THE GREAT HARLOT
Notes on Revelation 17:1 - 19:4
Cecil N. Wright
Introduction: If our
interpretation has been correct, the pouring out of the Seventh Bowl
of God's wrath (Chapter 16:17-21) has brought us the third time to an
aspect of the consummation of his wrath upon the Roman empire and corporate
elements within it opposed to Christians and Christianity, in each instance
symbolized by a great earthquake. The other times were in connection
with the opening if the Seventh Seal (8:1-5) and in connection with
the sounding of the Seventh Trumpet (11:15-19).
Chapters 17 through
19 symbolize various aspects and processes of that consummation introduced
in the last paragraph of the preceding chapter. And they close (19:19-21)
with a defeat of two of Satan's confederates that restricts his universal
persecution powers for a period described symbolically as 1,000 years
(20:1-6), or until near the consummation of history itself (20:7-15).
These Notes cover only through Chapter 19, relating directly or indirectly
to the judgment of the Great Harlot and the Battle of Armagedon.
I. JUDGMENT OF THE
GREAT HARLOT (17:11-18).
1. Judgment Announced
and the Harlot Identified (17:1-6): "And there came one of the
seven angels that had the seven bowls, and spake with me, saying, Come
hither, I will show the judgment of the great harlot that sitteth upon
many waters; with whom the kings of the earth committed fornication,
and they that dwell on the earth were made drunken with the wine of
her fornication. And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness:
and I saw a woman sitting upon a scarlet- covered beast, full of names
of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was arrayed
in purple and scarlet, and decked with gold and precious stone and pearls,
having in her hand a golden cup full of abominations, even the unclean
things of her fornication, and upon her forehead an name written, MYSTERY,
BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF THE HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS
OF THE EARTH. And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints,
and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. And when I saw her I wondered
with great wonder."
Note that John's vantage
point "in the Spirit" has been changed from heaven (4:1) to
the wilderness (17:2), which would be upon the earth, This does not
mean that the harlot was in the wilderness, for "she sitteth upon
many waters" (v.1), and which symbolizes "peoples, and multitudes,
and nations, and tongues" (v.15), and a "wilderness"
(eremos) is an uninhabited region. But it would afford him a
place of seclusion from which to observe her without distraction in
her true character and appalling seductiveness, yet safe from her blandishments.
It is to be noted
also that she "sits" upon a scarlet-colored beast (v.3), to
be identified with Imperial Rome as will be indicated later, as well
as upon many waters (v.1), and that in her heart she says, "I sit
a queen" (18:7). And in 17:18 it is said that she "is the
great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth." That would
be pagan Rome symbolically referred to as Babylon. And upon her forehead
she had a name written, "BABLYON THE GREAT" (17"5). Rome
was also worshipped as the goddess of Roma, and in the first three of
the seven cities of Asia to which John wrote letters it is known that
they there were temples to her. And where she is worshipped , there
was usually emperor worship also. Moreover, she is a great harlot (a
great idolatress and promoter of idolatry) - "THE MOTHER OF THE
HARLOTS AND THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH" (v.5 again) - and had
been described by John, when first mentioned by him, as having "made
all nations to drink of the wrath of her fornication" (14:8). She
contrast with the radiant Woman of 12:1 and with the wife or bride of
the Lamb (1:7-8; 21:2,9-10) - displaying and arraying herself expensively
and luxuriously, gaudily, voluptuously and shamelessly - and "drunken
with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of martyrs of Jesus"
(17:6) - the later being true from the days of the emperor Nero.
Upon beholding her,
John "wondered with great wonder" (v.6). Or, it could be rendered
that he was amazed with great amazement, or astounded with great astonishment,
or by paraphrase, that he was shocked at what he saw. Yet evidently
he did "wonder" at the significance of what he saw, for an
explanation of the "mystery" was then given him.
2. Explanation of
the Mystery (17:7-18): "and the angel said unto me, wherefore didst
thou wonder? I will tell thee the mystery of the woman, and of the beast
that carrieth her, which hath seven heads and ten horns." v.7.)
The remainder of the
chapter is taken up with an explanation of the Beast and his relationship
with the Woman, with only the last verse identifying her, as already
has been quoted: "And the woman whom thou sawset is the great city,
which reigneth over the kings of the earth" (v.18). So we shall
deal primarily with the "Mystery of the Beast" and the "Horns
of the Beast."
a. Mystery of the
Beast (vs.8-11). "The beast which thou sawest was, and is not,
and is about to come up out of the abyss, and go unto perdition. And
they that dwell upon the earth shall wonder, they whose name hath not
been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, when
they behold the beast, how that he was, and is not, and shall come .
Here is the mind that hath wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains,
on which the woman sitteth: and they are the seven kings; the five are
fallen, the one is, the other is not yet come, and when he cometh, he
must continue a little while. And the beast that was, and is not, is
himself also an eighth, and is of the seven; and he goeth into perdition."
The explanation of
this part of the "mystery" is itself enigmatic and would require
"wisdom" to understand parts of it. It appears, however, to
make use of the Nero-redivivus myth, and that the Beast is to be identified
with the Beast of the Sea of 13:1-10, and therefore with Imperial Rome.
As represented by its emperor, no doubt, it was "full of names
of blasphemy" - most likely their claims to be deity, employed
in such titles as theios (Divine), soter (Savior), and
kurios (Lord). It had seven heads, which represented seven kings
of importance in the riddle. She was a great city, which reigneth over
the kings of the earth." That city at that time was Rome, built
upon seven hills - the Palatine, Capitoline, Quirinal. Aventine, Esquiline,
Viminal and Caelian. It was the capital of the Roman empire, consisting
of many nations or provinces ruled by "kings" (symbolically
represented as ten horns, though mathematically there were many more)
subordinate to the emperors, who were also kings (but kings of kings),
Symbolized as seven heads of the Beast and likewise symbolized by the
"seven mountains on which the woman sitteth," as mentioned
above. These are represented as reigning consecutively, and each in
his turn was the embodiment of the Beast, or empire. And, if our interpretation
thus far is correct, the seven would have to include both Nero, and
Domitian. But who are the others? Which was the Beast that "was,
and is not, and shall come"? Who were that were "fallen,"
the one that "is," and the other "not yet come"
and when he comes will continue "a little while"? And what
is meant by "the beast was, and is not, is himself also of the
eighth, and is to be a useful clue, but does not resolve all difficulties.
It does not tell us
the identity of all the seven emperors symbolized. Maybe that number,
too, is merely symbolical and not mathematical. From Augustus (31B.C.
- A.D. 14), generally considered the first emperor, through Domitian
(A.D. 81-96), we have the following others in order: Tiberius (A.D.
14-37), Caliqula (A.D. 37-41), Claudius (A.D. 41-54), Nero (A.D. 54-68),
Galba, Otho, Vitellius (A.D. 68-69), Vespasian (A.D. 69-69), and Titus
(A.D. 79-81) - making eleven in all. We can eliminate Galba, Otho, and
Vitellius, however, as they may be pretenders and rivals, appointed
by their armies but not ratified by the Senate, and the three combined
reigned only eighteen months. That leaves eight, with the eighth strangely
spoken of as being one of the seven. But, if Domitian is thought of
as Nero reincarnate, that makes him one of the seven while being an
eighth, and thus fitting the description precisely. (And, by way of
explanation, the application might include all persecuting emperors
yet to come.)
There is yet another
problem, however. Five of the eight are fallen, which would be Augustus,
Tiberius, Galigula, Claudius, and Nero. The "one" who "is"
would seem to be Vespasian (A.D. 69-79). The other "not yet come"
and would "continue a little while," would therefore be Titus
(A.D. 79-81), who ruled one full year and parts of two others. And that
would leave Domitian, as Nero reincarnated, to be "the beast that
was, and is not, is himself also an eighth, and is of the seven"
(A.D. 81-96), as mentioned above. While this poses no problem of interpretation,
and seemingly must stand, it seems to make the Revelation (or at least
part if it) to have been received during the reign of Vespasian, instead
of the reign of Domitian as per earliest tradition (Vocabulary of Chapter
1), and John to have been exiled at least by the late 70s instead of
the mid 90s A.D. And Jerome also, writing probably in the late 300s,
without stating his source or sources, is quoted as saying: "In
the fourteenth year after the persecution of Nero, John was banished
to the island of Patmos, and there wrote the Revelation ... Upon the
death of Domitian, and upon the repeal of his acts by the senate, because
of their excessive cruelty, he returned to Ephesus, when Nerva was emperor."
Nero's persecution of Christians was A.D. 64, and the fourteenth year
afterward would not have been later than A.D. 78, while Vespasian was
still emperor. If, however, Jerome was correct, and the above interpretation
of John's language is likewise valid, it changes nothing substantially
except the beginning of John's exile, which could have been instigated
by local representatives of the Emperor Cult in an escalation of emperor
worship in the reign of Vespasian though he himself did not require
it, as Domitian would soon do. [See note at the end of this chapter.]
Incidentally, however, it does add confirmation for a late-in-the century
date of Revelation rather than a earlier one, in the reign of Nero (A.D.
54-68), argued for by some.
As for Domitian, after
he became emperor, and through whose reign John remained in exile, it
is said that when he arrived in a theater with his empress, the crowd
was urged to rise and shout, "All hail to our Lord and his Lady";
that he informed all provincial governors that all government announcements
and proclamations must begin, "Our Lord and God Domitian commands
... "(also that everyone who addressed him in speech or in writing
must commence, "Lord and God," (William Barclay, The Revelation
of John, Vol.1, Revised Edition (1976), p.19.)
Yet Caesar worship,
while being the one religion that pretty much covered the whole Roman
empire by the time of Revelation, had not from the beginning been imposed
on the people from above but had arisen from among themselves, partially
as a spontaneous act of gratitude to Rome for her benefits, which were
many, and partially to ingratiate themselves with her. It had begun
by deifying Rome as a goddess (Roma), with Asia itself doing the pioneering,
and later proceeding to add emperor worship, first of deceased emperors,
and then by the middle of the first century A.D. asking and receiving
permission to build statues and temples to living emperors also as gods.
A priesthood developed and came to be organized into presbyteries for
the promotion and oversight of cultic worship, intended to consist everyone
in the empire (except Jews) appearing once a year before the magistrates
to burn a pinch of incense (or it could be salt) to the godhead of Caesar
saying, "Caesar is Lord." This was not intended to prevent
the practice of other religions. But to refuse that recognition of Caesar
was considered an act of political disloyalty. And that within itself
set Christians, who could acknowledge only Christ as Lord, on a collision
course with the Emperor Cult of the pagan priesthood and later in varying
degrees with Imperial Rome itself, beginning with the latter in the
person of Domitian, seemingly represented above as Nero reincarnate.
And Revelation was given in view of what must soon come to pass including
the rise of the Beast (13:1-10) and his "perdition" (see 19:19-21).
(See Note at the end of this chapter).
b. Horns of the Beast
(vs.12-18). "And the ten horns that thou sawest are the kings,
who have received no kingdom yet; but they receive authority as kings,
with the beast, for one hour. These have one mind, and they give their
power and authority to the beast. These shall make war against the Lamb,
and the a Lamb shall overcome them, for he Lord of Lords, and king of
kings; and they also shall overcome that are with him, called and chosen
And he saith unto me , The waters which thou sawest, where the harlot
sitteth, are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues. And
the ten horns which thou sawest, and the beast, these shall hate the
harlot, and shall make her desolate and naked, and shall eat her flesh,
and shall burn her utterly with fire. For God did put in their hearts
to do his mind, and to give their kingdom unto the beast, until the
words of God should be accomplished. And the woman whom thou sawest
is the great city, which reigneth over the kings of nations.
The number ten
is symbolic, not mathematical, and represents subordinate rulers who
with one mind would give their support to Imperial Rome in making war
against the Lamb and his faithful ones. But they shall themselves be
overcome instead of victorious, for they shall be fighting against the
one who truly is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. When Christianity
becomes dominate in the empire, both emperors and provinces will turn
against corporate paganism and thus against Rome as the harlot city
- whose utter downfall as such is foretold in gruesome symbolism in
v.16 and more elaborately and dramatically described in Chapters 18
and 19. Tertullian (A.D. 160-230), a Christian theologian and apologist,
explained why Rome was described as Babylon, saying: "Babylon also
in our John is a figure of the city of Rome, as being like her great
and proud in royal power, and warring down the saints of God" (Against
Marcion 3, 13).
II FALL OF THE HARLOT CITH ANNOUNCED, LAMENTED AND CELEBRATED (18:1-19:4).
Judgment of the "great harlot" was assured to
John by an angel from heaven in 17:1, and later in the chapter she was
identified symbolically so that there could no reasonable escape from
the conclusion that she was the pagan city of Rome. And now her judgment
is described for the last time and with greater detail than ever before.
But judgment upon Rome seems definitely to have been included previously
in the following climatic connections: Opening of the Sixth Seal (6:12-17).
This section consist
of five subsections, as follows:
1. 18:1-3: Announcement
by another angel of great authority (that is, other than the one of
17:1 that the city has fallen, and why.
2. 18:4-10: Call by
another voice from heaven to the potential people of God in Babylon
to come out of her, to escape her plagues and retribution.
3. 18:11-20: Lament
of kings and merchants of the earth over the loss of trade with the
city - plus the jubilant admonition from another but unidentified source,
"Rejoice over her, thou heaven, and ye apostles, and ye prophets:
for God hath judged your judgment upon her" - which may mean that
he has judged her as she judged you, in keeping with v.6.
4. 18:21-24: A strong
angel (evidently still another) performing an action parable symbolizing
the finality of the city's fall, and stating why.
5. 19:1-4: A great
multitude in heaven praising God for his judgments upon the "great
harlot," with the four and twenty elders and the four living creatures
joining in worship to him "that sitteth on the throne."
NOTE: This is to call
special attention to the next to the last sentence of page 3 and the
last sentence of the second paragraph of page 4, and suggest that all
previous references to Domitian in keeping with earliest tradition,
with something like the following vaguely in mind as a solution of the
difficulty posed with reference to chapter 17:9-11: "... if Rev[elation]comes
from the reign of Domitian, the only conclusion that the interpreter
can draw is that John has worked material from the reign of Vespasian
into his vision without making it entirely consistent" (Interpreter's
Dictionary of the bible, 1971). But, upon more exacting scrutiny in
preparation for this Handout, he cannot be comfortable with such as
The following from
J. W. Roberts, The Revelation of John (1974), seems much more appropriate:
"The main difficulty
with this interpretation is that it places the vision in the reign of
Vespasian, whereas the earlier tradition of the church (Irenaeus) said
that 'the vision was seen no long time since in the reign of Domitian.'
There are no patent solutions to this difficulty, only some possibilities.
If John had been banished to Patmos (as he seems to be saying) during
Vespasian's reign, his banishment could have extended through the short
reign of Titus and into the reign of Domitian, thus giving rise to the
later tradition that the vision was seen in Domitian's time. Under such
conditions the book would not have been published until John's return
to the mainland, anyway. The fact that there was a king not yet come
who was to remain only a little while (Titus) makes it possible to postulate
the time of the vision near the end of Vespasian's time and thus on
the threshold of the reign of Domitian. Although there is no record
of persecution under Vespasian which would account for John's being
banished 'on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus'
(1:9), little is actually known of the history of these years. John
does not say he was banished by the emperor himself; it could have been
by the actions of a local official. There was no uniform Roman policy
concerning such matters, and local affairs were under local jurisdiction.
This also accords with numerous indications given in the book that the
trial of persecution which John expected (cf. 3:10) had not yet begun.
John's main point is that the line of Roman emperors has only a little
time remaining until a reincarnation of Nero was to emerge, one who
(as Nero) would best be described in terms of the ancient Rahab, the
dragon of the Old Testament prophecy." NOTE: See Isaiah 51:9 for
:Rahab" hers mentioned as an alternate term for "dragon"
in the king James Version and "monster" in the American Standard
it may be too much to say, as above, that "the book would not have
been published until John's return to the mainland, anyway." It
may not have been impossible to have some communication with the mainland
even though in exile, and to have had copies of the Revelation made
and distributed while he was still on Patmos, in the reign of either
Vespasian , Titus, or Domitian (especially in the early part of the
latter, when he was not yet a persecutor). This is not to say that John
did so, but that he might have, for all that we actually know. Furthermore,
it would have had to be received before it could have been written,
and the initial copy made before it could be gotten to the mainland
and published. So, regardless of when it was published, it could have
been received under Vespasian, which seems to be the implication of
the text itself and likely to be more reliable than human speculation
of tradition otherwise. But, if published later especially if during
the reign of Domitian, it would have been easy for the tradition to
develop that it was "seen" during the reign of the latter.