Biblical Studies/New Testament Commentaries/Revelation/Chapter 17
Babylon the Great
- 1One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and talked with me, saying to me, “Come here, I will show you the judgment of the great whore that sits upon many waters, 2with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication.
Commentary: The phrase, "Many waters," may be a reference to images of the city, Babylon, which had extensive irrigation systems. Others who believe that this chapter of the Book of Revelation refers Rome, believe that this phrase could in fact refer to various ethnic groups of people, who were subjected to Rome's rule. From Rome's founding, the city, the Republic, the Empire has organized a variety of people. The first groups to be included were the Romans themselves, the neighboring Latins and Etruscans, then Greeks, Germans, Franks, Celts, and Jews. Additionally, Rome's legal tradition supports this idea because at various point in Roman history, citizenship was extended to yet another group of people under Roman influence. If the image of water is then taken one step further to say that water represent the life of this city, then the comparison to Rome and its diverse citizenship still makes logical sense. The Romans, though very traditional with respect to the fact that they would retain practices and offices that were superfluous and relatively defunct, were adept at gleaning useful cultural aspects from any group they encountered. One such example would be the way in which Rome adopted the Greek Pantheon and Egyptian gods like Isis into the Roman religion. IN this way, it is possible to say that the various ethnic groups over which Rome presided kept Rome alive culturally.
Harlot is a common Old Testament term to apply to cities, including Jerusalem when the people were idolatrous. It is no coincidence that Babylon is used as an example, since it was the ruling power in the book of Daniel, which also features apocalyptic literature. The language of whoring and unfaithfulness is also used in other Old Testament prophetic books such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Some make the argument that other kings’ patronage to Rome was like “getting into bed with” her, while others see this reference as purely referring to idolatry, specifically emperor worship. This also would include the worship of Roma, which was the goddess of the city of Rome. The image of Rome as a woman sitting on seven hills may come from a coin originally minted by Vespasian in which Rome was depicted as a goddess sitting on seven hills. Here it has been distorted in order to decry the mythical status of the Roman Emperor. 
- 3So he carried me away in the spirit into the wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast, full of names of blasphemy, and having seven heads and ten horns.
Commentary: The beast from the sea in Chapter 13 and the dragon of Chapter 12 are also described as having seven heads and ten horns, which implies that these three (Satan, the Antichrist, and Babylon) are connected. As noted in chapter 12, it may be that Satan is the spiritual driving force, the Antichrist is the emperor, and Babylon is the empire. The scarlet color of the Beast may be to represent royalty since scarlets, purples, and reds were colors used often by weathly and royalty people in Rome. These colors were also worn by prostitutes. Alternatively the scarlet color might be meant to refer back to the color of the dragon referred to in Revelation 12:3.
Witherington argues that John has not been carried away into the desert, and that he has not literally traveled to the desert, but that this wording symbolizes an ecstatic experience.
Witherington considers verious origins for the witch of Babylon: that it is a reference to the chaos monster Tiamat, a female Babylonian deity; that it reflects the worship of Magna Mater; or that Cybele, the Roman form of Magna Mater whose cult holydays were sordid affairs; or that it reflects the worship of Rome as the goddess Roma.
- 4And the woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls, and had a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and the filthiness of her fornication. 5And upon her forehead was a name written: MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.
Commentary: The woman's name is revealed in this verse as Babylon. Babylon is the "great city" that was split into three parts. It represents sin and persecution. By her being named Babylon, she is associated with all these things. She is the mother of prostitutes as her offspring has the same characterization of her. The name Babylon comes from the Greek word "Babal." The Hebrew form of Babel, Balal, means "to confuse."
The woman is depicted with expensive jewelry. These jewels are likely to represent the riches of the world. She also has a golden cup in her hand filled with all the filthy acts she had done. This cup is the very dangerous because it is filled with acts derived by Satan. This woman is trying to deceive others.
Roman patricians and office holders typically wore scarlet or purple robes. Expensive whores did too, and the whores also wore headbands with their names written across the forehead of them.
- 6And I saw the woman drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus, and when I saw her, I wondered with great amazement.
Commentary: Not only is she herself drunk, but she makes other drunk. It is said that to be drunk off the blood of saints is to hunger and thirst for violence and peril. She sits upon the beast while he wages war against the saints. John is not to be interpreted here as being amazed by the woman's beauty, but is astonished by the immorality of Roman culture.
A second option takes a more figurative approach to this passage. Perhaps the woman is not actually drunk in the sense of our modern-day understanding of the term, but drunk, meaning satiated. It could be a reference to the prophetic book of Ezekiel, passage 39:18-19, where God says the birds will be drunk on blood. It actually means that they will drink blood until they are satisfied, symbolizing a great number of deaths.
The Angel Explains the Vision
- 7And the angel said to me, “Why did you marvel? I will tell you the mystery of the woman and the beast that carries her, which has the seven heads and ten horns. 8The beast that you saw was, and is not, and will ascend out of the bottomless pit and go into perdition, and those who dwell on the earth will wonder, whose names were not written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, when they see the beast that was, and is not, and yet is.”
Commentary: Verse 7 suggests that John is so amazed by this sight that the angel has to the angels stops to explain exactly what is happening. The Greek word "thauma" suggests that John was flabbergasted, astounded, and even confused.
Verse 8 seems to be foreshadowing the upcoming events in Chapter 20. It concludes with the words "[He] was, and is not, and yet is." This suggests that the figure in question existed in the past, does not exist at the time of writing, but will exist again in the future (i.e., he will rise again). The last verb is "parestai" in Greek, which is a form of Parousia, referring to the second coming of Christ. Ben Witherington II suggests that the use of this verb is extremely significant. As he notes, "[John] is suggesting two things: (1) the figure in question obviously had made some sort of claims to divinity, but the joke is that at present "he is not." What kind of deity ceases to exist?; and (2) his second coming, like the real second coming, will mean bad news for many." Some may joke that John is suggesting Nero will one day return, but he is likely just drawing on general ideas of a anti-Christ.
- 9“And here is the mind which has wisdom: The seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sits.”
Commentary: The seven heads represent the seven hills of Rome hence the reference to the mountains. To any ancient reader, the reference to seven mountains would have easily been noticed as the hills. They also represent the leaders of the Empire: "five have fallen, one is living, and the other has yet to come."
- 10“And there are seven kings: five are fallen, one is, and the other is not yet come, and when he comes, he must continue for a short time.”
Commentary: The context has led interpreters to asssociate the seven kings with the seven heads of the beast in the previous passage, but a careful reading of the passage shows that this connection is not explicit, but only assumed. After the description of the heads, the author merely says, "And there are seven kings..." It is left to the interpreter to decide if these constitute a second level of symbolism for the heads of the beast, or if they are, in fact, something else. The next verse (11) suggests the latter, for it speaks of one of the seven coming back as the eighth, and it refers to it as a beast, not as a head of a beast.
According to the preterist interpretation, the seven kings are the succession of Roman emperors up to the time of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. There were actually nine emperors during this period, as follows: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian. However, if we subtract Galba, Otho, and Vitellius from the list, who all ruled less than a year, we would then be left with a total of six. Some scholars also argue that Julius Caesar was really the first Roman emperor, not Augustus as recorded by the Roman historians. If we add him to the list, we have the required seven. The emperor about whom the author says, "one is," would be Nero, under whose reign a persecution of Christians took place between about 64 and 68 AD. He would be the sixth and current emperor, and if we leave out his three short-term successors, Vespasian would be the seventh who ruled during the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD.
The only remaining issue is the identity of the eighth emperor of verse 11, "the beast that was, and is not," who "is himself also the eighth, and is of the seven." The quote implies that one of the first seven emperors will also be the eighth, but actually Titus (79-81 AD) ruled after Vespasian, and none of the emperors mentioned above was ever reinstated. Titus was Vespasian's son, however, as was Domitian, who succeeded Titus.
According to the historicist and futurist interpretations (the latter ties in with v. 11), the kings are not emperors, but empires. Many scholars believe that Israel is a key to understanding Biblical prophecy. Applying that principle here, we can interpret the kings as representing the seven nations which have ruled over Israel (not the land, but the people) during its history. The empire about which the angel says, “One is,” is Rome, which ruled Israel in John’s time. The angel says, “Five have fallen.” These are the empires which had formerly ruled Israel: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia and Greece. Together with Rome, these account for six of the seven. At the time of writing, the seventh had “not yet come.” Since then, the Ottoman Empire has ruled over Palestine, but not the people of Israel, who were dispersed among the nations during Ottoman rule. They began to trickle back in the late 19th century, but the trickle turned to a flood after Britain conquered Palestine in WWI. The British ruled Israel from 1917 until Israel's independence in 1948 (see British Mandate of Palestine). True to the prophecy, British rule lasted only “a short time.” It is deeply significant, however, because it means that all seven of the empires have now come and gone. The time is ripe for the eighth empire mentioned in the next verse.
- 11“And the beast that was, and is not, even he is the eighth, and is of the seven, and goes into perdition.”
Commentary: One of the empires mentioned above (see v10) will be revived in some form. This is usually equated with the empire of the Antichrist (see ch 13). The phrase, "goes into perdition," indicates that its end will not be a happy one.
Much debate surrounds who the previous seven rulers are and, thus, the identity of the eighth. Starting with Julius Caesar, Nero is the sixth. This interpretation entails that the book was written while Nero was reigning, which Ben Witherington III states is not impossible despite the absence of a "return of Nero" myth during his life. If counting rulers begins with Augustus, the count does not lead up to Domitian. Starting with Nero ends with Domitian as the seventh. Others suggest that the eighth could be an eschatological anti-Christ. Witherington III urges readers to view the number "seven" as symbolic of a full set of rulers.
- 12“And the ten horns which you saw are ten kings which have received no kingdom as yet, but will receive power as kings one hour with the beast. 13These have one mind, and will give their power and strength to the beast.”
Commentary: S. Friesen suggests that John's jeremiad is directed as much or more to local interests than the emperor. Witherington imagines that these ten horns may be provincial governors in Asia Minor, or "Parthian satraps invading Rome and led by the returned Nero."
The ten kings, at midpoint of the tribulation, will forgo their power and the beast, who represents the Antichrist, will gain this power over the kingdoms. The "one mind" suggests that all of the kingdoms will come together giving the beast greater power to try and overcome Christ. Daniel 7:25 confirms this when it states, "He will speak against the Most High and oppress his holy people and try to change the set times and the laws. The holy people will be delivered into his hands for a time, times and half a time."
- 14“They will make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them, for he is Lord of lords, and King of kings, and those who are with him are called, chosen, and faithful.”
Commentary: Waging war against the lamb shows that there is a purpose of the ten kings. Together they have a united attitude toward the lamb. However, the lamb defeating the ten kings includes defeating the beast. The title of “Lord of lords and King of kings” is also given to the rider of the white horse in chapter 19:16. The terms “called” and “chosen” are Greek terms klatos and eklektos which are only used in this passage of Revelation, but they also occur in Matthew 22:14.
- 15And he said to me, “The waters which you saw, where the whore sits, are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and languages.”
Commentary: The angel explains the mysterious woman to John. Initially the identity of the women was revealed as "the great harlot who sits on many waters" (verse 1) and the first beast sprung out from these same waters (Rev. 13:1+). The use of a fourfold descriptor of peoples, multidues, nations, and language, it may be that the woman's influence spans globally.
- 16“And the ten horns which you saw upon the beast, these will hate the whore, and make her desolate and naked, and eat her flesh, and burn her with fire, 17for God has put it in their hearts to fulfill his will, and to agree, and to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled.”
Commentary: Revelation does not clearly indicate why the kings (10 horns) hate the whore and destroy her. The reasons may be religious, pecuniary, or political.
make her ... eat her ... burn her:
make her desolate- brought to ruin
and naked- stripped completely of fineries and riches
eat her flesh- an all consuming harm to flesh
burn her with fire- consuming and as if she's burned at the stakes
The destruction of the whore is purposeful, fierce, and comprehensive.
This verse indicates that the members of the evil empire are not consistently united in their purpose. They will war among themselves in their quest for power and wealth.
- 18“And the woman which you saw is that great city, which reigns over the kings of the earth.”
Commentary: Together with 17:9, this verse appears to refer to the city of Rome. In 17:9, we are told that the seven heads of the beast "are seven mountains on which the woman sits” (17:9). The angel now tells us that the woman who sits on the beast "is that great city which reigns over the kings of the earth.” Babylon, then, is associated with a city. That city was the head of a great empire in John’s time, for it “reigns over the kings of the earth,” and it is located on seven mountains. Rome was the capital of the empire in John’s time, and it is a well-known fact that it is built on seven hills.
Witherington suggests that this chapter is an attempt to satirize Rome, mocking its self made myths of a divine emperor and his eternal city in much the same vein as a political cartoon does today. The author may even have a specific image of Rome in mind, that which appeared on a circulating bronze coin of Roma sitting on its seven hills.
We must be open to multiple levels of symbolism here, however, for the chapter also tells us that the seven heads represent seven rulers (17:10). It may be that the seven mountains are seven empires over which these rulers have power. Or, as in the preterist interpretation, the heads may be a succession of Roman emperors. As with the best allegorical writing, the symbolism can operate on multiple levels simultaneously.
- Witherington, Ben. Revelation. Cambridge University Press, 2003.
- Mounce, pg.315-316