REVELATION - CHAPTER 17
A Bible Study - Commentary by Jim Melough
Copyright 2000 James Melough
17:1. “And there came one of the seven angels which had the seven vials, and talked with me, saying unto me, come hither; I will shew unto thee the judgment of the great whore that sitteth upon many waters:”
This chapter is parenthetical, and takes us back to view the destruction of the great apostate religious system that will dominate the earth after the rapture of the true Church. Where the seventh vial brings us right to the end of the Tribulation age, this chapter clearly takes us back to the mid-point of that era. The worship of the Beast begins after his seizure of the wealth and power of the harlot church, and we have learned already that the Beast will be worshiped as God only during the final three and a-half years of the seven year Tribulation period.
While it is not clear whether the angel is still carrying the vial, it would seem reasonable to assume so, having regard to the fact that the harlot’s seizure by the Beast appears to precede the vial judgments.
Gathering together what is contained in this chapter, we have no difficulty in identifying “the great whore” as the false church. She is portrayed as a woman, a symbol consistently used in Scripture to designate a false religious power or system, e.g., Jezebel (1 Ki 18:4 - 2 Ki 9:37); the woman hiding the leaven in the meal (Lk 13:21).
She is a harlot. Gain is her objective. Faithless Israel, on the other hand, is described as an adulteress. Her objective is the gratification of illicit passion, rather than gain, so clearly the harlot is not Israel.
The waters upon which she sits, that is, rules over, are identified in verse 15 as “peoples, multitudes, nations and tongues.” The extent of her religious influence, then, is vast, probably embracing the whole world.
She is also portrayed in verse 3 as sitting upon “a scarlet colored beast,” i.e., the revived Roman empire, the kingdom of the beast out of the sea. “Sitting upon” has the same connotation as before: her power during the first three and a-half years of the Tribulation age will be greater than that of the Beast.
In verse 5 she is identified as a city, Babylon. Since Babylon was in ruins when John wrote, and since it is not to be rebuilt, we can dismiss any thought of literal Babylon. The reference, then, can only be to what Babylon represents: false religion. This harlot is a city which existed in John’s day, and will still exist in the Tribulation age. It is a city identified unmistakably with apostate Christendom. The further description of the city leaves no doubt that it is Rome.
Verse 18 emphasizes again that the reference is to a city, and verse 9 states that the city sits on seven mountains. Rome is the only city to which every line of the description applies. For centuries it has been known as “the city of the seven hills,” and for almost two millennia it has been the center of the great apostate religious system stretching its tentacles into every country on earth.
The reference in verse 2 to her illicit association with the kings of the earth, and her position in verse 3 “upon a scarlet colored beast” reminds us, that combined with her religious power, is an equally far-reaching political influence.
For all her power and glory, however, we are reminded that she is powerless to avert the judgment she has treasured up for herself. The angel’s invitation is “Come hither; I will shew thee the judgment of the great whore.”
17:2. “With whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication.”
The kings of the earth, their power derived from God, have turned from Him to form an unholy alliance with this deadly Satanic system. The terrible condition of the world bears eloquent testimony to their folly. Having shared her brief pleasure, they must also share her eternal judgment.
Not only has she seduced earth’s kings - the common man too has drunk from her fatal cup, and must also share her judgment.
At this point readers are urged to read all of Jeremiah, chapter 51 to find the OT counterpart of what we are now examining.
17:3. “So he carried me away in the spirit into the wilderness: and I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet colored beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns.”
To the natural eye this woman may be gorgeously clothed, and bedecked with every costly gem, and her kingdom as fair as it is wide, but to the eye of faith she is only a harlot, and her kingdom, a wilderness.
From our study of chapters 12 and 13 we have identified this beast upon which she rides, as the kingdom of the beast, the revived Roman Empire, the seven heads appearing to represent the seven forms of Roman government that produced the imperial form; and the ten horns representing the ten nations that will constitute the final form of the Empire revived in the Tribulation age. That this is descriptive of her position during the first three and a-half years of the Tribulation era is clear from the fact that she is seen in a place of supremacy: she is “sitting upon,” i.e., controlling the Beast. In the final three and a-half years, however, as noted already, it is the Beast who will be supreme.
17:4. “And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet color, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication.”
Nothing could be clearer than that this is the description of the great religious system centered in Rome. Purple is the royal color. It points to political power, and as noted already, the Vatican is a temporal sovereignty. Scarlet is the color of worldly glory, and points to the glory with which Papal Rome has decked herself.
The one precious metal conspicuously absent is silver, the Biblical emblem of redemption. Of redemption through faith in a crucified and risen Savior this terrible system knows nothing.
The reference to pearls may be intended to remind us that there are some true believers even in the midst of this godless counterfeit “church,” for Mt 13:45-46 leaves no doubt that the pearl represents the Church.
The “golden cup” would lead one to expect a wine of rare rich vintage. Such is the wine she promises - absolution from sin and assurance of heaven - but the unfortunate victim who drinks from her intoxicating and stupefying cup fails to perceive that it is a cup of abominations and filth that will bring death.
“Abominations” refers to her doctrine. It is utterly abhorrent to God. The filth refers to the blatant immorality and corruption that accompany this deadly system.
It is to be noted that she is guilty of fornication, not adultery. Israel is an adulteress: she has turned from the God who had redeemed her to a loving relationship with Himself, He calling Himself her Husband, and describing her as His wife, see e.g., Isa 54:4-6. This harlot, however, has never been in any relationship with God. There has been no marriage bond to break. She never knew God.
17:5. “And upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.”
As the common prostitute wore her name on her forehead, this harlot mother of harlots wears her name on her forehead. In contrast with the redeemed who have the name of God upon their foreheads, and their character thereby revealed, this evil woman has her character clearly imprinted on her brow.
MYSTERY - the unregenerate are ignorant both of her character and of her purpose.
BABYLON THE GREAT - she is the culmination of all the evil spawned in that ancient cradle of the world’s false religious systems.
MOTHER OF HARLOTS - Babylon has produced every false religion that has ever been known.
ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH - she personifies, under the guise of religion, everything hateful to God.
17:6. “And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus: and when I saw her I wondered with great wonder.”
The catalog of her guilt continues to be unfolded. Added to her already great sins is yet another: she hates with a bitter unrelenting hatred all who belong to God.
The distinction between the slain saints, and the martyrs has perhaps reference to the fact that while it is Rome specifically that is to be charged with the slaughter of believers of this present age, it is exactly the same evil system that carried on the same grim work throughout the OT ages. Babylon, and all it represents, lives on in Rome, and will continue its nefarious activity in the Tribulation era.
Well might John wonder in incredulity that this fiendish system should have been able to masquerade for ages as God’s church. With every page of history presenting her rottenness to the world, men still, with the same stubborn unbelief that blinds them to God’s love displayed at Calvary, refuse to see her guilt. Earth’s millions continue as blind to the one as to the other.
17:7. “And the angel said unto me, Wherefore didst thou marvel? I will tell thee the mystery of the woman, and of the beast that carrieth her, which hath the seven heads and ten horns.”
The mystery of both woman and beast is about to be revealed to John, and through him, of course, to all who will read what he has written.
Can there be any reason for explaining the mystery other than to warn men against the terrible fate of those who yield to her seductions? If men become her prey, it is because they refuse God’s warning.
17:8. “The beast that thou sawest was, and is not; and shall ascend out of the bottomless pit, and go into perdition: and they that dwell on the earth shall wonder, whose names were not written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, when they behold the beast that was, and is not, and yet is.”
There is no doubt that the beast is the Roman empire, made up of what had been Babylon, Medo-Persia, and Greece. The difficulty is to determine what is meant by “was ... is not ... shall ascend out of the bottomless pit.”
...was and is not could not apply to the empire of John’s day, in the sense of meaning that it once existed, but now does not exist. It existed, in fact, at that time in all its might and glory. One explanation that has been offered is that the was refers to its form when it was Babylon; and it should be remembered that that form was different from its successors; but that first form is what will be again in the Tribulation age. A feature of the Babylonian form of the empire not found in Medo-Persia, Greece or Rome, but that will be true of its final form, is that its government under the beast, will be like that of Nebuchadnezzar: autocratic, controlling not only politics, but also religion. Neither king nor emperor after Nebuchadnezzar wielded his absolute power, but the beast emperor of the Tribulation age will possess that power.
This suggestion offers one explanation at least of this difficult section. The beast that John saw represented the final form of the empire, and that form will duplicate the Babylonian form. In that sense the beast “was,” i.e., it had been Babylon; “and is not,” the empire of John’s day was not the Babylonian form; “and shall ascend out of the bottomless pit, and go into perdition,” the Babylonian form will be restored in the Tribulation, “the bottomless pit” undoubtedly having reference to the fact that while Satan is the unseen power behind all the thrones of earth, there will be a unique manifestation of that diabolic power in the supernatural ability of the man who will head up that final form of the empire.
Another proposal is that of the late Dr. Tatford, who suggests that John may have been viewing things from the perspective of a later view point, “Standing prophetically in a later period, the Apocalypse declares that the empire (still then in existence) had finished its first history. It ‘was and is not.’ For fifteen centuries it has ceased to exist as a political force. It is yet to be revived out of the abyss. Satanic energy will bring it once more into being - to the amazement and wonder of all who behold the sight.”
“... whose names were not written in the book of life from the foundation of the world” is not a proof that men are predestinated either to hell or heaven, but that an omniscient God could prewrite the book of life according to His foreknowledge, while leaving each man the freedom of will to choose life or death for his soul.
17:9. “And here is the mind which hath wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth.”
In our earlier consideration of these seven heads on the beast, we have taken them to represent the seven forms of government that will have been used in the Roman empire throughout its whole history, past and future. Those forms are kings, consuls, dictators, decemvirs, military tribunes, emperors, and the final one, the beast emperor.
Here in this ninth verse the emphasis is on the spiritual power associated with, and though rarely recognized, presiding over all the political forms. Whether it be the five governmental forms used before John’s day, or the imperial form of his day, or the form to be used in the Tribulation, this evil spiritual force broods over, and controls all of them. The seven heads represent those governmental forms, and the seven mountains represent, as always in Scripture, those governments.
However, since the emphasis is on the city which is associated with both the political and the spiritual power, this ninth verse would also serve to direct attention to Rome “the city of the seven hills.” God would focus His spotlight upon Rome and reveal it for what it is, the center of godless political and religious power.
17:10. “And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a short space.”
Verse ten reverts to the subject of political power. “Five are fallen.” Kings, consuls, dictators, decemvirs, and military tribunes had ruled in Rome, but their time was past; they had “fallen.” “... and one is.” When John was writing, an emperor ruled the empire. “And the other is not yet come.” The time of the beast-emperor’s reign has not yet come. “And when he cometh, he must continue a short space.” His reign will be brief, a short seven years.
17:11. “And the beast that was, and is not, even he is the eighth, and is of the seven, and goeth into perdition.”
Consistency requires that we accept “the beast that was, and is not” as being the empire. Adding to this the fact that the terms emperor and empire are frequently used synonymously, we may take this present reference to apply as much to the beast emperor as to the beast empire. “He is the eighth, and is of the seven....” then, presents a problem. The seventh head we have taken to represent the final form of government, i.e., the form that will be used during the beast’s reign; but how can there be an eighth form if there are to be only seven?
The explanation may be that there are two clearly defined periods of the beast’s reign. During the first three and a-half years he will share his power with the “harlot” (the false church): he controlling politically; she, religiously. During that time he will be the seventh head. But during the final three and a-half years, having seized the harlot’s wealth and power, the beast emperor will reign supreme politically and religiously. He will be “the eighth” head, while being also “of the seven.” It is as the eighth head that he goes into perdition.
17:12. “And the ten horns which thou sawest are ten kings, which have received no kingdom as yet; but receive power as kings one hour with the beast.”
This verse needs little comment. The ten horns represent the same thing as the ten toes of Nebuchadnezzar’s image, and the ten horns on the beast of Daniel’s image: they represent the individual kings of the ten-kingdom coalition over which the beast emperor will rule as supreme commander. The brevity of their reign, which will be synchronous with his, is indicated in the words one hour.
17:13. “These have one mind, and shall give their power and strength unto the beast.”
It is God of course Who uses Satan to accomplish His will, for in verse 17 we read, “For God hath put it in their hearts to fulfill His will.”
For his final great pre-millennial assault against Christ (his final assault will be post-millennial), he will unite the nations in the mightiest concentration of power ever seen on earth. But to no avail! “They that plough iniquity, and sow wickedness, reap the same. By the blast of God they perish, and by the breath of his nostrils are they consumed” (Job 4:8-9).
17:14. “These shall make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them: for he is Lord of lords, and King of kings: and they that are with him are called, and chosen, and faithful.”
Comment on the first half of this verse is unnecessary. In regard to the called, chosen and faithful who accompany Christ at His victorious return, it may be needful to emphasize again that this does not imply predestinated salvation or damnation. God’s order is, first a call (Ro 8:28-30), that call being given in the Gospel, but as we read in Mt 20:16, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” Those few make themselves God’s chosen by their free-willed acceptance of Christ as Savior. And they are characterized by faith, a faith that will impel them even to die rather than deny their Lord. But this looks on to the day of their vindication. They march in the train of an all-conquering Christ, to share His triumph, and enjoy, with all creation, His beneficent millennial reign.
17:15. “And he saith unto me, The waters which thou sawest, where the whore sitteth, are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues.”
The four-fold description of the vast realm presided over by the harlot (the false church), is designed perhaps to remind us that in the Tribulation it will reach far beyond the boundaries of apostate Christendom to embrace the whole earth with its countless false religions. In the activity that is striving even now to unify apostate Christendom, we can see the shadow of the ecumenism that will produce this evil religious conglomerate.
17:16. “And the ten horns which thou sawest upon the beast, these shall hate the whore, and shall make her desolate and naked, and shall eat her flesh, and burn her with fire.”
The destruction of the religious power by the hand of the temporal is presented here. At the beginning of the chapter she is portrayed as being in the wilderness. Now she herself is made desolate, literally a desert. She has covered herself with purple and scarlet, and decked herself with costly jewels. But her destroyers strip her. Political influence, worldly glory, riches, all are snatched away by the beast.
Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for her. He Who was rich became poor that she might be made rich. When she was without strength, He died for her. He has clothed her in the glorious garments of His Own righteousness. How different with Satan! When his “church” can no longer serve his purpose, he discards her to those who hate her. He takes away her riches and gives them to another better able to advance his schemes. Such is the tender mercy of the destroyer. Judas is another of his deluded slaves discarded to perish. Satan is a terrible master. Whether it be an institution or an individual, the end of the chattel’s usefulness is synonymous with its destruction.
17:17. “For God hath put in their hearts to fulfill his will, and to agree, and give their kingdom unto the beast, until the words of God shall be fulfilled.”
The most complex, devious schemes of men and Satan serve only, in the final analysis, to accomplish the will of God.
“Until the words of God shall be fulfilled.” Neither man nor demon can thwart the fulfillment of God’s word. All he has declared will come to pass.
17:18. “And the woman which thou sawest is that great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth.”
The chapter concludes by emphasizing what is too often either overlooked or unknown. Behind the thrones of earth is the throne of the prince of darkness. This sinister spirit broods like a dark shadow over the earth, and whether through the adulation given to kings, or the worship offered at the altars of false religion, would arrogate what belongs to God.
Transcending the political and military power of earth’s kingdoms is the deadly spiritual power of the “harlot” - Roman Catholicism, Satan’s counterfeit of Christ’s Church. They can only kill the body, but she can destroy the soul. God would turn men’s eyes to Rome and have them see behind the religious facade Babylon, the city of Satan.