Revelation 17: The Women and the Beast

Revelation 17  •  11 min. read  •  grade level: 12
We have learned from chapter 13 that during the reign of the beast—the head of the revived Roman Empire—all the evils of the times of the Gentiles will reach their terrible climax. Then we have learned, from chapters 14-16, that these evils will call down the judgments of God upon the kingdom of the beast and the worshippers of his image. This intervention of God will also reach its climax in the judgments symbolized by the pouring out of the seven vials which are definitely described as “the seven last plagues; for in them is filled up the wrath of God” (Rev. 15:11And I saw another sign in heaven, great and marvellous, seven angels having the seven last plagues; for in them is filled up the wrath of God. (Revelation 15:1)). These final judgments prepare the way for the personal return of Christ as foretold in chapter 19:11-18.
But before this great event is described, we are given, in chapters 17 and 18, further details of the overwhelming judgment that will overtake the false religious system that is set forth under the figures of a false woman, and the great city Babylon. Already in the course of these judgments we have had two brief allusions to the judgment of Babylon (Rev. 14:8, 16:19). But this corrupt system has loomed so largely in the history of the world that God has seen well to warn His people to be wholly apart from it by giving us, in these two chapters, further details as to its true character and its solemn end under the judgment of God.
Attention to the Word will make it plain that under the figure of Babylon we have a presentation of corrupt Christendom as set forth in Papal Rome. In verse 9 the vision is identified with the seven-hilled city of Rome. In verse 15 we have a system which has exercised almost universal sway over “peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues”: again, in verse 18 it is viewed as having reigned “over the kings of the earth.” Is it not manifest that only Papal Rome answers to this description?
This corrupt system that claims to be the church is, in reality, the devil's imitation. In these chapters, then, it is no longer the Antichrist that is before us, but the anti-church. We have a twofold view of this false church. In chapter 17 it is presented under the figure of a woman; in chapter 18 it is seen under the figure of a great city. The woman presents the Papacy in all its corruption, as seen by God, for the woman is presented as a harlot. The city sets forth the Papacy as seen by man in all its magnificence and luxury. A little later, in the Revelation, we shall see a wonderful vision of the true church, first as the Bride of Christ (Rev. 19) and then in relation to the world as a heavenly city (Rev. 21). Here we have the devil's imitation which, though claiming to be the church of Christ, is exposed as being a corrupt harlot and a worldly city.
Viewing this false system as presented in chapter 17, we notice that in the first division, verses 1-6, we have the vision seen by John. In the second division, verses 7-18, we have the angel's interpretation of the vision.
John is told that he will be shown the judgment of this false system which is described not only by the figure of a woman, but a corrupt and licentious woman, thus setting forth in figure that this false system would rob men of all true allegiance to Christ. Her widespread influence is expressed by the statement that she “sitteth upon many waters.” Her evil influence upon the leaders that govern in Christendom is set forth under the figure of unholy intercourse with “the kings of the earth.”
To see this vision John is carried away in spirit “into the wilderness.” This corrupt system creates but a wilderness in which there is nothing for God or man. In the midst of this wilderness, John sees the vision of a woman sitting upon a scarlet colored beast with seven heads and ten horns.
Let us remember that the vision, while expressing the evil of the Papacy throughout the ages, presents its last phase when it will be publicly associated with the beast, or revived Roman Empire. The woman sitting upon the beast suggests that for a brief time the Papacy, in its last phase, will rule the empire and have its support. The revived Roman Empire, with its confederacy of kings, in seeking to overthrow all fear of God and establish the worship of the image of the beast, will apparently find in the corrupt Papacy a ready instrument to attain these evil ends, for this evil system is, and always has been, itself, marked by the grossest idolatry. This idolatry is symbolized by the golden cup in the hand of the woman full of abominations. Here, as so often in the Old Testament, abominations speak of idolatry. The “golden cup” may give a fair appearance before men, but the contents of the cup are an abomination in the sight of God. Is it not clear, then, that in the near future the Papacy will publicly identify itself with the political power in seeking to lead men to abandon the true God, and give themselves up to idolatry? The religious power and the political powers will unite in leading the world back into the grossest heathenism. The dog will return to his vomit again, and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire. Such will be the terrible end of corrupt professing Christendom.
The terrible character of the Papacy is further set forth by the name that John sees written on the forehead of the woman. The first word “Mystery,” as used in Scripture, does not suggest something mysterious, but, as it has been said, it “points to something undiscoverable by the natural mind of man, a secret that requires the distinct and fresh light of God to unravel.” Apart from this revelation, John would never have imagined that in Christendom there would develop a great system that professes the name of Christ, and claims to be the church, and yet becomes so utterly corrupt that it is described as “Babylon the great, the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth.” Of old the literal Babylon, though for a time the greatest city on earth, was the center and source of idolatry and corruption. In a spiritual sense the Papacy becomes “Babylon the great,” for, like the Babylon of old, it is the center of corruption, luxury, and the glory of this world, and, again, as “the mother of harlots” it becomes the spring and mainstay of all the idolatrous abominations of the earth. Does this not indicate that all the corruptions of Christendom have their origin in the Papal system; and may we not infer that after the church is caught away, all that is left on earth that makes any profession of Christianity will be expressed by “Babylon the great, the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth” and will come under judgment as such?
Further, in the vision, John sees that the woman was “drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.” Not only has the Papacy been a source of idolatry and corruption but, throughout the ages, it has opposed and persecuted the true people of God. Pagan Rome, in its day, persecuted God's people, but such persecutions were small compared with the millions of “the martyrs of Jesus” that, under the Papacy, have been hounded to death in wholesale massacres, by the horrors of the rack and the fires of the stake.
That Christians should have been persecuted by Pagans would have been no surprise to the apostle, but to learn that a time was coming when the professing church would become the center of idolatry and the bitter persecutor of the saints, naturally led him to wonder “with great wonder.”
To meet the wonder of the apostle, the angel reveals the mystery of this terrible association of corrupt Christendom with the corrupt government of the world. First, from verses 8-14, the angel gives us the history of the beast, or Roman Empire. This empire is described as having once existed, then for a time ceasing to exist, but as about to be revived in the most terrible form as ascending “out of the bottomless pit,” and thus energized by Satan, but finally to meet with overwhelming destruction. We know that the once powerful Roman Empire has for centuries ceased to exist as a world-wide power. Here we learn that, to the wonder of those who dwell on the earth, and have no part in the book of life, it will for a short period be revived. We know that the powers that be are ordained of God; but the time is coming when, during this revival of the Roman Empire, the governmental powers will cease to be ordained of God, and for a short period will be directed by Satan from the bottomless pit; as one has said, “For a short time Satan will bring forth an empire suited to his own purposes, as it springs from Satanic principles which deny God.”
We are then told that the symbols of the seven heads have a double meaning. They set forth the seven mountains, which are more especially connected with the woman, and would surely set forth the well-known fact that the Papacy has its seat in the seven-hilled city of Rome. Further, the seven horns represent seven kings, or forms of government by which Rome at different periods has been ruled. In the apostle's day five forms of government had already passed away, and the sixth, or imperial form of government, was then in power. This, too, has for centuries ceased to exist. But in the future the empire will be revived under a seventh form of government distinguished again by imperialism, but associated, as the apostle learns, with a confederacy of ten kings. Moreover, the head of the revived empire will be of the seven inasmuch as it has an imperial character, and yet, in a sense will be an eighth, seeing that it will spring from a directly diabolical source.
The ten horns, we are told, represent ten kings who will reign concurrently with the beast. They will unite in giving power and authority to the beast. Does not the prophecy clearly indicate that in the future Europe will seek “peace and safety” by forming itself into a confederation of ten kingdoms under the central authority of the head of the Roman Empire, who will be directly led by the power of Satan?
This confederacy will lead the Western powers into the complete apostasy of Christendom, for these ten kings, or the kingdoms they represent, while seeking to keep peace with one another, will unite in making war with the Lamb. This, indeed, will involve their destruction, for the Lamb that they dare to oppose, “is Lord of lords, and King of kings,” the One who will overcome all rebellion. The saints, that under the reign of the beast have been persecuted, will be associated with Christ in His judgment of this satanic confederation, for they are “called, and chosen, and faithful.”
Having foretold the character and doom of the revived Roman Empire, the angel now reverts to the Papacy to let us know the destruction of this false system. We are first told that the vision of the woman sitting upon the many waters sets forth the world-wide influence of the Papacy over “peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues.” Then we learn that the time is coming when the confederated nations will turn upon this false system, as one has said, “Unhallowed love will end in hatred.” They will strip her of all power, treat her with shameful exposure, and seize upon her resources, and thus bring about her destruction.
Further, we learn that in the destruction of this fearful system, the nations will unwittingly be carrying out the will of God, though their object may be to give the supreme ruling power to the beast. But God is over all, whether it be in the destruction of the false woman or ending the reign of the beast. These evil powers can only last “until the words of God shall be fulfilled.”
The woman that at last will be destroyed by the ten kingdoms is that great imposing system that, under the figure of a great city, is represented as having reigned over the kings of the earth, and, as one has said, has been “The seat of anxious and tortuous ambition, of crimes and deceit of every kind, haughty power over others, and worldly luxury and evil.”