Revelation 17

Revelation 17  •  29 min. read  •  grade level: 9
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Revelation 17 explains how it was that Babylon was so offensive to God, and wherefore He judged her thus sternly. But, in point of fact, in giving the description of Babylon, the Holy Spirit enters even more into an account of her relations with the beast, the imperial power of which we saw not a little last night. Accordingly these are the two main objects of judgment brought before us in the chapter. It is true, the beast’s judgment is only referred to as a defeat under the hand of the Lamb. The particulars are reserved for a later point in this prophecy. We must therefore look a little into the two objects—Babylon and the beast in one or other of these two ways, looking now at sin in its broadest forms. The woman—the strange woman—sets forth corruption, human nature indulging itself in its own evil desires, irrespective of God’s will. The beast is the expression of the will of man setting itself up in direct antagonism to God. In short, one may be described as corruption, and the other as violence.
There is, however, a great deal more than this on the subject, and given with great precision in scripture, because this is merely the principle of sin in one or other form from the beginning. It will be observed that in this case it is one of the angels that had the seven bowls who comes forward and says to John, “Come hither; I will show unto thee the judgment of the great whore (or harlot) that sitteth upon [the] many waters.” There were two particular effects of her evil: the one, illicit commerce with the kings of the earth; the other, intoxicating the inhabitants of the earth with the wine of her fornication.
“So he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness”—a thorough waste as to the knowledge or enjoyment of God. The woman was there seen sitting on a scarlet-colored beast, that is, the well-known imperial power of the Roman Empire—“full of [the] names of blasphemy” in its wicked opposition to God, and clothed with the forms we have already seen—“seven heads and ten horns.” The Spirit of God regards it in its final shape and completeness, as far as it was permitted to attain it. “The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet color, and decked with gold and precious stone and pearls.” Everything that could attract the natural man was there; and all that which to him looks fair enough on the side of religion. But she has a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication. Idolatry is the awful stamp that she bears, and this too both in what she gives to man, and in what is written on her forehead before God. “Upon her forehead was a name written, Mystery, Babylon the great, the mother of the harlots and of the abominations of the earth.”
Men have been beguiled here and there, and from an early date, to set aside the true bearing of this chapter. Sometimes they have contended for its application to pagan Rome. Sometimes, again, they have sought to turn it aside toward Jerusalem in her corrupt state. But a grave consideration soon disposes of both views by the relation to the beast, and more particularly by what will be shown a little farther on. The application to old pagan Rome is harsh and purposeless enough; but the attempt to refer it to Jerusalem is of all schemes the most absurd; for, far from being borne up by the imperial power, Jerusalem was trodden down by it. If there was any Gentile power since John’s day, which did not sustain but persecute and suppress Jerusalem, it was Rome, instead of being a gaudy harlot mounted on that vast empire.
At the same time the attempt to apply Babylon to ancient Rome is almost as unhappy; and for a plain reason. As long as Rome was pagan, there was neither the full bearing of the seven heads, nor did so much as one of the ten horns exist. The decem-regal division of the broken empire in the West, as all know, was long after Rome had ceased to be heathen. Nobody can dispute that this remarkable cluster of kingdoms in Europe was the fruit providentially of the destroyed unity of the Roman empire when the barbarians invaded it. With that love of freedom which they carried from their German forests, they would not allow the one iron rule of the ancient empire to subsist longer, but set up each their own kingdom in the different fragments of the dismembered empire. Thus the attempt to apply it during the pagan period is altogether futile on the face of the matter. We shall find that the scripture affords much light to decide the true bearing of the prophecy, and that no application to the past can possibly satisfy the conditions satisfactorily. If ancient times failed fully to meet the requirements of the chapter, it is evident that the middle ages are passed without its fulfillment as a whole. When we come to the full application of the prophecy, we must look onward to the latter day.
This falls in with what we have seen of the book in general; but I do not deny that certain elements which figure in the Apocalypse then existed and still exist. No one can soberly deny that Babylon in some sort had a place then; but that the special, and above all, the full character of Babylon was manifested as here portrayed is another matter. We may surely say her cup was not yet full. There was not yet fairly out before men what God foresaw as that which must finally provoke His judgment. Again, to my mind it seems demonstrably true that the relation to the beast here brought before us must in all fairness be allowed to look onward to a later stage of Babylon. Thus there is no question that some of the actors in the final scenes of the great drama were already there, as the reigning city, and the Roman empire. Moral elements too were not wanting: the mystery of lawlessness had long been at work, though the enemy had not yet brought in the apostasy, and still less the manifestation of the lawless one. But whatever subsisted then, that which the Spirit here presents as a whole cannot be found realized at any point of time in the past. We must perforce therefore look for a still more complete development before the Lamb judges the beast after the ten horns along with it shall have destroyed Babylon.
There is another remark to make. It is hard to see how Roman city, or anything civil connected with it, could be called “mystery.” It is partly because of this that many excellent men have endeavored to apply the vision to Romanism; and I admit that there is found a measure of analogy. That religious system has an incomparably nearer connection with this mysterious harlot than anything we have yet spoken of. There is no doubt that Rome in some form is the woman described in the chapter: the seven heads or hills clearly point to that city, which of all cities might best and indeed alone be known as ruling over the kings of the earth. There is therefore much to be said for the Protestant application of the chapter as compared with the Praeterist theory of pagan Rome. Yet it will be found imperfect, for reasons which, I think, will be clear to any unbiased mind.
There stands the solemn brand graven, not on the blasphemous beast, but on the forehead of its rider, “Mystery, Babylon the great.” The question is, why is she thus designated? If only an imperial city, what has this to do with mystery? The simple fact of conquering far and wide, and of exercising vast political power in the earth, does not constitute any title to such a name. A mystery clearly points to something undiscoverable by the natural mind of man—a secret that requires the distinct and fresh light of God to unravel, but which when revealed thus is plain enough. And so it is with this very Babylon that comes before us here. Justly does she gather her title from the old fountain of idols and of combined power without God: confusion being here the characteristic element, the designation is taken from the renowned city of the Chaldeans, the first spot notorious in both respects.
But the attempt, again, to apply what is said here to a future city of Babylon in Chaldea seems to me no less vain. There is a distinct contrast between the city John describes and the ancient Babylon, in that the latter was built on the plain of Shinar, while the former is expressly said to have seven heads, and these explained to mean seven mountains. I admit that there may be something more in the symbol than the literal hills of Rome, because they are said to be also seven kings. At the same time we are not at liberty to eliminate such a feature out of the description. It is written to be believed, not to be ignored or explained away.
In short, it would seem that God has hedged round His own draft of Babylon so as to make it quite plain that Rome, city and system, figures in the scene; and this too necessarily involving a mediaeval description, though the full result will not be until the end of the age; for she rides the beast or empire characterized so as naturally to involve the past barbarian irruption and the resulting ten-kingdomed state. Again, that it supposes Rome after it had professed the name of Christ I think is not to be doubted, if only from the expression “mystery” attached to Babylon. It clearly contrasts this mystery with another. We have not to learn what the other mystery means; we know well that it is according to God and godliness. But here is a mystery altogether different: “Mystery, Babylon the great, the mother of the harlots and of the abominations of the earth.”
Here were joined good and evil in godless union, for the worse, not for the better—this alliance, unholy in principle, irremediable therefore in practice, between God and the natural man, who substitutes rites for the grace and word of God, for the blood of Christ, and the power of the Spirit, and employs the name of the Lord as a cover for grosser covetousness and ambition, yet more aspiring than the vulgar world. All these things have their place in Babylon the great. She is the mother of the harlots, but also (and with still deeper guilt) of the abominations of the earth. This brings in idolatry, real shameless idolatry too, not merely that subtle working of the idolatrous spirit that every Christian has to guard against. Here it is the positive worship of the creature besides the Creator, yea, and notoriously more than He. For who knows not the horrors of Mariolatry? Babylon is the parent of the “abominations of the earth.” It is not therefore a question of virtual idols suitable to ensnare the children of God, but of that which is adapted to the earth itself—thorough-going palpable idolatry.
Such is God’s account of Babylon the great. Take notice of this (which confirms the application just now contended for), that when John saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus, he wondered with great wonder. Had it been simply a persecution from pagans, what was there to wonder at in their deadly hatred of the truth and of those who confess it? That an openly heathen metropolis, devoted to the worship of Mars, and Jupiter, and Venus, and other wicked monstrosities of pagan mythology should be irritated with the gospel which exposes it all, and should consequently seek to injure the faithful, was to be expected, and a necessary result, directly that the uncompromising spirit of Christ was known. Had those who preached said nothing about heathen vanities, had they merely presented the gospel as a better thing than anything the pagans could boast, I do not doubt that the pagans themselves would have acknowledged thus much. And it is pretty well ascertained that there was a discussion among them, even to the suggestion by one of the most wicked of their emperors, whether Christ should not be owned and worshipped in the Pantheon, hundreds of years before Constantine, indeed from the earliest epoch of the gospel. But there never was the thought of giving Christ the only place He could take. For Christ has not only a supreme but an exclusive place. Now there was nothing more repulsive and fatal to paganism in every form than the truth revealed in Christ, which exposed everything that was not itself—not the truth, definite and exclusive. Consequently Christianity, as being directly aggressive on the falsehood of heathenism, was of all things the most offensive to Rome. That pagan Rome, therefore, should set itself against Christianity was to be expected, and so the fact proved.
But it was no such evil which astounded the prophet. He was filled with astonishment that this mysterious form of evil, this counter-testimony of the enemy (not antichrist, but antichurch), should seem and be largely accepted as the holy catholic church of God, that Christendom, if not Christianity, should at the same time become the bitterest of persecutors, more murderously incensed against the witnesses of Jesus and the saints of God than ever paganism had been in any country or all ages. This very naturally filled him with intense wonder.
“And the angel said unto him, Wherefore didst thou wonder? I will tell thee the mystery of the woman.” Had he really penetrated under the surface, and seen that beneath the fair guise of Christendom the woman was, of all things under the sun, the most corrupt and hateful to God, it would not be so much to be surprised at. Therefore says the angel, “I will tell thee the mystery of the woman, and of the beast that carrieth her, that hath the seven heads and the ten horns. The beast that thou sawest was, and is not; and shall ascend out of the bottomless pit, and go into perdition: and they that dwell on the earth shall wonder, whose names were not written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, beholding the beast that he was, and is not, and shall be present.” The closing phrase here is the description of the beast in its last state, in which it will come into collision with Babylon. Let us bear this in mind. It will help to show us that, whatever may have been the past conditions of Babylon, there is a future one; and it is in that future one that Babylon is to perish. For remark, the beast or Roman empire is described here as that which once existed, which then ceased to exist, and which assumes a final shape when it reappears from the bottomless pit. Bad as pagan Rome was, it would be false to affirm that it ever had come out of the bottomless pit. When the Apostle Paul wrote to the saints at Rome, he particularly specified at that very time the duty of absolute subjection on the part of Christians to the powers which then were. Of course the application to the Roman empire would be immediately in the mind of any Christian at Rome. There was no doubt at all of the character of the emperor; there never had been a worse than he; yet God took that very opportunity to lay this on the Christians as their duty to the worldly authority outside and over them. It was ruled in general that the worldly powers were ordained of God. But this is not to emerge from the bottomless pit.
But there is a time coming when power will cease to be ordained of God; and this is the point to which the last condition of the beast refers. God in His providence did sanction the great empires of old; and the principle continues as long as the church is here below. Hence we have to own the divine source of government even when its holders abandon all such thoughts themselves, and maintain their rule in the world as a thing flowing from the people irrespective of God. But the day is coming when Satan will be allowed to have things his own way. For a short time (what a mercy that it must be only for a short time) Satan will bring forth an empire suited to his purposes, as it springs from Satanic principles which deny God; and this is part of what appears to be meant by the beast ascending out of the bottomless pit. It “shall go into perdition,” it is therefore added, “and they that dwell on the earth shall wonder, whose names are not written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, when they behold the beast that was, and is not, and shall be present.” “Yet is” is a most unfortunate expression. It is the fault, however, of the bad Greek text of Erasmus, Stephens, and so forth. It should be, “and shall be present.” There is no thought of making such a paradox to perplex the mind. The true reading here is neither hard nor doubtful except to unbelief. There is no paradox in the message whatever. It is all plain and simple—“the beast that was, and is not, and shall be present.”
But all this will be a great reversal of man’s history and political maxims. There never has been a like experience. What empire has existed, then sunk, and finally reappeared, with higher pretensions and power, only to perish horribly? It is altogether foreign to history. One of the most approved axioms is, that kingdoms are just like men in this respect, that they begin, rise, and fall. As man does not believe in the resurrection of man, it is no wonder that he does not believe in the resurrection of an empire. The chief difference is that in man’s case it is God who raises him, whereas in the empire’s not God but the devil will raise it again. Beyond controversy, however, it is a most unusual and abnormal reappearance, which is altogether exceptional in the history of the world. Accordingly the resuscitated Roman empire will carry men away by a storm of wonder at its revival. Little do they know, because they believe not what is here written, that it is about to come out of the abyss or bottomless pit. That is, Satan will be the spring of its final rise and power; he, and not God in any way whatever, will give it its character.
“And here is the mind which hath wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth. And there (or they) are seven kings.” I have already touched on the double force of the symbol—mountains. “Five are fallen, one is, the other hath not yet come.” That is, the sixth head (reigning then in John’s day) was the imperial form of government. Nothing of the sort can be plainer. We have here a note of time of signal value. A seventh should follow; and what is more, the seventh was in one aspect to be an eighth. “And the beast that was, and is not, even he is an eighth, and is of the seven, and goeth unto destruction.” In one sense it would be an eighth, and in another sense it would be of the seven; the eighth perhaps because of its extraordinary resurrection character, yet one of the seven because it is outwardly old imperialism again. This explains, it seems to me, the wounded head that was afterward healed. It is of the seven in that point of view, because it is imperialism; but it is an eighth, because it has a diabolical source when raised up again. In this way there never has been anything of the kind before.
“And the ten horns which thou sawest are ten kings, which have not yet received a kingdom; but they receive authority as kings (not at but for) one hour with the beast.” They are all to reign concurrently with the beast. This also is a no less important element for understanding the chapter. All who have looked back on the history know, that when the ten kings appeared, there was no beast or imperial power. It was the destruction of the imperial unity of Rome that gave occasion for the well-known ten kingdoms which the barbarians set up afterward. I am not raising any question about the ten. We know that sometimes there were nine, sometimes eleven or more; but supposing this all perfectly certain, I affirm that, according to history, they did not receive their power as kings for one and the same time with the beast. This is the meaning of “one hour with the beast.”
The very reverse is the undeniable fact. They received their power as kings when the beast ceased to exist. Thus the difference is complete between past history (if we look at the extinction of the empire and the rise of the ten kingdoms) and the certain fulfillment of the prophecy in the future, when we look at what God has really told us. I do not acknowledge the language to be either difficult or ambiguous. Man alone is to blame who has misapplied it. Yet one allows freely a partial application already. We can quite understand that God would comfort His people in the dark ages by this book; and a very imperfect glimpse at its real meaning might in His grace serve to cheer them on in their trials as far as it went. From Rome saints had suffered; and it was easy to see that the revealed persecutress is called Babylon, and identified with the governing city of Rome. So far they were right. Nor is there any real reason to wonder at their deriving help from partial light. It was but an imperfect view they got even of justification; a far scantier perception, if they could be said to have had any, about Christ’s Headship of the church, His priesthood, or almost anything else. And thus it was but a little glimpse they had of prophecy. But we can understand that the Lord could and did make that little go far, and do no little good.
But is there any reason why we should content ourselves with the measure enjoyed of old? Such is the hard bondage which mere historical tradition imposes on its votaries. Holding on to what others knew before them, or little more, they reduce themselves to a minimum of the truth. When God is so gracious, His word rich, full, and deep, it does seem sad to see His children content with just enough to save their souls, or keep them from positive starvation. In presence of grace I do not think this is for His glory, any more than for their own blessing. The only right principle in everything is to go to the source of divine truth, and to seek there refreshment and strength and fitness for whatever our God calls us to. And unquestionably God has been awakening the attention of His people in a remarkable manner to the value of His word, and not least of all to the portion we are now examining.
It is plain that what the verse contemplates is neither the Roman power when there was one head of the empire, nor the eastern or Byzantine part of it after that partition, nor the western state of division under the kings who succeeded the deposition of Augustulus; for in the medieval state there may have been ten kings (in contrast with the ancient state of the beast without them), but no beast or imperial system with its chiefs. This is what drove men to the idea of making the pope to be the beast. But that idea is wholly insufficient to cover or meet the word of God, which gives clear and strong reasons that prove the mistake of applying this to the pope as its complete fulfillment. For that which comes distinctly before us in this one verse is the twofold fact, that the ten horns here contemplated receive their kingly power for the same hour or time as the beast, and not subsequently, when his rule was extinguished. He gets his power and they get theirs for one and the same time.
This disposes of many a web of comments; for we find at once what is perfectly simple, what any child of God who believes this to be the word of God must own. Bringing in history here embroiled the subject; and those who appeal most to its evidence are the very men who seem in this to ignore its facts. But the most ordinary knowledge suffices; for who does not know from the Bible that there was a Roman empire when Christ was born, one emperor, and no such state as that empire divided into ten kingdoms? We find a decree going forth that all the world shall be enrolled. Of course there must needs be a consultation with the kings, when the kings exist and become an accredited part of that empire, as rulers subordinate to the beast. But no; it was an absolute decree that went forth, and this indisputably, from a single head of the undivided empire. Centuries after came in, not only the division into east and west, but the broken up state of the west, when there ceased to be an imperial chief. But the prophecy shows us the beast revived and the separate kings reigning for the same time, before divine judgment destroys them at the coming of Christ and His saints. Hence this certainly must be future.
How this precisely fits in, let me say, with the state of feeling in these modern times; for “constitutionalism,” as men call it, is the fruit of the Teutonic system supervening on that of the broken up Roman empire. It was the barbarians who brought in the prevalent ideas of liberty as well as feudalism, and accordingly it is they that have firmly stood for freedom; so that all the efforts to reconstitute the empire which have been tried over and over again have hitherto issued in total failure. The reason is manifest: there is a hinderer — “one that letteth.” It cannot be done until the moment comes. When its own season arrives, as it surely will, the divine hindrance is to be removed, and the devil then is allowed to do his worst. The political side of this is described here with surprising brightness and brevity. The ten horns with the beast are all to receive authority—the beast of course wielding the imperial power, they as kings, all during one and the same time before the end comes. Clearly, therefore, it is future.
It is impossible to refer it to the past with any show even of reasonable probability, I will not say of reality or truth. Scripture and facts refute all such theories.
“They have one mind, and give their own power and authority to the beast.” Hitherto the reverse of this has been true in history. The horns have constantly opposed each other, and even sometimes the pope. Since then the world has not seen the imperial power to which all bow. Have we not all heard of the balance of power? This is what nations have been constantly occupied with, lest any one power should become the beast. If some few have joined on one side, some are sure to help the other, because they are jealous of any one acquiring such a preponderant authority and power as to govern the rest. But in the time really contemplated here all this political shuffling will be over. “These have one mind, and give their own power and authority to the beast,” or their imperial leader. “These shall make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them (for He is Lord of lords and King of kings), and they that are with Him, called, and chosen, and faithful.”
But still we have not the end of Babylon yet. Her part in the corruption of the high and the intoxication of the low—her idolatrous character—has come before us. We have seen her connection with the beast; but there is a conflict coming. The woman was allowed to ride the beast—to influence and govern the empire first, but at last to be the object of hatred to the ten horns and the beast, who expose, rob, and destroy her. “And he saith to me, The waters which thou sawest, where the harlot sitteth, are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues.” Such was her influence stretching out far beyond the beast.
The Gothic hordes were not yet incorporated with the empire, still less were they horns of the beast, nor did they give their power to it, but destroyed it rather. They broke up the beast yet more than Babylon. Past history therefore in no way suits the prophecy. “And the ten horns which thou sawest upon the beast.” Here I am obliged to say that our authorized version, and not merely it, but our common Greek Testaments, are altogether wrong. This is known so well, and on such decided grounds, that it would be unbecoming to withhold the fact. There is no uncertainty whatever in the case. It is certain that we ought to read (not “upon” but) “and the beast.” This is of great importance. The horns and the beast join in hating the whore. Not only are they supposed to be coexistent, but united in their change of feeling against Babylon. The friendships of the evil are not lasting. “These shall hate the whore, and shall make her desolate and naked, and shall eat her flesh, and burn her with fire.” It is not the gospel, nor the Holy Spirit, but the lawless revived Latin empire with its vassal kingdoms of the west, that combine and destroy Babylon. Unhallowed love will end in hatred. They will then treat her with contempt and shameful exposure. Next they will seize her resources. Finally they will destroy her. Can anything be less reasonable (even taking that ground, low as it is) than that the various rulers of the western powers, Catholic kings, join the Pope in destroying his own city, or his own church, whichever Babylon may be made? Some evade the difficulty by referring the desolation to the Gothic powers; and these Protestants, as if they were mere Praeterists. What confusion! Is not this reason enough for saying that not even the shadow of solid ground appears for the system?
Hence the effort of some to prop up a manifestly false reading. It is due to the exigency of a notion which fears and is irreconcilable with the truth in this place. “The ten horns which thou sawest AND the beast” would give unquestionably the right form of the verse.
Thus everything implies their simultaneous presence for the same time and common action with the beast, in plundering and then destroying Babylon. God uses them for this object, the setting aside of her, the great religious corruptress, whose center is found at Rome. We can easily understand that the overthrow of the ecclesiastical power is necessary to leave a full field unimpeded for the imperial power to develop itself in its final form of violence and rebellion and apostasy against the Lord. Yet religion, be it ever so corrupt, acts as a restraint on human will, as a government does, however evil. Even the worst of governments is better than none. That a corrupt religion is better than none I will not say: at any rate it troubles men; it is a thorn in the side of those who want no religion at all. Hence the horns and the beast join together and desolate the harlot. That kings had dallied with her, that the beast had once borne her up, will only turn to gall the more bitter to her, who, faithless to God, had staked the usurped and abused name of Christ to win what was now lost forever. “For God put [it] into their hearts to do his mind, and to do one mind, and to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God shall be fulfilled.” It is a time of strong delusion, be it remembered.
“And the woman whom thou sawest is the great city, that hath kingship over the kings of the earth.” None but Rome corresponds. “The woman” is the more general symbol designating her as the great imperial city; “the harlot” is her corrupt religious character, embracing papal Rome, but not ending with Popery as it is.