Here in this passage, we see the fall of the great prostitute Babylon, which John later defines as “the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.” (17:18)
As we’ve seen before in chapter 14, John and his readers thought of it as Rome, but Rome itself is a symbol for a godless society, a world system that rebels against God. It rides the beast we saw in chapter 13, a beast with 7 heads. The 7 heads, the angel says, represent the 7 hills of Rome on which the woman sits, and also 7 of Rome’s kings. Five of those kings had already died, one was currently living in John’s time, and the seventh was yet to come. (17:7). And the Beast himself, the antichrist, will come later as an eighth king (17:11).
The beast will ally himself with ten rulers (whether a literal number or not, I don’t know; it could be symbolic all the kings of the earth).
And people will follow this beast. Why do they follow after it? Part of it is his power. Part of it is because of his power to deceive. We saw all this in chapter 13.
But another major reason is this prostitute. She sits on “many waters,” which the angel tells John represents the people of the earth. People see what the prostitute has to offer: her riches and glory, and they drink it all in (4).
But the truth is, when they take in what she has to drink, they’re drinking in “abominable things and the filth of her adulteries.” Things God detests. Things that cause people to commit spiritual adultery against the One who created them. And as we saw in chapter 14, people go “mad” over these things (14:8).
In short, people fall for the beast in great part because of their love for this world system and all it has to offer.
But this world system is indeed allied with the beast. It is impossible to be friends with her and friends with God. We see this in that she is drunk with the blood of the saints. (17:6; 18:24)
The thing we see here, though, is this world is coming to ruin. Probably because of their war against God, the Beast and his ten allies strip the prostitute of everything. In other words, they are so hostile against God, they are willing to destroy this world in order to fight against him. This in part probably means they are willing to ruin the world economy in order to prepare for this battle. But it probably also means they are willing to use weapons of such destructive power that it actually destroys this world (17:16)
But the angel tells John,
God has put it into their (the kings’) hearts to accomplish his purpose by agreeing to give the beast their power to rule, until God’s words are fulfilled. (17:17)
I think what this means is that God is planning to allow this world to be devastated, and while some of this will probably be directly from God’s hand, a lot of it will also actually come by our own hand. We will be our own demise. But in the end, though this beast and these kings fight against God, even destroying the world to do so,
The Lamb will overcome them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings… (17:14)
What do we get from all this?
The people who belong to this world system boast in all they have. They boast in what they have accomplished. And they think that it will last forever (18:7).
But God says in a single day, it will all come crashing down, and all that this world promises will be shown for what it is: an illusion. (18:8)
God will thrust it into the sea like a millstone and it will be destroyed. All that the people rejoiced in and relied upon will be gone. (18:21-23)
And because of it, the people of this world will all mourn and be terrified. (18:9-19)
Mourn because all they relied on will be gone in an instant. Terrified because they know the judgment that fell on Babylon will soon fall on them.
What am I saying then? Don’t put your hope in this world. This world will fall, as will all who put their faith in it.
So let us heed the words of God who warns,
Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues; for her sins are piled up to heaven, and God has remembered her crimes. (18:4)