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Bible Commentaries

Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges

Revelation 17

Verses 1-99

The Judgement of the Great Whore. Her Pomp. Chap. 17 vv. 1 6

1. one of the angels ] So 21:9: cf. 5:5.

I will shew unto thee the judgement &c.] Which had been exhibited, and described in general terms, in 16:19: but the seer is now to have a nearer view of it, and describe it in detail.

the great whore ] The image of the harlot is taken from the Old Testament description, not of Babylon, which when personified is a virgin (Isaiah 47:1 ), but of Tyre (Isaiah 23:15 sqq.) and Nineveh (Nahum 3:4 ). The truth is, the Antichristian Empire is conceived as embodying the various forms of evil that existed in previous earthly empires. They have existed and become great, in virtue of what was good in them: (see St Augustine’s City of God , V. xii. 3, 5, xv. &c.; Epist. cxxxviii. 17: cf. Plat. Rep. I. xxiii. pp. 351 2); they are the divinely appointed protectors of God’s people (Jeremiah 29:7 ; Romans 13:1-7 ; 1 Timothy 2:2 ) though their possible persecutors: and so they at once hinder (2 Thessalonians 2:6 , 2 Thessalonians 2:7 ) the coming of Antichrist, and foreshadow his coming by acting in his spirit. The Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar had (as no one can read the Book of Daniel without seeing) something nobler in it than mere conquering pride, and to this nobler element Isaiah does justice: but St John sees (it does not follow that the natural man will see) that in the New Babylon the baser element is supreme.

But another interpretation has been suggested. In 12:6, 14 we found that the Woman, the City of God and the Mother of His Son, fled into the wilderness, and there was concealed through the time of the Beast’s reign: and some have thought that the Woman in the Wilderness whom we meet with here is actually the same as the one we then parted with the faithful City become an harlot (Isaiah 1:21 .)

This view is an unpleasant one, and seems out of harmony with the tone either of chap. 12 or of this chapter. But it is supported by the argument, that the image of a harlot is most frequently, in the O. T. used of the unfaithful City of God: Isaiah 1:21 ; Jeremiah 2:20 , Jeremiah 3:1 sqq., 6 sqq.; Ezekiel 16:23 ; Hos. 1 3, Hosea 1:4 :15; Micah 1:7 : while it is applied to heathen cities only in Isaiah 23:0 fin.; Nahum 3:4 , already quoted.

On the other hand, in almost all those passages it is insisted on, more or less expressly, that the whoredoms of unfaithful Israel have the special guilt of adultery : and of that there is no hint here, the Lord does not say of Babylon as of Aholibah that she was “Mine.” This seems to destroy the parallel with the former nine cases, which moreover is less close, as regards the details of language, than that with the two latter.

And further, the identification of the two Women is only possible on the assumption, that the Mother of chap. 12 is the true Christian Church, and the Harlot of this chapter the apostate Christian Church of Rome. Now we have seen reason to reject the former view: nor does the latter appear any more tenable. This subject is discussed in the Introduction: it may be enough to refer to St John’s own words in I Ep. 4:2, 3, as proving that the spirit of the theology (whatever may be said of the political attitude) of the existing Roman Church is, on the whole, of God that it certainly is not the spirit of Antichrist.

Yet it is hardly necessary, if it be possible, to restrict the application of this chapter to the Pagan Rome of the past. ‘The kings of the earth have committed fornication’ with other cities since. Nor did Rome, like Nineveh and Babylon (Nahum 3:4 , Ezekiel 23:5 , Ezekiel 23:12 , Ezekiel 23:14 ), conquer as much by the fascinations of her splendour as by her arms, though the royal vassals of the Cæsars were dazzled as well as awed.

on many waters ] Jeremiah 51:13 . Literally true of the old Babylon, it is explained of the new in v. 15.

2. with whom the kings , &c.] Isaiah 23:17 .

the inhabiters &c.] Jeremiah 51:7 .

3. in the spirit ] Cf. 1:10, 4:2, 21:10.

into the wilderness ] In Isaiah 21:1 the situation of the ancient Babylon is apparently conceived as in a desert: and in fact Babylonia has been reduced to one, despite its unsurpassed natural fertility. It may be relevant to compare the present desolation of the once populous Campagna of Rome.

a scarlet coloured beast ] Undoubtedly the same as the Beast of 13:1 8, though there his colour was not mentioned. It is symbolic (compare that of the dragon, 12:3), as being the colour of blood: perhaps also suggestive of the imperial purple.

full of names of blasphemy ] So 13:1, but here the blasphemies are even more all-pervading. The construction in the Greek, according to the best text, is irregular and peculiar, but cannot alter the sense.

4. arrayed in purple and scarlet colour ] Protestant interpreters have been fond of applying this description to the robes of Roman bishops and cardinals: and perhaps not altogether unjustly. See Introduction, pp. 57, 58.

decked with gold ] Lit. gilded with gold : perhaps illustrated by the contemporary picture of the historical imperial harlot, Messalina.

precious stone ] Lit. stone , used, of course, collectively. See on 15:6.

a golden cup ] See Jeremiah 51:7 already quoted. We can hardly say that the cup serves her to drink the blood of saints and martyrs ( v. 6), but it is meant to suggest that she is drunken and invites to drunkenness, as well as to uncleanness.

5. upon her forehead was a name written ] Probably not branded on the flesh, but tied on as a label, as Roman harlots actually did Wear their names.

Mystery ] Interpreters compare “the mystery of lawlessness” in 2 Thessalonians 2:7 . The use of the word in 1:20 may illustrate its meaning here: it indicates that “Babylon the Great” is to be understood in a mystical sense.

of harlots ] Rather, of the harlots . She is the chief of these, and the cause of the rest being what they are. Therefore, though the fornications of Babylon are to be understood spiritually, yet her guilt includes the actual licentiousness of the Rome of Nero and Domitian, and in a wider sense “the sin of great cities” generally.

6. with the blood of the saints &c.] 18:24.

martyrs ] See on 2:13.

admiration ] Better, wonder , the substantive used being cognate to the verb. Of course “admiration” is not meant in the modern sense of the word.

The Interpretation of the Mystery, vv. 7 18

7. Wherefore didst thou marvel? ] Again the word should be wonder . For the angel’s surprise at the seer not comprehending at once, see on 7:14.

I will tell thee ] The “I” is emphatic: “ I will tell thee, since thou findest it so strange.”

the mystery ] i.e. the mystical meaning: see on v. 5.

of the woman, and of the beast ] The latter is explained first, vv. 8 14: the Woman is not clearly defined till v. 18.

8. was, and is not ] On the whole, ancient tradition where it speaks, and modern criticism, agree in the interpretation of these words. Nero , who killed himself in June a.d. 68, “had been, and was not” at the date of this vision: but his reappearance was looked for by many, with various feelings of hope and fear. “When his dethronement and execution were imminent, it was said that he had talked of going to the East, and establishing his throne at Jerusalem (see on 11:9): while one form (see on 16:12) of the belief that he survived, was that he had fled to the Parthians, and would return under their protection.

Now St John is not to be held responsible for all the opinions, superstitious or at least irrational, that were held by his pagan contemporaries about the return of Nero from the East. But when we find that the belief in Nero’s destined return was held by Christians for the next four centuries, if not longer, when it had quite passed out of the minds of pagans, it becomes probable that St John was answerable for their belief; at any rate, they grounded it on his words. And it is possible that he means to tell us, that the Antichrist who is to come will actually be Nero risen from the dead (we notice, that in the words of the text his death, the reality of which is historically certain, is not denied, but affirmed): more probably, Antichrist will be a new Nero in the same way as he will be a new Antiochus, an enemy of God as they were, typified by them inasmuch as they were actuated by his spirit. It is needless to suppose with M. Renan that Nero is called “the Beast” in allusion to a loathsome atrocity said to be committed by him disguised as one: the analogy of Daniel 7:0 is what determines the image.

shall ascend out of the bottomless pit ] 11:7, where see note. Perhaps there is a distinction between the appearance of the Beast indicated here and that of 13:1. The persecuting Roman Empire, which was antichristian in posse , arose “out of the sea” like other Empires of the earth (Daniel 7:3 ), out of the confused and often sinful, but not infra-natural, turmoil of the life of this world. But the final and developed antichristian and persecuting power, the Empire of Antichrist himself, will have a directly infernal source.

go into perdition ] So v. 11: cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:3 . The fulfilment of this threat is indicated in 19:20.

shall wonder ] 13:3, 4.

whose names were not written ] 13:8. We should almost certainly read, are [or is ] not written , as there: and probably name for “names.”

that was ] Read, that he was .

and yet is ] Read, and shall come : lit. shall be here : the word is cognate with that ordinarily used of the Coming of Christ.

9. And here ] Omit “and.” Compare 13:18. As there, the words seem to indicate that “the mind which hath wisdom” will recognise the meaning of the image, though it is obscurely expressed. But the “wisdom” required is not merely the faculty of guessing riddles it is the wisdom enlightened from above; including however, we may suppose, an intelligent knowledge of the facts and principles of human history.

seven mountains ] These words prove decisively that Babylon represents the City of Rome It is needless to quote classical descriptions of Rome as the City of the Seven Mountains: the designation is as unmistakeable as the name would be. Nevertheless, it is curious that the number is rather conventionally than actually true. The original seven hills were the Palatium, the Germalus (virtually a part of the Palatine hill), the Velia (the low ridge crossing the Forum), the Cispius, Oppius, and Fagutal (three summits of the Esquiline), and the Suburra which is not a hill at all. But Rome in the days of its greatness covered the Palatine, Capitol, Aventine, Caelian, Esquiline (two of the ridges of which, though not very well defined, are yet as distinct as the two next), the Quirinal, the Viminal (these two, for some inexplicable reason, were never counted among the “seven mountains,” though higher than any of them, but were always called “hills”), and the Janiculum and Vatican on the other side of the Tiber. In modern Rome, the buildings have spread over the Pincian Hill, but the Caelian, Palatine, Aventine, and much of the Esquiline are nearly uninhabited.

10. And there are seven kings ] Rather, and they [the seven heads] are seven kings : they have a double significance standing both for the seven mountains and the seven kings.

Who are these kings? According to the view mentioned on 13:2, that the Beast is not the Roman Empire, but an embodiment of the worldly imperial spirit, it is plausibly held that the kings are kingdoms or empires (like the “kings of Persia and Grecia” in Daniel 8:0 ) that they are the four kingdoms of Daniel 2:0 and 7, together with Egypt and Assyria that came before Babylon, and the kingdoms of modern Europe that come after Rome. On this view, the ten horns are all on one head: it is this ten-horned head which receives the deadly wound of 13:3: i.e. the Beast is nearly slain (the Empire as an evil and persecuting power overthrown) by the conversion, first of the later emperors, and then of the sovereigns of Europe, to Christianity: but he revives e.g. in Julian after Constantine, and again in the neo-paganism of the Renaissance and the persecutions of the Reformation.

With all the elements of truth that must be acknowledged in this view, it seems hardly possible to doubt that the Beast, so closely united with the City of the Seven Hills, represents the Roman Empire particularly. On this view, the “kings” have been taken to represent forms of government Rome having been successively governed, it is said, by kings, consuls, dictators, decemvirs, military tribunes, emperors, and Christian emperors (the last being taken, as before, to be the wounded head: some however make the conversion of Constantine a wound to the sixth head, and count the Ostrogoth kings as the seventh). But considering that the dictatorship, the decemvirate, and even the tribunate, were transitory episodes in the Roman government the first avowedly exceptional, the second both exceptional and ephemeral, and all three, as well as the primitive monarchy, probably unknown to St John’s original readers, this view does not appear even plausible.

It remains then that the kings be taken as individual Emperors of Rome: (it must be remembered that though these were never called “kings” in Latin, the Greek equivalent title was constantly applied to the Emperors: see e.g. 1 St Peter 2:13, 17.) Who then were the first seven Emperors? According to the common reckoning, Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Gaius (often called by modern writers by his nickname Caligula , “Little Boots”), Claudius, Nero, and Galba. But Julius Caesar, though he received the title of Imperator as the later Emperors did, cannot be considered, and is not considered by careful historians, as the first of the “Emperors,” if the Empire be spoken of as a settled form of government. His authority in the state, so far as it was constitutional at all, lay in his Dictatorship: which office was legally abolished immediately after his death, and never revived. Augustus, and the later Emperors, ruled not as Dictator, but as Chief of the Senate with the power of Tribune.

five are fallen ] Augustus, Tiberius, Gaius, Claudius, and Nero. (It is argued that the word “fallen” is not “appropriate to Augustus and Tiberius, who died in their beds:” but see Genesis 25:8 , mar.) Is then the “one who is” Galba? So he is generally understood by those who adopt this scheme of interpretation: and if so, the date of the vision (see Introduction) is fixed at a time between June a.d. 68, and the 15th of January 69, when Galba was murdered. He was succeeded by Otho, who certainly “continued a short space,” if he could be said to continue at all: he killed himself, on April 15th, when defeated by the army of Vitellius, who had revolted from Galba a few days before his murder by Otho.

But the rest of the prophecy, on this view, received nothing that can be reckoned as even a typical fulfilment. Vitellius, despite many contemptible vices, was a good-natured man, and not a bad ruler, so far as he had energy to rule at all. He could not be considered as an incarnation of the Antichristian power, nor even as a revival of Nero, though he, as well as Otho, treated Nero’s memory with respect. And considering that Galba had only reigned in Rome for a few weeks before his death (though he had been acknowledged longer), that Otho never had an uncontested title, and Vitellius only from about the end of April to July 1st, it seems likelier that these three are passed over, as claimants of empire (and they had not been the only ones: see on v. 12) rather than actual emperors. Thus, the sixth king will be Vespasian, who was proclaimed emperor on July 1st, a.d. 69: his troops gained a decisive victory over those of Vitellius late in October, and Rome was taken, and Vitellius killed, on Dec. 21st.

Vespasian reigned well and peaceably, and was succeeded by his elder son Titus, in June 79: who “continued a short space,” till Sept. 13th, a.d. 81, when he died, aged 40; murdered, as some said, by his brother Domitian, who succeeded him, and who was regarded, by pagans and Christians alike, as a revival of Nero (Juv. iv. 38; Tert. Apol. c. 7). Like Nero, he persecuted the Christians: like Nero, he indulged in the most hideous vices: though unlike Nero, he had a strong sense of decorum, and was fanatically attached to the Roman religion. Further than this, the vision does not follow the fortunes of the Empire in detail. At the point where the type of Antichrist comes into the history, the prophecy introduces Antichrist himself: cf. Daniel 11:0 , as understood by most orthodox interpreters.

must continue a short space ] Both “continue” and “short” seem to be emphatic his reign is to be short, but not ephemeral. Thus the designation seems more appropriate to Titus than to Otho. St Victorinus (in the present text) applies it to Nerva , who like Titus reigned mildly for only two years. But his successor Trajan (though he to a certain extent sanctioned the persecution of Christianity, and is said himself to have condemned St Ignatius) was anything but an Antichrist. It seems as though St Victorinus (or his editor) were making a rather clumsy attempt to reconcile the interpretation here given, which he was acquainted with as a tradition, with the general belief that St John was writing under Domitian.

11. even he is the eighth ] Perhaps rather, both is himself the eighth, and is of the seven .

of the seven ] is most easily understood “is one of the seven” i.e. the eighth emperor of Rome, in whom the antichristian spirit of the empire finds its personal embodiment, will be a revival of one of his seven predecessors viz. Nero, the fifth of them. The words can however be taken to mean “the successor and result of the seven, following and springing out of them;” if a scheme of interpretation be preferred with which this meaning harmonises better.

goeth into perdition ] Implies something more than the “fall” of the other kings.

12. the ten horns &c.] Comparing Daniel 7:0 and 8, we can hardly doubt that these horns represent kingdoms related to the Roman Empire as the kingdoms of the Diadochi to that of Alexander. Such are the principal kingdoms of modern Europe: and in the recognition of this fact lies the key to mediaeval and to much of modern history. (See Sir F. Palgrave’s Normandy and England , Intr. ch. 1, English Commonwealth , chh. 10, 11, 17, 18, 19, and Dr Bryce’s Holy Roman Empire , passim). The number ten is probably to be taken as exact, but we cannot yet point to it as being definitely realised. It is remarkable that the kingdoms of Europe have (as is pointed out by Elliot, Horae Apoc. Part IV. ch. 4 § 2) tended at many periods to that number: but there are now more than ten sovereign states in Christendom, or even in Europe only. Judging from the analogy of the Macedonian kingdoms (see on 16:12) we may guess that only those are included which are of considerable size and power, and have some claim to continue the imperial tradition of the common predecessor. The existing states of Germany, France, Austria, and Russia have such a claim (which they assert, more or less constantly and more or less legitimately, by the use of the imperial title): so has our own country, which has claimed rank as an empire coordinate with continental ones since the days of Edgar the Peaceable: so (more doubtfully) have Spain and Portugal in virtue of their memories, and so have the new kingdoms of Greece and Italy in virtue of their hopes. A tenth can hardly be named, for Sweden though powerful was not imperial even under Gustavus Adolphus or Charles XII., and Turkey could hardly be thus coupled with the states of Christendom: but believers will watch the developement of “the Eastern Question” with a solemn interest.

receive power as kings ] It is extraordinary that St Hippolytus, ( On Christ and Antichrist , ch. 27) inferred, apparently not from this passage, but from Daniel 2:42 , that the ten powers of the last days, among which the Roman empire is partitioned, will pass from monarchies into democracies . Few things were humanly speaking less likely in his days, few more so in ours.

one hour ] Presumably for a very short time: the end will be very near when the ten horns appear in their final and unmistakeable form. It therefore ought not to surprise us, that we cannot identify them all yet, that we only see them in process of developement.

Another explanation of the horns has been suggested (Renan, L’Antechrist , pp. 433, 4) that they are the claimants of the Empire who appeared in the “long year” (Tac. Dial. 17) after the death of Nero. It is possible to enumerate ten of these, but unfortunately not without including both Galba and Vespasian, one of whom must be reckoned among the heads , and therefore not the horns . Else, both Rome and the Roman Empire were so severely shaken in the civil wars between the rival emperors, and their actual fall in the fifth century so nearly anticipated, that this interpretation harmonises well enough with v. 16. On the other hand, it fails to give meaning to v. 13, or to agree with the undoubted meaning of the same symbol in Daniel.

with the beast ] Yet in Daniel 7:7 , Daniel 7:8 the ten horns appear before the little horn (which seems to correspond with this appearance of the Beast, no longer merely as a polity but as a person), and three of them are destroyed by him. I do not pretend to be able to reconcile the two.

13. shall give their power and strength &c.] Cf. 16:14, 19:19, 20.

14. These shall make war with the Lamb ] See the same passages.

Lord of lords, and King of kings ] 19:16; Daniel 2:47 .

they that are with him ] 19:14.

called, and chosen, and faithful ] All common titles of Christians applied even to the imperfect Churches on earth.

15. The waters &c.] Some compare Isaiah 8:7 for the use of waters as an emblem of multitudes .

16. upon the beast ] Read, and the beast : he (in his personal advent) and they will act together, against Babylon as well as against the Lamb.

shall hate the whore ] Though she had been the object of their unchaste love, v. 2, and will be of their passionate regret, 18:9. Nero’s treatment of his mistress or wife Poppaea cannot be alluded to, but is a good illustration of the image, and vindication of its consistency with vicious human nature.

naked ] Cf. Isaiah 47:2 , Isaiah 47:3 ; Ezekiel 16:37 .

eat her flesh, and burn her with fire ] i.e. shall plunder and burn Rome. The threat was symbolised and almost fulfilled in the burning of the Capitol by the partisans of Vitellius, and the storming of Rome by those of Vespasian: it received a more complete fulfilment in the repeated disasters of the fifth century. The sack of Rome by Bourbon and the Germans was a less striking fulfilment: but the real and final one is no doubt still to come.

We should naturally understand from these words, that the judgement on Babylon described in the next chapter will be executed by the “kings of the earth,” the ten States among which the Roman Empire is partitioned. But it is almost as remarkable as the view of Hippolytus noted on v. 12, that St Benedict is recorded (S. Greg. Dial. ii. 15) to have said, “Rome will not be destroyed by the nations, but be overthrown by thunderstorms, whirlwinds and earthquakes .” We know what he did not, that Rome stands, like Pompeii, on volcanic soil, within a few miles of volcanos that, though not active now, were so to the verge of historical times, and may be again. This book does not tell us positively how Babylon will fall, and no one has the right to pretend to say: but it is at least suggestive to know that it might fall by a convulsion which unbelievers would think quite “natural,” while believers would see its place in the scheme of providence.

17. For God hath put in their hearts &c.] The very same “judicial blindness” is spoken of in 2 Thessalonians 2:11 .

to agree ] Lit., to make , (or come to ,) one mind , (or one will ): cf. v. 13.

and give their kingdom unto the beast ] He therefore, though a representative of the Roman Empire, will not fall with the city of Rome: on the contrary, in the last days of the latter he will have appeared as its enemy. The gradual divorce of the Empire from the City, by Diocletian, Constantine, Charlemagne, the mediæval German Emperors, Charles V., Francis II., Napoleon, William, is significant as providing precedents for what Antichrist will do: though of course it would be absurd and unjust to think of all these as actuated by his spirit.

18. that great city &c.] Again as in v. 9 the designation of Rome is unmistakeable. The words cannot be glossed, “Babylon is (now represented by) Rome,” but must mean “Babylon is Rome.”

which reigneth ] Lit., which hath kingdom , or kingly power .

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Revelation 17". "Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges". 1896.