17:1–19:10 Babylon the prostitute appears, representing the seductions of the world (17:4; 18:3; see Introduction: Characteristics and Themes: Other Features). “Babylon” is probably a symbol for the city of Rome (17:9 note, 17:18) with its immorality. Paganism made each of the cities of Asia Minor into a small manifestation of this Babylon. Full economic and social participation (13:17) involved attendance at pagan religious feasts and celebrations. Worship of the emperor was an expected expression of political allegiance. Pagans called Christians atheists because they did not worship the many gods, and called them haters of humankind because they withdrew from compromised forms of social life (1 Pet. 2:12; 4:3, 4). In reaction to this pressure, some professing Christians argued that participation in idolatrous feasts and sexual immorality were acceptable (2:12, 20; 1 Cor. 6:12–20). The woman Jezebel in 2:20–23 was a key seducer whose work is generalized and more deeply symbolized in Babylon the prostitute (2:21, 22; cf. 17:2).
A few interpreters favor identifying Babylon, “the great prostitute,” with Jerusalem. In refusing to accept the Messiah, she became a prostitute in the imagery of the Old Testament (Is. 1:21; Ezek. 16; 23; Hos. 2; cf. Luke 11:47–51; 21:9–18). But Jerusalem was only one instance of a society seducing people away from true worship. Ancient Babylon was another, and accordingly Revelation takes up the language of the prophetic condemnations of Babylon and Tyre (Jer. 50; 51; Ezek. 27). Modern cities with their false religions and sexual exploitation are also forms of Babylon. Thus the symbolism of Babylon is capable of many historical embodiments, including the final, climactic manifestation of this “Babylon” just before the Second Coming.
When the destruction of false worship is complete (17:1–18:24), the true worshipers, the bride of the Lamb, stand out in their splendor and joy (19:1–10).