Bible quotations are from English Standard Version unless another version is referred to.
Crossway. The Holy Bible English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001.
Revelation 17, starting at 17:15:
John has been experiencing a vision, accompanied by an angel. The vision focuses on a unit of rider and mount. The rider is a Great Prostitute, who is described in 17:1-6a. The mount is a Beast, with seven heads and ten horns, which is described in 17:7b-14. Verses 17:15-18 continue this description. The description in these verses is more dynamic than some of the foregoing verses. Whereas much of the earlier verses focus on the “who” by giving hints as to the identity of the various characters, the final verses in the chapter focus more on “what happens” to these characters. The cast of characters has been completed (but not quite). They are, as follows.
- The Prostitute
- The Beast
- The 10 Kings
- The Lamb
Verse 17:15 reverts back to the description in verse 17:1. The first mention of the Prostitute is that she is “seated on many waters.” Revelation is noteworthy for what seems to be dream-like inconsistencies. So, in verse 17:1, the Prostitute is seated on waters, but in 17:3 she is seated on the Beast. Now, in 17:15, the waters are mentioned again. In this case, the waters are described as WHERE the Prostitute is seated. So, one could parse out the three verses, 17:1, 17:3, 17:15, as follows. The Prostitute is seated on the Beast. The location of the Beast and Prostitute is in, and on, many waters. So, in a sense, the Beast is also in the midst of these waters.
The angel (literally, “he”) explains that these waters are “peoples and multitudes and nations and languages.” I think, although at first glance this wording seems like “overkill,” it is a rich expression that describes the people of the world. The expression embraces people in their ethnicity (“peoples”), their associations (“multitudes”), their political identity (“nations”), and their language-groups (“languages,” literally, “tongues”).
The position of the Prostitute in relation to the people of the world is two-fold. She is sitting “on” them (verse 17:1), and she is sitting among them (“where [she] is seated,” verse 17:15). This ascribes to her dominance (see 17:18), but it also connects her spiritually with the people: their spiritual condition and her spiritual condition are identical.
Because verse 17:3 also states that the Prostitute is seated ON the Beast, we can infer the Beast has similar relationships to those we have inferred for the Prostitute. First, the woman is riding on the Beast, which implies dominance. This is going to change, but at the outset of the drama, that is the condition. The Beast, by implication, is on or in or among the people of the world. This implies potential dominance over the people as well as spiritual kinship with the people of the world.
Verse 17:15 seems to imply an equilibrium. However, it is a temporary equilibrium that will be disrupted in the action in verse 17:16. This disintegration of stability is a reflection of the spiritual condition of all of the parties involved. When the devil is involved, things become unraveled sooner or later.
VERSE 17:16: The narrative refers back to verse 17:12, which begins an explanation of the ten horns on the Beast. These represent 10 kings. The kings, within the timeline, await reception of “authority as kings.” In verse 17:16, it is evident that they have received that authority. Although verse 17:13 states that they will “hand over their power and authority to the [B]east,” in 17:16 they are the actors. There is a justifying of these two accounts, I believe, in 17:17, so that there is not a contradiction. Though the kings are at the disposal of the Beast, this does not prevent their being involved in events.
Note that both the kings, who are referred to as “horns,” and the Beast “hate the [Prostitute].” Remember that the Prostitute is rides the Beast (17:3), sits on the waters that represent the people of the world (17:1 and 17:15), and governs the kings of the earth (17:18). This reign is not the reign of a good shepherdess, but a reign of dominance and power that engenders rebellion. Combine this with the nature of godless humanity--a natural tendency to rebellion and instability--and it is no great wonder that the kings and the Beast turn on the Prostitute.
Their revolt is successful, for they destroy the Prostitute. The warfare of the kings and the Beast is fourfold. They will make her “desolate.” It is interesting that Jesus uses this word in His answer to the accusation that He cast out demons by the power of the prince of demons: “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste [same word that is translated “desolate” in Revelation 17:16], and no city or house divided against itself will stand.” (Matthew 12:25) So, the league of the Beast, the 10 kings, and the Prostitute was doomed to fall apart and to wind up a wasteland. This destruction of the Prostitute is only the beginning.
The second aspect of their revolt is to make her naked. Her pride is to be “arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls.” (17:4) Although people, in brazen disregard for dignity, may at times expose themselves and run around naked, they are not behaving as rational humans, who cover themselves. To be naked is to be utterly exposed and humiliated.
The third step in the revolt of the Beast and the 10 kings is to “devour her [the Prostitute’s] flesh.” It is likely that this expression means that they will steal her goods. Plundering accompanied ancient warfare. Not only did it enrich the conquerors, but also it undercut any hope of recovery by the ones who were conquered. So, the Prostitute is to experience utter devastation.
Finally, the 10 kings and the Beast will burn the Prostitute. This also is a standard procedure of ancient warfare. Very possibly, the Hebrews who read this would remember the destruction and burning of Jerusalem twice in history. In each case, the dominant empire of the time was responsible--Babylon in 586/587 BC and Rome in AD 70. Some believe that this burning of the Prostitute is, in fact, a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. (Hanegraaf, 233-235, also Russell) I do not believe that this is a correct understanding. However, certainly there are echoes of that event in this passage (and Revelation 18).
Thus, the rebellion of the Beast and the 10 kings will destroy the Prostitute. Whatever role she has played on the world stage and, especially, in regard to the people of God will be put to an end. She no longer will be a player.
VERSE 17:17: This verse explains that the overthrow of the Prostitute will be an act of God. We might reverse the order of the sentence:
- “Until the words of God are fulfilled”: The ultimate verdict is that God’s word will not fail. What particular words is this clause referring to? We could include the very words that we are reading--the Book of Revelation is “God-breathed” (II Timothy 3:16-17), and it is the consensus of the church that Revelation is included in the canon of Scripture. Possibly, also, there is a hidden word from God to set in motion events that will lead to the destruction of the Prostitute. This hidden word is implied by the entire thrust of the sentence.
- “[Handing] over their royal power to the beast”: This phrase gathers up the thoughts and ideas of previous verses. In verse 17:12, we learn that the 10 kings have not yet received “royal power.” This could be translated “not yet received a kingdom.” The verse goes on to say that they will receive “authority as kings.” This will be a very brief (“one hour”) endowment with power and authority, and it will be in association with the Beast. It is possible that their association with the Beast is instrumental in receiving this power. Verse 13 states that, having received their royal authority and power, they put themselves and that royal authority and power at the disposal of the Beast. Verse 17 reminds us that this is the situation. They are in league with the Beast, to do his bidding. And this is the purpose of God: by following the Beast, the 10 kings carry out the plan of God, which is to destroy the Prostitute.
- “[For] God has put it into their hearts to carry out His purpose by being of one mind”: The verse starts and ends with the will of God. God is opposed to the Beast. In a sense, God reacts to human attitudes, thoughts, and actions. So, in response to the unmixed evil in the heart of the Beast, God reacts in opposition to him. The Beast is an enemy of God and God’s people. He blasphemes God (13:6). He makes war on the saints (13:7). And so God opposes the Beast. But He also opposes the Prostitute, who encourages immorality (17:2, 4). She persecutes the saints (17:6). So, as is often the case, the alliance between two evil instigators leads to a struggle for dominance. The Beast, with his 10 co-conspirators, wins out and destroys the Prostitute. Unknown to them, God has used them to destroy a very evil entity. So, the will and work of God are carried out through the alliance of the 10 kings with the Beast. They follow his lead by developing a hatred for the Prostitute. Their leader then incites them to rebellion and the outcome is the utter destruction of the Prostitute. They believe that they have thrown off an unwanted yoke, but they have also furthered God’s purpose.
VERSE 17:18: The last verse serves as the end-bracket to two structures. First, it is the end-bracket of the paragraph (it is styled as a paragraph in ESV) that runs from verse 17:15 to verse 17:18. Second, it is the end bracket of the entire chapter. In each case, it echoes the verse that is the beginning-bracket of the structure. So, verse 17:15 focuses on something that “you saw.” And 17:18 focuses on something that “you saw.” In 17:15, it is the waters on which the Prostitute sits that were seen, and, in 17:18, it is the city that was seen. Verse 17:1 brings attention to the “judgment of the great prostitute.” Verse 17:18 uses the term “woman” rather than “prostitute.” The word for “prostitute” is feminine and refers to a female prostitute. In New Testament Greek, the masculine version of the same word refers, usually, to a man who is sexually immoral, but not specifically a prostitute; however, the feminine version generally refers to a female prostitute. So, the “woman” of 17:18 and the “prostitute” of 17:1 are parallel.
So, we have come to the end of the story. It begins with the promise of “judgment of the great prostitute who is seated on many waters.” (17:1) This prostitute has seduced the kings of the earth (17:2). She is wealthy and luxuriously arrayed (17:4). She has persecuted the saints (17:6). She rides the Beast, with his 10 horns (17:3). The 10 horns are 10 kings who are subordinate allies of the Beast (17:12-13). The Beast and the 10 kings rebel against the Prostitute and destroy her (17:16).
Finally, we are given one more hint of the identity of the Prostitute. She is “the great city that has dominion [or “a kingdom”] over the kings of the earth.” In John’s day, the city of Rome would certainly fit that description. There was a day when Babylon was such a city. If we continue to understand this book from a futurist standpoint, what city has replaced Rome? We do not see such a city, though certainly a case could be made for New York City. One commentator has made the case that the complex of cities in western Saudi Arabia serve as the 21st century Rome: “For now, the busy coast of the Red Sea and the great harlot city of Mecca would seem to fulfill the biblical descriptions of Mystery Babylon.” (Richardson, 254) Another commentator understands the “city” to be symbolic of all human civilization that has gone wrong without God. In two places he makes the point: “The ‘great city’ is every city and no city. It is civilized man in organized community.” (Morris, 150) Also, he says, referring to Revelation 17:18: “In John’s own day this [the city referred to in 17:18] stands for Rome. But in the end-times it is man in organized community…” (Morris, 213)
It is possible to “over-spiritualize” interpretations. Sort of like the old saying “everyone’s responsibility is no one’s responsibility,” to spiritualize or allegorize to the point that this “city” simply stands for civilization may be too general an interpretation. I think that we may posit that, in the end-times, there will be a particular city, but that city will be a manifestation of evil tendencies in godless civilization.
Hanegraaff, Hank. The Apocalypse Code. Nashville: Thomas Nelson,
Morris, Leon. The Revelation of St. John. Tyndale New Testament
Commentaries. R. V. G. Tasker, Gen. Ed. Grand Rapids: William
B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1980.
Richardson, Joel. Mystery Babylon. Unlocking the Bible’s Greatest
Prophetic Mystery. Washington, D.C.: WND Books, 2017.
Russell, J. S. A Critical Inquiry into the New Testament Doctrine of Our
Lord’s Second Coming. (Google Internet Book) London: Daldy,
Isbister, & Co., 1878.
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