life in its entirety. Through these images, John is reminding his audience that things are not as they appear. It might look like the beast is powerful, but everyone who rides that sucker is gonna pay for it later. The lust for power will ultimately turn into lust for more power, until you overreach and fall on your face.
‘Evil shall, with evil, be expelled’ (to quote Steig Larsson).
You’ve got to give John credit, though. Rather than simply telling his audience that the harlot is undesirable he lampoons her. The woman is described satirically, almost like an ancient political cartoon. We miss most of this biting language in English, reading our sanitized translations about ‘abominations’ and ‘filth.’ But in Greek the connotations are much more provocative. This scarlet woman is less a smoldering beauty than a stumbling drunk. Sure—she’s decked out in jewels and has a fancy hairdo, but her slip is showing and her dress is falling off one shoulder. She leans on the bar and grinds herself against younger men, embarrassingly trying to keep her balance on one broken heel. And that cup? It’s not full of black magic or power or something. The Greek words for ‘abominations’ and ‘filth’ mean something more like piss, shit, and menstrual blood. I know that’s strong language, and like NT Wright I probably should have used stronger because the point is well-made: don’t be a whore.
On the surface, many mistakenly think that a quick rise to political power and prominence is exciting. Some think that the wealth and sexual liberation promised by our culture will guarantee happiness. Many Christians are even tempted to capitulate to the dominant cultural norms of our day in order to secure a more promising future. But the world consistently over-promises and under-delivers. The beast will always tell you you’re pretty, while spiking your drink with cat urine and etching your name on the bathroom stall. He’ll chew you up and spit you out.
Alternatively, you could come to the Lamb, who will love you forever, making you pure and building you a home of jewels in a city of gold.