Mystery, yes, mystery and beyond that a mix of terror and revulsion. This is not a scene one can encounter casually, channel-surfing late on Friday night. This is a vision of the unholy, the monstrous yet not without meaning. "This calls for a mind that has wisdom." Lord, grant us wisdom to begin to fathom this chunk of the Revelation.
The woman is beautiful, resplendent in regal robes and jewelry, and her "ride" would turn heads on any road, but she is drunk, intoxicated not with wine but with the pressings of murder. Innocent lives, those who bear the testimony of Jesus, have been sacrificed on her altar, and she could not care less. The powers of the earth are allied with her. But their power will pass in the span of a single hour, as they make war upon the Lamb. What Lamb is it that can contend with the seven-headed, ten-horned beast? The Lamb who is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, the Lamb who calls those whose name is written in the eternal book of Life to contend against the beast.
I suggest we take the scene--and the larger drama in which it is set--seriously though not literally. Is the woman symbolic of a revitalized Babylonian Empire, or the Rome which persecuted John in the first century, or the corrupt later church, or the newly unified Europe of the Left Behind series? She may be some, all, or none of the above. Should we assimilate the ghastly terror of this nightmare? Should we leave the scene in the way in which we might awaken in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat, pulse racing yet finding comfort in repeating "it was only a dream, it was only a dream..." Not quite. The horrible battlefield remains our battlefield. We contend now and will continue to contend against things that are powerful, wealthy, possessed of a sort of attractiveness, yet ultimately unspeakably ugly, finally ferociously filthy. We shall be saved only through the Lamb.