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Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Revelation 17

 

 

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Introduction

The Sixth Vision. The Seven Bowls of Wrath and the Destruction of Babylon the Great (chapters 15-18).

It is noteworthy that before each vision dealing with activities on earth there is an assurance that God’s people are well catered for. The seven seals (chapter 6) are preceded by the representation of the twenty four elders in Heaven and their assurance of Revelation 5:9-10. The seven trumpets (chapter 8-9) are preceded by the sealing of the people of God and the heavenly multitude (chapter 7). The attacks on the two witnesses are preceded by the measuring of the Temple (chapter 11). The attacks of the monster and the beast (chapters 12-13) are preceded by the victory cry with respect to the redeemed and by the deliverance of the woman (Revelation 12:10-11; Revelation 12:14-16). The judgment of the world is preceded by the gathering of the redeemed on the heavenly Zion (chapter 14). Now again, before the outpouring of the bowls of wrath, we have a picture of the redeemed (Revelation 15:2-4).


Verse 1-2

‘And one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and spoke with me saying, “Come with me. I will show you the judgment of the great prostitute who sits on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth committed fornication, and those who dwell on the earth were made drunk with the wine of her fornication”.’

The idea of nations and cities as prostitutes is common in Scripture. Nahum, speaking of Nineveh speaks of ‘the multitude of the whoredoms of the well-favoured harlot, the mistress of witchcrafts who sells nations through her whoredoms and families through her witchcrafts’ (Nahum 3:4;Isaiah 1:21). Isaiah says of Tyre, ‘she shall return to her hire and play the harlot with all the kingdoms of the world on the face of the earth’ (Isaiah 23:17). Samaria and Jerusalem are depicted as harlots because they doted on idolatry and made treaties with idolatrous nations (Ezekiel 23:5; Ezekiel 23:7; Ezekiel 23:11; Ezekiel 23:16). And all these idolatries were accompanied by sexual deviations and the occult. Thus the great prostitute (harlot) who sits on many waters is an idolater and partaker in uncontrolled sexual activity, just like the Jezebel of Revelation 2:20. And they will share the same fate.

‘Sits on many waters’. This was a prophetic description of Babylon, with its river and network of canals, it was the city which ‘dwells on many waters’ (Jeremiah 51:13). Thus the prostitute represents idolatrous religion and its accompaniments as personified in the city of Babylon. Great Babylon is seen as the source of idolatry and unrestrained sexual proclivities, from Babel onwards, something which she is now exercising through Rome. Compare how the woman who represented wickedness was seen as carried into the land of Shinar, the land where Babylon was, for that was the ‘home’ of wickedness (Zechariah 5:5-11 and see Genesis 10:10). But John stresses that the many waters also have a special significance in that they represent ‘peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues’ (Revelation 17:15). Thus the woman has an insidious influence over many nations.

‘With whom the kings of the earth committed fornication.’ They submitted to the requirements of the woman, and of the beast who demanded they follow the ways of the great prostitute. The dwellers on earth did so also for they ‘were made drunk with the wine of her fornication’. The controlling influence of Babylon and Rome and similar great cities reached out to the world seeking to turn men to themselves and to their own divinity rather than to God.


Verses 1-18

The Scarlet Woman and the Beast (Revelation 17:1-18).

This is a remarkable chapter for in it John rises above himself and foresees the inevitable consequences of history. As with all the great prophets he ‘sees’ beyond his own day to the final days when God will bring all things to conclusion. Each can be speaking of his own times and the near future, and then suddenly be found speaking about the end times. For he sees the near future as an indicator of those end times, and his prophetic instinct tells him what will be in the end.

We have an example of this in this chapter. It seems to speak of Rome, and it does speak of Rome, but it goes beyond Rome and speaks of all great cities to the end times. (Of course the people of his day thought that Rome would go on for ever and would be there in the end times. John himself may have thought the same. Great empires are always so viewed. But inevitably the cracks appear and they are replaced. In the providence of God. John sticks to great principles rather than dealing with specifics).


Verse 3

‘And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns.’

John is carried ‘in the Spirit’. Comparison with Revelation 1:10 shows that this means that time is irrelevant. He is carried back and forward in time to see what he sees. He observes a prominent prostitute sitting on a scarlet coloured Beast, which is the ultimate Blasphemy. The colour of the beast suggests that this beast is closely related to the red monster of Revelation 12:3, for he alone of beasts and monsters is described as red (possibly as the colour of blood because of his murderous intentions) Thus the woman is borne and supported by Satan’s beast himself who is at the back of what she propagates. This beast is full of the names of blasphemy and therefore transcends the one who had names of blasphemy only on his heads (Revelation 13:1). There it referred to the claims of Roman emperors to divinity, but here it refers to all the blasphemies of the ages. This beast is far more sinister than the beast of Rome, which was merely a temporary copy of the scarlet beast.

‘Into a wilderness’. The prostitute is aping the people of God, and especially the woman of Revelation 12:14, by false professions of piety. Seemingly like the woman in chapter 12 she is found in the wilderness. But that it is all a pretence comes out in the next verse. The very reason that the wilderness was seen as a place where men could meet God was because it was away from the great cities with their pernicious influence. But her very dress proclaims that influence.


Verse 4

‘And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and decked with gold and precious stone and pearls, having in her hand a golden cup full of abominations, even the unclean things of her fornication.’

What an absurd picture. While pretending piety in the wilderness her outward appearance tells a different story. She is decked out like a prostitute, enjoying all that comes from wealth and influence because of what she offers in her golden cup. She is the epitome of a pretence piety, of false religion.

‘Abominations’. This word is constantly used in the Old Testament to represent idolatry and idolatrous worship with all that accompanied it, including spiritualism, magic, witchcraft and divination (Deuteronomy 18:9-12; 2 Kings 23:24; Deuteronomy 29:17; Deuteronomy 32:16; 1 Kings 14:23-24; 2 Kings 16:3-4; 2 Kings 21:2-3; Ezekiel 8:6 and often; Revelation 11:18; Ezekiel 16:15-26 - linked with harlotry). It is often described in terms of whoredom and uncleanness because of its accompaniments. For her golden cup see Jeremiah 51:7, ‘Babylon has been a golden cup in the Lord’s hand, that made all the earth drunk. The nations have drunk of her cup, therefore the nations are mad’. This is what Babylon symbolises.


Verse 5

‘And on her forehead a name written, a mystery, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF PROSTITUTES AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.’

Again we have confirmation that this is Babylon, but it is more than Babylon, it is Babylon as a symbol, as the mother of all idolatry and sexual perversion and of all spiritualism and witchcraft. It is a ‘mystery’, something once hidden now revealed. That Babylon was now (in John’s time) represented by Rome was part of that ‘mystery’, but only as symbolic of what Rome and Babylon stood for, greatness, supremacy, commercialism, pernicious influence and opposition to the living God. Wherever great cities control men’s minds, there is Babylon the Great. It is a symbol of man’s enmity against God.


Verse 6

‘And I saw the woman drunk with the blood of God’s people (the saints) and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus. And when I saw her I wondered with a great wonder.’

The ancient empires from Babel onwards made war on the people of God, just as Rome was now doing and would do, and other great cities of the future would do as well. The people of God are always subject to special attack because of what the woman represents. Whether it was Babylon with its fiery furnaces (Daniel 3:11), Darius the Mede with his den of lions (Daniel 6:7) or Rome with its crucifixions and its amphitheatres, ‘Great Babylon’ was responsible for it all. Today large parts of the world are ruled by Babylon, with its commercialism, covetousness which is idolatry, and its anti-God behaviour.

The term saints probably has in mind the Old Testament saints (e.g. Psalms 79:2; Psalms 116:15; Daniel 7:18; Daniel 7:21-22; Daniel 7:25; Daniel 7:27), with the ‘witnesses of Jesus’ representing the New Testament saints. This again testifies to the breadth of the ideas. As John contemplates all the blood she has caused to be shed, blood that has made her drunk as with wine, he can only marvel.


Verse 7-8

‘And the angel said to me, “Why did you wonder? I will explain to you the mystery of the woman, and of the beast who carries her, who has the seven heads and ten horns. The beast which you saw was and is not, and is about to come up from the abyss and to go into perdition. And those who dwell on the earth will wonder, the one whose name has not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, when they behold the beast how he was, and is not and shall come.’

The angel promises to reveal the mystery of both the woman and the Beast who carries her. He will first reveal the mystery of the Beast. The mystery of the woman will be revealed in the next chapter. ‘The beast --- was, and is not and will come.’ He apes God, the One spoken of in Revelation 1:4; Revelation 1:8, and he fills the world with wonder. ‘He was’ because he has been present throughout history, in the Garden of Eden, in the activities of Cain, in the founding of Babel, in the great empires that fought against God and His people. ‘He is not’ because he is in the abyss. This again reminds us of Satan and his followers who are seen as chained in the abyss (Revelation 9:1-2; Revelation 9:11; Revelation 20:2-3). This could not be said of Rome, nor does the scarlet beast represent emperors for the emperors are represented by his heads. It represents empire (and possibly the last ‘emperor’). Indeed it is important to remember that this is a manifestation of the monster of chapter 12, the essential beast, not the clone of chapter 13. It is a more real manifestation of Satan, and has existed almost from the beginning of time. The beast is first the embodiment of Satanically ruled empire, going back to the beginning, and secondly the great Satanically inspired ruler who will spring from this and vie for world leadership and control. But the woman is Rome, and yet she is more than Rome, for she has sat on the beast from the beginning, she is what Rome epitomised. She is ever the great idolatress, whether of religion or secularism, at the head of empires.

And Satan also will yet enjoy a final period of freedom from restraint before finally being sent to destruction, for the beast is a personification of Satan. Satan also ‘was, and is not (he is bound) and will come’. He is revealed through the beast.

The New Testament portrays Satan in two ways, it portrays him as active (e.g. Ephesians 6:16; 1 Peter 5:8; 2 Corinthians 11:14) yet bound (Matthew 12:28-29), powerful (1 Peter 5:8; Jude 1:9) yet restrained (2 Thessalonians 2:6-7; James 4:7), in the air (Ephesians 2:2) but fallen from heaven (Luke 10:18). He is limited in what he can do but is nevertheless like a roaring lion looking for those victims he is permitted to devour (1 Peter 5:8 compare 2 Timothy 4:17). All these pictures are in human terms. However Satan is not human, nor confined to a human form, but is spirit, so we must not press the figures too literally. What is important is to realise that he is continually seen as acting, and yet acting under restraint. There is a limit beyond which he is not permitted to go.

Those ‘whose names are written in the book of life from the foundation of the world’ see him for what he is, but to those who dwell on earth (non-Christians) he is mysterious and powerful, attractive because of the mysteries of his ways, and very intriguing.

‘The one whose name has not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world.’ This is the one who believes in and follows the Beast. But the corollary is that the names of true Christians have been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world. As Ephesians 1:4 says, ‘according as He has chosen us in Him before the foundation of the world’. Here is where the confidence of God’s people lies, that each one of them has been chosen by God before the foundation of the world with their names recorded in the Lamb’s book of life (compare Revelation 13:8). Each one of them has been ‘foreknown’ by Him, that is, He has entered into relationship with them from the beginning (Romans 8:29).


Verse 9-10

‘Here is the mind which has wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits. And they are seven kings, five are fallen, the one is and the other has not yet come, and when he comes he must continue a little while, and the beast that was and is not, is himself also an eighth and is of the seven and goes into destruction.’

The seven heads of the Beast bear a dual significance. Firstly they are ‘seven mountains on which the woman sits’, they are the foundation of ‘Babylon’, and secondly they represent seven kings. (The Beast himself is the eighth king shortly to be mentioned). Rome was built on seven mountains, but so was Babylon. Indeed many cities boasted of being built on seven mountains for mountains had a divine significance and seven was the number of divine perfection, and where the ground is hilly it is not difficult to discern seven. Thus the seven mountains represent an idea, being seated on the mountains of the gods, while at the same time in context representing both Rome and Babylon. But the fact is that the woman was founded on the Beast, which itself represents the activity of Satan. She is the product of the evil and greed of past empires whose propensities are found in the Beast, who may well be the fourth Beast of Daniel 7:7.

Like the heads of the clone beast the heads of the scarlet beast represent the same seven emperors and in doing so represent the whole empirate, for the scarlet beast incorporates the clone beast, and both are dependent on the red monster (Revelation 12:3). Five are in the past and are dead (they are ‘fallen’), one is, and one must continue for a little while. If the ‘seven’ is intended to cover the whole empirate, then the fact that the present emperor was the sixth (six being the number of man) may be a deliberate method of indicating that the sixth emperor was but a man. The ‘seventh’ would then indicate the future empirate. But in the end this is only important because it relates the Beast to the Roman Empire, for the benefit of Christians living at that time. In the end it is the eighth Beast who is important..

Note On The Identification Of The Seven.

Attempts have been made to determine who the sixth emperor might be, for it would give us a date for the book. But different scholars come to different conclusions. If we work from Augustus, the first specifically named as emperor, then including Augustus the first emperors would be, Augustus, Tiberias, Gaius (Caligula), Claudius and Nero. This would then make the sixth emperor the little known Galba, or (if we ignore Galba, Othos and Vitellius on the grounds that they only reigned briefly in Rome and were never acknowledged by the eastern provinces), Vespasian. The seventh could then be either Titus, or Domitian, depending on whether we exclude Titus due to the shortness of his reign. We can, however, already see what shaky ground we are on, especially as nowhere is it said that the five include all emperors to that date. Furthermore, Augustus may have been represented by the Beast, with the horns being ensuing emperors. This would then make the sixth either Titus or Domitian.

But while no doubt the five were intended to be in some kind of sequence it does not necessarily mean that they were to be seen as directly consecutive. In many genealogies there is sequence, but with gaps between the persons named (e.g. in Matthew 1), and in the lists of the ten patriarchs (Genesis 5, 11) there were undoubtedly names missed out. In these last two ten important names were selected in order to represent the whole. So it may have been with the seven. So while the verse does definitely indicate that the Empirate had a future represented by the seventh king, who ‘has not yet come’, and who thus represents the future line of kingship, identification is difficult. The seventh is to continue for a little while. ‘A little while’ in Revelation is a period of uncertain duration.

But if John was seeing the ‘seven’ as including all emperors, then the five may simply be the figure needed to make the present emperor the sixth, six being the number of man, underlining the fact that the current emperor was not divine. The seventh would then be an ‘ideal’ emperor, indicating the future empirate.

End of note.


Verse 11

‘And the beast that was and is not, is himself also an eighth and is of the seven and goes into perdition.’

But the Beast who arises is the eighth (not the same Beast as chapter 13, for he came out of the sea while this one is to come out of the abyss, which in Revelation is the prison of spirit beings - Revelation 9:1-2; Revelation 9:9). We have seen that this beast is ‘of the red monster’, the embodiment of Satan’s forces. Thus he will come as an eighth when the time comes, in a time beyond the sequence of emperors, yet he will be of the seven for he will reign over the kings of the earth and will seek worship and adoration for Satan as they do, (indeed it is possible he may even claim to stand in the place of Roman emperors, but this is not essential. We are here dealing with symbolism). So John clearly sees ahead one who will not be a Roman emperor like the others (he is not one of the seven) and yet will have the same power and proclivities. He is ‘of the seven’. That this is towards the end of time is suggested by the fact that he then goes into ‘destruction’ (perdition). Compare here Revelation 19:19-20. So this is John’s way of moving from a recognised empire to the end time empire.

It is a favourite position with commentators to argue that ‘of the seven’ means that he is a reincarnation of a previous emperor. But this is to be over-literalistic. As with the Elijah who was coming, whom Jesus confirmed as John the Baptiser (Matthew 11:14; Matthew 17:12), what is required is someone who will behave in a similar way and have similar attributes, someone who will be the ‘reincarnation’ of the whole empirate. But just as some will demand a literal Elijah in spite of our Lord’s words, for they will not receive Christ’s own words, so others will demand a literal Roman emperor.


Verse 12

‘And the ten horns which you saw are ten kings who have received no kingdom as yet, but they receive authority as kings with the beast for one hour.’

The idea of the ten horns is taken from Daniel 7:7 where they represent ten rulers that arise from the great and terrible fourth beast before the judgment sits (Daniel 7:26). Thus they are ten rulers who arise in the end days. They receive authority for ‘one hour’ their period of reign is minimal and they are contemporary with each other as in Daniel. Ten is a number regularly signifying completeness so that in the end all the rulers under the beast are finally in mind. We can compare the lines of ten patriarchs in Genesis 5, 11 which represented all the patriarchs, and how ten ‘rulers’ are described in Psalms 83:6-8 incorporating the nations surrounding Israel and including Assyria in their vendetta against Israel.

So we have in these verses the arising of a ‘Beast’ (a bestial leader over a bestial empire) who will arise towards the end of time and will establish an alliance of powerful rulers. All is building up to man’s final confrontation with God.


Verse 13-14

‘These have one mind and they give their power and authority to the beast. These shall war against the Lamb and the Lamb will overcome them, for he is Lord of Lords, and King of Kings, and those who are with Him, called, chosen and faithful, will also overcome.’

Note the emphasis on the fact that the ten kings are of one mind. They fall into line with the Beast’s aims and purposes. And this results in war with the Lamb of God. But the Lamb will overcome them because he is Lord of Lords and King of Kings. And those who belong to the Lamb will also overcome, for they are called, chosen and faithful. We are not, of course, to see here a literal war between the Beast acting on earth and the Lamb. The Beast’s battle is rather with Lamb’s followers (compare Revelation 20:9). Had he literally fought the Lamb it would have been no contest, as the Lamb’s titles indicate. So the idea is that these rulers will set themselves against God’s people, thus taking on the Lamb Himself, although not directly.

This ‘war’ is described more fully in Revelation 19:11-21, evidence again that we have moved to the end time. ‘Lord of Lords and King of Kings’ sets Christ well above the ‘ruler of the kings of the earth’. The rulers are at one with the beast and totally committed because theirs is a religious devotion. They are (perhaps unconsciously) committed to Satan. But they are doomed to defeat because of the power of the Lamb.

For the encouragement of the churches John then connects the churches themselves with the triumphant Lamb. They are called, chosen and faithful and are overcomers. ‘Called’ and ‘chosen’ are two words continually applied to Christians, see Ephesians 1:4; Romans 8:28-30; Matthew 20:16; Matthew 22:14; Mark 13:20; John 13:18; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 Peter 2:4; 1 Peter 2:9; Romans 1:6; Romans 9:24; 1 Corinthians 1:9; Ephesians 4:1; Ephesians 4:4; 1 Thessalonians 2:12; 2 Thessalonians 2:14; 2 Timothy 1:9; 1 Peter 1:1-2; 1 Peter 1:15; 1 Peter 2:21; 1 Peter 5:10; 2 Peter 1:3). ‘Overcomers’ is the favourite term in Revelation for God’s faithful people.


Verse 15-16

‘And he says to me, “The waters which you saw, where the prostitute sits, are peoples, and multitudes, and nations and tongues. And the ten horns which you saw, and the beast, these will hate the prostitute and will make her desolate and naked, and will eat her flesh and will burn her utterly with fire”.’

Idolatry and its accompaniments will flourish among the nations, and indeed does so to the present time. Large portions of the earth are idolatrous, and idolatrous Temples are even now rising in so-called ‘Christian’ countries. Furthermore large portions of Christendom are idolatrous, for while they theoretically speak of venerating rather than worshipping, in actual fact many of the adherents do worship images and icons. And idolatry can lie as much in veneration of a flag or of famous persons or in riches as in worship of a graven image, when these things take an unhealthy control of a person’s life. Science has not disposed of idolatry, it has refined it. Thus the prostitute sits among the nations.

But in the end idolatry will be cast off and replaced directly with a monotheistic religion which consciously or unconsciously is a tool of Satan. He, acting through his Beastly leader and the unholy alliance, will brook no rivals even of his own devising. With the present situation in the Middle East this could well be militant Islam, which is closely associated with the area where Babylon was situated. Thus she who has so maltreated and persecuted others will herself be persecuted. His ‘ten kings’ will destroy the prostitute before they too meet their end. Thus they will fulfil the words of Jesus, ‘if Satan rises up against himself, and is divided, he cannot stand but has an end’ (Mark 3:26).

The language here is reminiscent of Ezekiel 16:39; Ezekiel 23:25-29 where it was spoken of the harlot who represented faithless Jerusalem. Scripture there confirms that ‘eat her flesh and burn her utterly with fire’ refers to death and destruction resulting from war (Ezekiel 23:25 see also Isaiah 49:26). Here in Revelation the destruction takes place even as preparations are being made for the final battle with the Lamb. It is deliberate irony that Great Babylon, established by man, is now to be destroyed by man, leaving the final confrontation to take place between God and Satan as in Genesis 3.


Verse 17

‘For God did put it in their hearts to do his mind, and to come to one mind, and to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God should be accomplished.’

‘God did put it in their hearts.’ So even in this there is the hand of God. Idolatry and commercialism will be forcibly stamped out by some monotheistic religion inspired by Satan. Satan will no longer have to disguise his worship under the guise of idolatry. He will demand it fully for himself. In the midst of chaos we are reminded all this is within the sovereignty of God.


Verse 18

‘And the woman whom you saw is the great city which controls (literally ‘has a kingdom over’) over the kings of the earth.’

Here is the explanation of the mystery of the woman. As we have seen the woman is an idea, a symbol, she is Babylon the Great, and as such she is also Rome, for Rome was the manifestation of Babylon the Great at that time. But providentially the ‘great city’ is not named except in symbol. It represents gatherings of peoples in great cities away from God with a view to control and enforcement of their will, as has happened right from the beginning starting with Cain, Nimrod and Babel. It is a city setting itself up above God and indulging itself without regard to Him, in a pool of luxury and degradation. And it controls the kings of the earth.

( It is, of course, possible that the activities described in detail in chapter 13 of the beast from the sea will also be fulfilled more fully in the scarlet beast, for they are things which typify the activity of the Devil in many periods, but where they do so it is not as direct fulfilment of chapter 13. That was mainly spoken of the Rome of that time. We must rightly divide the word of truth).

It is important that we correctly understand these final events. The destruction of Babylon the Great is given central place as the final doom. It is she who has shed the blood of God’s people through the ages (Revelation 18:24). Her destruction is their vindication. But God is not to be seen as defeating Babylon the Great. Babylon the Great is a tool and does not warrant His direct attention. His object is Satan, the one who is finally responsible for all man’s rebellion against God, and so Babylon the Great must be removed out of the way in preparation for this final face to face encounter. It is possible that we are to see in the destruction Satan’s final attempt to direct worship fully at himself. But as ever he is deceived. He merely fulfils the final purpose of God. The whole is symbolic. It is the essence that matters.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Revelation 17:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/revelation-17.html. 2013.

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