13. Seeking the Peace of the City—Revelation 17:1-18
[This is the thirteenth in a series of posts summarizing the message of the book of Revelation. I have been writing on Revelation off and on for a long time. My intent with this project is to write a new book applying Revelation’s message to our modern world.]
I hate the use of “harlot” as a metaphor in Revelation 17. Among other things, it gives the misleading impression that the concerns John has in Revelation are about illicit sex. However, in terms of what the image communicates, we may see many parallels with our current situation—the one superpower that corrupts people from around the world to do its bidding, to serve its insatiable greed and will to dominate. And the arrogance and lack of self-awareness of this superpower.
The image here, too, of the hostility of the one superpower toward people who challenge it, especially out of concern for the vulnerable ones on whose lifeblood the system thrives. But also, that the Lamb’s way nonetheless conquers the system. And then the rather shocking picture—the kings who had earlier allied with the woman turn on her and destroy her. Is this a picture of the self-destructive nature of this insatiable greed and lust for power?
Revelation 17 as a call to seek Babylon’s well-being?
Let me test an idea: Even with all this destruction, the picture here actually holds out hope for the city symbolized by the harlot and Babylon. This vision is a call to seek the well-being of Babylon. At the end of the previous chapter, chapter 16, the seventh of the full out plagues is visited on the city Babylon. The greatest earthquake the world had ever known splits Babylon into three parts. A loud voice, presumably God’s, cries out: “It is done!” (16:17).
But then, starting in 17:1, there are more visions that elaborate on the final plague. The point, as with all the visions, is not to predict how the world will end. The “revelation of Jesus Christ” in the book of Revelation is not a vision of the chronological end of time but, rather, a vision of the purpose of our existence. The seventh and final plague that completes the vision is about purpose, not future predictions.
The final six chapters of the book elaborate the seventh plague. They make clear the purpose of the plagues—that Babylon would end and out of its ashes would arise the New Jerusalem. The revelation of Jesus Christ is a revelation not of the literal destruction of Babylon but of the transformation of Babylon itself into the New Jerusalem. The visions are not so much about a future outcome as they are about a present process: follow the Lamb resolutely wherever he goes.
One of the seven angels who had delivered the great bowl plagues in chapter 16 speaks to John at 17:1. The angel takes John to see the fate of Babylon the Great, the city of the Beast that had just received the “wine-cup of the fury of [God’s] wrath” (16:20). If we skip ahead to chapter 21, we see that this same exact angel returns for John. This time the angel shows John another city, the city of healing, the New Jerusalem. The first city is portrayed as a harlot, the second city portrayed as a bride.
These two cities make a single set of images, a point and a counter-point. John sets before his readers a stark choice. Accept the empire’s way of being in the world and you will be at home in Babylon and meet her fate. Follow the Lamb and you will be at home in the New Jerusalem. We read that Babylon falls, crushed by the self-destructiveness of its ways of death. Then the New Jerusalem comes down, from heaven to earth. But we need to look closely at the dynamics here.
The distinction between Babylon and the Beast
In chapter 17, we get mixed signals. Clearly Babylon has an intimate relationship with the Beast. The Beast personifies the powers of violence, greed, and exploitation. But then, inexplicably, though predictably, the Beast turns on Babylon, the Beast hates his servant, and the “ten horns” (the Beast’s kingly minions) devour Babylon.
But Revelation tells us something suggestive. John will see in chapter 20 the three great Powers thrown into the lake of fire—the Dragon, the Beast, and the False Prophet. These are the Powers of evil behind the human structures that do their bidding. But Babylon is not thrown into the lake. What happens to Babylon after the Beast is destroyed?
This is what I think: It is not coincidental that the exact same angel who shows John what happens to Babylon then shows him the New Jerusalem. After the Beast is destroyed, the New Jerusalem comes down. And notice, the very kings of the earth who chapter 17 links with Babylon’s terrible “abominations and impurities” enter into the New Jerusalem, find healing, and bring into it the glory of the nations. The purple and scarlet garments that clothe the harlot in chapter 17 are cleansed to a bright white on the bride. The “gold and jewels and pearls” of chapter 17, grasped greedily in the sweaty hands of Babylon, become part of the commons in chapters 21 and 22. They offer beauty to the entire city, for all who are healed by the leaves of the tree of life.
So, contrary to the standard account of Revelation, we do not have unremitting hostility from John and John’s God toward the human city. What happens is not utter destruction of the sinful world of present-day humanity followed by the creation of something completely new and different. What happens is healing and transformation.
How does healing happen?
How does the healing and transformation happen? Answering this question is the point of the entire book, I believe. Notice throughout the book how “blood” is used, whose blood is shed, and to what effect. This may seem a bit gruesome. But we see something profound when we follow the blood—and this is the key to understanding Revelation 17.
We read that Babylon is “drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses of Jesus.” Jesus is the “faithful witness.” The saints follow him wherever he goes. They resist Babylon’s injustice—for Babylon’s own sake. The “abominations” are the ways the empire seeks to crush those who resist it. The city will try to crush those who seek its shalom—at least until the city is transformed. And this transformation is exactly where John’s vision points. Notice the blood here. No hint that the Harlot’s blood is shed. No hint that the kings of the earth or that the inhabitants of the earth shed their blood.
“Blood” stands for staying close to the way of Jesus. So, the blood that makes Babylon drunk is Shalom-enhancing living. We will see in chapter 18 that this blood is what takes Babylon down. But it does so not by shedding Babylonian blood but by breaking the hold that the Beast, the Dragon, and the False Prophet have on the inhabitants of the earth. The blood the Lamb and his followers give frees people to embrace his ways—the “conquering” is a blessing for the inhabitants of the earth, not their destruction.
I don’t think Revelation should be read as an ironclad promise that everything will turn out okay in the end no matter what humanity does in the meantime. More so, I think Revelation tells us of the path we must follow in order for things to turn out okay. It’s simple: Follow the Lamb wherever he goes. If Babylon is to be transformed, it is through our faithful witness.