A second example. Let’s look at a specific Old Testament geographical term which is used in in Revelation 16:12: “The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up to prepare the way for the kings from the East.” Should we interpret the river Euphrates literally or geographically? Or does it have a spiritual, worldwide meaning like Revelation 1:7? We are not left to guess. The meaning of the Euphrates River in Revelation 16 is provided in Revelation 17. This becomes evident when we look at 17:1: “Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, ‘Come, I will show you the judgment of the great prostitute who is seated on many waters. . . .’”
Notice two things about this text. First, one of the bowl-angels of chapter 16 has come to explain something, and, second, that something has to do with “many waters.” So which of the seven bowl angels is this? Which of the seven bowls have anything to do with water? There are three possible candidates; the second bowl (Rev 16:3– falls on the sea), the third (16:4-7– rivers and springs), and the sixth (16:12– Euphrates River). Which of these three bowl-angels is the angel of Revelation 17? The answer is clarified in verse 5: “This title was written on her forehead: MYSTERY BABYLON THE GREAT THE MOTHER OF PROSTITUTES AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH” (Rev 17:5). Babylon was an ancient city located on the Euphrates River. So when you talk about a woman who sits on many waters (17:1) and whose name is Babylon (17:5), there is no question exactly what the waters of Revelation 17:1 are, they are the Euphrates River, which is also described as “many waters” in Jeremiah 51:13. The angel who comes to John in Revelation 17 is the sixth bowl angel. He has come to explain something about the Euphrates River.
What the angel has come to explain is found in Revelation 17:15: “The waters you saw, where the prostitute sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations and languages.” What are these “waters you saw?” They are the waters of Rev 17:1, the waters of the Euphrates River. What does the Euphrates River represent? It represents “peoples, multitudes, nations and languages.” The Euphrates River is a symbol of many nations– the political, secular, and economic powers of this world. In the Old Testament, the Euphrates River was a literal and local river. But in the book of Revelation it is a symbol of a world-wide spiritual, concept, those people in the world who oppose Jesus Christ, not primarily on religious grounds, but as a threat to their political, secular and economic goals. In re-defining the Israel of the Old Testament, Jesus also re-defined how God looks at the earthly “enemy.” Differences between nations that have no impact on the larger issues in the cosmic conflict are of little or no importance to Bible prophecy. What counts is how people relate to Jesus Christ.
Continuing our look at Hans LaRondelle’s understanding of Israel and the nations in the New Testament.
There is a memorable saying in the Old Testament: “A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (Deut 19:15). We have seen in the “light . . . to the Gentiles” theme how the promise to Abraham (Gen 12:3) and the charge to Israel (Exod 19:5-6) were seen in the New Testament as fulfilled in Christ (Luke 2:32), and through Him the church (Acts 13:46-47). Israel was re-defined in spiritual and worldwide terms. This is confirmed in the way the early church applied Psalm 2 to the crucifixion (Acts 4:24-28). Before closing this book, I want to further confirm this approach to biblical interpretation with two more examples as additional witnesses.
Let’s compare Revelation 1:7 with Zechariah 12. “Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him. So shall it be! Amen” (Rev 1:7). Who is this talking about in Revelation? This is talking about Jesus, the one who brings the vision to John (Rev 1:1-6). So the verse is saying, “Look, he [Jesus] is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him [Jesus].” When Jesus comes every eye, in other words, the whole world, will see Him. It is a universal coming. Everyone will see Him, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn over Him.
The author of Revelation did not invent these words. He is alluding to a passage in his Bible, the Old Testament, Zechariah 12:10-12: “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son. On that day the weeping in Jerusalem will be great. . . . The land will mourn, each clan by itself. . . .” In Zechariah 12 it is not Jesus speaking. Rather it is Yahweh who is speaking (Zech 12:1-9), it is Yahweh who comes, it is Yahweh who is to be pierced. In Zechariah it is the inhabitants of Jerusalem who mourn. So the actions and reactions in Zechariah 12 are limited in a literal and local sense.
In Revelation 1:7, however, John takes this Old Testament Yahweh text and applies it to Jesus and the situation of the world at the Second Coming. It is Jesus who comes, it is Jesus who was pierced. This is a spiritual re-definition of what happens in Zechariah 12. Likewise, it is the tribes of the whole earth who mourn, not just the tribes around Jerusalem. So Revelation 1 takes the literal and local things of Zechariah in a spiritual and worldwide sense. Like Acts 4, the inhabitants of Jerusalem are no longer the good guys, they are now classed with the enemies of Israel. To read Zechariah without reference to Jesus’ re-definition of Israel would be to misunderstand the Revelation of Jesus Christ. Those in relationship with Jesus are Israel. Those in opposition to Jesus are classed with the enemies of Israel, such as Sodom, Egypt and Babylon (Rev 11:8; 14:8—this attitude is consistent with Deuteronomy 13:12-17). To take Old Testament end-time prophecies as applying to literal and local nations in the Middle East today is to ignore Jesus’ own Christ-centered, typological hermeneutic.
Babylon in Revelation 17 has numerous parallels with the fall of Babylon in Daniel 5. Both chapters share the theme of imminent judgment with a subsequent swift fall. In Daniel it is a disembodied hand writing on the wall that announces the fall of Babylon. In Revelation 17 and 18 it is an angel who announces that fall. Both chapters have kings drinking wine from golden vessels (Dan 5:2; Rev 17:2, 4). But in Daniel 5 that banquet was in praise of the gods or idols of Babylon. That motif is missing in Revelation 17. But if one understands the Babylon in Revelation 17 as the idol image of the beast, then the parallels between Daniel 5 and Revelation 17 are complete in regard to the fall of Babylon.
Identifying Babylon with the image of the beast also fits with the cultural perspective of John’s day. In Revelation 17 Babylon is presented as a great prostitute who sits on many waters (17:1) and then a scarlet beast (17:3). The kings of the earth commit adultery with her and are intoxicated with her wine (17:2). She is dressed in purple and scarlet and adorned with gold, precious stones and pearls (17:4). She has a golden cup in her hand and a title on her forehead (17:5) and is drunk with the blood of the saints (17:6). This description of Babylon seated on a beast fits very well with ANE (Ancient Near Eastern) iconography, Babylonian goddesses are often portrayed as seated on various animals. In particular, this portrayal of Babylon resembles the cult image of the goddess Ishtar, the most revered goddess of ancient Mesopotamia. While the veneration of Ishtar goes all the way back to Sumerian times, it was very much alive also in John’s day and was known in the Hellenistic world of that time.
Ishtar was portrayed riding on a lion, so the composite beast of Revelation 17 seems to be a deliberate disfiguring of the Ishtar tradition. Instead of the lion, a symbol of victory, Babylon rides an ugly disfigured beast. Extra-biblical sources mention jewelry and clothing being dedicated to the Babylonian gods and goddesses and placed on the idols to be worn by them. These garments were scarlet, purple, and bluish-purple. Jewelry of gold, silver and precious stones would be attached to the garments of Babylonian cult images. Ishtar was also depicted as holding a golden cup in her hands. So the portrayal of Babylon in Revelation 17 fits with the general picture of a Babylonian cult image of a goddess.
The activities of Ishtar also parallel Babylon in Revelation 17. In Babylonian mythology, Ishtar was the manifestation of sex and eroticism. She played the role of a seductive woman flaunting her sexual attraction. The goddess was known as a prostitute and a patron of prostitutes. Prostitutes were called daughters of Ishtar in Sumerian love songs. Ishtar as a mother of prostitutes fits Revelation 17 very well. The goddess Ishtar also had a close relationship with the Babylonian kings as a companion in war and also as a symbolic sexual partner. She was a divine bride, having sexual relationships with kings through sacred marriage.
Finally, Babylon is called the mother of the abominations of the earth (Rev 17:5), the source of all abominations. In the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) the term “abominations” (Greek: bdelugma) is often used to denote idolatry. So the reference to Babylon’s abominations connects the Babylon of Revelation 17 with idolatry. This association with idolatry is one further reason to interpret Babylon in Revelation 17 as synonymous with the image of the beast of Revelation 13:14-15. In a number of ways, the portrayal of Babylon parallels the major characteristics of ANE cult images. The only cult image found in Revelation is the image of the beast. Rebekah Liu suggests that the image of the beast finds its active counterpart in the Babylon of Revelation 17 and 18. The destruction of Babylon by fire in 17:16 and 18:8, 18, therefore, supplies the missing element in Revelation’s portrayal of the image of the beast. It is not destroyed by fire in Revelation 19 or 20 because it has already passed off the scene.
In Revelation 17 there are direct references to a beast and to a woman/Babylon who sits on the beast. In chapter 18 there are no references to a beast at all, but the woman is now described in terms of a great city. In Revelation 17 it is the beast that supports Babylon, in Revelation 18 it is the kings, merchants, and mariners who once supported Babylon but now withdraw that support. They are the ones who, presumably, burned prostitute Babylon in 17:16. So the beast seems to be present in chapter 18 in a more literal fashion, the political and economic powers of the world. As noted earlier, the image of the beast is mentioned in every chapter from 13-20 except 17 and 18, although it actually operates only in chapter 13. Since the beast can be present in Revelation 18 without being mentioned, is the image of the beast present in 17 and 18 without being mentioned? Is the lack of mention a clue that the image is very much present in another form?
Revelation 17 is, in a sense, a duodirectional text. It provides a large, interpretive summary of the sixth and seventh plagues of Revelation 16. It also points forward to chapters 18 and 19, summarizing in advance events that happen in those two chapters. The major themes of Revelation 17 are the beast and Babylon. The beast of Revelation 17 has several similarities to the beast of Rev 13:1-7. They look alike, are both associated with water and blasphemy, and act in similar ways. It also requires wisdom to understand either (Rev 13:18; 17:9). So identifying the beast of Revelation 17 with the sea beast is plausible. On the other hand, the beast of Revelation 17 is clearly distinguishable from Babylon, although Babylon also has features of the sea beast (Christian orientation, persecuting the saints, rule over the kings of the earth). Babylon and the beast are similar, they work together and yet are distinguishable. If Babylon is the image of the beast, it resolves the tension between the two. Babylon is the “cult-image” of the “god”.
The image of the beast appears in Revelation 13 and is not seen again. Babylon appears in Revelation 14 and dominates the scene of Revelation until its final destruction in chapter 18. Are the two one and the same? Babylon in 17:1-6 is also antithetically parallel to the woman of Revelation 12. They are both described in detail. They are both mothers. Both are defined in relationship to God, to His believers and to His enemies. Both are located in the desert. And salvation comes from the child of the woman of Revelation 12 while death and destruction come from the prostitute and her offspring.
Babylon in Revelation 17 is also antithetically parallel to the bride of the Lamb in 21:9 – 22:5. Both scenes start with the same bowl-angel (Rev 17:1; 21:9) inviting John to see a woman. In both cases John is carried away by the Spirit to where the woman is. Revelation 21:9 repeats the exact same words as Revelation 17:1 in exactly the same order. Revelation 21:10 repeats five words of 17:3 in the same order. Both women are adorned with jewels. Each has a name written on her forehead (17:5: 22:4). Both are cities, one is called great and the other is called holy. One is a prostitute and the other is a bride. Those who belong to Babylon are not written in the book of life (Rev 17:8), while those who belong to the New Jerusalem are written in the book of life (21:27). The heavenly woman is connected in some way to the prostitute. Babylon the Great is, in fact, a parody of the New Jerusalem. The two female figures are in direct contrast.
The close link between the churches of Revelation 2 and 3 and the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21 and 22 indicates that the New Jerusalem represents the community of the saints, the bride of the Lamb. The New Jerusalem is the fulfillment of the promises made to the overcomers in the seven churches. The inhabitants of the New Jerusalem are those who heeded the call to repentance in the seven churches. In contrast, Babylon the Great is the community of those in the churches who did not heed to call of the Spirit. Babylon represents humanity in chaos and rebellion against God. The stripping naked of the prostitute in 17:16 fulfills the warning of the Spirit to Laodicea and to those who gathered for Armageddon (Rev 16:15; 3:17-18). Both Babylon and the image of the beast are symbols for the unfaithful community within the Christian church. This understanding of Babylon links it with the image of the beast.