Mother of Harlots

REVELATION 17 – The Mother of Harlots:

In the “last days” prophecy of Deuteronomy 32, God spoke of what would happen to Israel in her latter days (Deut. 31:29).  “They have provoked Me to jealousy by what is not God; they have moved Me to anger by their foolish idolsBut I will provoke them to jealousy by those who are not a nation; I will move them to anger by a foolish nation” (Deut.32:21).  This was language reflecting a covenant/marriage relationship in which jealousy was aroused through unfaithfulness.  Note that this passage was quoted by Paul in Romans 10:19 as being fulfilled through his ministry to the Gentiles in the 1st century.  Nowhere do we ever find God expressing Himself in this manner regarding any people other than Israel.

In this topical study, only a representative sampling will be given of the multitude of passages that could be cited showing that the titles assigned to Babylon the great in Revelation are terms frequently used to describe the character (or lack thereof) and actions of God’s covenant people, both before and after the kingdom was divided.  The titles are terms that only have relevance in the context of an intimate relationship between God and His people Israel. They have no real Biblical significance outside the context of this covenant.  Throughout the Old Testament God expressed His grief, anger, frustration, jealousy, etc. over the unfaithfulness of His chosen people.

Keep in mind that we see something directly analogous when Jesus spoke to the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees and said: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign” (Matt. 12:39; see also 16:4 and Mark 8:38).  We can properly understand His reference to an “adulterous generation,” only in the context of Judah’s covenant relationship with God.

The Greek word moichalishere translated as “adulterous” is defined in The KJV New Testament Greek Lexicon (found at as follows: “As the intimate alliance of God with the people of Israel was likened to a marriage, those who relapse into idolatry are said to commit adultery or play the harlot; figuratively equivalent to faithless to God, unclean, apostate.”  Similarly, when we find James lashing out at those who were filled with pride and who had caused strife within the church, he used essentially the same imagery.  “Adulterers and adulteresses!  Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?  Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God ” (Jam. 4:4).

The same Greek word is this time translated as “adulterers” and “adulteresses.”  James clearly identified them as enemies of God, in contrast to those who humble themselves in obedience before Him – those who God said “He would lift up” (Jam. 4:10).  Jesus and His brother James addressed the same issues as the Old Testament prophets had in their messages of warning to Old Covenant Israel.  The major difference is that Jesus and James were not looking hundreds of years into the future, but were specifically addressing the people to whom Jesus said: “All these things will come upon this generation” (Matt. 23:36).

At the time of Israel’s beginnings as a covenant nation, God was prepared to give Moses the Ten Commandments and this is what He said: “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine(Exod. 19:5).  In Deuteronomy 7:6-8, God described His choosing of Israel. This established the foundation of His commitment to them.

“For you are a holy people to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples on the face of the earthThe LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the least of all people, but because the LORD loves you and because He would keep the oath which He swore to your fathers, the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. “

As the forty years of wilderness wandering drew to a close, God spoke through Moses and prepared the wilderness generation for their entry into the Promised Land. God promised to drive out the nations before them, and He cautioned His people not to follow the abominations of those people.

(Read) Deuteronomy 18:9-12.

Yahweh warned His people not to follow after the practices of the nations they were displacing. He was quite clear that their abominations were what had condemned those nations. They were what led to their being driven out of their lands.  Note however, that God’s remarks concerning these nations and their abominations were made only as it related to His purposes for Israel.  Moving through the remainder of the Old Testament, it is apparent that God’s primary focus and concern was with the behavior of His covenant people. This is not to say that God was not concerned with the other nations, but Israel was His “special treasure,” and they were bound to Him as a wife to her husband.  In that sense, Israel’s wickedness was much more egregious than that of “the nations.”

God was so serious about the possibility of Israel being infected with and affected by the abominations of the heathen nations that He gave them specific instructions to “utterly destroy them.”  In Deuteronomy 20:16-18, He made it known that to do according to these abominations was to “sin against the LORD your God’:

But of the cities of these people which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance, you shall let nothing that breathes remain alive, but you shall utterly destroy them: the Hittite and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite, just as the LORD your God has commanded you, lest they teach you to do according to all their abominations which they have done for their gods, and you sin against the LORD your God.

The great love that God had for His wife is quite obvious from these texts. It was an exclusive love.  He was willing to kill the firstborn of Egypt and then destroy their entire army in order to redeem them and free Israel from her bondage (“For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior; I gave Egypt for your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in your placeSince you were precious in My sight, you have been honored, and I have loved you; therefore I will give men for you, and people for your life” Isaiah 43:3-4).

In Deuteronomy 20, God commanded Israel to “utterly destroy” these nations in order to keep them from going after the false gods of the lands that God was about to give them.  Note the way that God repeatedly spoke to these people. He continually identified Himself as “the LORD your God.”  No other people were ever placed in a position of such great privilege and favor.  No other people could call upon Yahweh as their God.  Even before He had brought them out of Egypt, God made this declaration to Moses: “I will take you as My people, and I will be your God. Then you shall know that I am the LORD your God who brings you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians” (Exod. 6:7).  He would be Israel’s God, as opposed to Egypt’s God, in the sense that He was in covenant relationship with Israel alone and He made Himself known to them through their deliverance from the Egyptians.

As noted above, Moses prophesied that Israel would provoke God to jealousy with foreign gods, and yet God revealed Himself to Moses as: The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exod. 34:6-7).  Israel’s history of disobedience is recorded throughout the pages of the Old Testament, but also described is the amazing longsuffering of the LORD their God.  There would come a time, however, when there would be no place for patience towards His rebellious Old Covenant people.  That would be the time when, “the power of the holy (set apart) people has been completely shattered” (Dan.2:7).

The book of Joshua documented the occupation of the Promised Land by the children of Israel. Even as they saw God drive the people out before them, the book of Judges showed that Israel had not obeyed God’s voice.  They had not driven all the inhabitants from the land.  God promised that these people would “be thorns in your side, and their gods shall be a snare” (Jud. 2:3). Later in chapter 2, Joshua’s passing was described.  The Scriptures said:

(Read) Judges 2:9-17.

This behavior would repeat itself generation after generation.  Even one as faithful as Gideon succumbed to the temptation to turn to idolatry.  After leading the children of Israel against the Midianites, Gideon took the plunder and, “made it into an ephod and set it in his city, Ophrah.  And all Israel played the harlot with it there.  It became a snare to Gideon and to his house” (Jud.8:27).  After his death, it was said, “that the children of Israel again played the harlot with the Baals, and made Baal-Berith their god.  Thus the children of Israel did not remember the LORD their God, who had delivered them from the hands of their enemies on every side” (Jud. 8:33-34).

In the opening chapters of 1 Chronicles, the genealogies of the families of Israel are traced all the way back to Adam.  The last segment of chapter 5 addressed the half of the family of Joseph’s son Manasseh, who had remained in the land east of the Jordan River.  After listing the various leaders, the writer informed the reader that once again these mighty men of valor, famous men, and heads of their father’s houses, “were unfaithful to the God of their fathers, and played the harlot after the gods of the people of the land, whom God had destroyed before them.  So the God of Israel stirred up the spirit of Pul king of Assyria, that is, Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria. He carried the Reubenites, the Gaddites, and the halftribe of Manasseh into captivity” (5:2526).

Chapter 9 of 1 Chronicles begins by concluding that “all Israel was recorded by genealogies, and indeed, they were inscribed in the book of the kings of Israel.  But Judah was carried away captive to Babylon because of their unfaithfulness” (9:1).

In the days when Solomon’s son Rehoboam reigned as king, “Judah did evil in the sight of LORD, and they provoked Him to jealousy with their sins which they committed, more than all that their fathers had done.  For they built for themselves high places, sacred pillars, and wooden images on every high hill and under every green tree.  And there were also perverted
persons in the land.  They did according to all the abominations of the nations which the LORD had cast out before the children of Israel”
(1 Kings 14:22-24).

Here again is the language characteristic of intimate relationship.  God had been provoked to jealousy by the evil committed by those whom He had so graciously loved, guided, and supplied with abundant provision.  Certainly there were other nations whose behavior was equally depraved, and yet nowhere do we find any evidence of God grieving over their unfaithfulness.

In the days when Jehoram was king of Judah, (Read) 2 Chronicles 21: 11-15.

When Ahaz became Judah’s king, it was said: (Read) 2 Chronicles 28:1-4, 19.

There are many other passages that could be sited to help establish the nature of the language used by the Old Testament writers in describing Israel’s (inclusive of both Israel and Judah after the kingdom split) unfaithfulness to her covenant God.  As clear as the language may be in these historical accounts it pales in comparison to the graphic language employed by God’s prophets as they were sent to call God’s people to repentance.

It is certainly appropriate to look at the language of the Old Testament prophets when studying New Testament prophecy especially the book of Revelation since it is steeped with Old Testament imagery.

The whole context of Hosea’s prophecy is in relation to Israel’s harlotry as is laid out in the second verse of chapter 1: “When the LORD began to speak by Hosea, the LORD said to Hosea:

“Go, take yourself a wife of harlotry and children of harlotry, for the land has committed great harlotry by departing from the LORD.”  Note how explicitly God links the concept of harlotry with “departing from the LORD.”  Later in the first verse of chapter 3, God equated Israel’s harlotry with adultery: “Then the LORD said to me, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by a lover and is committing adultery, just like the love of the LORD for the children of Israel, who look to other gods and love the raisin cakes of the pagans. ”  This imagery is used repeatedly by the “major” prophets.

One of the most graphic and instructive passages is found at the very beginning of Isaiah’s vision.  It is clear from the beginning that his focus will be primarily on Judah and Jerusalem.  His prophecy begins:

(Read) Isaiah 1:1-6,21-24.

This last statement is an obvious reference back to Deuteronomy 32:41-43, where God told Israel what would become of her in her last days.  These were the coming days when Israel would provoke her God to jealousy with foreign gods and with abominations, provoke Him to anger (Deut. 32:16).

We should also recall that God told Moses that when he died:

“This people will rise and play the harlot with the gods of the foreigners of the land, where they go to be among them, and they will forsake Me and break My covenant which I have made with them” (Deut. 31:16).  Note well the language used by God when He described Judah as children that He had “nourished and brought up.”  This is another concept pointing to a unique, special relationship of endearment between God and His people.  When God sent Moses from Midian to Egypt to free Israel from their slavery, the Lord told Moses to say to Pharaoh: “Thus says the LORD: ‘Israel is My son, My firstborn. So I say to you, let My son go that he may serve Me.  But if you refuse to let him go, indeed I will kill your son, your firstborn‘” (Exod. 4:22-23).  As God’s firstborn, Israel would be redeemed through the death of Egypt’s firstborn sons (Exod. 12).  Here God used two terms denoting privileged position in His eyes.  Israel was God’s son, and as His firstborn, was preeminent over all other nations.

Jeremiah’s prophecy was also directed primarily at Judah and Jerusalem.  Israel had been carried off by the Assyrians more than a century earlier.  Jeremiah pointed back to God’s judgment of the Northern tribes with the hope that Judah and Jerusalem would learn from Israel’s mistakes.  He hoped that they would turn away from their rebellion before God brought similar judgment upon them. God spoke these words to Jeremiah:

(Read) Jeremiah 2:1-5, 7.

God reflected upon His love as it was manifested toward Israel after having brought her out of Egypt.  He had entered into a covenant (betrothal – marriage) relationship with these people so precious to Him.  He promised that disaster would come upon the one who tried to devour His people.  However, despite all that He had done for them, they had become idolaters and had turned His heritage into an abomination (Israel – see Jeremiah 12:7, Joel 3:2, Micah 7:14).  He said much the same thing in Jeremiah 2:20: For of old I have broken your yoke and burst your bonds; and you said, ‘I will not transgress, when on every high hill and under every green tree you lay down, playing the harlot.”

Moving on to the next chapter, there is additional evidence of God’s great love and longsuffering towards Judah.  God said to them, “But you have played the harlot with many lovers; yet return to Me(Jer. 3:1).  Despite their unfaithfulness, God was willing to take them back.  The Lord said, “you have polluted the land with your harlotries and your wickedness” (v.2).  Because of this God had withheld the showers and there had been no latter rain.  He continued speaking to Jeremiah, reminding him of how He dealt with Israel.

(Read) Jeremiah 3:6-9.

This passage is filled with terms related to marriage.  Israel had already been divorced because of her adultery – she had played the harlot.  Yet her sister Judah had not feared, but went and played the harlot as well.  Clearly both Israel and Judah had been in a marriage relationship with Yahweh, even as the kingdom had been divided.

Note that the concepts of harlotry and adultery are essentially interchangeable in this passage and Israel’s harlotry was the grounds for God’s complaint against her.  Harlotry is seen expressly in the context of the covenant relationship between God and Israel.  God pleaded with both houses and they would not heed His call to return.  He had sent Israel into captivity, in essence divorcing her (this is precisely the language God used).  Even so, we find evidence in Hosea that He would remarry those who would turn to Him.  Having been dispersed among the Gentiles, they had reached a state of being in which they were no longer a people in the eyes of God (Hos. 1:9).  His amazing love, however, would not allow them to be forgotten and completely rejected.  He told them that there would come a day when they would again be “a people” in His eyes (Hos. 1:10, 2:23; 1 Pet. 2:10; Rom. 9:25-26).

Moving on through Jeremiah’s prophecy, God continued to plead with these disobedient people.  He said: “I have seen your adulteries and your lustful neighings, the lewdness of your harlotry, your abominations on the hills in the fields.  Woe to you, a Jerusalem! Will you still not be made clean?” (Jer. 13:27).  (Note that adultery, harlotry and abominations are used synonymously.)  A time came, however, when God’s patience was exhausted.

(Read) Jeremiah 44:21-23.

Because of their unfaithfulness, God had finally brought the Babylonians against them to destroy their city and temple and to take the people away into captivity.

The images that permeate the prophecy of Ezekiel are incredibly powerful in their condemnation of Israel and Jerusalem.  In chapter two, God said: “Son of man, I am sending you to the children of Israel, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against Me” (2:3).  This concept of Israel as a rebellious people is repeated numerous times in this prophecy.  In chapter five, He said: “Because of all your abominations …you who remain I will scatter to all the winds” (Ezek. 5:9-10).  Among other things, He said: “Pestilence and blood shall pass through you, and I will bring the sword against you. I, the LORD, have spoken” (Ezek. 5:17).

There is so much anger in these words, and yet we must see that it is all as a result of Israel turning away from her Husband.  God mingled mercy with His promise of judgment against the unfaithful people.

(Read) Ezekiel 6:8-11 (compare this last statement with Revelation 6:1-8)

Notice the anguish in God’s words as He spoke of being, “crushed by their adulterous heart which has departed from Me.”  Surely these are the haunting words of the Husband of an unfaithful wife.  As is the case throughout much of Ezekiel, God charged Israel with committing evil abominations.  They are at the heart of the venom of His words.  This is seen again in
chapter seven, where once again God cried to Israel through His prophet:

(Read) Ezekiel 7:2-4).

In chapter 8, God showed Ezekiel the abominations being committed in the temple; the abominations that were driving Him away from His sanctuary.  Son of man, do you see what they are doing, the great abominations that the house of Israel commits here, to make Me go far away from My sanctuary?(Ezek. 8:6).  After showing him all these abominations, God said: “Have you seen all this, O son of man?  Is it a trivial thing to the house of Israel to commit the abominations which they commit here?  For they have filled the land with violence; then they have returned to provoke Me to angerIndeed they put the branch to their noseTherefore I also will act in furyMy eyes will not spare nor will I have pity; and though they cry in My ears with a loud voice, I will not hear them” (Ezek. 8:17-18).  What Ezekiel saw next was astounding.  He saw the glory depart from the temple in chapter 10, followed by a portrayal of Judah’s captivity.  In chapter 12, God warned that judgment would not be postponed.  Next, God’s condemnation fell upon Israel’s foolish prophets, who had cried out “Peace! when there is no peace” (Ezek. 13:10).

When the idolatrous elders approached Ezekiel and sat before him, God responded by saying, (Read) Ezekiel 14:3-8.

Even in the midst of this powerful condemnation and warning, we find God still reaching out to His people.  He was grieved that these people had set up idols in their hearts, in place of the Lord.  This was the Lord who had, time after time throughout Israel’s history, identified Himself to Israel as “the LORD your GodWe can feel the anguish of His heart as He expressed the desire to seize the house of Israel by their heart.”  He called them to “Repent, turn away from your idols, and turn your faces away from all your abominations.”  How longsuffering was God towards His unfaithful wife and how great the love that drove Him to plead with them through His prophet!

Nevertheless, judgment was coming and in chapter 15 God turned to the imagery of Jerusalem as a vine; a vine that was to be destroyed by fire.”  Like the wood of the vine among the trees of the forest, which I have given to the fire for fuel, so I will give up the inhabitants of Jerusalem; ‘and I will set My face against them.  They will go out from one fire, but another fire shall devour themThen you shall know that I am the Lord, when I set My face against them.  Thus I will make the land desolate, because they have persisted in unfaithfulness,’ says the LORD GOD(Ezek. 15:4-8).  At every turn, all throughout their history, Israel’s problems had been caused by her persistent unfaithfulness toward the One who had created and loved her, and had redeemed her from Egypt.

One of the most poignant accounts of God’s profound sorrow and anger toward Jerusalem the harlot is found in Ezekiel 16, in which God describes her as a baby who was thrown away at birth, and whom He finds naked in an open field, still lying in her blood.  He rescues her, bathes and feeds her, and clothes her in embroidered cloth, fine linen and silk.  He puts beautiful
jewelry on her and when she grows up He marries her.  But her response to His love and generosity are not what He had hoped.

“Then your fame went forth among the nations on account of your beauty, for it was perfect because of My splendor which I bestowed on you,” declares the Lord God.”  But you trusted in your beauty and played the harlot because of your fame, and you poured out your harlotries on every passer-by who might be willing” (Ezek. 16:15).

“You adulterous wife, who takes strangers instead of her husband!  Men give gifts to all harlots, but you give your gifts to all your lovers to bribe them to come to you from every direction for your harlotries” (Ezek. 16:32).

“For thus says the Lord God, “I will also do with you as you have done, you who have despised the oath by breaking the covenant”” (Ezek. 16:59).

On and on we could go in this incredible prophecy.  Indeed it is essential that the student of God’s word do precisely that so that the language and the images that pervade these visions become ingrained in the mind.

The picture of the harlot sisters painted for us in Ezekiel 23 must bear heavily upon us when looking at Revelation 16 and 17.  The whole of chapter 23 presents as clear a case as could be desired to definitively show that the concepts of harlotry and adultery are essentially synonymous and inextricably linked to the abominations committed by Jerusalem.  All are united in their reflection of Jerusalem’s covenant disobedience.  These concepts are contextually interchangeable as the prophet spoke of Jerusalem chasing after her lovers and worshipping idols made with hands.  Although it may be more common in our day to think of harlotry as synonymous with prostitution, the Old Testament clearly associates harlotry, in its primary sense, almost exclusively within the context of marital unfaithfulness to Yahweh.  This is tremendously important.

If the contention that Babylon of Revelation represents Old Covenant Jerusalem/Judah (as a people) is indeed true, it is legitimate to ponder why God would have used this city to represent His covenant people.  If the history of the southern tribes is recalled, it is apparent that there is a unique and intimate connection between the southern kingdom and Babylon.

Assyria had previously scattered the northern tribes throughout their empire, but God had spared Judah from this assault. Years later, however, it was the Babylonians who had come and destroyed the city of Jerusalem and taken much of the population into captivity – many of them removed to Babylon. Much has been written regarding the influence of the Babylonian culture as it pertains to Jews taken into captivity.  A large portion of the Jews who were deported to Babylon chose to stay there when offered the opportunity to return to Jerusalem to help rebuild the city and the temple.  Many of the basic concepts of the Babylonian religion and culture influenced the thought and culture of those Jews remaining in Babylon.  The influence of Babylon in turning many Jews away from their heritage under the Mosaic covenant was unlike that of any other people in ancient Jewish history.

The book of Daniel demonstrates that there was a relatively small number of Jews who remained faithful to their God.  For the most part, Babylon was a wicked and debauched kingdom and many of the Jews had been assimilated into that culture.  Daniel described in chapter five how King Belshazzar took the vessels that Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple in Jerusalem and used them in drunken revelry in praise of the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone (v.4).  Here were a people steeped in wickedness using these sacred vessels as instruments of their idolatry.  It is not hard to draw a parallel between this kingdom so closely associated with the Jews and the scathing words of Jesus spoken to the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence” (Matt. 23:25).  See also the somewhat parallel passage of Luke 11:39 where Jesus said that their inward part is full of greed and wickedness.

Early in chapter 23 of Ezekiel’s prophecy we find a description of Jerusalem’s illicit relationship with Babylon with whom she entered “into the bed of love” (v. 17).  Oholibah (Jerusalem) had lusted for and committed adultery with the Chaldeans (Babylon).  Because of her harlotry (synonymous with adultery) committed with Babylon, God said that He had alienated Himself from Jerusalem just as He had with her sister (Oholah- Israel).

(Read) Ezekiel 23: 11-18

As is seen in the last verses of Daniel 5, Babylon had been weighed in the balances and found wanting (v. 27).  That very night the kingdom was taken away from her.  The end of the Babylonian kingdom may well be seen as foreshadowing the end of Israel’s Old Covenant “kingdom.”

It should be very obvious that God’s displeasure (as expressed through the words of His Son) towards the religious leaders of Old Covenant Jerusalem was much like God’s rejection of the Babylonian kingdom.  Jesus did indeed promise these religious leaders (those He had identified as an adulterous generation in Matthew 12:39, 16:4, and Mark 8:38) that, the Kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it” (Matt. 21:43).  So the parallel is clearly there and from a biblical perspective, who would more readily exemplify Jerusalem of Jesus’ generation than ancient Babylon?

Ezekiel chapter 24 finds God again referring to Jerusalem as “the bloody city” (vs.6 and 9).  Nowhere else in the scriptures do we find any other city, or people, described and characterized with such specific and graphic language that so precisely reflects the titles ascribed to the great city of Revelation.  This is the very city to whom Jesus said: “That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth” (Matt. 23:35).


See also related “Topic Studies & Terms”:

Babylon (Jerusalem)

That Great City (of Revelation) (The Great City) (Jerusalem)

Armageddon and Babylon


Related full “Study Series” (available upon request if not hyperlinked):

[For a more in-depth study see eschatology “Study Series 16 Lesson 6 Rev. Chapters 17 thru 18 (sub study on Mother of Harlots)”]