Revelation 17 portrays a harlot in purple and scarlet who has conducted her business with the kings of the earth. Who is this woman? What does she represent?
As we’ve noted in other articles in this series on the book of Revelation, this book is a vision from Jesus Christ, given to Him by God the Father, which primarily reveals what is going to happen before Christ’s return to establish the Kingdom of God on earth. While this prophetic book is generally written in a chronological style, there are also historical overviews of specific subjects.
Similar to chapter 12, which provides a concise history of Satan’s efforts to destroy Christ and God’s people, including the true Church of God, Revelation 17 seems to document the work of a powerful, false religious system that has long deceived and ruled over numerous nations and peoples.
In our article on “Revelation 12: Who Are the Woman, Child and Dragon?” we saw that a woman represented Old Testament Israel and the Church of God. In Revelation 17, an immoral woman is depicted.
Harlotry symbolizes spiritual infidelity
Revelation 17 begins by clearly identifying the woman in this chapter as a “harlot” (verse 1) “with whom the kings of the earth committed fornication” (verse 2). This seems to refer to political intrigues in which the leaders of these nations collaborate with this “harlot” in spiritual misconduct, with each party seeking its own advantage. Similarly, God called Israel’s disobedience to Him adultery and harlotry (Jeremiah 3:8-9; Jeremiah 5:7; Jeremiah 13:27; Ezekiel 16:32).
This fallen woman’s influence was and is extensive. In addition to her influence over the kings of the earth, she holds sway over a large portion of the earth’s population. The description of her as one “who sits on many waters” (Revelation 17:1) is later explained: “The waters which you saw, where the harlot sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations, and tongues” (verse 15). In verse 2 she is further described as making the inhabitants of the earth “drunk with the wine of her fornication.”
The identity of the woman
The woman of this chapter is described as being “arrayed [dressed] in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls, having in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the filthiness of her fornication” (verse 4).
While modern implications of the color scarlet include infidelity, in the first century when the book of Revelation was written, clothing of a reddish-purple color was “much prized” and was “commonly worn by persons of rank and wealth, Mark 15:17, Mark 15:20, Luke 16:19. The purple color contains more blue than the crimson, though the limits are not very accurately defined, and the words are sometimes interchanged. Thus the mock robe put on the Saviour is called in Mark 15:17, Mark 15:20, πορφύραν porphuran—‘purple,’ and in Matthew 27:28, κοκκίνην kokkinen—‘crimson’” (Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, Revelation 17:4).
The point behind being dressed in purple and scarlet is that the woman appears to be a woman of wealth and authority. This color of clothing complements her also wearing gold, precious stones and pearls and her use of a golden cup. The contrast to this beautifully impressive exterior is that her cup is filled with “abominations and the filthiness of her fornication” (verse 4). In other words, she deceives many by her appearance. Although she looks beautiful and has the trappings of wealth, luxury and authority, her actions are an abomination to God.
Mystery, Babylon the Great
In verse 5 we see the woman’s name: “MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.” Although the letters of this passage were not capitalized in the original Greek manuscripts, a number of translators have done so here (and similarly in Matthew 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38; John 19:19) to indicate that this was a title or inscription.
The reference to Babylon indicates that, just as Babylon (the first of four world-ruling empires foretold by God in the book of Daniel) had spread and enforced its false, idolatrous form of worship, so would this woman. As the mother of harlots, she would also have daughters that would teach similar abominable doctrines—teachings that would be in opposition to what Jesus and His disciples taught. For additional information, see “What Is Babylon?”
Additionally, we are told that this woman is responsible for the deaths of the faithful “martyrs of Jesus” (Revelation 17:6) and that this woman “is that great city which reigns over the kings of the earth” (verse 18).
In viewing history since the time of Christ, the Roman Catholic Church, located in Rome (in the independent territory of the Vatican) has indeed ruled over kings of the earth in the past. Though Christian in name, this institution has also persecuted God’s faithful people throughout the ages and changed fundamental doctrines taught by Christ and the first-century apostles. (As an example, see the article “Smyrna” for documentation of how this church tried to convince God’s people to abandon the observance of Passover as taught by Jesus and His apostles.)
The woman and the beast
One of the most intriguing descriptions of the woman of Revelation 17 is found in verse 3: “And I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast which was full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns.” Who and what is this strange beast?
As explained in our article “Mark of the Beast,” the beast in the book of Revelation is a continuation of the fourth great historical empire (the Roman Empire) prophesied in Daniel 7:1-8. This kingdom was prophesied to receive a “deadly wound” before rising again prior to the end of this age (Revelation 13:1, 3). Although the human leader of this empire is also called “the beast” in Revelation 19:20, here (in Revelation 17:3) this seems to refer to the empire.
It appears that the woman sitting on the beast controls or rules the beast—as the rider on a horse controls or directs it. In his commentary, Adam Clarke further explains, “This is a representation of the Latin [Roman] Church in her highest state of antichristian prosperity, for she sits upon the scarlet coloured beast, a striking emblem of her complete domination over the secular Latin [Roman] empire” (Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible, Revelation 17:3). “The Holy Roman Empire” was thus the name of the empire centered in Europe and controlled by the Roman Catholic Church.
As for the seven heads of the beast, these “are seven mountains on which the woman sits. There are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, and the other has not yet come. And when he comes, he must continue a short time” (Revelation 17:9-10).
And concerning the 10 horns, Revelation 17 explains: “The ten horns which you saw are ten kings who have received no kingdom as yet, but they receive authority for one hour as kings with the beast. These are of one mind, and they will give their power and authority to the beast” (verses 12-13).
Putting this information together, it seems that the scarlet woman—the Roman Catholic Church—was prophesied to ride or control successive continuations of the Roman Empire, the last of which will arise at the end of this age. This last revival of the Roman Empire will be a combination of 10 kings that will come together to form a final, short-lived resurgence of this historic fourth empire of Daniel 7.
This end-of-the-age empire—which the harlot will control for a short time—will receive its power from Satan the devil. Speaking of this beast, Revelation 13:4 says, “So they worshiped the dragon who gave authority to the beast.”
Earlier, the dragon—Satan—is described as “having seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads” (Revelation 12:3). This passage simply shows that as the god of this present evil age, Satan has control of and power over the kingdoms of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4; Galatians 1:4; Matthew 4:8-9).
The end of the scarlet woman
Because of the influence of Satan and the woman clothed in scarlet, the 10 horns or kings “will give their power and authority to the beast” (Revelation 17:13) and “receive authority for one hour as kings with the beast” (verse 12). Before their short rule is over, these kings “will make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them, for He is Lord of lords and King of kings” (verse 14).
Apparently realizing that they had been deceived or disappointed by the scarlet woman, they will then turn on her and destroy her. “And the ten horns which you saw on the beast, these will hate the harlot, make her desolate and naked, eat her flesh and burn her with fire. For God has put it into their hearts to fulfill His purpose, to be of one mind, and to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled” (verses 16-17).
For further study
To learn more about the work of the spokesperson for false religion during the end times prior to the return of Jesus Christ, see the article “Antichrist.” An example of how the false church described in Revelation 17 has wrongfully changed the teaching of Christ regarding the Sabbath can be found in the articles on this website in the section titled “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.”