Preview: death of an empire
Prostitute, nicely dressed, but doomed1 Then one of the seven angels who helped dump the seven bowls of disaster on the world came over and talked to me. The angel said, “Come with me. I’ll show you the judgment waiting for that famous prostitute who controls a sea of people.”
2 World rulers did despicable things with her. They got drunk on her immoral signature brand of wine. 3 The angel carried my spirit away with him to some badlands. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast. The animal had seven heads and 10 horns and was covered with insults about God.
4 The woman wore expensive purple and scarlet clothes. She decked herself out in jewels, gold, and pearls. She held in her hand a gold cup full of the disgusting filth of her sins. 5 She wore a mysterious name written on her forehead: “Babylon the Great—world’s most depraved prostitute and idol-worshiping pagan.” 
Drunk on blood6 The sight of this woman shocked me. She was drunk. She had gotten drunk on the blood of God’s devoted people and on the blood of believers who had dared to defend Jesus.
7 The angel turned to me and said, “Why are you shocked by this? I’m going to explain what’s going on here. I’ll fill you in on the mystery behind this woman and the seven-headed, 10-horned beast she rides. 8 You should know this about the beast you saw: It was alive. It’s dead now. But it’s coming back. It’s going to rise up out of the abyss of punishment. But it’s going to get put down—destroyed. People whose names have not been written in the Book of Life since the beginning of the world are in for a surprise. They will become mesmerized by this beast when they see that he has come back from the dead.
You have to use your head9 It takes some savvy to figure this out. The seven heads of the beast represent the seven mountains where the woman lives. They represent seven kings, too.
10 Five kings have already been put down and destroyed. The sixth king is reigning now. There’s one more coming, but he won’t last long.
11 The beast, which is dead at the moment, is the eighth king. Like the other seven, he is going to get put down and destroyed. 12 The 10 horns you saw are 10 future kings. They’ll get to reign with the beast for a short time. 13 These kings will rule together as allies under the authority of the beast. He’ll be the power that drives the coalition.
10 kings vs 1 Lamb14 These kings will go to war against the Lamb. They’ll lose. The Lamb will conquer them. He’s the Boss of all bosses, the King of all kings. His devoted followers are with him. Every one he has picked. Every one he has invited.”
15 Then the angel told me, “The sea on which you saw the prostitute sitting represents the world’s people. They come from many nations and they speak many languages. 16 The scarlet beast and the 10 future kings you saw as horns will turn on the prostitute. They’ll take everything away from her and strip her naked. They’ll eat her alive and burn the leftovers.
17 It was God himself who convinced the 10 kings to combine forces and give all that power to the beast. God made sure they finished doing everything he wanted them to do. 18 The woman you saw is the powerful city that dominates kings all over the world.”
More literally, John quotes the angel as saying the “great prostitute…is seated on many waters.” The angel later says the water represents people from many nations and languages (17:15). “Many waters” shows up in many Bible verses. The phrase often symbolizes a lot of people, a future big family, or a lot of invading soldiers. Sometimes it describes God as the Lord “over many waters” (Psalm 29:3 New American Standard Bible), meaning everyone.
Some Bible experts say they understand this to mean “I fell into a prophetic trance.” They would describe it as a vision instead of an out of body experience, assuming there’s a difference.
The woman represents a great city that rules kings of many nations (17:18). In John’s day, this city would have been Rome, capital of the Roman Empire that controlled most of the land surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. The beast, many scholars say, represents the ruler of the empire. A legend about Nero coming back to life following his suicide describes him as a purple dragon: “When the purple dragon comes on the waves…the last day is near, and the judgment of the immortal god” (Sibylline Oracles, 8:88, 91-92).
See notes for Revelation 13:1 about the seven heads, 10 horns, and insults about God.
More literally, “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and abominations of the earth.”
Jews at the time taught that the abyss was the underworld—the place of the dead (Romans 10:7). Luke 8:31 presents it as “the home of demons,” too. Scholars sometimes translate the word abyss as “bottomless pit.” It’s Satan’s thousand-year prison in Revelation 20:1-3. It’s also linked to the depths of the sea, something Luke may have had in mind when he reported the story of demons ending up in the Sea of Galilee after Jesus cast them into a herd of pigs (Luke 8:33).
The angel described the beast more literally, “It was. It isn’t. It will be.” That’s the opposite of how God was described earlier: “Who was, is, and will always be” (4:8). Also, the phrasing would have been familiar to Romans and Greeks. A witty epitaph written on gravestones read something like this: “I was not. I was. I am not. I care not.”
Most Bible experts seem to agree that the Book of Life isn’t a celestial book. It’s a metaphor, a way of identifying people devoted to God. This word picture may have begun centuries earlier, when palace scribes kept records of the king’s enemies and his loyal servants. Kings generally rewarded the loyal souls with life and other perks. People who betrayed the king weren’t so lucky.
See note for 13:8 about predestination, God choosing ahead of time who will and will not be saved.
Rome was built on seven hills. Most scholars seem to agree that Christian readers in the early centuries of the Christian movement would have instantly recognized “seven hills” as a coded way of referring to the city of Rome. See note at 13:1.
Seven kings might simply refer to kings who ruled the seven settlements that would eventually combine to form the city of Rome. Or it might be another symbolic way of referring to Rome. Or the seven kings might refer to seven specific kings during the century in which John lived. There are a lot of theories about who those kings may have been. But no one theory has emerged as a bell ringer among scholars.
Some Bible experts identify the eighth king as Emperor Domitian (ruled AD 81-96), a vicious persecutor of Christians. He ruled the Empire when many say John wrote the book of Revelation. Several Roman writers, including the lawyer Pliny the Younger (about AD 61-113), claimed that Domitian was Emperor Nero who had come back to life.
Some scholars say they see in this a hint of the myth that Nero would come back to life, raise an army from Rome’s powerful enemy, the Parthian Empire, and then attack and destroy the city of Rome. Others say they see references to various attacks on Jerusalem by Assyrians, Babylonians, and Romans (the last two of which leveled Jerusalem and deported Jews or banished them). “Eat her alive” might refer to what the dogs did with corpses, and with Queen Jezebel (2 Kings 9:10).
“Powerful city” is Rome, many scholars say they agree. Others say it’s Jerusalem, a city that still has a lot of influence over nations throughout the world.
Why do you think some Bible experts say John is talking about the Roman Empire when he writes about the woman often described as the Great Prostitute of Babylon? What clues do you think they see in Revelation 17?
Not all scholars say the mysterious woman represents Rome. Which of the following three competing theories do you think sounds like a reasonable guess? The woman represents:
- Jerusalem, a city that still influences people all over the world
- Secular society, which seduces God’s people into its sinful lifestyle
- Roman Catholic religion, led by the pope
- A religion that teaches warped ideas about Jesus
The angel tells John that the coalition of kings led by the beast “will go to war against the Lamb. They’ll lose” (17:14). Then the angel says the kings “will turn on the prostitute. They’ll take everything away from her and strip her naked” (17:16). Does that sound like he’s talking about wars in Roman times or about some other wars, perhaps in the future?
How do you think Christians might justify what the angel reported: “It was God himself who convinced the 10 kings to combine forces and give all that power to the beast. God made sure they finished doing everything he wanted them to do” (17:18).
LIFE APPLICATION. An angel tells John, “People whose names have not been written in the Book of Life since the beginning of the world are in for a surprise. They will become mesmerized by this beast when they see that he has come back from the dead” (17:8). Did God pick who will be saved and who won’t? It sounds like the end of the story is a done deal.
LIFE APPLICATION. Human history is one story after another of people fighting for power and the might-makes-right way of pushing people around and taking whatever they want. In Revelation 17, it’s the Lamb and his people against the beast and a coalition army led by 10 kings. Then it’s the 10 kings turning on the beast, possibly a prediction of the sacking and burning of Rome in AD 410. Honestly, is there anything we can do about this?