by John W. Ritenbaugh
The previous three articles have laid a foundation showing a number of good reasons exist for exploring the possibility that some of what we have been taught about end-time events is not completely accurate. Significant events through the centuries and in the immediate past need to be factored into our analysis of what is happening today. Undoubtedly, the general conditions that define the end time are occurring. We are indeed "in the season," as one might say.
However, in some cases precise events are not falling into place as we thought they would. In particular, Europe is not developing into the political, economic, and military powerhouse that Revelation 13 describes as an entity everyone fears. It may still do so, but if so, it is happening very slowly. In addition to the slow development of Europe into a superpower, we must also consider modern Israel's tremendous, collective dominance in areas most deem important to recognition as the most influential people on earth today.
Yet, even though we are in the period when end-time conditions exist, we still have only vague ideas about the precise amount of time left until all the prophesied end-time events occur. Therefore, speculation must be a part of everybody's end-time interpretations. Unfortunately, some are so caught up in interpreting prophecy that it garners most of their biblical study and meditation. It is certainly not wrong to have a healthy curiosity regarding prophecy, but we must be careful to maintain a balance by not allowing it to consume all our study time.
I Corinthians 13:2 cautions us regarding prophecy's importance relative to a vital virtue: "And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, . . . but have not love, I am nothing." We need to grasp this true principle. We must understand that whether or not we know every detail of prophecy has little impact on salvation. Other knowledge is far more important to salvation than even a true, complete knowledge of prophecy.
Of supreme importance is the subject of this chapter—love. Coming to know God, growing, and overcoming in conduct and attitude are exceedingly more important, as are growing in love for both God and the brethren, fellowshipping in peace and harmony, and strengthening our marriage and child-training practices.
However, as the church entered the end-time season, God revealed the locations of the people of Israel in the last days for our benefit, so that we could better grasp what is happening in the world around us. Israel's identity is an end-time secret revealed. Therefore, He judged it helpful for us to know, not for purposes of vanity, but so we would be motivated to keep His law more precisely, as Deuteronomy 29:29 instructs. In other words, God reveals prophetic truths to make us pay better attention to our conduct.
God has revealed modern Israel's geographic locations, but where is Israel located in the book of Revelation? Could Revelation, the most important prophetic book dealing with the end time, ignore the most important, powerful, and influential collection of nations in the last days? Israel is directly named in only three insignificant places. However, as the last article disclosed, it is revealed symbolically in Revelation 12. This article will show that it is just as clearly revealed elsewhere in Revelation. Before that, a quick review of Israel's appearance in Revelation 12 will be helpful.
The Woman of Revelation 12
The nation of Israel is symbolically referred to throughout the chapter. In verse 1, Israel is described as a Woman clothed with the sun and moon and wearing a crown of stars. Tying the symbols to Joseph's dream in Genesis 37 confirms the Woman's identity. In the next verse, Israel is the Woman about to give birth.
In verses 3-4, the Child she is about to bear is the focus of the great red Dragon's—Satan's—murderous intent. Verse 5 identifies her child as the Messiah, Jesus Christ, the One born to rule all nations. In verse 6, the Woman who gave birth to Christ, Israel, flees to a place God prepared for her. That place is, I believe, where the Israelitish nations are located today.
Note that by verses 7-9, time has progressed to the end, when God throws Satan and his demons out of heaven for good. Verses 10-11 allude to the church by mentioning people overcoming the Dragon by the blood of the Lamb. At no time, however, is the Woman of the early verses of this chapter, Israel, indicated to be converted.
But where is the church located? Verse 17 provides a hint, mentioning "the remnant of her offspring, who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ." Verse 13, which follows the interlude involving the Dragon being cast to earth, clarifies the object of the prophecy up until verse 17: "Now when the dragon saw that he had been cast to the earth, he persecuted the woman who gave birth to the male Child." The Woman who gave birth to the Messiah is specifically named. She cannot represent the church because the church did not give birth to the Messiah, but the nation of Israel did. Thus, the people of Israel are the object of the Devil's persecutions.
In verse 14, no break in the narrative occurs to indicate the Devil's focus changes. It is Israel, persecuted by Satan, who is given two wings of a great eagle to fly to her place from the face of the serpent. In the past, we have always applied verse 14 to the church, but there is nothing to indicate any change in subject has taken place! Again in verse 15, the serpent spews a flood from his mouth to destroy the nation of Israel. Likewise, the nation is helped by means of the earth swallowing the flood in verse 16.
It is not until verse 17 that the church comes directly into the picture, identified as "the rest of her [the Woman's] offspring, who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ," the Messiah born to the Woman in verse 5. Israel, the nation, does not keep the commandments of God, nor does it have the testimony of Jesus Christ. Even as the Messiah was born of the Woman and definitely kept the commandments of God, so also does the remnant of her offspring, who are now clearly distinguished from her.
Putting verse 17 together with verses 7-12, the church, the Woman's offspring, will undergo some measure of persecution within Israel before the Woman—Israel—flees in verse 15. Otherwise, why would verse 11 say they "overcame . . . by the blood of the Lamb" and "did not love their lives to the death"?
Verse 17 clearly states that the Dragon leaves the Woman who fled and heads toward some other geographical location to persecute those who keep the commandments. In other words, the Woman who fled and her offspring that keep the commandments are, at the time verse 17 occurs, at different locations. This interpretation puts an entirely different cast upon this prophecy.
Characteristics of the Woman of Revelation 17
The apostle John writes in Revelation 17:5-7:
And on her forehead a name was written: MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. And when I saw her, I marveled with great amazement. But the angel said to me, "Why did you marvel? I will tell you the mystery of the woman and of the beast that carries her, which has the seven heads and the ten horns."
It is interesting that God labels this Woman a "mystery." Is her identity the mystery, or is it her character? Is she a nation or a church of old that resurfaces as an influential power in the end time? We are not left to guess because the angel says, "I will show you the mystery of the woman and of the beast." Revelation 17 and 18 contain many clues to the identification of the Woman.
Vine's Expository Dictionary defines "mystery" (Strong's #3466) as that which
denotes, not the mysterious (as with the Eng[lish] word), but that which, being outside the range of unassisted natural apprehension, can be made known only by divine revelation, and is made known in a manner and at a time appointed by God, and to those only who are illumined by His Spirit.
Speaking of the same period as Revelation 17, Daniel 12:10 parallels the need for divine revelation: "Many shall be purified, made white, and refined, but the wicked shall do wickedly; and none of the wicked shall understand, but the wise shall understand." Elsewhere, the wise are defined as those who keep the commandments, so we trust that we are the wise, and God will make this mystery known to us.
In Revelation 18:7, three of this mystery Woman's remarkable characteristics are named, which will help to identify her: "In the measure that she glorified herself and lived luxuriously, in the same measure give her torment and sorrow; for she says in her heart, 'I sit as a queen, and am no widow, and will not see sorrow.'"
"She has glorified herself" implies pride, even to the point of arrogance. Jeremiah 51:41 adds an interesting assessment of why Babylon may have this haughty attitude: "Oh, how Sheshach is taken! Oh, how the praise of the whole earth is seized! How Babylon has become desolate among the nations!" Having the admiration of the nations is enough to turn the head of all but the most sound-minded of people, and Babylon is not of this quality.
Revelation 18:7 then says of her, "she lived luxuriously," or as other translations suggest "extravagantly," "lustfully," or "unrestrainedly." The terms suggest the very apex of luxury, indicating satiety, an overindulgent superabundance, a state of having too much. She indulges herself in a surfeit of things to pamper her flesh and stimulate the vanity of her mind.
Finally, the verse peers into the depths of her thoughts about herself. What she thinks of herself magnifies the other qualities: "I sit as a queen, and am no widow, and shall see no sorrow." She sees herself as above the masses of people struggling to get by. She directs her life to avoid suffering. She displays an in-your-face, "let them eat cake," haughty superiority. We should realize, however, that the avoidance of suffering inevitably produces compromise with law and conscience.
Thus, we have a nation portrayed as proud to the point of arrogance and self-confident in its security, thinking it has produced its power by its own means. It lives extravagantly relative to the levels of the rest of the world, and it seeks immediate gratification. It fails to discipline itself as it compromises with known standards.
Notice how this description parallels one of Jerusalem in Ezekiel 16:48-51:
"As I live," says the Lord God, "neither your sister Sodom nor her daughters have done as you and your daughters have done. Look, this was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: She and her daughter had pride, fullness of food, and abundance of idleness; neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy. And they were haughty and committed abomination before Me; therefore I took them away as I saw fit. Samaria did not commit half of your sins; but you have multiplied your abominations more than they, and have justified your sisters by all the abominations which you have done."
Incredible but true because God's Word is true. Jerusalem, by God's judgment, was worse than either Sodom or Samaria!
The Woman Rides the Beast
We need to step back before proceeding through the descriptive material concerning the Woman in Revelation 18. Notice Revelation 16:17-19:
Then the seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple of heaven, from the throne, saying, "It is done!" And there were noises and thunderings and lightnings; and there was a great earthquake, such a mighty and great earthquake as had not occurred since men were on the earth. Now the great city was divided into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell. And great Babylon was remembered before God, to give her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of His wrath.
These verses are actually the introduction to chapters 17 and 18, which feature the description of Babylon the Great. They also serve to introduce the term "great." "Great" has many applications, but in relation to Babylon, it implies power, wealth, authority, influence, and evil. This adjective should be kept in mind as part of virtually every aspect of its character.
Revelation 17:1-7 displays Babylon on the stage of future events for our consideration:
Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and talked with me, saying to me, "Come, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot who sits on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth were made drunk with the wine of her fornication." So he carried me away in the Spirit into the wilderness. And I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast which was full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. The woman was arrayed 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. And on her forehead a name was written; MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. And when I saw her, I marveled with great amazement. But the angel said to me, "Why did you marvel? I will tell you the mystery of the woman and of the beast that carries her, which has the seven heads and the ten horns."
Notice that the Beast the Woman rides has seven heads and ten horns just like the Beast in Revelation 13—because it is the same Beast. What is added is the Woman riding the Beast. This is a position of control much like the rider of a horse. Verse 5 clearly identifies the rider as "Mystery, Babylon the Great."
For her to be riding the Beast, some kind of relationship between the two must exist. In fact, each, the Woman and the Beast, is part of the same general, Babylonish system, but in them, God reveals two distinctly different aspects, personalities, or approaches within the system.
Obviously, a human woman would approach life and its events differently than a wild animal. The Beast is depicted in Revelation 13:2 as consisting of the strongest parts of a leopard, bear, and lion. Each of these animals is undeniably a wild beast, and each on its own is an immensely powerful animal that a woman, on her own, would be no match for. Yet Revelation shows the Woman in control, riding the seemingly super-powerful Beast. At this point in the prophecy, she is greater, superior, more powerful, and more influential than the Beast.
Jesus says in Mark 3:24-26, "If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself, and is divided, he cannot stand, but has an end." This provides a principle that may help us understand Revelation 17. The Woman and the Beast represent political powers with diverse and competing interests and aims within the same general, Babylonish system. Each is competing for world domination. Just as surely as Satan's house cannot stand when divided, the Babylonish system cannot stand!
Revelation 17:16 confirms this principle: "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." At this point, any cooperation and competition between the two end. Competition may appear on the surface to be good, producing better quality and better value. However, it ultimately divides and destroys because the self-interests of those competing eventually drive them against each other to gain more for the self.
Is the Woman a Church?
We have, it seems, always accepted that the Woman riding the beast is the Catholic Church. We believed this largely based on the symbolism that a woman symbolizes a church. However, there are good reasons to doubt this conclusion because the Bible itself does not consistently employ the symbol that way. We will see from some examples in the Old Testament that a woman predominantly symbolizes a city, which, in turn, represents a nation.
Ezekiel 16 identifies Jerusalem in this manner:
Son of man, cause Jerusalem to know her abominations. . . . I made you thrive like a plant in the field; and you grew, matured, and became very beautiful. Your breasts were formed, your hair grew, but you were naked and bare. . . . But you trusted in your own beauty, played the harlot because of your fame, and poured out your harlotry on everyone passing by who would have it. . . . You are an adulterous wife, who takes strangers instead of her husband. (verses 2, 7, 15, 32)
Clearly, God uses a woman to symbolize a city and a nation, in this case specifically, Jerusalem, and in the broader sense, Israel.
Notice also Ezekiel 23:2-4:
Son of man, there were two women, the daughters of one mother. They committed harlotry in Egypt, they committed harlotry in their youth; their breasts were there embraced, their virgin bosom was there pressed. Their names: Oholah the elder and Oholibah her sister; they were Mine, and they bore sons and daughters. As for their names, Samaria is Oholah, and Jerusalem is Oholibah.
It is indisputably plain that Oholah represents the city of Samaria, which in turn stands for the ten northern tribes called "Israel." In like manner, Oholibah represents Jerusalem, which signifies Judah, the southern two tribes. It also becomes clear from these two chapters that the woman symbolism includes cities and nations of vile character and reputation, even though at times the woman symbol might represent the church made pure by Christ's blood. Certainly, the Woman of Revelation 17 is anything but pure!
In Isaiah 47:1, we find another Old Testament example in which the woman symbol refers to a city: "Come down and sit in the dust, O virgin daughter of Babylon; sit on the ground without a throne, O daughter of the Chaldeans! For you shall no more be called tender and delicate." Again, the pattern holds true: We find a woman symbolizing a city and nation, not a church. In this case, though, a woman symbolizes Babylon, a pagan city and nation, not Israel.
Lamentations 1:1-7 presents us with yet another vivid example:
How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow is she, who was great among the nations! The princess among the provinces has become a slave! She weeps bitterly in the night, her tears are on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has none to comfort her. All her friends have dealt treacherously with her; they have become her enemies. Judah has gone into captivity, under affliction and hard servitude; she dwells among the nations, all her persecutors overtake her in dire straits. The roads to Zion mourn because no one comes to the set feasts. All her gates are desolate; her priests sigh, her virgins are afflicted, and she is in bitterness. Her adversaries have become the master, her enemies prosper; for the Lord has afflicted her because of the multitude of her transgressions. Her children have gone into captivity before the enemy. And from the daughter of Zion all her splendor has departed. Her princes have become like deer that find no pasture, that flee without strength before the pursuer. In the days of her affliction and roaming, Jerusalem remembers all her pleasant things that she had in the days of old. When her people fell into the hand of the enemy with no one to help her, the adversaries saw her and mocked at her downfall.
Here, even before the woman symbol appears, the city is identified as female by feminine pronouns. It is more specifically designated as a widow, another female figure. Before the verse ends, it reflects back on an earlier time when she was a princess, another female figure, but now she is a slave.
In verse 3, the city morphs into Judah, the nation. Then in verse 4, an alternate name for Jerusalem, Zion, is used, and the female identity continues. In verse 6, the city becomes "the daughter of Zion." It is not until verse 7 that Jerusalem, the woman described throughout this context, is directly named. If one would read further, we would see that people have seen her nakedness, and her sin was in her skirts, referring to sins of idolatry, which God describes in sexual terms.
The New King James version uses feminine pronouns 28 times in those seven verses in reference to the entity variously called "a city," "Judah," "a widow," "the princess," "Zion, "the daughter of Zion," and "Jerusalem." Undoubtedly, a woman symbolizes a city, and city, a nation. Each of the female symbols depicts the same thing, Jerusalem and Judah, but from slightly different perspectives. Within this context, it is not depicting a church. Is there a parallel to the church in Lamentations? Yes, but it is indirect, imprecise, and at best secondary.
The Old Testament never refers to Israel as a church. Why? There was no church at that time. Not until the New Testament does the Bible weakly suggest a woman symbolizes a church (Galatians 4:21-31; see also II Corinthians 11:2), and that symbolism is restricted to the Israel of God (Galatians 6:16). However, even in this case, the true church still suggests a city and a nation. Galatians 4:26 refers to the church as "Jerusalem above . . . the mother of us all," and I Peter 2:9 calls it "a holy nation."
The woman symbol is not used once for the false church. The idea that the Woman represents the false church is drawn from Galatians 4:21-31 then wrongly combined with Revelation 12:13-16, where the true church is not even the subject. This unsupported conclusion is then erroneously applied to the harlot in Revelation 17.
The English word "church" is derived from the Greek kuriakon, which means "belonging to a lord." Of itself, kuriakon has absolutely no religious connotations. It simply means the lord or master of a property, and the Bible never uses it in reference to the body of Christ. Revelation 1:10 translates it as "Lord's" in the phrase "the Lord's day," and it plainly means the day belonging to the Lord.
English-speaking Israelites transformed kuriakon into a religious term. It emerged first as the word "kirk" and evolved through the centuries into "church." Its first usage in English was to identify a building in which religious meetings were held, but eventually, it came to mean the people in the building as well.
Kuriakon is not used in Acts 7:38 where the phrase "church in the wilderness" appears. Ekklesia is used there, and it means "assembly," "group," and even "a mob." Ancient Israel in the wilderness—and even when it was in its own land—was not a church. The church (ekklesia), the Israel of God, did not come into being until that Pentecost when God performed great signs to announce its birth.
Herbert Armstrong taught us that Revelation largely interprets its own symbols. Revelation 17:7, 18 say, "But the angel said to me, 'Why did you marvel? I will tell you the mystery of the woman and of the beast that carries her, which has the seven heads and the ten horns. . . . And the woman whom you saw is that great city which reigns over the kings of the earth.'" The chapter itself directly identifies the Woman as "that great city," not a church.
The Mother of Harlots?
What about the statement found in Revelation 17:5 that says the Woman is "the mother of harlots"? "And on her forehead a name was written: MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH." In the past, we referred to the harlot children as being the Protestant churches that revolted from the Catholic Church. However, there is a weakness in this concept found in the Bible's use of the terms "daughters," "sons," and "harlots."
Hosea 1:2 and 2:2-4 declare:
When the Lord began to speak by Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea: "Go take yourself a wife of harlotry and the children of harlotry, for the land has committed great harlotry by departing from the Lord. . . . Bring charges against your mother, bring charges; for she is not My wife, nor am I her Husband! Let her put away her harlotries from her sight, and her adulteries from between her breasts; lest I strip her naked and expose her, as in the day she was born, and make her like a wilderness, and set her like a dry land, and slay her with thirst. I will not have mercy on her children, for they are the children of harlotry."
Here, Israel is portrayed as a wife who turned to harlotry and bore children. Hosea 4:11-13 carries the story a step further:
Harlotry, wine, and new wine enslave the heart. My people ask counsel from the wooden idols, and their staff informs them. For the spirit of harlotry has caused them to stray, and they have played the harlot against their God. They offer sacrifices on the mountaintops, and burn incense on the hills, under oaks, poplars, and terebinths, therefore your daughters commit harlotry, and your brides commit adultery.
At this point, it becomes clear that their harlotry was a never-ending process; one generation after another continued in the same spiritual excesses.
Hosea 7:4 adds one more, helpful piece: "They are all adulterers. Like an oven heated by a baker—he ceases stirring the fire after kneading the dough, until it is leavened." Not only was harlotry an ongoing sin, the whole nation, both men and women, was given over to it! These examples make it clear that "wife" symbolizes the entire nation. In addition, the wife and children were actually comprised of both males and females, and the harlots were also of both genders.
Notice elsewhere that this same reality is shown:
"Indeed everyone who quotes proverbs will use this proverb against you: 'Like mother, like daughter!' You are your mother's daughter, loathing husband and children; and you are the sister of your sisters, who loathed their husbands and children; your mother was a Hittite and your father an Amorite. Your elder sister is Samaria, who dwells with her daughters to the north of you; and your younger sister, who dwells to the south of you, is Sodom and her daughters. You did not walk in their ways nor act according to their abominations; but, as if that were too little, you became more corrupt than they in all your ways. As I live," says the Lord God, "neither your sister Sodom nor her daughters have done as you and your daughters have done. . . . When I bring back their captives, the captives of Sodom and her daughters, and the captives of Samaria and her daughters, then I will also bring back the captives of your captivity among them, that you may bear your own shame and be disgraced by all that you did when you comforted them. When your sisters, Sodom and her daughters, return to their former state, and Samaria and her daughters return to their former state, then you and your daughters will return to your former state." (Ezekiel 16:44-48, 53-55)
We need to grasp the way "daughter" is used in this prophecy—in a collective sense as "people." Many times "daughters" includes men as well! Lamentations 3:51 says, "My eyes bring suffering to my soul because of all the daughters of my city." The subject is still Jerusalem, as we saw earlier, and Jeremiah refers to all its inhabitants, male and female, as "daughters."
Why is this? The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery explains in its article on "Daughter":
This Hebrew idiom reflects a double metaphor common in the culture of the ancient Near East: a capital city was personified as a woman, and the inhabitants of that city collectively as her "daughter." . . . Jerusalem remained distinct as she whose husband was the one true God, Yahweh. . . . Thus her daughters, the collective inhabitants, depended on her for identity but also shaped her future by their actions. (p. 194)
Thus, the terms "sons," "daughters," "children," and "harlots," as well as other descriptive terms like "thieves," "harlots," "adulterers," or "liars," are used collectively, without regard to specific gender, when the sense of the term is "those showing the characteristics of."
In Revelation 17, then, the city, Babylon, is symbolized as a Woman who is said to be "the mother of harlots." "Harlots" is used in the same way as "daughters," that is, collectively, including males. Thus all her offspring, the inhabitants of Babylon, male and female, are considered as harlots. "Harlots" is not limited to church denominations, as all of Revelation 18 continues the description of the Woman. Specifically, Revelation 18:1-3, 10 describes the same Woman riding the Beast in Revelation 17. Revelation 18 does not describe a church but a city and nation involved in massive, worldwide commerce, manufacturing, entertainment, etc. It is a prophetic picture of global scale.
Revelation 17 provides precious little information that might tie the Woman riding the Beast to religion. A religious personage whose activities promote the worship of the Beast is mentioned in Revelation 13:11-12, 15, but the Woman in Revelation 17-18 is not doing such a work. She is controlling the Beast, not bringing about its worship, and she is heavily involved in politics, manufacturing, and merchandising. The apostle John makes no mention of religion.
Consider again that the Woman is riding the Beast. Though she has a relationship with the Beast, she is not part of its internal politics, economics, religion, or military. The Woman and the Beast are separate entities, even though both are part of the overall Babylonish system. The Catholic Church has always been part of the Beast; it influences the Beast from within. The Woman is portrayed as an external influence having power over of the Beast.
Remember, Babylon is primarily the system portrayed in Revelation 17 and 18, as brought to its very peak of worldwide influence in the end time and personified in the Woman exercising control. The Beast is indeed a major player within that worldly, anti-Christ system, but the Woman is another separate city/nation, a political, economic, and military powerhouse that epitomizes the Babylonish system. At the time depicted in this prophecy, she has enough power and influence to bear mightily on the Beast externally. More is to come.