Bible Commentaries
Revelation 17

Benson's Commentary of the Old and New TestamentsBenson's Commentary

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This chapter contains an explanatory digression.

(1,) One of the angels, who had the vials, to manifest the justness of the above fearful ruin of the Papal state, represents it by an awful, blasphemous, and infamous harlot, finely decked, drunk with the blood of the saints, and riding on a scarlet-coloured beast, all over marked with blasphemy, and having seven heads and ten horns, Revelation 17:1-6 .

(2,) He explains who and what she is, and what shall be her fate, Revelation 17:7-18 .

As the seventh seal and the seventh trumpet contained many more particulars than any of the former seals and former trumpets, so the seventh vial contains more than any of the former vials: and the more you consider, the more admirable you will find the structure of this book in all its parts. The destruction of the antichristian empire is a subject of such importance and consequence, that the Holy Spirit hath thought fit to represent it under a variety of images. Rome hath already been characterized by the names of spiritual Egypt and Babylon; and having seen how her plagues resemble those of Egypt, we shall now see her fall compared to that of Babylon. It was declared before in general, (Revelation 14:8,) Babylon is fallen, is fallen; but this is a catastrophe deserving of a more particular description, both for a warning to some and for a consolation to others. But before the description of her fall and destruction, there is premised an account of her state and condition, that there may be no mistake in the application. Rome was meant, as all, both Papists and Protestants, agree; and I think it appears, almost to demonstration, that not pagan but Christian, not imperial but Papal, Rome was here intended; and the arguments urged to the contrary by the bishop of Meaux himself, the best and ablest advocate for Popery, prove nothing so much as the weakness and badness of the cause which they are brought to defend.

Verses 1-2

Revelation 17:1-2. And there came one of the seven angels which had the seven vials Most probably this was the seventh angel; for, under the seventh vial, great Babylon came in remembrance before God, and now St. John is called upon to see her condemnation and execution; saying, Come hither, I will show thee the judgment of the great whore Which is now circumstantially described. This relation concerning the great whore, and that concerning the wife of the Lamb, (Revelation 21:9-10,) have the same introduction, in token of the exact opposition between them; that sitteth as a queen, in pomp, power, ease, and luxury, upon many waters So ancient Babylon, which was seated upon the great river Euphrates, is described by Jeremiah, (Jeremiah 51:13,) as dwelling upon many waters; and from thence the phrase is borrowed, and signifies, according to the angel’s own explanation, (Revelation 17:15,) ruling over many peoples and nations. Neither was this an ordinary prostitute; she was the great whore, with whom the kings of the earth, both ancient and modern, have committed fornication By partaking of her idolatry, and various kinds of wickedness. So Tyre is described, Isaiah 23:17, as having committed fornication with all the kingdoms of the world upon the face of the earth. Nay, not only the kings, but inferior persons, the inhabiters of the earth, the common people, have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication No wine can more thoroughly intoxicate those who drink it, than false zeal does the followers of the great whore. Thus it was said of ancient Babylon, The nations have drunk of her wine, therefore the nations are mad. Fornication, in the usual style of Scripture, is idolatry; but if it be taken even literally, it is true that modern Rome openly allows the one as well as practises the other. Ancient Rome doth, in no respect, so well answer the character; for she ruled more with a rod of iron than with the wine of her fornication. Her ambition was for extending her empire, and not her religion. She permitted even the conquered nations to continue in the religion of their ancestors, and to worship their own gods after their own rituals. She may be said rather to have been corrupted by the importation of foreign vices and superstitions than to have established her own in other countries.

Verse 3

Revelation 17:3. So he carried me away, &c. Namely, in the vision. As Ezekiel, while he was a captive in Chaldea, was conveyed by the Spirit to Jerusalem, (Ezekiel 8:3,) so John is carried away in the Spirit into the wilderness; for there the scene is laid, being a scene of desolation. When the woman, the true church, was persecuted and afflicted, she was said ( Rev 12:14 ) to flee into the wilderness: and, in like manner, when the woman, the false church, is to be destroyed, the vision is presented in the wilderness. For they are by no means, as some have imagined, the same woman, under various representations. They are totally distinct and different characters, and drawn in contrast to each other, as appears from their whole attire and behaviour, and particularly from these two circumstances, that during the one thousand two hundred and sixty years, while the woman is fed in the wilderness, the beast and the scarlet whore are reigning and triumphant, and, at the latter end, the whore is burned with fire, when the woman, as his wife, hath made herself ready for the marriage of the Lamb. And I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet- coloured beast The same which is described chap. 13., but he was there described as he carried on his own designs only; here he is connected with the whore. A woman sitting upon a beast is a lively and significative emblem of a church or city directing and governing an empire. In painting and sculpture, as well as in prophetic language, cities are often represented in the form of women: and Rome herself is exhibited, in ancient coins, as a woman sitting upon a lion. Here the beast is a scarlet-coloured beast, bearing the bloody livery, as well as the person of the woman, called so for the same reason that the dragon ( Rev 12:3 ) was termed a red dragon, namely, to denote his cruelty, and in allusion to the distinguishing colour of the Roman emperors and magistrates. The beast is also full of names of blasphemy He had before a name of blasphemy upon his heads, (Revelation 13:1,) now he has many: from the time of Hildebrand, the blasphemous titles of the Roman pontiff have been abundantly multiplied; having seven heads Which reach in a succession from his ascent out of the sea to his being cast into the lake of fire; and ten horns Which are contemporary with each other, and belong to his last period. So that this is the very same beast which was described in the former part of chap. 13: and the woman, in some measure, answers to the two-horned beast, or false prophet; and consequently the woman is not pagan, but Christian Rome; because Rome was become Christian before the beast had completely seven heads and ten horns; that is, before the Roman empire experienced its last form of government, and was divided into ten kingdoms.

Verses 4-5

Revelation 17:4-5. And the woman was arrayed With the utmost pomp and magnificence; in purple and scarlet Which were the colours of the imperial habit, the purple in times of peace, and the scarlet in times of war: and the scarlet is the colour of the popes and cardinals, as it used to be that of the Roman emperors and senators. Nay, the mules and horses which carry the popes and cardinals are covered with scarlet cloth, so that they may properly be said to ride upon a scarlet-coloured beast. The woman is also decked with gold, and precious stones, and pearls And who can sufficiently describe the pride, and grandeur, and magnificence of the Church of Rome in her vestments and ornaments of all kinds? One remarkable instance of this we have in Paul II., whose mitre was set with diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, chrysolites, jaspers, and all kinds of precious stones: and another conspicuous instance is in the lady of Loretto; the riches of whose holy image, and house, and treasury are far beyond the reach of description. There silver can hardly find an admission, and gold itself looks but poorly among such an incredible number of precious stones. Moreover, the woman, like other harlots, who give filters and love-potions to inflame their lovers, hath a golden cup in her hand, like the ancient Babylon, Jeremiah 51:7, full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication Signifying the specious and alluring arts wherewith she bewitches and incites men to idolatry, which is an abomination, and spiritual fornication, and to many other abominable doctrines as well as practices. And upon her forehead a name written Whereas the saints have the name of God and the Lamb on their foreheads. The allusion here seems to be to the practice of some notorious prostitutes, who had their names written in a label upon their foreheads, as we may collect from ancient authors; (see Seneca, Book 1. contr. 2; Juvenal, Sat. 6. lin. 122;) MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT This name mystery can imply no less than that she dealeth in mysteries; her religion is a mystery, a mystery of iniquity; and she herself is mystically Babylon the Great. Benedict XIII., in his proclamation of the jubilee, A.D. 1725, explains this sufficiently. His words are, “To this holy city, famous for the memory of so many holy martyrs, run with religious alacrity! Hasten to the place which the Lord hath chosen. Ascend to this new Jerusalem, whence the law of the Lord, and the light of evangelical truth, hath flowed forth into all nations, from the very first beginning of the church: the city most rightfully called The Palace; placed for the pride of all ages; the city of the Lord; the Sion of the Holy One of Israel. This catholic and apostolical Roman Church is the head of the world, the mother of all believers, the faithful interpreter of God, and mistress of all churches.” But God varies the style: he terms her the mother of harlots The parent, ring-leader, patroness, and nourisher of many daughters, that closely copy after her; and abominations Of every kind, spiritual and fleshly; of the earth In all lands. In this respect she is indeed catholic, or universal.

The Papists would fain persuade us that pagan Rome is here intended: but, as Bishop Newton justly observes, “The title of mystery is in no respect proper to her more than any other city, and neither is there any mystery in substituting one heathen, idolatrous, and persecuting city for another; but it is indeed a mystery that a city, called Christian, professing and boasting herself to be the city of God, should prove another Babylon in idolatry and cruelty to the people of God. She glories in the name of Roman Catholic, and well therefore may she be called, Babylon the Great. She affects the style and title of our holy mother the church, but she is in truth the mother of fornications and abominations. Neither can this character, with any propriety, be applied to ancient Rome, for she was rather a learner of foreign superstitions than the mistress of idolatry to other nations; as appears in various instances, and particularly from that solemn form of adjuration which the Romans used when they laid siege to a city, calling forth the tutelary deities of the place, and promising them temples, and sacrifices, and other solemnities at Rome. It may be concluded, therefore, that this part of the prophecy is sufficiently fulfilled, though there should be reason to question the truth of what is asserted by some writers, that the word MYSTERY was formerly written in letters of gold upon the forepart of the pope’s mitre. Scaliger affirms it upon the authority of the duke de Montmorency: Francis le Moyne and Brocardus confirm it, appealing to ocular inspection: and when King James objected this, Lessius could not deny it. If the thing be true, it is a wonderful coincidence of the event with the letter of prophecy. It is, however, much more certain, and none of that communion can deny it, that the ancient mitres were usually adorned with inscriptions.

Verses 6-7

Revelation 17:6-7. I saw the woman, &c. Infamous as the woman is for her idolatry, she is no less detestable for her cruelty, which are the two principal characters of the antichristian empire. She is drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs Or witnesses; of Jesus So that Rome may well be called, the slaughter-house of the martyrs. “This may indeed be applied both to pagan and to Christian Rome, for both have in their turns cruelly persecuted the saints and martyrs of Jesus; but the latter is more deserving of the character, as she hath far exceeded the former both in the degree and duration of her persecutions. It is very true, as it was hinted before, that if Rome pagan hath slain her thousands of innocent Christians, Rome Christian hath slain her ten thousands. For not to mention other outrageous slaughters and barbarities, the croisades against the Waldenses and Albigenses, the murders committed by the duke of Alva in the Netherlands, the massacres in France and Ireland, will probably amount to above ten times the number of all the Christians slain in all the ten persecutions of the Roman emperors put together. St. John’s admiration also plainly evinces that Christian Rome was intended: for it could be no matter of surprise to him that a heathen city should persecute the Christians, when he himself had seen and suffered the persecution under Nero: but that a city, professedly Christian, should wanton and riot in the blood of Christians, was a subject of astonishment indeed; and well might he, as it is emphatically expressed, wonder with great wonder.” And the angel said. Wherefore didst thou marvel? I will tell thee the mystery It was not thought sufficient to represent these things only in vision, and therefore the angel, like the αγγελος , nuntius, or messenger, in the ancient drama, undertakes to explain the mystery, the mystic scene or secret meaning, of the woman, and of the beast that carries her: and the angel’s interpretation is indeed, as Bishop Newton observes, the best key to the Revelation, the best clew to direct and conduct us through this intricate labyrinth.

Verses 8-14

Revelation 17:8-14. The beast that thou sawest, &c. The mystery of the beast is first explained, and the beast is considered first in general, (Revelation 17:8,) under a threefold state or succession, as existing, and then ceasing to be, and then reviving again, so as to become another and the same. He was, and is not Καιπερ εστιν , and yet is, or, according to other copies, και παρεσται , and shall come, shall ascend out of the bottomless pit A beast in the prophetic style, as we before observed, is a tyrannical idolatrous empire; and the Roman empire was idolatrous under the heathen emperors, and then ceased to be so for some time under the Christian emperors, and then became idolatrous again under the Roman pontiffs, and so hath continued ever since. It is the same idolatrous power revived again; but only in another form; and all the corrupt part of mankind, whose names were not enrolled as good citizens in the registers of heaven, are pleased at the revival of it; but in this last form it shall go into perdition It shall not, as it did before, cease for a time and revive again, but shall be destroyed for ever.

After this general account of the beast, follows an explanation of the particular emblems, with a short preface, intimating that they are deserving of the deepest attention, and are a proper exercise and trial of the understanding. Here is the mind which hath wisdom, Revelation 17:9 As it was said upon a former occasion, Revelation 13:8, Here is wisdom: let him that hath understanding count, &c. The seven heads have a double signification: they are, primarily, seven mountains on which the woman sitteth On which the capital city is seated; which all know to be the situation of Rome. It is observed too, that new Rome, or Constantinople, is situated on seven mountains: but these are very rarely mentioned, and mentioned only by obscure authors in comparison of the others; and besides the seven mountains, other particulars also must coincide, which cannot be found in Constantinople. It is evident, therefore, that the city seated on seven mountains must be Rome; and a plainer description could not be given of it without expressing the name, which there might be several wise reasons for concealing.

As the seven heads signify seven mountains, so they also signify seven kings reigning over them. And they are seven kings Or kingdoms, or forms of government, as the word imports, and hath been shown to import in former instances. Five are fallen Five of these forms of government are already past; and one is The sixth is now subsisting. The five fallen are kings, and consuls, and dictators, and decemvirs, and military tribunes with consular authority; as they are enumerated and distinguished by the two greatest Roman historians, Livy and Tacitus. The sixth is the power of the Cesars or emperors, which was subsisting at the time of the vision. An end was put to the imperial name, A.D. 476, by Odoacer. king of the Heruli. He and his successors, the Ostrogoths, assumed the title of kings of Italy; but though the name was changed the power still continued much the same. This, therefore, cannot well be called a new form of government; it may rather be considered as a continuation of the imperial power, or as a renovation of the kingly authority. Consuls are reckoned but one form of government, though their office was frequently suspended, and after a time restored again: and in the same manner kings may be counted but one form of government, though the name was resumed after an interval of so many years. A new form of government was not erected till Rome fell under the obedience of the eastern emperor, and the emperor’s lieutenant, the exarch of Ravenna, dissolved all the former magistracies, and constituted a duke of Rome, to govern the people, and to pay tribute to the exarchate of Ravenna. Rome had never experienced this form of government before; and this was, perhaps, the other which, in the apostle’s days, was not yet come, and when he cometh he must continue a short space For Rome was reduced to a dukedom, tributary to the exarch of Ravenna, by Longinus, who was sent exarch A.D. 566 or 568; and the city revolted from the eastern emperor to the pope, A.D. 727; which is a short space, in comparison of the imperial power, which preceded, and lasted above five hundred years; and in comparison of the Papal power, which followed, and hath now continued about one thousand years. But still it may be doubted whether this is properly a new form of government, Rome being still subject to the imperial power, by being subject to the Greek emperor’s deputy, the exarch of Ravenna: and, according as you determine this point, the beast that was, and is not Was, while idolatrous, and was not, while not idolatrous, will appear to be the seventh or eighth. If you reckon this a new form of government, the beast that now is, is the eighth; if you do not reckon this a new form of government, the beast is of the seven; but whether he be the seventh or eighth, he is the last form of government, and goeth into perdition It appears evidently that the sixth form of government, which was subsisting in St. John’s time, is the imperial; and what form of government hath succeeded to that in Rome, and hath continued for a long space of time, but the Papal? The beast, therefore, upon which the woman rideth, is the Roman government in its last form; and this, all must acknowledge, is the Papal, and not the imperial.

Having thus explained the mystery of the seven heads, the angel proceeds to the explanation of the ten horns, (Revelation 17:12-14,) which, says he, are ten kings, who have received no kingdom as yet And consequently they were not in being at the time of the vision; and indeed the Roman empire was not divided into ten kingdoms till some time after it was become Christian. But they receive power as kings one hour Or rather, at the same time, or for the same length of time; with the beast It is true in both senses, they rise and fall together with the beast; and consequently they are not to be reckoned before the rise and establishment of the beast. Kingdoms they might be before, but they were not before kingdoms or horns of the beast, till they embraced his religion, and submitted to his authority; and the beast strengthened them, as they again strengthened the beast. It is upon the seventh or last head of the beast that the horns were seen growing together, that is, upon the Roman empire in its seventh or last form of government; and they are not, like the heads, successive, but contemporary kingdoms. These have one mind, and shall give their power and strength unto the beast, Revelation 17:13 Which is easily understood and applied to the princes and states in communion with the Church of Rome. However they may differ in other respects, yet they agree in submitting implicitly to the authority of the Roman Church, and in defending its rights and prerogatives against all opposers. But where were ever ten kings or kingdoms who were all unanimous in their submissions to the Roman empire, and voluntarily contributed their power and strength, their forces and riches, to support and maintain it? These shall make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them, Revelation 17:14 They persecute the true Church of Christ, but the true church shall in the end prevail and triumph over them; which particulars have been fulfilled in part already, and will be more fully accomplished hereafter.

Verses 15-18

Revelation 17:15-18. And he saith unto me, The waters which thou sawest where the whore sitteth are peoples, &c. In the former part of this description, (Revelation 17:1,) the whore is represented like ancient Babylon, sitting upon many waters; and these waters are here, Revelation 17:15, said expressly to signify peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues. So many words in the plural number fitly denote the great extensiveness of her power and jurisdiction; and it is a remarkable peculiarity of Rome, different from all other governments in the world, that her authority is not limited to her own immediate subjects, and confined within the bounds of her own dominions, but extends over all kingdoms and countries professing the same religion. She herself glories in the title of the catholic church, and exults in the number of her votaries, as a certain proof of the true religion. But notwithstanding the general current in her favour, the tide shall turn against her; and the hands which helped to raise her shall also pull her down; the ten horns shall hate the whore, Revelation 17:16 That is, by a common figure of the whole for a part, some of the ten kings; for others ( Rev 18:9 ) shall bewail her and lament for her; and ( Rev 19:19 ) shall fight and perish in the cause of the beast. Some of the kings, who formerly loved her, grown sensible of her exorbitant exactions and oppressions, shall hate her, shall strip, and expose, and plunder her, and utterly consume her with fire. Rome, therefore, will finally be destroyed by some of the princes who are reformed, or shall be reformed, from Popery; and as the kings of France have contributed greatly to her advancement, it is not impossible nor improbable that some time or other they may also be the principal authors of her destruction. And such a revolution may more reasonably be expected, because ( Rev 17:17 ) this infatuation of Popish princes is permitted by Divine Providence only for a certain period, until the words of God shall be fulfilled And particularly the words of the Prophet Daniel, Daniel 7:25-26, They shall be given into his hand until a time, and times, and the dividing of time; but then, as it immediately follows, the judgment shall sit, and they shall take away his dominion, to consume, and to destroy it unto the end. Little doubt can remain after this, what idolatrous church was meant by the whore of Babylon; but for the greater assuredness it is added by the angel, Revelation 17:18, the woman which thou sawest is that great city, &c. He hath explained the mystery of the beast, and of his seven heads and ten horns; and his explanation of the mystery of the woman is, that great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth And what city, at the time of the vision, reigned over the kings of the earth, but Rome? She hath, too, ever since reigned over the kings of the earth, if not with temporal, yet at least with spiritual authority. Rome, therefore, is evidently and undeniably this great city; and that Christian, and not heathen, Papal, and not imperial Rome was meant, hath appeared in several instances, and will appear in several more.

Bibliographical Information
Benson, Joseph. "Commentary on Revelation 17". Benson's Commentary. 1857.