Was there no idolatry before Pagan Rome? Whence then came the worship of “Moloch” and “Remphan,” and “Chiun,” in the wilderness (Acts 7:43; Amos 5:25-26); and the worship of Ashtoreth, the abomination (i.e., idol) of the Zidonians, and Chemosh, the abomination of the Moabites, and Milcom, the abomination of the children of Ammon, which were introduced by Solomon (1K. 11:5; 2K. 13:11). Was Rome the mother of these?1Now we turn to the matter of her harlotry. Harlot (Rev. 17:16+) is πόρνης [pornēs] , denoting a prostitute2 and used of Rahab (Jos. 2:1; 6:17, 23, 25—LXX; Heb. 11:31; Jas. 2:25). Harlotry often describes spiritual idolatry—forsaking the One True God:
Take heed to yourself, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land where you are going, lest it be a snare in your midst. But you shall destroy their altars, break their sacred pillars, and cut down their wooden images ’(for you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God), lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they play the harlot with their gods and make sacrifice to their gods, and one of them invites you and you eat of his sacrifice, and you take of his daughters for your sons, and his daughters play the harlot with their gods and make your sons play the harlot with their gods. You shall make no molded gods for yourselves. (Ex. 34:12-17) [emphasis added]
And the LORD said to Moses: “Behold, you will rest with your fathers; and 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.” (Deu. 31:16) [emphasis added]
And if the people of the land should in any way hide their eyes from the man, when he gives some of his descendants to Molech, and they do not kill him, then I will set My face against that man and against his family; and I will cut him off from his people, and all who prostitute themselves with him to commit harlotry with Molech. (Lev. 20:4-5) [emphasis added]
But come here, you sons of the sorceress, You offspring of the adulterer and the harlot! Whom do you ridicule? Against whom do you make a wide mouth And stick out the tongue? Are you not children of transgression, offspring of falsehood, Inflaming yourselves with gods under every green tree, slaying the children in the valleys, under the clefts of the rocks? (Isa. 57:3-5) [emphasis added]
“But you trusted in your own beauty, played the harlot because of your fame, and poured out your harlotry on everyone passing by who would have it. You took some of your garments and adorned multicolored high places for yourself, and played the harlot on them. Such things should not happen, nor be. You have also taken your beautiful jewelry from My gold and My silver, which I had given you, and made for yourself male images and played the harlot with them. You took your embroidered garments and covered them, and you set My oil and My incense before them. Also My food which I gave you-the pastry of fine flour, oil, and honey which I fed you-you set it before them as sweet incense; and so it was,” says the Lord GOD. “Moreover you took your sons and your daughters, whom you bore to Me, and these you sacrificed to them to be devoured. Were your acts of harlotry a small matter, that you have slain My children and offered them up to them by causing them to pass through the fire? And in all your abominations and acts of harlotry you did not remember the days of your youth, when you were naked and bare, struggling in your blood. Then it was so, after all your wickedness-‘Woe, woe to you!’ says the Lord GOD- that you also built for yourself a shrine, and made a high place for yourself in every street. You built your high places at the head of every road, and made your beauty to be abhorred. You offered yourself to everyone who passed by, and multiplied your acts of harlotry. You also committed harlotry with the Egyptians, your very fleshly neighbors, and increased your acts of harlotry to provoke Me to anger.” (Eze. 16:15-26) [emphasis added]As the mother of Harlots, she is the originator of an idolatrous influence which was passed on to her daughters. Her priorities and intent are such that she distracts those she influences away from a right recognition of God and suggests that they turn their attention to other things, any other thing than the one true God.3
The figure of harlotry, expressing forgetfulness of God in selfish preoccupation with worldly gain, appropriately describes covetousness, which was the besetting sin of Tyre, and is closely allied with idolatry and licentiousness (Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5). . . . [Such] operate upon the principle of “do anything for worldly gain,” which is what, in a spiritual sense, harlotry is [Isa. 23:16-18].4She is said to sit on many waters (Rev. 17:1+). The many waters are said to be “peoples, multitudes, nations, and tongues.” The woman is also said to be a great city (Rev. 17:18+). These two characteristics of her description are in tension. How can she be sitting on (supported by or influencing and controlling) a global community—including diverse nations spanning separate geographic regions—and at the same time be a great city? The answer would seem to be found in recognizing her primary identity as a single city, yet one that historically has influenced the global community, much like Nineveh: “Because of the multitude of harlotries of the seductive harlot, The mistress of sorceries, Who sells nations through her harlotries, And families through her sorceries” (Nah. 3:4). Her global influence is also seen in her global guilt, for “in her was found the blood of prophets and saints, and of all who were slain on the earth” (Rev. 18:24+ cf. Rev. 17:6+).As the celebrated worldly Harlot, she is to be contrasted with the persecuted virgin of Revelation 12+ who brought forth the male child (see A Virgin and a Harlot) and the Lamb’s Wife (Babylon and the New Jerusalem).
1 E. W. Bullinger, Commentary On Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1984, 1935), Rev. 17:5.
2 Frederick William Danker and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 693.
3 Concerning spiritual harlotry: Ex. 34:15; Lev. 17:16; Deu. 31:16; Jdg. 2:18; 1Chr. 5:25; 2Chr. 21:13; Ps. 106:39; Isa. 57:3-8; Jer. 2:20; 3:1-13; 13:27; Eze. 6:9; 16:15-41; 23:5, 19, 30; 44; Hos. 2:5; 3:3; 4:12, 14; 9:1; Mic. 1:7; Nah. 3:4; Mat. 12:39; Rev. 17:1+, 15+; Rev. 19:2+.
4 Merrill F. Unger, Unger’s Commentary on the Old Testament (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2002), Isa. 23:16.