Chapter 17 is quite a piece of writing! What vivid imagery!
The woman is “Babylon” but what does that mean, exactly? For some, the reference to 7 hills prompts thoughts of Rome under the conviction that the whole book relates to 7 churches under Roman persecution. Of the four approaches to Revelation usually taken, it’s noticeable that this is the first time we’ve come up with a text that forces us to think about the Historical Intepretation.
Students of first century Roman history have reviewed Revelation and worked to align prophecy to history, particularly identifying specific emperors with beasts. In the Old Testament, we can read the historical accounts alongside the prophecies to understand how they interrelate; that teaches us how to understand the prophetic writing. We have nothing in the Bible that records a history of Rome, so I’m uncomfortable with an interpretation of Revelation that depends on external historical evidence – it would mean that the meaning of the book is hidden to any reader without that external knowledge.
The vision is introduced by one of the 7 angels with the 7 bowls, and seems to be setting us up with a final image of Babylon before her destruction. Perhaps she is the completion of the worship begun in Zechariah 5. Certainly that emphasises the separation between this woman and the people of God.
The woman is the accumulation of ideals, values, and idols that we might call the world, riding and upheld by the beast of rulers, governments, fashions, trends, and influencers, all floating on the vast sea of people who do not know God. The entire picture is godlessness, yet remains under God’s sovereign control (17:17).
Some limit the scope of the woman to be ecumenism or apostate Christianity, but I can’t see any such limit in the text – as ever, it’s critical to read first with respect to the 7 original churches rather than looking back through post-Reformation eyes.