Bible Commentaries
Revelation 17

D.S. Clark's Commentary on RevelationClark on Revelation

Search for…
Enter query below:
Additional Authors



We are fortunate in having chapter seventeen in the book of Revelation, for it serves to explain much of the symbolism of the book that otherwise would appear vague. And whatever explanations God gives of the meaning of this book are infinitely better than all the guesses men can make.

This book was given by God. He knows its meaning and what he says in explanation of it is final.

Verses 1-2

Vs. 1, 2. An angel comes to John and proposes to show him the judgment of the great whore that sitteth on many waters. In chapter sixteen we had the vials poured out and all the striking symbolism of the judgment that was to fall; and now the angel says he will explain it more fully. He calls the object of this judgment a whore that sitteth upon many waters. The whore is afterwards shown to be a city and the many waters are peoples and nations and tongues. It is here said that "the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication." Her idolatry had permeated the world. The Old Testament had used the words adultery and fornication to describe idolatry. Some have thought that these words were used only when Israel, God's covenant people, were guilty of defection and fell into idolatry, and therefore they couldn't be applied to pagan Rome. But these words in the Old Testament are applied to other nations such as Babylon and Nineveh, and may here apply to pagan Rome for papal Rome has not come into vision.

Verse 3

V. 3. "So he carried me away into the wilderness;" sometimes he was carried away into heaven to see visions; but the thing he was about to see now had no affinity with heaven, he could not see such a scene as this in heaven,

SO he was taken to a wilderness as a more appropriate place, and one more in congruity with what he was about to see. "And I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet colored beast full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns." This is evidently the same beast that we saw in chapter thirteen, there it had seven heads and ten horns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy, and he spoke blasphemies against God. This is the same beast, he is scarlet now, perhaps in allusion to the blood he had shed; and this beast, as we have seen, was the empire of Rome.

And the woman that sat upon the beast as we shall see was the city of Rome.

Verse 4

V. 4. This woman was arrayed in gorgeous apparel, and decked with jewels, and held in her hand a cup full of abominations and the filthiness of her fornication. What a combination! a gaudy body and a filthy heart! and how natural it is; people try to cover up with dazzle the rottenness within. Paint on the outside and slime on the inside.

Verse 5

V. 5. "And on her forehead a name written, Mystery, Babylon the Great, the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth." We have had the name Babylon. We were told: "Babylon is fallen." It is one of the problems of this book to determine what is meant by Babylon. Now this woman is labeled Babylon. That name is written on her; and if we find out what the woman is, we have found out what Babylon is. Now in the last verse of the chapter we are told: "And the woman is that great city that reigneth over the kings of the earth." And when you ask, what great city was it that, in John's day, ruled over the kings of the earth, you have only one answer, and that is, Rome. So it is that this seventeenth chapter serves as an interpreter of symbols.

Verse 6

V. 6. "And I saw the woman drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus." Here is her persecution. She was intoxicated with a fanatical zeal to exterminate the Christians; Peter crucified head downwards, so tradition tells us; Paul yielding his head to the stroke of the executioner's ax; thousands on thousands executed in every form of torture. No wonder the word scarlet comes into the scene.

Verses 7-8

V. 7. The angel said: "I will tell thee the mystery of the woman and of the beast that carrieth her." That is what we want to know. In the eighth verse we are told he shall ascend out of the bottomless pit, and go into perdition, that does not tell us much, but at least tells his character. Again, "the beast that was, and is not, and yet is." That seems almost contradictory. Did it refer to the fact that one of his heads was wounded to death and yet the beast lived? Did it refer to the fact that one dynasty would be swept away, but another djmasty would still continue the life of the beast? Did it refer to the fact that the judgment on the beast was already pronounced, but not yet carried out? That although all the vials were poured out in the vision yet the time of the beast's destruction was yet in the future? That the beast was prospectively dead since God had pronounced his doom, but the actual stroke had not yet fallen?

That is difficult to determine with the few details at hand, but the following verses will be rather more explicit.

Verse 9

V. 9. "And here is the mind that hath wisdom" or here is the place to exercise your mind and gain wisdom. Here we will see great light on these problems. "The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman siteth," the well known seven hills of Rome. That is a geographical identification. I presume no one in John's day and we think no one in this day, could miss his meaning. The angel is telling John what that beast is that we have been talking about through all these chapters, and here he points out that the seven heads are seven hills. But there is another test of its identity, besides the geographical similarity there is a historical one that describes the beast in time rather than in place. This we have in verse ten: "And there are seven kings; five are fallen, and one is, and the other is yet to come, and when he cometh he must continue a short space." We had the beast located geographically on the seven hills, which meant Rome. Now we have him located in history to tell us what period of Rome we are dealing with. And there is no period of Rome's history that will fit this description but the dynasty of the Caesars. Julius Caesar was the founder of the empire, he is the head that was wounded to death. But though that head was wounded to death, the empire continued to live. The beast did not die with one of its heads. The autocratic power of Rome was more absolutely exercised by succeeding kings, than Julius Caesar could ever have dreamed.

John says five of these kings are fallen, viz. Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, all these five had passed away when John wrote this book; and one is, viz. Nero, who was then on the throne; and one is yet to come, Galba, and when he cometh, he must continue a short space. Accordingly Galba succeeded Nero, and his short space was a reign of seven months.

This mention of the seven hills and the seven kings, this geographical and historical identification, fixes with absolute precision the time of this writing and the subject with which it deals. There should be no more doubt about this after such plain indications in the text itself, that the beast is the Roman Empire, and not some King that is yet to reign over the world in the supposed "Tribulation" as the premillennialists say.

Even when the dynasty falls and the seven heads are all gone, the beast lives on. "He is the eighth and is of the seven." When Caesar's dynasty fell, another dynasty succeeded and the beast still lived. That Empire did not perish with the Caesars. Nero went down, Galba went down, but Vespasian, and Titus and Domitian and others continued the empire which still persecuted the Christian Church.

Verses 12-14

Vs. 12-14. These verses tell us about the horns of the beast. He had not only seven heads; but ten horns. These ten horns were ten kings, not kings sitting on the throne of Rome, as I understand, but those kings and countries subjected by Rome, and which made the empire great. We know that Rome embraced at that time the countries of Europe that bordered on the Mediterranean Sea, and the northern part of Africa and considerable territory in Asia, and also in central Europe. Rome had conquered the world.

It is further said of these horns or subsidiary nations, "They give their power and strength unto the beast." Yes this they did for a while, but wait and see. By and by these horns turn against her. But in the meantime, these horns shall make war with the Lamb; they joined in persecuting the church, and strengthened the government against Christianity. "But the Lamb shall overcome them." All the powers of the empire were joined to crush the Christian church, but the church came off victorious. The leaven was in the lump and eventually leavened the whole lump.

Verses 16-18

V. 16. "And the ten horns which thou sawest upon the beast, these shall hate the whore and shall make her desolate, and naked and shall eat her flesh, and burn her with fire." There are two things to be observed here. First that the ten horns are not successive kings on the throne of Rome, but they are contemporary powers under Rome. They combine against her. The next verse speaks of their agreeing together, hence they are contemporaneous.

Second, that these kingdoms embraced within Rome are the agents of her downfall. And the student of history will recall how the Germans, the Goths, and others descended on Rome like the scourge of God. So that the horns that at first gave the beast their power at length turned their power against him. The nations embraced within the empire that at first made it great, turned at length against Rome and wrought her destruction.

And the last verse of the chapter says: "And the woman which thou sawest is that great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth." She was reigning then, and there is only one city that can fill the bill. This shows conclusively that we are not dealing here with the Papacy, as some interpreters think, for the Papacy had not yet risen when John wrote; and did not reach any point of reigning over kings for many centuries after this time.

And this shows just as conclusively that these chapters of Revelation cannot be forced into the Premillennial scheme that assigns all this middle part of the book to a "Tribulation" period just prior to the second coming of Jesus Christ.

And this should be particularly observed that all this historical setting; all this plain identification of symbols which God has furnished us in the text of the book itself, cuts to the roots the whole Premillennial interpretation of Revelation. If the woman was the city of Rome, and John says she was, then the beast that carried her was certainly the Roman Empire, and not some future king of a "Tribulation" period.

Another thing to be observed is that the figure of the beast with seven heads and ten horns is imagery borrowed from Daniel who used a ten horned beast, the same figure, to describe a world power.

We must not, however, too hastily conclude that Daniel and John refer to the same political world power.

It must not be assumed that the Bible has only one meaning for a symbol. Leaven generally represents sin, but in the parable of the leaven, it represents the kingdom of God. Again a lion is the symbol used in Scripture to represent such diverse personages as Jesus Christ and the devil.

Because a fig tree may be used in one place to teach a lesson to the Jews, it does not follow that every time a fig tree is mentioned in the Bible it must be regarded as a type of the Jews.