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Bible Commentaries

Wallace's Commentary on the Book of Revelation

Revelation 17

Introduction

X

THE HARLOT WOMAN ON THE SCARLET BEAST

(Chapter 17)

The contents of this chapter comprised the announcement of the angel to reveal to John the judgment to have been passed upon the harlot city.

Before performing the announcement, however, the angel carried John away into a wilderness for a visional description of this harlot. These remaining chapters of the apocalypse surrounded only two opposite figures--the old apostate Jerusalem in contrast with the New Jerusalem, the Victorious Church of Christ.

The old Judaistic Jerusalem with all of her apostasies must have been removed in order for the New Jerusalem, the church--or kingdom of Christ--to have come into world-wide sway. Hence, symbolic Babylon the Harlot and figurative New Jerusalem, the Bride (the church), were the center of the remaining apocalypses. Later, John was transported in vision to a mountain where he was allowed to view the Bride, the wife of the Lamb (the church of Christ)--but before doing so, the first angel summoned the Seer in spirit to appropriate surroundings to reveal the identity and character of Babylon, the great, the mother of the harlots, and abominations of the earth, and to visualize the judgment that was to come upon her--for the destruction of the Harlot must precede the victory of the Bride.

The seventeenth and eighteenth chapters must be considered as one--for the announced judgment upon the Harlot by the angel at the beginning of chapter seventeen was suspended by the vision of the Harlot; and another angel descended in chapter eighteen to explain the mystery of Babylon the great, and to reveal the judgment against her in the overthrow and destruction of the city which the Harlot represented.

There are numerous reasons why the Harlot could not have been the city of Rome. It is stated in this chapter that the beast hated the Harlot. But the beast admittedly was the Roman Empire, and if Rome was the Harlot, the Roman Empire hated the city of Rome. The beast being the empire, the Harlot was of necessity some other than Rome.

First: The hatred of the beast for the Harlot harmonized with the animosity of both the Roman Empire and of Rome, its capitol city, toward Jerusalem.

Second: The latter half of Revelation beginning with chapter twelve was recapitulatory of the first half ending with chapter eleven, under another and different set of symbols. In chapter 11:8 the names Sodom and Egypt were symbolically applied to apostate Jerusalem, and thus identified by the descriptive clause where also our Lord was crucified. It was because of these apostasies and abominations that the symbolic name Babylon in chapter 14:8 was applied to the fallen city of Jerusalem.

Third: There was no basis for a symbol or an analogy in which Rome could have been depicted as having become a harlot, for Rome never stood in the spiritual relation to God as a faithful city, turned to harlotry. The Harlot was a city once faithful to God, and only Jerusalem can fulfill the symbolic descriptions.

Fourth: The apocalypse was not directly concerned with Rome, or the Roman Empire; rather, they were envisioned only as the instrument in the execution of judgment on Jerusalem, which in her multiplied apostasies had come to be symbolized as the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth, i. e. Judea and Palestine.

All of this was in direct fulfillment of the things Jesus foretold in the twenty-third and twenty-fourth chapters of Matthew and the twenty-first chapter of Luke concerning the apostasies and abominations which would bring doom to the city of Jerusalem.

For example read Mat_23:34-37 : “Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city: that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar. Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation. 0 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not !"

The words of Stephen in denunciation of Jerusalem’s abominations in Act_7:52-53 were predictive of this doom: “Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which showed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers: Who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it.”

The culmination of the Lord’s upbraidings and Stephen’s denunciation of Jerusalem were reached in John’s visions of Jerusalem as Sodom, Egypt and Babylon, with her abominations and harlotry. There are other such portents of the downfall and doom of Jerusalem in the discourses of Christ and in the apostolic epistles, all of which come within the scope of John’s visions.

In chapter seventeen two chief figures were introduced: First, the old Jerusalem as the Harlot; and the persecuting power of Rome as the beast upon which the Harlot sat. Corollary to these two symbolic characters were the two judgments, one against the woman, the other against the beast in the form of the announced destruction of both. However, as the beast symbolized the Roman Empire, it was only as the persecuting instrument; hence, the destruction of the beast which should be accomplished was not the empire itself but the persecuting power which the beast embodied and personified.

Seeing that chapters seventeen and eighteen deal with Jerusalem as the Harlot, and the persecuting power of the beast as the Roman Empire, the verses of the two chapters fall into an orderly sequence.

(1) The harlot sitting upon the waters--17:1-2.

(2) The woman on the scarlet coloured beast--17:3-8.

(3) The great wonder comprehended--17:9-11.

(4) The coordination of the ten kings--17:12-18:

Verse 1

(1) The harlot sitting upon the waters--17:1-2.

And there came one of the seven angels which had the seven vials, and talked with me, saying unto me, Come hither; I will show unto thee the judgment of the great whore that sitteth upon many waters .” The term harlot has been used always in a figurative sense to denote wicked cities, as of Nineveh in Nah_3:4 ; and of Jerusalem in Isa_1:21 ; and of Israel, when the nation became a harlot by the practice of idolatry in Revelation.

So here apostate Jerusalem, in broken relation with God, was given the mystic name Babylon, the mother of harlots. From generations past the execration of Israel had increased from the time of prophet’s reprobations in Isa_1:21 to the Lord’s lamentations in Mat_23:29-39 . By the elders of Israel the official responsibility for crucifying the Christ was placed upon Jerusalem in Mat_27:25 . The martyr Stephen laid upon Jerusalem with the criminal charges of “betrayers and murders” in Act_7:52 . The descriptions in Revelation, chapters 14:8; 17: l-6; 18: l-2 were but extensions of the same exposures in the continuing apostasies of Jerusalem.

The vision of the harlot that sitteth upon many waters was based upon the fact and the history that Jerusalem depended on her affiliations with the Roman Empire and its tributaries for commerce, revenue and support.

This statement has been considered an indication that the Harlot was Rome, sitting on the waters. But the same figure of speech was applied to Babylon in Jer_51:13 : “0 thou that dwellest upon many waters.” It was not a reference to a literal geographical location, but to commercial sources of revenue and support; and it was a very impressive imagery of Jerusalem’s dependence on affiliations with the heathen tributaries of Rome.

Verse 2

The reference in verse two to the harlot’s fornication with the kings, and the wine of her fornication making drunk the inhabitants of the land were symbols of the extensions of Jerusalem’s affiliations with foreign people, and the passion to be like the nations around them, as Israel demanded in 1Sa_8:5 . These affiliations so enamored the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem as to be characterized in the symbolism of being drunk with. the wine of her fornication.

The apocalypse was consistently that of apostate Jerusalem. It described the iniquities of Israel from their national sin of demanding a king to be as other nations under Samuel, the course that carried them into exile; and that in the visions of Revelation brought their city and their national existence to destruction.

Verse 3

(2) The woman on the scarlet coloured beast--17:3-8.

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

The color of the beast was derived from the Red Dragon of the preceding chapters that instigated the persecutions. The crimson color was also the symbol of sin: “Though your sins be as scarlet . . . though they be red like crimson” Isa_1:18 . The adaptation of the color red was significant in this symbol of a beast full of the sins of blasphemy. The word blasphemy originally denoted every kind of railing, reviling, irreverence, and insulting reproaches against God, or any other detraction; hence, this beast was full of names of blasphemy-- any or all blasphemy against the church that could be named in connection with or reference to every known form of heathen idolatry.

The comments on the seven heads and ten horns which characterized the beast have been made in preceding chapters, this being the same beast, the Roman Empire and its tributaries, extended remarks here are unnecessary.

Verse 4

The description in verse four, of the woman arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and bedecked with all adornments of gold, jewels and pearls, were highly extended symbols of the harlots sources of seduction; and the golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication were all descriptive of the lewd character of the harlot woman, and symbolic of the unfaithfulness of Jerusalem, “the faithful city become an harlot.” It was a lurid picture of the spiritual condition of Jerusalem and all Judea.

Verse 5

The name written on the woman’s head, in verse five, was the inscription: Mystery, Babylon the Great, the Mother of Harlots and Abominations of the Earth. The spiritual evils of the land of Judea with all the national apostasies of Judaism were her offspring.

The prophet Hosea employed the same figure of whoredom, or harlotry, in his descriptions of Israel in chapters 1:2 and 2:1-5 of his book of prophecy. Stronger terms defining spiritual adulteries, fornications and harlotry, could not have been employed to set forth the spiritual luridness of Israel which brought on her exile--and the same extreme analogies apply to the spiritual decadence of Jerusalem which culminated in destruction, devastation downfall and termination.

Verse 6

The woman was envisioned as drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus, in verse six. This not only referred to the fact that Jerusalem had slain the prophets as in Mat_23:29-39 ; and been “betrayers and murderers,” as charged by Stephen in Act_7:52 ; and was the city “where also our Lord was crucified, as in Rev_11:8 ; but it was her apostasies that had caused the persecutions which had overwhelmed the land, and Jerusalem was therefore responsible for the blood of the saints and the martyrs symbolized throughout the apocalypse.

When John saw this adorned harlot sitting on the beast, he wondered with great admiration. The word wonder here means that the meaning had not yet been revealed, as it was done in the visions that followed. The word admiration has the meaning of astonishment--that is, John wondered with great amazement as he viewed the decked and jeweled Harlot seated on the beast whose power would bring her to destruction.

Verse 7

An angel cryptologist in verse seven appeared to decode the symbols which concealed in a mystery the vision of the beast upon which the woman sat. The enigmatic significance of the mystic symbolism which surrounded both the woman and the beast involved their respective destinies --the destruction of the woman (Jerusalem), and the perdition of the beast (the persecutor). The angel interpreter, proposing an explanation of the cryptic vision, repeated the wonder of the woman sitting on the seven heads and ten horns of the beast. It was a continued repetition in description of the Roman Empire, as previously shown, and of Jerusalem the apostate metropolis of Judaism.

Verse 8

An element of the mystery in the code description of the beast, in verse eight, was in the unusual saying: the beast that thou sawest was, and is not; and shall ascend out of the bottomless pit, and go into perdition. Prevailing in those days was “the Neronic myth” that Nero was dead, but was incarnated in Belial the idolatrous prince and head of the heathen world; and hence, the belief that he lived.

The myth could have been the basis of the symbol, which undoubtedly means the persecutor had apparently granted surcease of the persecutions, but it was only a lull--the beast that was, and is not, should again appear without warnings, ascending as it were from the unfathomable depths of diabolical abode. This was the same beast described in previous chapters as appearing in heaven-defined as the realm of political authorities and government, hence in visible personification. After his disappearance, or lull in persecution, he was returning from his invisible demonic habitat, as from nowhere, to revive the persecutions-- hence, the beast was, and is not, and yet is. This verse is comparable to the code six hundred and sixty-six of chapter 13:18 and referred to the same composite beast --the Roman Empire, personified in the persecuting emperor.

The reappearance of the beast in the display of power again caused wonderment among the dwellers of the earth whose names were not written in the book of life from the foundation of the world--that is, all of the people of the heathen and Roman world who were not the people of God, and had never been so reckoned, held the worldly pomp and power of the Roman emperor in great admiration. But this inhibition of the presence and power of the persecuting beast was not for long. His reappearance as a persecutor was also characterized as a final disappearance when his defeat and destiny should be accomplished--he would eventually go into perdition. It should be remembered that the destiny of the beast did not refer to the destruction of the empire itself but to the destruction of the persecuting power which the beast represented.

The symbols have the same force and application as Isaiah’s description of the decease of the wicked lords of Babylon--referring not to the literal demise of the Babylonian empire, but to the wicked dominion over the people of God.

There is a continuous reinforcement of the parallels between the apocalypses of the fortunes of Old Testament Israel through exile to their return and the destruction of Babylonian lordship, represented by Isaiah, in chapter 66:22, as their “new heavens and the new earth”; and the apocalypses of Revelation dealing with the persecutions of the New Testament church, the destruction of the old Jerusalem, and the symbolic “new heaven and new earth” of Rev_21:1 --a delineation of the grandeurs and glories of the New Jerusalem.

Verse 9

(3) The great wonder comprehended--17:9-11. “ And here is the mind which hath wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth. And there are seven kings: fire are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a short space. And the beast that was, and is not, even he is the eighth, and is of the seven, and goeth into perdition .”

The mind which hath wisdom referred to the deep mystical import of these symbols which were here merely projected but not fully explained or interpreted--the full meaning is reserved for the following chapter.

Everything in the visions revolves around the Jerusalem of the Jews, Rome being only collateral to the accomplishment of the visions. The reference to the seven mountains was not subject to a literal application any more than the literalizing of the woman. Mountains were ordinarily the symbols of the seats and positions of political and governmental authority, where power was concentrated. And while that was true of Rome, surrounded literally by seven hills; it was true also that Jerusalem was the city where apostasy in the realm of religious power was concentrated; and Jerusalem was also surrounded by seven literal mountains: Zion, Acra, Moriah, Bezetha, Millo, Ophel and Antonio; all of which are mentioned in the history of Josephus in connection with the war against Jerusalem (Book 5, Section 5, 8). The application of these symbols to Jerusalem finds consistency in the context.

Verse 10

The seven kings of verse ten were the imperial Caesars, of which Nero was sixth in succession from Julius. The seven mountains cannot be representative of the seven kings, since the text does not read they are seven kings, but “there are seven kings.” The text further states that five are fallen, and one is and the other is not yet come. Though Julius Caesar was the head of the Roman Republic, it merged into the empire; and the Roman emperors derived the official title Caesar from Julius.

There can be no reason in fact or history to justify omitting Julius from the count of the Caesars of Rome, and only the demands of a theory to provide a later date for Revelation has caused it to be done.

The seven kings, five of which had fallen, followed the count from Julius Caesar, the first-then, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, the five which had fallen-- and Nero, the sixth. He was referred to in the phrase and one is --that is, the reigning emperor. It is further stated that the other, or the seventh, is not yet.

The five Caesars had passed before John wrote this apocalypse; and Nero, the sixth Caesar, was reigning at the time Revelation was written. The apocalypse belonged to the Neronic period. Omitting quite properly the subordinates, or mock rulers, Domitian was the seventh Caesar; and the text specifically stated that he had not come. It is difficult to account for a theory that fixes the chronology of Revelation in the latter part of the Domitian reign when he, the seventh, had not come. The rectification of the traditional chronological error attached to the Book of Revelation will automatically correct the “future prophecy” theories so full of misconcepts.

The text stated that the seventh king, or emperor, must continue a short space --that is, the persecutions would not end with Nero, but would continue to be prosecuted in reigns of short duration of the successive emperors.

Verse 11

It is stated in verse eleven that the beast that was, and is not, even he is the eighth, and is of the seventh, and goeth into perdition. There is a repetition here of verse eight, to which the reader may refer, concerning was, is not, and yet is.

But verse eleven affirms the affinity and continuity of the imperial beasts. From the sixth to the seventh the vision was extended, in verse ten; and verse eleven presents the eighth as having the same genus, the spirit of the persecuting beast appearing in one emperor after another until their course was run.

To the church at Smyrna the Lord said: And ye shall have tribulation ten days. This undoubtedly referred to the period of the ten persecuting emperors from Nero to Diocletian, who vowed to obliterate the name Christian from the Roman Empire; and it fixes the time period of these apocalyptic disclosures from Nero to Diocletian, the tenth emperor from Nero--thus assigning the date of Revelation to the early part of Nero’s reign, before the siege and destruction of Jerusalem; and its symbols to the Nero-Diocletian period of persecution.

Verse 12

(4) The coordination of the ten kings--17:12-18:

The ten kings of the beast in verse twelve had received no kingdom as yet; but receive power one hour with the beast. These mock rulers of the Roman tributaries had no independent rule; they were the contemporary subordinate rulers with the beast for one hour --that is, a temporary exercise of a delegated power in conjunction with Rome, but of short duration as persecutors; their power would continue no longer than the accomplishment of God’s will in the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of Judaism.

Verse 13

It is stated in verse thirteen that these ten kings had one mind. The overshadowing personage of Nero was pictured as standing behind; but the single aim and common purpose was the destruction of Jerusalem, the devastation of Judea to rid the empire of Judaism, and the subsequent war against Christianity in the full power and strength of the coalition of the kings with the emperor against the church. Jerusalem was destroyed, Judaism perished, but the church survived.

Verse 14

The vision in the preceding chapters of the great red dragon’s war against the Christ is continued in verse fourteen; but the Lamb would overcome all assailants and assaults against his church, for he is Lord of lords, and King of kings --over all kings and emperors of the earth --and because his followers are called, and chosen and faithful. Such fidelity cannot be extinguished by the trials of persecution.

Verse 15

It is repeated in verse fifteen that the waters upon which the Harlot sat were the peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues, which represented, as previously explained, Jerusalem’s affiliations with the heathen world, and the intermingling with nations and people of all parts of the empire. This became a source of corruption and apostasy.

Verse 16

It is declared in verse sixteen that the kings of the empire, represented by the ten horns, hated the Harlot. This is solid proof that the harlot city was not Rome--assuredly the Roman kings did not hate the capital city of the Roman Empire. But they did hate Jerusalem and coordinated their efforts with the emperor to reduce it to the condition here described: make her desolate and naked, and shall eat her flesh and burn her with fire. The Lord’s account of the siege of Jerusalem together with the history of Josephus were a graphic fulfillment of these apocalyptic pronouncements on apostate Jerusalem, the faithful city become an harlot.

Verse 17

The accord of these kings with the emperor was described in verse seventeen as being in God’s plan to fulfill his words, spoken by his prophets, and by the Lord Jesus Christ himself, concerning the destruction of the once faithful but then harlot city of Jerusalem,

Verse 18

With verse eighteen the chapter closes with a significant declaration: And the woman which thou sawest is that great city which reigneth over the kings of the earth. It is this passage that has been the basis of the interpretation and theory that Rome was the city that reigned over the kings of the earth, and was therefore the harlot city. But the conclusion does not follow. In chapter 11:8 Jerusalem is called the great city under the symbols of Sodom and Egypt, hence the term “great city” has been a mystic designation for Jerusalem. In the history of Josephus, Volume 7 of Wars, Section 8, 7, the historical term “that great city” was applied to Jerusalem. This was both the historical and symbolic designation for Jerusalem.

There are no such terms and titles employed to designate Rome. The appellation for Jerusalem comports further with the reference to the city as Babylon, the Great in chapter 11:8, symbolically called Sodom and Egypt, but identified as being Jerusalem by the statement where also our Lord was crucified.

The last statement of verse eighteen “which reigneth over the kings of the earth” did not refer to the empire of the Caesars, nor the city of the emperors. The word reign here denoted a dominion. The earth, as defined at the beginning of the visions and later repeated, referred to the land of Judea, inclusive of Palestine. The city of Jerusalem was the royal city where the kings of Judah reigned. The phrase the kings of the earth was used in the sense of Act_4:26-27 : “The kings of the earth stood up, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord, and against his Christ. For of a truth against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast annointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together.”

These “kings of the earth” were of Judah, and Jerusalem was the capital city of the land, standing in the same relation to these “kings of the earth” as Rome sustained to the emperors.

The second psalm represents Jerusalem as ruling with a rod of iron over “the kings of the earth” who had set themselves against the Lord’s annointed One. In the Wars, Book 3, Section 3, 5, Josephus adds that “the royal city Jerusalem was supreme, and presided over all neighboring country as the head does over the body.”

There is every contextual reason to apply the language of verse eighteen, “that great city which reigneth over the kings of the earth,” to Jerusalem in relation to the kings of Judah, as figuratively set forth in the second psalm, and quoted in fulfillment in the gospel of Matthew.

Beside these scriptural applications, it must be true in ordinary logic and common consistency that the beast being the Roman empire, the harlot city which the beast hated could not have been the city of Rome.

The entire vision is centered on the siege and destruction of Jerusalem, the demolition of the Jewish temple and the end of theocratic Judaism and of the Jewish state; and the devastation of the land of Judea, the homeland of the Jews. The persecution of the church was a consequence of such catastrophe, being considered by the Romans as a sect of the Jews. But the Roman empire and Rome, the city, were only collateral to the visions of Revelation as the instrument of the power of destruction and of persecution.

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Bibliographical Information
Wallace, Foy E. "Commentary on Revelation 17". "Wallace's Commentary on the Book of Revelation". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/foy/revelation-17.html. 1966.