Summary: Wait a minute. Wasn't the fall of Babylon already predicted? Did it not already happen? Is this the same Babylon? Was Babylon ever taken out like the prophets foretold? Truly a mystery, this Babylon!
Scholars have speculated about the differences in chapters 17 and 18, theorizing that there must be two different Babylons being described. But careful analysis does not support that notion. There is too much similar. What is different about the two chapters is intent, not geography. The intent of the first angel (chapter 17) is to give a no-doubt identity of the woman who rides the beast. In doing so he also gives some clear clues about the beast whom we first met in chapter 13. The intent of the second angel (chapter 18:1-19:6) is to describe in detail the judgment of Babylon, and the reaction of earth and Heaven to that judgment. This horrendous but justified event takes place just before the return of Jesus.
First, the description. I confess here that the identification of Babylon still contains mystery for me. Some see the entire book as mystery, but this mystery is labeled such (17:5). I spent from 1992-1996 researching and writing about Babylon, tracing her history from the infamous tower of Genesis 10 to these very chapters in Revelation (Scarlet Threads). My conclusion was that there has always been a “Babylon”, a holder of the Satanic mysteries, a promulgator of false teaching and man’s religion. I further concluded that those mysteries and falsenesses were passed to the institution in Rome that still exists as a world power. I hesitate to speak of the Roman “Church” for the people of God wear that title. “Church” must not be used glibly. The church is the called out of God. Yes, even associated with Rome are those who know Jesus Christ. But when we speak of Babylon, we are really speaking of the ongoing Roman Empire, the political machine that seized power by means of the church, added Babylon’s teachings, wielded Babylon’s sword, donned Babylon’s garb. The 17th chapter identifies a city ruling over the kings of the earth and sitting on seven hills in John’s day. There is no question of her identity.
And yet even in the book I wrote I had to honestly admit into evidence a parallel series of facts which are equally viable. The prophecies concerning physical Babylon have yet to be fulfilled perfectly. The city now in Iraq never died abruptly as prophesied. It continued on and on. Even in Jesus’ day many Jews lived in Babylon. But the record is sure. Babylon is to be extinguished, as prophesied yet again in the chapters before us. Let us proceed carefully through these two plus chapters. Every detail counts. Notice just how much space is given to this mystery compared to all the others.
Lest we become content with too general an explanation of this passage, we follow the text carefully and listen to the wisdom given by no less than an angel of God. First he invites John to come along and see the following person:
Babylon is a woman (17:1) . In Scripture the two best known women, spiritually speaking, are Israel and Christ’s own bride, the church. The woman before us has long lost her virginity and is not married to God at all, but to everyone willing to pay her price. Her description reminds us of another woman in the prophets. Zechariah speaks of a woman sitting inside a basket, carried through the air and deposited in the land of Shinar, old Babylonia, where a house is to be built for her. We say with Zechariah, “This is Wickedness” (Zechariah 5:5-11).
She sits on many waters. Interpretation for this is clear from verse 15: The waters stand for all the people over whom she has spiritual authority.
Babylon is a harlot (17:1-2). She has spiritual intercourse with the rulers of the world. She rises to power on her back, in bed with the powerful. Take away the power of men, and she has nothing. She is not only a fornicator herself, but spreads her wine via the golden cup she carries (17:4). The cup of her fornication brings us back for the first time, but not the last in these chapters, to the prophets who saw Babylon before. Nothing has changed but location. Jeremiah 51:7 reminds us that “Babylon was a golden cup in the Lord’s hand, that made all the earth drunk. The nations drank her wine; therefore the nations are deranged.” They did it then. They did it in John’s day. They are mad still. They are drunk with the wine of her falseness.
Now we are in the “wilderness” (17:3). Why is this woman, later called a city, seen first in a “wilderness”? I believe the tie-in here is to Zechariah’s Shinar prophecy, mentioned above. In this wilderness, John is for the first time seeing what the angel was describing. The woman is riding on an animal. Whoever the animal is, he is the one responsible for her power, and when he decides to throw her off (17:16), she is history.