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Revelation 17 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

The Angel's Interpretation

The angel's question, "Why are you astonished?" is virtually equivalent to "Snap out of it!" The angel wakes John from his reverie not only with these words, but with the promise of a full interpretation of the "mystery" of the woman and the beast (v. 7). Surprisingly, the interpretation centers more on the beast (vv. 8-17) than on the woman, whose identification comes almost as an afterthought (v. 18). And yet the explanation is again and again linked explicitly to what John has just seen: the beast, which you saw (v. 8), the ten horns you saw (v. 12), the waters you saw (v. 15), and the woman you saw (v. 18).

The vision has its own rhetoric independent of John's feelings or temptations, and the angel gives voice to that rhetoric. Conspicuous from the start is a note of humor or parody at the beast's expense--and John's! The beast, says the angel, once was, now is not, and will come up out of the Abyss and go to his destruction (v. 8). This of course parodies the designation of God as the one "who was, and is, and is to come" (4:8; compare 1:4, 8), in such a way as to make the beast sound ridiculous. The "Lord God Almighty" is from eternity to eternity, while the beast moves from being to nonbeing to being again, and finally to destruction. God is the one who deserves astonishment, admiration and worship. But foolish people will be astonished when they see the beast not although, but because he once was, now is not, and yet will come (v. 8; compare 13:3). What ought to evoke ridicule evokes admiration and wonder instead, and even John is implicated.

Yet the beast is not altogether laughable. The note of ridicule is tempered with fear. The beast recalls that mythical monster, sometimes named Rahab and sometimes Leviathan, mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, that "had reared up against God in primeval times and been subdued by him," and would do it again with the same result" (Beasley-Murray 1974:255, who cites Is 27:1; 30:7; 51:9; Ezek 29:3-5). Like the dragon or "ancient serpent" of 12:9, the beast is described as a figure out of the remote past that comes back to haunt the future. Yet ultimately it is doomed to destruction. Such archetypal figures may inhabit our subconscious memories or imaginations, as individuals and as communities, and may therefore call up in us some of the same fears they held for John's original readers. We need only recall H. P. Lovecraft's twentieth-century horror stories about the monstrous "Old Ones" who once inhabited the earth and are waiting to return to torment anyone foolish enough to rouse them from their age-long slumber. Whether we think of the childhood of the race or the childhood of individuals, the remote past is a haunted place, the stuff of which mytes and dreams--and nightmares--are made. So when John hears that the beast once was, now is not, and will come up out of the Abyss (v. 8), he is grateful for the added words, and go to his destruction (v. 8). So are we.

The angel continues the explanation with a challenge: This calls for a mind with wisdom (compare 13:18). The beast's seven heads, the angel claims, are seven hills on which the woman sits (v. 9), and at the same time seven kings (v. 10). In the symbolism of this book, two different symbols can represent the same reality (for example, both the seven lamps before the throne and the seven eyes of the Lamb represented "the seven spirits of God," 4:5; 5:6). Here one symbol represents two distinct realities. The seven hills are the first clue that "Babylon" is actually Rome, for the notion that Rome was built on seven hills was already current among Latin poets (Swete 1908:220, citing Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Martial, Cicero and others). More important is the second part of the interpretation: the seven heads are also seven kings, of whom five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for a little while. The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king. He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction (vv. 10-11). This appears to be a restatement, tilted in a rather political direction, of once was, now is not, and will come up out of the Abyss and go to his destruction (v. 8).

More than any other passage in the book of Revelation, the interpretation of the seven horns as seven kings has fostered the notion that John saw the beast as a kind of reincarnation of the emperor Nero, whose brief but gruesome persecution of Christians in the year 64 was vivid in Christian memory. The passage has also figured prominently in efforts to date the book. Identifying the sixth king who now is (v. 10) would supply an approximate date of composition for the book of Revelation. Unfortunately that identification is not possible. No one knows with what emperor the series of seven begins, nor how to count the three emperors (Galba, Otho, Vitellius) who all reigned in 68-69.

It is true that from the late first century on the popular Nero Redivivus superstition held that Nero would return after his death to take power again (see above on 13:3). In identifying one of the beast's heads as an eighth king who nevertheless belongs to the seven (v. 11), the angel probably alludes to that superstition, not to endorse it as true, but to make the point that the only figure from remembered history to whom the beast might be compared in its cruelty to the people of God was the ill-fated Nero. The point is not that the eighth king is actually Nero Redivivus, but that he is like Nero in his character and destiny.

The possible allusion to Nero has cast a shadow on many commentators' interpretation of chapter 13, whether in the reference to one of the beast's heads that "seemed to have had a fatal wound, but its fatal wound had been healed" (13:3) or in the much discussed number "666" (13:18). Yet it is important to keep in mind that the angel is explaining 17:1-6, not chapter 13. Despite the fact that the two visions have one major character in common, the beast, they should not be confused. It cannot be assumed that the Nero Redivivus legend is the key to the interpretation of the beast's wounded head in chapter 13. Remember, the beast is introduced in chapter 17 as if for the first time. Its previous escapades in chapters 11 and 13 seem to have been forgotten. At most, it is possible that the mysterious 666 at the end of chapter 13 was intended in some way to anticipate the more complex (and more political) application of the figure given here by the angel, but for the most part the vision of the present chapter is new, and it must stand on its own.

Two important conclusions can be drawn from the angel's words. The first is that the antichrist (if we may borrow that term) is in a general sense the seven-headed beast, and yet at the same time the eighth head or eighth king in particular, who somehow belongs to the seven (v. 11). In other words, the antichrist in Revelation is both an institution and a person, an empire and an emperor. The second conclusion is that the Roman emperor reigning at the time John wrote the book is not this antichrist. Although the presupposition of the entire book is that "the time is near" (1:3; 22:10), it is not actually present. According to the scenario of verses 10 and 11, the sixth emperor is and the seventh is yet to come. When he comes, he will remain for a little while. Only then will the dreaded eighth emperor, perhaps modeled after Nero, appear on the scene. The angel makes it clear that the vision concerns the future, not the present and not even an immediate future. Although John may have remembered the three emperors within a single year (the year 68-69), the likelihood is that the angel was pointing to an interval of as much as a decade or more before the final conflict and the destruction of the beast.

The interval is just as visible in the next phase of the angel's interpretation. The ten horns of the beast are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but who for one hour will receive authority as kings along with the beast (v. 12). The word kingdom is here defined by the phrase authority as kings. At the time John writes, the ten are not yet kings because they have not yet received kingly authority. Like the seventh king and like the eighth, they belong to the future, and they too will hold sway for an unspecified time, represented by the phrase one hour. These kings have one purpose. Instead of receiving their authority from the beast, as we might expect, they give their power and authority to the beast (v. 13). Where does this authority come from? We are not told, for the moment.

Unlike the seven kings of verses 9-11, the ten kings represented by the beast's ten horns are not a temporal series. They seem to be a confederation or alliance, probably the same alliance identified earlier as "the kings from the East" (16:12) or "the kings of the whole world," gathered for battle at Armageddon (16:14-16). Armageddon, in fact, seems to be in view in the angel's pronouncement that these kings will make war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will overcome them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings--and with him will be his called, chosen and faithful followers (v. 14). This is the first explicit indication that believers will participate with the Lamb in his victory over the powers of evil. Although they were provisionally "victorious" over the beast in their deates (15:2), here they are participants in the final victory, presumably at Armageddon.

But two qualifications must be noted. First, the victory is primarily the Lamb's, not theirs, for the verb (will overcome) is singular, and Christian believers are mentioned almost as an afterthought. Second, the words called, chosen and faithful are conditions for participating in the victory, each more specific than the one before: first called (compare 19:9), then not only called but chosen (see Mt 22:14), and finally, not only chosen but faithful (as in 2:10, "be faithful, even to the point of death"). The purpose of these adjectives is similar to that of the seven messages of chapters 2--3: to encourage John's readers to be faithful so as to "overcome" (compare 16:15, in the immediate context of the kings gathering at Armageddon).

In chapter 16 we were given the setting of the battle only. Now we know its outcome, and now we begin to understand how it comes about that the seven-headed beast will finally go to his destruction (vv. 8, 11). The angel's account of the ten kings and their ill-advised alliance with the beast is interrupted by an abrupt mention of the "many waters" where the woman was seated (see v. 1). These waters, the angel tells John, are peoples, multitudes, nations and languages (v. 15). This is another step toward interpreting the woman herself--just in case John missed the reference to the seven hills. The "many waters" identified her at first as ancient Babylon (see Jer 51:13), but the angel now reveals that they are only a metaphor. The woman is not an ancient city literally built beside "many waters," or canals, but a city of John's own time with many "tributaries," that is, with many nations and races of people accountable to it politically, culturally and economically. The identification becomes explicit in verse 18: The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth. By this time the identification is unnecessary, for every reader has figured out who the woman is. It is made explicit only to give immediacy and force to the repeated announcements of the woman's doom in the next chapter. The clarity of the identification makes it impossible to argue that the book of Revelation is written in a kind of code to hide from Roman officials what the Christians of Asia Minor thought of them. No Roman citizen could read verse 18 and have any doubt that the prophecy was intended as an oracle against imperial Rome, the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.

Into the explicit identification of "Babylon" the prostitute as Rome (vv. 15 and 18), the angel weaves a continuation of the account of the ten kings, now in relation both to the beast and the prostitute (vv. 16-17). For the first time, dissension is evident within the ranks of evil: The beast and the ten horns you saw will hate the prostitute. They will bring her to ruin and leave her naked; they will eat her flesh and burn her with fire (v. 16). In these few words, and in the brief one hour of the kings' alliance with the beast (v. 12), the destruction of "Babylon" is accomplished. The entire next chapter will be given to a bittersweet celebration and mourning of her gruesome fate. The destruction of the beast and its allies will come later.

Before revealing the identity of the prostitute, the angel supplies one crucial piece of information about the ten kings. The expression they have one purpose (v. 13) is now explained, so that we now learn the true source of their authority. The angel tells John that it was God who put it into their hearts to accomplish his purpose by agreeing to give the beast their power to rule, until God's words are fulfilled (v. 17). Behind the unified purpose or intention of the kings is nothing less than the sovereign purpose of God the Almighty! With this, the angel anticipates the end of the vision when he says, "These are the true words of God" (19:9)--the final verdict from above on all that John has seen and heard.

Earlier it had seemed that the forces of evil had summoned the kings to battle at Armageddon. John had seen "three evil spirits that looked like frogs" coming from the moutes of the dragon, the beast and the false prophet. These he had defined as "spirits of demons performing miraculous signs," going out "to the kings of the whole world, to gather them for the battle on the great day of God Almighty" (16:13-14). Now, as he is allowed to look more deeply into the same events, John is reminded of the sovereignty of God superintending even the thoughts and purposes of the enemy. The so-called dualism of the book of Revelation, we now learn, is an illusion, for the vaunted powers of evil are merely pawns of a righteous God whose power is still unchallenged. Armageddon turns out to be a trap, and God has led them straight into it.

Some modern readers find the book of Revelation offensive because it presents God as the author of such grotesque horrors as are described in this chapter and the next (see, for example, Pippin 1992). But Flannery O'Connor saw clearly that "any Christian writer, even a writer of fiction, will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience . . . you have to make your vision apparent by shock--to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures" (O'Connor 1988:805-6).

John in his time knew that in a world distorted by sin, the abrupt invasion or visitation of the good is every bit as grotesque and terrifying as the onslaught of evil--and that human nature by itself is ill equipped to know the difference. Perhaps those who regard the book of Revelation as repulsive, sub-Christian or somehow unworthy of the God of the Bible need to call their own world into question with the same rigor they bring to these disturbing oracles out of their Christian past.

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The Vision of the Woman and the Scarlet Beast

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