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Bible Commentaries
Revelation 17

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Verses 1-4

The Great Harlot

Revelation 17:1. In the previous chapter you were a witness of the final judgments over the earth, executed by seven angels by the means of seven bowls. In this way the wrath of God was fulfilled (Revelation 15:1). In the description of the judgments in just one verse only of the previous chapter there was mention of the judgment over the great Babylon (Revelation 16:19). In the chapters 17-18 John (and we together with him) gets a detailed explanation on this judgment. That explanation he obtains from one of the seven bowl angels, one who is involved, someone who knows what he’s talking about.

But it is not only an oral explanation. John also gets to see something. The angel invites John to join him to go to a place where he wants to show him how the great Babylon will come to her end.

Before they arrive there the angel informs John about what he gets to see. He will become an eye witness of the judgment over the city that is presented as “the great harlot” (Revelation 17:18; cf. Isaiah 1:21). From the description that follows it appears that this is an indication of the roman-catholic church. He sees further that the harlot “sits on many waters”. What those many waters represent is written in Revelation 17:15. They represent the people of the earth and particularly the nations that belong to the restored Roman empire, which appears from Revelation 17:16.

The harlot is the church which is Christian in name and which pretends to represent Christ, but in practice has fully related itself with the world (the “many waters”). In that way John sees the roman church in the connection that she has made with the kings of the earth. Her unfaithfulness therefore appears from her love expressions to the governments of the world.

The fact that she ‘sits’ on it indicates that she has control over many governments. You see that in particular in the countries where the roman church has many followers. In her corruptness she dominates the governments. She acts as if she is defending a good cause, but in reality she is looking for power.

Like no other church the roman-catholic church has pretended to be the true church and the true bride of Christ. Also like no other church she has shown in her history the most horrible practices that are thoroughly worldly and demonic. It is a real anti-church that in this and in the following chapter is shown and judged in her true character.

Everything that is said of this false church will make clear that the title of ‘great harlot’ is totally justified. She acts as if she is the bride of Christ, but she is a harlot. And not just a harlot, no, she is the ‘great’ harlot. There is no greater contrast imaginable in a marriage relationship than this.

To think through still deeper this enormous contrast between the true church and the false church you should compare the Revelation 17:1-Deuteronomy : of this chapter with chapter 21 (Revelation 21:9-1 Kings :), where the true church is presented.

Revelation 17:2. “The kings of the earth”, the world leaders, have sought rapprochement to her. They have accepted her invitation. Of course they have done that out of purely selfish reasons. The roman church is rich, powerful and influential. Therefore they accepted and drank with greed from “the wine of her immorality”. They even got “drunk” by it. Due to their relationship with her they came under her influence and became misted. They do not see through her true intentions. Once those intentions become clear to them, they will turn into hatred against the harlot and they will kill her (Revelation 17:16).

The kings of the earth represent the inhabitants of the countries they rule. In their relation with the harlot they drag all their subordinates with them, which are all “those who dwell on the earth”. When the pope visits a place today, it attracts masses of people. Everyone tries to catch a glimpse of him. In his position he is the radiation of the power of the church. The mass is blind for his pretense to be the substitute of Christ. To them he is the Christ. He is visible and influential and he is surrounded by mysticism. That’s what the mass likes.

Revelation 17:3. It seems that the angel is showing John a vision. In that vision he sees himself to be carried away in the spirit into “a wilderness”. A wilderness is a territory where death rules. In a wilderness life and the possibility for life are totally missing. In that wilderness John sees “a woman”, the great harlot of the previous verse. The territory of death seems to be the residence of the harlot. This residence is a good reflection of her spiritual condition. She is full of death. There is no life out of God and with God there.

John also sees that this woman is sitting “on a scarlet beast”. Earlier in Revelation 13 (Revelation 13:1-Ruth :) you have already come across the description of this beast. There you saw that this beast represents the restored Roman empire. In what John sees here, it seems that the roman church is sitting on the beast, meaning that it rides on it and directs it.

This scene symbolizes what is known from the church history. There have actually been periods that the pope had absolute power over the kings of Europe. In the end time the political and the religious power of the roman church will be great again. You will see this increase of power in the increasingly explicit involvements of the pope with the events in the world. He receives world leaders and they receive him.

You also hear the pope appealing to the world leaders more and more clearly concerning all kinds of subjects that deal with the life on earth. With such appeals the roman church gives the impression of wanting to fight for a righteous and tolerant, peaceful society. She also gives the impression to be willing to realize that together with the world leaders. But she does not worry about the fact that the beast is “full of blasphemous names”, which means that all different forms of blasphemy are present in this beast. The only thing that she wants is to have control over the “seven heads and ten horns”. At Revelation 13 you have seen what is meant by the seven heads and ten horns.

Revelation 17:4. Now follows a more detailed description of the woman. From this description this horrible creature appears to be representing the roman-catholic church:
1. You see that in her dressing (Revelation 17:4), which indicates her attachment to worldly luxury.
2. Furthermore she is drunk with the blood of the saints (Revelation 17:6), which indicates that she has persecuted the true believers with fire and with the sword.
3. In this context also the seven heads speak clearly as a representation of the seven mountains (Revelation 17:9) on which Rome lies and of which it is said that the woman is sitting on it.
4. Finally it is said in plain language that the woman is the great city (Revelation 17:18).

The luxury wherein she swims makes her relation with the world unmistakable. She is adorned with all earthly splendor and in that way she competes with the worldly leaders to become dominant. Just like the scarlet color of the beast (Revelation 17:3), she clothes herself in those same colors. Her luxury is so great that the worldly leaders even derive their luxury from that of hers (Revelation 18:3). Her influence is therefore not only political and religious. Also economically she has a lot to offer and she participates therein by offering her merchandise. If only it is profitable, whether in hard currencies or in appearance and influence.

The cup that she has in her hand is “full of abominations and of the unclean things of her immorality”. ‘Abominations’ stands for idolatry. The roman-catholic church has introduced idolatry in the Christian church with great craftiness, determination and persistence. The most striking proof is the adoration of Mary and many other persons who have been canonized a saint by the roman church.

Recently (5th December 2007) I read a story which is quite interesting to tell in this context. It confirms that the cult of saints is still flourishing:

Italian catholics who hope in the help of a saint, do not need to carry a portrait of him or her anymore. They can also download the picture of the saint on their cell phones. Not every roman catholic leader is delighted with the new service, because it would be crude and excessively commercial.

‘We discovered a gap in the market and we have filled that gap’, says Barbara Labate from the company that offers the saints on the cell phones. In many taxicabs, passenger cars and trucks in Italy you find a santino (a portrait of a saint) hanging on the dashboard. Millions of Italians carry a santino in their purse or bag.

Of the cup it is also said that it is full of ”the unclean things of her immorality”. In this way it is also indicated how much she has related herself with the elements of the world. You can observe that everywhere in pagan countries where the roman-catholic church has gained a firm foothold. There she has made the pagan customs to become Christian customs instead of abolishing them. She has provided very cunningly the idolatry ceremonial service, which formerly characterized these nations, with a Christian coating.

Whatever you find in the Bible about Babylon, it is related with idolatry. The first reference of Babel in Genesis 11 (Genesis 11:1-1 Samuel :) in the history of the tower building of Babel, already shows that relation. The sinful striving for unity and power came forth from the will of man to be like God. The will to be like God is idolatry in its essence. God is not written off, but He is robbed from the place He is worthy of. Man puts himself in the place of God and decides himself how he wants to serve God. Idolatry has been born.

That goes together with ascribing spiritual value to something that is visible and tangible and which serves to fulfill the spiritual feelings of man. Also here is mention of an abominable mixture of worldly elements with religion, which causes this religion to become fornication. The roman church is full of these elements. Just think of the crucifix, the altar and the communion wafer, to name some.

Now read Revelation 17:1-4 again.

Reflection: Which elements of idolatry do you know in the roman-catholic church?

Verses 5-10

The Mystery Explained

Revelation 17:5. The religious feelings which are propagated by the adulterous church and which are expressed, are received with diabolic gratitude by demons. The Scripture makes clear that satan is hidden behind idolatry (1 Corinthians 10:20). Any admiration for what is visible and tangible ends up with him. Babylon is called for a reason “mystery”. Although her name is to be seen by everyone “on her forehead”, her true nature is still hidden for all who find themselves under her control. ‘Mystery’ means that insight is necessary to get to know the true nature of Babylon. That true nature is that she is “the mother of harlots and of the abominations of the earth”.

A (Bible book as) Revelation is necessary to see through her true nature. The rapprochement of the protestant churches with the roman-catholic church shows that it is still a mystery for many people. By the way, this rapprochement is also more and more to be found with evangelical Christians. In the light of the rapprochement of protestant and evangelical churches and groups, also her other name, ‘the mother of harlots’, is significant. This name indicates that the roman-catholic church has children who follow her in her connection with the world. She is the mother of daughters who have the same characteristics like her.

It is to be recognized in all those churches that are connected to the world council of churches, including many protestant churches. You also see it in the state churches that come forth from the roman-catholic church. With them certain characteristics of spiritual fornication are visible which are also to be seen in the roman church. In that way they are morally to be labeled as ‘daughters’. That she is also ‘the mother of the abominations of the earth’ means that she has brought forth idolatry, that she is its origin. Just take another look at the explanation of the previous verse.

The blindness of the mass for the true nature of the roman-catholic church is also caused by the lack of personal Bible study. And actually, in case the people read in the Bible, then it is often because they want to have a ‘practical’ benefit of it or in order to have some kind of emotion. It must have a good effect on their feelings. The roman catholicism connects to that perfectly with all her rituals and icons. Therefore its attractiveness is that great and these things are more and more widely accepted. They do not see the warning written with massive texts on her forehead.

Revelation 17:6. John sees how the woman overindulges in the killing of believers. These “saints” are not the saints that are canonized by the roman church, but they are the true saints in the sight of God. Such saints arouse her bloodthirstiness. Her bloodthirstiness is also aroused by “the witnesses of Jesus”. These believers do not testify of the roman church as the only true church, but of Jesus. Jesus is the name of the Lord that refers to the time that He was on earth in humiliation, in complete poverty and insignificance. That is in huge contrast to the lavish luxury wherein the roman church swims.

The blood that the woman sheds makes her drunk. With diabolic pleasure she sucks up the blood until she is oversaturated. The sight of it makes John to be marveled with great amazement. Such massacres and the lascivious and diabolic pleasure that go together with it would not have marveled him when they were attributed to the Roman empire. This is why we too should not be amazed when the world hates us. What marvels John is the cruel nature of the woman who claims to be the substitute and representative of Christ. Instead of being a protector of God’s people she contrarily persecutes and murders those who belong to Christ. That is the cause of his wondering.

Revelation 17:7. In response to the amazement of John the angel says that the fact that the woman reveals herself like that, must not wonder him that much. Nor do we have to be very wondered. After all, man is capable of anything. Is it not exactly religious people who killed the Lord Jesus, the Son of God? Why was that? It is because in Him they saw a threat to their position. This is why every religious system seeks to cast out or resist everyone who even has any doubt about their right to exist. What is according to the flesh always persecutes what is according to the Spirit (Galatians 4:29).

The angel is going to reveal the mystery. In Revelation 17:5 the mystery only concerns the woman, but here he adds to the mystery that “of the beast” and his characteristics. This mystery stands against a mystery of a totally different character. That is the mystery of Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:32). While that mystery is associated with complete purity, holiness and unity in the good, this mystery speaks of darkness, destruction and deception.

Revelation 17:8. John receives a more detailed explanation of things that have been earlier described or to which was already briefly referred (Revelation 11:7; Revelation 12:4Revelation 13:1-1 Samuel :). Then the angel starts to tell him what the images represent. He starts with the beast.

He firstly mentions four periods of the beast in the history, which is the Roman empire. These periods are described in this verse as follows: “was”, and then “is not” and then will “come up out of the abyss”. The fourth and last period is “go to destruction”.

1. The first period (“was”) starts when Rome was established in 753 B.C. From that time it has seen a steady development culminating in the obtaining of world dominion around the year 168 B.C. The Roman empire possessed world dominion indisputably for several ages until in the fourth and fifth age AD a decline starts which finally resulted in the fall of Rome in 476.

2. Then the second period begins, which is the period wherein the empire does not exist (“is not”). That is the time where we still find ourselves in since the fall of Rome. At this moment the Roman empire does not exist. Indeed many have tried in this period to establish this empire (amongst others: Carl the Great, Napoleon). This period has had its day.

3. The time is coming when the beast will “come up out of the abyss”. That will be the third period. Here the restoration is shown of the Roman empire that was considered to be lost and that this restoration has a particular source. Never before has an empire risen from the bottomless pit. It is not an empire given by God, but by satan and his demons. It is of demonic origin.

This source is new. Up until now there had been no government than that of God (Romans 13:1-Joshua :; cf. Daniel 2:37; Daniel 5:18). The beast receives his authority not from God, but from the dragon. The bottomless pit is the territory of demons (Revelation 9:1-1 Kings :). The restoration of this empire will provoke admiration all over the world (Revelation 13:3). You have already seen these aspects in chapter 13.

4. The fourth period of this empire is that of perdition (“and go to destruction”). That means that his government will come to an end and that happens through the judgment that will be executed by the Lord Jesus (Revelation 17:14). That is described in more detail in chapter 19 and we will pay attention to it later.

Revelation 17:9. In order to understand these things you need “the mind which has wisdom”. The angel explains it further. The “seven heads” represent the “seven mountains” on which Rome lies. That makes clear that Rome is the political center of the empire. Rome is also the center of the church, represented by “the woman” that sits on the seven mountains.

Revelation 17:10. But there is another meaning of the seven heads. The seven heads do not only represent seven mountains, but they also represent “seven kings”. How does that accord with the ten horns of which we know that they also represent kings (Revelation 17:12; Daniel 7:24)? The explanation is that the seven heads are seven kings or governments that have exercised power one after the other. That appears from this verse. We read about “five” kings or forms of government that have taken place, “the one” that is now (the imperial form, from the time of John), and “the other” that is to come. Of the ten kings or rulers we however read in Revelation 17:12 that they received authority for one hour as kings together with the beast, which means at the same time. What in Revelation 17:12 is called a period of ”one hour”, is here called ”a little while”. From chapter 13 you know that it is about the relatively short time of three and a half years.

That means that at the time of John there have already been five forms of government. It is not exactly to be determined anymore which forms are concerned here. To mention some possibilities we may for instance think of forms as kings and consuls. In any case, in the days of John the sixth form existed, which is the imperial form.

Now read Revelation 17:5-10 again.

Reflection: What is the explanation of the mystery?

Verses 11-18

The Kings and the Beast Hate the Harlot

Revelation 17:11. So in the days of John they had the sixth form of government, which is the imperial form. The seventh form is still to come, for today we still live in the period that is indicated as “and is not”. There is a great chance that this seventh form is the form to which the ten kings will freely join and will all together give their power to the beast, the head of the empire. Here the empire is identified with his eighth and last form of government, which is the restored Roman empire with his demonic dictator. The beast represents both the empire and the head of it.

The seventh form is the covenant of the ten kings and the eighth is the dictator. Of this last form we read that it is “of the seven”. That means that it is a form that was earlier known and it will therefore not be a new one. It is very likely that it is the imperial one. Here also it is not possible to definitely indicate the kind of form. But when we review the data that we have, we find that the most probable form is still the imperial one. Anyway, it is a form of dictatorship.

Revelation 17:12. The “ten horns” are not on the head of the beast, but are to be distinguished from the beast. Those are the “ten kings” that receive power together with the beast that is seen as the last ruler over the empire. The fact that the beast comes into power at the expense of three of the kings, is mentioned in Daniel 7 (Daniel 7:24-Lamentations :), but not here. When the beast rules the kings are also in power. That means that they rule together “with the beast”.

Revelation 17:13. But the real power lies in the hands of the beast, the dictator. The cause of it is that the ten kings join to become a state union or the united states of Western-Europe. They will freely – although probably due to their own incapability to face all problems – surrender “their power and authority” to the beast.

Revelation 17:14. The monstrous union of the united Europe leads to a peak in the rebellion of man against the Lamb. The Lamb is called “Lord of lords and King of kings”. These names reflect His majesty and superiority above every power and authority on earth. In a few words the outcome is mentioned of the war that the kings dared to make with the Lamb in their arrogance. The result is without any doubt. “The Lamb”, together with all who were already with Him in heaven and who have followed Him from heaven, “will overcome them”. That is described in chapter 19 (Revelation 19:11-Nehemiah :).

The Lord Jesus will not come alone, but together with those who are “called and chosen and faithful”. Nobody can be with the Lamb except he is ‘called’ (1 Corinthians 1:9; 2 Timothy 1:9). And he who heeds the call of God has done that because he has been “chosen” (Romans 8:29-Amos :) by God. Regarding their lives on earth, those who are called and chosen are to be recognized by their ‘faithfulness’, by the faith that they have had in Him and with which they have made their call and their election sure (2 Peter 1:10).

Revelation 17:15. After the angel has shown John what the beast, the seven heads and the ten horns represent and what will happen to them, he explains the end of the other person in the mystery (Revelation 17:7). He goes back for a moment to what John has seen of the harlot and what recalls the great influence of the woman, which is the influence that the roman-catholic church has worldwide.

Revelation 17:16. But her religious rule will at a certain moment no longer be tolerated by the dictator and the ten kings that reign with him. Every form of religion, even if it is in the corrupted form of the roman-catholicism, is a suppression for the dictator and his companions, which they will get rid of.

The kings and the beast will make an end to Babylon, to her fornication. She who wanted to exercise her manipulating power over the world, has been made “desolate and naked” by that same world. She will have no more followers and she will be robbed from her power and glory. The kings will “eat”, which means, make their own what she has possessed of earthly luxury.

Finally they shall “burn her up with fire”. Nothing at all will be left of her religious pretense. Her spiritually corrupted doctrines and her earthly possessions can in no way offer her protection. She is consumed by the fire of the judgment that God has executed over her by the means of those with whom she has had such intimate relationships and over whom she had exercised power in such an unjustified way. The burning with fire is the suited judgment. It is in accordance with the regulation of the law that if a daughter of a priest commits fornication, she had to be burnt with fire (Leviticus 21:9). Here we find the implementation of the seventh bowl by which an end is made to Babylon (Revelation 16:19; cf. Ezekiel 23:25-Joel :; 2 Kings 9:30-Haggai :).

The world leaders “will hate the harlot” (the harlot, not the city that delivers so much profit). What happens here is always true. The political and economic powers despise a church that commits fornication and that seeks to have influence and favor, because they see through her hypocrisy. Besides, their hatred is only fed by purely selfish motives. With even more hatred they make war with the Lamb. They do not tolerate any power above themselves.

Revelation 17:17. God knows how to use everything for His purpose. He uses the hatred of the beast and the kings against every religiosity to judge the false church. He will give it to them in their heart to destroy her. In which the kings are of one mind, is given to them in their heart by God (cf. Judges 9:23), for His plan is executed by them. This will be the end of the religious power of Rome, but not yet the end of the political, economic and cultural power of Rome.

Revelation 17:18. Babylon is judged as harlot. But she still has another character which is that of the city. This is an indication of the political and economic interest of the roman church. Her role from a religious view is finished, but she still has to be judged as a political and economic stronghold. Papacy has come to its end. Vatican City is still to be judged. We find the description of it in the next chapter.

Now read Revelation 17:11-18 again.

Reflection: Why do the kings and the beast hate the harlot?

Bibliographical Information
de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Revelation 17". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/kng/revelation-17.html. 'Stichting Titus' / 'Stichting Uitgeverij Daniël', Zwolle, Nederland. 2021.
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