Revelation Chapter 17 (Part 2: Verses 7-18)


Adam Maarschalk: December 3, 2009

Scripture text for this study: Revelation 17

UPDATE: This post was written when I understood the scarlet beast of Revelation 17 to be the same as the sea beast of Revelation 13:1-10, the seven kings of Revelation 17:10 to be the first seven Roman emperors, and the 10 horns of Revelation 17:12-14 to be the rulers of Rome’s 10 Senatorial Provinces. I now understand the seven kings to Revelation 17:10 to be the high priests of the house of Annas, and the 10 horns to be 10 Jewish generals (named by Josephus) who were appointed around January 67 AD to oversee specific territories and to prepare for war with Rome. This post will be updated accordingly when time allows.

In Part 1 of our study of Revelation 17, we examined the first six verses of this chapter. We considered the identity of Babylon the Great, and saw numerous reasons for believing that this was in fact first-century Jerusalem, as well as Old Covenant temple-based Judaism. We were also introduced again (as in chapter 13) to the beast with seven heads and ten horns. In this second part, we will see how the angel unveils to John the meaning of the prostitute (Babylon the great) and the beast. When we come to verse 18, we will consider the significance of the reference to a “great city.”

B. The Meaning of the Woman and the Beast (Rev. 17:7-18)

Verse 7: The angel now prepares to tell John clearly who the woman and the beast are. He begins with the beast. Again we are told that the beast carries the woman. Recall that in our study of Revelation 13 a few weeks ago, we took note of the fact that the beast of the sea is both spoken of as an individual (the specific sense) and as a kingdom (generic sense).

Verse 8: The angel tells John that all “the dwellers on earth” (Israel)** whose names were not written in the book of life would marvel to see the beast that “was and is not and is to come.” There is a clear parallel here to Revelation 13:3-4, which states “…and the whole earth marveled as they followed the beast…” (cf. Rev. 13:12 and the discussion there regarding the beast’s mortal head wound). More is said on this in verse 11.

**[In our study of Revelation so far, we have suggested that many of the references to “the earth” in the book of Revelation are not meant to be taken as worldwide in scope, but as dealing instead with the land of Israel/Palestine. In a 3-part study on this subject beginning with this post, I have outlined nearly 20 instances where this appears to be the case.]

Verses 9-10: Steve Gregg comments,

The principal concern in verses 7 through 11 has to do with the meaning of the seven heads of the beast as mountains (v. 9) and kings (v. 10). David S. Clark writes: “We had the beast located geographically on the seven hills, which meant Rome. Now we have him located in history to tell us what period of Rome we are dealing with. And there is no period of Rome’s history that will fit this description but the dynasty of the Caesars…”

In our study of Revelation 13, we looked ahead to this very passage. This is what we noted regarding the reference to the seven mountains spoken of in verse 9:

…there should be no doubt that this is speaking of Rome, and even Futurist scholars generally concede this point (although they may anticipate a revival of the Roman Empire). Kenneth Gentry also notes that the Coin of Vespasian (emperor of Rome from 69-79 AD) discovered by archaeologists pictures the goddess Roma as a woman seated on seven hills. Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire, is the one city in history famous for its seven mountains. First-century Rome used to celebrate a feast called Septimontium, the feast of “the seven-hilled city.”

We also noted the following regarding the seven kings of verse 10, which states, “they [the seven heads] are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he does come he must remain only a little while”:

This description of the seven kings lines up well with historical data showing the emperors who reigned in the Roman Empire up until the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, which is as follows:

Order of Emperors Name of Emperor Length of Reign Notes/Details
#1 Julius Caesar October 49 BC – March 44 BC “Perpetual Dictator”
#2 Augustus January 27 BC – August 14 AD -time of Jesus’ birth
#3 Tiberius August 14 AD – March 37 AD -time of Jesus’ ascension
#4 Caligula March 37 AD – January 41 AD Murdered
#5 Claudius January 41 AD – October 54 AD Assassinated
#6 Nero October 54 AD – June 68 AD Committed suicide
#7 Galba June 68 AD – January 69 AD Murdered
#8 Otho January 69 AD – April 69 AD Committed suicide
#9 Vitellius April 69 AD – December 69AD Murdered
#10 Vespasian December 69 AD – June 79 AD Destroyed Jerusalem

Some historians do not consider Julius Caesar to be one of the emperors, and rather designate him as one who played a key role in transforming the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. Flavius Josephus (37-100 AD), however, was one who did, and the above list reflects his own list in his writing titled Antiquities of the Jews (Books 18 and 19). Numerous Roman historians contemporary to Josephus agree. Among these were Dio Cassius and Suetonius (70-135 AD), who wrote Lives of the Twelve Caesars and De Vita Caesarum. Julius Caesar was appointed as “perpetual dictator” in 42 BC, so his inclusion in such a list would not have been strange.

According to the above list, then, Nero was the “king” of whom John said “one is” (i.e. “he is reigning now”), and Galba was the one who had “not yet come.” Galba reigned only six months, making him a good candidate to be the one who “must remain only a little while.”

There is no barrier to our interpretation here in the fact that John uses the term “kings” and not “emperors.” Tiberius was referred to as a king in John 19:15, and Claudius was referred to as a king in Acts 17:7. Both were Roman emperors.  One may also note that the chart above indicates more Roman emperors than were referenced by John. Kenneth Gentry quotes J. Russell Stuart, who spoke on this matter in his book Apocalypse:

But why only seven kings? First because the number seven is the reigning symbolic number of the book; then, secondly, because this covers the ground which the writer means specially to occupy, viz., it goes down to the period when the persecution then raging would cease (Gentry, Before Jerusalem Fell, p. 163).

We know that the imperial persecution initiated by Nero ceased with his death in 68 AD. Gentry makes the point that if it can be accepted that Revelation was written prior to that time, then “the enumeration of the ‘kings’ covers all of imperial history up until John’s time and the events ‘shortly’ to follow [a reference to the word ‘shortly’ in Rev. 1:1]… For then it would be the case that in John’s day only six emperors had ascended the imperial throne.”

Verse 11: We are told that the beast “was and is not”, but also [1] is an eighth king [2] belongs in some sense to the seven kings, and [3] goes to destruction. For Jay Adams, this “represents the remainder of the emperors who will be of or like the former seven.” Is this a reference to the fact that the Roman Empire fell into such chaos and disorder during the “Year of the Four Emperors” (following Nero’s suicide) that it nearly ceased to exist? See the study on Revelation 13:12 for this discussion.

Kenneth Gentry believes that the key to understanding this reference to “an eighth” is found in the language of the text. He notes that up until this phrase is mentioned, the definite article “the” is used when referring to the seven kings. However, it is “conspicuously absent in the reference to the eighth head/king…the eighth is “an eighth.” He continues,

This indicates that John is not concerned with the number of the particular emperor arising after the seventh in the Roman Civil War. Rather he is interested solely with the fact that there is one coming soon, who will, as the empire’s stabilizing head bring life back to the empire. There is a very important sense in which the revival of the Empire under Vespasian, was a revival under “an eighth,” who is “of the seven.” It is the same Roman Empire that is brought to life from the death of Civil War. John’s concern is particularly with the contemporaneous events, i.e., here the Roman Civil War that occurred within the compass of the reign of the seven kings… The fact that this revival is of an eighth head, however, indicates the rapid recovery of the Beast. That recovery will come shortly after the demise of the original seven (Gentry, Before Jerusalem Fell, pp. 315-316).

Verses 12-14: John then turns to a discussion of the ten kings who represented the ten horns of the beast. We also visited this topic in our study of chapter 13, and I will reproduce some of our conclusions here:

John says in Rev. 17:12-13 [that these 10 horns] are “ten kings who have not yet received royal power, but they are to receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast. These are of one mind and hand over their power and authority to the beast.” Some have thought these 10 kings to be the very ones listed in the chart above, since all 10 of them reigned (or had begun to reign, in Vespasian’s case) before Jerusalem’s destruction. However, John wrote that in his day they had “not yet received royal power,” so this view is eliminated. Another more likely view is that these 10 kings were the rulers of the 10 empirical (senatorial) provinces of Rome who were empowered by Nero to assist him in carrying out his campaign of persecution against the saints, which Scripture refers to as “war on the Lamb” (Rev. 17:14; cf. Acts 9:5 where Paul, as an unbeliever, also made “war on the Lamb”).[1]

The Global Glossary on the Greco-Roman world says there were 10 Senatorial Provinces in ancient Rome: They were “areas that were governed by Roman pro-magistrates; there were ten senatorial provinces, eight of which were led by ex-praetors and two of which were led by ex-consuls.” Wikipedia lists these 10 Senatorial Provinces, as they existed in 14 AD, as follows: [1] Achaea [2] Africa [3] Asia [4] Creta et Cyrene [5] Cyprus [6] Gallia Narbonensis [7] Hispania Baetica [8] Macedonia [9] Pontus et Bithynia [10] Sicilia. One Biblical mention of a Roman provincial ruler is in Acts 18:12-17, where we are told of Gallio the “proconsul of Achaia.” In Cyprus, Paul and Barnabas had direct contact with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus (Acts 13:7). See here for more information on the Senatorial Provinces of the Roman Empire, and how and by whom authority was distributed.

David S. Clark’s description is helpful in seeing how vast this empire was:

We know that Rome embraced at that time the countries of Europe that bordered on the Mediterranean Sea, and the northern part of Africa and considerable territory in Asia, and also in central Europe. Rome had conquered the world (Steve Gregg, p. 414).

The above quotation from Wikipedia lists out the 10 provinces of Rome as they were then named. Steve Gregg lists them by names that would be considered more modern (p. 456): Italy, Achaia, Asia, Syria, Egypt, Africa, Spain, Gaul, Britain, and Germany. As seen in this map, Israel/Palestine belonged to the province of Egypt. Indeed, Rome was the world at that time, as can be seen by Luke’s description of Caesar Augustus’ decree “that all the world should be registered” (Luke 2:1; cf. Acts 2:5).

Photo credit: (Original source: David Camden)

Verses 15-17: John is then told the meaning of the “many waters” referred to in verse 1. They represent “peoples and multitudes and nations and languages,” and this is where the prostitute was seated. As seen already, the scope of these many waters could certainly be a valid description of the Roman Empire in the first century. Does this indicate that the prostitute IS the Roman Empire, or simply that its influence reached throughout the Roman Empire? David Chilton opts for the latter (as do I), saying (Steve Gregg, pp. 416, 418),

Jerusalem could truly be portrayed as seated on “many waters” (i.e. the nations) because of the great and pervasive influence the Jews had in all parts of the Roman Empire before the destruction of Jerusalem. Their synagogues were in every city, and the extent of their colonization can be seen in the record of the Day of Pentecost, which tells us that “there were Jews staying in Jerusalem, devout men, from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5).

In verse 16, we are told that the 10 horns (kings) would join the beast in hating “the prostitute. They will make her desolate and naked, and devour her flesh and burn her up with fire.” Earlier in verse 3 we saw the prostitute (Jerusalem) sitting on the beast which was “full of blasphemous names” (Rome). Now the beast has turned on the prostitute with hatred. Steve Gregg points out that this very same turn of events was predicted for Jerusalem just before it fell in 586 BC for playing the harlot (pp. 418, 420): “I will gather all your lovers with whom you took pleasure…I will gather them from all around against you and will uncover your nakedness to them…And I will judge you as women who break wedlock or shed blood are judged; I will bring blood upon you in fury and jealousy…They shall burn your houses with fire…and I will make you cease playing the harlot (Ezekiel 16:37-41). What is the significance of verse 16 then, in light of Jerusalem’s downfall in 70 AD?

First, it’s probably no coincidence that the word “desolate” is used here, just as it is used in Rev. 18:17, 19 and also in Daniel 9:27 and by Jesus in Luke 21:20 (recognized even by most Futurists as referring to Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 AD). Thus, the use of this word again here in reference to Jerusalem would be more than fitting. Secondly, we do know from accounts provided by Josephus (a Jewish historian) and Tacitus (a Roman historian from the same time period) that a number of kings from surrounding provinces joined Vespasian and Titus in Rome’s war against Israel from 67-70 AD. Thirdly, at the very end of July 70 AD, on the exact same day as Jerusalem was burned in 586 BC, the Second Temple was burned to the ground. Josephus remarked that from a distance the entire city of Jerusalem appeared to be on fire. In fact, during August and September 70 the rest of the city was set on fire and leveled to the ground. More will be said of this in our study on chapter 18. Suffice it to say that all the elements necessary for this prophecy to be fulfilled were present in 70 AD.

Regarding the second point, that multiple provincial kings joined Rome’s war against Israel, it was already mentioned in our discussion of verse 3 that this began with a Jewish revolt in the fall of 66 AD. I wrote in greater detail about this sequence of events in my term paper:

[1] Zealots and Revolutionaries (against Rome) take control of the Jerusalem temple. [2] The Jewish/Roman War begins in October with a revolt at Caesarea due to a group of Greeks sacrificing birds in front of a local synagogue. The revolt occurred because the Jews were frustrated that the local Roman garrison did not intervene. [3] The High Priest successfully leads a massacre of the Roman garrison stationed in Jerusalem. [4] The Romans in Caesarea slaughter 20,000 Jews. [5] About 13,000 more Jews are put to death in Damascus, Syria.

This was just the beginning of the carnage. After a less than successful attack on Galilee and Jerusalem by Cestius Gallus, the Roman governor of Syria, Nero declared war on Israel in February 67 AD, dispatching Vespasian as his general with triple the forces initially led by Cestius Gallus. The link I provided above provides many details of the events which transpired during the next 3.5 years.

Verse 18: As already pointed out, the woman is identified as “the great city” and is said to have “dominion over the kings of the earth.” The designation “great city” was given to Jerusalem in Revelation 11:8, and is repeated here in these chapters as a reference to Babylon the Great on at least seven occasions (16:19; 17:18; 18:10, 16, 18, 19, 21; cf. Rev. 14:8). Steve Gregg notes that this verse “is considered most definitive in the recognition of Rome as the harlot city,” for those who are of this opinion. He adds, “if no other data were given in Revelation for the identification of the city, no one would question that this is Rome” (p. 420). Yet we have seen a wealth of data suggesting otherwise. Steve Gregg then quotes David Chilton on this matter (p. 422):

If the City is Jerusalem, how can it be said to wield this kind of worldwide political power? The answer is that Revelation is not a book about politics; it is a book about the Covenant. Jerusalem did reign over the nations. She did possess a Kingdom which was above all the kingdoms of the world. She had a covenantal priority over the kingdoms of the earth.

Lamentations, written shortly after Jerusalem fell the first time in 586 BC, begins this way: “How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow has she become, she who was great among the nations! She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave.” Interestingly, as we will see in our study of chapter 18, the great city in John’s day says, “I sit as a queen, I am no widow, and mourning I shall never see” (Rev. 18:7). Also when Jeremiah prophesied of Jerusalem’s soon coming destruction in his day, he wrote:

And many nations will pass by this city, and every man will say to his neighbor, “Why has the Lord dealt thus with this great city?” And they will answer, “Because they have forsaken the covenant of the Lord their God and worshiped other gods and served them” (Jeremiah 22:8-9).

Jerusalem was great in the political sense as well, though. Take note of Josephus’ description of Jerusalem in his introduction to Wars of the Jews:

“it had so come to pass, that our city Jerusalem had arrived at a higher degree of felicity than any other city under the Roman government, and yet at last fell into the sorest of calamities again” (Wars Preface 1.4).

Kenneth Gentry also writes (Before Jerusalem Fell, p. 171),

Jerusalem housed a Temple that, according to Tacitus “was famous beyond all other works of men.” Another Roman historian, Pliny, said of Jerusalem that it was “by far the most famous city of the ancient Orient.” According to Josephus, a certain Agatharchides spoke of Jerusalem thus: “There are a people called Jews, who dwell in a city the strongest of all other cities, which the inhabitants call Jerusalem.” Appian called it “the great city Jerusalem.” …More important, however, is the covenantal significance of Jerusalem. The obvious role of Jerusalem in the history of the covenant should merit it such greatness… Josephus sadly extols Jerusalem’s lost glory after its destruction: “This was the end which Jerusalem came to be the madness of those that were for innovations; a city otherwise of great magnificance, and of mighty fame among all mankind (Wars 7:1:1)… And where is not that great city, the metropolis of the Jewish nation, which was fortified by so many walls round about, which had so many fortresses and large towers to defend it, which could hardly contain the instruments prepared for the war, and which had so many tens of thousands of men to fight for it? Where is this city that was believed to have God himself inhabiting therein? It is now demolished to the very foundations” (Wars 7:8:7).

J. Stuart Russell makes another observation, regarding the phrase “kings of the earth” used in this verse and often thought to be wider in scope than Israel/Palestine. Not only is this expression found throughout Revelation, he says, but it’s also in Acts 4:26-27. There “Herod and Pontius Pilate are identified by the very same expression. Plainly, then, in Acts the expression means ‘the leaders or rulers of the Land’ (i.e. of Israel). If that is the phrase’s meaning here in verse 18, then Jerusalem surely can be said to be the city that reigns over the rulers of Israel” (p. 422).


Our study of Revelation 18 can be found here.

All of our Revelation chapter-by-chapter studies, and any other posts related to the book of Revelation, can be found here.

[1] This campaign of persecution led by Nero took place from November 64 AD – June 68 AD, a period of 42 months, which most preterists see as a fulfillment of Revelation 13:5-7. See here for more details.

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