"The Beauty on the Beast - and the Bride"
Sept.26, 2010 Rev 17:1-8, 12-18
MORE THAN MEATS THE EYE
I am blissfully ignorant of pop culture. But a Facebook status by Phil Main drew my attention to some recent developments. It was something to do with animal rights activists being upset by Lady Gaga's meat dress. Now that's unusual - a meat dress? It turns out that's what this fashion/glamour music queen wore when she walked away with 7 Video Music Awards at this year's MTV competition. Such a figure is 'larger than life', a rising star with a real agenda. I'd been reading through the Book of Revelation lately, though, and started to wonder if there weren't some parallels to figures there.
A disclaimer: this is NOT an exhaustive interpretation of this section of the book of Revelation, nor can we be absolutely certain to identify any particular person alive now with characters there in the text. Enthusiasts have done that before and been wrong. The NIV Study Bible notes in a common on Rev 17:10, this "illustrates the fluidity of apocalyptic symbolism" in that John's language can stand for more than one thing. Some leeway should be expected, as is the case when you're standing in front of a great piece of art and it has different impact on different people. Yet while we can't identify definitely certain characters at this point, the overall outcome remains clear: God's just judgment will be exercised and His people ultimately delivered.
We're hopping in more than halfway through the book. These two chapters are sort of a sidebar in the sequence of the overall flow of events: there are 7 seals, leading into 7 trumpets, then 7 bowls of wrath poured out on the disobedient. Chapter 16 ends with the last of the seven bowls of wrath being poured out. Then the picture seems to zoom in on the judgment of one evil city in particular.
WHO IS THIS BRAZEN BEAUTY?
One of the 'bowl-toting' angels invites John to see the punishment of (v1) "the great prostitute, who sits on many waters." Who is this brazen beauty that figures so prominently and insolently at a key time of divine judgment?
Let's look at her dominance, how she's decked out, her deadliness, and her defiance. First, her dominance. V1 calls her the GREAT prostitute, who sits ON many waters; v15 elaborates that the waters where the prostitute sits "are peoples, multitudes, nations, and languages." In other words, she seems somewhat universally enthroned. Could waters have to do with wavelength and broadcasting? Certainly in our day such an important figure would have a large media presence. Back when we were in Congo in the early 80s, you could go for a walk in the early evenings and see the heads of barefooted poor children silhouetted against the windows of living rooms - they were peering in at programs from Europe or Hollywood, such as soaps. That's what the rest of the world may think of us!
V2 tells us, "With her the kings of the earth committed adultery and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries." This gal is involved with the higher-ups, even kings; she has power to make nations drunk, casting her stupefying spell. V3 says the woman is sitting ON a scarlet beast. V5 gives her title, written on her forehead as prostitutes in Rome back then had their names written on their foreheads: "Mystery, Babylon the Great, The Mother of Prostitutes and of the Abominations of the Earth." She dominates in her greatness, and can be called 'the mother of all' prostitutes / abominations. She's the kingpin (queenpin?).
Vv9-10 reveal the 7 hills on which the woman sits are also 7 kings. She receives royal support. And v18 says, "The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth." So in her dominance she overpowers or out-influences even political leaders.
Next, she's really decked out - that's what draws everyone's attention. V4, "The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand..." 18:16 echoes that she's 'dressed in fine linen, purple and scarlet, and glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls; 18:14 speaks of her 'riches and splendour'. Purple dye was very expensive back then so only the wealthy could afford purple clothing. 18:3 mentions her 'excessive luxuries', v7 "the glory and luxury she gave herself'. 18:12-13 list many items - jewels, cloth, wood, ivory, metals, spices - that this great city demands of its merchants. (A list similar to that of the great city Tyre before its destruction, according to Ezekiel 27.)
But this is a BAD beauty - mark well her DEADLINESS. 17:6, she is "drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus." And 18:24, "In her was found the blood of prophets and of the saints, and of all who have been killed on the earth." This includes non-Christians, too - concluding the list of merchandise she deals in, we have "bodies and souls of men" - human trafficking. 18:3 says, "All the nations have drunk the maddening wine of her adulteries" - maddening, puts you out of a mind that can think soundly. Then v23, "By your magic spell (NLT sorceries) all the nations were led astray." What's in the golden cup in her hand back in 17:3? It's 'filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries.' But is this for HER to drink? No, she's already drunk on the blood of the saints (v6). The cup she holds is an invitation to others to drink of her abominations.
Dominance - decked out - deadly - this woman is also DEFIANT. 18:5 "her sins are piled up to heaven"; 7b, "In her heart she boasts, 'I sit as queen; I am not a widow, and I will never mourn.'" Does this mean, as a commentary suggests, that the city's soldiers haven't died on the battlefield? Or could it be instead a statement of independence, not needing anyone - she doesn't lack customers; she's unattached, self-sufficient (in the language of one of Lady Gaga's songs, "I'm a free b--h baby")?
The parallels to Lady Gaga are striking. She's a top 'glam rock' star, decked out in glittering colours and the latest fashion. She's extremely creative with her team, well-resourced, fashion-conscious. Immorality and abominatable behaviour are what she markets; her award-winning music video "Bad Romance" makes one feel grimy for watching it, like a soft-porn flick - yet the world is applauding this! She's definitely dominant on the cultural scene - this year in May, Time magazine included her in its annual 'Time 100' list of the most influential people in the world. In June, Forbes listed her fourth on it list of the 100 most powerful and influential celebrities in the world; she's ranked as the second most powerful musician in the world. She's well financed: in the year leading up to June her sponsors Virgin Mobile, Polaroid, Monster and Viva Glam helped her earn $62 million. She also earned $31 million for her 106-date tour. Her internet presence is so strong she ranks first on Forbes' list for web hits and social networking.
Lady Gaga is brazen and defiant - witness her 'poker face' as she walked through an airport terminal this month in a bra-and-panties outfit ('poker face' is also one of her hit songs; I link the phenomenon to the detachment that comes when one sells their body shamelessly).
Is Lady Gaga the 'beauty on the beast'? Probably not in herself, but the similarities are striking. But if our culture were viewed as a sailing ship, wouldn't she make an excellent figurehead up at the front, leading the way? She epitomizes the most outlandish and (as an admitted bisexual) immoral elements in our culture. And what we worship, we become. Recently a 16-year-old girl was gang raped in connection with a rave in Pitt Meadows, BC; that's bad enough, but people watching with cell phones took pictures, which subsequently went viral on social networking sites. Is that where our culture's going? What's that say about the coming generation?
SURPRISE ATTACK OF THE SCARLET BEAST
Moving on to what her majesty is sitting on...17:3 describes it as "a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns." The colour harks back to the dragon in 12:3 that also has 7 heads and 10 horns, but 7 crowns; and there's also similarity to the 'beast out of the sea' in 13:1 which also has 7 heads and 10 horns with 10 crowns, but isn't called the 'scarlet beast' as such. Don't get hung up on the literalness of 7 and 10: these may also reflect perfection or completeness of political power. 17:9-13 interprets the 7 heads as hills on which the city is built (Rome was well-known as the city on 7 hills), or 7 kings, heads of state, possibly empires in succession: Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and so on. V8 says the beast 'once was, now is not, and yet will come' up out of the Abyss, and has amazingly recovered from a fatal wound - perhaps an upstaging contrast to Jesus the Lamb who came back from the dead (2:8). The beast has power to astonish earth's inhabitants whose names have not been written in the book of life (17:8).
An interesting dynamic: though the great prostitute is seated on the beast, v16 says both it and its horns HATE the prostitute: they bring her to ruin, leave her naked, eat her flesh and burn her with fire. The ten horns have 1 purpose - common cause - and will give their power and authority to the beast, winding up with making war against the Lamb (13f). This is repeated in 17:17, they agree to give the beast their power to rule until God's words are fulfilled: they give back to the prostitute as she has given (18:6) - that's judgment that's just. They pay her back double for what she has done; 18:7, "Give her as much torture and grief as the glory and luxury she gave herself." This results in reason for saints, apostles, and prophets to rejoice; mariners exclaim in 18:20, "God has judged her for the way she treated you."
So, who's the scarlet beast? Again, it's difficult to predict precisely, but who are the best candidates at this point in earth's history? If the current dominant immoral world power (the bad beauty) is our decaying Western culture - a) who is she sitting on for support precariously, b) is trans-national (arching over nation-states), and c) hates her guts? Could it be the moral Muslims? We consumers need the oil of the Arabs; our culture's blatant immorality is downright offensive to clean-living religiously-controlled Muslims. A documentary video I have mentions some nervousness among Americans about the possibility of a container ship in the Atlantic launching a neutron bomb that would disable communications and bring the States rather quickly to its knees. And the more radical factions in Islam might be keen to threaten Israel and persecute Christians, especially those who support Zionists.
But there's another candidate - it's a SCARLET beast. Red is more associated with communism than with Islam. It 'once was, is not, and yet will come' - communism has been in abeyance recently, but could it come back, with kings marching from the east (16:12)? This week Yvonne & I watched part of a Michael Palin documentary in which he travels around the Pacific rim (Full Circle). He's saddened by his visit to the border between North and South Korea where the Cold War is still very much evident. That threat and the ideological differences behind it haven't gone away.
WHAT'S A BRIDE TO DO?
But the bad beauty isn't really the star of the show; the bride of the Lamb ends up being first lady. The overarching theme of the book of Revelation is that God's people who've been suffering persecution and martyrdom (the souls under the altar in 6:9f) are finally avenged and rewarded; God's wrath is poured out on the ungodly. As the opening verses of chapter 19 sum it up, "Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are his judgments.He has condemned the great prostitute who corrupted the earth by her adulteries.He has avenged on her the blood of his servants."
In contrast to the harlot, the bride (representing the church) by conscientious righteous acts makes herself ready. 19:7-8: "'For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.' (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.)" What's our relationship then supposed to be regarding the immoral city? Look closely at 18:4: "Then I heard another voice from heaven say: '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...'"
Righteousness requires a certain amount of coming out from sinful territory, being holy, set apart, distinguishable. God called Abram out of moon-worshipping Aram; Lot from same-sex-seeking Sodom; Israel from the flesh-pots of Egypt; Daniel and his 3 friends from the unclean diet of the Persians. So we can ask ourselves: "To what extent am I 'plugged in' / sucked-in to the culture, and to what degree am I protecting my purity, living by God-honouring principles? Or am I like the merchants who 'gained their wealth' from the immoral city, the sailors who 'became rich through her wealth' (18:15,19). They played along because it was good business; but they ended up terrified at her torment, with weeping and mourning (18:15).
A letter I received from the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada this past week tells of a small Mennonite school that the Quebec government threatened to shut down because it refused to teach evolution or alternative sexual lifestyles. Plans were made to alert child welfare authorities and remove the students from their school and families. As a result the children and entire families moved out-of-province. Talk about "Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins"! We may not have to physically leave a place like those Mennonites chose to do. But their radical obedience to principles of holiness shows their faith is more than just talk.
Our own province may not be far behind Quebec in this regard. The same EFC letter points out that "Ontario school boards are also implementing 'equity and inclusiveness' policies, which instruct on 'alternative lifestyles' and the inclusion of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexuall community." Is the bad beauty atop the beast riding on the heads of government ministry staff into our classrooms? Are we preparing our children to have a Christ-honouring worldview that can spot and reject unbiblical behaviour or theories - even when it's presented as officially-accepted dogma? And pop culture reinforces it?
EFC VP Don Hutchinson mentions a case in BC then concludes, "As you can see, there is a nation-wide assault on Canada's education system...Imagine the perversion of morality that the next generation will experience if they are raised with the teaching that biblical principles are false and immoral actions inconsequential.Should we as Christians fail to refute this claim, then we abandon the absolute truth of the Bible and leave our children torn between what they are taught at school and at home."
Speaking of home - how are you adults being cautious about avoiding the tease of the Great Prostitute? If you signed up for the free 1-month trial of Netflix, did you swing over to adjust the 'parental controls' to rule out even considering certain ratings of movies or shows? On our computers we have anti-virus and anti-malware programs running to protect us from infection and damage; as you float along in the waves of the tube, do you have some kind of anti-porn policy in place? Does it work, or does it let the odd infection slip by?
When Lady Gaga received her most significant Video Music Award this month, she launched into the title track of her next album, 'Born this way' - could be sort of a siren call of "the mother of prostitutes and of the abominations of the earth": contrary to God's revealed standards of holiness, such an attitude insists on our personal right to have sexual pleasure any way we like without regard to the need for or privilege of lifelong heterosexual attachment. But those who join society in going that way should take a warning first from Revelation 18:21: "Then a mighty angel picked up a boulder the size of a large millstone [one commentary notes this would be a stone 15-20 feet wide, a foot thick, weighing thousands of pounds!] and threw it into the sea, and said: 'With such violence the great city of Babylon will be thrown down, never to be found again.'" Take a joy-ride with the bad beauty and you're sunk! Paul reminded the church at Corinth that they were "sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy" - so are we (1Cor 1:2). Let's pray.