Commentary on Revelation 17

Notes (NET Translation)

1 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and spoke to me. “Come,” he said, “I will show you the condemnation and punishment of the great prostitute who sits on many waters, 2 with whom the kings of the earth committed sexual immorality and the earth’s inhabitants got drunk with the wine of her immorality.”

In 21:9 one of the seven bowl angels shows John the bride, the wife of the Lamb. The contrast between the great prostitute and the bride is made evident in these passages. The connection to the bowl judgments implies 17:1-19:4 expands on the sixth and seventh bowls. The image of the prostitute and sexual immorality denote idolatry and apostasy committed by the earth’s inhabitants (cf. Isa. 1:21; 23:15-17; Jer. 2:20-31; 13:27; Ezek. 6:9; 16:15; 23:1-4; Hos. 2:5; 3:3; 4:10, 12, 18; 5:3-4; 6:10; 9:1; Nah. 3:4). Verse 8 makes it clear that the inhabitants of the earth are all those whose names have not been written in the book of life. According to v. 15 the waters are peoples, multitudes, nations, and languages. The phrase “many waters” may be drawn from similar words about Babylon in Jer. 51:13. The waters could symbolize the influence of Rome as it flows throughout the world. Rome’s power came, in part, because it controlled the Mediterranean Sea.

3 So he carried me away in the Spirit to a wilderness, and there I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns.

Being “in the Spirit” is the state of ecstasy in which John saw his entire vision (1:10; 4:2; 21:10). It is not clear whether the wilderness is the location of the woman or the vantage point from which John views the woman. The great prostitute is now seen sitting on a scarlet beast. This is the beast that rose from the sea in ch. 13. The blasphemous names are probably the names used to deify Roman emperors. The seven heads and ten horns are interpreted later in the vision (17:9-14).

Though closely associated with the beast, the woman is not to be equated with the beast. That she rides the beast connotes her alliance with the state. The woman must represent that part of the ungodly world that works together with the state, such as the social, cultural, economic, and religious aspects of the world. In this context the work that they agree to do together is that of persecuting Christians, implied by the “red” color of both (so 17:3b–4) and explicitly stated in ch. 13 and in 17:6; 18:24; and 19:2. They are also mutually involved in deception of ungodly multitudes throughout the earth (e.g., 14:8; 17:2, 8). (Beale 853)

4 Now the woman was dressed in purple and scarlet clothing, and adorned with gold, precious stones, and pearls. She held in her hand a golden cup filled with detestable things and unclean things from her sexual immorality.

The woman’s attire is that of wealth, luxury, splendor, and royalty. She has an attractive appearance. The “detestable things” and “unclean things from her sexual immorality” symbolize idolatry or moral corruption.

The metaphor symbolizes Babylon’s promise of a prosperous earthly welfare for its willing subjects, which intoxicates them. The intoxicating influence blinds them to Babylon’s evil nature and her ultimate insecurity and deceives them about God as her future judge and as the only true foundation for true prosperity (see on 14:8; 17:2). (Beale 855)

5 On her forehead was written a name, a mystery: “Babylon the Great, the Mother of prostitutes and of the detestable things of the earth.”

The name on the forehead states her true identity (cf. 7:3; 13:16; 14:1, 9; 20:4; 22:4). There is some debate whether “mystery” is part of her name or not. The majority position seems to be that it is not part of her name. Verse 7 seems to confirm the mystery is the vision itself. As mentioned earlier, Babylon the Great is the world system in opposition to God. To John and the first readers this was Rome.

However, to say that Babylon equals Rome is to fail to do justice to the richness of John’s vision. More satisfying is the third interpretation, which acknowledges the echoes of imperial Rome, but does not regard such echoes as exhausting the meaning of this woman-city. Babylon is not Rome; rather Rome represents the latest incarnation of the oppressive and idolatrous city, ‘the great city’, which originally bore the features of Mesopotamian Babylon. The image of ‘Babylon’ has a long history in the biblical tradition: the author of Daniel saw her resurgence in the kingdoms of the Greeks, not least in the idolatrous activity of the Seleucid Antiochus IV; John the visionary is given insight from his island exile to recognise her once again, clothed this time in the garb of Roma. But take away the Roman attire, and Babylon remains. Ultimately, Revelation is confronting its hearers with two visionary cities which promise very different destinies to humanity: ‘the great city’ enthroned over the waters of chaos, and ‘the holy city’ or City of God, in which flows the river of the water of life (22:1). (Boxall 244)

She is the mother of prostitutes because she influences others to commit idolatry and immorality. She is contrasted with the mother from ch. 12.

6 I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of those who testified to Jesus. I was greatly astounded when I saw her.

The “saints” and “those who testified to Jesus” are one and the same group. They testified to Jesus through their death (12:11). John is probably astounded in the sense that he is filled with wonder and perplexity.

7 But the angel said to me, “Why are you astounded? I will interpret for you the mystery of the woman and of the beast with the seven heads and ten horns that carries her.

The angel’s response implies that John was, at the very least, perplexed as to the meaning of the vision.

8 The beast you saw was, and is not, but is about to come up from the abyss and then go to destruction. The inhabitants of the earth – all those whose names have not been written in the book of life since the foundation of the world – will be astounded when they see that the beast was, and is not, but is to come.

This beast is the same as the beast from 11:7 and 13:1. He “is not” because he has been defeated by Christ’s death and resurrection (13:3). However, he shall make one last appearance and wage war on the righteous (20:1-10). This war will end in his destruction. From 13:3ff. we know the inhabitants of the earth will be so astounded that they worship the beast. They will be astounded because he seems to have recovered from defeat.

The defeat from which the beast appears to recover is Christ’s defeat of Satan and his earthly forces at the cross and resurrection (see on 13:3). But the Satanic state (“the beast”) and culture in the first century appeared to be unaffected by Christ’s victory, since their prosperity continued and their persecution of God’s people continued unabated. This situation will continue until the final parousia, at which time the beast’s success over God’s people will seem even greater than before; directly preceding Christ’s parousia it will seem as if the beast is finally and decisively triumphant over the church. But this apparent success is short lived, as 17:10 reveals: the success will last only “a little time.” Christ will return at this point and show decisively that the devil and his forces were defeated at the cross. He will demonstrate the reality of his spiritual victory at the cross by achieving physical victory over Satan’s forces at the end of time. (Beale 866)

9 (This requires a mind that has wisdom.) The seven heads are seven mountains the woman sits on. They are also seven kings: 10 five have fallen; one is, and the other has not yet come, but whenever he does come, he must remain for only a brief time.

The fact that understanding the vision requires wisdom should warn us about being too dogmatic in our interpretation of ch. 17. More important than a perfect interpretation of ch. 17 is the wisdom to avoid deception by the beast. The seven heads of the beast symbolize two different things. First, the seven heads are the seven mountains the woman sits on. Rome was the city on seven hills so it at least alludes to Rome (Virgil, Aen. 6.782-3; Martial, Epigrams 6.64; Cicero, Att. 6.5; Pliny, Nat. Hist. 3.66-7; Sib. Or. 2.18; 11.113–16; 13.45; 14.108). But, as noted on 8:8, a mountain can also symbolize a kingdom. This ties into the fact that the seven heads are also seven kings. Some commentators attempt to link these kings with Roman emperors known to John and his audience but no widespread agreement has been found on this approach (e.g., Do you start counting from Julius Caesar or Augustus? Are all emperors counted? Do you count the three rival emperors between Nero and Vespasian who reigned for only 18 months total?). I follow other commentators who see the number seven as not being literal. It symbolizes the fullness of the oppressive power of the beast. Since five kings have fallen, one is, and one is yet to come we can see that the beast acts through different kings/kingdoms throughout history. John’s focus is on the king who has not yet come. Whoever this is will remain for only a brief time.

11 The beast that was, and is not, is himself an eighth king and yet is one of the seven, and is going to destruction.

This verse adds to the difficulty in interpreting v. 10. G. K. Beale notes the identification of the beast with the kings. “The point is that the manifestation of the dragon and beast through one of their authoritative heads or earthly kings at any particular historical epoch is tantamount to the full presence of the dragon or beast” (Beale 875). G. D. Fee thinks this might be an allusion to the Nero redivivus legend. Some later figure will embody the monstrous character of Nero and persecute the church. R. H. Mounce notes that the Greek says he is “of the seven” and not “one of the seven”. He takes this to mean that he plays the same sort of role as the seven kings. But Mounce goes so far as to say this Antichrist will take the form of a man but be from another sphere of reality. He does not state explicitly what this means but it almost sounds like he thinks the Antichrist will be Satan incarnate. I would not go that far.

12 The ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but will receive ruling authority as kings with the beast for one hour.

The number ten represents fullness or completeness. The ten kings represent the nations of the earth who are subservient to the beast. The “one hour” corresponds to the time it takes for Babylon to be destroyed (18:10, 17, 19).

13 These kings have a single intent, and they will give their power and authority to the beast.

This means the ten kings will give allegiance to the beast.

14 They will make war with the Lamb, but the Lamb will conquer them, because he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those accompanying the Lamb are the called, chosen, and faithful.”

The ten kings will take part in the final battle against the Lamb (cf. 16:12, 14, 16; 19:11-21; 20:7-10). In answer to the question from 13:4 (who is able to make war against the beast?), the Lamb conquers the ten kings because only he, not Caesar or anyone else, is Lord of lords and King of kings. The title may allude to Christ’s death and resurrection where he was crowned as King (Rev. 12:5, 10) and called Lord (Acts 2:36; Phil. 2:9). The saints accompany the Lamb into battle but don’t seem to participate (19:14). The terms “called” and “chosen” indicate the saints are owned by God. The term “faithful” describes the response of the saints to God.

15 Then the angel said to me, “The waters you saw (where the prostitute is seated) are peoples, multitudes, nations, and languages.

The “waters” were mentioned in v. 1. Again we see the vastness of the beast’s domain.

16 The ten horns that you saw, and the beast – these will hate the prostitute and make her desolate and naked. They will consume her flesh and burn her up with fire.

Eventually the kings and the beast will turn on the prostitute and destroy her (cf. Ezek. 23:11-35). Presumably this occurs before they attack the Lamb and are conquered. The image portrays the self-destroying power of evil.

Why do the kings and multitudes who turn against Babylon in ch. 17 then mourn over her destruction in 18:9ff.? Perhaps the “kings” of 18:9–10 are other rulers not included in the ten kings of ch. 17, and perhaps the “merchants” of 18:11ff. are not included in the multitudes of 17:15. Both groups may have remained loyal to Babylon and then mourned over her demise. On the other hand, those mourning in ch. 18 may be the same ones who turned against the whore in ch. 17. They mourn because they now realize that through their destruction of Babylon they have destroyed their own economic base. (Beale 883–884)

17 For God has put into their minds to carry out his purpose by making a decision to give their royal power to the beast until the words of God are fulfilled.

The angel explains that it was God who brought about the slaughter of the prostitute by putting it into the hearts of the ten kings to do his will. They were of one mind in relinquishing their sovereignty to the beast and joining in his assault upon the prostitute (v. 17) and in his final campaign against the Lamb (vv. 13-14). This verse denies the existence of any ultimate dualism in the world. In the final analysis the powers of evil serve the purposes of God. The coalition between the beast and his allies will continue until the words of God — the prophecies leading up to the overthrow of Antichrist — are fulfilled. (Mounce loc. 5918-5923)

18 As for the woman you saw, she is the great city that has sovereignty over the kings of the earth.”

The woman is an eschatological city, like Babylon or Rome before it, which will provide the base for the Antichrist’s kingdom.

There is an inclusio here: the first thing John saw in the vision is the last thing interpreted by the angel. It is probably placed last to provide a natural transition to the judgment of the “great city” in chapter 18, expanding the destruction of 17:16 and answering the promise of 17:1, “I will show you the judgment of the great prostitute.” (Osborne 628)


Beale, G. K. The Book of Revelation. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998.

Boxall, Ian. Revelation of Saint John, The. Black’s New Testament Commentary. Baker Academic, 2009.

Fee, Gordon D. Revelation. Kindle ed. New Covenant Commentary Series. Cascade Books, 2010.

Mounce, Robert H. The Book of Revelation. Revised. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.

Osborne, G. R. Revelation. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002.


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