Revelation 17

The Word Made Fresh

1Then one of the angels that had brought the seven bowls came to me and said, “Come with me. I want to show you the judgment of the great prostitute who is enthroned on many waters; 2the one with whom the kings of the earth engaged in adultery and made the people of the earth drunk with the wine of their fornication.” 3Then, in the spirit, he took me to a wilderness where I saw a woman astride a scarlet beast that was filled with blasphemous names; it had seven heads and ten horns. 4She was dressed in purple and scarlet decorated with gold and jewels and pearls. She held in her hand a golden cup of abominations and the impurities of her adultery. 5A mysterious name was written on her head and a mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s sinfulness.” I could see that she was drunk with the blood of the saints and other witnesses to Jesus.

I was surprised when I saw her, 7but the angel said, “Why are you surprised? I’ll tell you her mystery and the mystery of the seven-headed beast with ten horns that carries her. 8That beast you saw was, but now is not, and is about to climb out of the bottomless pit and go on to be destroyed. Those who inhabit the earth, but whose names have not been recorded in the book of life, will be utterly surprised when they see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come.

9“This calls for wisdom to understand: the seven heads represent the seven mountains on which the woman is seated. There are also seven kings. 10Five of them have fallen and one is living, while the other has not yet arrived. But when he does come he can only stay a little while. 11The beast that was but is not represents an eighth, but it belongs to the seven and is going on to destruction. 12The ten horns are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but they and the beast will receive their authority for an hour. 13All the kings have agreed to give their power and authority to the beast. 14They will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will defeat them, for he is the Lord of lords and the King of kings. Those with him have been called; they are chosen and faithful.”

15Then he told me, “The waters you saw where the prostitute was sitting, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages. 16The ten horns you saw, and the beast, will hate the prostitute and leave her desolate. And they will eat her flesh and burn her with fire. 17All of this will take place because God has convinced them to carry out his plans by agreeing to give the beast their kingdoms until the fulfillment of God’s word. 18The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.”


1-6: One of the angels summons John to a scene in which the “great prostitute” who has consorted with the kings of the earth is revealed. The mystery of the identity of the great prostitute is pretty much solved in verse 9 where the seven hills of the city of Rome are clearly indicated: the great prostitute is Rome. The waters surrounding the woman likely represent all the people of the world who live under Roman rule – most of the known world of the day was ruled by Rome. The prosperity of the rich in virtually every country around the Mediterranean depended on trade with Rome through Roman-controlled trade routes. That wealth is the “wine of their fornication.” The colors mentioned, purple and scarlet, along with gold and jewels and pearls are also in keeping with the picture of the wealth that Rome produced. It is interesting that John has to be taken into a wilderness, evoking again the story of the Exodus from Egypt into the Sinai dessert. For John, Rome is the new Babylon. Just as Babylon had destroyed Jerusalem, Rome was seeking to destroy the Church. He pictures Rome “drunk with the blood of the saints and other witnesses to Jesus.”

7-8: The beast with seven heads and ten horns represents in general the rulers of Rome, but specifically it represents Nero, or at least the spirit of Nero, who was against Christianity (thus, the Antichrist). Some think John is writing just after the more or less peaceful reign of Vespasian who stabilized the empire after the disastrous reign of Nero. Vespasian was followed by Titus, and Titus by Domitian. Domitian was as insane and cruel and anti-Christian as Nero had been, and there were those who believed he was Nero’s reincarnation. That is why the “beast” was, is not, and is about to ascend again from the “bottomless pit,” the abode of the dead. Non-Christians, “those who inhabit the earth, but whose names have not been recorded in the book of life,” will be amazed and dazzled by the reappearance of the “beast.”

9-14: The reference in verse 9 is clearly to the city of Rome, capital of the empire. John deepens the puzzle when he adds that the seven heads also represent seven kings. It is tempting to conclude that the five fallen are Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. The one who is still living would then be Vespasian and the one who would come and rule only a short time would be Titus, who ruled only two years, from 79-81 A.D. The beast that was and is not has to be Nero, who ruled from 54-68 A.D. and had died before John had his visions on Patmos. The return of Nero (in the person of Domitian) would make him the eighth king. For the identity of the ten kings of verse 12 there is much less to go on. Perhaps it is meant as a general reference to those kings who ruled at Rome’s pleasure within the recognized boundaries of the empire. They will join Rome in making war on the Lamb, that is, they will join Rome in the persecution of the Church.

15-18: Unfortunately, these verses would seem to undo the neat little scenario described above, for here we have the ten kings and the beast hating the prostitute and destroying her. Under the rubric adopted above, that would mean Domitian would hate the city of Rome along with the minor kings around the Empire and would in fact destroy Rome. All of this is according to God’s instigation. However, that is not what happened; either John’s vision is skewed, or our interpretation leaves much to be desired.


This chapter is simply beyond full understanding. The basic premise, though, is clear: evil will be conquered by God and God’s people will emerge unscathed.