Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV) unless I state otherwise.
The table below is an attempt to clarify some of the material in Revelation 17:8-18 by presenting a timeline of events or of the appearance of persons or entities. Further explanation is given after the table.
If one studies this chart, one notices a time-sequence of events and developments from left to right.
- There are events before “John’s present”: they occurred before John lived or at least before the visions that he had that resulted in the book.
- There are events “contemporary with John”--at the time of his visions.
- There are events in the future. I have made the assumption that all of these events will take place in a fairly short period. My thinking is that the period is the “Tribulation” period of seven years before the Second Coming. Within that period, of course, there will be a sequence of events, so that one should not conclude that all of the events in the column “Future to John” will take place at the same time.
- There are events that are in the “ultimate future.” These are the events that are the final outcome for certain persons and entities. This ultimate future most likely will take place at the Second Coming. There will be a sequence of events tied to the Second Coming. For example, probably the defeat of the 10 Kings in the last row and last column probably will take place before the Beast goes to perdition.
VERSE 17:9-10: We assume that the material from 17:7b to 17:18 all is a speech from the angel who is first introduced in 17:1. He tells John that he--and we--are going to have to be wise to understand what he says next. One could throw in some sarcasm and say, “So, what’s new? Everything in the book calls for wisdom beyond any of us!” Wisdom is listed as one of the attributes of which the Lamb is worthy in 5:12 and as an attribute of God in 7:12. In 13:18, wisdom is called for in calculating the number of the Beast, 666. Now, in 17:9, wisdom is called for in understanding the seven heads of the Beast.
The first exercise of wisdom is to understand why the seven heads symbolize two entities or groups that are possibly related but are quite different. In 17:9, the seven heads represent seven mountains on which the woman is seated. Then, in 17:10, the seven heads represent seven kings. I will surmise that, in each case, something is being communicated that is separate from the other case. The number seven stands for seven mountains. From a totally different perspective, the number seven stands for seven kings. The following analogy may or may not be helpful. I have in my room a calendar. It is a “blank” with spaces to write in the month and each day of the month. I use the calendar to list when bills will come due; I put those in orange. I also use the calendar to put in appointments and events that are upcoming for myself (blue) and my wife (pink) and both of us (blue). Those appointments are not related to the due dates for the bills except the fact that they share a calendar. Thus, one could say the calendar is a list of due dates for bills and it is also a list of personal appointments for me and my wife. So it is that there are seven heads and they represent the number of mountains where the woman sits as well as the number of kings to be discussed.
It is possible that, just as the bills due in September share the month with certain appointments, so the seven hills are a location that is pertinent to the seven kings (or perhaps one of those kings). One way in which wisdom can be applied to 17:9-10 is to recognize that the number seven is being applied in two very different ways, but that there may be a relationship between those two applications. To spring forward and let the cat out of the bag: it is possible that the seven mountains are the seven hills of Rome and that the seven kings are seven rulers of Rome or that Rome is one in a sequence of seven empires.
Verse 18 states that the woman of the chapter is “the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth.” In John’s day Rome certainly would be recognized as that city. And of course Rome had seven hills. Rome did not rule over China or India, but it did rule over the known world of John. Possibly no other empire has been so vast and powerful in all of history. Rome ruled England, France, Spain, Italy, Greece, what is now Turkey, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, north Africa, parts of Mesopotamia.
There is a timeline that helps form the backbone of the latter part of chapter 17, as the table above implies. The timeline projects into the future, beyond the time of John’s vision. How far into the future is not immediately clear. However, there are considerable data from other Scriptures that indicate that the set of events that these visions focus on are associated with the Second Coming of Christ and the period shortly before that event. I assume that the “woman” of chapter 17 is an entity that is in the future from the perspective of John’s vision. Therefore, we can tentatively conclude that the Rome of John’s day is not the same “city” that 17:18 refers to. Rome has risen and fallen. Today, it takes its place among the cities of Europe and is not dominant at all. The “city” of 17:18 is an entity that will dominate during at least part of that period shortly before the Second Coming of Christ.
I shall backtrack briefly to support my statement that the woman of chapter 17 will be in existence in the future, and, in fact, during the period shortly before the Second Coming. I believe the evidence of the chapter, especially 17:8-17, focus around a particular set of events. There is a Beast who, although he had previous activity, will arise from the Abyss. There are 10 Kings who will receive their royal authority in the future and then submit to the Beast. The Beast and the 10 Kings will overthrow the woman. Then, the 10 Kings will be conquered by the Lamb, and the Beast will go to perdition. Note, first, that these events do not seem to match any events of ancient or recent history, and so they seem to be events yet to come. Second, the events of 19:11-21 seem to correspond to the demise of the 10 Kings and the Beast described in 17:8-17 AND to correspond to the Second Coming. Although any kind of conclusion with regard to Revelation must be tentative, I conclude that very likely the scenarios in chapter 17 will take place in the short period before the Second Coming. (That period is often referred to as the Tribulation period.) This leads to the conclusion that the woman of chapter 17 is not ancient Rome, but is an entity yet to materialize.
At the same time, we have the fact that the woman sits on seven mountains, and that fact makes the woman seem to be ancient Rome. The fact that she is identified in 17:18 as “the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth” also sounds like ancient Rome. Of course, there have been other cities that headed up empires. Nineveh was the chief city of the Assyrian Empire. Babylon headed its own Babylonian Empire. The Persian Empire also used Babylon as a principal city in its empire. Probably no empire that was led by a city matched Rome. Because of this, many have concluded that Rome is the “great city” of 17:9 and 17:18.
Interpreters have gone in two directions with that conclusion. One is a Preterist interpretation, such as we find in a book by Hank Hanegraff, the “Bible Answer Man.” (Hanegraff, 113) He considers 17:9 to settle the question. R. C. Sproul advocates a position similar to Hanegraff. (Sproul, throughout his book, but see especially 153ff) Both of these authors subscribe to what they call “Orthodox Preterism,” a position which rejects J. S. Russell’s radical views, but contends that many of the “prophetic” Scriptures in the New Testament do refer to events of the first century, especially the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. I have discussed Russell in previous posts. I shall discuss Hanegraff and Sproul further in a post or posts in which I consider the commentators.
The other direction in which Rome is identified as the city of 17:9 and 17:18 is a Futurist view of a revived Roman Empire. I generally agree with this view, which has been advocated by the Dispensationalists. (Pentecost, 318-326) Although I disagree with many of their ideas, I find that the main thrust of their argument for a revived Roman Empire rests on solid Scriptural ground. They not only consider Revelation but also visions in Daniel. Again, I shall consider this in detail in another post. I would make one qualification to subscribing to this idea about a revived Roman Empire. I believe that this future “city” and its empire will indeed be a successor to Rome and its spirit--a spirit that rejects Christ and persecutes Christians, that embraces harsh military conquest and rampant immorality. However, it may not be an exact replica of ancient Rome with its headquarters in the city of Rome.
In verse 17:10, the heads of the Beast are representative of seven kings. It is natural for many to consider that these kings are seven emperors of Rome. However, some interpreters understand these “kings” to represent “kingdoms.” One finds considerable difficulty in any direction one turns.
For the record, the following are the sequence of Roman emperors in the pertinent time period (Suetonius and with help from Wikipedia for 12 and 13):
- Julius Caesar (although many regard him NOT to be an emperor), 49-44 BC
- Augustus 31 BC-AD 14
- Tiberius AD 14-37
- Gaius (Caligula) 37-41
- Claudius 41-54
- Nero 54-68
- Galba June, 68-January, 69
- Otho January-April, 69
- Vitellius July-December, 69
- Vespasian 69-79
- Titus 79-81
- Domitian 81-96
- Nerva 96-98
- Trajan 98-117
If we consider that John wrote Revelation in the AD 90’s, this list of emperors brings much confusion. (Some of the following is from Morris, 209.) Some just ignore the idea the John wrote that late and simply count emperors (ignoring Julius because he is not truly regarded to be an emperor). This strategy runs into the difficulty that, during about 18 months from July, 68 to December, 69, three men were emperors in rapid succession. Most prefer to ignore them and arrive at an interpretation of verse 17:10 in the following way:
- The five emperors who have fallen are Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero.
- The one who “is” would be Vespasian.
- The one to come and only remain a little while is Titus.
On the whole, trying to make the list of emperors “fit” into the scheme of verse 17:10 is difficult and confusing. When one throws in verse 17:11, it just gets worse. I shall deal with that at another time.
Morris also refers to another school of thought espoused by W. Hendriksen, among others. (Morris, 210) (The bibliographic data from Morris is as follows: W. Hendriksen, More Than Conquerors, 1962.) This viewpoint understands the “kings” to be empires that had ruled through the centuries in the Middle East and beyond. Hendriksen’s empires are as follows.
- Old Babylonian
- New Babylonian
- “All anti-christian [sic] governments between the fall of Rome and the final empire of the antichrist”
- The eighth is “of the seven” and “may well arise in one of the ancient seats of empire”
A similar interpretation is described by Joel Richardson. He explains that trying to make the Roman emperors fit verses 17:10-11 is difficult, if not impossible. (Richardson, 132-133) Instead, he proposes the following list of empires (Richardson, 75):
- Babylonia (neo-Babylonian Empire)
- Greece (Alexandrian Empire)
- Islamic Empire
- Revived Islamic Empire of the Antichrist
Although this scheme has some merit, I think that it has one possible flaw. (I used “possible” because this material is so difficult that I sense that I am in deep water and should be cautious about commenting on another author’s theory.) The problem that I see is that Daniel indicates that the last empire will be an outgrowth or have historical and geographical ties to the Roman Empire. In Daniel 2:31-45, Daniel is speaking to Nebuchadnezzar and explaining the latter’s dream. The dream is of a statue or “image” of a man which is composed of a series of metals. Each of the metals represents one of the great empires of the Mideastern area. The sequence is generally interpreted as Babylonia, Medes and Persians (as one empire), Alexandrian/Greek Empire, Rome, and the successor to Rome. The part of the statue representing Rome was the pair of legs which were combined with the feet. The legs were made of iron, which represented the military power of Rome. The feet were made of iron and clay which were mixed together. The toes represented a union of separate entities that had grown out of the Roman Empire. This final form of empire is smashed by the Kingdom of God. Thus, there seems to be a link between the final Antichrist empire and the Roman Empire. (See Pentecost 318ff and 323ff.)
There is much more that I need to discuss regarding verses 17:9-10 as well verse 17:11. I shall leave that for another post.
Crossway. The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton:
Crossway Publ., 2001.
Hanegraff, Hank. The Apocalypse Code. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc.,
Morris, Leon. The Revelation of St. John, vol. 20 of Tyndale New
Testament Commentaries. Gen. Ed. R. V. G. Tasker. Grand Rapids:
William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1980.
Pentecost, J. Dwight. Things to Come. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publ., 1958. Richardson, Joel. Mystery Babylon. Washington, D.C.: WND Books,
Sproul, R. C. The Last Days According to Jesus. Grand Rapids: Baker
Suetonius. The Twelve Emperors. Robert Graves, trans., Revised by
Michael Grant. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books Ltd.,