Revelation (Part 34): The Prostitute and the Beast
Even with the overwhelming sorrow and disbelief we may have regarding those who sorrow and disbelieve in the bowl judgments, it is Chapter 17 that is the heart of this section on the human-focused. It is here that we see the story of our age explained most fully. But this chapter packed full of explanation is also packed full of imagery. To understand best as we move through it, we are going to first consider all the characters. Some of the characters (actually most) we have already met, but it will be good to remind ourselves so that the imagery does not overwhelm.
There are four main characters we have seen on the right side.
God: He who IS truth, goodness, and beauty. And indeed it is the view toward or away from him and his truth, goodness, and beauty that marks the conflict in everything.
Lamb: This is the Redeemer, Jesus, presented at times as King.
Woman: God’s Israel of the pre-atonement era. We saw the woman first in chapter 12, representing the faithful in God’s revelation leading up to the ultimate fulfillment in Christ.
Woman’s offspring: These are the faithful born of Christ in the post-atonement era. They are mentioned as the woman’s offspring in chapter 12, but collectively they become the Woman or wife or bride of Christ.
To introduce the evil characters, let’s leave the text and the symbolic names for a moment and merely concentrate on the story—the story of evil in the world ever since the fall. Satan, of course, attempts to encourage all evil—all rebellion against God and God’s TGB. He encourages humankind toward that same evil that marked the fall. Satan tricked Eve and encouraged both Adam and Eve to depend on self for deciding what is true, good, and beautiful. And they did so. They took away their trust in God for those things and placed it in themselves, effectively deciding to be their own gods. That idea has led to all the evil rebellion in the world among all their offspring.
As groups of people gathered with the same notion—to decide for and try to satisfy themselves in truth, goodness, and beauty without seeking it from its source in God—the society of the human-focused was formed. Although God maintained his revelatory presence, people not only would refuse God, looking to self, but some would encourage others against God and toward human-focused development of TGB. These were society-as-god promoters—prophets, if you will, of the human-focused society.
Individuals and the human-focused society developed ideas and philosophies that established and promoted themselves as their own gods. Society formed into actual political kingdoms and nations based on human-focused interests, with world leaders promoting the same.
This is the story of humankind—of the evil rebellion that humanity set course for from the very beginning. It is the cesspool—the sin environment—in which God has delivered his revelation of redemption so that people could realize the horrific falsehood of the way and turn back to the only source of TGB—God. This is the story of Revelation. And this story becomes specific in chapter 17. But chapter 17 uses symbolic names for these points in the sin story.
Dragon: Satan is depicted as the dragon.
Beast (of the sea): This beast is the idea that self is god. It is the idea that we can provide truth, goodness, and beauty by ourselves to satisfy ourselves—all apart from God. We were introduced to this beast in chapter 13, and it is this one that in chapter 17 is called merely the beast.
Prostitute: She is human-focused society as a whole that operates on the notion of the beast.
Beast (of the earth—also called false prophet): These self- or society-as-god promoters speak for this evil just as God’s prophets directed people toward God.
Image of the beast: The philosophies or ideas of the human-focused that are built on the false belief that we can satisfy ourselves in TGB.
Seven heads: These seven heads of the beast are mountains or kingdoms—specific political communities formed on the beast (self-as-god) idea.
Ten horns: These horns represent actual (but general, not specific) world leaders of this age.
The chapter begins with an angel urging John to go see the judgment of the prostitute. This prostitute is said to sit on many waters. The “many waters” imagery is explained in verse 15, telling us the waters are “peoples, multitudes, nations, and languages.” This information supports our understanding above that the prostitute is not simply one particular kingdom, but rather human-focused society as a whole.
We learn next that the kings of the earth and people of the earth have committed sexual immorality with the prostitute. The intent is to show contrast between the God-focused and the human-focused. Kings of the earth contrast with the King of Heaven—Jesus. In their sexual immorality, these “kings of the earth” promote the idea of the beast. But it is not just the kings of the earth that commit this immorality. Verse 2 also speaks of the individuals of the earth clinging to the ideas that establish the human-focused society.
The next few verses provide more description of the prostitute. John is taken to the desert to see her. The desert always symbolizes the world’s sinful environment. It did so when Jesus was led to the desert to be tempted by Satan. It also represented the world’s sin environment that the children of Israel had to pass through in order to reach the Promised Land.
Verses 4 and 5 describe the prostitute as alluring and vile. She is alluring in her claims of satisfaction in TGB but vile in her inability to actually satisfy. Verse 6 also shows her powerful, becoming drunk on the blood of the God-focused.
Verse 5 gives her the name of Babylon and Mother of Prostitutes. But this name should not limit our understanding of her. She is not merely representative of that one kingdom. Babylon itself stands for all the self-promoting vaunting of the human-focused that goes all the way back to the tower of Babel. We may connect this prostitute with chapter 7’s “great city, which prophetically is called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified.” Notice again that a specific city or kingdom is not in view. Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem, across the Dead Sea from Sodom and across the Sinai from Egypt. Yet all these places (with Babylon) are represented by the prostitute because she is human-focused society in general.
We find John astonished, or, better, marveling at the prostitute in verse 6. The Greek here does combine the attitude of amazement and admiration. But it is not the John is allured by the prostitute; it is rather that he wonders at the riches, power, esteem, and seeming satisfaction that she represents. This is human-focused society! This is society seeking to be satisfied by its own truth, goodness, and beauty apart from God! In his marveling, John is perhaps wondering if this prostitute really is accomplishing her goal.
But the angel seemingly reacts in amazement that John would think so. The angel knows that looking for TGB apart from God will necessarily end in failure and destruction because God is the ONLY source of TGB. So, for the rest of the chapter, the angel proceeds to explain the vision to help John (and us) realize that the prostitute is being allowed this time of seeming satisfaction by God who controls and will eventually completely judge by complete separation.
Verse 8 is very informative, but must be seen in its correct perspective. The verse has three parts: description of the beast at the beginning, the world’s view, and then a semi-repeated description of the beast at the end. The first part states that the beast was and is not and is about to come up from the abyss and go to destruction. Let’s dissect that statement. That the beast was refers to his pre-atonement existence. The beast first reared its head (or heads) in the Garden, as we discussed. The idea of self-satisfaction in TGB—the idea of self as god—has been around since the fall. So it has been around since then—“it was.” The fact that the beast “is not,” refers to the culmination of God’s revelation that TGB comes only from him and seeking it apart from him results in death. That revelation culminated in the cross—in atonement. Jesus offered a sinless death to us so that we do not have to die. He did so because death IS the result of seeking TGB apart from relationship with God. The atonement, then, proved that the beast (the idea of satisfaction in TGB apart from God) was false. Therefore, it “is not.”
The statement continues, mentioning that the beast is about to come up from the abyss and go to destruction. We need to be sure we understand what the abyss is. The abyss itself is a symbol. There is no actual place under lock and key that is the abyss (or bottomless pit). The abyss is the world of, or source of, pure evil. It is the polar opposite of the TGB of God. We see the abyss mentioned also in Revelation 9:1–2, 11; 11:7, and 20:1 and 3. The Greek means depths or depthless. (The word was used for the sea in one of the Gospels.) If you substitute the understanding of pure source of evil for any of its uses in Revelation, you find the significance of the passage. The idea shown in 17:8, then, is that this beast idea is pure evil but it will go to its destruction—God controls and God will judge.
The verse ends with partial repetition of this description, but it adds a different phrase at the end. It says that the beast “was, and is not, and will be present again.” We have already discussed the “was, and is not” part. But what does it mean that the beast “will be present again”? All modern translations have some idea of a future return in this phrase. The NIV says “yet will come;” the ESV reads “is to come;” and the NASB has “will come.” And yet, the Greek doesn’t really indicate a future coming. The Greek says “kai pareimi,” which means “and is present” or “has arrived” or “is at hand’ (meaning nearby). The Textus Receptus, from which we get the KJV, is slightly different but with the same idea. It uses a different combination of the same root words: “kaiper estin.” The KJV, however, does not insert a future aspect as modern translations do, but sticks closer to the Greek by translating the phrase “and yet is.” I think the KJV has it right. The point is that the beast “is not” by virtue of Christ’s victory at the atonement, and yet despite that revelation to the world, the beast “yet is,” with people denying God’s revelation and holding to the false idea that they can satisfy self in TGB without God.
Note that in the middle of verse 8, we read that these human-focused people are “astonished” in viewing the beast. That is the same astonishment, marveling word used of John in verse 6. They see the beast and admire it, believing it will satisfy them.
All this is countered by the angel’s continued explanation starting in verse 9. The angel states that the mind with wisdom will see things differently. It is not that the angel is presenting a puzzle that only wise people will figure out. The angel is pointing out a mindset difference between the human-focused who are unwise and the God-focused who see things through God’s perspective. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” we learn in Psalm 111:10 and Proverbs 9:10. It is the same point James makes in his epistle when he urges the Christian Jews of the dispersion (to whom he writes) to change their mindsets from looking at things the way the world does. Ask God for wisdom, he urges them. See things from God’s perspective. That is the angel’s encouragement in Revelation 17:8: don’t view the beast or the prostitute marveling at them. Rather, see things clearly from God’s view in his wisdom: the Prostitue (human-focused society) will fail.