corner graphic   Hi,    
Facebook image
Finding the new version too difficult to understand? Go to

Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Revelation 17



Other Authors
Verse 1


(Revelation 17-19)


This mighty chapter, more than any other in the word of God, kindled the courage and fired the zeal of the great martyrs and reformers who led the rebellion against the tyranny of the Medieval church, re-opened the New Testament for all the peoples of the earth from whom it had been stolen for centuries, and dealt the great whore of this chapter a wound from which she has never fully recovered. This writer has no desire whatever to accommodate with that vast school of modern exegetes who, like Southey's owl:

Sailing with obscene wings athwart the noon; He drops his blue-fringed lids and holds them close, And hooting at the sun in heaven, Asks, Where is it? Where is it?

Christian commentators who withhold from view the obvious, historically accepted interpretation of this chapter must give an account to God for their reticence. If one is blind (spiritually), he may be pardoned for not revealing what he cannot discern; but, for those who reveal their true knowledge of what this chapter really means by the crooked arguments designed to contradict it, are nothing but an enigma. Do they not know that they themselves are under the eternal curse of this tyranny, proscribed and consigned to hell, and under the perpetual interdiction of that religious hierarchy which arrogates to itself alone the right to forgive the sins of people? Why, then, this amazing tenderness which so generally tempers their evasive comments?

The mainline interpretation of this chapter was thus stated by Albertus Pieters:

The Great Harlot symbolizes the apostate Christian Church, manifested historically in many forms, conspicuously and chiefly in the Roman Catholic Church, but also in other forms of nominal Christianity, especially when in combination with political power. We shall call this the Apostate Church interpretation.[1]

Although Pieters "reluctantly" voted against this view, for reasons which he cited, and which in no sense justify his decision, he nevertheless admitted that, "This view is held by many of the very best expositors, among whom we may mention William Milligan, Auberlen and Alford."[2] Criswell, Plummer, Carpenter and many others could be added. Before considering some objections to it, we shall list some of the reasons for accepting this main-line interpretation of it:

1. The figure of adultery, harlotry, or fornication is the standard Old Testament description of apostasy. A very few instances in which the figure was applied to heathen cities, not apostate, cannot nullify the general usage. It is in the sense of the apostasy of God's people that the figure is used "in the great majority of the Scriptures where it is used."[3] There would therefore need to be some compelling reason for setting aside the normal and general meaning of the figure here; and no such reason exists. Pieters also admitted that, "It is correct that the figure of the harlot is a standard symbol of the Old Testament, and it usually means apostasy from Jehovah on the part of his people."[4] "This argument has great force."[5] It practically proves that the Great Harlot is some form of Apostate Christianity.

2. This Great Harlot was viewed by John "in the wilderness," invariably associated with the church's sojourn on earth, answering to the type of the first Israel's forty years of wilderness wanderings, a symbolism that forces the conclusion that the Great Harlot is the true church gone astray, an apostate church. If such an apostasy had never occurred, this analogy might be ignored; "But this is exactly what happened to the Catholic Church, and not only to her but to many Protestant churches."[6] This is a very strong argument.

3. The astonishment of the apostle (Revelation 17:6) would be impossible to understand if it merely meant that a pagan city was in league with the devil. On the other hand, it would indeed be grounds for astonishment if Apostate Christianity itself was so revealed.

4. The glorified Bride of Christ, the church, is called "a city" in Revelation 21:2,9,10; and it should therefore be expected that an Apostate Church should also be referred to as a city, in this case, Babylon; and this cannot nullify the positive spiritual overtones in this prophetic description of the Great Harlot.

5. The Great Harlot, represented here as committing fornication with the kings of the earth, is not an appropriate metaphor of Rome's relation to the vassal kings of her great dominion when John wrote; but it is a valid metaphor of the Papal hierarchy's traffic with human governments going on throughout history up to and including the present time. The literal Rome indeed raped many kingdoms; but this is not the metaphor of Revelation 17.

6. The compound vision of the Great Harlot riding the scarlet colored beast (Revelation 17:3) requires that the harlot be identified with the second beast, the land-beast, of Revelation 13:11. Wilcock was correct in his affirmation that this chapter "has established her (the great whore's) identity with the second beast, false religion; while the scarlet beast in Revelation 13:1 corresponds to the scarlet beast in Revelation 17:3."[7] Plummer also agreed that, "The second beast there (Revelation 13:11) is identical with the Harlot and represents the apostate portion of the church."[8] A study of our notes on Revelation 13 will reveal just how conclusive this argument is. "There can be no doubt that the Harlot describes the degenerate portion of the Church."[9]

7. "The Mother of Harlots ..." (Revelation 17:5). This makes no sense at all unless understood as a reference to the apostate sects of Protestantism, historically the children of the Harlot, and many of them walking in her devious ways. In no sense whatever can this be understood of the literal city of Rome, nor of the emperor cult, nor of anything else ever suggested.

8. This Harlot reigns over the kings of the earth (Revelation 17:18), her dominion including authority over "every tribe, tongue, people, and nation" (Revelation 13:7); and she exercised "All the authority of the first beast" (Revelation 13:12). Furthermore, this authority of the second beast (the Harlot) continues throughout the dispensation until the second Advent of Christ. There is not anything else in the history of the world that fulfills this except the worldwide Papal hierarchy and its spiritual children, the daughters of the Harlot. It is pure fantasy to interpret this as the promoters of "the emperor cult."

There can be no marvel, then, that Luther, Tyndale, Huss, Knox, Wesley, Alexander Campbell, and other great ones of the Reformation accepted the interpretation presented here. For additional discussion of this see our "Excursus on the Man of Sin," my Commentary on 2Thessalonians, pp. 106-117.


1. Revelation would have had no relevance for John's day if this interpretation is allowed. This is wrong. The great apostasy was specifically prophesied by Paul who stated that it was '"working already" (2 Thessalonians 2:7). The church already had the disease that was to develop in time into the apostasy. Furthermore, the idolatry, blasphemous arrogance, perversions of the true worship, and other characteristics of the later apostasy were the "stock in trade" of the pagan religions prevalent everywhere when Revelation was written; but the thing that astounded John himself was the visions of these same things in the church at a time which we recognize as being far later. See article below on "'Resurgence of Paganism in the Apostasy."

2. John's vision deals with the emperor cult. There is an element of truth in this; for the pure paganism of that condition was just as sinful in its original setting as it was later in the apostasy. The error is in making that original paganism the only thing in this prophecy. Such a view is just as myopic and unreasonable as limiting it to the Papacy alone; neither extreme is correct. See statement of the main-line interpretation at the head of this discussion.

3. As Pieters said, "It is difficult to see how original readers of Revelation could interpret this any other way than as a reference to the Imperial City."[10] We agree that that is exactly what they would have done, but this is not a valid objection, because the prophecy is vast enough to include a relevance for all generations. The acceptance of the New Testament as a guide, not for one age only, but for all ages, it seems to us is the only tenable view of it as the word of God, an inspired book. This is precisely the point where so many go astray.

4. Viewing the Harlot as the city of Rome harmonizes better with Revelation 18 and the facts of history. This must be denominated as a monstrous misstatement of fact. See our interpretation of Revelation 18. Also, the city of Rome (in its pagan character) has not continued throughout history to rule over all nations, a dominant prediction in the prophecy, except in the very sense of our interpretation. See more on this in the notes below.

5. "It is not without precedent to apply the figure of the Harlot to a heathen city, without any religious reference."[11] This of course is true; but where is the compelling reason for so doing? when the vast majority of instances employing this figure in the Old Testament refer absolutely to the apostasy of God's people from the true worship of Jehovah. Besides that, in the New Testament, there is no example whatever of its being used of a heathen city. This objection has no weight at all.

Over and beyond all arguments and objections is the startling, dramatic contrast between the Bride of Christ and the Harlot which dominates this and the succeeding chapter, and which, on its face, positively has to mean the True Church and the False Church.


The relevance of Revelation to John's day is seen in the condemnation of paganism which was rampant in apostolic times. The same relevance, of course, pertains to that resurgence of paganism which undeniably marked the character of the Apostate Church. If Revelation was relevant to either period, it was relevant to both. Here is a list of a few elements of paganism found in the apostate Christianity:

1. The consecration of sacred images for use in Christian worship was borrowed, in its totality, from paganism. Indeed, the "image" of St. Peter in Rome, the bronze foot of which has been kissed away by adoring multitudes, is reliably reputed to be the pagan statue of the god Pluto, transferred from the Pantheon!

2. Mariolatry has elevated a vulgar female statue above the high altar, where it stands higher than the image of Christ, the whole system being nothing but an adaptation from the old Babylonian myth of the queen of heaven, the Assyrian Ishtar and her Tammuz. "She was worshipped by the offering of a wafer (a little cake), along with forty days of Lent, of weeping over the destruction of Tammuz ... and after forty days, the people celebrated Ishtar, exchanging Ishtar Eggs!"[12] Of course, the holy communion itself was adjusted so that the bread was formed after the pattern of those pagan wafers.

3. The use of holy water in the church came over in its entirety from paganism. "The holy water was used by the heathens to sprinkle themselves at the entrance to their temples; and this is admitted by Montfancion and the Jesuit La Cerda."[13]

4. The burial of dead bodies in church houses came from Athens, as related by Plutarch in his Life of Theseus; and, as they did of old with their pagan heroes, the church began to deposit relics of so-called saints, supplemented by processions and sacrifices."[14]

5. Celibacy is another relic of paganism. "It was most esteemed among the heathen philosophers."[15]

6. Praying for the dead began in 380 A.D., and was at first vigorously opposed and condemned. It is another relic of paganism and the forerunner of the doctrine of purgatory.[16]

7. The Papal keys are exactly the same as those of the pagan gods Janus and Cybele, worshipped by pagan Rome long before Christianity.

8. The lighting of blessed candles was practiced in paganism in Siberia where they were placed before the statues of pagan gods.[17]

9. The tonsure, the shaving of the heads of priests, was practiced by the pagan priests of Osisis, the Egyptian Bacchus, as was also true in India and China.[18]

10. The forgiving of sins, "absolutions," one of the most monstrous of un-Christian doctrines, appears to have been an outright invention.

These are only a few of a hundred similar things that might be cited, such as: the assumption of blasphemous titles, the consecration of sacred priestly vestments, the baptizing of bells, "The Feast of All Souls," first celebrated by pagans in the lifetime of Romulus, monasticism, the elevation of the host, and many other devices and practices of paganism at the time Revelation was written. It is clear enough for anyone looking into the matter that Apostate Christianity was indeed the old paganism with a Christian veneer.

Therefore, the interpretation received here by no means violates the relevance of the sacred prophecy for the first generation that received it. Paganism, whether in its original setting, or as revived and continued by the Apostate Church itself, is the essence of what the apostolic writers condemned. We shall now examine the text of this marvelous chapter.

[1] Albertus Pieters, Studies in the Revelation of St. John (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1954), p. 250.

[2] Ibid.

[3] A. Plummer, The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 22, Revelation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950), p. 413.

[4] Albertus Pieters, op. cit., p. 251.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., p. 252.

[7] Michael Wilcock, I Saw Heaven Opened (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1975), p. 165.

[8] A. Plummer, op. cit., p. 413.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Albertus Pieters, op. cit., p. 256.

[11] Ibid.

[12] W. A. Criswell, Expository Sermons on Revelation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1962), III, p. 185.

[13] John F. Rowe, History of Reformatory Movements (Cincinnati, Ohio: John F. Rowe, 1894), p. 259.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

And there came one of the seven angels that had the seven bowls, and spake with me, saying, Come hither, I will show thee the judgment of the great harlot that sitteth upon many waters; (Revelation 17:1)

There came one of the seven angels ... This angelic interpretation of the vision is here identified with the series of the seven bowls just concluded, leading to the conclusion that what is about to be revealed in Rev.17 and Revelation 18, is actually a "playback" of the great judgment scene just seen, but with an elaboration and specific attention to what was included in the fall of "Babylon the great" (Revelation 16:19).

I will show thee the judgment of the great harlot that sitteth upon many waters ... But was she not seated upon a beast? Yes, but both she and the beast rise from the teeming populations of the earth.

Harlot ... "In Isaiah 1:21; Jeremiah 2:20,31, etc., these terms are used to describe God's apostate people, those once joined to him in covenant relationship, but who had broken their marriage vow of faithfulness."[19] "In the Old Testament, this imagery is commonly used to denote religious apostasy."[20] "Is this harlot, then, Papal Rome? The answer is: Insofar as Papal Rome has wielded tyrannical power, turned persecutor, stood between the spirits of people and Christ, depraved the consciences of people, withheld the truth, sought aggrandizement and demonstrated the power of a political engine rather than that of a witness of Christ, she has inherited the features of Babylon."[21]

Note that there are three Babylons: (1) the original city of that name situated upon the Euphrates river, and the historical persecutor of the first Israel; (2) the pagan city of Rome, symbolized by the sea-beast (Revelation 13:1), and also its counterpart ridden by the harlot; and (3) the "Mystery Babylon" symbolized both by the land-beast and by the harlot herself. In this and the following chapters it is the third meaning which predominates.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Robert H. Mounce, Commentary on the New Testament, Revelation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977), p. 307.

[21] W. Boyd Carpenter, Ellicott's Bible Commentary, Vol. VIII (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959), p. 611.

Verse 2

with whom the kings of the earth committed fornication, and they that dwell in the earth were made drunken with the wine of her fornication.

With whom the kings of the earth committed fornication ... This speaks of an illegitimate and sinful melding of Church and State as one of the principal sins of the harlot. This woman, and the radiant woman "arrayed with the sun" (Revelation 12:1) are starkly "contrasted in every particular that is mentioned about them."[22]

One is pure, the other corrupt.

One belongs to the Lamb, the other to the devil.

One is clothed with the sun, the other in scarlet and gold.

One is a chaste virgin, the other a brazen harlot.

One is persecuted, the other is a persecutor.

One sojourns in the wilderness, the other reigns there.

One enters into the marriage supper of the Lamb; the other is hated and consumed.

One enters heaven, the other departs into darkness.SIZE>


[22] Frank L. Cox, Revelation in 26 Lessons (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1956), p. 101.

Verse 3

And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness: and I saw a woman sitting upon a scarlet-colored beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns.

And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness ... "A wilderness" is here significant. Plummer, Alford, and others have pointed out that our version (ASV) is incorrect in changing this from "the wilderness" as in KJV.[23] It is not merely "a wilderness," but "the wilderness" of the church's probation that is meant. This strongly supports the view of the harlot as the apostate church. This wilderness scene is that of a violated probation.

A woman upon a scarlet-colored beast ... "We should identify this beast with that in Revelation 13:1. The woman's position indicates a close connection and identifies her as one of the forces of evil supported by the beast."[24] "It would be foolish to underestimate her. Even John finds himself marveling (Revelation 17:7)."[25]

[23] A. Plummer, op. cit., p. 414.

[24] Leon Morris, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 20, Revelation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1969), p. 205.

[25] Michael A. Wilcock, op. cit., p. 160.

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,

And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet ... The color strongly stresses her identity with the beast and her accommodation to his principles.

And decked with gold and precious stone and pearls ... These indicate vulgar wealth lavished upon herself. Extreme riches is an outstanding mark of the apostate church this very day, which is richer by far than any human government, even including that of the U.S.A. One little Boy's Ranch in Nebraska has recently been exposed in the public press as having a cash endowment in stocks, bonds and securities of over $300,000,000, and that at a time when their full-fledged fund-raising activities are going full blast. All of this vast horde of wealth was solicited and raised from the public for the ostensible purpose of taking care of a few run-away boys at "Boy's Town."

And a golden cup full of abominations, even the unclean things of her fornication ... This "'golden cup" may be seen at every communion service in the apostate church, not in the hands of the Bride to whom it belongs, but in the hands of the hierarchical priesthood who withhold it from the Bride and drink it all themselves! And what is that, if it is not the unclean things of her fornication? That which belongs to the Bride has been taken away from her. Is not this spiritual fornication?

Verse 5


And upon her head a name written ... In the culture of those times, harlots customarily "wore on their brows labels inscribed with their names; this whore is thus in character."[26]; MYSTERY; BABYLON THE GREAT ... See under Revelation 17:1 for identification of the three Babylons. The comma after MYSTERY should be omitted, as her name is not BABYLON, but MYSTERY BABYLON. Just as the pagan empire was Babylon, answering to the Old Testament type, this woman is also Babylon in a different and extended sense. She is MYSTERY BABYLON, the essential quality of the mystery is that "the worldly portion of the church, though nominally Christian, is in reality identical with the world and is openly antagonistic to God."[27] "Mystery is part of the name; it is not literal; something lies behind which will be made manifest in due time."[28]

THE MOTHER OF THE HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH ... This harlot sets a religious style that will be copied throughout the ages. Many have interpreted this as a reference to apostate Protestant churches; and, while true enough, this by no means exhausts the interpretation.

[26] Leon Morris, op. cit., p. 206.

[27] A. Plummer, op. cit., p. 415.

[28] W. Boyd Carpenter, op. cit., p. 611.

Verse 6

And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. And when I saw her, I wondered with a great wonder.

And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints ... with the blood of the martyrs ...

Who invented the Inquisition? Who invented the torture chamber and the rack? Who burned at the stake the uncounted thousands and millions of God's servants? Who? This scarlet whore, dressed in purple, decked in gold, riding in control of the governments of the world. It has been estimated that she has slain fifty millions of the servants of Jesus Christ.[29]

I wondered with a great wonder ... In some versions, this is wondered "with a great admiration." "This does not mean admiration in our modern sense."[30] Despite Carpenter's opinion, however, we are inclined to think that it does mean "admiration" in our modern sense; it was a startled, astonished kind of admiration, mingled with wonder. Now there is no way that John could have wondered if the woman had symbolized pagan Rome. Prophetic descriptions from the Old Testament were plentiful and well known to John which portrayed ancient Babylon, a pagan city, in exactly this same graphic terminology, even complete with the "golden cup" (Jeremiah 51:7). This verse therefore proves that literal Babylon, or literal Rome, cannot be meant. John could never have "wondered" at a description already thoroughly familiar to him. No! The wonder here is in the application of this description to this whore which was once the true church of God! See "Admiration of the Harlot," introduction, chapter 18.

[29] W. A. Criswell, op. cit., p. 186.

[30] W. Boyd Carpenter, op. cit., p. 612.

Verse 7

And the angel said unto me, Wherefore didst thou wonder? I will tell thee the mystery of the woman, and of the beast that carrieth her, which hath the seven heads and the ten horns.

Wherefore didst thou wonder ... The terrible thing that astounded John was "that a portion of the church is one with the hostile world."[31] The angel seems to have wondered at John's wonderment, because "there were sufficient marks to identify the harlot,"[32] Very similar descriptions of Judah, a type of the church, in Jeremiah 2 and Jeremiah 3 should have made it plain to John. He should have been able to read in the vision the truth that just as the old Israel had apostatized and crucified the Christ, the church of Christ also, in the lapse of years, would fall from her high calling and become an ally of Satan. "The hint of this slumbered in the vision."[33]

I will tell thee the mystery of the woman ... and of the beast ... In revealing this, the angel would unveil the woman's true identity with the land-beast and the sea-beast both! Particularly, however, she must be tied more conspicuously to the land-beast. She rides the sea-beast; she is the land-beast!

[31] A. Plummer, op. cit., p. 416.

[32] Ibid.

[33] ?

Verse 8

The beast that thou sawest was, and is not; and is about to come up out of the abyss, and to go into perdition. And they that dwell on the earth shall wonder, they whose name hath not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, when they behold the beast, how that he was, and is not, and shall come.

The beast that thou sawest was, and is not, and is about to come up out of the abyss ... As Beckwith said:

It seems unquestionable that the idea expressed in these words (Revelation 17:8) is the same as that denoted in the symbolical vision by the head smitten unto death and healed (Revelation 13:3). They are described in closely parallel terms.[34]

This is an exceedingly important point, having the meaning that this woman herself is that "healed head" once smitten to death. Pagan Rome, the sixth of the seven heads (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome) was the one smitten to death, even as the previous "heads" had run their course and fallen; but the death of this sixth head (Rome) would be different; its "death" would not be the end of the persecuting state. The woman herself was to be the healing of the sixth head, its replacement; and the Great Harlot would succeed the persecuting empire of pagan Rome in the form of the persecuting power of "Christian" Rome. Did it happen? Who can deny that it did? Who needs any answer except the history of the past two millenniums?

In this, it is also clear what is meant by the land-beast making an image of the first (Revelation 13:15). When the harlot, certainly the same as the land-beast, made an image of the beast, or to the beast, what is meant? Exactly the same thing that is meant when it is said that Tommy grew up and made an engineer! He became an engineer. The woman made an image of the beast which was persecuting pagan Rome, becoming herself persecuting "Christian" Rome. She herself was the image of the beast, the healed head, the replacement and successor to pagan Rome. Historically, this places her after 476 A.D., when the pagan empire fell, long after emperor worship had perished from the earth. Note that there is absolutely no reference whatever in Revelation to making an image "to Caesar," or to "the emperor," or "to one of the kings." No! The image was "of the beast," not of one of his heads, even if "heads" is misinterpreted to mean "emperors."

And go into perdition ... The ultimate destiny of all evil is never denied or thwarted by the riches and glory displayed in the present existence. These words are to keep that truth in focus.

And they that dwell on the earth shall wonder ... This refers to the unregenerated, non-Christian world.

They whose name hath not been written in the book of life ... See comment on this under Revelation 13:8.

From the foundation of the world ... Unlike the passage earlier (Revelation 13:8), this phrase is here applied to the inscription of the names of the saints in the book of life. The eternal purpose of God is known by him from the beginning, regarding all things and all people. Of course, there are unfathomable mysteries about such things which we cannot understand; but the meaning of the words is clear enough as they regard the purpose in view, encouraging the redeemed. In whatever manner the entire world may be captured and enthralled by the charms of the satanic beast, the true Christian will not be deceived.

How that he was, and is not, and shall come ... Note that in the Greek (ASV margin), the last words are "shall be present," recalling Revelation 13:3. See comment quoted above from Beckwith. As Hendriksen said, "The book of Daniel proves that these seven heads do not symbolize seven individual kings or emperors, but seven anti-Christian world powers."[35] See under Revelation 17:8 for a list of these, Rome being the head "that now is." The use of the past tense "he that was" is a reference to the vision that John had seen (past tense) in Revelation 13:3; but the head John had seen as existing there, is the same as the one that will be designated "one is" in Revelation 17:10. Revelation 17:8 refers to what John saw (past tense); and Revelation 17:10 indicates the meaning (present tense) for John, explained by the angel.

[34] Isbon T. Beckwith, The Apocalypse of John Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1919), p. 696.

[35] William Hendriksen, More Than Conquerors (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1956), p. 204.

Verse 9

Here is the mind that hath wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sitteth:

Here is the mind that hath wisdom ... These words seem to be addressed to any temptation of taking an easy, literal view of the prophecy. As Plummer warned, any literal application as to the seven hills of Rome must not be considered to be the full significance of these words, despite the fact that, "They may indeed be a partial fulfillment, but not the whole signification."[36]

The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sitteth ... In this there is a subtle extension of the harlot's stature, for she is represented as gathering up in herself all the authority and power of the first beast (Revelation 13:1), even as did the second beast (Revelation 13:12). "The seven heads" are here called seven mountains, just as they will be called seven kings in the next verse. Heads, mountains, kings ... they all mean the same thing. Oh yes, to be sure, Rome sat on seven hills, and it was quite natural to think of Rome in this context, for that was correct, in that Rome was indeed the sixth of the mountains, and the sixth of the kings, and the sixth of the heads. No mere "hills" are in view here.

"Rome dwells on her seven hills, but the Great Harlot in the vision sits among the great empires that have arisen, like mountains, in the history of the world."[37] This understanding completely clears up the perplexity mentioned by Ladd: "John immediately goes on to say in the next verse that they are also seven kings. It is difficult to see any connection between the seven hills of Rome and seven of its emperors."[38] Of course, there is not any connection, for the seven "hills" are not in it at all. There are no "mountains" in Rome. The seven mountains mean exactly the same thing as the seven heads and seven kings.

The seven mountains, kings, or kingdoms mentioned in this paragraph are seven manifestations of the beast in the successive eras of persecution suffered by God's people: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome, the latter being the "one is" when John wrote; and the seventh appeared after Rome fell.[39]

Roberson fully agreed with this: "The seven mountains, or seven kings, are manifestations of the beast in successive eras of oppression suffered by the people of God."[40]

[36] A. Plummer, op. cit., p. 417.

[37] W. Boyd Carpenter, op. cit., p. 612.

[38] George Eldon Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972), p. 227.

[39] Frank L. Cox, op. cit.. p. 102.

[40] Charles H. Roberson, Studies in Revelation (Tyler, Texas; P. D. Wilmeth, P.O. Box 3305,1957), p. 130.

Verse 10

and they are seven kings; the five are fallen, the one the other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a little while.

And they are seven kings ... See under preceding verse for identification of these as seven successive world powers which persecuted God's people.

Five are fallen ... Please note that if the death of five successive emperors had been meant, the word would have been that "five are dead." "Fallen" is a ridiculous word for describing the death of Augustus Caesar; he did not "fall"; he died. This has no reference at all to the death of certain emperors, whether by suicide or other means. What is meant is that Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and Greece, the first five successive heads of the beast, have passed from history as persecuting powers, or world empires.

The one is ... This, of course, is Rome, the great worldwide power when John wrote.

The other is yet to come ... Alas, there is to be another; and it will come just like all the others came, that is, after its predecessor has fallen, in this case, after the fall of Rome. The significance of this is that the seventh head (the Great Harlot) will not fully appear until after Rome has fallen. This makes it impossible to identify this seventh head as the emperor cult, Nero Redivivus, or any other such thing.

And when he cometh, he must continue a little while ... The entire Christian dispensation is meant by this. The word continue means remain; and Hendriksen declared that the emphasis is on remain."[41] "In the language of the Apocalypse, this entire gospel age is but a little while (Revelation 11:2,3; 12:6,14; 13:5)."[42] This dispensation is indeed only "a little while" as it relates to eternity and to all the things of God. Plummer also agreed that, "This short space (as in KJV) describes the remainder of the time of the world's existence."[43]

One thing that must commend this interpretation is the fact of its being in full and complete harmony with what is known, historically, to have happened since it was written. See more on this under Revelation 17:11.

[41] William Hendriksen, op. cit., p. 204.

[42] Ibid.

[43] A. Plummer, op. cit., p. 417.

Verse 11

And the beast that was, and is not, is himself also an eighth, and is of the seven; and he goeth into perdition.

As we see it, the Apostate Church, together with many harlot daughters and countless spiritual developments flowing out of it and accompanying it, is the seventh head that succeeded the pagan empire. This head will continue throughout the dispensation, but itself also will be succeeded by an eighth, which we believe to be the era of the "ten horns" (Revelation 17:12). The Harlot will finally lose her power to persecute, a development which, in the principal part, has already occurred; but she will nevertheless continue to the very end. See under Revelation 17:12. The eighth beast will be far more wicked than any of the seven preceding ones; and it may be that he should be identified with Paul's "Lawless One" (2 Thessalonians 2:8), who is apparently to be slain by the personal Advent of Christ himself.

This eighth beast will not even be able to endure Apostate Christianity, but will totally deny God, enthrone himself, demand the worship of the whole world, and will spiritually enslave all people except the elect. As this deals with events yet future, we do not dare to propose any explanation of just how all this may come about, or of how long such a condition may prevail. One thing does seem clear enough: the Apostate Christianity itself shall be hated, persecuted, and consumed by this eighth beast. Some construe the meaning of the words "of the seven" as being "of the seventh," indicating that, if this meaning is allowed, the rise of the eighth beast shall be a development from within the Apostasy itself. We believe the true meaning to be "of the seven," as in ASV, because the ten horns next mentioned are connected with the whole beast, not merely with the seventh head; and, as already noted above, the ten horns are here interpreted as that eighth beast, or eighth head of the beast.


The interpretation of these verses which relies for their explanation upon the myth of Nero Redivivus is as scandalous an interpretation of sacred Scripture as was ever offered. It is unreasonable, illogical, incorrect, unbelievable, and also absolutely contradictory of the New Testament. First, we shall try to explain what the interpretation is:

The heads of the beast mentioned in these verses are held to be the emperors in succession who ruled over the pagan empire. The mention of "one is, is not, and is to come" refers to Nero who was reigning when John wrote, who died, and came alive again (redivivus) and became the eighth emperor after the death of the seventh emperor who had succeeded to the throne after Nero's death!

See our introduction to Revelation 13, above, under "The Mortal Wound that did not Heal," for a very perceptive quotation from Albertus Pieters who declared that the acceptance of this interpretation (of Nero redivivus) denies the book of Revelation as "a genuine prophecy." If this is what John prophesied, he prophesied a lie, for it never happened. This interpretation is almost totally worthless, but some particular attention is demanded by it, because, as Pieters said, "At present it is the popular theory among those whom we may call the "Left Wing' Preterists."

An alleged myth is cited as proof that John's prophecy refers to Nero and that his resurrection was generally expected! "The beast that is" is Nero ... "and is not" refers to his suicide ... "and is te come" means he reappeared reincarnated (!) as Domitian. "John saw in Domitian the reincarnation of Nero!"[44] It is contrary, of course, to the Scriptures and to all reason, to suppose for an instant that one of the holy apostles of Jesus believed in reincarnation. In the first place, current research denies that Domitian was in any sense even similar to Nero. "His reputation (Domitian's, as being a persecutor) rests on a very modest historical foundation."[45]

This theory would make Domitian the eighth Roman emperor, an outright falsehood, no matter how the emperors are counted. Look at the "lists of emperors" various Left Wing scholars have posted in their vain efforts to support this; not a single one of them is accurate. As even Moffatt admitted, "There is certainly some awkwardness in this!"[46] Awkwardness indeed! A Jersey cow sitting in the top of a sycamore tree singing Richard Wagner's "Song to the Evening Star" from Tannhauser is pure grace compared to this Nero Redivivus hypothesis of interpretation. Here is a list of the Roman emperors during the first century and beginning from the death of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C., as compiled by Caird:[47]













Well, how does one make Nero the eighth emperor in that list? Many devices have been tried: (1) Identify Nero redivivus with Domitian; that won't do it. (2) Skip Galba and Otho; that won't work. (3) Skip Galba, Otho and Vitellius; that doesn't work either. (4) Start counting with Augustus; that doesn't get it. (5) Count only the deified emperors; this cannot be accurately determined, etc. As Ladd said, "This is a rather violent way of treating history and does not really solve the problem."[48]

The thing that amazes us the most is that the scholars adopting this view reject its most obvious corollary, that if Nero "now is" when John wrote Revelation, then it had to be written between the years 54-68 A.D., the dates usually assigned to Nero, and also that if John wrote while Nero was still reigning, then no myth regarding Nero's resurrection (an essential part of this interpretation) could possibly have appeared before he died! What kind of a contortion is needed to solve that? Here it is: John, writing forty years after Nero's death, "sets himself back in time to the period of Vespasian and gives in the form of prophecy events of history that had already happened!"[49] This, of course, is equivalent to making the whole book of Revelation a fraud, and fully justifies Pieters' comment, above, that this theory of interpretation is wholly incompatible with any believing acceptance of Revelation as genuine prophecy.[50]

This interpretation makes Domitian the sixth emperor, because (in this interpretation) five are fallen and "one is"; and it is impossible to do this. There has never been a list of emperors that would make Domitian the sixth. They have tried omitting Julius Caesar, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, either singly or in pairs, or collectively; but failure cannot be hidden. It is time that the Left Wing gave up this nonsense about Nero Redivivus. "No method of calculation satisfactorily leads to Domitian as the reigning emperor when John wrote."[51] It is also true that absolutely nothing in history identifies Domitian as "another Nero." Even if he was a vicious persecutor and tyrant, how does that make him another Nero; why not another Caligula? another Herod? The false allegation that the sacred New Testament prophesied either the resurrection or the reincarnation of Nero is as pagan an idea as was ever imported into the New Testament.

The above brief summary of some of the intricacies and inconsistencies of this mythical interpretation is only the tip of the iceberg; but enough has been given to show the prodigious labors that have been expended for one purpose alone, it seems to us. The very persistence and cleverness of those who have pushed this bastard interpretation betray their knowledge of what this chapter really teaches and their determination to have it otherwise. A wild animal carefully extricates the bait from the trap, but his clever methods show his accurate knowledge of what he wishes to avoid.

[44] William Barclay, The Revelation of John (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976), p. 141.

[45] F. F. Bruce, A New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing Company, 1969), p. 658.

[46] James Moffatt, Expositor's Greek New Testament, Vol. V (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1967), p. 453.

[47] G. B. Caird, The Revelation of St. John the Divine (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), p. 217.

[48] George Eldon Ladd, op. cit., p. 229.

[49] Isbon T. Beckwith. op. cit., p. 705.

[50] Albertus Pieters. op. cit., p. 222.

[51] George Eldon Ladd, op. cit., p. 229.

Verse 12

And the ten horns that thou sawest are ten kings, who have received no kingdom as yet; but they receive authority as kings, with the beast, for one hour.

These ten kings are the eighth "head" of the beast, and their being presented here as "ten kings" instead of a single king, as in the previous seven heads, is due to the fact of worldwide government not any longer having the monolithic structure which marked the great dominions of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, and the Man of Sin.

The ten horns ... These are ten kingdoms to arise historically at a time long after John wrote, who "had received no kingdom as yet" and whose duration would be comparatively brief, "one hour" as compared with the much longer endurance of the successive world kingdoms symbolized by the "seven heads." "Ten" here is a symbolical number for an indefinite multiplicity, and it would be pointless to attempt any exhaustive definition of these. However, we may hazard the guess that this is the period of history in which the world at this time finds itself; and Russia, China, and other godless states would appear to be typical of what is meant here by the ten horns. The divine foresight of the mighty prophet who wrote Revelation is proved by this verse. Rome indeed fell (476 A.D.); and she was succeeded by "an image" of herself in the form of the Apostate Christianity exercising a worldwide dominion implemented by spiritual controls; but the secular state itself broke up into many kingdoms, "ten kings," among which the great modern nations of Europe are surely included. Remember how long ago Revelation was written.

Receive authority with the beast ... Yes, the beast in the form of its seventh head still continued; but, at this time, there were to be multiple kingdoms, not a monolith; and the Great Harlot, for a time, would be in league with all of them.

Verse 13

These have one mind, and they give their power and authority unto the beast.

And these give their power and authority to the beast ... This would appear to be an accurate picture of Medieval times, long after the fall of Rome, and during the ascendancy of the seventh head (The Man of Sin, etc.), during which the great nations that arose upon the ruins of the ancient pagan empire cooperated fully with the Apostate Power still ruling from Rome; the religious beast was actually the ruler during this period. There are many historical fulfillments of this prophecy, but the Spanish Inquisition is the classical example, and no other need be cited; but this "honeymoon" between the religious head of the beast and the "ten horn" kingdoms was prophesied not to last. It would end in a far different state of affairs (see Revelation 17:16); but this condition would continue for a long time, during which war would be waged against God and his truth.

Verse 14

These shall war against the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them, for he is Lord of lords, and King of kings; and they also shall overcome that are with him, called and chosen and faithful.

These shall war against the Lamb ... The widespread persecutions of this era referred to earlier are indicated by this. The arrogance, pride, ambition, and greed of the harlot-beast would make the world itself a hostile environment for any who received the authority of the New Testament and attempted to follow it. It might have seemed a hopeless struggle for those caught up in it.

And the Lamb shall overcome them ... Did it happen? Who can deny that it did? There came the time when one housewife with a New Testament in her hand was more than a match for all the clerical army of the harlot-beast. The New Testament once more appeared in the hands of earth's populations. The strong angel of chapter 10 held it open!

Verse 15

And he saith unto me, The waters which thou sawest, where the harlot sitteth, are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues.

The waters which thou sawest, where the harlot sitteth ... We must not lose sight of who this beast is; she is that gorgeously dressed whore riding the scarlet beast!

Peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues ... The domain of the harlot-beast is the whole earth. The commentators who reject the Apostate Church interpretation of this, on the basis that it is too local and restricted, applying merely to a few countries in Europe, have simply failed to understand the universal dominion of the harlot-beast. Today, some nineteen centuries after John wrote, her domain includes practically every village and township on the face of the earth; and the number of her adherents is a larger percentage of earth's total population than may be claimed by any other authority in the entire history of the human race! What is local and restricted about that? There is nothing little, narrow, local, restricted, or limited in any way whatever with the interpretation received here. This harlot-beast is now, and for centuries has continued to be, the biggest thing on the planet earth! If its peoples are indeed "the servants of God," the golden age has already arrived!

Verse 16

And the ten horns which thou sawest, and the beast, these shall hate the harlot, and shall make her desolate and naked, and shall eat her flesh, and shall burn her utterly with fire.

And the horns ... Ah yes, the horns! For ages, the whore would use these only for goring the saints, but another age is coming, when the horns shall be turned upon the wanton whore herself. The horns had always been on the beast, an essential element of his character; but the whore accommodated to these as long as they could be used in her selfish interests; but this verse prophesies a radical change.

They shall hate the harlot ... Even Apostate Christianity has far too much truth and righteousness in it for the devil ever to love it. The beast hated the harlot even while they were using each other. The godless state can never willingly accept a rival.

And shall make her desolate and naked ... Intermittently, here and there, since the Reformation, evil states have exhibited samplings of that phenomenon which is here prophesied to become general, as, for example, when all of the monasteries and religious institutions of France were plundered, confiscated, and liquidated during the French Revolution. The same thing took place during the current decade in China, and in Russia before that. However, the fulfillment of this will be on a far grander scale than these isolated occurrences.

And shall utterly burn her with fire ... The ten final (understood as a symbolical indefinite number) kingdoms will at the time of fulfillment of this prophecy be finished with all religion, apostate or not, and they shall burn and eat their former paramour.

And they shall eat her flesh ... The ultimate and final destruction of Apostate Christianity is prophesied here, an event that must be assigned to a time yet future. This coming destruction should not be the cause of any rejoicing on the part of the true Christian; because, in all probability, all of them will also perish (except perhaps a few) in the ensuing holocaust. One cannot help pondering the thought that if the harlot herself would repent, clean up her act, purge out the idols, give up the arrogance, and re-enthrone Christ instead of a man, and turn to the Lord, the ultimate disaster might be postponed; but it appears to be a vain thought.

Our interpretation of this happens to coincide with that of W. A. Criswell:

The prophecy is that the kingdoms of the world, some day, are going to get weary of the idolatrous church. They will get tired of being told by a Nuncio or a legate what they shall, or shall not, do. They will hate the whore, make her desolate, rob her of all her riches, make her naked and strip her of her scarlet robes, purple gowns, and of the pearls and precious stones; and they shall appropriate all of her riches."[52]

Thus we see, as Plummer observed, that, "The fulfillment of this chapter lies in all time."[53]

Moffatt actually wrote that what John prophesies here is that, "Rome perishes at the hands of Nero and his ruthless allies, a belief loudly echoed in the Talmud."[54] This, of course, was to take place after Nero rises from the dead! This ridiculous conclusion is exactly what the Nero Redivivus theory means; and what does that say? It says that John here prophesied a lie. Satan has surely blinded the mind of any Christian who could swallow such a theory.

[52] W. A. Criswell, op. cit., III, p. 188.

[53] A. Plummer, op. cit., p. 418.

[54] James Moffatt, op. cit., p. 454.

Verse 17

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

For God did put it into their hearts ... The God of heaven will direct evil men to do his will, as often exemplified in the Old Testament. It should be noted in connection with this that it is the will of God for the harlot-beast to continue on the earth until all of God's words are accomplished. She does not exist a single day without God's permission.

And to come to one mind ... Here the prophecy is more specific. The hatred and plundering of the worldwide Apostate Church foretold in this passage is not limited to isolated instances in France, Russia, China, or anywhere else. All the kingdoms came to "one mind," not merely in the period of their aiding and supporting the harlot-beast, but also at the time of their turning their fury and hatred against her. One may prayerfully hope that Catholic scholars themselves will believe this prophecy and accommodate to the eventualities revealed in it. She, along with many daughters, still rides the beast, but all are headed inevitably for an unbelievable disaster. Her true interests still lie within the area of the sacred truth which she has forgotten, perverted, and denied.

And to give their kingdoms to the beast ... This is the eighth and final beast, the throne of the "Lawless One"; and, if there is any such thing in the New Testament as "THE Antichrist," this eighth beast is he. He is the incarnation of lawlessness, the ruthless hater of God and of everything supernatural. He is MAN worshipping himself, having no more regard for Apostate Religion than for the True, the self-glorified impresario of that final orchestration and acceleration of all the evil on earth culminating in his sudden overthrow and destruction by the personal appearance of the Son of God in his Second Advent. See our "Excursus on The Man of Sin," my Commentary on 2Thessalonians, pp. 106-117. In the light of the truth of this chapter, it would appear that he does not arise from within the apostasy, but independently of it, and as an enemy of the apostate form of Christianity, no less than of true Christianity.

Verse 18

And the woman whom thou sawest is the great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth.

The great city ... This is Mystery Babylon, not literal Babylon, but still actually Rome. How so? The city of Rome is the capital of the pagan empire, and of the harlot-beast that succeeded her as the seventh head, the headquarters of her entire operation. She is still careful to preserve the name "Roman" in every particular of her worldwide operations. The view that makes this the literal city of Rome falls woefully short, requiring that the scope of the prophecy cannot extend beyond literal Rome's rule as a world empire, an epoch that ended in 476 A.D. It also requires that the radical alteration of the symbol "Babylon" through changing it to "Mystery Babylon" must be ignored. Therefore, we cannot accept the view that only the literal city of Rome is meant.

Which reigneth over the kings of the earth ... This was literally true in John's day; but it is equally true historically, today, and ever since the words ceased to have any application at all to the literal city.

This verse takes us right up to the judgment day; but another view of final events will be given in Revelation 18, culminating in the final judgment recorded at the end of that chapter.


Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Revelation 17:4". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, March 28th, 2017
the Fourth Week of Lent
There are 19 days til Easter!
Commentary Navigator
Search This Commentary
Enter query in the box below
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology