Revelation 17 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

Revelation 17
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

This chapter and the following give the more minute account of great Babylon. We have had mention of her before in general terms (Revelation 14:8; Revelation 16:9) as the metropolis of the wild beast’s empire, the great city hostile to Jerusalem, the city of the saints. The Evangelist is now told more particularly her character, crimes, power, and position. She is seen clothed in splendour, intoxicated with her own power and cruelty, supported by the wild beast, and hostile to the cause of the righteous King; but doomed to fall amidst the wonder of the world and the rejoicing of the saints (Revelation 18:17-21).

And there came one of the seven angels which had the seven vials, and talked with me, saying unto me, Come hither; I will shew unto thee the judgment of the great whore that sitteth upon many waters:
(1) And there came . . .—One of the vial-bearing angels summons the seer, saying, Hither I will show thee the judgment of the great harlot that sitteth upon many waters (or, the many waters—comp. Revelation 17:15). The kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and they who inhabit the earth were made drunken (lost their reason and self-control) from the wine, the delicious and delirious draught of her fornication. Before we go further, it is well to make sure of our ground. Babylon was the great city, whose splendour dazzled, and whose power destroyed Jerusalem (Isaiah 39:1-8; Isaiah 13:19; Isaiah 14:4; Isaiah 14:13-14; Isaiah 47:5-8). Against Babylon the voices of the prophets were lifted up (Isaiah 21:9; Jeremiah 51:25); she seemed to them the embodiment of splendid vice and resistless power; “the glory of kingdoms,” “the golden city,” “who exalted her throne above the stars of God,” “who sat as a lady given to pleasures, and flattering herself that she would see no sorrow.” In her greatness and her hostility to Jerusalem she became a type of later world-powers; and, in St. John’s vision, Babylon, in her purple and her pomp, in her luxurious ness and her tyranny, takes her place. And it is explained in the vision that Babylon is no longer the literal Babylon, but the power which has taken her place of pride and empire. That power was Rome. Rome was in St. John’s day just what Babylon had been in the days of the prophets—“the hammer of the whole earth,” the “golden cup that made all the earth drunken” (Jeremiah 50:23; Jeremiah 51:7; comp. Revelation 17:2 of this chapter). At the same time, the way in which the Evangelist transfers to the Rome of his day the prophetic language which earlier prophets applied to ancient Babylon (compare these chapters, Revelation 17, 18, with Isaiah 47, Jeremiah 51:6-14) ought to be sufficient to warn us against limited and local interpretations, even if the seven-headed wild beast did not show us that the world-power, like the moral principles of which Babylon and Rome were examples, is not confined to one age. If we remember this, we shall see that the Babylon of the Apocalypse, while, undoubtedly, Pagan Rome, cannot be limited to it. Is it, then, the question must be asked, Papal Rome? The answer is: In so far as Papal Rome has wielded tyrant power, turned persecutor, stood between the spirits of men and Christ, depraved men’s consciences, withheld the truth, connived at viciousness, sought aggrandisement, and been a political engine rather than a witness for the righteous King, she has inherited the features of Babylon. The recognition of these features led Dante to apply this very passage in the Apocalypse to Rome under the rule of worldly and tyrant popes, when he exclaimed to the shade of Nicholas III. (Il compiuto):

“Of shepherds like to you the Evangelist

Was ware, when her who sits upon the waves

With kings in filthy whoredom he beheld:

She who with seven heads tower’d at her birth,

And from ten horns her proof of glory drew

Long as her spouse in virtue took delight.

Of gold and silver ye have made your god,

Differing wherein from the idolater,

But that he worships one, a hundred ye!”

—Inferno, Cant, xix., 109-117.

With whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication.
So he carried me away in the spirit into the wilderness: and I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns.
(3) So he carried. . . .—Better, And he carried me away into a wilderness in spirit: and I saw a woman sitting upon a wild beast of scarlet colour, teeming with names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. We recognise the wild beast as that described in Revelation 13. Now the wild beast carries the woman; for she draws her support from the great world-power. The scene is the wilderness. The contrast between the desolation around her and the splendour of her appearance is striking and suggestive. The woman clothed with the sun (Revelation 12:1), persecuted by the dragon, finds a home in the wilderness into which she is driven. She is persecuted, but not forsaken; she can joy in tribulation. The scarlet-clad woman, amid all her dazzling surroundings, is still in a wilderness. The runagates continue in scarceness. Sansjoy is the brother of Sansloy. The wild beast is scarlet in colour. The dragon was red (Revelation 12:3); the woman is clothed in scarlet. Is it the emblem of lawlessness ending in violence? (Comp. Isaiah 1:18). It has also a show of sovereignty.

Full of names.Teeming with names, &c.—The living creatures (Revelation 4:8) teemed (the same word as here) with eyes, the tokens of ready obedience and true intelligence. The wild beast teems with tokens of lawlessness and self-sufficiency.

And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication:
(4) And the woman was arrayed . . .—Better, arrayed (or, clad) in purple (the colour of the robe which was in mockery put on our Lord—John 19:2) and scarlet, gilded (not “decked”) with gold, &c. Her appearance is one of imperial splendour. (Comp. the description of Tyre in Ezekiel 28:13.)

Having a golden cup in her hand . . .—Translate, Having a golden cup in her hand teeming with abominations and with the unclean things of the fornication of the earth. Jeremiah (Jeremiah 51:7) called Babylon a “golden cup in the hand of the Lord.” The cup had made all the earth drunken; the cup of intoxication, splendid and attractive, was full of an evil power, which robbed men’s senses and degraded them. The great city of the world ever holds out such a glittering cup, which

“Most do taste through fond intemperate desire.

Soon as the potion works, their human countenance,

Th’ express resemblance of the gods, is changed

Into some brutish form. . . . . . .

—Comus, 68-77.

(5) And upon her forehead . . .—It was usual with harlots to wear their name on the forehead; but the name here is more than a name. Like the name impressed upon the foreheads of the saints, it is “the expression of her nature”—


The word “mystery” is, perhaps, part of the name; it is, at any rate, a prefix which tells us that the name is not literal, but symbolical. Something lies behind, which will be made manifest in due time. (Comp. 2 Thessalonians 2:7.) She is mother of harlots. Others, in smaller spheres, will follow her example; but she is the origin and type of all.

(6) And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints.—It is said later (Revelation 18:24) that in her was found the blood of prophets, and saints, and of all that have been slain upon the earth. The cruel spirit of persecution marked old Pagan Rome. She was drunk with their blood. It is not literally true that “all the blood shed on the earth” would be found in Rome, either Pagan or Papal; but it is spiritually true. Just as all the blood from righteous Abel to Zacharias was required of Jerusalem, so also of Babylon; for the spirit is the same spirit of hatred of holiness and love of worldliness. To slay one is to slay all, as to be guilty in one point of the Law is to be guilty of all; for it is not to mere acts, but also to the spirit and drift of men’s conduct, that the Scriptures look. It is the Babylon spirit, whether dominant in Rome or in London, that kills the good. Wherever the spirit of worldliness (in its widest sense) is to be found, there is the spirit at enmity with God and good, and there is the Babylon which has slain the saints.

And when I saw her, I wondered . . .—Rather, And I wondered when I saw her with great wonder (not “admiration” in our modern sense). Why did St. John wonder? Was it at the splendour or the blasphemous names? Hardly these; for he was familiar with the former in descriptions of Babylon given by the prophets, and with the latter from his own vision in Revelation 13. The wonder probably rose from the strange alliance of the woman with the wild beast. It was not wonderful to see the vision of a wild beast or monster dealing out death and slaughter, but to see a woman allied with the monster and drunken with the blood of the holy provoked astonishment. The woman, too, was a harlot. The prophets had spoken of Israel and Judah as harlots, where they had allied themselves with the world and its dark idolatries (comp. Isaiah 1:21; Jeremiah 2:20; Ezekiel 16:15; Hosea 2:5). Did he read in the form of the vision the hint that in the lapse of years the Church of Christ, like Israel of old, might fall from her high calling and become the ally of the world-power? The hint of it slumbered in the vision.

(7) And the angel said unto me, Wherefore didst thou marvel?—Better, Wherefore didst thou wonder? The angel explains the mystery or hidden meaning. In doing so he identifies the wild beast which carries the woman with the wild beast of Revelation 13. In that chapter the wild beast was seen wounded to death; the same thought is expressed in this chapter. The wild beast was and is not It has received its death wound: the dying and risen Lord has given the death-blow to the world-power, as He has cast down Satan (Revelation 12:9), put limits to his power (Revelation 20:2), and destroyed him that had the power of death (Hebrews 2:14). In the victory of Christ the wild beast that was (i.e., that had in successive ages been seen in the great world-powers) is slain, or, as the angel expresses it, is not. But though he is not, though he is to be reckoned as doomed, yet he will show signs of vitality: he will rise into temporary power. He shall come up out of the abyss. But the march of his power is only a march to the grave. He goes to destruction. Yet this transient revival and apparent recovery from its death-wound will be viewed (as was said in Revelation 13:3 : “all the earth wondered after the wild beast”) as a marvel by those whose [??] are not heaven-taught, and whose minds are set upon earthly things. They that dwell upon the earth shall wonder, whose name is not written on the book of life from the foundation of the world, seeing the wild beast that he was, and is not, and shall be present (i.e., shall come again).

And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus: and when I saw her, I wondered with great admiration.
And the angel said unto me, Wherefore didst thou marvel? I will tell thee the mystery of the woman, and of the beast that carrieth her, which hath the seven heads and 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, when they behold the beast that was, and is not, and yet is.
And here is the mind which hath wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth.
(9) And here is the mind . . .—Better, Here (omit “and”) is the mind, &c. Attention is asked to the fuller explanation which follows. It needs true wisdom to behold many incidents of the world’s history and not find stumbling-blocks in them (Psalm 73:2-3; Psalm 119:165). The seven heads are seven mountains where the woman sitteth upon them. The description seems to be drawn from Rome, the seven-hilled city. This keeps the reference to Rome before us, but at the same time the further explanation (in Revelation 17:10) widens our thoughts, and shows us that the literalism on which the imagery is based is used to convey a broader symbolical meaning. The seven heads are seven mountains, &c., and they (the seven heads; the words “There are seven kings” in the English version are confusing) are seven kings: the woman rides on the seven-headed beast; even so Rome dwells on her seven hills, and so also the world-city, seen in vision, sits among the various empires which have risen, like great mountains, in the history of the world.

And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a short space.
(10) And there are seven kings. . . .—Better. They are seven kings: five (not “are fallen,” but fell, the one is, the other is not yet come; and when he shall come, he must continue a short time. It has been debated whether these kings are individual sovereigns, or forms of government, or kingdoms The last view is the one adopted in this Commentary. The wild beast belongs to no one age, but is a power which has risen in every age; the seven heads represent the successive culminations of the world-power. Our space is insufficient to discuss here the whole question. But the language here used and the passages in the earlier prophets, which may be called the parent passages of the present vision, favour the interpretation that great world-kingdoms are intended. The language favours this view. It is said that the “kings fell.” The word is the one which has been used for political catastrophe: the cities of the nations fell (Revelation 16:19); Babylon, it is cried, has fallen (Revelation 14:8). It suits the overthrow of empires, and is so used in the LXX.; to apply it to individual kings is to ask that it shall be equivalent to “they died.” It is to be noticed that the four beasts of Daniel (Daniel 7:3-8) are declared to be four kings (Revelation 17:17), but these kings are not individual kings, but represent kingdoms. (See Daniel 7:23). This brings us to the drift of the parent passage. Daniel saw four wild beasts rise from the sea; they represented the then great world-power Babylon, and its three successors, Persia, Greece, and Rome. This is a guide to us here, as most commentators admit; but two great world-powers had preceded Babylon, viz., Egypt and Assyria: these figure in the ancient prophecies as forces hostile to the righteous King. St. John, whose visions took the range of the world’s drama, could not see the representative of the ever rising spirit of worldly hostility to God’s chosen without seeing Egypt and Assyria included. The voices of Moses and Isaiah called to him across the centuries that in these the world principle of their day found its clearest and strongest manifestation. In various empires the world-power showed itself: in Egypt, the house of bondage (Exodus 20:2); in Assyria, that exalted herself against God (Isaiah 37:23); in Babylon, the hammer of the whole earth (Jeremiah 50:23); in Persia, and in Greece; and in succession these kingdoms fell, only to be succeeded by another—Rome. Five fell; the one is. But what is the seventh, the other who is not yet come? We must recall the appearance of the wild beast. It had seven heads and ten horns. Where were these ten horns? It seems generally admitted that they were all on the seventh head. The seventh head, which represents the seventh kingdom, or manifestation of the world principle which is described as not yet come, then, was different in appearance from the others. It was ten-horned. It had not the same unity of appearance as the others. Now the ten horns are explained as ten kings or minor powers (Revelation 17:12). The conclusion, therefore, is that the seventh head must be rather an aggregation of monarchies than a single universal empire. This agrees with Daniel’s prophecy that out of the fourth kingdom, which corresponds, as we have seen, with the sixth head of the wild beast here, ten kings should arise (Daniel 7:7; Daniel 7:23-24).

The seventh kingdom (the ten-horned head) it is said will, when it arises, continue a “short time.” The short time is probably the same as the “one hour” in Revelation 17:12, where the ten kingdoms, represented by the ten horns, receive power one hour with the wild beast.

And the beast that was, and is not, even he is the eighth, and is of the seven, and goeth into perdition.
(11) And the beast . . .—Better, And the wild beast which was, and is not, even he himself is the eighth, and is of the seven, and goeth into destruction. The wild beast himself, forming as it were an eighth, has to be reckoned with. There are seven heads; when these fall no eighth head will rise, but the wild beast, whose vitality has been seen in these successive heads, forms, as it were, an eighth, which is “out of the seven”—not one of them, but one rising out of them; no eighth empire shall rise, but the wild beast, now smitten in all the seven heads of his power, will, in the convulsive death-throe, seem an eighth power, in which the ebbing life of all the seven finds expression. The wild beast linked itself with seven great empires in succession: these all fell; the wild beast is left, as an eighth: then “the wild beast goes into destruction.” As an illustration, we may recall her whom the seven brothers had as wife; last of all the woman, the eighth, which was of the seven, died also. It has been noticed that the wild beast does not “fall,” like the others, “but goes into destruction;” there are no more world-powers like those who have fallen, but the wild beast is left, a last power reserved for destruction, a final antichrist, the lawless one whom the Lord will destroy with the brightness of His coming (2 Thessalonians 2:3). This fierce and last flickering up of the doomed power of evil is dwelt on again in Revelation 20:7-10.

And the ten horns which thou sawest are ten kings, which have received no kingdom as yet; but receive power as kings one hour with the beast.
(12) And the ten horns . . .—The explanation of the ten horns. They are the kings, not necessarily, as we have seen, personal kings, but rather kingdoms or nationalities, who received not a kingdom as yet; as they are on the seventh head, the hour of their power is not yet, but comes at the fall of the sixth head: then they receive power one hour. (Comp. “short time” in Revelation 17:10.) But though these are sundered powers, they are one in their subjection to the wild beast. They have one mind or judgment, and their power and authority they give to the wild beast. The universal empire idea may disappear, but the spirit and principle of mere earthliness will remain; it needs no vast power like Rome to illustrate its spirit. The ten horns are united in one mind; they move as the wild beast directs; their work and tendency of their power is hostile to Christ. They shall make war with the Lamb; and the Lamb shall conquer them because He is Lord of lords, and King of kings. When do these powers make war with the Lamb? The answer is, they make war when the direction of their policy and morals is in favour of oppression, wrong, worldliness; whenever nations or peoples allow the secular spirit to breathe through all they do, they are not with Christ, they are against Him. There are hints that some “special outbreak” of hostility may take place on the eve of the full manifestation of the righteous King and His kingdom (Revelation 19:16-19); busy evil spirits, lawless utterances, unbrotherly federations, unspiritual conceptions, may pave the way for such; the great crisis will then come, when the issue will be secularity and spirituality. It is not necessary to define the ten kings; the number does not need to be pressed as literal; for in Hebrew, “when a whole was to be divided into parts, ten was the number commonly adopted” (Bähr, quoted by Dr. Currey). The war of the ten kings against the Lamb is brought out more fully in Revelation 19. There the King of kings is seen victorious; in His victory they who are with Him, the called, and chosen, and faithful, shall share. This threefold description is a brief summary of the Christian life. This is the only place where St. John employs the word translated “called.” (Comp. Matthew 20:16.)

These have one mind, and shall give their power and strength unto the beast.
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 are called, and chosen, and faithful.
And he saith unto me, The waters which thou sawest, where the whore sitteth, are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues.
(15) And he said unto me . . .—Better, And he (i.e., the angel mentioned in Revelation 17:1) saith, &c. The waters on which the harlot sits are explained as “multitudes.” We have thus a key to the imagery employed here and elsewhere (Revelation 13:1). The wild beast and the harlot both draw much of their power from the people. The easily-moved passions or the fickle crowd, its generous, unreasoning impulses, are used by subtle and seductive enemies. “Men never so much need to be theocratic as when they are most democratic,” said De Tocqueville. They need to recognise God as their King, then, most when their new discovered strength is likely to be made the tool of unscrupulous ambition.

And the ten horns which thou sawest upon the beast, these shall hate the whore, and shall make her desolate and naked, and shall eat her flesh, and burn her with fire.
(16) And the ten horns . . .—Translate, And the ten horns which thou sawest (not, as in English version, “on the beast,” but), and the wild beast, these shall hate the harlot. The harlot was seen in splendid apparel riding on the wild beast; now the wild beast, in the day of the seventh head, turns with the ten horns of his power upon her, makes her deserted, strips her of her adornments, consumes the spoil—for this is what is meant by “eating her flesh”—and burns her with fire. The woman in the days of the Evangelist was Rome (Revelation 17:18), but great and resistless as her power seemed, it was doomed; the day would come when other kingdoms would rise who would hate her for her tyranny, envy her splendour, and covet her wealth. Then the great Babylon would fall, like Jezebel of old; the painted cheek, the pencilled eyebrow, and the amorous glance have lost their fascination; those who have pandered to her vices would turn against her, and cast her out to be trampled under foot. So did the Babylon of St. John’s day fall—perishing in the blood that she had spilt, or left “childless and crownless in her voiceless woe.”

For God hath put in their hearts to fulfil his will, and to agree, and give their kingdom unto the beast, until the words of God shall be fulfilled.
(17) For God hath put . . .—Better, For God gave it into their hearts to do his mind, and (to do) one mind, and to give their kingdom, &c. The kings give their kingdom to the wild beast; their authority and might is used for him, whether in making war upon the Lamb (Revelation 17:14) or in casting down the harlot. In these enterprises they act unitedly; there is given to them to make “one mind.” But they are only carrying out the righteous will of God; God wills that the harlot shall fall; and even in their war upon the Lamb, they are but preparing for the crisis when the foes of the righteous King shall fall (Revelation 19:19). Thus does the wrath of man ever turn to God’s praise.

And the woman which thou sawest is that great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth.
(18) And the woman which thou sawest . . .—Read, And the woman whom thou sawest is (not “that,” but) the great city, which has a kingdom over the kings of the earth. With these words the angel’s explanation of “the mystery of the woman” (see Revelation 17:7) ends. The harlot is a city; the Babylon of the past lives again in Rome; the woman is Rome, the goddess of lands and peoples.”

“She who was named Eternal, and arrayed

Her warriors but to conquer—she Who veiled

Earth with her haughty shadow and displayed

Until the o’er canopied horizon failed

Her rushing wings—Oh! she who was Almighty hailed.”

Courtesy of Open Bible