Bible Commentaries
Revelation 17

Coke's Commentary on the Holy BibleCoke's Commentary

Search for…
Enter query below:
Additional Authors



A woman arrayed in purple, and scarlet, with a golden cup in her hand, sitteth upon the beast, which is great Babylon, the mother of all abominations. The interpretation of the seven heads and the ten horns. The victory of the Lamb. The punishment of the whore.

Anno Domini 96.

Verse 1

Revelation 17:1.— The former vision represented a very afflicted state of the church; the true worshippers of God, few in number, driven out from society, flying into desart places for safety from persecution, prophesying in sackcloth, in a state of oppression and mourning, and often put to death for their testimony to the truth: yet the time of this afflicted state is limited to 1260 years; at the end of which period the oppressive persecuting power shall be destroyed; and purity, truth, and righteousness, which were oppressed and persecuted, shall flourish in a state of great safety, peace, and happiness. This is a much longer period of prophesy than either of the foregoing. To make the true meaning of it more clear, one of the angels who poured out the cup of God's wrath, is sent to St. John as a messenger, more fully to explain it; and we may justly look upon his interpretation as a sure key, which will warrant an application of the several representations; and so far as an angel from heaven explains it, we may be satisfied we have the true meaning of it: so that by the help of this explication in the prophesyitself, we have a sure interpretation of some of the more important parts of the vision, and of such as will make the interpretation of the rest very likely and probable.

Verses 1-6

Revelation 17:1-6. And there came one of the seven angels, &c.— As the seventh seal, and the seventh trumpet, contained more particulars than any of the former seals or trumpets; so theseventh vial contains more thanany 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 has thought fit to represent it under a variety of images. Rome has already been characterized by the names of spiritual Egypt, and of 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 in general, Babylon is fallen, &c. ch. Revelation 14:8. but this is a catastrophe deserving a more particular description, both for warning to some, and for 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 among the Papists are no less names than those of Baronius, Bellarmine, &c. and it appears almost to demonstration, that not Pagan but Christian, not imperial but papal Rome, was here intended. One of the seven angels calleth to St. John, Revelation 17:1. Most probably this was the seventh angel; for under the seventh vial great Babylon came into remembrance before God, ch. Revelation 16:19. and now St. John is called upon to see her condemnation and execution:—Come hither, &c. So ancient Babylon, which was seated on the great river Euphrates, is described, Jer 51:13 . and from thence the phrase of sitting upon many waters is in some measure taken; and signifies, according to the angel's own explanation, ver.15. ruling over many people and nations. Neither was this an ordinary prostitute; she was the great whore, with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, Revelation 17:2. as the prophet says of Tyre, Isa 23:17 . Nay, not only the kings, but inferior persons, the inhabitants of the earth, have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication; as it was said of ancient Babylon, Jer 51:7 . 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 does in no respect so well answer the character; for she ruled more with a rod of iron, than with the wine of 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. 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. As Ezekiel was conveyedby the Spirit to Jerusalem, (ch. viii 3.) so St. John is carried away in the Spirit into the wilderness, (Revelation 17:3.) for there the scene is laid, being a scene of desolation. When the woman,—the true church,—was persecuted and afflicted, she was said to fly into the wilderness, ch. Revelation 12:14. and, in like manner, when the woman, the false church, is to be destroyed, the vision is presented in the wilderness. A woman sitting upon a beast, is a lively and significative emblem of a church or city directing and governing an empire. Inpainting and sculpture, as well as in prophetic language, cities are often represented in the form of women; and Rome itself is exhibited in ancient coins as a woman sitting upon a lion. Here the beast is a scarlet-coloured beast, for the same reason that the dragon is called the red dragon, ch. Revelation 12:3. 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, having seven heads and ten horns; so that this is the very same beast which was described in the former part of ch. 13 and the woman in some measure answers to the two horned beast or false prophet; and consequently the woman is Christian, not Pagan Rome, because Rome was become Christian before the beast had completely seven heads and ten horns; that is, before the Roman empire was divided into ten kingdoms. The woman was arrayed too in purple and scarlet colour, (Revelation 17:4.) this being the colour of the popes and cardinals, as well as of the emperors and senators of Rome. 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? The mitre of Paul II. which was set with diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, chrysolites, jaspers, and precious stones of all sorts, is one instance; and another conspicuous instance was in the Lady of Loretto, the riches of whose holy image, and house, and treasury, were far beyond the reach ofdescription. There silver could scarcely find an admission; and gold itself looked but poorly among such an incredible number of precious stones. Moreover, the woman, like other harlots, who give philtres and love potions to inflame their lovers, has a golden cup in her hand, full of abominations, and filthiness of her fornications; to signify the specious and alluring arts wherewith she bewitches and entices men to idolatry, which is abomination and spiritual fornication. It is an image similar to that in Jer 51:7 . Yet farther to distinguish the woman, she has her name inscribed upon her forehead, (Revelation 17:5.) in allusion to the practice of some notorious prostitutes, who had their names written on a label upon their foreheads, as may be collected from ancient authors. The inscription is so very particular, that we cannot easily mistake the person;—Mystery, Babylon the Great, the Mother of harlots, or rather, of fornications and abominations of the earth. Her name Mystery can imply no less than that she deals in mysteries; her religion is a mystery, a mystery of iniquity; and the herself is mystically and spiritually Babylon the great. But the title of mystery is in no respect proper to ancient Rome, more than to any other city; neither is there any mystery in substituting one heathen, idolatrous, persecuting city for another; but it is indeed a mystery, that a Christian city, professing and boasting herself to be the city of God, should prove another Babylon in idolatry, and in cruelty to the people of God. She glories in the name of Roman Catholic; well therefore may she be called Babylon the Great: she affects the style and title of Our holy Mother Church; but she is, in truth, the mother of fornications, and abominations of the earth. Neither can this character, with any propriety, be applied to ancient Rome; for she was rather a learner of foreign superstitions, than the mystery of idolatry to other nations; as appears in various instances. It may be concluded therefore, that this part of the prophesy 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 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 the prophesy; but it has been much controverted. It is much more certain, (and none of that communion can deny it,) that the ancient mitres were usuallyadorned with inscriptions. Infamous as the woman is for her idolatry, she is no less detestable for her cruelty: which are two principal characteristics of the antichristian empire she is drunken with the blood of the saints, (Revelation 17:6.) This may indeed be applied 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 the character, as she has far exceeded the former, both in the degree and duration of her persecutions. It is very true, as has been hinted before, that if pagan Rome has destroyed her thousands of innocent Christians, Christian Rome has 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 surprize to him, that a heathen city should persecute the Christians, when he himself had seen and suffered 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.

Verses 7-14

Revelation 17:7-14. And the angel said unto me, &c.— It was not thought sufficient to represent these things only in vision, and therefore theangel undertakes to explain the mystery, the mystic sense or secret meaning of the woman and of the beast that carrieth her: and the angel's interpretation is indeed the best key to the Revelations; the best clue to direct and conduct us through this intricate labyrinth. The mystery of the beast is first explained. 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, and yet is, or, according to the Alexandrine and other copies, and shall come;—shall ascend out of the bottomless pit. A beast, in the prophetic style, is an idolatrous, tyrannical 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 has continued ever since. It is the sameidolatrous 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 the 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, Revelation 17:9. See Revelation 13:18. 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 the 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: Revelation 17:10-11. And they are seven kings, or kingdoms, or forms of government, as the word βασιλεις imports. 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 by the two greatest Roman historians, Livy and Tacitus:—the sixth is the power of the Caesars or emperors, which was subsisting at the time of the vision. An end was put to the imperial name in the year 476, by Odoacer king of the Heruli: he and his successors 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; 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 a tribute to the exarchate of Ravenna. Rome had never experienced this form of government; 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 in the year 566, or 568; and the city revolted from the Eastern emperor to the Pope in the year 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 has now continued above a thousand years. But still it may be doubted, whether this is properlya 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 seventh; 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, was the imperial; and what form of government has succeeded to that in Rome, and has 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, which, says he, (Revelation 17:12.) 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 theRoman 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, are not to be reckoned before the rise and establishment of the beast; and accordingly, when a catalogue was produced of these ten kings or kingdoms in the notes upon Daniel, they were exhibited as they stood in the eighth century, which is the time of the rise and establishment of the beast. Kingdoms they were 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 submission 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 shall 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.

Verse 14

Revelation 17:14. Called, and chosen, and faithful. This is supposed to be a reference to the military custom of the Greeks, who used to call the people together, when any expedition was designed; out of whom there were some selected to serve in the action intended, who swore fidelityto their leader. Others have imagined, that this is an allusion to Mat_20:16; Mat_22:14 Matthew 20:16>. Be this as it may, the apostle's meaning might be, "Those that are with him, and have the honour to fight perseveringly under his banner, are not only called to arm themselves in this glorious cause, but chosen to not in his service; and they are faithful to the engagement into which they enter." See 2Pe_1:10 2 Peter 1:10>. Isa_2:6-7 Isaiah 2:6-7>.

Verses 15-18

Revelation 17:15-18. The waters which thou sawest, &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 said expressly to signify peoples, and multitudes, &c. 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, butextends 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 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, (ch. Revelation 18:9.) shall bewail her, and lament for her, and (ch. Revelation 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, expose, and plunder her, and utterly consume her with fire. Rome therefore will be finally destroyed by some of the princes who are reformed, or shall be reformed from Popery: and as the reigning powers 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. France has already shewn some tendency towards a reformation, and therefore may appear more likely to effect such a revolution. Portugal, in destroying the society of the Jesuits, notwithstanding the interposition of the papal power in their behalf, shews how possible such a revolution may be, even in the most bigoted countries: and such a revolution may reasonably be expected, because this infatuation of popish princes is permitted by divine Providence only for a certain period, until the words of God shall be fulfilled, Revelation 17:17. and particularly the words of the prophet Dan 7:25-26; Dan 7:28 . 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 destroy it unto the end. Little doubt can remain after this, what idolatrous church can be meant by the whore of Babylon; but, for the greater certainty, it is added by the angel, Revelation 17:18. The woman which thou sawest, is that great city. He had 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 kingdoms of the earth, but Rome? She has 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, has appeared in several instances, and will appear in several more. See as above.

Inferences and REFLECTIONS.—Easily might we have apprehended, that Rome had been here designed, though it had not been so particularly described by its situation on seven hills, or by the empire it then possessed over all the kingdoms of the world. The harlot might be sufficiently distinguished by her names of blasphemy, by her cup of enchantment, by her titles, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS, AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. Yea, she might be known by this single character, of having made herself drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. And is it heathen Rome, to whom these characters are more remarkably applicable? The apostle would not then have wondered with so great admiration, that idolatry and persecution should prevail, where the former had raged for so many ages, and the latter almost from the very beginning of Christianity; and to such a degree, in the days of Nero, who, as their own historian tells us, had, thirty years before this, added mockeries and insults to torment; that Christians were dressed up in the skins of wild beasts, and so exposed to be worried on the theatre: a method which has, indeed, figuratively speaking, been every where practised, and must be practised, if Christianity is to be made ridiculous, or odious. But, the true occasion of the apostle's astonishment was, that Rome professing Christianity, Rome setting up for the head of the Christian world, should have emulated and exceeded any pagan city, and even itself in its pagan state, in its idolatries, and in its cruelties. And it is a fact indeed wonderful, that God should suffer this. Nevertheless, the beauty and glory of his providences shall at length be apparent. The kings of the earth, though, like Nebuchadnezzar, (Isa 10:7 .) they meant it not, are now fulfilling the plan of divine Providence; a plan that shall at length appear wise and harmonious, though the permission of all these absurdities and horrors make a part of it. And when the words of God are fulfilled, they who with one mind have given their power and strength to the beast, in order to support the harlot, shall be as unanimous in hating her, and making her desolate and naked; shall be ready to devour her flesh, and consume her in her own fires. Fierce and savage as the beast may at present appear, its war with the Lamb shall be utterly in vain; for the Lamb is always victorious, and will assert his grand imperial titles, LORD OF LORDS, AND KING OF KINGS. May we all lift under his banner: may we be faithful, faithful even to death; since then all the rage of men, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues, if it were united against us, could not prevent his giving us a crown of victory, and a part in his everlasting triumphs!

Bibliographical Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Revelation 17". Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible. 1801-1803.