All Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Bible (ESV) unless they are attributed to another version.
The latter part of chapter 17 gives an explanation of the vision of the woman or Prostitute and the Beast that she rides on.
- THE WOMAN AND THE WATERS SHE SITS ON:
Verse 17:18 gives a brief explanation of the Prostitute. She is the “great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth.” If we are reading this chapter for the first time, we are jolted upright by these words. The Prostitute is a city! It is described as a city that is not just the most important city in the world, but it is also the city that dominates the rulers of the world. In 17:2a, we learn that the rulers have been seduced by her, and the outcome of that seduction is capitulation. They have surrendered their power to her, and she rules over them.
In 17:1b, the Prostitute is described as “seated on many waters.” These waters are explained in 17:15: they are “peoples and multitudes and nations and languages.” This is a way of underlining the idea that the Prostitute dominates the world.
B. THE BEAST (8, 11) AND THE SEVEN HEADS (9,10)
In 17:8a, a synopsis of the “TIMELINE” of the Beast is given, as follows:
The Past: The Beast “was” at some time in the past.
The Present: At the present time the Beast “is not.” We can assume that the “present” from this perspective is at the time that John is witnessing this vision. How much into the future that present should be extended is an unknown. So, does that mean that the Beast “is not” today, in 2019? There is no clear answer, but my guess is that the answer is “yes, the ‘present’ condition still holds, and the Beast ‘is not.’”
Soon (“is about to”): The Beast is going to rise, at some point, from the Abyss. The English Standard Version translates the phrase as “is about to.” However, New International Version translates it as “and yet will come up.” Of 14 versions/translations that I looked at, 9 use “about to” or “soon” and 5 use “shall” or “will” or “is to.” In fact, the very common “helper” verb that is used has a wide range of meanings, including “intend to,” “going to,” “be about to,” “will,” etc. So, in this “timeline,” the issue of how soon the action will take place is not clear. We can just say that the next step in the agenda is that the Beast will ascend from the Abyss or bottomless pit.
The very fact that this entity--individual person, kingdom, whatever it might be--is coming from the Abyss is strange in itself. The “Abyss” is mentioned in Luke 8:31, in which the demons, who are called Legion, who possessed the maniacal man who lived among the tombs, begged Jesus not to send them into the Abyss. In Romans 10:7, in a loose paraphrase of Deuteronomy 30:12-14, Paul describes the Abyss as a place of the dead, where one might go to bring Christ up from the dead. In Revelation 9:1-11 the fifth trumpet plague or judgment is described. A horde of demonic-like locusts come up out of the bottomless pit (or at least appear to) and torment people. Their king is Abaddon or Apollyon, who is called the “angel of the Abyss.” In 11:7, the two witnesses are killed by the “beast that rises from the bottomless pit [Abyss].” Since the Beast of chapter 13 seems to be the same as the Beast of 11:7, it seems to be consistent that the Beast of 17:8 is this same Beast described in the earlier passages.
So, what does it mean that the Beast comes up out of the Abyss? The Greek word meant “abyss, depth, underworld.” For example, in Deuteronomy 8:7, the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) uses, literally, “fountains of depths,” which is just translated “fountains” in ESV. In Psalm 33:7, the Lord “gathers the waters of the sea in a heap; [He] puts the deeps [abysses] in storehouses.” The abyss is, according to Arndt and Gingrich, “unfathomable to the human eye...and discernible only by God…” Arndt and Gingrich define its use in Romans 10:7 as “the abode of the dead...and of demons [as in Luke 8:31]...” as well as the abode of the antichrist or Beast and of “Abaddon...the angel of the underworld…” None of this is of much help to us. We can only say that there is a place where at least some of the dead go and where the Beast is holed up until he climbs up out of there. If we try to spiritualize it, we might say something like this: The antichrist spirit is temporarily held in check in some deep, dark, far away place. At some point he will come out of that place in the person of the Beast, whoever or whatever that might be (see later commentary). This event might correspond to the event that is described in Revelation 9:1-11, in which an angel opens the Abyss when the 5th Trumpet is blown. This may also be alluded to in II Thessalonians 2:6-8.
Finally, the timeline of the Beast has an end: “and go to destruction.” The word that is translated as “destruction” is often translated as “perdition” in the King James Version. The word is described in Arndt and Gingrich as “the destruction that one causes” or the “destruction that one experiences.” The former is “waste,” as it is used in Matthew 26:8 in reference to ointment or perfume that the woman “wasted” on Jesus. More often the latter sense is used, as in Matthew 7:18: “the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction.” This destruction may be the temporal destruction in this present life or it may eternal destruction. The latter meaning is often rendered as “perdition” in the King James Version, in John 17:12 (Judas), Philippians 1:28 (enemies of the cross), and so forth.
Note especially II Thessalonians 2:3 where the Man of Lawlessness is described in the King James Version as the Son of Perdition. (“Son of” is a Biblical expression that can mean “having the characteristics of” but also “being destined for”) So, King James Version uses “perdition” in Revelation 17:8 and 17:11. Note that in 17:8, the Beast comes out of the Abyss and then winds up in a condition of perdition. The “perdition” that is referred to is most likely the Lake of Fire. See Revelation 19:20 (where the Beast is described as being thrown into the Lake of Fire). Although “destruction” is an OK translation, “perdition” is an ancient word that carries the connotation of eternal or final judgment and hell, as is commonly understood. Thus, the New World Dictionary includes the theological definition of “perdition” as “the loss of the soul; damnation (b) same as HELL.” The Greek word, in some contexts, refers to “eternal destruction as punishment for the wicked” (Arndt and Gingrich). Therefore, “perdition” seems to be an accurate term that translates the Greek.
This means that the timeline of the Beast ends in eternal punishment.
In Revelation 17:8b, the earth-dwellers “marvel to see the beast.” I have tried to be consistent and render as “earth-dwellers” the expression that is rendered here in the ESV as “the dwellers on earth.” This expression or something quite similar is found frequently in Revelation. In fact the word for “dwell” is used 9 of 10 times in Revelation to identify a group of people (an overwhelming majority of people) who dwell on earth. These people have the following characteristics and destiny (all references are to Revelation):
- They are guilty of the blood of martyrs (6:10).
- They rejoice over the death of the two witnesses (11:10).
- They worship the Beast (13:8, 17:8).
- They are deceived by the signs of the False Prophet (13:14).
- They become drunk on the wine of sexual immorality of the Great Prostitute (17:2).
- The “hour of trial” will try them (3:10).
- The final three trumpets will bring woe on them (8:13).
- They are forced to worship the Beast (13:12).
- Their names are not written in the Book of Life (17:8).
Thus, the use of this phrase, “those who dwell on the earth,” or similar wording, consistently refers to persons who are caught up in the “world.” That “world” is defined by an anti-Christ spirit that worships the Beast, whom we also know as the “anti-Christ” (I John 2:18). It is a world that hates witness to the truth, that kills Christians, that is full of deception, that puts enormous pressure on people to conform to its ways.
These earth-dwellers “marvel” to see the Beast (17:8b). And the reason they do so is because of its time-line: “because it was and is not and is to come.” That may strike the reader as odd. I mean that it is odd that they marvel at the time-line of the Beast. I think that, in our vernacular it goes like this: “We thought he (it) was dead and gone, but, look! Here he (it) is again.” I shall try to sort that out as I dig into the verses that follow. It is not an easy task. At this point in the story, we can simply say that the reason that is given for the earth-dwellers’ marvelling at the Beast is because of its time-line: “it was and is not and is to come.”
One other comment that verse 17:8b makes about the earth-dwellers is that their “names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world.” I have referred to this portion of the verse in comments on Revelation 13:8. It is a statement of the foreknowledge of God. The “Book of Life,” which belongs to the Lamb, is the ultimate deciding factor of salvation. The negative of that proposition is found in Revelation 20:15: “And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” The earth-dwellers are, in our vernacular, unsaved people. The facts--that they wonder at the Beast (17:8), that they have become drunk on the Great Prostitute’s wine of immorality (17:2), that they worship the Beast (13:8), that they are deceived by the false prophet(13:14)--are ultimately due to the fact that they are unsaved and so do not have the spiritual life needed to discern and resist the spirit of the anti-Christ (I John 2:26-27).
In my next post, I shall continue discussing chapter 17. I must say that the verses that follow are just as difficult, or more so, than what I have been dealing with. Please have patience.
Thank you for your faithfulness as a reader of this website.
Arndt, William F. and F. Wilbur Gingrich. A Greek-English
Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early
Christian Literature. Chicago: The University of
Chicago Press, 1957.
Crossway Bibles (2009-04-09). ESV Study Bible. Good
News Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Guralnik, David B., Ed. in Chief. Webster’s New World
Dictionary of the American Language. New York:
Simon and Schuster, 1986.
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