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Bible Commentaries
Revelation 17

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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K. Supplementary revelation of the judgment of ungodly systems in the Great Tribulation chs. 17-18

Further revelation concerning the destruction of Babylon follows in chapters 17 and 18. Beale took Revelation 17:1 to Revelation 19:10 as an interpretive review of the sixth and seventh bowls. [Note: Beale, p. 847.] Both chapters are parenthetic in that they do not advance the revelation chronologically. They give further supplementary information about matters referred to in the chronological sections (as do Revelation 7:1-17; Revelation 10:1 to Revelation 11:14; and Revelation 12:1 to Revelation 15:8). Babylon in chapters 17 and 18 represents the head of Gentile world power. For this reason many interpreters take the city and empire in view as referring to Rome (cf. 1 Peter 5:13). Daniel saw Babylon as the gold head of an image that represented Gentile world powers in Daniel 2.

The focus of attention in chapter 17 is on the religious system that God identified with Babylon in Scripture, and that of chapter 18 is on the commercial system He identified with it. Babylon is not just the name of a city in the Middle East. It is also a name that symbolizes the chief characteristics of that city throughout history, which have been a certain religious system and a certain commercial system. We need to keep this double use of the name as a real city and as a symbol in mind as we read these chapters. In a similar way "Rome" may mean the Roman Catholic Church as well as the city of Rome in Italy, and the name "Hollywood" represents both a town and an industry associated with that town.

"She [Babylon] stands for civilized man apart from God, man in organized but godless community." [Note: Morris, pp. 202-3.]

"The ancient Babylon is better understood here as the archetypal head of all entrenched worldly resistance to God. Babylon is a trans-historical reality including idolatrous kingdoms as diverse as Sodom, Gomorrah, Egypt, Babylon, Tyre, Nineveh, and Rome. Babylon is an eschatological symbol of satanic deception and power; it is a divine mystery that can never be wholly reducible to empirical earthly institutions. It may be said that Babylon represents the total culture of the world apart from God, while the divine system is depicted by the New Jerusalem. Rome is simply one manifestation of the total system." [Note: Johnson, p. 554.]

1. Religion in the Great Tribulation ch. 17

The Lord gave the revelation of the divine destruction of the religious system identified with Babylon to enable the readers to understand God’s plans for this system more exactly.

Verse 1

The fact that this chapter describes the judgment of Babylon referred to in Revelation 14:8 and Revelation 16:19 seems clear. It was one of the angels who poured out the bowl judgments who served as John’s guide as he viewed these events in his vision. The "great harlot" (Gr. pornes tes megales) is Babylon (Revelation 17:5). The connection between Babylon and immorality (Gr. porneia) was evident as early as Revelation 14:8. She is the personification of spiritual fornication or idolatry (cf. Isaiah 23:15-17; Jeremiah 2:20-31; Jeremiah 13:27; Ezekiel 16:17-19; Hosea 2:5; Nahum 3:4). [Note: Ford, Revelation, p. 277; Wall, p. 205.]

"In OT prophetic discourse the imagery of the harlot is commonly used to denote religious apostasy." [Note: Mounce, p. 307.]

It is probably better to translate epi as "beside" rather than "on" many waters since the harlot sits astride the beast (Revelation 17:3). Evidently the beast and she were on the shore in John’s vision (cf. John 21:1). The "many waters" represent humankind (Revelation 17:15), not a specific geographical site. This fact indicates that it is Babylon as a symbol that is in view here rather than the physical city. Babylon dominates humankind. It is also true, however, that literal Babylon stood beside many waters; it was built on a network of canals (Jeremiah 51:13). This description helps make the identification more certain.

"She leads the world in the pursuit of false religion whether it be paganism or perverted revealed religion. She is the symbol for a system that reaches back to the tower of Babel (Genesis 10:9-10; Genesis 11:1-9) and extends into the future when it will peak under the regime of the beast." [Note: Thomas, Revelation 8-22, pp. 282-83. Cf. Seiss, pp. 387-90.]

There is similarity between this angel’s invitation to John and the one in Revelation 21:9. This is the first of many clues that the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:9 to Revelation 22:5) is the divine counterpart of humanistic Babylon. [Note: Lee, 4:735; Wall, p. 205.]

Verses 1-2

The invitation of the angel 17:1-2

Verse 2

The "kings of the earth" are world leaders who personify kingdoms (Revelation 16:14; et al.). They committed immorality (fornication) with Babylon by uniting with the system she symbolizes.

"Religious compromise necessitated in this kind of association is totally incompatible with the worship of the one true God, and so amounts to spiritual prostitution." [Note: Thomas, Revelation 8-22, p. 284.]

This system made all earth-dwellers, not just kings, "drunk." That is, it had a controlling influence on them. When people reject the truth, they will believe lies (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:10-11). Obviously this harlot is different from the woman in chapter 12 and the bride in chapters 19, 21, and 22.

Verse 3

The angel carried John away in the Spirit to a wilderness area (cf. Revelation 1:10; Revelation 4:1; Revelation 21:10). This wilderness may refer to the desert near literal Babylon. [Note: Moffatt, 5:451; Robertson, 6:429.] Or it may anticipate the desolate condition of the harlot. [Note: Düsterdieck, p. 429; Lee, 4:737.] There he saw a woman, the harlot of Revelation 17:1, sitting on a beast. Contrast the description of the rider on the white horse in Revelation 19:8; Revelation 19:11; Revelation 19:14. The description of this animal is exactly the same as Antichrist in Revelation 13:1 except that it is scarlet here, probably symbolizing luxury and splendor (cf. Revelation 14:8-11; Isaiah 1:18; Matthew 27:28-29). She sat in a position of control over Antichrist, and he supported her.

Verses 3-6

The vision of the system 17:3-6

Verse 4

The woman’s clothing was purple, symbolic of royalty, and scarlet, representing luxury (Revelation 17:3; cf. Matthew 27:28; Mark 15:17; Mark 15:20; John 19:2; John 19:5). Her ornaments included gold, precious stones, and pearls-jewelry that made her look like a queen. Contrast the bride of the Lamb whom John saw adorned with bright, clean linen (Revelation 19:8). The cup in her hand added to her royal appearance, but it contained idolatrous abominations (cf. Deuteronomy 18:9; Deuteronomy 29:17; Deuteronomy 32:16; Jeremiah 51:7; et al.), namely, unclean things connected with her spiritual immorality. The harlot wore expensive, attractive garments and accessories that made her externally appealing, but she is a counterfeit beauty. What is inside her is unclean.

"Any institution or facet of culture that is characterized by pride . . ., economic overabundance, persecution, and idolatry is part of Babylon." [Note: Beale, p. 856.]

Verse 5

It was customary in John’s day for Roman prostitutes to wear their names on their headbands. [Note: Swete, p. 214.] However, it is not clear whether this woman’s name was on a headband or on her forehead (cf. Revelation 7:3; Revelation 9:4; Revelation 13:16-18; Revelation 14:1; Jeremiah 3:3). Her name was a "mystery," namely, something not previously revealed but now made clear. A name in Scripture represents everything about the person who bears it, often the person’s reputation. The content of the mystery about this Babylonian system is what John revealed here, especially the new revelation about its evil character and judgment (Revelation 17:17-18). [Note: Lenski, p. 496.] The harlot represents Babylon that is a "mother of harlots," not just one herself, but the fountainhead of many other evil religious systems and everything anti-Christian (cf. Genesis 10:9-10; Genesis 11:1-9). [Note: Alford, 4:707; Scott, p. 342.] God attributed all kinds of abominations to her.

"In our day the ecumenical church has faced a lot of problems. It seems that they have recognized psychological differences in people and that it is impossible to water down theologies and practices to suit everyone. So each group will come into this great world ecumenical system but retain some of its peculiarities. For example, those who want to immerse will immerse. Those who want to sprinkle will sprinkle. Those who want elaborate ritual will have it, and those who want no ritual will have that. You see, there is going to be more than the mother harlot-there will be a whole lot of harlots, a regular brothel." [Note: McGee, 5:1033.]

Many writers have traced the religiously apostate system of worship begun in Babylon and carried on through history through Roman Catholicism and the modern Christian ecumenical movement. [Note: See Alexander Hislop, The Two Babylons, for an extended treatment, or Walvoord, "Revelation," pp. 970-71, for a brief one. Ironside, pp. 287-95, is also helpful.] However, this description of Babylonianism encompasses all forms of paganism including perversions of Christianity and non-Christian religions.

Verse 6

She had drunk the blood of believers, the saints generally and witnesses to Jesus Christ specifically (cf. Revelation 11:10; Revelation 13:7; Revelation 13:15). This system had destroyed true believers and rejoiced in their deaths. This revelation amazed John. A system purporting to honor God was killing His faithful followers! Alternatively John may have wondered why God allowed her to live, or because he did not understand the meaning of what he saw, or because he saw a splendidly attired woman instead of a ruined city. In his day the Roman Empire was the greatest manifestation of Babylonianism.

Verse 7

The angel promised to interpret these revelations that were so baffling to John, particularly the mystery concerning the woman and the beast. More information about the beast follows in Revelation 17:7-14 and more about the woman in Revelation 17:15-18. The beast supplied the woman’s power and purpose. He had seven heads and 10 horns, which the angel explained later (Revelation 17:9-10).

Verses 7-14

Further revelation about the beast 17:7-14

Verse 8

The beast, as we have already seen, is Antichrist (Revelation 13:1-3). Here the angel referred to his resuscitation of a formerly dead nation (cf. Revelation 13:3; Revelation 13:12; Revelation 13:14). Ladd held that we should identify the beast itself with its heads, but this leads to a confusion of the figures. [Note: Ladd, p. 226.] Evidently this resuscitation will happen near the middle of the Tribulation. [Note: Thomas, Revelation 8-22, p. 293.] The beast comes out of the abyss, the home of Satan (Revelation 11:7) and the hold of his demons (Revelation 9:1-2; Revelation 9:11), when he revives this nation. This suggests that Satan will give him supernatural powers when he does this. Finally Jesus Christ will destroy him forever (Revelation 19:20).

The beast’s resuscitation of this nation will greatly impress earth-dwellers (i.e., unbelievers; cf. Revelation 13:3). They will conclude that he is a divine savior, but really he will be a demonic slaughterer. He will deceive everyone but the elect (i.e., believers; cf. Revelation 13:8; Matthew 24:24; Mark 13:22).

Verse 9

The angel prefaced his identification of the beast’s seven heads with a statement that understanding this part of the revelation requires wisdom (cf. Revelation 13:18). Evidently many would incorrectly identify these seven heads. Indeed various writers have suggested a multitude of different interpretations. The most popular of these include seven Roman emperors, [Note: Beckwith, pp. 699, 704-11; Swete, pp. 220-21. For refutation of this view, see Ladd, pp. 228-29.] the seven hills of Rome, [Note: E.g., Newell, p. 263; Mounce, pp. 313-14; Beasley-Murray, p. 256. For extensive evidence that these are kingdoms rather than literal mountains, see Seiss, pp. 391-94.] and various non-literal views, such as the following.

"By his use of seven, he indicates completeness or wholeness. The seven heads of the beast symbolize fullness of blasphemy and evil. It is much like our English idiom ’the seven seas,’ i.e., all the seas of the world." [Note: Johnson, p. 559.]

Revelation 17:9-11 are an exposition or clarification of Revelation 17:8. The text is always its own best interpreter. The seven heads are "seven kings" (Revelation 17:10). They are the heads and personifications of seven empires (cf. Daniel 7:17; Daniel 7:23). The angel also referred to them as "mountains" (Revelation 17:9). In the Bible a mountain is sometimes a symbol of a prominent government (cf. Psalms 30:7; Psalms 68:15-16; Isaiah 2:2; Isaiah 41:15; Jeremiah 51:25; Daniel 2:35; Daniel 2:44; Habakkuk 3:6; Habakkuk 3:10; Zechariah 4:7).

"The call for special wisdom in Revelation 17:9 a probably has in view the ability to grasp this double meaning of the mountains [i.e., as individuals and kingdoms]." [Note: Thomas, Revelation 8-22, p. 296.]

The woman sits over the seven rulers and empires, but she is not one of them. She exercises authority over them.

Verse 10

The seven kings are rulers over seven kingdoms. The prominent kingdom in John’s day that "is" was certainly the Roman Empire. The five most prominent world powers preceding Rome that had fallen are probably Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and Greece. [Note: Seiss, p. 393; cf. Ladd, p. 229; Walvoord, The Revelation . . ., p. 251; Alford, 4:710-11.] The Old Babylonian Empire may have been the first (Genesis 10:8-10). The seventh kingdom that was yet to come and would remain a little while is the beast’s kingdom (Revelation 13:3; Revelation 17:8). [Note: Thomas, Revelation 8-22, p. 298; Walvoord, The Revelation . . ., p. 254; Kelly, pp. 364-68.] All of these kingdoms have persecuted or will persecute God’s people (cf. Ezekiel 29-30; Nahum 3:1-19; Isaiah 21:9; Jeremiah 50-51; Daniel 10:13; Daniel 11:2-4). Another common view is that the number seven is symbolic and stands for the power of the Roman Empire as a whole. Some writers have interpreted the seven kingdoms as figuratively representing kings throughout history. [Note: E.g., Mounce, p. 315; Beckwith, pp. 704-8. Beale, p. 871.]

Verse 11

Evidently the beast is one of the seven in the sense that his first kingdom is on a par with the seven major empires just mentioned. He is the eighth in that he establishes an eighth major empire with a worldwide government after he revives a previously dead nation having received supernatural powers from Satan. This explanation views the beast’s kingdom before his revival as the seventh kingdom and his kingdom after these events as the eighth. [Note: Thomas, Revelation 8-22, p. 299.] A variation of this view sees the seventh kingdom as the revived Roman Empire and the eighth as the beast’s kingdom, which comprises the revived Roman Empire and all other nations. [Note: Walvoord, The Revelation . . ., p. 254.] Beale explained the eighth as "another way of referring to his future attempted mimicry of Christ’s resurrection." [Note: Beale, p. 875. Cf. Johnson, pp. 560-61. For refutation of the preterist view that Nero is in view, see Mark L. Hitchcock, "A Critique of the Preterist View of Revelation 17:9-11 and Nero," Bibliotheca Sacra 164:656 (October-December 2007):472-85.]

Jesus Christ will destroy the beast and his (eighth) kingdom when He returns to the earth. It will not just "fall" to a conquering kingdom as the other major empires did (cf. Daniel 2:44).

Verse 12

The specific identity of the 10 horns (other kings but without kingdoms when John wrote) is not yet clear. Mounce took them as symbolic of complete power without reference to kings or kingdoms. [Note: Mounce, p. 317. Cf. Beale, p. 878.] They will be allies of the beast and serve under him in his worldwide government during the Great Tribulation (Daniel 7:23-24). Each of them will rule a kingdom simultaneously with one another and with the beast (cf. Daniel 7:7-8; Daniel 7:24). [Note: Bullinger, pp. 545-48; Walvoord, The Revelation . . ., p. 255; Kelly, pp. 368-76.] They will have authority to rule "for one hour," very briefly during the Great Tribulation (cf. Revelation 18:10; Revelation 18:17; Revelation 18:19). Evidently their short, independent rule will immediately precede the return of Jesus Christ to the earth (Revelation 17:14). The beast will give them their authority, but God will permit him to do so.

Verse 13

The single purpose of these end-time kingdoms is to rule the world (Revelation 17:14). The 10 rulers will submit to the Antichrist’s leadership to achieve this end. Evidently he will have to put down three of them who revolt against him (Daniel 7:24; cf. Revelation 12:3; Revelation 13:1; Revelation 17:3).

Verse 14

At the very end of the Tribulation these kings will fight against Jesus Christ as He returns to earth (cf. Revelation 16:14; Revelation 16:16; Revelation 19:19-21). The Lamb will defeat them and will prove to be Lord of lords and King of kings (Revelation 19:16), the title Antichrist seeks to claim in his worldwide empire.

Those with Christ accompany Him from heaven (cf. Revelation 19:14). They are the called, the elect, and the faithful. These are probably three terms for the same group, namely, believers, rather than three different groups of believers. The three terms become progressively more specific. Those chosen for salvation are elected by the Father (cf. Ephesians 1:4-5). They are the same ones who then respond to God’s grace by faithfully believing on Him. These believers who accompany Christ from heaven will be Christians and saints who died during the Tribulation.

Verse 15

The angel next helped John understand the identity of the waters (Revelation 17:1). Water is a common symbol for people in the Old Testament (e.g., Psalms 18:4; Psalms 18:16; Psalms 124:4; Isaiah 8:7; Jeremiah 47:2). The harlot exercises a controlling influence over the population of the world, both the faithful (cf. Revelation 5:9; Revelation 7:9) and the rebellious (cf. Revelation 10:11; Revelation 11:9; Revelation 13:7; Revelation 14:6). There will be one religious system that will encompass all nations and peoples during the Tribulation (cf. Revelation 17:1-2), though there could be various local forms of it.

Verses 15-18

The judgment of the harlot 17:15-18

Verse 16

The beast and his allies will eventually throw off the harlot and thoroughly destroy her. They will plunder her wealth, expose her corruption, and utterly consume her, as dogs ate Jezebel’s flesh (1 Kings 21:23-24; 2 Kings 9:30-37; cf. Psalms 27:2; Jeremiah 10:25; Micah 3:3; Zephaniah 3:3). They will completely desecrate her, as the Israelites burned the bodies of people who committed detestable fornication (cf. Leviticus 20:14; Leviticus 21:9; Joshua 7:15; Joshua 7:25). This will probably occur in the middle of the Tribulation when Antichrist breaks his covenant with Israel and demands that everyone on earth worship him or die (Daniel 9:27; Daniel 11:26-38; Matthew 24:15; 2 Thessalonians 2:4; Revelation 13:8; Revelation 13:15). Satan’s kingdom will divide and turn against itself, the sure sign that it cannot endure (cf. Mark 3:23-26). [Note: Wilcock, p. 165.]

Verse 17

The ultimate cause of this action is God’s sovereign purpose. God has used the forces of evil for His own purposes before (cf. Revelation 16:13-14; Revelation 16:16; Judges 7:22; 1 Samuel 14:20; 2 Chronicles 20:23; Jeremiah 25:9-11; Ezekiel 38:21; Haggai 2:22; Zechariah 14:13). Nevertheless the sinner is always responsible for his or her actions (Ezekiel 18).

"This verse denies the existence of any ultimate dualism in the world. In the final analysis the powers of evil serve the purposes of God." [Note: Mounce, pp. 319-20.]

The "common purpose" in view in this verse is world domination (Revelation 17:13). The allied kings will submit to the beast’s leadership because this will help them achieve their goal of attaining universal power and resisting God. This situation will continue until the end of the age, until all God’s words about rebellion against Him in the Tribulation have come to fulfillment (cf. Revelation 10:7).

Verse 18

The woman represents "the great city." In the context this undoubtedly refers to Babylon. It is the only city referred to specifically in this chapter (Revelation 17:5; cf. Revelation 16:18; Revelation 14:8). As a system of apostate religion, which Babylon originated (Genesis 10-11) and symbolizes, it reigned over the leaders and kingdoms of the world. Though religion has always guided the decisions of political rulers, this is very clear during the Middle Ages in Europe. Then the popes wielded great influence over the political leaders of the Holy Roman Empire. The religious influence of Jezebel over King Ahab is a striking parallel in biblical history.

The focus of the revelation in this chapter is the age-old apostate religious system and its relation to government during the seven-year Tribulation period. During the first half of the Tribulation it will be an ecumenical, worldwide body that will stand above government and will be aggressively hostile to true believers in God. At the end of the Great Tribulation, Antichrist will terminate it and demand universal worship of himself.

"In view of the fact that there does not seem to be any religious opposition to the woman, and her sway seems to be complete except for individual saints whom she persecutes, the evidence seems to support the fact that the woman represents an ecumenical or worldwide church embracing all of Christianity religiously, and therefore including not only the Roman Catholic Church but Protestant and Greek Orthodox as well. . . .

"The final form of world religion will not even be Christian in name, and will actually be an atheistic, humanistic, satanic system which denies everything related to the true God, and is the persecutor of all who fail to worship the political ruler." [Note: Walvoord, "Revival of . . .," pp. 326-27.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Revelation 17". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/revelation-17.html. 2012.
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