Following the vision of the seven angels with the seven bowls in Chapter 16, one of the seven angels leads us into viewing the punishment of the great prostitute. The verses that follow help us form a picture of who this represents.
In the Old Testament, we often see a woman used to describe Israel. This is usually as a virgin or bride when Isreal is obedient to God, "pure" in nature, or (and where this visual originates) as a prostitute or whore. This is when Israel strays away from God and engages with idolatry. This language is often found in Isaiah and Jeremiah. We also see the use of adultery as a metaphor for idolatry. Here however we see that John writes about this prostitute being Babylon - Babylon the Great (v5).
The description of purple and scarlet, with gold, precious stones, and pearls all point to the wealth of Rome, and the Roman elite. The rich elite that gained its wealth by exploiting the poor and provincial areas, such as Asia Minor. Purple specifically points to Casaer and the senators and governors. Only Casaer dressed all in purple, while the others were known to wear purple or scarlet sashes.
These are the groups that promoted and imposed pagan and Emperor worship across the whole Empire. This was the glue that held the empire together. Centuries before the strategy was to exile peoples from their homes and distribute and isolate groups to suppress rebellions. Rome, learning from Alexander the Great thought differently. They imposed language, culture, and religion into all reaches of the empire. This had the effect of intoxicating the inhabitants of the earth with the wine of her adulteries (v2). John goes further in verse 6 saying that Rome (the woman) is drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus.
We find some more links to old Babylon through inclusions from Isaiah 47:5-7 and Jeremiah 51:13. The later we see God speaking of Babylon and the land of the Babylonians (Jeremiah 50:1). The link to the waters (Revelation 17:2, 15) points to Rome's international power and their dominance of the seas, and their ability to travel and trade with far-off places.
Many commentators show that the eighth king is Nero, while the title of King of kings was given to the Babylonian king, as well as the Parthian ruler. We see however that John tells us that the true King of Kings is the Lamb - Jesus Christ, (v14). This is more important to understand from this section. Nero, or whoever it specifically might mean, is of less consequence than knowing and believing that Jesus is Lord of lords and King of kings.
We also see how God will bring around Rome's destruction. Verse 15 and 16 show us that the nations that Rome traded with, their own Empire, would rise up and defeat it, with verse 18 confirming that the great city is Rome, who at that point in time was that ruler over earthly kings.
What we get from this chapter is not necessarily more of the same. What is new is the beginning of the fall - the inevitable fall - of Rome (Babylon - the prostitute). What shines through here is that it is its own sinfulness that is the reason for this punishment. It is God's warranted justice that will be carried out by the other nations. Rome is seen as an evil empire, built on the trade and exploration of others. It is therefore the immorality that built and maintained the empire and caused society to function the way it did. It is this society that promoted and enforced pagan deity and Cesaer worship that was so ingrained into everything they did.
How do we abstain from this in our own society? We function in a society that has also been corrupted. We have large corporations the gain success and profits off the back of questionable operating practices, e.g. child labour, and that damage the environment. Where is our biblical stance against these organisations. We are sometimes so concerned with having a stance against individuals who we view as sinners, that we miss or ignore significant social issues.