The harlot and the bride: the use of the marriage motif to portray God's covenant relationship with his people
The picture of husband and wife is often used in the Old Testament to portray God’s covenant relationship with His people. God was the Husband, Israel His wife. Unfortunately God’s old covenant people were often unfaithful to Him by going after the ways and gods of the Gentiles. This was likened to harlotry (Deut 31:16-17). The harlot motif is a common OT image for unfaithful Israel: Lev. 17:7; 20:5-6; Num. 14:33; 15:39;; Judges 2:17; 8:27; 1 Chr. 5:25; 2 Chr. 21:11; Ps. 73:27; Hosea 1:2; 2:2-5; 4:15; 9:1; Jer. 2:20; 3:2-13; 5:7, 11; 13:27; Ezek. 6:9; 16; 23; 43:7, 9.
In the book of Hosea God goes so far as to have the prophet marry a harlot as an object lesson of what it was like to be in covenant relationship with His unfaithful people.
With one notable exception, the harlot motif is not explicitly used in the New Testament. The exception is found in the book of Revelation, where the great harlot is a prominent part of the book’s narrative. This article will briefly examine the harlot of Revelation as well as the wedding stories that Jesus told.
THE GREAT HARLOT OF REVELATION
In looking at the judgments found in the book of Revelation, they culminate with the destruction of the harlot in chapters 17-18, and then the marriage of the bride in chapter 19 (vv 1-9).
The narrative of the destruction of the harlot city in Revelation 17-18 is drawn from the destruction of Jerusalem in Ezekiel 16. In Ezekiel 16 God said that the nations that Jerusalem had been unfaithful with (committing spiritual harlotry) would turn on her and destroy her with fire (vv. 35-43). Harlot Jerusalem is portrayed in Ezekiel 16 as being dressed in the furnishings of the tabernacle, her “food” consisting of items used in the sacrifices (vv. 10-13). This parallels the harlot of Revelation being dressed in the furnishings of the Temple and garments of the High Priest, her “merchandise” consisting of items used in the sacrifices (Rev. 18:12-13). It is no wonder that John was “astonished” (Rev. 17:6 NIV) when he saw the harlot. It was like seeing his own mother as a harlot (the Temple and its services would have been like a spiritual mother to John). Revelation 17-19 is thus showing the AD 70 burning of unfaithful Jerusalem and her Temple at the end of the old covenant age (cf. Deut. 31:16-17, 29).
The harlot of Revelation is arrayed in the colors of the Temple and clothes of the High Priest (Rev. 17:4; 18:16; cf. Ex. 28). The merchandise of harlot Babylon is the merchandise that was used in the construction and furnishings of the Temple (Rev. 18:12) as well as its sacrifices (Rev. 18:13). The plagues of Babylon (pestilence, mourning, famine and burning, Rev. 18:8 NASB) are exactly what happened to Jerusalem (not Rome) at AD 70.
Notice that the harlot is a wife; (cf. Ezek. 16:30-32), a widowed wife (Rev. 18:7; cf. Matt 21:5). Unfaithful Israel went from being a queen to a widow when she had her King killed. Notice that the harlot had been quite a merry widow since her Husband‘s death (living luxuriously, Rev. 18:7-8) but that was about to change (cf. Lam 1:1). The plagues that were about to come on her would cause her to mourn as a widow should. (cf. Rev. 1:7, the tribes of the Land would soon mourn). At AD 70 those of harlot Babylon (unfaithful Israel) would mourn at the time the bride became married (cf. the contrast of joy and mourning of the faithful and unfaithful in Israel in Isaiah 65:1-19; it is talking about the same time). I find it very interesting that one of the reasons given for the breaking of the toast glass at Jewish weddings is because it is in remembrance of AD 70 and the destruction of the Temple. I believe that that tradition has more prophetic significance than most realize.
The basic narrative of Revelation can be found in Galatians 4:21-31. Galatians 4 speaks of two women/cities who are two wives. The contrast of these two women is being used as a vehicle to contrast the two covenants and those who were part of them (…which things are symbolic. For these are the two covenants, Gal. 4:24). The old covenant wife is cast out (cf. Rev. 18:21) while the new covenant wife receives her inheritance (Gal. 4:30). It is the same with the two women/cities of Revelation (harlot Babylon and the New Jerusalem bride. The harlot is burned (the sentence for a harlot of priestly lineage, Lev. 21:9) and the bride becomes married (Rev. 19:1-9).
The motif of the destruction of the harlot and then the marriage of the bride can be found in Hosea 2. Hosea 2 says that God would slay the children of his harlot wife (Hosea 2:2-5). God would return at this time (cf. Matt. 21:33-45) and would betroth a purified Israel to Himself forever (Hos. 2:1, 19-23; cf. Luke 2:34). This would happen in the wilderness (v. 14-15) and would be like the exodus from Egypt. With this in mind notice that God’s true people were indeed in a spiritual exodus (in the wilderness) when Revelation was written (Rev. 12:13-17). The harlot is also found in the wilderness (Rev. 17:1-3), but she will die there (cf. 1 Cor. 10:1-11; Hebrews 3:7-4:13).
As an aside, with Hosea 2 in mind, notice the very high Christology of Revelation: It is Jesus, the Word of God, that comes (Rev. 19:11-21) and marries His people (Rev. 19:6-9). This is God in Christ coming to marry His people.
WEDDING STORIES TOLD BY JESUS
The narrative found in Revelation of Jesus marrying His new covenant bride at the time of the destruction of his unfaithful old covenant people is also found in Matthew:
Those who rejected the invitation to the wedding of the king’s son and killed his servants were those of Israel who rejected Jesus. Those who ended up coming to the wedding were those who believed on Jesus, Jew and Gentile: “He came to His own and His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.” (John 1:11-12). The burning of the city (cf. Rev. 17:16; 18:8) of those who had no regard for the king’s son and who persecuted the king’s servants (cf. Rev. 17:6; 18:24) is an obvious reference to the persecutions by the Jews and the resulting destruction of Jerusalem at AD 70. In Revelation, the smoke of this persecuting city is shown rising up forever and ever (Rev. 19:2-3). The basic narrative of Matthew 22:1-10 and Revelation 17-19 is the same. Both show the burning of a persecuting city which is then followed by a wedding. God’s unfaithful people would be shut out of the kingdom at the time of the Messianic banquet (Matt. 8:10-12).
Notice that the idea that dispensationalists champion, that the kingdom of God was put on hold when Israel rejected it, has no scriptural support (cf. Acts 28:17-31). The wedding of God to His people was not put on hold but went forward in AD 70 with His new covenant bride. The kingdom of God went forward at this time as it was taken from God’s old covenant people and given to His new covenant people at the coming of God (Matt. 21:33-45; cf. 1 Peter 2:7-10).
SMART AND FOOLISH VIRGINS
Another parable that Jesus told that speaks of His marriage to His people at His Second Advent is found in Matthew 25:
While the perspective of this parable is different from that of the harlot and bride of Revelation 17-19, the context of God marrying His new covenant people at AD 70 is the same. Here it is not a harlot, but foolish virgins, that are missing out on the marriage of God. This parable becomes clearer when one understands that the marriage of God to His people was to happen at the AD 70 end of the old covenant age (this is the time that Rev. 17-19 and Matt 22:1-10 are showing).
The Bible uses the picture of a virgin to portray a covenant person who is true to God (cf. Rev. 14:4) as opposed to one who goes after other gods or the ways of the world (cf. Ezek. 16:15-33; James 4:4). In the parable, all ten of the women were virgins, that is, they were all covenant people who were seeking to be true to God. Five of these virgins were foolish, however, and their efforts at staying true to God would become futile. The oil in this parable is symbolic of God’s Spirit (cf. 1 Sam. 16:12-13; Is. 61:1; Zech 4:1-6). Both groups would run out of the initial portion of oil in their lamps but the wise virgins had a new supply of oil for when this happened.
What the parable of the wise and foolish virgins is showing is the AD 70 changeover from the old covenant age to the new covenant age (cf. 1 Cor. 10:11; Heb. 9:26). Although the new covenant was instituted with the sacrifice of Jesus at AD 30 (Matt. 26:26-28), the old covenant wasn’t totally dissolved until the full establishment of the new covenant at the AD 70 destruction of the Temple. During the transition time of AD 30 to AD 70 (the already/not yet of the kingdom), the old covenant was obsolete and fading away but it wouldn’t totally be gone until AD 70. As the writer of Hebrews said: “He has made the first [covenant] obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (Heb. 8:13). At AD 70 those of physical Israel who did not believe in Jesus and become part of the new covenant were going to be running out of oil (i.e. a portion of God’s spirit under the covenant). At that time they would have no oil in their lamps and would be shut out of the kingdom.
At AD 70 those who were attempting to be faithful to God under the old covenant were like foolish virgins; the old covenant order was going to pass away at that time. Those who were not renewing their measure of the Spirit in the new covenant would run out of oil at AD 70. These foolish virgins would miss out on the marriage to the Bridegroom and would end up being shut out of the kingdom at AD 70 (Matt. 25:12; cf. Luke 16:1-4). Jesus had foretold this shutting out of much of Israel at the Messianic banquet (i.e. the wedding feast):
It should be noted that if one is looking for the parousia to happen in the future then the parable of virgins being shut out of the kingdom becomes disturbing. If the parousia is still future then it means that at some time in the future, half of those who have oil (God’s Spirit) and are virgins (covenant people who are faithful to God) are going to be locked out of the kingdom. Such an interpretation is quite unsettling; thankfully it is also unscriptural. It is an AD 70 context, the passing away of the old covenant and full establishment of the new covenant, which clarifies the identity of the foolish virgins. They were those of old covenant Israel who were shut out of the AD 70 marriage of God to His people because they had not aligned with Jesus and become part of new covenant Israel (cf. Luke 2:34).