Revelation 17

Chapter 17

Verse 1 confirms all the bowls are tied to the fall of Babylon at the end of history. It is an unspecified bowl-angel (not number 6 or 7) who calls John to come and see the "great prostitute" who in context is the "great city."
     She is seated on many waters representing the source of evil behind her (13v1 and 17v3), and perhaps also her rule as expressed in sea trade (18v17). The people from the whole earth have become drunk from the wine of her sexual immorality - the Bible image for idolatry as spiritual unfaithfulness. It's a striking image of nations reeling and reveling from the intoxicating pleasure she gives them in return for their trade (18v3) - the pleasure of idolatry, wealth and vice (18v21-23, Hos 4v11). 1) She is therefore pictured like the prostitute who entices the husband away from his spouse - here peoples away from Christ. 2) Comprising those peoples she is also the antithesis of the pure bride of Christ that is the New Jerusalem. In representing the nations, we read how kings in particular have fornication with her. And kings from the whole earth - showing her worldwide influence.
     We should note her the emphasis on economic prosperity. As the phrase "its the economy stupid" shows, people will embrace whatever enables them to proper. We should be especially wary then of the enticements of materialism. Babylon represents idolatrous-hedonistic-materialistic society throughout history and especially its final worldwide form!
     v3-4: Being carried in the Spirit reminds us this is a prophetic vision, and seeing the one who sits on waters now in a desert confirms it. The language is figurative and the background is Isaiah 21 where news of Babylon's fall comes from the wilderness lying between it and Judea. The wilderness is a place of danger and evil (12v17), and there a woman (in context the prostitute) is sitting on the beast described as in 13v1 and patterned on Satan (12v3) - a beast that we've seen will war against God's people throughout the church age. In the most general sense then, the woman is idolatrous society being carried and so influenced by a governmental system represented by this key ruler or anti-Christ, who is in turn Satanic. Again, the description of the beast stresses it receives idolatrous worship (blasphemous names), and holds complete power (7 heads) expressed through other rulers and their subsidiary kingdoms (10 horns). This is a worldwide political entity.
     As for the woman? The scarlet colouring to the beast and to her may reflect how in submission to the beast she sheds the bloods of the saints. Certainly her finery stresses the benefits she receives for her allegiance in wealth through trade - perhaps also hinting at her being an alternative religious community (Ex 28v6); and her cup represents the immorality of her idolatry and its resulting abominations by which she causes the people of the earth to get drunk (v2) - so losing their minds and embracing vice. All this is affirmed by consideration with chapters 13 and 18, and it warns believers against drinking from her cup.
     v5: This far in the book "on her forehead" is a familiar idea. It speaks of identity and often identification with another. Here is the prostitute's name - a "mystery" and so something to be reflected on. 1) "Babylon" marks her out as akin to that OT figure of idolatry and hostility to God's people. 2) "Great" stresses her influence and confirms she is the book's "great" city. 3) "Mother" speaks of how she births and suckles other cities and people's in her "abominations" - ie. idolatry, resulting vice, and hostility. She is the immortal centre of a worldwide culture. And she is drunk with the blood of those who are saints (holy ones) and "witnesses" Jesus. This implies extreme persecution rather than just sipping a little blood, and a persecution that leaves her delighting as in wine.
     v7: John marvels, perhaps in wonder or curiosity, perhaps even desire. The angel asks "why," hinting he should either understand the significance or see her evil for what it is. Nevertheless, the angel promises to explain the mystery of the woman and the beast which is said to "carry" her - implying it supports and enables her.

(1)  Excursus : The mystery of the beast

17v7-14 are critical to interpreting the book. Indeed v7 claims to reveal the mystery that has intrigued us to this point. 1) We see the beast is not simply a specific ruler but a kingdom or principle of anti-Christ type rule personified in a ruler that at that point had been expressed, was no longer, but would rise again at some future time - "about" in apocalyptic could imply a 1st century immediate fulfilment but now likely the prophetic "soon" that means "at any time" in history (as 22v7). The point is the beast parodies Christ's death and resurrection. 2) The beast's rising accompanies the release of the dragon at the end of history. That's the only way to read his rising from the bottomless pit and going to destruction in the light of 20v1-10, 12v7-17 and perhaps 13v3. 3) That means the Millennium must have started by John's day as then the beast "was not" - the amillennial view. 4) We must therefore read the book futuristically. But that doesn't make it irrelevant to the original readers. It means that those enduring persecution at any time in history can't presume it will be momentary. Rather they must be aware it could get even worse and so be ready to patiently endure whatever comes, knowing it is Christ's sovereign will, that he will be victorious, and that he will judge their persecutors. It also gives every generation a balanced view of the state. On one hand it may not be so Satanic if Satan remains cast down and the beast "is not." So believers can work in and with the state. On the other it may be under increasing Satanic control as the beast is "to come." So believers must be cautious, recognising the state's potential for idolatry, (resulting vice) and persecution, that they may be able to do little about. 5) The seven mountains of course point to Rome as perhaps the pattern of the end-time Satanic kingdom, but we are explicitly told the beast itself "is not" as John writes so cannot be Rome per se. Indeed, we're told the mountains signify kings as expressions of the beast's rule. 6) Five of those have fallen, one is and the last is yet to come. As the beast's initial appearance stems from Satan's anger in being cast down by Christ, the sixth who reigns in John's day is preceded by 5 who have appeared since Satan was vanquished and so were preceded in turn by the ruler who was the initial beast who by John's day "was not." But this still implies the current Emperor reflects the traits of the beast as Nero, Caligula and Domitian did - whichever reigned when John wrote. The symbolic 7 also stresses the initial time of the beast's war on the saints was almost over, as 6 have already come. 7) Verse 11 is surprising but helpful here. The 7 kings are heads of the beast, but we're now told of an eighth king that is the beast itself. Most likely this means the principle of anti-Christ rule will be personified in a certain king and perhaps kingdom that is similar to the other seven. In this context the ten kings of verse 12 will come at the same time and act in allegiance to this parody king of kings in effecting the final persecution. This makes the seventh king likely to be an Emperor about to reign in John's day.
     The point to the original readers is that the Roman Empire is Satanic, but their persecutions reflect the tail end of his influence even though they will continue for a short time under this coming Emperor. There will then be a time of lesser hostility as the gospel goes to the world, before Satan and a similar beastly kingdom arises again at the end of history. What is so helpful about this understanding is that it explains the allusions to Rome and the relevance of the book to the original readers without forcing a wholly preterist interpretation. The prostitute represents extreme ungodly society in its worldwide influence that then rested upon the Caesar's in the form of Rome but will one day rest on other rulers reflecting the same beastly origins and as the centre of a worldwide empire. This provokes thought as western society embraces behaviours last prevalent under the Roman Empire.
      Despite persecutions throughout church history to date then, it seems none are equivalent to the hostility towards God's people before and around the time of Christ - nor compared to that which will arise at the end. Jesus made just this point (Matt 24v21).
     v8: We're explicitly told the beast John sees is not around in his day, but will rise from the abyss and go to destruction. This clarifies the millennium was already taking place (20v6ff). "About" to rise stresses we have the prophetic "soon" in mind throughout the book. The end of this millennium is always imminent. And just as John marvelled at the woman, so all the elect living on the earth at the end will marvel at the beast. What is to be expected then is something extraordinary - perhaps barely believable in the speed and splendour with which this king or kingdom rises. But we are told the names of the chosen are written in the book of life as a reminder that they will be spiritually secure.
     v9: John acknowledges this all needs careful thought to figure out. It calls for a wise mind. And it is now we get some explanation. The 7 heads are 7 mountains which is a figurative description of the foundations to cities as Mount Zion to Jerusalem. Here they support Babylon. The 7 could simply denote completion, but the reference to the 7 hills of Rome is undeniable, implying the prostitute is Rome - in John's day at least. This need not mean Rome is the totality of the prostitute's reference, but that in John's day Rome was the supreme expression of ungodly society upheld by the beast.
     Indeed we are told the mountains are 7 kings, confirming the picture is figurative. It's possible these could be those stretching from Nebuchadnezzar in the time of Daniel, but given the allusion to Rome and focus on "Christian" persecution they are almost certainly Caesars through whom the beast's rule had been manifested. As the number is figurative however, these could be select Caesars (as the 7 churches) rather than consequetive ones. The worst of the bunch perhaps. Chapter 13 portrays the beast rising in response to Satan's defeat in the life (possibly birth) of Christ. And whether the initial beast-ruler was Augustus who reigned when Christ was born, or the likes of Caligula or Nero, there is no lack of Caesars to choose these 7 from.
     5 have fallen, and so been deposed or died, yet the 6th "is." Like being on the sixth seal, trumpet or bowl this signifies the influence of the initial beast-ruler which had resulted in Roman society being as it was in John's day, was almost at an end. This is stressed by telling us the 7th that is to come will only reign briefly. This would have been a huge encouragement to those undergoing intense persecution. The point is that this initial period of persecution by an idolatrous state, initiated by Satan in response to his defeat, was almost finished.
     v11-14: It is verse 11 that keeps us from a merely preterist reading that understands all this fulfilled in the 1st century. Now we learn that the initial beast-ruler that was no longer around in John's day will reappear as an eighth king, belonging to the 7 perhaps in being of a similar nature in idolatry and persecution - either like a Caesar in its claims or like the beasts of Daniel as a world leader (whichever the 7 heads refers to). The "8" may give a sense of parodying Christ's resurrection on the 8th day heralding a new dawn. But we are left in no doubt. This king goes to destruction - a reference to the beast's final defeat when Christ returns in chapter 19. And so we look beyond John's time to the end of history when 10 horns/kings will send the beast's purposes - although the number may be figurative for "many."
     Though they haven't yet received power (from the beast and Satan) they will do so for one hour - a reassuringly short (although figurative and so unspecified) time. This implies they will reign concurrently rather than representing rulers throughout history. At some future point they will have authority to rule with and for the beast, again parodying Christ as king of kings. So they will be agreed on giving their power to the beast (v13). And together they will make war in the lamb - which is to make war on his people, the church (13v7). But as the true king of kings, he will conquer thesee rulers (v14). Chapter 19 will tells us this will entail them attacking God's people at the beast's behest before Christ returns in judgment. The note of the lamb conquering because those "with" him are called, chosen and faithful most likely refers to him returning for their sake - to deliver them. And it encourages the reader to faithfulness.
     Rather than resurrection, we might consider the beast's reappearance as like John the Baptist in the spirit and power of Elijah. This future ruler will be the worst manifestation of Satanic rule akin to that which spawned the original Roman persecutions. He will be like Augustus, Nero, Caligula or Domitian.

Excursus : The beast and the prostitute

Put simply then, the beast on which the prostitute sits is a Caesar who had died by John's day, but whose kingdom still upheld the idolatry, immorality and hostility of Roman society through subsequent Caesars. And although such influence was almost at its end, the nature of the beast's rule will be manifest just before the return of Christ in and through another key ruler and other rulers who give him their allegiance. Moreover, because the prostitute sits on the beast not only with the 7 "Caesar" heads but these 10 "future" horns, she can't simply be equated with Rome. Rather she is the manifestation of ungodly society that took the most terrible form in that period of the Roman Empire as Satan raged against the church after being cast down, and one that will not be so fully expressed again until the time of the end. However, because the beast's authority spans the entire 42 months of the church age (13v5) we should understand the prostitute not as two societies at the two ends of the church age, but as the single entity that is ungodly society in all its forms throughout history, and always subject to lesser forms of beastly rule. As with the beast, we must think both of a principle and its particular expression at key times. There are therefore lessons here for Christians in every age, and especially when it feels the final events might be coming to pass.

     v15: As the angel speaks again a new thing to think on is introduced. We've been told the prostitute doesn't just sit on the beast but on waters - representing the peoples of the world that have given their allegiance to the beast rather than Christ. In other words ungodly society whether centred on Rome or some other world centre is upheld by those who look to it. Humanity are responsible for fuelling its excesses in their desire for its goods - as chapter 18 will show. Perhaps this is mentioned here because they will be so affected when the beast turns against the prostitute.
     v16: That's the point now. When the beast returns and is served by the ten horns, together they will hate and ravage the woman. Like all evil tyrants they've just been using her and have no love for her. Desolate and naked she will lose her finary, devoured and burnt she will be destroyed. This is the language of judgment and we're told this is God's purpose - that he put it into the mind of the rulers to serve the beast to this end, the fulfilment of God's word. It's like Cyrus sacking Babylon. God uses evil rulers to fulfil his righteous purposes. And the reassurance here is that the final rise of the beast with all its hostility to God's people should not be considered as something outside of his control, but rather as serving his purposes - mysterious and hard to fathom as that may be.
     The language of judgement causes us to wonder if any of the judgments in the book so far correspond with this destruction of Babylon at the beast's hand. The bowls seem to (1) in being the final display of God's wrath, (2) the cntext of chapter 17-18 and (3) their specific referent (16v12-21). This is so instructive. As the trumpets are similar but to a lesser degree, they would seem to reflect a precursor to this just as war causes a society to be stunted before eventually being destroyed.

     Verse 18 answers the question we've been wondering. The woman is the "great city" that has dominion over the earth's kings. Because of 11v8 some argue this is Jerusalem. But the description hardly fits. It must be Rome, and this is surely born out by the worldwide scope of the book seen in the 7 churches it addresses. The hard thing is to understand how the final rise of the beast means Rome's destruction. Either it is because Rome is a figure for ungodly society as it continues to be today, or we would expect a literal resurgent Rome just before the end. As argued above, the former seems most likely. But the encouragement for the original readers is that their persecutors, those like them, and all hostile society will eventually be destroyed.