Revelation 17:7-18, concluded
“And he says to me: ‘The waters which you saw, on which the prostitute sits, are peoples and throngs (of people), nations and tongues.'”
In my earlier note on verse 1, I interpreted the “many waters” in relation to the overall symbol of the Sea (from which the Sea-creature emerges). The “Sea” represents the dark and chaotic forces of evil in the world, while the “waters” their manifestation and influence in the inhabited world of humankind. In the third bowl-vision (16:4ff), these waters were identified specifically as being on the earth—rivers and springs—in close proximity to human civilization, and upon which such communities depend. Thus the “waters” may be said to represent the presence and influence of the “Sea” over humankind (i.e. the nations). The Angel’s interpretation here in verse 15, similarly, but more explicitly, identifies the waters as the nations and peoples over whom the Sea-creature (and the Woman) exercise control.
“‘And the ten horns that you saw, and the wild animal (itself), these will hate the prostitute and will make her (as one) having become desolate and naked, and they will eat her flesh and burn her down in fire.'”
Here we have the extraordinary climax to the vision, as the Sea-creature with its horns turns against the Woman (the “prostitute”), stripping her of all her fine clothing and jewelry and destroying her in the most savage way. The imagery is that of a military siege and destruction of a city, according to the standards of warfare in the ancient world. The tendency to personify cities in feminine terms leads to the motif of stripping and humiliating a woman. Such imagery can be found in the nation-oracles of the Prophets, referring to the judgment against powerful cities (including Jerusalem)—cf. Hosea 2:5, 12; Nahum 3:5; Isa 47:3; Jer 13:26-27; Ezek 16:37-38; 23:10; 26-29; Koester, p. 680). Sculpted scenes of Roman conquests are often depicted in terms of violence and cruelty against a woman, images that are rightly disturbing to us today. The siege and destruction of Jerusalem (by the Romans in 70 A.D.), according to the Lukan version of the Eschatological Discourse, is similarly described as her “desolation” (e)rh/mwsi$, 21:20; cp. Mk 13:14 par, and cf. Lk 19:43-44).
The imagery of “eating flesh” and “burning in fire” more properly describes the result of siege warfare. A goal of such military tactics was to cut off the food supply and shut the population within the walls of the city, until the unbearable suffering forced them to capitulate. Siege warfare often brought famine and disease in its wake (similarly portrayed, it would seem, in the first four seal-visions, 6:1-8). A successful siege would likely end in the destruction and burning of the city, a fate met by Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans in 70 A.D., as also by countless other cities in ancient times. The eating of the woman’s flesh may also be an allusion to the end met by Jezebel (according to 2 Kings 9:30-37). This wicked queen, notorious as representing religious unfaithfulness (by promoting religious syncretism) among the people of Israel, was used as a figure-type for wickedness earlier in 2:20ff. Having one’s flesh ‘consumed’ also serves as a general image for a person being exploited by another (Psalm 27:2; Mic 3:3; Koester, p. 680).
“‘For God gave (it) into their hearts to do (according to) His (way of) knowing, and (so) to do (according to) one [mi/a] (way of) knowing, and to give their kingdom to the wild animal until the accounts of God should be completed.'”
God’s sovereignty over the end-time affairs, specifically as it relates to the enactment of the Judgment, is clearly expressed here. In verses 12-13, it was said of the horns—i.e. (vassal) kings—of the Sea-creature, that they ruled together with the creature for a single (mi/a) hour, and held a single (mi/a) mind. This unity of purpose is here declared to be according to God’s own purpose. The word translated “mind” is gnw/mh, also used here in v. 17, and more properly refers to a way of knowing or thinking about something, as I have rendered literally above. In more conventional theological terms, we might say that they act according to the will of God, in the sense that God allows (and directs) their wickedness to accomplish His own purpose. Throughout Israelite and Old Testament tradition, the execution of YHWH’s judgment against a people or nation was often seen as coming about through the concrete military action of an invading human army. So it is here in the vision as well.
The ten kings “give” their kingdom(s) to the Sea-creature, meaning that they recognize his authority, just as the elders of the heavenly People do for God in 4:10. This alliance lasts until the lo/goi of God are completed. Here the plural lo/goi may be understood several ways:
- In the more literal sense of lo/go$ as an account, or accounting, meaning that the proper judgment is meted out, according to the wickedness of the nations, etc.
- The conventional sense of lo/go$ as written account, specifically the words of the Prophets as recorded in Scripture. Future events, including the fate of various nations and cities, were made known in these texts. Oracles against Babylon are found in Isaiah 13-14, 21, 47, and Jeremiah 50-51, and these may be in view here; certainly the poem of “Babylon’s” fall in chapter 18 (to be discussed in the next note) was influenced by Jer 50-51, along with other portions of the nation-oracles.
- The word lo/go$ can also be used in the specific sense of a revelation of the will of God, especially to apostles, Christian prophets, and other believers in Christ. This may take the form of a specific message or pattern of communication (i.e. proclamation of the Gospel), and thus an “account”. As discussed throughout the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”, the inspired authors and speakers in the New Testament writings make various pronouncements regarding the coming end-time Judgment.
“‘And the woman which you saw is the Great City, the (one) holding rule as king upon [i.e. over] the kings of the earth.'”
The expression “the Great City” (h( po/li$ h( mega/lh) occurs numerous times in the book of Revelation; it is synonymous with “Babylon” in chapters 13ff (14:8; 16:19; 17:5; 18:10, 16, 18-19, 21), but was also used earlier in 11:8 where it was identified with Jerusalem (but also called “Egypt” and “Sodom”). As most commentators would agree, in the New Testament (in Revelation and also 1 Pet 5:13) “Babylon” is a cypher for Rome. The parallels, especially in relation to the destruction of Jerusalem, are obvious: Babylon and Rome were the capital cities of the conquering Empires of the time. In various recent notes, we have discussed how the symbolism of the visions would relate to the Roman Empire as the ruling power—and pinnacle of wicked, worldly power—for Christians at the end of the first century. While this does not exhaust the symbolism, in many instances it seems clear that the primary point of reference is Rome and the Roman Imperial government. From that standpoint, the symbolism here in chapter 17 may be summarized as follows:
- The Sea and its Waters—The “Sea” represents the dark and turbulent forces of evil at work in the world; the “waters” refer to the presence of the Sea in the inhabited world, i.e. among human beings with their communities and nations.
- The Sea Creature—This fabulous and hybrid “wild animal” comes up out of the Sea, and resembles the “Dragon”; thus its character is fundamentally wicked, characterized and influenced by the forces of evil. Like the creatures of the Daniel 7 vision, it represents a great kingdom and conquering empire. At the time of the book of Revelation, this is the Roman Empire.
- The Woman—She is called a prostitute, signifying her blatant wickedness, immorality, and promiscuity, with an ability to seduce and influence people on earth. She is also identified as a city: the “great city” and “Babylon”. She sits upon the Sea-Creature, and the waters of the Sea, demonstrating her close connection with the Creature. If the Sea-Creature represents the Roman Empire, then the Woman, the City, is Rome; she sits upon “seven mountains”, best understood in terms of the traditional “seven hills” of Rome.
Based on this essential framework, other details in the vision (and its exposition) may be interpreted as follows:
- The Seven Heads of the Sea-Creature—these “kings” almost certainly refer to Roman Emperors of the first-century, though it is probably no longer possible (if it ever were) to identify them precisely with a sequence of seven emperors. The author and his audience were living during the reign of the sixth emperor, and another was yet to come (for more on this, cf. below).
- The Ten Horns of the Creature—these “kings” are best understood as vassal kingdoms (and their rulers), who reign as subordinates under Roman Imperial authority; presumably their reigns correspond to the current/future rule of the sixth and seventh (and eighth) emperors. They, like the seventh emperor, will rule for only a short time (“one hour”).
To the extent that the visionary narrative in chapter 17 is meant to describe a sequence of actual historical events, it may outlined as follows:
- The author and his audience are (presumably) living during the reign of the “sixth” king (emperor); this would likely correspond to an approximate date of 69 or 90-95 A.D., depending on just when the book of Revelation was composed. Most critical commentators would opt for the latter date.
- The brief reign of the “seventh” king (emperor) would soon follow; this could conceivably refer to a short period of time rather the specific reign of a single emperor. In any case, it is likely that only a few years would be involved, probably less than a decade, unless the visionary details are more broadly symbolic.
- After this, an “eighth” king (emperor) will reign; this will be a truly evil, demonic incarnation of the wicked Sea-creature itself, and not an ‘ordinary’ human emperor at all (cp. 2 Thess 2:3-12). The specific wording in verse 8 (cf. also 13:3, 12, 14) raises the possibility that this demonic figure may resemble an earlier emperor who had previously died. This is all the more likely if the Nero redivivus (return of Nero) legend is in view here, as most critical commentators would hold.
- At the time of this demonic emperor, there will be an alliance of vassal kingdoms (the “ten horns”); the alliance is temporary and short-lived, but it probably should be seen as beginning after the reign of the “sixth” emperor.
- At some point, these vassal kings will turn on the city Rome and lay siege to it, destroying it and burning it with fire. This is probably to be understood as occurring prior to the great final battle (19:11-21, cp. 16:12-16ff).
It must be admitted that nothing quite like this ever took place, and certainly not within the time-frame suggested here in the vision. Rome was, in fact, sacked and destroyed (at least partially) by the invading armies of ‘vassal’ kingdoms, i.e. the migrating Germanic peoples with whom Rome was forced to form alliances, etc. The first such sacking took place in 390 B.C. (by the Senone Gauls), but the others occurred in the centuries after the book of Revelation was written; note the following events, with the associated people and ruler (in parentheses):
- 410 A.D., by the Visigoths (Alaric I)
- 455 A.D., by the Vandals (Genseric)
- 546 A.D. (and again in 549-550) by the Ostrogoths (Totila)
As we approach the conclusion of this series of notes, we will explore various attempts to interpret the first-century eschatology of Revelation from the vantage point (and time-frame) of later generations, including our own today. To avoid unnecessary complication, these interpretive approaches have been studiously avoided, so that the viewpoint of the author and his audience can be allowed to speak for itself, as far as that is possible.