The Mystery of the Woman in Revelation 17
What is the mystery which Revelation 17:5 and 7 reveal? Does the mystery refer to the title of the woman (“Mystery Babylon the Great”; NKJV) or is the name of the woman “Babylon the Great”, about which Revelation 17 reveals a mystery (cf. NASB)? And if so, what is the mystery?
Biblical mysteries are not unexplained riddles, unsolvable detective stories, or even something mysterious. A Biblical mystery (μυστήριον) is something “hidden from the foundation of the world” (Mat 13:35), something “kept secret since the world began but now made manifest” (Rom 16:25b), which “in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit”(Eph 3:5a) and “which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God” (Eph 3:9). In the Bible, a mystery is an important new truth or aspect of God’s plan that He has revealed for the very first time. If God had not revealed a mystery, no human being could have known about it. New Testament mysteries therefore contain new truths that God had not previously disclosed in the Old Testament.
A Tale of Two Cities
Jerusalem is the city that the Bible refers to most. It is the city of peace, God’s temple was there and in the eternal order the river of God will flow out of the city (cf. Rev 22:1). Babylon is the city that the Bible refers to second-most. Located near the Euphrates river, Babylon is the place where man built his tower-temple — Babylon is the city of confusion, war, wickedness and rebellion against God (Gen 10:10; 11:9; Isa 13-14; Jer 25 & 50-51; Dan 2-7; Zech 5:5-11; Acts 2:9; 1 Pet 5:13).
The City in Revelation 17-18
In addition to 17:5, Revelation also refers to Babylon five other times: 14:8; 16:19; 18:2, 10 and 21. The woman in Revelation 17 and 18 undoubtedly refers to a city: “The woman whom you saw is the great city, which reigns over the kings of the earth” (Rev 17:18). Which city is this — and what is the mystery that is revealed about her?
Preterists believe that Revelation was written and fulfilled before 70 AD. Many preterists think that Babylon is a “code word” for Jerusalem, but I reject this view. The book of Revelation was written in 95 AD, so large parts of the book refer to the future, not to the past. Further, Revelation repeatedly refers to itself as prophecy (1:3; 22:7, 10, 18, 19).
Many commentators believe that Babylon is a “code word” for Rome. For example, Du Rand (2007:499; my translation) writes: “The seven heads are the seven mountains on which Rome was built”, and these seven hills are Capitoline, Aventine, Caelian, Esquiline, Quirinal, Viminal, and Palatine. König (2009:335) also says that the woman in Revelation 17 refers to the city of Rome. There are, however, at least three reasons why the city does not refer to Rome, but to Babylon.
First, Rome is not the “mother of harlots” (Rev 17:5). Babylon is the source of all idolatry, the fountain of spiritual prostitution. For example, it is from Babylon that the mother-child cult was transported to the rest of the world. The mother of harlots and of the abominations of the earth is the great city of Babylon. Rome is merely a “daughter” of the mother.
Second, as noted above, many argue that the woman sits on seven heads/seven mountains — and they say that Rome was built on seven physical mountains/hills. However, do these “seven heads/mountains” refer to seven physical mountains/hills, or is the explanation rather symbolic? Revelation 17:9-10 states: “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.” Was Rome built on mountain-hills of which five have already fallen, one mountain-hill is still standing, but one day another mountain-hill will rise but will remain only for a little while? This is what many commentators implicitly say. The problem is that something that should be interpreted symbolically (cf. Rev 17:10) is interpreted literally. But the divine record clearly shows it is not about seven physical heads/mountain-hills, but that the heads/mountains refer to kings and their kingdoms in history (cf. Woods 2012:97-98). Furthermore, many try to force seven Roman emperors into the textual data of Revelation 17:10, but this simply does not work.
Third, the seven heads/mountains describe the beast in more detail, not the woman. The woman sits on the beast — and whatever the seven heads/mountains refer to, it tells you more about the beast, not the woman (Dyer 1987:437). Furthermore, the woman not only sits on the beast, she also sits on “many waters” (Rev 17:1). If the “many waters” are interpreted symbolically, and this is indeed the case, then consistently suggests that the beast with the seven heads/mountains on which the woman sits, must also be interpreted symbolically (cf. Rev 17:1, 3, 9-10, 15). And again, this is exactly what Revelation 17:9-10 does.
The Mystery Revealed in Revelation 17
Given that Babylon the great is so well-known from the Old and New Testaments — and Revelation 17:5 and 7 describe a New Testament mystery — what is the new information about Babylon that God revealed for the very first time in Revelation 17?
That the woman will sit on the beast for a time is the mystery or new information that God revealed. This revelation is not in the Old Testament. The woman will sit on “many waters” (Rev 17:1) — and the “waters which you saw where the harlot sits, are peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues” (Rev 17:15). Further, the woman will also sit “on a scarlet beast, full of blasphemous names, having seven heads and ten horns” — but a little bit later it is revealed that the ten horns will hate the woman-harlot, make her desolate and naked, eat her flesh and burn her with fire (Rev 17:16). During the first half of the 7-year Tribulation Period, the woman, the city of Babylon, will not only have a one-world religious system over the peoples on the earth, but she will also exercise some political control over the ten kings of the earth during that time.
By the time that the future Tribulation Period commences, the “mother” of harlots will have gathered all her “daughters” under her idol-wings. What will happen to those people who will reject her? During the Tribulation Period, the woman will be drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus (Rev 17:6). But do we not already see various ecumenic, multi-religious movements merging on their way back to Babylon (see Scholtz 2019:182-198)? For example, the New Age movement preaches tolerance for their idea that every human may find their own non-exclusive “path of works” to God. Woe to those people who reject this false doctrine. Still, the words of the Lord Jesus Christ stand forever: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (Jn 14:6).
Du Rand, J., 2007, Die A-Z van Openbaring, Christelike Uitgewersmaatskappy, Vereeniging.
Dyer, C.H., 1987, ‘The Identity of Babylon in Revelation 17-18 (Part 2)’, Bibliotheca Sacra 144(576), 433-449.
König, A., 2009, ŉ Perspektief op Openbaring, Christelike Uitgewersmaatskappy, Vereeniging.
Scholtz, J.J., 2019, God se raadsplan in Christus, FaithEquip, Amsterdam. Available in Afrikaans at: https://faithequip.co.za/godseraadsplan/
Woods, A.W., 2012, ‘Have the Prophecies in Revelation 17-18 about Babylon been Fulfilled? Part 1’, Bibliotheca Sacra 169(673), 79-100.
Thanks to photographer Rafael Nir for sharing his work on Unsplash.