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Bible Commentaries
Revelation 17

Ironside's Notes on Selected BooksIronside's Notes

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Verses 1-18

Chapter Seventeen Babylon: Its Character And Doom (Part One)

This chapter addresses a theme, the wonder of which grows on me every time I speak of it, namely the mystery of iniquity in its final form: Babylon the great. This vast system of error is so like Christianity in some respects that thousands of apparently spiritually-minded people have not been able to distinguish it from Christianity. Yet, when tested by the Word of God this system is seen to be a counterfeit of that church which God has purchased with the blood of His own Son.

Although we have heard of Babylon’s fall twice in this book, we have not learned to what city or system it referred. But the chapter now before us is entirely devoted to that interesting and solemn subject. A careful study of what is revealed here should free us from all doubt or perplexity as to the identification of Babylon.

Chapters 17-18 form another of the great parentheses of the book of Revelation. Chronologically chapter 19 immediately follows chapter 16. But before going on with the direct order of events, John is taken aside as it were to see this remarkable vision of the false church, before he beholds the union of the true church with the Lamb in glory.

The Vision (Revelation 17:1-6)

The beast in verse 3 is the same as that of Revelation 13:0 and is therefore the Roman empire. It is the empire as a whole, but with the last phase especially emphasized. The woman (verses 3-6) is a religious system, that dominates the civil power, at least for a time. The name on her forehead should easily enable us to identify her. But in order to do that we will do well to go back to the Old Testament, and see what is there revealed concerning literal Babylon; the one will surely throw light on the other. We have also the added instruction of secular history that supplies us with some very important facts in this connection. It throws a flood of light on the succession of spiritual Babylon of the apocalypse to literal Babylon of the Old Testament.

As we go back into the dim twilight of history with Scripture, we learn that the founder of Bab-El, or Babylon, was Nimrod. We read of his unholy achievements in the tenth chapter of Genesis. He was the arch-apostate of the patriarchal age. He is described as “a mighty hunter before the Lord”-the rabbis called him “a hunter of the souls of men.” Going out from the presence of the Lord, he impiously sought to gather a multitude around himself. In defiance of the express command of God to spread abroad on the face of the earth, he persuaded his associates and followers to join together in “building a city and a tower which should reach unto heaven.” They were not building a tower to climb up into the skies to escape another possible flood. It was to be a tower of renown, rising to a great height and recognized as a temple or rallying center for those who did not walk in obedience to the word of the Lord. With all the effrontery of our modern apostates, they called their city and tower Bab-El, the gate of God; but it was soon changed by divine judgment into Babel, confusion. It bore the stamp of unreality from the first, for we are told “they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar.” Throughout the ages an imitation of that which is real and true has characterized Babylon.

Nimrod, or Nimroud-bar-Cush as he is called on the monuments, was a grandson of Ham, the unworthy son of Noah. Ham’s character is revealed in his exposure of his father’s shame (Genesis 9:22). We know that Noah had brought through the flood the revelation of the true God. He was a preacher of righteousness, and his utterances on more than one occasion show that he had the prophetic gift. Ham on the other hand seems to have been all too readily affected by the apostasy that brought the flood. He shows no evidence of self-judgment, but the very opposite. His name, as spelled out upon Egyptian monuments, is Khem. This name agrees with the literal sound of the Hebrew word rendered Ham in our Bibles. It means “swarthy, darkened,” or, more literally, “the sun-burnt.” And the name indicates the state of the man’s soul. For a sunburned person is one who is darkened by light from heaven. Ham had been granted wonderful mercies; he was saved from the flood because of his father’s faith. But he abused his privileges and “turn[ed] the grace of our God into lasciviousness” (Jude 1:4). He was actually darkened by the burning rays of the light that God caused to shine on his soul. Thus his conscience became seared as with a hot iron, and he became the founder of a race that departed from the living God. He led the way into idolatry, worshiping and serving the creature more than the Creator.

We know something of what this means. We speak of people today who have become hardened to the gospel. They too have been darkened by the light, and they are often the ring-leaders in apostasy: “If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness” (Matthew 6:23). There are many who used to listen with tears in their eyes to the story of the matchless grace of God as revealed in the cross of Christ. Now they are unmoved however tenderly that story is told. They have become hardened in their sins, and their seared consciences no longer feel the Spirit’s breath. It is a most dangerous thing to trifle with light from Heaven.

Ham became darkened by the light. We know his failure and sin. But when Noah had recovered himself and knew what his son had done to him he pronounced, by the spirit of prophecy, a curse on Canaan, not on Ham. Do you wonder at that? I did until I saw that God had already pronounced a blessing on all three sons of Noah- Shem, Ham, and Japheth. So Noah passed over his unworthy son and uttered a curse on Canaan, who we can well believe was, as we say, “a chip off the old block.” Ham begat a son named Cush, “the black one,” and he became the father of Nimrod, the apostate leader of his generation (Genesis 10:6-8).

Ancient lore now comes to our assistance and tells us that the wife of Nimroud-bar-Cush was the infamous Semiramis the first. She is reputed to have been the foundress of the Babylonian mysteries and the first high-priestess of idolatry. Thus Babylon became the fountainhead of idolatry and the mother of every heathen and pagan system in the world. The mystery-religion that was originated there spread in various forms throughout the whole earth and is still with us today. It is identical with the mystery of iniquity which was at work in Paul’s day (2 Thessalonians 2:7). It will have its fullest development when the Holy Spirit has departed and the Babylon of the apocalypse gains control.

Building on the primeval promise of the woman’s seed who was to come, Semiramis bore a son whom she declared was miraculously conceived! When she presented him to the people, he was hailed as the promised deliverer. This was Tammuz, whose worship Ezekiel protested against in the days of the captivity (Ezekiel 8:13-14). Thus was introduced the mystery of the mother and the child, a form of idolatry that is older than any other known to man. The rites of this worship were secret. Only the initiated were permitted to know its mysteries. It was Satan’s effort to delude mankind with an imitation so like the truth of God that they would not know the true seed of the woman when He came in the fullness of time. To this Justin Martyr bears definite witness.

From Babylon this mystery-religion spread to all the surrounding nations as the years went on and the world was populated by the descendants of Noah. Everywhere the symbols were the same, and everywhere the cult of the mother and the child became the popular system. Their worship was celebrated with the most disgusting and immoral practices. The image of the queen of Heaven with the babe in her arms was seen everywhere, though the names might differ as languages differed. It became the mystery-religion of Phoenicia, and was carried to the ends of the earth by the Phoenicians. Ashtoreth and Tammuz, the mother and child of these hardy adventurers, became Isis and Horus in Egypt, Aphrodite and Eros in Greece, Venus and Cupid in Italy, and bore many other names in more distant places. Within one thousand years Babylonianism had become the religion of a world that had rejected the divine revelation.

Linked with this central mystery were countless lesser mysteries; the hidden meaning was known only to the initiates, but the outward forms were practised by all the people. Among these were the doctrines of purgatorial purification after death; salvation by countless sacraments such as priestly absolution; sprinkling with holy water; the offering of cakes to the queen of Heaven as mentioned in the book of Jeremiah (7:18; 44:19); dedication of virgins to the gods, which was literally sanctified prostitution; weeping for Tammuz for a period of 40 days prior to the great festival of Istar, who was said to have received her son back from the dead (it was taught that Tammuz was slain by a wild boar and afterwards brought back to life). To him the egg was sacred, depicting the mystery of his resurrection. His chosen symbol, the evergreen, was set up in honor of his birth at the winter solstice. At this time a boar’s head was eaten in memory of his conflict and a yule-log burned with many mysterious observances. The sign of the cross was sacred to Tammuz, as symbolizing the life-giving principle and as the first letter of his name. It is represented on vast numbers of the most ancient altars and temples and did not, as many have supposed, originate with Christianity.

The patriarch Abraham was separated from this mystery-religion by the divine call. The nation that sprang from him had constant conflict with this same evil cult, until Jezebel, a Phoenician princess. Under her authority this cult was grafted onto what was left of the religion of Israel in the northern kingdom in the day of Ahab and was the cause of their captivity at the last. Judah was polluted by it, for Baal worship was but the Canaanitish form of the Babylonian mysteries. Only by being sent into captivity to Babylon itself did Judah become cured of her fondness for idolatry. Baal was the sun god, the life-giving one, identical with Tammuz.

When Christ came into this world the mystery of iniquity was in control everywhere, except where the truth of God as revealed in the Old Testament was known. Thus, when the early Christians set out on the great task of carrying the gospel to the ends of the earth, they found themselves everywhere confronted by this system in one form or another. Although Babylon as a city had long been but a memory, her mysteries had not died with her. When the city and temples were destroyed, the high priest fled with a company of initiates and their sacred vessels and images to Pergamos, where the symbol of the serpent was set up as the emblem of the hidden wisdom. From there, they afterwards crossed the sea and emigrated to Italy, where they settled in the Etruscan plain. There the ancient cult was propagated under the name of the Etruscan Mysteries, and eventually Rome became the headquarters of Babylonianism. The chief priests wore mitres shaped like the head of a fish in honor of Dagon, the fish-god, the lord of life-another form of the Tammuz mystery, as developed among Israel’s old enemies, the Philistines. The chief priest when established in Rome took the title pontifex maximus, and this was imprinted on his mitre. Julius Caesar, like all young Romans of good family, was an initiate. When he became the head of the state, he was elected pontifex maximus. This title was held henceforth by all the Roman emperors down to Constantine the Great, who was, at the same time, head of the church and high priest of the heathen! The title was afterwards conferred on the bishops of Rome and is borne by the pope today. This declares the pope to be, not the successor of the fisherman-apostle Peter, but the direct successor of the high priest of the Babylonian mysteries. He is the servant of the fishgod Dagon, for whom he wears, like his idolatrous predecessors, the fisherman’s ring.

During the early centuries of the church’s history, the mystery of iniquity worked with astounding effect. Babylonian practices and teachings had been largely absorbed by that which bore the name of the church of Christ. The truth of the Holy Scriptures on many points had been wholly obscured, while idolatrous practices had been foisted on the people as Christian sacraments. Heathen philosophies took the place of gospel instruction. Thus was developed that amazing system which for a thousand years dominated Europe until the great Reformation of the sixteenth century brought in a measure of deliverance.

This vision of the woman drunk with the blood of the saints filled the apostle with amazement (17:6). It seemed incredible that the glorious movement with which he had been identified for a generation should ever become so perverted as to become the mother of harlots and of every abomination, and should even become the slaughterer of the saints of God. But her bloody history during the dark days of persecution bears awful witness to the truth of the vision. The angel, however, goes on to show that the future has more marvelous things in store than we should otherwise have dared to imagine. No past period of Rome’s history fully answers to what is brought before us in the rest of the chapter.

We hear a great deal about the desirability of church-federation. But men seem to forget, or never to have known, that it is God Himself who has torn Christendom apart because of her unfaithfulness and apostasy. We are told that it would be an excellent thing if the different denominations of Protestants could be united in one great body, and then join hands with the Catholic church. It is pointed out that such a vast united church could dominate the world. Besides it would make for such increased efficiency and would simplify the financial problems which have so troubled and perplexed our boards and officials for so long. But we need to remember that such a union as this would not be the body of Christ at all. It would simply be a worldly confederacy of saved and unsaved-just great Babylon over again. The body of Christ remains undivided in spite of Christendom’s unhappy schisms, for it is composed of all truly saved people who have by the Spirit’s baptism been made one in Christ. While outward unity is desirable, it would not be a blessing if it were at the expense of the truth.

The Interpretation of the Vision (Revelation 17:7-18).

We have already seen in our study of the thirteenth chapter that the beast depicts the Roman empire as revived in a Satan-inspired league of nations after the church dispensation is over. This will be very different than any league that may be formed in our times while the church is still here. The federation of the future will be utterly godless and God-defiant. When that league is formed it will be only natural that a confederacy of all religious systems be worked out, and this too will be satanic in character. It will be a union of Christless professors, inheriting all the human and demoniacal mysteries of Babylon. In other words all sects will be swallowed up in the one distinctively Babylonish system that has always maintained the cult of the mother and the child. This system will dominate the civil power for the first part of the tribulation period. Thus the woman will be in the saddle again and ride the beast! He who has eyes to see and a heart to understand can readily discern the preparations now in progress with this very end in view.

From verses 9-11 we learn the identity of the city where Babylon has her seat. We also learn that when the final form of the empire appears she will attain the position of preeminence that she has sought so long. Only Rome answers to the description given. Previously we saw that the eighth head, who is of the seven, is the last great world-ruler who will dominate the league of nations in the time of the end. His capital will be the so-called eternal city.

It would seem however from verses 12-14 that the other ten kings act in fullest harmony with the beast. This completely nullifies the theory that the vision refers to any past history of the nations into which the Roman empire was divided. Never have they thus acted in unison, but Europe has been a scene of conflicting nations and warring powers since the break-up of the empire itself. We must look to the future for a time when the ten kings will receive power one hour with the beast. Then they will impiously make war with the Lamb only to be overcome by Him who is King of kings and Lord of lords.

The similitude of the waters is explained for us in verse 15: “The waters which thou sawest, where the whore sitteth, are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues.” Babylon has ruled over all nations in the past, deceiving them with the wine of her fornication. She will bear rule again over all nations, until wearied with her blandishments, the world, whose favor she courted, will spurn her at last (16-18).

There is no mistaking the identity of the woman. Pagan Rome was the lineal successor of Babylon. Papal Rome absorbed the Babylonian mysteries; and the Rome of the beast in the last days will be the seat of the revived satanic system that began with Nimrod and his infamous consort Semiramis. From that day to the present, that system has been opposed to everything that is of God. It changed the truth of God into a lie, worshiping and serving the creature more than the Creator.

Ancient Babylon was the mother of idolatry. In Jeremiah 50:38 we read, “It is the land of graven images, and they are mad upon their idols.” It was she who taught the nations to substitute idolatry for spiritual worship. Today one-third of Christendom has followed her in the adoration of images, and another third worships icons or pictures. There can be no question as to the Babylonish origin of these abominations. Nothing of the kind was known in the churches of God until the heathen mysteries were grafted unto Christianity. The images of the mother and child that are enshrined in Rome’s temples are only different in name to the images worshiped in the temples of Semiramis, Ashtoreth, Isis, and other so called “queens of heaven.” In many instances the old idols were simply renamed and adored as before. In southern Europe there is a statue of Apollo, the sun-god, identical with Tammuz and Baal. This statue is worshiped by deluded Romanists as St. Apollos; the S was carved on the pedestal later than the original name!

The mother of the Lord Jesus Christ assumed no such place among the early Christians as she has now been given in Rome’s mysteries. She is seen as a lowly worshiper and as joining with others in prayer in Acts 2:0, the last mention of her in Scripture. The Bible gives no hint of the fable of her assumption and crowning as queen of Heaven. It is Babylonianism pure and simple.

The word of the Lord to His people of old is most instructive for us now in the light of all we have been going over.

Flee out of the midst of Babylon, and deliver every man his soul: be not cut off in her iniquity; for this is the time of the Lord’s vengeance; he will render unto her a recompense. Babylon hath been a golden cup in the Lord’s hand, that made all the earth drunken: the nations have drunken of her wine; therefore the nations are mad. Babylon is suddenly fallen and destroyed: howl for her; take balm for her pain, if so be she may be healed. We would have healed Babylon, but she is not healed: forsake her, and let us go every one to his own country: for her judgment reacheth unto heaven, and is lifted up even to the skies (Jeremiah 51:6-9).

It is a lamentable fact that Babylon’s principles and practices are rapidly but surely pervading the churches that escaped from Rome at the time of the Reformation. We may see evidences of it in the wide use of high-sounding ecclesiastical titles, once unknown in the reformed churches. It is also seen in the revival of holy days and church feasts such as Lent, Good Friday, Easter, and Christ’s Mass, or as it is generally written, Christmas. I quite admit that some of these festivals if divested of any ecclesiastical character may be observed in innocence in the home. But when they are turned into church festivals they certainly come under the condemnation of Galatians 4:9-11, where the Holy Spirit warns against the observance of days and months and times and seasons. All of them, and many more that might be added, are Babylonish in their origin. At one time they were linked with the Ashtoreth and Tammuz mystery-worship. Through Rome they have come down to us. We do well to remember that Babylon is a mother, with daughters who are likely to partake of their mother’s characteristics; it is written, “As is the mother, so is her daughter” (Ezekiel 16:44). Therefore it behooves all who love the Lord and desire His approbation to “depart from iniquity,” and seek to “follow righteousness, faith, charity, and peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (2 Timothy 2:22).

We will have a fuller account of Babylon’s doom in our next chapter. To those who desire to make a fuller investigation of Babylonianism, I commend Alexander Hislop’s monumental work, The Two Babylons, to which I am indebted for many of the above facts.

Bibliographical Information
Ironside, H. A. "Commentary on Revelation 17". Ironside's Notes on Selected Books. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/isn/revelation-17.html. 1914.
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