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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
Revelation 17

 

 


Other Authors
Verses 1-18

Chapter 17

THE FALL OF ROME (Revelation 17:1-18 )

17:1-18 1 One of the seven angels, who had the seven bowls, came and spoke with me. "Come here," he said, "and I will show you the judgment of the great harlot, who sits upon many waters, 2 with whom the kings of the earth committed fornication and with the wine of whose adultery those who inhabit the earth have become drunken." 3 He carried me away in the Spirit to a desert place, and I saw a woman, seated upon a scarlet beast, which was full of names which were insults to God, and which had seven heads and ten horns. 4 The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet and bedizened with gold and jewellery and pearls. She had in her hand a golden cup, full of abominations and the unclean things of her fornication. 5 And on her forehead there was written a name with a meaning which was secret except to those who knew its meaning: "Babylon, the great, the mother of the harlots and the abominations of the earth." I saw the woman, drunk 6 with the blood of God's dedicated people and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. When I saw her I was stricken 7 with a great wonder. The angel said to me: "Why are you moved to wonder? I will tell you the secret meaning of the woman and of the beast who bears her and has the seven 8 heads and the ten horns. The beast, which you saw, was and is not, and is about to come up from the abyss, and is on the way to destruction; and the inhabitants of the earth, whose names are not written in the Book of Life from the foundation of the world will be stricken with wonder, when they see the beast, because it was, and is not, and 9 will come. Here there is need for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits. They 10 are also seven kings. Five have fallen; one at present exists; another has not yet come, and, when he shall come, Hebrews 11:1-40 must remain for a short time. The beast, which was and is not, is itself the eighth. It proceeds from the series of the seven and it is on the way to destruction. 12 The ten heads you saw are ten kings, who have not yet received their royal authority, but they are to receive authority as kings 13 for one hour in the company of the beast. They have one mind in common and they hand over power and authority to the beast. 14 These shall make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, because he is the Lord of lords and the King of kings, and the called, the chosen and the loyal will share his victory." 15 And he went on to say to me: "The waters which you saw, on which the harlot is seated, are peoples and crowds and nations and tongues. 16 The ten horns, which you saw, and the beast will hate the harlot, and will make her desolate and naked, and will devour her flesh, and will burn her in the fire; for it is God who 17 has put it into their minds to perform his purpose, and to be of one mind to give their royal power to the beast, until the words of God shall be fulfilled. 18 And the woman which you saw is the great city which has dominion over the kings of the earth."

(1) The Woman On The Beast

The woman is Babylon, that is to say, Rome. The woman is said (Revelation 17:1) to sit upon many waters. In this picture of Rome, John was using many of the things said by the prophets about ancient Babylon. In Jeremiah 51:13 Babylon is addressed as: "O you who dwell by many waters." The river Euphrates actually ran through the midst of Babylon; and she was also the centre of a system of irrigation canals, spreading out in every direction. When this description is applied to Rome, it does not make sense. Later in Revelation 17:15, John realizes this and gives the waters a symbolic interpretation as the many nations and peoples and tongues over whom Rome rules. For this way of speaking, also, we must look to the Old Testament. When Isaiah is forecasting the invasion of Palestine by Assyria, he writes: "Therefore, behold, the Lord is bringing up against them the waters of the River, mighty and many, the king of Assyria and all his glory; and it will rise over all its channels and go over all its banks; and it will sweep on into Judah, it will overflow and pass on, reaching even to the neck" (Isaiah 8:7-8). Again, when Jeremiah is prophesying the coming invasion, he uses the same picture: "Behold, waters are rising out of the north, and shall become an overflowing torrent; they shall overflow the land, and all that fills it" (Jeremiah 7:2).

In Revelation 17:4 the woman is said to be clothed in purple and scarlet and decked with all kinds of ornaments. This is symbolic of the luxury of Rome and of the meretricious and lustful way in which it was used, the picture of a wealthy courtesan, decked out in all her finery to seduce men.

The woman is said to have in her hand a golden cup, full of abominations. Here we have another picture of Babylon taken direct from the prophetic condemnation of the Old Testament. Jeremiah said: "Babylon was a golden cup in the Lord's hand, making all the earth drunken; the nations drank of her wine; therefore the nations went mad" (Jeremiah 51:7). So Rome is said to hold the golden cup in which is that power of seduction which has spread immorality over all the earth.

The woman is said to have a name on her forehead (Revelation 17:5). In Rome the prostitutes in the public brothels wore upon their foreheads a frontlet giving their names. This is another vivid detail in the picture of Rome as the great corrupting prostitute among the nations.

In Revelation 17:6 the woman is said to be drunk with the blood of God's dedicated people and with the blood of the martyrs. This is a reference to the persecution of the Christians in the Roman Empire. But it does more than simply stamp Rome as the great persecutor. She is glutted with slaughter; and she has revelled in that slaughter as a drunken man revels in wine.

In Revelation 17:16 she is to be destroyed by the invasion of the ten kings. This we shall discuss more fully when we come to discuss the symbolism of the beast. It is sufficient to say just now that it foretells the destruction of Rome by the rising against her of her subject nations. It is as if to say that the great prostitute will in the end be destroyed by her lovers turning against her.

(2) The Beast

It is much harder to fix the meaning of the beast than of the woman, mainly because the meaning of the beast does not stay steady. The beast has a series of interconnected meanings, whose point of union is that they are all closely connected with Rome and with her empire.

(i) The woman sits on the beast and the beast is filled with blasphemous names which are all insults to God (Revelation 17:3). If the woman is Rome, clearly the beast is the Roman Empire. It is full of blasphemous names. This includes two things. First, it is a reference to the many gods of which the Roman Empire was full. All these names are insults to God, for they are all infringements of his supreme and unique authority. No one has the right to the name of god save only the true God. Second, it is a reference to many of the titles of the emperor. The emperor was Sebastos, or Augustus, which means to be reverenced; and reverence belongs to God alone. The emperor was divus or theios (Greek #2304), which, the first in Latin and the second in Greek, mean divine; and to God alone belongs that adjective. Many of the emperors were called soter (Greek #4990), saviour, which is uniquely the title of Jesus Christ. Most common of all, the emperor was in Latin dominus and in Greek kurios (Greek #2962), lord, which is the very name of God.

(ii) The beast has seven heads and ten horns (Revelation 17:3). This is a repetition of what is said of the beast in Revelation 13:1, and we shall very soon return to its meaning here.

(iii) The beast was, and is not, and is about to come (Revelation 17:8). This goes back to Revelation 13:3; Revelation 13:12; Revelation 13:14 and is a clear reference to the Nero redivivus legend, which is never far from the mind of John. We have already seen that the ideas of Nero resurrected and of Antichrist had become inseparably connected. Therefore, in this passage the beast stands for Antichrist.

(iv) The beast has seven heads. These are doubly explained.

(a) In Revelation 17:9 the seven heads are seven hills. Here we have an easy identification. Rome was the city upon seven hills; this once again identifies the beast with Rome.

(b) The second identification is one of the riddles of the Revelation (Revelation 17:10-11).

They (the heads) are also seven kings. Five have fallen; one at present exists; another has not yet come, and, when he shall come, he must remain for a short time. The beast, which was and is not, is itself the eighth. It proceeds from the series of the seven, and it is on its way to destruction.

Five have fallen. The Roman Empire began with Augustus; and the first five emperors were Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. These, then, are the five who have fallen. We have already seen that after the death of Nero there were two years of chaos in which Galba, Otho and Vitellius followed each other in quick succession. They were not in any real sense emperors and cannot be included in any list.

One at present exists. This must be Vespasian, the first emperor to bring back stability to the empire, after the chaos following the death of Nero; he reigned from A.D. 69-79.

Another has not yet come, and, when he shall come, he must remain for a short time. Vespasian was succeeded by Titus, whose reign lasted for only two years from 79-81.

The beast which was, and is not, is itself the eighth. It proceeds from the series of the seven, and is on its way to destruction. This can only mean that the emperor who followed Titus is being identified with Nero redivivus and Antichrist; and the emperor who followed Titus was Domitian.

Can Domitian reasonably be identified with the evil force which Nero redivivus personified? We turn to the life of Domitian written by Suetonius the Roman biographer, remembering that Suetonius was not a Christian. Domitian, as Suetonius tells, was an object of terror and hatred to all. We get a grim picture of him at the beginning of his reign. "He used to spend hours in seclusion every day, doing nothing but catch flies and stab them with a keenly-sharpened stylus." Any psychologist would find that a curiously revealing picture. He was insanely jealous and insanely suspicious. He formed a homosexual attachment for a famous actor called Paris. One of the pupils of Paris so much resembled his teacher that it was not unreasonable to suppose that he was his son; the lad was promptly murdered. Hermogenes, the historian, wrote things which Domitian did not like; he was executed, and the scribe who had copied the manuscript was crucified. Senators were slaughtered right and left. Sallustius Lucullus, governor of Britain, was executed because he allowed a new type of lance to be called Lucullan. Domitian revived the old punishment of having his victims stripped naked, fixed by the neck in a fork of wood and beaten to death with rods. He put down a civil war that broke out in the provinces. Suetonius goes on: "After his victory in the civil war he became even more cruel, and, to discover any conspirators who were in hiding, tortured many of the opposite party by a new form of inquisition, inserting fire in their privates; and he cut off the hands of some of them."

Early in his reign he appeared wearing a golden crown with the figures of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva in it, while the priest of Jupiter sat by his side. When he received back his divorced wife, he announced that she had returned to the divine couch. When he entered the amphitheatre, he loved to be greeted with the cry: "Good fortune attend our lord and his lady." He began his official edicts: "Our lord and god bids this to be done." Soon that was the only way in which he might be addressed.

He was so suspicious that he never gave prisoners a hearing in private, and, even when he heard them with his guards present, they were chained. He so feared for his own life that he had the passages and colonnades through which he moved tiled with phlengite stone, which is like a mirror, so that he could see anyone who was moving behind him. Finally, on 18 September, A.D. 96, he was murdered in the bloodiest circumstances.

To all this we may add a final fact; it was Domitian who first made Caesar worship compulsory and who was, therefore, responsible for unloosing the flood-tides of persecution on the Christian Church.

It might well be that John saw in Domitian the reincarnation of Nero. Others did precisely the same. Juvenal spoke of Rome being "enslaved to a bald-headed Nero" (Domitian was bald) and was exiled and finally murdered for his temerity. Tertullian called Domitian "a man of Nero's type of cruelty," and "a sub-Nero," a verdict which Eusebius repeated.

The one difficulty is that it makes it look as if John wrote in the reign of Vespasian; and we know that John in fact wrote under Domitian. Two possibilities may explain this. John may have written this particular vision years before in the time of Vespasian, lived to see it come terribly true and incorporated it in his final draft of the Revelation. Or he may have written it all in the reign of Domitian, and, projected himself back into the time of Vespasian to trace in retrospect the terrible lines that history had taken.

However we explain it, the picture is satisfied if we hold that John saw in Domitian the reincarnation of Nero, the supreme embodiment of Roman wickedness and defiance of God; we need not go on to say that he identified Domitian with Antichrist.

There remains one problem in identification and it is less susceptible of definite solution than the others. In Revelation 17:12-17 it is said that the ten horns are ten kings who have not yet received their power. They will receive it, and when they do, two things will happen. They will unanimously agree to hand over their own power to the beast; and with him they will rise against the harlot and make war with the Lamb and finally be defeated.

By far the likeliest interpretation of this is that the ten kings are the satraps of the Parthian hosts, who will make common cause with Nero redivivus and under him fight the last battle in which Rome will be destroyed and the Lamb will subdue every hostile force in the universe.

The City Which Became A Harlot (Revelation 17:1-2)

In these two verses Rome is described as the great harlot. More than once in the Old Testament heathen and disobedient cities are described as harlots. It is thus that Nahum describes Nineveh, when he speaks of the multitude of the whoredoms of the well-favoured harlot (Nahum 3:4). It is thus that Isaiah describes Tyre (Isaiah 23:16-17). Even Jerusalem can be so described. "How the faithful city has become a harlot!" mourns Isaiah (Isaiah 1:21). And the charge of Ezekiel is: "You trusted in your beauty and played the harlot" (Ezekiel 16:15).

It is a way of speaking which is strange to modern ears; but there is great symbolism behind it.

(i) Behind it is the idea of God as the lover of the souls of his people. Primasius, the old Latin commentator, says that Rome is called a harlot, because "she left her Creator and prostituted herself with devils." When we turn our backs upon God, it is not so much a sin against law as a sin against love.

(ii) There is another idea behind this. Beckwith suggests that Rome is called the great harlot, because she is "an allurement to godlessness and immorality." The sin of the harlot is not only that she sins herself, but also that she deliberately persuades others into sin. God will never hold guiltless the man who seduces others into sin.

The Vision In The Wilderness (Revelation 17:3)

John says that he was carried away in the Spirit to a desert place.

The prophet is a man who lives in the Spirit. "The Spirit," said Ezekiel, "lifted me up and took me away" (Ezekiel 3:14). "The Spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven, and brought me in visions of God to Jerusalem" (Ezekiel 8:3). "And the Spirit lifted me up, and brought me in the vision by the Spirit of God into Chaldea to the exiles" (Ezekiel 11:24). It is not that the Spirit physically moves a man about from place to place; but, when a man lives in the Spirit, his horizons are widened; he may live in time, but he becomes a spectator of eternity. The prophets could see the trends of history ahead because they lived in the Spirit.

One of the ever-recurring features of the Bible story is that it was in the desert that the great men of God saw their visions. It was in the wilderness that Moses met God (Exodus 3:1). It was when he had gone a day's journey into the wilderness that Elijah met God and regained his courage and his faith (1 Kings 19:4). It was in the wilderness that John the Baptist grew to manhood and it was there that he received his message from God (Luke 1:80). It was to the wilderness that Jesus went to settle the way he would take before he set out to preach and teach and die for men and for God (Matthew 4:1).

It may well be that there is not enough quietness in our lives for us to receive the message which God is eager to give.

The Great Harlot (Revelation 17:4-5)

These verses give us a vivid picture of the great harlot. She is clothed in purple and scarlet, the royal colours, the colours of luxury and splendour. She is bedecked with gold and precious stones and pearls. She has the golden cup with which she makes her lovers drunk. She has the harlot's frontlet on her forehead with her name. The name is a mystery. In Greek a musterion (Greek #3466) is not necessarily something abstruse; it is something quite unintelligible to the uninitiated but crystal clear to the initiated. The mystery in this case is that Babylon means Rome; the thing which the stranger does not know, but which the Christian reader does know, is that while the story is told under the name of Babylon everything relates to Rome.

(i) John may have got this picture from the temple prostitutes of Asia Minor. One of the strange features of ancient religion was that to many temples there were attached sacred prostitutes; there were, for instance, a thousand of them attached to the Temple of Aphrodite at Corinth. To have intercourse with them was an act of worship which paid homage to the life force.

(ii) John possibly had in mind the most notorious of all the Roman Empresses, Messalina. She was the wife of the weak and almost imbecile Claudius; and it is related of her that at nights she would go down to the public brothels and serve there like any common prostitute. Juvenal paints the picture in vivid terms (Satire 6: 114-132): "Hear what Claudius endured. As soon as his wife perceived that her husband was asleep, this august harlot was shameless enough to prefer a common mat to the imperial couch. Assuming a night-cowl, and attended by a single maid she issued forth; then, having concealed her raven locks under a light-coloured peruque, she took her place in a brothel reeking with long-used coverlets. Entering an empty cell reserved for herself, she there took her stand, under the feigned name of Lycisca, her nipples bare and gilded, and exposed to view the womb that bore thee, O nobly-born Britannicus. Here she graciously received all comers, asking from each his fee; and when at length the keeper dismissed the girls, she remained to the very last before closing her cell, and with passion still raging hot within her went sorrowfully away. Then, exhausted by men but unsatisfied, with soiled cheeks, and begrimed by the smoke of the lamps, she took back to the imperial pillow all the odours of the stews."

When even an empress stooped to this, is there any wonder that John thought of Rome as a harlot?

The cup of the harlot Rome is full of unclean things. Lest it be thought that this is the verdict of some narrow-minded Christian, let it be remembered that Tacitus called Rome "the place into which from all over the world all atrocious and shameful things flow and where they are most popular," and Seneca called her "a filthy sewer." John's picture of Rome is actually restrained in comparison with some of the pictures which the Romans themselves drew. This was the civilization into which Christianity came; and it was out of this that men were converted to chastity. We may well speak of the miracles of the Cross.

Drunk With The Blood Of The Saints And The Martyrs (Revelation 17:6)

As we have already pointed out in the general introduction to this chapter, the way in which John describes Roman persecution is very significant. He says that Rome is drunk with the blood of the saints and the martyrs. The implication is that Rome did not simply persecute the Christians as a legal necessity but took fiendish delight in hounding Christians to death.

No doubt John is thinking of the persecution which took place under Nero. The Neronic persecution sprang from the great fire in A.D. 64 which burned for a week and devastated Rome. The people of Rome were convinced that the fire was no accident; they were also convinced that those who tried to extinguish it were hindered and that when it died down, it was deliberately rekindled; and they were also convinced that the instigator of the fire was Nero. Nero had a passion for building, and the people believed that he had deliberately burned down the city in order to rebuild it.

Nero had to find a scapegoat to divert suspicion from himself; and he fixed on the Christians. This was the first great persecution and in many ways the most savage of all. We quote Tacitus' description in full because it is one of the few passages in pagan literature where the name of Christ occurs (Tacitus: Annals 15: 44):

All human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor (Nero), and

the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief

that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently to

get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the

most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations,

called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name

had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of

Tiberius, at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus,

and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment,

again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil,

but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every

part of the world find their centre and become popular.

Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty;

then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted,

not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred of

mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered

with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs, and perished, or

were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burned,

to serve as a nightly illumination when daylight had expired....

Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary

punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion, for it was not,

as it seemed for the public good, but to glut one man's cruelty

that they were being destroyed.

The Reincarnation Of Evil (Revelation 17:7-11)

In the introduction to this chapter we have already seen that the likeliest explanation is that John is projecting himself backwards into the reign of Vespasian. The five who have been are Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero; the one who is is Vespasian; the one who is to come and who is to last for only a very short time is Titus; the one who is to be the equivalent of the head wounded and restored, who is to be Nero all over again, is Domitian, the man of savage cruelty. Lying behind all this imagery are three permanent truths.

(i) Even when Nero died, his wickedness lived on and John sees it re-emerging in Domitian, the new Nero. Everyone leaves something behind in this world. It may be a memory which is a helper of all that is fine and good; it may be an evil influence which lays a trail of trouble for many generations to come. Every man's life points somewhere; he must see that it points to goodness and to God.

(ii) In Revelation 17:8 we read that those whose names have not been written in the Book of Life will be dazzled at the coming of the evil one. There are always those who can be dazzled by evil. The one way to avoid its fascination is to keep our eyes on Jesus Christ. Then evil is seen for what it is.

(iii) In Revelation 17:11 we read that the beast is on his way to destruction. However great the success of evil may be, it has in it the seeds of self-destruction. He who allies himself with evil has chosen the losing side.

The Purposes Of Man And The Purposes Of God (Revelation 17:12-18)

This passage speaks of the ten kings whom the ten horns represent. It is likely that the ten kings are the satraps of the East and of Parthia whom the resurrected Nero, the Antichrist, is to lead against Rome. Or they may simply stand for all the world powers which in the end will turn against Rome and destroy her. We note certain things in this passage.

(i) In Revelation 17:14 we read that these world powers war with the Lamb but the Lamb destroys them; and the called, the chosen and the loyal share in the victory of the Lamb. One of the great conceptions of Jewish thought was that the saints and the martyrs would share in God's final triumph. "Sinners," says Enoch, "shall be delivered into the hands of the righteous" (Enoch 91:12). "Be hopeful, ye righteous," says Enoch again, "for suddenly shall the sinners perish before you, and ye shall have lordship over them according to your desires" (Enoch 96:1). In a grim passage the same book says: "Woe to you who love the deeds of unrighteousness.... Know that you shall be delivered into the hands of the righteous, and they shall cut off your necks and slay you, and have no mercy upon you" (Enoch 98:12). In the Wisdom of Solomon there is the same promise to those who have lived and suffered and died for God. "Having borne a little chastening, they shall receive great good, because God made trial of them and found them worthy of himself. As gold in the furnace he proved them, and as a whole burnt-offering he accepted them. And in the time of their visitation they shall shine forth, and as sparks among the stubble they shall run to and fro. They shall judge nations and have dominion over peoples" (Wisdom of Solomon 3:5-8). It is no doubt this belief that was in the minds of James and John when they came and asked Jesus for the places on his right and his left when he entered into his kingdom (Matthew 20:21; Mark 10:37).

This Jewish thought has two aspects, one noble and one subchristian. The subchristian one is that there were times when this became nothing other than a thirst for vengeance; but who shall blame the persecuted for longing for the day when the world's roles will be reversed in eternity? The noble idea is that the saints and martyrs will aid Christ to win his triumph and share in the glory. It is an affirmation that for us, too, after the Cross comes the crown.

(ii) Revelation 17:16 gives a picture of the ten horns rising violently against the harlot who had been their mistress. They will devour her flesh. In the Old Testament that is the action of a most savage and powerful enemy. It is the complaint of the Psalmist that the wicked ate up his flesh (Psalms 27:2; King James Version). The wicked in Israel, with their grasping oppression, eat the flesh of the people of God (Micah 3:3). This is a picture of terrible vengeance. They will burn her in the fire. This is the punishment for the most heinous sin (Leviticus 20:14), and above all the punishment for the daughter of a priest who has been guilty of sexual immorality (Leviticus 21:9).

It is to be noted that the harlot's previous lovers turned against her. Evil has in it a divisive power.

(iii) In Revelation 17:12-13 we read of the ten kings making common purpose with the beast; and in Revelation 17:17 we read that God put this into their hearts that his purposes might be carried out and his words fulfilled. Here is a strange thing. These evil powers thought they were working out their own purposes but they were, in fact, working out the purposes of God. R. H. Charles says: "Even the wrath of men is made to praise God." The truth behind this is that God never loses control of human affairs. In the last analysis God is always working things together for good.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Revelation 17:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/revelation-17.html. 1956-1959.

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