17:1-6 Rome clearly appears to be meant in this chapter. Pagan Rome subdued and ruled with military power, not by art and flatteries. She left the nations in general to their ancient usages and worship. But it is well known that by crafty and politic management, with all kinds of deceit of unrighteousness, papal Rome has obtained and kept her rule over kings and nations. Here were allurements of worldly honour and riches, pomp and pride, suited to sensual and worldly minds. Prosperity, pomp, and splendour, feed the pride and lusts of the human heart, but are no security against the Divine vengeance. The golden cup represents the allurements, and delusions, by which this mystical Babylon has obtained and kept her influence, and seduced others to join her abominations. She is named, from her infamous practices, a mother of harlots; training them up to idolatry and all sorts of wickedness. She filled herself with the blood of the saints and martyrs of Jesus. She intoxicated herself with it; and it was so pleasant to her, that she never was satisfied. We cannot but wonder at the oceans of Christian blood shed by men called Christians; yet when we consider these prophecies, these awful deeds testify to the truth of the gospel. And let all beware of a splendid, gainful, or fashionable religion. Let us avoid the mysteries of iniquity, and study diligently the great mystery of godliness, that we may learn humility and gratitude from the example of Christ. The more we seek to resemble him, the less we shall be liable to be deceived by antichrist.
I wondered with great admiration—As the Greek is the same in the verb and the noun, translate the latter "wonder." John certainly did not admire her in the modern English sense. Elsewhere (Re 17:8; 13:3), all the earthly-minded ("they that dwell on the earth") wonder in admiration of the beast. Here only is John's wonder called forth; not the beast, but the woman sunken into the harlot, the Church become a world-loving apostate, moves his sorrowful astonishment at so awful a change. That the world should be beastly is natural, but that the faithful bride should become the whore is monstrous, and excites the same amazement in him as the same awful change in Israel excited in Isaiah and Jeremiah. "Horrible thing" in them answers to "abominations" here. "Corruptio optimi pessima"; when the Church falls, she sinks lower than the godless world, in proportion as her right place is higher than the world. It is striking that in Re 17:3, "woman" has not the article, "the woman," as if she had been before mentioned: for though identical in one sense with the woman, Re 12:1-6, in another sense she is not. The elect are never perverted into apostates, and still remain as the true woman invisibly contained in the harlot; yet Christendom regarded as the woman has apostatized from its first faith.