Following the introduction to the vision and the vision itself (vv. 1-6, see the previous notes), an interpretation is provided in verses 7-18. This is rare in the book of Revelation, as most of the visions are given without any interpretation/explanation in the book itself. The closest parallel is with the vision of 1:9-20, where it too is referred to as a “secret” (musth/rion) that the heavenly figure/messenger explains to the seer (v. 20). A narrative transition to the interpretation is provided in verse 6 when the author/seer states “I wondered (with) great wonder” at the vision of the woman. This serves as the basis for the Messenger’s response.
“And the Messenger said to me, ‘Through what [i.e. why] did you wonder? I will utter to you the secret of the woman and the wild animal carrying her, the (one) holding the seven heads and the ten horns.'”
On the significance of the term musth/rion (“secret”), cf. the previous note and my earlier word study series. As noted above, the same word is used in the interpretation of the vision in 1:9-20 (v. 20). The only other occurrence in the book of Revelation is at 10:7, with the sounding of the seventh trumpet (i.e. the conclusion of the great Judgment, par. with the seventh bowl-vision). The expression “the secret of God”, also used by Paul in 1 Cor 2:1; 4:1, and Col 2:2 (cf. also Eph 1:9; 3:3-4ff), generally refers to God’s plan for the Ages, the plan of salvation (through Jesus Christ) which effectively marks the beginning of a New Age (and the end of the current Age). The eschatological significance of the word musth/rion is clear enough in Paul’s letters (see esp. Rom 16:25), even as it is in the book of Revelation.
The Angel’s response to the seer’s wonderment is similar in some respects to Jesus’ response to his disciples at the beginning of the Eschatological Discourse (Mark 13:2 par). In both instances, what is most significant is the way that the Messenger (the Angel/Jesus) places the eschatological message in the context of the current life-setting of his audience. In the case of Jesus and the Eschatological Discourse, end-time events center around the destruction of the Temple; and the Temple was indeed destroyed, generally within the lifetime of his audience (70 A.D.), though how the other events are to be associated with it remain a matter of considerable debate (cf. my 4-part article on the Discourse). In the book of Revelation, the “secrets” of the visions in 1:9-20 and 17:1-6, are also set in reference to the immediate life-experience of its readers. This is done in the initial vision by identifying the “seven lamp(stand)s” with the Christians of the seven cities addressed in chapters 2-3. It establishes at the outset of the book that the visions relate specifically to the audience of the book—i.e., believers living in Asia Minor toward the end of the first-century A.D. Much the same occurs here in chapter 17. The Sea-creature (with the woman) represents the forces of evil as they are manifest in the centers of earthly power (i.e. kingdoms and their rulers), but with the interpretation of the creature (esp. its heads) this wicked earthly power is set firmly in relation to the readers’ own time and place. This is parallel to the earlier (veiled) interpretation of the name of the Sea-creature in 13:18. The author expected his readers at the time to recognize the reference, meaning that it had to be a name that would have been known to them (however obscure and elusive it may be to us now).
“‘The wild animal that you saw was, and is not, and is about to step up out of the (pit that is) without depth [i.e. bottomless], and (then) lead under [i.e. go away] into ruin—and the (one)s putting down house [i.e. dwelling] upon the earth will wonder, those whose name has not been written upon the paper-roll of life from the casting down [i.e. founding] of the world, in their looking at the wild animal that was, and is not, and will be along.'”
The creature (lit. “wild animal”, qhri/on) is described with the triad of existential terms: “it was, and is not, and is about to…” (h@n kai\ ou)k e&stin kai\ me/llei). This parodies the language used of God in 1:4, 8 and 4:8 (also 11:17; 16:5) as “the (one) being and the (one who) was and the (one) coming” —expressing God the Father’s comprehensive existence, which can also be applied to the exalted Jesus (with an emphasis on his coming). The main difference with the Sea-creature is that, instead of the being (w&n) of God, it embodies non-being (ou)k e&stin, “is not“). The Sea-creature’s life and existence, as such, is defined as something past: “it was, and (now) is not“. Its coming manifestation is thoroughly evil and demonic, like the living dead. It comes from the deepest place of the earth—the pit “without depth” (a&busso$), meaning without a bottom. This locative imagery was first used in the trumpet visions, depicting the plagues of the Judgment as monstrous creatures coming out of the deep pit (9:1-2, 11, cf. the earlier note). The fact that the creature can be depicted both as coming out of the Sea (13:1ff), and out of the Bottomless Pit (also in 11:7), demonstrates that the symbolism refers to a common idea of the creature as the embodiment of the forces of evil that are at work upon the earth. It steps up out of the Pit, and then will, after a short time, go back into the place of death and ruin. The brief, passing existence it will have on earth is indicated by the verb parei/mi (“be along”, cp. para/gw in 1 Cor 7:31; 1 Jn 2:8, 17, etc); this verb may also be intended as a parody of the end-time parousi/a (“[com]ing to be alongside”) of Jesus (cp. 2 Thess 2:8-9).
Verse 8b clearly refers back to the chapter 13 visions of the Sea-creature. The people living on earth who wonder at the creature, are so fascinated (and deceived by it) that they are willing to worship it and belong to it (by receiving its mark). This process is described in more detail in those earlier visions (cf. the notes on 13:1ff); here it is presented in summary fashion. It also helps to explain the Angel’s response in v. 7: the idea that the seer should not “wonder” (vb qauma/zw) reflects a warning to readers of the book not to be led astray themselves, “wondering” at the Sea-creature. To worship the creature and receive its mark demonstrates that a person is not, and could not have been, a true believer. Those who resist the creature’s influence are the true believers, whose names have been written in the roll of life since the beginning of Creation (cf. 13:8).
The Angel’s interpretation continues in vv. 9ff; because of the historical-critical issues related to the details of the interpretation, it will be necessary to break it up into several notes. Verses 9-11 will be discussed in the next daily note.