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A new and remarkable part of the fourth great section of the Apocalypse here opens, but one full of melancholy. We cannot enlarge upon it now before we have determined the meaning of ‘Babylon.’ Let it be enough to say that under the name of that city we shall find represented the degenerate Church of Christ. Notwithstanding all that has been done for her she forgets her Lord; and, in the character of a harlot selling herself to the world for hire, hastens to her fate. It may seem as if this were defeat for the cause of God. It is really victory. The true Church, the faithful remnant, is not defeated when it is constrained to leave the fold in which it has hitherto been nourished (comp. on John 10:0). The outward institution falls; but the voice is heard and obeyed, ‘Come forth, My people, out of her’ (comp. Revelation 18:4), and those who listen to that voice enter into rest.
Revelation 17:1. One of the seven angels that had the seven bowls speaks to the Seer, saying, Come hither, I will show thee the judgment of the great harlot that sitteth upon many waters. The judgment spoken of, as appears by the word used in the original, is judgment executed, not in process of execution. The harlot is obviously Babylon, but the name is a mystical one (Revelation 17:5), and the Seer will afterwards more fully explain it. ‘Many waters’ are interpreted by the angel in Revelation 17:15 as ‘peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues, and the fourfold division shows that we have a representation of the whole world. The figure is taken from Jeremiah 51:13, where Babylon is addressed, ‘O thou that dwellest upon many waters.’ ‘Sitting’ is the emblem of authority and rule, accompanied by the thought of ease (comp. chap. Revelation 14:6). The term ‘harlot’ points to the fact that this city seduced men from the true God to worldliness and sin (Isaiah 1:21; Jeremiah 2:20; Ezekiel 16:15).
Revelation 17:2. With whom the kings of the earth committed fornication. ‘Kings’ are the representatives of all authority; and ‘the earth’ is the guilty world.
and they that dwell upon the earth were made drunken with the wine of her fornication. Not the kings only but all ‘the inhabiters of the earth,’ all who belong to the world in its evil sense, have been betrayed by the harlot. The description is again unlimited.
Revelation 17:3. And he carried me away in spirit into a wilderness. The expression ‘he carried me away in spirit’ is found only here and at chap. Revelation 21:10, where the vision of the New Jerusalem is introduced. It denotes spiritual ecstasy, not bodily removal; but it may be intended to do this in a peculiarly expressive form. In chap. Revelation 12:6; Revelation 12:14 we have been told of ‘the wilderness’ into which the woman there mentioned fled. Here we have no article, and we cannot therefore suppose that the wilderness now mentioned is the same. Attention is fixed simply on the fact that, amidst all Babylon’s pomp and luxury, the place where she reigns is really desolate (1 Timothy 5:6). It has indeed been conjectured that the fate prepared for Babylon, and expressed by a peculiar word in Revelation 17:16 and in chap. Revelation 18:17; Revelation 18:19, is already in the Seer’s mind, and that the thought of that fate leads to the description now given of the place of her abode. But it is more natural to think that these other expressions are conformed to that before us. The dwelling-place of Babylon is always ideally desolate: the fact shall afterwards correspond to the idea. A description of the beast upon which the harlot sat now follows. It is obviously that of chap. Revelation 13:1-2, and this may be said to be admitted. The identity is established by the whole description, especially by the comparison of the two passages relating to the beast in chaps. 13 and 17 with that in which it is again mentioned in chap. Revelation 19:19-20. In these latter verses the beast is spoken of as ‘making war against Him that sat upon the horse,’ and as cast alive into the lake of fire ‘with the false prophet that wrought the signs in his sight.’ But the first of these traits belongs to the beast of this chapter (Revelation 17:14), and the second, its close connection with the false prophet, to the beast of chap. 13 (Revelation 17:12-13). In all three passages, therefore, we have the same beast. On the other hand, the differences are slight. In chap. Revelation 13:1 the names of blasphemy are upon the heads of the beast: here the whole body is covered with them. But the former statement does not exclude the latter, and the names upon the heads only are mentioned in the one place because it is of the heads that the Seer is speaking; be sees them coming up from the sea. Now he sees the whole beast. If, also, the article before the word ‘names’ is to be read, it carries us to the thought of specific names already mentioned, and these can be no other than those of chap. Revelation 13:1. Again the ‘heads’ of this verse are naturally mentioned before the ‘horns,’ whereas in chap. Revelation 13:1 the order was reversed, because the horns appeared first as the beast ascended from the sea. Once more, the composite character of the beast of chap. Revelation 13:2 may equally belong to this beast, while the colour of the beast here may equally belong to the beast there. It is the manner of the Apocalypse thus to fill out in one place the more imperfect description of the same object in another. At the same time it is not impossible that, while the beast itself is the same, some of the differences in the description may be intended to point out the effect of its alliance with the harlot. More especially may this be the case with regard to the greater extension of the names of blasphemy. How strikingly, if the harlot be the degenerate Church, would this indicate the greater and more confident rage against the saints to which the world is prompted when it finds, as it has so often found, the Church upon its side !
The attitude of the woman towards the beast, both in this verse and in Revelation 17:7, ought to be marked. In the one she ‘sits’ upon it; in the other it ‘carries’ her: and the meaning is, not so much that her movements are facilitated by the beast, as that she is the beast’s directress and guide. Without her it would simply spend itself in ungovernable and often misdirected fury. The harlot holds the reins, and with skilful hand guides the beast to the accomplishment of its aims.
Revelation 17:4. And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and gilded with gold and precious atone and pearls. In these words we have a general description of the woman’s royal magnificence (comp chap. Revelation 18:16). ‘Arrayed’ is more than adorned. She has not merely ornaments of gold and precious stones and pearls, so numerous that she sparkles with them; they are thought of as a golden and costly gilding to her (comp. chap. Revelation 2:17).
Revelation 17:5. And upon her forehead a name written, Mystery, Babylon the Great, the Mother of the Harlots and of the abominations of the earth. The word ‘mystery’ may be understood either as a part of the name, or as an intimation of the writer that the name is to be understood symbolically. The latter interpretation is to be preferred. It is hardly likely that the name should openly declare itself to be unreal. For such a use of the word ‘mystery,’ comp. the use of ‘spiritually’ in chap. Revelation 11:8. It is worthy of notice that the word ‘mystery’ occurs only four times in the Apocalypse, three times in connection with the nature or the fate of Babylon (chaps. Revelation 10:7, Revelation 17:5; Revelation 17:7), and once with the seven churches which represent the Church universal (chap. Revelation 1:20). The name of the harlot is thus limited to what follows. Some would even restrict it still further. According to their view, ‘Babylon the Great’ was alone written upon the harlot’s forehead, and the subsequent description is an explanation of the writer. The name has already met us in its shorter form in chaps. Revelation 14:8, Revelation 16:19.
It is unnecessary, in illustration of this verse to refer to the fact that in the pagan world harlots had their names attached to their foreheads. The usage of the Apocalypse is to speak thus of the adherents both of God and of Satan of God, see chaps. Revelation 2:17, Revelation 7:3, Revelation 14:1; of Satan, chaps. Revelation 13:1; Revelation 13:16, Revelation 19:20, etc. More particularly the name thus borne upon the forehead is a parody of the name borne upon the forehead of the high priest (comp. chap. Revelation 2:17; Exodus 28:36). It declares the person.
Revelation 17:6. The description of the ungovernable fierceness of the woman’s spirit is continued. She drinks, and makes herself drunk with the blood of the saints and of the martyrs of Jesus (comp, chap. Revelation 18:24). Having finished his description the Seer adds, And when I saw her I wondered with a great wonder. He is overwhelmed with astonishment at the spectacle, yet not so much probably at the royal magnificence of the woman, as that, being a woman, she should exhibit such tokens of a cruel and bloodthirsty spirit, denying the nature that properly belonged to her.
At this point it might have been well to inquire into the meaning of ‘Babylon’ in these verses, but so much has still to be said of that city that it seems better to delay the inquiry until we have finished the exposition of the whole passage. Upon this point, therefore, we refer to what is said at the end of chap. 18
Revelation 17:7. The angel proceeds to explain what St. John had seen, taking the two parts of the vision in inverted order; first, the beast (Revelation 17:8-14), and secondly, the woman (Revelation 17:15-18).
Revelation 17:8. The beast that thou sawest was, and is not, and is about to ascend out of the abyss, and to go into perdition. Whatever may be the difficulty of interpreting these words, one thing is clear, that they contain no reference to Nero or any supposed rising of his from the grave. We saw that such an interpretation was wholly inapplicable to chap. 13. It is equally inapplicable now. In the first place, let us mark carefully the three members of this verse, ‘was,’ ‘is not,’ ‘is about to ascend,’ etc. They are the obvious counterpart of the three members of the doxology in chaps. Revelation 1:8 and Revelation 4:8, which ‘was,’ and ‘is,’ and ‘is to come.’ In the second place, we have to notice the words ‘ascend’ and ‘go.’ They are words almost consecrated in the Gospel of St. John to our Lord’s resurrection and departure to the Father. In the third place, the word used for ‘perdition’ is important. It denotes the destruction prepared for the ungodly (comp. John 3:16), a state in every particular the reverse of that heavenly and glorious life to which Jesus ‘goes.’ Keeping these things in view, there can be no doubt that in what is here said of the beast we have a travesty of what is said elsewhere of our Lord; and this alone compels us to think of something wider and more conspicuous than any single Emperor of Rome. We learn both from the Fourth Gospel and the Apocalypse that St. John is accustomed to view evil in three great stages. First, it contends against Christ and His Church; secondly, it is conquered; lastly, it breaks out again before it experiences a complete destruction. Such a course of things is exactly what we have here, ‘was’ representing the first period, ‘is not’ the second, and ‘is about to ascend,’ etc. the third. The evil of the world, beheld by the Seer as concentrating itself in the Roman Empire, is to him the particular form in which the beast existed in his day. Then, by the work of Jesus it was ideally destroyed (comp. Colossians 2:15). Lastly, it bursts forth again to be overwhelmed for ever. The representation is precisely parallel to that of chap. Revelation 13:3.
In the remaining part of the verse it is only necessary to call attention to the change of reading in the last clause, shall be present instead of ‘yet is’ of the Authorised Version. The three characteristics are the same as before, the third ‘shall be present’ corresponding to ‘is about to ascend’ of the first part of the verse. On the name written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, comp. chap. Revelation 13:8. Revelation 17:9. Here is the mind which hath wisdom. The explanation follows. The ‘wisdom’ spoken of is Divine spiritual insight, gained by an experimental knowledge of the ways of God. This circumstance alone might be enough to show that, even if Rome be present to the mind of the Seer as one illustration among many of the evil before his eyes, he cannot be thinking of Rome alone. In what he is about to say, he would tell us, the thought of the seven-hilled city may most readily occur to the superficial reader. But we are not to think of it. ‘Wisdom’ leads to a less literal, to a more spiritual, interpretation (comp. chap. Revelation 13:18).
The seven heads are seven mountains upon which the woman sitteth. These words, it is easy to see, form the stronghold of those who think that in the ‘woman’ of this passage we are dealing with the city of Rome, and in the ‘beast’ with one of its Emperors, most probably Nero; yet it is impossible to adopt the interpretation, further at least than is involved in the admission that the thought of Rome may have been present to the mind of St. John as one, perhaps even as the most prominent, phase of a much wider truth. In the first place, the number ‘seven’ is not to be literally understood. There is indeed a peculiar propriety in interpreting it symbolically in the present instance, for the power described is the dark contrast of the Church, is the antichrist in opposition to the Christ. But the ‘seven’ churches were not literally seven, they were a symbol of the universal Church. In like manner the ‘seven’ mountains are not literally seven. They symbolize a seat of evil as wide as was the good, if in the one case the one Catholic Church, in the other the one Catholic synagogue of Satan. In the second place, starting with the fact that the first clause of Revelation 17:10 ought to be translated not ‘And there are’ but ‘and they are seven kings,’ it will be at once perceived that we cannot literally interpret the seven ‘heads’ first of seven ‘mountains’ and then of seven ‘kings.’ In the third place, we are told in chap. Revelation 13:3 that one of the seven ‘heads’ was wounded to death, a description which cannot apply to a literal mountain. These ‘seven mountains’ then are not mountains. They are an Old Testament expression for powers (comp. Isaiah 2:2; Daniel 2:35), and we have in them the first part of a double description of the same object, first ‘mountains’ and then ‘kings.’
Revelation 17:10. And they are seven kings. The heads are seven kings (not personal kings, comp. on chap. Revelation 13:2) or powers, the world-power being thus again regarded in the sevenfoldness of its unity. Every attempt to understand by these ‘kings’ Roman Emperors or Procurators, or Roman forms of government of any kind, is shattered either on the facts of the case, or on the extreme improbability of supposing that a book like the Apocalypse would enter into minute details of the internal government of heathen nations, or on the words actually employed by the Seer (comp. on the word ‘fallen’). Nor is there any real difficulty presented by the consideration that, if one of these ‘kings’ be not a person but the Roman power, then this power must be spoken of in a double character as one of the heads of the beast, and as the beast itself. There is nothing to prevent this; for, as the seven churches are one, so the seven heads are one, and each head is no more than a particular and necessarily limited manifestation of evil which is wider and deeper than itself. We have already seen too (on chap. Revelation 13:2) that in prophetic language ‘kings’ means kingdoms. The seven ‘kings’ mentioned are therefore seven world-powers, Egypt, Nineveh, Babylon, Persia, Graecia, Rome, and a power which is to follow the Roman now beheld tottering to its fall.
The five are fallen, the one is, the other is not yet come; and, when he cometh, he must continue a short while. The word ‘fallen’ is worthy of peculiar notice, for it does not signify mere passing away by such a peaceful death as befell some of those Roman Emperors who are often supposed to be referred to as the ‘seven kings.’ The word ‘is used in the Septuagint constantly, and in Daniel, of the violent fall, the overthrow, either of kings or of kingdoms: it is a word belonging to domination overthrown, to glory ruined, to empire superseded.’ Thus Egypt, Nineveh, Babylon, Persia, and Graecia had successively ‘fallen,’ having perished in the ‘blood that they had spilt.’ The sixth, described as ‘the one,’ is Rome: the seventh, spoken of as ‘the other,’ is not yet come.
Revelation 17:11. And the beast that was and is not is himself also an eighth, and is of the seven; and he goeth into perdition. What is here said is said not of a new ‘head’ but of ‘the beast,’ and this beast is to be identified with that of Revelation 17:8. With a slight exception the description of the beast given in the two passages is precisely the same, and that exception is easily explained. It consists in the omission from the latter of the two of the words, ‘and is about to come up out of the abyss.’ But these words are parallel to that part of the designation of our Lord in this book which speaks of Him as ‘to come,’ and which was omitted in chap. Revelation 11:17, because at that point it was no longer suitable: the Lord was come. The omission of the clause in the present instance is to be similarly explained. The previous and preparatory manifestations of the beast are over. It now comes itself, that it may be ready for destruction when the Lord appears. The ‘beast’ here is, therefore, identical with that of Revelation 17:8; that is, with the beast as it was thought of at a time prior to any mention, in Revelation 17:9, of the successive forms of its manifestation. It is thus distinct from any one of its seven heads. No single head may fully represent it. Thus also we see why it is described in the apparently contradictory language of this verse. First, it is ‘an eighth.’ Not that it is numerically an eighth in the same line with the seven. Then it would be an eighth head; but we are dealing with the beast itself, not with its heads, and it is spoken of as an eighth simply because it follows the seven, and because in its final condition all the malice and evil of its previous conditions are concentrated. At the same time it is possible that the Seer desires to bring out this fact in connection with the beast, that he may identify it with the ‘Little Horn’ of Daniel 7:8. That Little Horn takes the place of three out of ten horns which are plucked up by the roots, that is of the eighth, ninth, and tenth horns. It thus comes after seven, is numbered eight, and represents the ungodly world-power in its highest manifestation. We have already seen that, according to Jewish methods of conception, the number eight was peculiarly fitted to express such a thought (comp. on chap. Revelation 13:18). Secondly, the beast is said to be ‘of the seven.’ The meaning is not that it is one of the seven, when it had just been said that it was distinct from them. The preposition ‘of’ is to be understood in its common acceptation in St. John’s writings, as denoting origin, and, with origin, identity of nature. The beast is the essence, the concentrated expression, of the seven, the embodiment of their spirit; and it was necessary to mention this, lest we should think that it belongs to a wholly different category. The ‘Little Horn’ in Daniel was still a horn, and the great antichristian power is of the same nature and essence as the seven antichristian powers that go before it. This ‘eighth’ world-power is not then wholly new. It is the old world-power concentrating in itself all the rage of the seven. Thirdly, the beast ‘goeth into perdition’ (comp. chap. Revelation 19:20). Nothing is said of its continuing either a longer or a shorter space. Enough that to go into perdition is at once its nature and its fate. Finally, it may be remarked that we seem to have nothing here of a personal antichrist, still less of a human king who has died and risen from the dead. We have simply the last and worst manifestation of the ungodly power of the world.
Revelation 17:12. The ‘heads’ have been explained: we come next to the horns. These horns are all connected with the seventh head; they are gathered together upon it, and are a substitute for it (see on chap. Revelation 13:1). They are now explained to be ten kings, i.e not personal kings, but kingdoms, authorities, or powers of the world. They had not as yet received their kingdom, for the Seer has seen only the sixth head actually manifested. The historical applications of these ‘ten kings’ may be passed over without remark. The number is as usual symbolical, denoting all the antichristian powers of earth which were to arise after the sixth head had fallen or the great Roman Empire been broken up.
They receive authority as kings one hour with the beast. The expression ‘one hour’ can hardly occasion difficulty, corresponding, as it obviously does, to the ‘short while’ of Revelation 17:10. It is more difficult to see the meaning of the words ‘with the beast.’ These words appear to imply that the ten kings shall have their authority at the same time as the beast, while it would seem from Revelation 17:11 that the manifestation of the latter follows the appearance of the seventh head. The difficulty is to be resolved by remembering that each of the six powers that had been spoken of before the seventh arose has, no less than the seventh, really ruled ‘with’ the beast. Each of them had been a special manifestation of the beast. The preposition ‘with’ may imply more than contemporaneousness. On this point its use in chap. Revelation 19:20, to say nothing of other passages, seems to be decisive. We there read not, ‘and with him the false prophet’ but ‘and the with-him-false-prophet’ or, more idiomatically, ‘the false-prophet-with-him;’ while we learn from chap. Revelation 13:12 that the relation of the false prophet to the beast is that of subordination. Here, therefore, as well as there, such subordination, such ministering to the purpose of another, is implied in the preposition ‘with.’ But, although the first six heads ruled with the beast and the beast ruled in them, the beast survived them; and, when they have fallen, it makes yet another effort to accomplish its purpose previous to its own total overthrow. This it does by means of the ten horns (or the seventh head) which thus rule ‘with’ it. These, however, are the last through which the beast shall exercise its power. They complete the cycle of seven; and, when the Lord has borne with them till the hour of judgment strikes, He will ‘slay them with the breath of His mouth, and bring them to nought by the manifestation of His coming’ (2 Thessalonians 2:8). The meaning of Revelation 17:11-12 of this chapter, then, is simply this, that, after the fall of the Roman power, there shall arise a number of powers, symbolically ten, exhibiting the same ungodly spirit as that which had marked Rome and the powers of the world that had preceded Rome. In them the beast shall concentrate all its rage: they shall be the last and readiest instruments of its will. But it shall be in vain. The beast and they have their ‘hour.’ They continue their ‘short while,’ and then they perish.
Revelation 17:13. These have one mind, and they give their power and authority unto the beast. So had it been with the second beast (chap. Revelation 13:12), and so with the harlot (chap. Revelation 17:3; Revelation 17:7). The brute power of the world could of itself effect nothing were it not served by the spiritual forces of the false prophet, and of the harlot, or of the kings who have listened to the harlot’s witcheries.
Revelation 17:14. In this verse the war of the ten kings with the Lamb is described, but it is unnecessary to dwell upon it. It may he noticed that the statement of the last half of the verse is not that of the Authorised Version, that the Lamb shall overcome because they that are with Him are called and chosen and faithful, but that they that are with him, called, and chosen, and faithful, shall be partakers of the victory. The Seer now returns to the woman who sat upon the beast.
Revelation 17:15. The fourfold designation of those who constitute the waters spoken of in this verse is a clear proof that the harlot exercises her sway over the whole world, in travesty of Him ‘who sitteth upon the flood,’ who ‘sitteth King for ever’ (Psalms 29:10).
Revelation 17:16. And the ten horns which thou sawest and the beast. The ten horns and the beast are mentioned in combination because the latter is the essence of the former, and the former are the expression of the latter.
These shall hate the harlot, and shall make her desolate and naked, and shall eat her flesh, and shall burn her utterly with fire. What an unexpected result! The woman has been sitting on the beast, reckoning on it as her servant and ally, and guiding it in perfect harmony with its temper and designs. All at once the scene is changed. Defeat has taken place, and what is the effect? The bond which in prosperity had bound the wicked co-labourers together is dissolved, the partners in evil fall out, the one section turns round upon the other, and she who had found ready instruments in the beast and its heads for accomplishing the work to which she had spurred them on sees them, in the hour of common despair, fall upon herself and mercilessly destroy her. The individual expressions do not call for much remark: (1) Desolate is the word corresponding to the ‘wilderness’ of Revelation 17:3, she is to be made truly a wilderness; (2) Flesh is plural in the original, probably because of the many who perish, or of the many possessions that the harlot owns; (3) The thought of thus eating flesh is taken from the Old Testament; ‘when the wicked came upon me ... to eat up my flesh’ (Psalms 27:2); ‘who also eat the flesh of my people’ (Micah 3:3); (4) Shall burn her utterly with fire. The language is most probably taken from the Old Testament, in which to be so burned is the punishment of fornication on the part of a priest’s daughter (Leviticus 21:9). The whole is a picture of complete destruction.
To seek historical fulfilment of his in such events as Nero’s burning Rome will appear to most men, in the simple statement of it, absurd. A great principle is proceeded upon, one often exemplified in the world, that combinations of the wicked for a common crime soon break up, leaving the guilty associates to turn upon and destroy one another. But it is difficult not to think that there was especially one great drama present to the Seer’s mind, and suggestive of this lesson that drama which embodied in intensest action all the great forces that move the world the drama of the life and death of Jesus. He thought of the alliance that had been made between the Jews and the Romans to crucify the Redeemer, an alliance so soon broken and followed by the destruction of Jerusalem. In that he beheld the type of similar alliances in all future time.
Revelation 17:17. For God gave it into their hearts to do his mind, and to be of one mind, and to give their kingdom unto the beast. This ‘giving’ of authority to the beast we have already met with in Revelation 17:13; and in Revelation 17:12 it has been intimated that the ten kings held their authority from God. Whatever, therefore, they had done in persecuting the saints had been accomplishing Goo’s purpose (comp. Acts 2:23).
Until the words of God should be accomplished; until all His purposes should be fulfilled.
Revelation 17:18. And the woman which thou sawest is the great city which hath a kingdom over the kings of the earth. That Rome may be here present to the mind of St. John it would be difficult to deny. We have seen that Rome may have been thought of in Revelation 17:9. But that we are to confine ourselves to Rome, either Papal or pagan or both, or that we are even to think primarily of them, as is done by different classes of Historical interpreters, can hardly be admitted. Rome may be one of the illustrations or exemplifications of what is alluded to, but the idea of the Seer is certainly wider than that of any single city or power of the world. We have yet to inquire what the ‘city,’ the ‘Babylon,’ so referred to, is. In the meantime it must be enough to say that to think of any literal city whatever is to disturb the harmony which ought to mark the interpretation of the whole passage. The city must be some faithless spiritual power which, under the last manifestation of the beast, enters into a league with the world, ministers to it, and lends to its material forces an influence for evil which they would not otherwise possess.
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Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on Revelation 17". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25