Here is a verse by verse study of Revelation 17:1-7, with emphasis on this great harlot. From my reading I found that this great harlot could be defined as a great and powerful false religious system. Here are some words that could characterize this false religion: powerful, wealthy, evil, beautiful, attractive, alluring, demonic, mysterious, secret, rebellious, murderous, immoral, and abominable. Now read my commentary below to get a full understanding of this great harlot depicted in Revelation 17.
1 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and spoke with me, saying, “Come here, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot who sits on many waters,
1. “Great harlot.” This term is descriptive of a great religious system which will claim to be the true Christian church, the bride of Christ. But as the name implies, it is not the true church; it is a false religion.
2. “Who sits on many waters.” “Many waters” means many nations. Here it means that this false religion is in domination over all the nations of the earth. Apparently, there will come a time when all organized religious institutions will come together and be unified together to form one religion. This group will be so powerful that it will force all people to join them—or perhaps it will be so attractive that people will want to join them. This formation of all religions into one religion will likely occur immediately after the rapture—after the true church is taken out of the way.
2 with whom the kings of the earth committed acts of immorality, and those who dwell on the earth were made drunk with the wine of her immorality.”
3. “With whom the kings of the earth committed acts of immorality.” The “kings of the earth” are the world leaders. Here it means that there will come a time when all the world leaders will be attracted by and absorbed into this new religious system. And as sexual immorality implies, these world leaders will totally buy into it and become one with it.
4. “Those who dwell on the earth were made drunk with the wine of her immorality.” Not only will the world leaders be taken in by this false religious system, but all people will be swept into it as being drugged by its influence. And it could be that the perverse rituals that one will be required to practice will be quite addicting as is alcohol or immorality.
3 And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness; and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast, full of blasphemous names, having seven heads and ten horns.
“And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness.” I think this means that the Holy Spirit literally carried John into the wilderness, perhaps to allow him to be more attentive to what He would show him next.
5. “And I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast.” The woman is the great Harlot. The scarlet beast I think is the antichrist (but some think it refers to the world political system). The scarlet color of the beast (antichrist) is symbolic of royalty and splendor, thus he is in control over the world as a king. The depiction of the woman sitting on the beast indicates that she (this false religion) is working with the beast and likely directing him, as a rider would direct a horse, to obtain power over the world.
“Full of blasphemous names, having seven heads and ten horns.” These blasphemous names probably means that he will declare himself to be God and will give himself the names of God. As for the seven heads and ten horns, the seven heads probably represents the seven past kingdoms which Satan has dominated through various kings, and the ten horns, the ten future kings which Satan will dominate through himself.
4 The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls, having in her hand a gold cup full of abominations and of the unclean things of her immorality,
6. “The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet.” Her clothing depicts her great wealth and royalty; and thus, having the same colors of the beast, she is in competition with him.
7. “Adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls.” This adornment, like the flashy jewelry of a prostitute, represents the allurement of the coming new religion. I think young people will be especially thrilled by it.
8. “A gold cup full of abominations and of the unclean things of her immorality.” This golden cup full of abominations, like the allurement through wine, depicts how this false religion will allure and trap its victims: by attractive but evil things. Yes, I believe there will be evil, demonic rituals practiced in this religion.
5 and on her forehead a name was written, a mystery, “BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.”
9. “A mystery.” This new false religion is now a mystery to us. We don’t know the exact details of its character or who will head it up. We do believe, however, that it will be made up of all the religions of the world, from all those who are left behind after the rapture of the true church. “Mystery” here may also refer to the character of the religion—that it is mysterious, or that it is linked to the ancient mystery Babylon religion.
10. “BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.” This title gives us a clue as to the nature of this religion. The ancient religion of Babylon was a secret religion with secret rituals and rites, involving the worship of idols, etc.. Also, the ancient city was conceived out of rebellion against God and became a city of false worship. Thus, we may conclude that this new religion will also be as such.
6 And I saw the woman drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus. When I saw her, I wondered greatly. 7 And the angel said to me, “Why do you wonder? I will tell you the mystery of the woman and of the beast that carries her, which has the seven heads and the ten horns.
11. “The woman drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus.” This plainly indicates that the harlot is a murderer. In the words of John MacArthur, “False religion has killed millions of believers over the centuries, and the final false system will be far more deadly than any that preceded it.”
12. “The mystery of the woman and of the beast that carries her.” The mystery of the woman and of the beast that carries her is the strange relationship of the women (the false religion) and the beast (the antichrist and his ten rulers). In the beginning the beast will fully support the harlot and together they will exert vast influence over the earth (v. 9). But after they together get control over the earth, the beast decides he doesn’t need the harlot (false religious system) any longer and turns against her to destroy her (v. 16).
John MacArthur, notes from The MacArthur Study Bible