One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits by many waters. With her the kings of the earth committed adultery, and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries.” Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. The name written on her forehead was a mystery: babylon the great the mother of prostitutes and of the abominations of the earth. I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus. When I saw her, I was greatly astonished. – Revelation 17:1-6
Well the wrath is waning but there is still some tricky water to navigate in today’s passage. I have scouted ahead and I believe there are only seven more water-related passages in the bible. But we have to run this rapid so here goes.
Abominations and adulteries, are not exactly uplifting and encouraging topics. One of the main characters engaged in these abominations and adulteries is “a great prostitute, who sits by many waters.” When I first read this I immediately thought the reference to “many waters” was a geographic reference. A place of multiple rivers perhaps like the area of northern Iraq. This would not be the first reference to a geographic location for these dramatic end times events.
As I have pondered and prayed about this perplexing passage I wonder if there is also a metaphorical meaning intended here. God, who is in many ways like water, has said pretty much throughout the entire braided river that is the bible that He, and He alone, is to be our water source. There are so many references in the old testament to planting oneself by the river or water source so that our thirst can be satisfied. Jesus described Himself with as Spring of Living Water that was the only way to satisfy our thirsty souls.
This prostitute in a way represents all the things and ways we use to replace God in our lives, in the same way a prostitute is a replacement for a loving wife in a committed marriage. Both the words abomination and adulteries imply a replacement, or a willful rejection, of the natural order that God has created. Abomination implies using something in a way different than the way it was intended, and adultery has a connotation of spoiling something by misuse or violating a sacred covenant.
The other character in this story, who seems to have some things in common with the prostitute, is the this woman in the wilderness described as “a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls.” This fantastic image may be an attempt by the author to describe the indescribable. I do not know. In any case this woman seems to represent the myriad of ways we can be distracted and deceived.
The creature is covered with blasphemous names. I am not sure what these names would be but they seem to be ways to refer to God that are disrespectful or demeaning. Just the sort of thing that the deceiver of this world would encourage us to do to facilitate the disconnection of our souls from their water source, God. I am not sure what to make of the many heads and horns. Perhaps this is a reference to earthly kingdoms and rulers, but it could also have a metaphorical meaning. I wonder if it may be a reference to the many ways that our deception on this earth is tailored to our souls. This idea was explored in a book I am re-reading at moment by C.S. Lewis called The Screwtape Letters.
In this fictional account of the invisible battle being waged for our souls junior tempters are given “lessons” in tailoring their temptations to several individuals. Each of these people has different weaknesses and tendencies which these junior tempters are encouraged to exploit. The woman being describe here represents a leader of this multi-faceted effort to win our souls from God’s loving arms. God is not absent from these soul skirmishes, but we must actively choose Him over the enticing temptations described here metaphorically as “gold, precious stones and pearls.” All the “abominable things” that are in the woman’s cup are the bag of tricks to ensnare our souls, but God has broken the snare for all those willing to be freed.
The passage alludes to the fact that this journey home will be hard and require sacrifice on our part if we are make it to the undiscovered country, “the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus.” We may have to give up our very lives to make this journey complete, but the destination is worth the difficult road. It is reassuring that if we are faithful and continue to seek out God amidst spiritual squalls we will find Him and in the end God wins.
Prayer: God help us to fix our eyes on You and our ultimate destination so we are not distracted and ensnared by the things of this world.