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Revelation 17

Luscombe's Commentary on Selected Books of the NTLuscombe's NT Commentary

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This chapter will focus on Babylon. She is also known as the “great whore” (KJV) and “great harlot” (NKJV & ASV). To understand the interpretation of these symbolic terms, it is important to notice the terms that are used to describe her. In verse 2 she is described as “drunk with the wine of her fornication.”

There are two possible explanations given.

1. Apostates . This harlot represents those who claim to believe in God but have abandoned Him to avoid persecution. This would include, as Woodruff comments, “anyone who claims to follow God but not according to the teachings of the New Testament. It also includes anyone who has been a member of the church but has left to follow other gods.” (1, 292-293) This view finds the harlot represents spiritual adultery. There is some reference to this type figurative language in the Old Testament. ( Exo_34:14 ; Exo_34:17 ; Jer_3:1 ) Israel was in covenant with God. When they began to worship idols, they committed spiritual adultery. I was leaning this direction until I came to 17:2. This view fails to explain verse two.

2. Immorality. It is my view that the harlot represents all forms of immorality. Satan used persecuting governments in seeking to destroy the church. He used false teachers to lead people astray. He also used immorality. Baalam did this. (2:14) He led the people of Israel into adultery. I believe that the woman, Babylon, the great harlot, represents all manner of immoral behavior.

Verse 1

1 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and talked with me, saying to me, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot who sits on many waters,

A. One of the angels who poured out the plagues engages in conversation with John. He invites John to see what happens next.

B. After the plagues, next in God’s timetable is the judgment. We are not seeing the general judgment of the world. This is a special judgment of the great harlot.

Verse 2

2 with whom the kings of the earth committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth were made drunk with the wine of her fornication.”

A. The view that the harlot represents those who have apostatized the faith fails here. This verse states that the kings of the earth commit fornication “with” the harlot.

B. John sees that there is some interaction between the kings (civil governments) and the harlot. On some occasions, governments allow, approve and even condone immorality. In our nation there are states passing laws to accept homosexual marriages, courts allowing abortion, states creating lotteries, cities allowing liquor by the drink.

I can tell about cities that forbid weekly Bible studies in private homes, but allow weekly poker parties. I can add to the list of government and immorality working together to allow and support: pornography, prostitution, alcohol, gambling, divorce, homosexuality, massage parlors, distribution of condoms, abortion and many others. On the other hand the joint forces of these two will have a negative impact on: Bible reading, prayer at a football game, mention of God in any school paper, home Bible studies, and many other ways.

C. When governments and immorality join forces, the danger for Christians increases. The list given above is real. And this is in America. Imagine what Christians deal with in Russia, China, Cuba, Laos, and in Arab nations under strict Muslim laws.

Verse 3

3 So he carried me away in the Spirit into the wilderness. And I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast which was full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns.

A. Now John is carried away into the wilderness. John sees a woman sitting on a beast. The scarlet color would suggest royalty and power. This is the union discussed in the preceding verse.

B. The beast is full of blasphemy. The point here is the two forces have been joined together to seek to destroy the church. There has always been a close relationship between governments, at all levels, and immorality. Many of the laws passed deal with issues of morality. Some seek to impose a moral standard; other laws are based on amoral values.

C. Seven heads and ten horns are on this beast. Seven is the number of divine completeness. Ten is the number of human completeness. Some believe that the heads represent various emperors. Others believe that these heads characterize the major world empires in world history. It is my view, seeking to be consistent, that the heads and horns signify all power of all civil rulers. Some good (7) and some evil (10).

Verse 4

4 The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls, having in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the filthiness of her fornication.

A. The woman, immorality personified, is in purple and scarlet. She is in an alliance with governmental power.

B. She is described as being arrayed with precious stones, pearls. She is pretty, attractive, and gets attention. She is covered with glitter and glitz.

C. Christians are attracted to the shiny. It is the glitz that gets the attention. While she needed the support of the government to approve and condone her actions, she is the one who gets the attention and is the one to entice Christians to leave their faith.

Verse 5


A. She is clearly identified. She is Babylon. She is the “mother of harlots” and known for her “abominations.”

B. Again, Babylon, symbolizes immorality and those things that are abomination in the sight of our God.

Verse 6

6 I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. And when I saw her, I marveled with great amazement.

A. She is drunk, not with wine, but with the blood of the saints. She is guilty of the death of martyrs. She is also guilty of leading many to spiritual death. She has lead many away from Christ and into fornication (physical and spiritual).

B. When John saw her - there was amazement. He marveled in wonder.

Verse 7

7 But the angel said to me, “Why did you marvel? I will tell you the mystery of the woman and of the beast that carries her, which has the seven heads and the ten horns.

A. The angel with John noticed his reaction. “Why did you marvel?”

B. Then the angel assures John it will all become clear. All of this is now a “mystery” but it will be revealed and explained.

1. What will happen to the woman?

2. What will happen to the beast that carries her?

3. What will happen to the (individual leaders) heads and horns?

Verse 8

8 The beast that you saw was, and is not, and will ascend out of the bottomless pit and go to perdition. And those who dwell on the earth will marvel, whose names are not written in the Book of Life from the foundation of the world, when they see the beast that was, and is not, and yet is.

A. The immoral Babylon is riding on a beast. This best was, and is not.

B. This is similar to the beast in Rev_13:3 . The beast is seen as suffering a deadly wound, but is later healed. Verse 10 also must be considered here.

C. Let me give you some explanations offered by some commentaries.

1. Burton Coffman claims that the seven heads represent the seven major world empires, including Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. He says there will be a seventh. This seventh will be the Holy Roman Empire, which includes one of the above, which died and was raised to life again.

2. Lonnie Woodruff says that the number seven represents divine completeness. There have been seven worldwide kingdoms.

3. Paul Rogers believes that this verse is in reference to Nero. There is a belief that Nero promised to return from the dead. The Romans saw Domitian as the “reincarnation” of Nero.

4. Ray Summers states the view of “Nero redivivus myth” which claimed that Domitian is Nero reincarnation.

5. The common view of the futurists is that the literal city of Babylon will be restored in the last days.

6. The typical view of the continuous-historical group believes that this is the Roman Catholic Church.

D. In trying to be consistent, I believe the following makes sense.

1. We know the beast represents persecuting governments. At some point this beast seems to lose its power, and is later revived.

2. We have the advantage of being able to look back, study history, and see what actually happened. The Roman Empire fell in 476. On Christmas Day, 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as emperor. This new, revived government is known as the Holy Roman Empire. It was an empire of both religious and civil powers working together. This is what is seen in chapter 13.

3. Here the angel explains that there will come a time when it seems that the persecuting government is dead - 476. Don’t plan a party to celebrate yet. There will be a new, revived government, combined with false religion, which will renew the persecution of faithful Christians.

4. Now, you add to that partnership immorality. You have a “three-pronged” attack on the people of God. God’s people are suffering - a) Persecution from the civil authorities; b) Persecution from false religions; and c) Being led astray by immorality.

Verse 9

9 “Here is the mind which has wisdom: The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits.

A. Wisdom is needed here. Seek to understand these things.

B. The seven heads are mountains. Some see this as a clear reference to Rome, a city that sits on seven hills. These seek to make the mountains literal. This view does not consider that one of the heads died and was revived. None of the hills on which Rome was built has died and been revived.

C. Others see this as the Coffman view above. The mountains represent major world kingdoms, like Egypt, Greece and Rome.

D. Still others see the seven heads as seven individual rulers. If this were true, then one of the rulers would have to die and be reincarnated.

E. It is unmistakable to me that the mountains are emblematic of kingdoms. My view, expressed in the previous verse is consistent with the rest of the book, especially the parallel statements in chapter 13.

Verse 10

10 There are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, and the other has not yet come. And when he comes, he must continue a short time.

A. Some seek to translate this, “And they are seven kings.” This is an attempt to make the seven heads represent individual rulers.

B. The NKJV says, “There are ALSO seven kings.” That is, in addition to the seven heads / mountains, there are also seven kings. The kings are not the heads / mountains. They are in addition to them.

C. Five have fallen - Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and Greece. One is - Rome. The other - the Holy Roman Empire - has not yet come. He, the last one, will last a short time.

Verse 11

11 The beast that was, and is not, is himself also the eighth, and is of the seven, and is going to perdition.

A. The civil government that was, then was not, is the eighth. But his eighth is not a new one. It is one of the original seven. Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome and Holy Roman Empire are the seven.

B. This verse refers to a power that was at one time a great power. It lost that power, then returned to power. Woodruff says, “This is the same kingdom as the “one is” in verse 10. The kingdom in power during the time of John’s recording of Revelation was the Roman Empire. Therefore, the one that “was, and is not” is the Roman Empire. (1, 303)

C. The only credible explanation is that this “eighth” is the Roman Catholic Church. It has worldwide power, even today. It is headquartered in Rome. This is the eighth beast.

Verse 12

12 “The ten horns which you saw are ten kings who have received no kingdom as yet, but they receive authority for one hour as kings with the beast.

A. Remember the number “ten” represents human completeness. There are ten kings, but they do not have a kingdom. They seem to have power delegated from the beast.

B. These ten kings represent all governmental power, which came out of the world situation when there was not one major power in control. Many nations developed.

C. The term “one hour” indicates that all of these kings are in power at the same time. This is not a succession of kings. There will be simultaneous kingdoms over the earth.

D. These many nations, (governments) will co-exist with the beast (false religions). It is implied that these governments will not persecute. They will seek to cooperate with others who do persecute Christians.

E. Today this situation remains. Do we cooperate with China while they imprison anyone who has a Bible? Do we send economic aid to Laos while Christians are sent to prison for having a home Bible study? Many Islamic nations outlaw any preaching of the gospel or any attempt to convert people to Christianity; but we buy their oil! In some nations, failure to convert to Islam is ground for punishment.

Verse 13

13 These are of one mind, and they will give their power and authority to the beast.

A. They all share power with the beast. False religions seek the support and backing of the governments. While living in Russia, the government, at the request and direction of the Russian Orthodox Church, passed a law that restricted mission work. They rescinded all legal church’s registration and rights. While some parts of this law have been overturned, other restrictions remain. This is a classic case of a false religion riding on the back of the civil government to persecute Christians.

B. In effect these governments are recognizing their dependence on the religious leaders to remain in power.

Verse 14

14 These will make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them, for He is Lord of lords and King of kings; and those who are with Him are called, chosen, and faithful.”

A. It is this dangerous alliance of government and false religions that will become the frontline of the war against God’s people. There is a relentless battle being waged.

B. While those who suffer are Christians, the real enemy is the Lamb.

C. The Lamb will win. He is King over all kings. He is Lord over all lords. His army is comprised of the called, chosen and faithful. These terms simply mean faithful Christians.

Verse 15

15 Then he said to me, “The waters which you saw, where the harlot sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations, and tongues.

A. This verse helps with some of the interpretation of this chapter.

B. The “waters” represents people, nations and tongues. All the multitudes of people of all nations and cultures are included. She, immorality is not of any one nation, tribe, language, or group of people. Immorality is everywhere, in all nations, among all people.

Verse 16

16 And the ten horns which you saw on the beast, these will hate the harlot, make her desolate and naked, eat her flesh and burn her with fire.

A. The ten horns are kings. See verse 12.

B. Chapter 18 seems to be a commentary on this verse. The basic message is that the Roman Empire will collapse of its own weight. It will become so immoral and corrupt that it will collapse because of its weakness.

C. The alliance will fall apart. The “friendship” between the beast and the harlot will end. They will hate each other and accuse each other. The beast will strip her of power, devour her and destroy her influence.

Verse 17

17 For God has put it into their hearts to fulfill His purpose, to be of one mind, and to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled.

A. Woodruff makes this comment, “Since we cannot foresee the future, it is impossible to completely understand why God deals with the people of this world as he does in matters of civil governments.” (1, 309)

B. God has a purpose. He has a plan. We may not understand His plan. We do not understand why things are allowed to continue. Why doesn’t God step in and intervene?

Verse 18

18 And the woman whom you saw is that great city which reigns over the kings of the earth.”

A. The woman is described as “that great city.” Many assume that she represents Rome.

B. However, remember, she was also called “Babylon the great.” (18:2) There are several different terms used to describe this immoral world. Harlot, whore, Babylon, fornication and other terms show that she is a symbol of immorality.

C. She rides on the back of the beast. She is the “real” power behind the persecution. She has the persecuting governments and false religions under her control and power.

Bibliographical Information
Luscombe, Manly. "Commentary on Revelation 17". Luscombe's Commentary on Selected Books of the NT. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/mlc/revelation-17.html. 2021.
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