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Bible Commentaries
Revelation 17

The Biblical IllustratorThe Biblical Illustrator

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Verses 1-6

Revelation 17:1-6

The Judgment of the great whore.

A corrupt Christianity

The description here given of this harlot suggests and illustrates three great evils ever conspicuous in corrupt Christianity.

Political subserviency. “With whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication.” Essentially Christianity is the absolute queen of life. Although her kingdom is “not of this world,” her demand is that the world should bow to her. In yielding to worldly influence she lost her pristine purity and primitive power, she got corrupted, and became more and more the servant of rulers and the instrument of states.

Worldly proclivity. “And the woman was arrayed in purple anal scarlet colour, and decked with gold,” etc. Genuine Christianity is essentially unworldly.

Religious intolerance. “And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints,” etc. (David Thomas, D. D.)

Babylon and Anti-Christ

The woman.

1. Her position, which was indicative of power. John saw her seated upon a beast, “dreadful, and terrible, and strong exceedingly”; for so, in the book of Daniel, we find him described. Again, it was a position indicative of hostility to God. For the beast on which the woman sat was “full of names of blasphemy.” Then it was a position indicative of the unsightliness of vice. What a hideous monster was this beast, “having seven heads and ten horns”; and how strange was the picture presented to the apostle’s view of “the great whore,” as seated upon him. Here, too, was a position indicative of cruelty towards men, as well as of hostility towards God. The beast on which she sat was scarlet-coloured, betokening war and bloodshed. It was a position, nevertheless, of allurement and seduction. For she was seen as one who had in her hand “a golden cup,” too successfully held forth to “the inhabitants of the earth,” who are represented as having been “made drunk with the wine of her fornication.” Her position once more was that of a deceiver and destroyer. The cup held forth was “golden.” But its contents, as seen by the apostle--what were they? It was “full of abominations,” etc.

2. Her attire. “The woman was arrayed in purple, and scarlet-coloured,” indicative of her real dignity; “and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls”--illustrative of her vast wealth. How many, beholding a female thus adorned, would at once wish to occupy her place! Yet such might be arrayed on earth in purple, and fail of being hereafter arrayed in white in heaven. Instead of wishing to be “decked with gold and precious stones,” such as John saw glittering on “the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth,” let the heart go after that “redemption of the soul” which is “precious, and ceaseth for ever.”

3. Her names.

(1) “Mystery.” Such she would have been to John but for the angel’s explanation. Such, even with that explanation, she to certain extent remained to him. And such she was destined to remain to the Church of God through a long succession of ages. Let it be observed, however, that inquiry into the import of the vision was, as it were, challenged by the angel who showed this “woman” to John. We do not, therefore, act unbecomingly in endeavouring to ascertain what this “woman” was destined to represent to the apostle.

(2) “Babylon the Great.” In having this name inscribed upon her “forehead, she was exhibited to the apostle in a vaunting attitude, and as under the influence of a spirit, similar to that of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4:30). Elsewhere, too, in this book we find her displaying a boastful and vainglorious temper of mind (Revelation 18:7). This should be a lesson to us not to be high-minded, as the possessors of either worldly or religious distinctions.

(3) “The mother of harlots, and abominations of the earth.” This was indeed to have “a whore’s forehead,” and to be, as the Jewish nation was once charged with being, one that “refused to be ashamed.” Behold the woman with unblushing effrontery proclaiming to the world her character and misdoings; and see, m her, the foreshowing of those “latter times,” in which “doctrines of devils” shall be promulgated, and “men, giving heed to seducing spirits, shall depart from the faith”; times when there shall be a “forbidding to marry.” It would seem that in this way Babylon the Great is destined to become “the mother of harlots”--namely, by an authoritative prohibition of the nuptial tie; a doing away with marriage throughout the wide extent of her dominion, and a consequent abandonment of society to general dissoluteness.

4. Her condition. “And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints,” etc. What spectacle was this! fitted to awaken in his bosom feelings at once of disgust and horror. How fearful an amount of persecuting rage against the Church of God, as destined to become apparent in the days of the ascendency of “Babylon the Great,” was thus prophetically indicated to him! And of what an amount of suffering, on the part of the saints, and of the witnesses for Jesus, was he thus made aware beforehand.

The beast.

1. His colour. A scarlet-coloured beast. What did this indicate? Perhaps, his regal character. We are forewarned that he will be a king of widely-extended rule. In another vision John saw “power given him over all kindreds, and tongues, and nations.” “And the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority.” We conclude, then, that in being foreshown to John as a scarlet-coloured beast, the regal character of the Man of sin may have been prophetically indicated, and in particular his character, as vicegerent on earth, of the “great red dragon” (Revelation 12:3). But it is more probable that, in presenting him thus to the view of the apostle, the Divine purpose may have been to foreshow to the Christian world the character of antichrist, as a warrior and persecutor of the Church of God. Such he most certainly will be. As a scarlet-coloured beast he might be very fitly presented to view--a monster dyed, as it were, in blood--when it is considered that the time of his ascendency will be “a time of trouble such as never was, since there was a nation to that same time” (compare Revelation 12:12; Daniel 12:1), and “except that the Lord had shortened those days, no flesh would be saved.” Power was given to him to make war forty-and-two months--no longer. Then he was, as foreshown to John, “cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone.”

2. His names. “He was full of names of blasphemy,” which make us, as they made the apostle, aware that antichrist, when he shall come, besides “wearing out the saints,” will “speak great words against the Most High”--“marvellous things against the God of gods.” In times long gone he was foreshown to the prophet Daniel as one who would act thus. It will be one special end of his mission, as Satan’s prime minister in the world, to blaspheme.

3. His figure. He had “seven heads and ten horns,” and must, hence, have presented to the apostle an aspect at once singular, hideous, and terrible--indicative, however, of large intelligence and vast power.

4. His manifestation, contemporaneously with that of “Babylon the Great.” Together they will flourish--together they will fall. The day of power to both will be one and the same. The day of doom also.

5. His subservience to her exaltation and advancement. She is seated on him. He “carrieth her.” Her prosperity, glory, and dominion will be consequent on, and commensurate with, his own.

The apostle’s wonder at the spectacle. “And when I saw her I wondered with great admiration.” But John was rebuked on account of the “great admiration” with which he “wondered” at the woman on whom he was looking. He writes, “And the angel said unto me, wherefore didst thou marvel?” What you have now before you is not, in itself, a spectacle that ought to be wondered at, as it now is, by you. And, even if the world will wonder at it, should you do so? “They shall wonder, whose names were not written in the book of life, from the foundation of the world” (verse 8). But “wherefore shouldst thou marvel?”

The angel’s promise to John. “I will tell thee the mystery of the woman.” This vision was granted to the apostle for the purpose of instruction, not of mere entertainment. The angel will unfold the mystery to him. The promised revelation, however, of all to him, a holy man of God and a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ, is in accordance with what we read elsewhere (Psalms 25:14). (H. Edwards.)

The martyrs of Jesus.

The noble army of martyrs

What do the “Martyrs of Jesus” teach us about themselves?

1. Their heroic faith. They had unswerving reliance in Christ, and knew they were not following cunningly devised fables. These martyrs had not simply an opinion or impression, but a deep belief; they were resting upon evidence which they felt to be sufficient and immovable. They believed in living, risen, and reigning Lord.

2. Their sublime hope. All they could see seemed to be against them, all their surroundings were calculated to depress them; but they looked not at things seen and temporal, but for aa inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away.

3. Their ardent love. They loved their country, home, and friends; but they loved their Master more, and they were prepared to relinquish all for the love they bore to Him.

4. Their complete obedience. They had their marching orders, and they marched on under the Great Captain of their salvation, to do and dare and die. They reciprocated His love.

5. Their transparent sincerity.

6. Their restful satisfaction. They felt they had not only sufficient, but satisfactory evidence of the truth as it is in Jesus. They found in Him all they needed to satisfy the wishes and wants of their spirits, so nothing could move them or shake their steadfastness.

What do “the martyrs of Jesus” teach us respecting Him?

1. He could have been no myth. These martyrs were--as the word literally means--witnesses, not inventors, or historians merely, they had the evidence of their senses as well as the experience of their hearts. From what we know of human nature, we feel it would have been impossible for the early Christians to have died for a myth or phantom: they were in a position to test most fully the historic claims of Christ, and to prove His personality and identity at the various points of His mission and ministry.

2. He could not have been a deceiver. Men may submit to be deluded when they have much to gain and nothing to lose; but when it is the reverse they will exercise the utmost vigilance and practise the strictest caution.

3. How faithful Christ was to His promise never to leave nor forsake them, and they witness to the victorious power of His religion to sustain the soul in the most trying circumstances, in torturing pain, and the dying hour.

4. The impotence of error and the omnipotence of truth. Truth is mighty, and must prevail; more is for it than all that can be against it. Error, in its rage and cowardice, has drawn the sword and gone forth to win its way, and strike terror into the hearts of the true. But the prospect of massacre and martyrdom could not deter the true followers of the Lamb: they have gone forth feeling that the Lord of hosts was with them, and that the mighty God of Jacob was their refuge. The King Immortal, Invisible, steers and guards His own ark, and all shall ultimately and utterly fail and fall who lay their unholy alien hands upon it. The noble army of martyrs praise God, and they preach to us. (F. W. Brown.)

Verses 7-14

Revelation 17:7-14

I will tell thee the mystery of the woman, and of the beast that carrieth her.

A picture of moral error

Its history is marvellous.

1. On account of the darkness that enfolds its introduction.

2. On account of the mask under which it works.

3. On account of the wonderful issues that will result from it.

Its course is lamentable.

1. It rises from the “bottomless pit”--the fathomless abysses of impure lusts, ravenous greed, burning ambition, sensual yearnings, impious irreverences, blasphemous assumptions, etc.

2. It leads to “perdition”--ruin.

Its supports are unstable. Many of the arguments that have sustained it from time to time have appeared as settled and imposing as mountains, as gorgeous and majestic as kings; but “mountains have fallen and come to nought,” and even imperial bulwarks have disappeared as visions of the night. So it has been, so it is, and so it must be to the end. (D. Thomas, D. D.)

These shall make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them.

War and conquest

The opposing forces. Look abroad upon the earth. What a pandemonium of vice and crime, injustice and cruelty, heathenism and superstition it is. Oh, how mighty and multiplied the antagonist hosts! They are mustered and marshalled; they are eager for the strife of the battle, they confront us at every step; and the great question is this, Can they be overcome? Must we lay down our arms in despair! Is the world to become no better?

The opposing forces vanquished. The Lamb will overcome them.

1. By the interpositions and changes of Providence. God has a purpose, the world is to be converted, and all things are working to accomplish that end; but God’s way is in the sea, and His path in the mighty waters; He is the real, though invisible, ruler, both of matter and of mind. The laws of providence are just as Divine in their appointments and results as the laws of nature. All things work to usher in the day predicted by the angel’s song, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.”

2. By the preaching of His own truth and the outpouring of His Holy Spirit. Preaching is the appointment of heaven.

3. By the indomitable zeal and energy of His own followers. As the conflict advances, one shall chase a thousand and two shall put ten thousand to flight. In all ages God has carried on His work by the zeal, energy, and courage of His faithful servants. He did it even in the ages of miracles, He will do it till the world is saved; and why shrink from the task His benevolence appoints? Have we had no success? Did not Wesley and Whitfield arouse all England and North America to the worth of the gospel and the importance of eternal things? Are we faithful to the cause of the Lamb? Might He not reproach us for our doubts and fears? Where is the faith which wrought those moral wonders in the apostolic age? (W. S. Edwards.)

The Royal Christ

A Lamb, and yet “Lord of lords, and King of kings.” The ideas seem incongruous. How, then, is “the Lamb” this?

1. By rightful authority. Though Son of Man, He is also Son of God (cf. Psalms 2:1-12.)

2. By virtue of His sacrifice (chap. 4.; cf. Philippians 3:1-21.), “Therefore hath God highly exalted Him, and,” etc.

3. By the might of meekness. See how at His nativity the shepherds were told they should see the “Saviour, Christ the Lord.” Meekness is might, sacrifice is sovereignty, losing life is gaining it; the cross creates the crown.

4. By the consent of conscience.

5. By the grace he imparted to His people. “Their patient continuance in well-doing put to silence” all their foes.

6. In His people. “They that are with Him.” The Revised Version rightly renders St. John’s words, “They also shall overcome that are with Him, called, chosen, faithful.” St. John does not teach that the Lamb was indebted to them for this victory as a general is indebted to his army. They are--

(1) Called.

(2) Chosen. But thus we may know if we be chosen:

(3) If we be of those who are faithful. Called we are; chosen we may be.

faithful, then we are of the chosen too; and this, and this only, is the proof. (C. Conway, B. A.)

The great moral campaign

The contending forces.

1. The one is represented as a “beast.” Emblem of the mighty aggregate of wrong in all its elements and operations: wrong in theories and in institutions, wrong in sentiments and habits, wrong as imposing as seven mountains and as majestic as kings or empires, wrong sitting as empress over all nations and peoples and tongues.

2. The other is represented as a “Lamb”--emblem of innocence, mildness, and purity.

The marvellous conquest.

1. The conqueror. The Lamb, though not a bellicose existence, is

(1) Invested with the highest authority.

(2) Followed by a noble army.

2. The conquered. (D. Thomas, D. D.)

The overcoming Lamb

The person mentioned. He is not a lamb, but the Lamb. He is the great universal Lamb, causing the blood which He shed to spread itself, as it were, all over the world, so that every sinner might touch it and be saved from his sins.

What He shall overcome. All opposers, both nations and individuals.

How He shall overcome His opposers. There are two general methods--

1. That of using certain means to persuade rebellious hearts to become reconciled to God. His greatest effort has always been to overcome by the passion of His love.

2. That of final banishment from His presence. Oh, what can feeble man do against such an all-powerful being as Christ is? How utterly vain have been the threats of infidels, that they would banish Him from the world. (C. H. Wetherbe.)

And they that are with Him are called, and chosen, and faithful.--

The army of the Lamb

This is a description of the best appointed army that was ever brought into the field--the army of Christ Jesus. It has been the presumptuous boast of many earthly generals that their soldiers were invincible--such as no enemy could overthrow. This may, however, be with truth affirmed of this army. They carry, as it were, this inscription on their banners, “Conquering and to conquer!”

The Captain of this host of the Lord. The success of every ordinary army depends mainly, under God, upon the skill and valour of its general. But of this spiritual army it may with truth be said that every hope of victory they have arises altogether from Him who leads them to the battle. They have an Almighty leader at their head, One whose presence insures victory to all His followers. In the former part of the verse this “Captain of the Lord’s host” is called by two different titles, which seem, at first sight, scarcely reconcilable.

1. One of these titles is, “the Lamb”--a name which might seem, at first, little suited to the leader of an army. But what does the term signify in the case of Him to whom it is applied? Not that He is weak and feeble as the tender animal which bears this name. But He is a “Lamb” in reference to the death He died for His people, when He was “led as a Lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep is dumb before its shearers so He opened not His mouth.” It is a title, too, of endearment. The Lamb is not more meek and gentle than He is to His faithful followers.

2. But if the epithet “Lamb” represents His gentleness and tenderness towards His people and the death which He has died for them, He has another name which describes, as strikingly, His majesty and power--“Lord of lords and King of kings.”

His soldiers. “They that are with Him are called, and chosen, and faithful.”

1. They are “called”--just as the soldiers of an earthly army are enlisted for the service. The soldiers of an earthly warfare were called into the ranks they fill from very different occupations: some from the shop, some from the plough. Christ’s soldiers, too, were very differently occupied when the call of grace was given them. They were then mere children of the world, “fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind”--each busily occupied in his own favourite and cherished sins. Various, too, were the circumstances under which the call was given to them, and various the means employed by the great Captain of salvation to make them hear that call. But in every case it was the Saviour’s “Follow Me!” which brought His soldiers to His side.

2. They are not “called” only, but “chosen.” There is a difference, even in earthly armies, between being called and being chosen, between being merely enlisted and being what is called “picked men,” men in whom the general can place his confidence. Look at Gideon’s army (Judges 7:1-7). Two-and-thirty thousand then were called; three hundred only chosen. It is just thus in the camp of Jesus. What multitudes flock into it! But how many of all these become in after life true soldiers of the Cross? Alas! but a small remnant; for “many are called, but few are chosen.” But they that are really with the Saviour, and who constitute His “Church militant here on earth,” are, all of them, “picked men.” Whatever exploits Christ’s soldiers may perform when they have entered on the fight of faith, “by the grace of God they are what they are.”

3. They are faithful. The word may be taken in two senses, in each of which it is equally applicable to the armies of the Living God.

(1) They are “faithful” inasmuch as they are full of faith and confidence in the Captain of their salvation. The soldiers of the Lamb of God place their entire confidence in the Commander whom they follow.

(2) A man is said to be faithful who lives up to his engagements, and who adheres with constancy and perseverance to the person whose service he has undertaken. Faithfulness, in this understanding of the word, is most essential to the character of a good soldier. One part of his faithfulness consists in his remaining true to his commander until he be disbanded or dismissed. To run from his colours, or desert the service of his king and country, is amongst the soldier’s greatest crimes. In this point, too, the soldiers of the Lord are faithful. “They follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth,” and nothing shall ever separate them from His love and from His service. (A. Roberts, M. A.)


Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Revelation 17". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tbi/revelation-17.html. 1905-1909. New York.
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