What does Revelation 17:5 mean?This symbolic "great prostitute" seen by John (Revelation 17:1) is identified by the name John saw on her forehead. She is "Babylon the great, the mother of prostitutes and of earth's abominations." This figure is frequently described as the "Whore of Babylon" in discussions of the end times. This name is not incidental; major cities are often used as a shorthand reference to politics (Revelation 11:8). This is seen when substituting "Washington D.C." for the United States or "Moscow" for Russia. Cities are also common titles given to religious ideas, as "Rome" is frequently used shorthand for Catholicism, or "Mecca" can be a reference to Islam.
Babylon, in the Bible, shares this same literal-and-symbolic usage. The history of the city of Babylon goes back to Noah's descendants who settled in the Euphrates valley and founded a city, called Babel at the time (Genesis 11:1–9). Babel was the site of a tower built to unify their people, to bring them fame, to worship the stars, and possibly to protect them from another flood. Their efforts stood in direct disobedience to God's order to replenish the earth (Genesis 9:1). Babylonian worship involved prostitution and worship of the so-called queen of heaven.
During the time of the kings of Judah and Israel, worship of the Canaanite deity Baal was common. King Ahab and his wife Jezebel made the worship of Baal the state religion (1 Kings 16:29–33). Later, invading ruler Nebuchadnezzar set up an idol in Babylon, and commanded everyone to worship it (Daniel 3:1–7). After the Persians overthrew Babylon, the Babylonian worshipers of Baal moved to Pergamum, where one of the seven churches of Asia Minor was located. Jesus rebuked that church for allowing the practice of idolatry to continue (Revelation 2:14).
In both literal and symbolic terms, Babylon is condemned in Scripture for its idolatry and blasphemy (see Jeremiah 7:18; 44:17–19, 25 and Ezekiel 8:14). The term is both a literal city and an abbreviated reference to ungodly, worldly spirituality.