Revelation 17 Commentary

Background: “In an important sense, the interpretation of this chapter controls the interpretation of the whole book of Revelation. For many exegetes, Babylon represents the city of Rome, and the beast stands for the Roman Empire. The seven hills (v.9) are the seven selected dynasties of Roman emperors from Augustus to Domitian. The ten kings are heads of lesser and restless states, eager to escape their enslavement to the colonizing power. John’s prediction of the fall of Babylon is his announcement of the impending dissolution of the Roman Empire in all its aspects. For such a view there is considerable evidence. Babylon was a term used by both Jews and Christians for Rome (2 Baruch 11:1; 1Pe 5:13). Rome was a great city (v.18), a city set on seven hills (v.9), and by the time of Domitian (A.D. 85), it was notorious for persecuting and killing the saints (v.6).  Yet there is evidence that casts doubt on this exegesis and impels us to look for a more adequate understanding of John’s intention. Babylon cannot be confined to Rome or to any other historical city, past or future; it has multiple equivalents (cf. 11:8). The details John describes do not neatly fit any past historical city, such as Babylon, Rome, Tyre, or Jerusalem. Babylon is found wherever there is satanic deception. It can be seen in any of these classic manifestations from the past or in modern times–e.g., Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Mao’s China, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, British colonialism, or even in aspects of American life. Babylon is defined more by dominant idolatries than geographic boundaries, and is best understood here as the archetypal head of all worldly resistance to God. It is a symbol of satanic deception and power, a divine mystery that can never be wholly reduced to empirical earthly institutions. It represents the total culture of the world apart from God, while the divine system is depicted by the New Jerusalem. Rome itself is only one manifestation.”[1]

v.1 “The great prostitute ‘sits on many waters.’ This goes back to Jeremiah’s oracle against historical Babylon, situated along the waterways of the Euphrates, with many canals around the city, greatly multiplying its wealth by trade (Jer 51:13). This description has a deeper significance, as is explained in v.15 with ‘peoples, multitudes, nations and languages’–figurative for the vast influence of the prostitute on the peoples of the world.” [2]

v.4 “Dressed in queenly attire (Eze 16:13; cf. Rev 18:7), the woman rides the beast, swinging in her hand a golden cup full of her idolatrous abominations and wickedness. Note the contrast–beauty and gross wickedness. Her costly and attractive attire suggests the prostitute’s outward beauty and attraction (Jer 4:30). The golden cup filled with wine alludes to Jeremiah’s description of Babylon’s world-wide influence in idolatry (Jer 51:7). Her cup is filled with ‘abominable things’[…] –things most frequently associated with idolatry, which was abhorrent to Jews and Christians alike (21:27). Jesus used this word to refer to Daniel’s ‘abomination that causes desolation’ standing in the temple (Mk 13:14 cf. Da 9:27; 11:31; 12:11). ‘Filth’ (lit., ‘uncleannesses’; GK G176) is associated in the NT with evil (unclean) spirits (e.g., Mt 10:1; 12:43) and with idolatry (2Co 6:17), perhaps with cult prostitution (Eph 5:5).”

v.5 “The woman has a title written on her forehead, showing that in spite of all her royal [attire]  she is nothing but a prostitute. It was customary for Roman prostitutes to wear their names in the fillet that encircled their brows.”[3]

v.6 “Throughout history, people have been killed for their faith.  Over the last century, millions have been killed by oppressive governments, and many of those victims were believers.  The woman’s drunkenness shows her pleasure in her evil accomplishments and her false feeling of triumph over the church.  But every martyr who has fallen before her sword has only served to strengthen the faith of the church.”[4]

v.8 “Much difficulty in interpreting this section has resulted from incorrectly applying John’s words either to the Roman emperor succession (the seven heads), to the Nero redivivus[5] myth, or to a succession of world empires. None of these views is satisfactory. John’s description is theological, not political. He describes a reality behind earth’s sovereigns, not the successive manifestations in history.  The beast is the monster from the Abyss–i.e., the satanic incarnation of idolatrous power that is mentioned in 11:7 and described in 13:1ff., and whose destruction is seen in 19:19-20. John is told that the beast ‘once was, now is not, and will come up out of the Abyss.’ This seems clearly to be a paraphrase of the earlier idea of the sword-wounded beast who was healed (13:3, 14); the language is similar, the astonishment of the world’s inhabitants is identical, and the threefold emphasis on this spectacular feature is repeated (13:3, 12, 14; 17:8 bis, 11).”[6]

v.9 “This and the following verses form the key of the Roman emperor view of the Apocalypse. Most scholars consider the seven hills to refer to the seven hills of Rome and the seven kings to seven successive emperors of that nation. Yet there is good reason to doubt that this is the interpretation John intended. In the first place, the seven hills belong to the monster, not the woman. It is the woman (i.e., the city [v.18]) who sits upon (i.e., has mastery over) the seven heads (or seven hills) of the monster. If the woman is the city of Rome, it is obvious that she did not exercise mastery over seven successive Roman emperors that are also seven traditional hills of Rome. Also, how could the seven hills of Rome have any real importance to the diabolical nature of the beast or the woman? Finally, nowhere in the NT is Rome described as the enemy of the church.  This interpretation also explains the meaning of John’s call ‘for a mind with wisdom.’ The call for divine ‘wisdom’ requires theological and symbolical discernment, not mere geographical or numerical insight (cf. comment on 13:18).  In the seven other instances in Revelation of the word translated ‘hills’ here, it is always rendered ‘mountain.’ Mountains allegorically refer to world powers in the Prophets (Isa 2:2; Jer 51:25; Da 2:35; Zec 4:7). It seems better, then, to interpret the seven mountains as a reference to the seven heads or kings, which describe not the city but the beast. In addition, the expression ‘they are also seven kings’ requires strict identification of the seven mountains with seven kings.”[7]

v.10 “A convincing interpretation of the seven kings must do justice to three considerations: (1) Since the heads belong to the beast, the interpretation must relate their significance to this beast, not to Babylon. (2) Since the primary imagery of kingship in Revelation is a feature of the power conflict between the Lamb and the beast and between those who share the rule of these two enemies (cf. 17:14; 19:19), the kind of sovereignty expressed in v.10 must be the true antithesis to the kind of sovereignty exercised by Christ and his followers. (3) Since the kings are closely related to the seven mountains and to the prostitute, the nature of the relationship between these must be clarified by the interpretation. If we can see that the seven heads do not represent a quantitative measure but show qualitatively the fullness of evil power residing in the beast, then the falling of five heads conveys the message of a significant victory over the beast. The image of a sovereignty falling is better related to God’s judgment on a power than to a succession of kings (kingdoms) (cf. Jer 50:32; 51:8, 49; Rev 14:8; 18:2). The imagery of the seven heads presented in 12:3 and 13:1 must be restudied. An ancient seal showing a seven-headed chaos monster being slain well illustrates John’s imagery here. In that ancient scene, the seven-headed monster is being slain by a progressive killing of its seven heads. Four of the heads are dead, killed apparently by the spear of a divine figure who is attacking the monster. His defeat seems imminent. Yet the chaos monster is still active because three heads still live. Similarly, John’s message is that five of the monster’s seven heads are already defeated by the power of the Lamb’s death and by the identification in that death of the martyrs of Jesus (12:11). One head is now active, thus showing the reality of the beast’s contemporary agents who afflict the saints; and one head remains, indicating that the battle will soon be over but not with the defeat of the contemporary evil agents. This last manifestation of the beast’s blasphemous power will be short—‘he must remain for a little while.’ This statement seems to go with the function of the ten horns (kings) who for ‘one hour’ (v. 12) will rule with the beast. The seventh king (head) represents the final short display of satanic evil before the divine blow falls on the beast (cf. 12:12c; 20:3 c).”[8]

v.11 “This verse presents all interpreters with a real difficulty. One interpretation refers the language to the Nero redivivus myth (see comments on 13:1-18)–namely, that a revived Nero will be the reincarnation of the evil genius of the whole Roman Empire. Furthermore, among futurist interpreters there is no agreement as to whether the seventh or the eighth king is the Antichrist. […] we note the strange (to us) manner in which the sequence of seven kings gives way to the eighth, which is really the whole beast. This pattern of seven-to-eight-equals-one was familiar to the early church. The eighth day was the day of the resurrection of Christ, Sunday. It was also the beginning of a new week. The seventh day, the Jewish Sabbath, is held over, to be replaced by the first of a new series, namely Sunday. In fact, the whole theme of the Apocalypse is integrally related to this idea. Sunday is the day of the Resurrection. Revelation deals with one week, extending from Christ’s resurrection to the general resurrection, when death is destroyed.  Each of the series of sevens in the book, except for the seven churches, follows a pattern of the seventh in the series becoming the first of a new series; thus seven to eight equals one. The eighth was the day of the Messiah, the day of the new age and the sign of the victory over the forces of evil. But does this provide a key to interpret the symbolism of the chaos monster? Of the three stages of the beast–was, is not, will come–only the last is related to his coming ‘up out of the Abyss’ (v.8). These words appear to be the equivalent of the beast’s healed wound (plague) mentioned in 13:3, 14. While, on the one hand, Christ has [overcome]  the monster by his death (Ge 3:15; Rev 12:7-9) and for believers he ‘is not’ (has no power), yet, on the other hand, the beast still has life (‘one is’ [v.10]) and will attempt one final battle against the Lamb and his followers (‘the other has not yet come . . . he must remain for a little while’). In order to recruit as many as possible for his side of the war, the beast will imitate the resurrection of Christ (he ‘is an eighth king’ [v.11]) and will give the appearance that he is alive and in control of the world (cf. Lk 4:5-7). But John quickly adds, for the pastoral comfort of God’s people, that the beast belongs to the seven, i.e., qualitatively not numerically (as if he were a former king revived); he is in reality not a new beginning of life (such as the resurrected Christ) but a part of the seven-headed monster that has been slain by Christ and, therefore, he goes ‘to his destruction.’”[9]

v.12 “The number ten should–like most of John’s numbers–be understood symbolically. Ten symbolizes a repeated number of times or an indefinite number. It is perhaps another number like seven, indicating fullness (Ne 4:12; Da 1:12; Rev 2:10). Thus the number should not be understood as referring specifically to ten kings (kingdoms) but as indicating the multiplicity of sovereignties in confederacy that enhance the power of the beast.  Since these kings enter into a power conflict with the Lamb and his followers (v.14), the kind of sovereignty they exercise must be the true antithesis of the kind of sovereignty the Lamb and his followers exercise. These rulers as well as the beast with which they are allied can be no other than the principalities and powers, the rulers of the darkness of this world, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms that Paul describes as the true enemies of Jesus’ followers (Eph 6:12).”[10]

v.14 “The ten kings are said to receive authority for ‘one hour’ along with the beast. This corresponds to the ‘little while’ of the seventh king. From the viewpoint of the saints, who will be greatly persecuted, this promise of brevity brings comfort. These kings have ‘one purpose’ : they agree to oppose the Lamb. But the Lamb will overcome them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings (cf. Dt 10:17; Da 2:47; Rev 19:16). He conquers by his death, and those who are with him also aid in the defeat of the beast by their loyalty to the Lamb even to death (cf. 5:5, 9; 12:11).”[11]

vv.16-17 “What is being taught by the attack on the prostitute is that in the final judgment the kingdom of Satan will be divided against itself. The references to the prostitute being hated by her former lovers, stripped naked, and burned with fire are reminiscent of the OT prophets’ descriptions of the divine judgment falling on the harlot cities of Jerusalem and Tyre (e.g., Eze 16:39-40; 23:25-27; 28:18). The description of the punishment of convicted prostitutes who are priests’ daughters (cf. Lev 21:9) is combined with the picture of judgment against rebellious cities (18:8).  In the declaration ‘God has put it into their hearts to accomplish his purpose,’ there is another indication of God’s use of the forces of evil as instruments of his own purposes of judgment (Jer 25:9-14; cf. Lk 20:18). Nothing will distract them from their united effort to destroy the prostitute until God’s purposes given through the prophets are fulfilled (cf. 10:7; 11:18).”[12]

v.18 “The ‘woman’ and ‘the great city’ are one. Yet this city is not just a historical one; it is the great city, the mother city, the archetype of every evil system opposed to God in history (see comments on 17:1-18). Her kingdom holds sway over the powers of the earth. The cities in Revelation are communities, of which there are only two: the city of God, the New Jerusalem (3:12; 21:2, 10; 22:2ff.), and the city of Satan, Babylon the Great (11:8; 14:8; 16:19; 18:4, 20; et al.). The meaning cannot be confined to any earthly cities. Instead, John describes the real trans-historical system of satanic evil that infuses them all.”[13]


[1] Kenneth L. Barker and John R. Kohlenberger III, Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary CD (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994) notes for Revelation 17:1-18.

[2] Kenneth L. Barker and John R. Kohlenberger III, Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary CD (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994) notes for Revelation 17:1.

[3] Kenneth L. Barker and John R. Kohlenberger III, Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary CD (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994) notes for Revelation 17:5.

[4] The NIV Study Bible, study notes  (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1985)  1927.

[5] redivivus: brought back to life (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary v.2.5 software)

[6] Kenneth L. Barker and John R. Kohlenberger III, Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary CD (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994) notes for Revelation 17:8.

[7] Kenneth L. Barker and John R. Kohlenberger III, Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary CD (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994) notes for Revelation 17:9.

[8] Kenneth L. Barker and John R. Kohlenberger III, Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary CD (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994) notes for Revelation 17:10.

[9] Kenneth L. Barker and John R. Kohlenberger III, Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary CD (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994) notes for Revelation 17:11.

[10] Kenneth L. Barker and John R. Kohlenberger III, Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary CD (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994) notes for Revelation 17:12.

[11] Kenneth L. Barker and John R. Kohlenberger III, Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary CD (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994) notes for Revelation 17:14.

[12] Kenneth L. Barker and John R. Kohlenberger III, Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary CD (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994) notes for Revelation 17:16-17.

[13] Kenneth L. Barker and John R. Kohlenberger III, Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary CD (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994) notes for Revelation 17:18.

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