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Bible Commentaries

F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary

Revelation 17



Other Authors
Verses 1-18

CHAPTERS 17 AND 18 give us with full details the judgment of Babylon. We shall find it helpful to read Revelation 21:9Revelation 22:5, by way of contrast. Having done this, we shall note that in both cases, the vision is introduced by one of the angels who had the vials, and that what is seen is figured as a woman and as a city. The similarity ceases with this: all else is in sharpest contrast. There we view “the bride, the Lamb’s wife;” here, “the great whore.” There we have the true church, loved by Christ, redeemed and cleansed by Him, under the symbol of a city. Here we have the false religious system, which claims to be the church, also under the symbol of a city.

Babylon played a considerable part in Old Testament history. It was founded in defiance of God, as Genesis 11:1-32 shows; and the beginning of Nimrod’s kingdom was there. It was also the fountain head of the idolatry that overspread the earth after the flood. This is indicated in such a verse as Jeremiah 51:7, and historical records seem to corroborate it. Very appropriately therefore the mystical Babylon of our chapter symbolizes the harlot “church” centred in Rome, which has been in the present age “a golden cup... that made all the earth drunken.” After the true church is gone all that is Laodicean, and spued out of Christ’s mouth, will gravitate to Rome, we believe, so that the mystical Babylon will represent the sum total of apostate Christendom.

John is called by the angel to see the judgment of the great whore “that sitteth upon many waters.” In the Old Testament Israel in her apostasy is treated as an adulterous wife, because she had been brought nationally into an established relationship with Jehovah. The Church is espoused to Christ “as a chaste virgin” (2 Corinthians 11:2), with the marriage day still in the future; hence the false church, wholly allied with the world, is with accuracy called not an adulteress, but a whore. She “sitteth upon,” that is, dominates “many waters,” which in verse Revelation 17:15 is explained as “peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues.” She practices unbridled worldliness in order to become the mistress of the masses of mankind. In keeping with this, verse Revelation 17:2 shows the kings of the earth seduced by her, and the inhabitants of the earth intoxicated by her wiles.

John is carried in spirit into a wilderness to see this great sight of the woman, riding the beast that he had previously seen in the vision of Revelation 13:1-18. No colour is mentioned in that chapter, but in Revelation 12:1-17 the dragon who gives his power to the beast is spoken of as red. Here we find the colour, which denotes the glory of this world, characterizing not only Satan but the revived Roman Empire, and apostate Christendom, which for the moment is exercising control over the empire.

Of the three, the woman presents the most gorgeous spectacle. She has in addition the imperial purple, since for this brief moment she seems to have attained the object for which she has always striven—recognized sovereignty over the nations. Gold, precious stones and pearls are elsewhere symbolic of all that is beautiful and of God, but here she is “decked,” or “gilded” with them. All is superficial, and these things, excellent in themselves, are perverted to base uses. Similarly the cup in her hand is golden, as may be seen viewing it externally, but internally full of filthiness. The sin of the Pharisee was similar, as we see in Luke 11:39, but here it is carried to its highest pitch of iniquity.

Her name, however, was carried on her forehead so as to be visible to every eye. The first word, “Mystery,” instructs us that “Babylon the Great” is not to be understood in a literal, but in a mystical or symbolic sense. All the principles of evil that first sprang up in the literal Babylon of ancient days are found in their most virulent form in this abominable system. It has been said very truly that in Scripture symbolism a system is represented by a woman, whilst the power or energy marking a system is represented by a man.

The Romish system, enlarged by the inclusion in it of all that is corrupt in Christendom after the church is gone, is represented by the woman here. She has become “the mother of harlots and abominations;” that is, the source of lesser yet similar systems of corruption, when she should have been the “chaste virgin” for Christ. How fearful is this charge laid against her! Notice too how the word “earth” occurs frequently here. We have had it twice in verse Revelation 17:2. It occurs again in verses Revelation 17:8; Revelation 17:18, and also several times in the next chapter. Earthly religion is her stock in trade.

In Philippians 3:1-21, Paul reveals how he entered experimentally into the heavenly calling made known in Christ, but before the chapter closes he mentions certain “enemies of the cross of Christ,” and he states of these, “whose god is their belly, whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things.” The system that the woman represents may boast of “apostolic succession:” they have succession indeed, but not apostolic. It proceeds rather from these whom Paul had to denounce—a succession of self-gratification and earthly-mindedness. In its final development it has come to this.

Then again, the adjective, “great,” is applied to her, and this is a feature that appeals very much to the world. Earthly greatness and abominable corruption reach a climax in her, whereas the true church is to have on her the stamp of heaven and holiness, as we see in Revelation 21:10, where the adjective, “great,” as applying to the holy Jerusalem, ought not to appear.

Verse Revelation 17:6 adds another sinister feature. The system that the woman symbolizes is a great persecutor of the true followers of Jesus, and is so full of their blood that she is intoxicated therewith. All down the centuries their blood has flowed at the hands of the Romish church and her harlot offspring, but at the close this feature too will reach a climax. The sight of all this, even in symbol, so filled John with wonderment that the angel offered an explanation of the mystery, or inner meaning, both of the woman and of the beast. This explanation follows in the rest of the chapter; yet it is to be noted that it nearly all concerns the beast. That concerning the woman is only given in the last verse.

In the light of the explanation, the beast is evidently to be identified with the one described in the early part of Revelation 13:1-18. Additional features, however, appear here. The empire that it symbolizes had an early existence, then it became extinct—to outward appearances at least—and then it is to reappear. It “shall ascend out of the bottomless pit;” that abyss into which Satan shall be cast for 1,000 years, as we are told in chapter 20. This means that it will be revived in a very evil form under Satanic influence, and be of so remarkable and sensational a character that all the earth-dwellers, who had no part in the book of life, will be filled with wonder, and fall easy victims to its enslaving power. That the empire in its revived form would be Satanically supported and directed, Revelation 13:1-18 showed us. Here we discover that it will be Satanically produced, and that in such a way as to enslave the minds of all those false religionists, who have debased the faith of Christ to a mere religion of earthly things. We think there must be a definite connection between this and that of which 2 Thessalonians speaks—the “strong delusion, that they should believe a lie.”

The seven heads of the beast have a twofold meaning. They represent firstly, seven mountains on which the woman sits, and this helps to identify with Rome both the beast and the woman; that is, both the empire and the religious system. In John’s day Rome was without doubt the city of the seven hills.

But seven kings are also signified, and these distinct from the ten kings signified by the horns. The ten are kings who rise up in the last days, when the beast will represent not only the empire but also the empire’s last and imposing head. In verse Revelation 17:10 the kings are clearly different, and represent successive heads of the empire, or rather successive forms of despotic government, and not individuals. Emperors held the power when our Lord was crucified and when John wrote, and they continued to do so until the empire broke up, but they had been preceded by five other forms of rule. A seventh was to come, that would continue but a short time and then be replaced by the eighth, who would be “of the seven;” that is, not entirely new but a reproduction of one of the earlier seven—of the imperial form.

This eighth, then, we should identify with the beast of Revelation 13:4-8, and again with the “little horn” of Daniel 7:8. If this be so, we may understand the seventh head, who continues for a short time only, to be a personage of importance and in control when first the empire reappears, but to be replaced by the “little horn”—Satan’s nominee—when he rises up with a “look... more stout than his fellows,” and three kings fall before him, as Daniel 7:20 predicts. But the eighth, in spite of his dazzling splendour, is not permitted a long course. God intervenes and he “goeth into perdition.”

The ten horns, according to verse Revelation 17:12, are the actual individuals who attain to kingly power for the brief spell during which the beast wields supreme authority. They are his willing vassals and support his Satanic schemes, even to the point of madness in making war with the Lamb. Men are going to reach such a pitch of mental inflation and self-confidence and arrogance, that they will actually fling themselves against the mighty power of God. We may say—borrowing the language of 1 Corinthians 8:5 —that however many lords and kings there may be in heaven and on earth, the Lamb is Lord and King of them all, the beast and his satellites included. They inevitably fall before Him; and He has His associates, called, chosen and faithful. They too were rejected by men but are chosen of Him.

Verse Revelation 17:15 mentions the woman, but only to emphasize how complete her dominating power had been. It is remarkable that in this chapter she is seen sitting on the waters, on the beast, and on the seven mountains. Putting the three together, we are helped to identify her, and conducted to the last verse of our chapter. Two verses, however, intervene, in which we are shown her miserable end.

The ten kings, represented by the horns, are to be distinguished not only from the seven kings of verse Revelation 17:10, but also from “the kings of the earth,” spoken of in verse Revelation 17:2, and who reappear in the next chapter. These kings of the earth are seduced by her, have illicit commerce with her—the “fornication” that is spoken of—and they greatly lament her destruction. They are doubtless the kings or leaders of many peoples who are outside the revived Western empire. The ten kings are leaders within the empire, who favour her at first and help to support her, but finally find her yoke intolerable, hate her and fall upon her with such fury as to destroy her.

When the corrupt religious system, symbolized by the woman, shall have reached the height of its influence, its apparent success and glory, it will be completely overthrown by the worldly powers that have been its main support. It is God’s way to permit each successive form of evil to come to a head in fullest manifestation and apparent success before His judgment falls upon it. Here the judgment falls mediately through the ten kings and not immediately from the hand of God. The two beasts are to be dealt with immediately, by the Lord Jesus in person, as we shall see in Revelation 19:1-21, for in them the violence of sin reaches its climax. In the harlot the corruption of sin reaches its most horrible expression. God does not put His hand upon the filthy thing but uses the violent to destroy the corrupt.

That God lies behind the violence of the ten horns is made quite clear in verse Revelation 17:17. The horns act with an agreement and unanimity which is very rarely found amongst men. Usually there are dissentient voices, and the majority prevails over the minority. Here all act together as with one mind under the guidance of the beast, and as a result vengeance falls in a stroke of swiftness and completeness.

The completeness of her judgment is expressed in four ways in the latter part of verse Revelation 17:16. Bearing in mind that she symbolizes a religious system, the significance of each item becomes clear. She is made desolate; that is, forsaken by all who formerly were friends and supporters. She is made naked; that is, stripped of everything that had formerly hid her true character. They eat her flesh; that is, appropriate to themselves all her wealth and luxuries. They burn her with fire; that is, utterly destroy the whole framework of her system. A clean sweep is made of the whole accursed thing. Little as they may realize it, the kings are acting as the executors of God’s vengeance.

The identification of the woman and the great city, which is Rome, is made quite clear in the last verse of the chapter; and following this, in chapter 18, the city aspect becomes much the more prominent.


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These files are public domain.
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Bibliography Information
Hole, Frank Binford. "Commentary on Revelation 17:4". "F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary". 1947.

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