17:1 And there came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls, and talked with me, saying to me, Come here, I will show you the judgment of the great whore who sits on many waters.
Verse 1: This chapter (and the two to follow) is a supplement to the vision of the seven last plagues and is meant to give a clearer picture of the recipient of the plagues which are poured out in the last chapter. Hence the angel is one of the seven who poured plagues on the beast in chapter 16. The Roman Empire has been identified as the beast with seven heads and ten horns. In Daniel 7 it is the little horn or a little kingdom which arises among the ten kingdoms of a divided Roman Empire to take the power of the Roman Empire. In Revelation 13 the Roman Empire is pictured as having its power taken by a lamb-like beast. He does the same thing, and for the same period of time as the little horn of Daniel -- that is, he works against and overcomes God's people for 1,260 prophetic day-years. In this chapter the power that fights God's people and rides the power of the Roman Empire is pictured as a whore and represents the false religious aspect of that power more than the political aspect, which is figured later in the chapter as the eighth head.
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. (3) So he carried me away in the spirit into the wilderness; and I saw a woman sit on a scarlet colored beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns.
As seen above, the woman rides the Roman Empire. The picture here is of an apostate, profligate religious organization, committing spiritual adultery and controlling the Roman Empire. It is the same entity pictured in Daniel 7 as the Little Horn and in Revelation 13 as the Lamb-Like-Beast. These three symbols describe different facets of the same entity. Here the false religious nature of the antichrist kingdom is symbolized by a harlot woman.
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; (5) And upon her forehead was a name written: MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS, AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. 6) And I saw the woman drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus and when I saw her I wondered with great admiration.
Verses 4-6: Babylon is a figure of Rome and of paganism. The picture here is of a false religious power who gives birth to other false religions and works against true religion. This woman must be in contrast with the woman of chapter 12, who is arrayed with the sun and moon and has twelve stars on her head. There she represents the true church which issued forth Christ to the world. This scarlet woman therefore is a picture of the false church, who issues forth other false churches. The picture of overcoming the saints and killing them is the same as in Rev. 13 and Dan. 7. It is not hard to reach into history and call out the Papacy as a Roman religious power which killed many souls for having innocent but contradictory faith.
17:7 And the angel said to me, Wherefore did you marvel? I will tell you the mystery of the woman and of the beast that carries her, which has the seven heads and ten horns.
A repetition of the supporting power being Rome. The woman rides the power of the Roman Empire and as we shall soon see she herself is Roman.
17:8 The beast that you saw 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. (9) And here is the mind which has wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits.
Verses 8-9: Not the seven hills of Rome but seven forms of government which Rome had passed through since her founding, for so we found the figure of a mountain to be in Chapter 6 under the sixth seal. See the comment on the next verse for the details.
17:10 And there are seven kings; five are fallen; and one is; and the other is not yet come; and when he comes he must continue a short space.
The seven heads, seven hills, and seven kings more likely mean the seven forms of government that Rome, from its inception, was to pass through. The text says they are seven kings or kingdoms, i.e. governments. This solution is more in harmony with the text than the fact that Rome may have been built on seven arbitrary hills. More than one city is built on seven literal hills. Seven mountains in prophetic literature is a figure of seven governments, not seven literal hills.
The prophecy says that five are fallen or in the past, and that one is, or exists, at the time of the writing of Revelation. Consequently the first six forms of government were a matter of historical record to all living in that generation. The simple facts of history are not mystical and therefore should be found in historical literature contemporary with the same period in which the Revelation was written. This is actually the case and the changes in government, numbering six from the beginning, are outlined clearly in both Livy (59 B.C. to circa 17 A.D.) and Tacitus (56 A.D. to circa 118). These classical historians give the six forms up to their own time as follows:
Livy _________________________ Tacitus
1. Kings ______________________ 1. Kings
2. Republic ____________________ 2. Republic
3. Council of 10 ________________ 3. Council of 10
4. Tribunes ____________________ 4. Military Triumites
5. Dictators ____________________ 5. Dictators
6. Imperial (Principate) ___________ 6. Imperial
Tacitus in the opening of his Annals of Imperial Rome gives the outline to his time. I insert the numerals:
(1.) "When Rome was first a city its rulers were kings. (2.) Then Lucius Junius Brutus created the Consulate and free Republican institutions in general. Dictatorships were assumed in emergencies. (3.) A council of Ten did not last more than two years; (4.) and then there was a short lived arrangement by which senior army officers -- the commanders of contingents provided by the tribes -- possessed consular authority. (5.) Subsequently Cinna and Sulla set up autocracies [dictatorships] but they too were brief. Soon Pompey and Crassus acquired predominant positions, but rapidly lost them to Caesar. (6.) Next the military strength which Lepidus and Antony had built up was absorbed by Augustus. He found the whole state exhausted by internal dissensions and established over it a personal regime known as the Principate." *
Livy makes clear statements about the changes in forms of government and actually gives dates for the changes:
He says (1) "The whole period of the monarchical government was 244 years... After the liberation [setting up the Republic] two consuls were elected by popular vote."** (2) He later says that the Republican forms lasted in purity for 58 years. This is the political golden age for which all future generations longed for restoration. Livy describes it when superseded as being the second change, making the Councils of Ten that followed to be the Third form of government. (3) "Thus it happened that 302 years after the foundation of Rome the form of government was for the second time changed; once power had passed from kings to consuls, now it passed from consuls to decemvirs."*** Later he notices the next change to the fourth form saying, (4) "Thus 310 years after the founding of Rome military tribunes with consular power first entered upon office."**** Livy was born during the (5) Dictatorship of Julius Caesar the fifth "head," and was a young man during the civil wars which revolutionized Rome by introducing the sixth form, or (6) Imperial system, which was extant all his life and extended for several hundred years more.
These two sources are in agreement with these political changes as are the extensive histories of Rome both contemporary with the Empire and later. There is no reason to suppose that these were not well known facts of history. That is that Rome had passed through five forms of government, all of which were in the past just before New Testament times and then a new form of government, the sixth, was subsisting from 30 B.C. through the whole of the New Testament period and beyond.
This key to whom the symbol of the beast would apply was part of contemporary history and would have been clear to any literate person. In fact we have shown in chapter 2 that the earliest commentators had the greatest success in interpretation of those symbols connected with the Roman Empire. The fact that five forms of government had fallen and the Imperial form was the sixth would be known to John who wrote the book. The fact that he knew it does not imply that he manufactured the symbol since it is authenticated by also being prophetic. He, John, could not have known that there would be a seventh and that would finish the transition of power as far as the Roman government was concerned. Nor could he have known, that following the seventh head, a corrupt religious power would assume the authority of one of the first seven, which had a deadly wound, and then it become the eighth form of Roman government, which is what he predicted.
Incredibly, the sixth form of government did receive a deadly wound. The Imperial form was destroyed by the barbarian invasions and though Rome was occupied by them for a time it was superseded by government from Constantinople through dukes in Ravenna, called in historical writings the Exarchate of Ravenna. This "seventh head" was superseded by the Papacy which assumed the power to become the eighth head and adopted the Imperial form of government which, though having been wounded to death was now revived in the Papacy itself. Later this "eighth head" would make an image to the beast which became The Holy Roman Empire, as outlined in chapter two. These symbols and their correspondence to the actual facts of history establish the divine nature of the book of Revelation and assure us of God's hand in the course of history and its ultimate outcome. This outline is given in recognized Pro-Roman sources. For instance, Cardinal Gibbons, a recognized Roman Papal authority, gives the same facts.*****
17:11 And the beast that was, and is not, even he is the eighth, and is of the seven, and goes into perdition.
Verses 10 and 11: Here it states plainly that the seven heads are seven governments. Five are fallen, that is, in the past. One is or remains at the time of the vision, that is, the Imperial form. One more is yet to come, that is, the Exarchate of Ravenna, through which after the fall of Rome in the West, Rome was ruled from Constantinople. The Exarchate did not continue a long time. In fact it was absorbed into what became the Papal states, the first to be so added. He, the Papacy, is so obviously the eighth form of Roman government. The Papacy is of the seven because it continues the Imperial form of government. This figure of being the eighth head is another figure of the Papacy but of the political power rather than false religion pictured as the whore.
17:12 And the ten horns which you saw are ten kings, which have received no kingdom as yet; but receive power as kings one hour with the beast.
Verse 12: The ten horns are also pictured as ten kingdoms remaining to a shattered Roman Empire in Daniel 7 and Revelation 13. They continue one hour, a short time, perhaps a picture of the changing profile of these kingdoms after the fall of Rome
. 17:13 These have one mind and shall give their strength and power to the beast. (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.
Verses 13-14: A reminder of what has already been said, that the false religious system that first controls and then absorbs the power of the Roman Empire will dominate the scattered remnant kingdoms of fallen Rome and work against true religion in Jesus, but He will overcome them.
17:15 and he says to me, The waters which you saw, where the whore sits, are peoples, and multitudes, and nations and tongues. (16) And the ten horns which you saw on the beast, these shall make her desolate and naked, and shall eat her flesh and burn her with fire.
Verses 15-16: This is a perfect picture of the close relation with the false religion of the Papacy and the ten kingdoms left to Rome in Europe, yet the hatred that existed at the same time. Although she had adherents in all nations and cultures, the nations allied with her in Europe hated her and made war with her while submitting to her. The history so closely matches the figure as to be extraordinary. The condition described here could accurately represent any period after the Papacy gained control of the Papal States, from 800 until the nineteenth century. Rome did actually have five different forms of government before the Imperial form that existed at John's time. The empire fell in 476. After the fall of Rome, the emperor in Constantinople was able to regain control through a governor he placed in Ravenna, located on the east coast on the Adriatic. This government, since it was isolated from Constantinople, was called an Exarchate, meaning an "outside rule." Because of the continual marauding of national groups, and the inability of Constantinople to protect Rome, the Bishop of Rome appealed to the Frankish kings for protection. They not only did so, but granted to the Papacy the kingdom of the Lombards and the Exarchate of Ravenna. By confiscating the region around Rome the Papacy actually did make three states into the States of the church and was the eighth form of government Rome passed through. The constant fighting with her dependent states in Europe, through the centuries, is a part of the historical record. The symbols here could not be clearer or more consistent with the history.
17:17 For God has put in their hearts to fulfill his will, and to agree, and give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God shall be fulfilled (18) And the woman which you saw is that great city which reigns over the kings of the earth.
Verse 18: "That great City." Not the city of Rome but Vatican city in Rome. She is the whore of Babylon riding the power of the Roman Empire and became the beast as the eighth form of Roman government at the same time. The Vatican is the city that makes no pretensions about her claim to the right to govern all kings. She has not repented of that pretentiousness.
* See Tacitus: Annals page 1.
** Livy, Book 1:60
*** Livy, Book 3:33
**** Livy, Book 4:7
***** See Cardinal Gibbons; Faith of Our Fathers; op. cit. chapter XII; "The Temporal Power of the Popes."
The Temporal Power of the Popes is worth reading. Click here.