Paul tells us in Romans 6:23 that “the wages of sin is death,” and the Bible warns us repeatedly that transgressing the law of God brings only despair and destruction. Despite those warnings, however, people still engage in sin. In fact, even believers find the allure of sin so enticing that they cannot resist it. Thus, Scripture makes it clear that Christians will need to repent of sin until the day they die (1 John 1:8–9).
Certainly, part of the reason that people sin even though they know better has to do with moral blindness that results from the fall. Yet it must also be said that sin presents itself as pleasurable and that it can feel good—temporarily—to do what is wrong. Of course, this is not to endorse sin. Ultimately, a life of impenitence produces suffering and regret, especially in the world to come. Nevertheless, sin can bring some worldly pleasures and also grant a kind of temporary success in the worldly system.
That seems to be one of the points of John’s description of Babylon in today’s passage. Having given us a brief picture of the end in Revelation 16, John gives a closer look as Babylon is set up for the fall that has already been prophesied for her (14:8; 16:19). Babylon is pictured as “the great prostitute who is seated on many waters” (17:1). The ancient city of Babylon did stand on the Euphrates River and had many canals, and it was also known for the sexual immorality of the cult of Baal and other ancient Near Eastern gods. But as we have seen, Babylon in the book of Revelation does not refer to the ancient Babylon that took Judah into captivity. Instead, Babylon is a code for the Roman Empire, which was the chief persecutor of Christians in John’s day, and ultimately it can refer to any worldly power that exercises dominance and threatens the people of God.
This woman Babylon, as a prostitute, presents the temptation of sexual immorality, which is also a figure for idolatry. Worshiping false gods is enticing to fallen people because they often present themselves as deities that can be controlled with the right rituals and with secret knowledge. This is particularly true of the gods associated with pagan religions, though these gods are finally nothing better than lifeless statues (Isa. 44:9–20). Babylon is also dressed in purple and scarlet, the colors of royalty, and adorned with precious metals and jewels (Rev. 17:4). She tempts people by promising great power and wealth to those who serve her.