Chapter 17: The False Bride

David Chilton

Narrated By: Daniel Sorenson
Book: The Days of Vengeance: An Exposition of The Book of Revelation


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Chapter Text

While some in recent years have attempted to see the Great Harlot of Revelation as the City of Rome, the Church throughout Christian history has generally understood that she is in some sense a False Bride, a demonic parody of the True Bride, the Church. The Biblical motif of the Bride falling into adultery (apostasy) is so well-known that such an identification is all but inescapable. The metaphor of harlotry is exclusively used in the Old Testament for a city or nation that has abandoned the Covenant and turned toward false gods; and, with only two exceptions (see on v. 1-2, below), the term is always used for faithless Israel. The Harlot is, clearly, the False Church. At this point, however, agreement shatters into factionalism. To the Donatist heretics of the fourth century, the Catholic Church was the Whore. Some Greek Orthodox and Protestant theologians have seen her in the Roman papacy, while many fundamentalists have spotted her tinsel charms in the World Council of Churches. Although it is true that there may be (and certainly have been) false churches in the image of the Harlot, we must remember the historical context of the Revelation and the preterist demands it makes upon its interpreters. Merely to find some example of a false church and identify her as the Whore is not faithful exegesis. St. John has set our hermeneutical boundaries firmly within his own contemporary situation, in the first century. He has, in fact, stated definitely that the Harlot was a current phenomenon (17:18), from which he expects his current readers to separate themselves. Whatever modern applications are made of this passage, we must see them as just that: applications. The primary significance of the vision must refer to the False Church of St. John’s day.

We have seen that the Book of Revelation presents us with two great cities, set in antithesis to each other: Babylon and New Jerusalem. As we shall see in a later chapter, the New Jerusalem is Paradise Consummated, the community of the saints, the City of God. The other city, which is continually contrasted to the New Jerusalem, is the old Jerusalem, which has become unfaithful to God. Another way to view this is to understand that Jerusalem was intended from the beginning to be the true fulfillment of Babylon, a word meaning “Gate of God.” The place of God’s gracious revelation of Himself and of His covenant should be a true Babylon, a true “Gate of Heaven” and “House of God,” as Jacob understood when he saw God’s staircase to heaven, the true Tower of Babel, the true pyramid which foretold of Jesus Christ (Gen. 28:10-22; cf. John 1:51). But Jerusalem did not walk worthy of the calling with which it had been called. Like the original Babylon, Jerusalem turned its back on the true God and sought autonomous glory and dominion; like the original Babylon, it was apostate; and thus the “Gate of God” became “Confusion” instead (Gen. 11:9).

How did the faithful City become a Harlot? It began with the apostasy of the priesthood in Israel. The primary responsibility of the priest (God’s representative), is to represent the Bridegroom to the Bride, and to guard her from danger. Instead, the priesthood led the people in apostasy from their Lord (Matt. 26:14-15, 47, 57-68; 27:1-2, 20-25, 41-43, 62-66). Because of the priesthood’s failure to bring the Bridegroom to Israel, the Bride became a Harlot, in search of other husbands. The apostasy of the priesthood is described in 13:11-17, under the figure of the Beast from the Land. But the False Bride is not absolved of responsibility. She is guilty as well, and St. John’s prophecy rightly turns now to consider her judgment and destruction. [1]

The symbolic “Babylon” was destroyed when the seventh angel poured out his Chalice, the drink-offering of annihilation (16:17-21). As we have seen, this vision is part of the fourth Seven of Revelation – the Seven Chalices containing the seven plagues. The connection is provided in 17:1 (d. 21:9), which tells us that it is one of the seven Chalice-angels who gives St. John the vision of the judgment of the Great Harlot. This vision, therefore, opens up the meaning of the Seventh Chalice, the destruction of Jerusalem.

The Identity of the Harlot (17:1·7)

  1. And one of the seven angels who had the Seven Chalices came and spoke with me, saying: Come here, I will show you the judgment of the great Harlot who sits on many waters,
  2. with whom the kings of the earth committed fornication, and those who dwell on the Land were made drunk with the wine of her fornication.
  3. And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness; and I saw a Woman sitting on a scarlet Beast, full of blasphemous names, having seven heads and ten horns.
  4. And the Woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls, having in her hand a gold cup full of abominations and of the unclean things of her fornication,
  6. And I saw the woman drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus. And when I saw her, I wondered with great wonder.
  7. And the angel said to me, Why do you wonder? I will tell you the mystery of the Woman and of the Beast that carries her, which has the seven heads and the ten horns.

1-2      The vision of the Seven Chalices continues: One of the seven angels who had the Seven Chalices shows St. John the fall of the Great Harlot who sits on many waters. St. John’s readers have already been told of a Harlot-City named “Babylon the Great” (14:8; 16:19), and the Harlot’s resemblance to the original Babylon is underscored by the information that she sits on many waters, an image taken from Jeremiah’s description of Babylon in his famous oracle of judgment against her (Jer. 50-51). The expression many waters of Jeremiah 51:13 refers both to the Euphrates, which ran through the middle of the city, and to the canals surrounding it. Ultimately, it refers to the blessings which God had bestowed on Babylon, and which she prostituted for her own glory. Thus St. John describes the Great Harlot of his day in terms of her prototype and model. Later, in 17:15, we are informed of one aspect of the symbolic meaning of the “many waters,” but for now the point is merely the identification of the Harlot with Babylon.

At the same time, however, we must recognize that at every other point in Revelation where the expression many waters is used, it is set within a description of God’s covenantal relationship and liturgical interaction with His people. We have noted that the Voice from the Glory-Cloud sounds like many waters, and that this Voice is produced by the innumerable angels in the heavenly council (Ezek. 1:24). Similarly, in Revelation 1:15 Christ’s Voice is “like the sound of many waters” (cf. Ezek. 43:2); in 14:2 St. John again hears the Voice from heaven as “the sound of many waters”; and in 19:6 the great multitude of the redeemed, having entered the angelic council in heaven, joins in a song of praise, which St. John hears as “the sound of many waters.” The expression is thus reminiscent of both God’s gracious revelation and His people’s liturgical response of praise and obedience. Given the Biblical background and context of the phrase, it would come as no surprise to St. John’s readers that the Woman should be seen seated on “many waters.” The surprise is that she is a whore. She has taken God’s good gifts and prostituted them (Ezek. 16:6-16; Rom. 2:17-24).

The Harlot-City has committed fornication with the kings of the earth. This expression is taken from Isaiah’s prophecy against Tyre, where it primarily refers to her international commerce (Isa. 23:15-17); Nineveh as well is accused of “many harlotries” with other nations (Nahum 3:4).[2] Most often, however, the image of a city or nation playing the harlot with the kingdoms of the world is used in reference to the rebellious Covenant people. Speaking against apostate Jerusalem, Isaiah mourned:

How the faithful City has become a Harlot,
She who was once full of justice!
Righteousness once lodged in her,
But now murderers. (Isa. 1:21)

The imagery of Israel’s adultery is fairly common in the prophets, as they bring God’s Covenant Lawsuit against the Bride who has abandoned her Husband.[3] Jeremiah spoke against Israel as the Harlot, seeking after the false gods of the heathen in place of her true Husband:

For long ago I broke your yoke
And tore off your bonds;
But you said, “I will not serve!”
For on every high hill
And under every green tree
You have lain down as a harlot…
You are a swift young camel entangling her ways,
A wild donkey accustomed to the wilderness,
That sniffs the wind in her passion.
In the time of her heat who can turn her away?
All who seek her will not become weary;
In her month they will find her….
Your sword has devoured your prophets
Like a destroying lion.
O generation, hear the Word of the LORD.
Have I been a wilderness to Israel,
Or a land of thick darkness?
Why do My people say, “We are free to roam;
We will come no more to Thee”?
Can a virgin forget her ornaments,
Or a Bride her attire?
Yet My people have forgotten Me
Days without number.
How well you prepare your way
To seek love!
Therefore even the wicked women
You have taught your ways….
God says, If a husband divorces his wife,
And she goes from him
And belongs to another man,
Will he still return to her?
Will not that land be completely polluted?
But you are a harlot with many lovers;
Yet you turn to Me, declares the LORD.
Lift up your eyes to the bare heights and see;
Where have you not been violated?
By the roads you have sat for them
Like an Arab in the desert,
And you have polluted a land
With your harlotry and with your wickedness.
Therefore the showers have been withheld,
And there has been no spring rain.
Yet you had a harlot’s forehead;
You refused to be ashamed. (Jer. 2:20-24, 30-33; 3:1-3)

Israel’s adulteries, Hosea said, took place “on every threshing floor” (Hos. 9:1): The picture is that of a woman prostituting herself for money in the grain house in harvest-time. This carries a double meaning. First, Israel was apostatizing into Baal-worship, seeking harvest blessing and fertility from false gods (forgetting that fertility, and blessing in every area, can come only from the one true God). Second, the Temple was built on a threshing floor (2 Chron. 3:1), symbolizing God’s action throughout history in separating the chaff from His holy wheat (Job 21:18; Ps. 1:4; 35:5; Isa. 17:13; Luke 3:17). The threshing floor is also symbolic of the marriage relationship: The union of Boaz and Ruth took place on his threshing floor (Ruth 3), and the action of grinding at a mill is a Biblical image of sexual relations (Job 31:10; Isa. 47:2; Jer. 25:10).[4] Thus, instead of consummating her marriage to God through worship at His threshing floor, the Bride went whoring after every other threshing floor, prostrating herself before strange gods and alien altars.

Apostate Jerusalem is the Harlot-city; this theme becomes even more prominent in the prophecy of Ezekiel, particularly in Ezekiel 16 and 23, where it is clear that her “adulteries” consist of religious-political alliances with powerful heathen kingdoms (see, e.g., Ezek. 16:26-29). The people of Jerusalem in Ezekiel’s day had abandoned the true faith and had turned to heathen gods and ungodly nations for help, rather than trusting in God to be their protector and deliverer. It is important to note that while Israel herself seems to have regarded these relationships in primarily political terms, the prophets emphasized that the religious issue was central. The reliance of the Covenant nation on heathen powers could not be viewed as mere political expediency; it was nothing less than harlotry. Using language so graphic and explicit that most modern pastors won’t preach from these chapters,[5] Ezekiel condemns Jerusalem as a degraded, wanton whore: “You spread your legs to every passerby to multiply your harlotry” (Ezek. 16:25). Ezekiel’s sarcastic portrayal of Israel’s adultery is sharp and vivid: She lusts after the (supposedly) well-endowed Egyptians, whose sex organs are the size of donkeys’ genitals, and who produce semen in such prodigious amounts that it rivals that of a horse (16:26; 23:20). Her adulterous desire (inflamed by pornographic pictures, 23:14-16) is so great that she is willing to pay strangers to come to her, rather than the other way around (16:33-34); she even masturbates with the “male images” she has made (16:17). Ezekiel’s prophecy was crude, and he most certainly offended many of his listeners; but he was simply giving them a faithful description of how offensive they were to God. In the view of the all-holy God who spoke through Ezekiel, nothing could be more obscene than the Bride’s apostasy from her divine Husband.

The same was true of Israel in the first century. At the very moment when the promised Bridegroom arrived, Israel was fornicating with Caesar. The sight of her true Husband only drove her further into adulterous union with “the kings of the earth.” Rejecting Christ’s kingship (cf. 1 Sam. 8:7-8), the chief priests cried: “We have no King but Caesar!” (John 19:15).

The apostasy of Jerusalem led the whole nation into religious and political fornication. Those who dwell on the Land – the Jewish people (see comments on 3:10) – were made drunk with the wine of her fornication, seduced into such a spiritual stupor that they did not recognize their own Christ. Intoxicated by their apparently successful relationship with the imperial power-state, the Jews did not realize that it was a trap: They were being drugged in preparation for their own execution.

3          We have already seen the Woman in the wilderness, where she fled from the oppression of the seven-headed Dragon (12:6, 14). But that wilderness sojourn was out of necessity, and for a specified time. The True Bride does not dwell in the wilderness – the sign of the Curse, the habitation of demons (Matt. 12:43)[6] – by preference. To the False Bride, however, the wilderness is her element; she chooses to remain there rather than follow the Spirit to the promised land. The wilderness is thus her heritage, and her destiny (cf. Num. 13-14; Zech. 5:5-11). This is, again, a familiar prophetic picture: Apostate Jerusalem is a Harlot, plying her obscene trade alongside wilderness roads like a wild ass in heat (cf. Jer. 2-3; Hos. 2).

It is as if the Woman of Revelation 12, having fled to the wilderness for protection, has become accustomed to desert life and established an intimate relationship with the Dragon. St. John sees her sitting on a scarlet Beast. It is not immediately clear whether the Scarlet Beast is the Dragon or the Sea Beast. Like the Sea Beast, it is full of blasphemous names (cf. 13:1); and like the Dragon, it has seven heads and ten horns (cf. 12:3; the order is reversed for the Sea Beast, which has ten horns and seven heads, 13:1). Since she is seated “on many waters” (v. 1) and on the Scarlet Beast as well, the imagery seems to suggest that the Beast has risen up out of the sea (cf. 11:7; 13:1). The most likely solution is simply to see the passage as a reference to Jerusalem’s apostate intimacy with both Satan and the Empire. Rome was the devil’s reigning political incarnation, and the two could certainly be considered together under one image. Israel was dependent upon the Roman Empire for her national existence and power; from the testimony of the New Testament there is no doubt that Jerusalem was politically and religiously “in bed” with institutionalized paganism, cooperating with Rome in the crucifixion of Christ and the murderous persecution of Christians.

Incidentally, this is one of many indications that the Harlot is not Rome, for she is clearly distinct from it. She is seated on the Beast, supported and maintained by him whose seven heads represent – among other things – the famed “seven hills” of Rome (17:9). It is worth noting too that there is a contrast between the Throne of God, supported by the Living Creatures who are “full of eyes” and who are day and night engaged in God’s praise (4:6-8; cf. Ezek. 10:12), and the Harlot Queen, whose throne is supported by a Beast who is full of blasphemous names.

4          The Woman is clothed in purple and scarlet, garments of splendor and royalty for one who sits as a queen (18:7; see Jud. 8:26; 2 Sam. 1:24; Dan. 5:7, 16, 29; Luke 16:19). She is gilded with gold and precious stones and pearls, in keeping with the Biblical descriptions of the glorious City of God (Isa. 54:11-12; 60:5-11; Rev. 21:18-21), based further on the pattern of the jewel-littered Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:11-12; Ezek. 28:13). Jewelry is also a feature both of the high priest’s garments (Ex. 28:9-29) and of the throne of God (4:3-4). There is thus no need to see the Woman’s garments and jewels as merely the loud, bold, and extravagant decking-out of a harlot’s costume. Instead, these are originally the clothes of the righteous Woman – the Bride – who is supposed to be arrayed in glorious dress (cf. Ex. 3:22; Ezek. 16:11-14; Prov. 31:21-22). St. John wants his readers to see the Harlot adorned in the beautiful garments of the Church. He wants them to understand that this degenerate whore who fornicates with beasts is still carrying the trappings of the pure and chaste Bride. We should note, however, that the enormous veil covering the Temple gate (over 80 feet high and 24 feet wide) was “a Babylonian tapestry, embroidered with blue, and fine linen [cf. 18:16], and scarlet, and purple.”[7]

The False Bride celebrates a communion of sorts: She holds in her hand a gold cup full of abominations and of the unclean things of her fornication, combining the images of unclean food (cf. Lev. 11) and unclean marriage (cf. Lev. 20; see esp. Lev. 20:22-26).[8] The picture is slightly changed from that of Jeremiah 51:7, where the original Babylon is described as “a golden cup in the hand of the LORD, intoxicating all the earth,” but the basic idea is similar. Jerusalem still has the beautiful chalice of the Covenant, but the communion she offers leads men to death and destruction. Her cup is full of “abominations,” a word which the Bible often uses in connection with the worship of false gods (Deut. 29:17; Ezek. 5:11). Pharisaic Jerusalem prides itself on its observance of the ceremonial cleanliness regulations, but in reality it is radically unclean, defiled from within by its apostasy and fornication (Matt. 23:25-28; Mark 7:1-23). The overall picture may well be, as Ford has observed, “a parody of the high priest on the Day of Atonement wearing the vestments specially reserved for that occasion and holding the libation offering. However, instead of the sacred name upon his brow the ‘priest-harlot’ bears the name Babylon, mother of harlots and the abominations of the earth, a title illustrating Ezek. 16:43-45 [RSV], where Yahweh speaks of the lewdness of Jerusalem.”[9]

5          The Harlot has on her forehead a name written. By now the writing on the forehead is a familiar image in Revelation. We have seen it on the saints (3:12; 7:3; 14:1) and on the followers of the Beast (13:16-17). The forehead is especially singled out as a symbol of rebellion (Isa. 48:4; Ezek. 3:9); rebellious Israel is said to have “a harlot’s forehead” (Jer. 3:3). But the name written there begins with the word Mystery. Corsini has properly noted the significance of this much-overlooked fact: “If the prostitute is called ‘mystery,’ that means that she, even in the moment in which she is judged and condemned, still forms an integral and important part in the divine plan of salvation. This cannot be the case for Rome or any other pagan city, but only for Jerusalem. Only she, and no other city, will be renewed and will descend from heaven upon Mt. Sion to celebrate a marriage with the Lamb (21:2, 10ff.), because ‘in the days of the trumpet call to be sounded by the seventh angel, the mystery of God… should be fulfilled’ (10:7).”[10]

The Harlot’s symbolic name continues: Babylon the Great, for she is heiress and namesake of the ancient city which was the epitome of rebellion against God (Gen. 11:1-9; Jer. 50-51). The name also serves to remind us of her high calling, that she was created to be the True Babylon, the Gate of God. Instead, however, she has followed the path of the old Babylon in her apostate rejection of God’s lordship over her. Now identified with bestiality and confusion, she has become “the Mystery of Lawlessness” (2 Thess. 2:7), the Mother of Harlots (corresponding to “Jezebel” and her “children,” spoken of in 2:20-23; cf. the description of Jerusalem as a mother of harlots in Ezek. 16:44-48).

6-7      Now we see what the Harlot has in her cup, the demonic communion with which she and her paramours (v. 2; cf. 14:8) are becoming drunk: It is the blood of the saints, and… of the witnesses of Jesus. This is “the wine of her fornication,” the sacrament of her apostasy from the true faith; the ultimate unclean food (cf. Lev. 17:10-14). While it is true that Rome became a great persecutor of the Church, we must remember that Jerusalem was the preeminent transgressor in this regard. The Roman persecution came about through the Jews’ instigation and connivance, as the Book of Acts constantly informs us. Jerusalem’s whole history, in fact, was one of relentless persecution of the godly, and especially of the prophets (Matt. 21:33-44; 23:29-35; Acts 7:51-53). As St. John tells us in 18:24, “in her was found the blood of prophets and of saints and of all who have been slain on the earth.” Jerusalem was the persecutor of the prophets par excellence.

But it is not always easy to look at things with “theological” eyes. At the moment of her glory, a successful harlot is beautiful, alluring, seductive. God’s Word is realistic, and does not pretend that evil always appears repulsive. The temptation to sin, as we all know, can be very attractive (Gen. 3:6; 2 Cor. 11:14). As St. John beheld the Great Harlot, therefore, he was quite taken in, fascinated with her beauty: He wondered with great wonder (cf. Rev. 13:3-4: “And the whole Land wondered after the Beast; and they worshiped the Dragon…”). The angel therefore rebukes him: Why do you wonder? St. John records this to warn his readers against being seduced by the Harlot, for she is beautiful and impressive. The antidote to being deceived by the wiles of the False Bride is to understand the Mystery of the Woman and of the Beast that carries her. The angel will now reveal the nature of the Harlot’s alliance with the Beast, her opposition to Christ, and her approaching destruction. St. John’s readers must understand that there is no longer any hope of “reform from within.” Jerusalem is implacably at war with Jesus Christ and His people. The once-Holy City is now a Whore.

The Angel Explains the Mystery (17:8-I8)

  1. The Beast that you saw was and is not, and is about to ascend out of the Abyss and to go to destruction. And those who dwell on the Land will wonder, whose name has not been written in the Book of Life from the foundation of the world, when they see the Beast, that he was and is not and will come.
  2. Here is the mind which has wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains on which the Woman sits,
  3. and they are seven kings; five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain a little while.
  1. And the Beast which was and is not, is himself also an eighth, and is of the seven, and he goes to destruction.
  2. And the ten horns which you saw are ten kings, who have not yet received a kingdom, but they receive authority as kings with the Beast for one hour.
  3. These have one purpose and they give their power and authority to the Beast.
  4. These will wage war against the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them, because He is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those who are with Him are the called and chosen and faithful.
  5. And he said to me: The waters which you saw, where the Harlot sits, are peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues.
  6. And the ten horns which you saw, and the Beast, these will hate the harlot and will make her desolate and will make her naked, and will eat her flesh and will burn her up with fire.
  7. For God has put it into their hearts to execute His purpose, to execute one purpose, and to give their kingdom to the Beast, until the words of God should be fulfilled.
  8. And the Woman whom you saw is the Great City, which has a Kingdom over the kings of the earth.

8          The angel begins his explanation by speaking about the Beast, since the Harlot’s intimacy with the Beast is so integral to her character and destiny. Again, we must note that this is a composite Beast (cf. v.3 above), comprising the attributes of both the Roman Empire and its original, the Dragon. Milton Terry says: “In his explanation the angel seems to point our attention particularly to the spirit which actuated the dragon, the beast from the sea, and the false prophet alike; and so what is here affirmed of the beast has a special reference to the different and successive manifestations of Satan himself…. Hence we understand by the beast that was and is not an enigmatical portraiture of the great red dragon of 12:3. He is the king of the Abyss in 9:11, and the beast that killed the witnesses in 11:7. He appears for a time in the person of some great persecutor, or in the form of some huge iniquity, but is after a while cast out. Then he again finds some other organ for his operations and enters it with all the malice of the unclean spirit who wandered through dry places, seeking rest and finding none until he discovered his old house, empty, swept, and garnished as if to invite his return.”[11]

The angel represents the Beast as a parody of “Him who is and who was and who is to come” (1:4): The Beast… was and is not and is about to ascend up out of the Abyss. At this point, it is likely that the specific human referent of the Beast is Vespasian, who became Caesar after the chaos which followed upon the death of Nero. Ford comments: “The beast ‘was’ (Vespasian was in favor with Nero) and ‘is not’ (he fell from favor) and will come from the abyss (he was restored with the help of the ‘men of the pit,’ an epithet for perverse men from Qumran). Vespasian stands parallel to ‘he who is to come.’ In a sense the empire passed through the same stages; ‘it was,’ from Caesar to Nero, ‘was not’ in the critical year of the four emperors, and came again with Vespasian,”[12]

Ultimately, as we have seen, this is a description of the original Beast, the Dragon, the ancient enemy of God and His people. If at the moment there is a temporary respite from his cruel opposition, the Christians must be aware that he is about to ascend again out of the Abyss to attack and persecute them again; nevertheless, St. John reminds them that the Beast’s defeat is assured, for his ascension is not to power and glory at the right hand of God, but only in order to go to destruction. The word destruction is apoleian, the root of Apollyon, the “king of the Abyss” in 9:11. St. John is pointing out that although the Beast is allowed, for a time, to ascend out of the abyss, he is just as certain to return there. His destiny is utter destruction, and he cannot succeed in destroying the Church.

But the Dragon/Beast will be successful in carrying off apostate Israel into his idolatrous cult. Those who dwell on the Land will wonder… when they see the Beast, that he was and is not and will come. The word used earlier for the Beast’s rise from the Abyss is anabaino, in mimicry of Christ’s Resurrection/Ascension; the word come here is paristemi (the verb form of parousia), in imitation of Christ’s Coming in power and glory, bringing judgment and salvation (the definitive Parousia occurred at the Ascension, resulting in Christ’s Parousia against Jerusalem in A.D. 70). Thus, just as the first-century Christians lived in expectation of their Lord’s near Parousia, so the apostate Jews looked to the Beast for deliverance and salvation. The “second coming” of the Dragon, after his apparent (and real) defeat by Christ, was an occasion of wonder, astonishment, and worship by the Christ-rejecting Jews. The rise of the total state, in opposition to the Kingdom of Christ, was for rebellious Israel an ascension to glory, a parousia, a day of the lord. The Beast was their Messiah, and his Anti-Parousia delivered them – into the hands of Apollyon, the perdition and destruction of the Abyss. The only ultimate issue of the Beast’s ascension from the Abyss is the greater damnation of himself and his worshipers.

Why, ultimately, did the Jews reject Christ and worship the Dragon? Because, in contrast to Christ’s elect, who were “chosen in Him before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4) apostate Israel’s name has not been written in the Book of Life from the foundation of the world (cf. 13:8). St. Peter wrote that Jesus Christ, the great Cornerstone, was for the Jews “a Stone of stumbling and a rock of offense; for they stumble because they are disobedient to the Word, and to this doom they were also appointed” (1 Peter 2:8).[13] Instead, the Church has inherited the former status (Ex. 19:6) held by Israel: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession…” (1 Pet. 2:9).

9-10    The angel turns to speak of the Dragon’s incarnation in the Beast from the Sea. Here is the mind which has wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits. The “seven mountains” again identify the Beast as Rome, famous for its “seven hills”;[14] but these also correspond to the line of the Caesars, for they are seven kings; five have fallen: The first five Caesars were Julius, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius.[15] One is: Nero, the sixth Caesar, was on the throne as St. John was writing the Revelation. The other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain a little while: Galba, the seventh Caesar, reigned for less than seven months.

11       But the fall of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and the severe political chaos attending it must not be interpreted by Christians to mean the end of troubles. For their real enemy is the Beast, who will become incarnated in other Caesars as well. He is also an eighth king, yet is of the seven: the antichristian brutality of succeeding tyrants will mark them as being of the same stripe as their predecessors. Eight is the number of resurrection in the Bible; St. John is warning that even though the Empire will seem to disintegrate after the rule of the seven kings, it will be “resurrected” again, to live on in other persecutors of the Church. Yet the Empire’s comeback will not result in victory for the Beast, for even the eighth, the resurrected Beast, goes to destruction. The Church will have to exercise patience during the period of the Beast’s ascendancy, but she has the assurance that her enemies will not succeed. Their King will be victorious; His servants have been predestined to share in His triumph.

12       The ten horns which St. John saw on the Beast are ten kings. The number 10 in the Bible, as we have noted on other occasions, is related to the concept of “manyness,” of quantitative or numerical fullness. That these “kings” are associated with the Beast, adorning his heads as “crowns,” and that they receive authority with the Beast (i.e., by virtue of their relationship with him) indicates that they are rulers subject to, or allied with, the Empire. Rome actually had ten imperial provinces, and some have read this as a reference to them.[16] It is not necessary, however, to attempt a precise definition of these ten subject kings; the symbol simply represents “the totality of those allied or subject kings who aided Rome in her wars both on Judaism and Christianity.”[17] The burden of the text is to point to these kings, with whom the Harlot has plied her trade (v. 2), as the instruments of her eventual destruction (v. 16-17).

13-14 St. John records that the “ten kings” join with the Beast against Christ, persecuting the Church throughout the provinces and subordinate kingdoms of the Empire: These have one purpose, and they give their power and authority to the Beast in order to wage war against the Lamb, as Michael and His angels had waged war with the Dragon (12:7). This has always been the ultimate goal of reprobate man’s exercise of government: the attempt to dethrone God. As the Psalmist foretold, “The kings of the earth take their stand, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against His Christ” (Ps. 2:2; cf. Acts 2:26). The apostolic commentary on this text is revealed in an early prayer of the persecuted Church. After quoting Psalm 2, they said: “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Thy holy servant Jesus, whom Thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Thy hand and Thy purpose predestined to occur” (Acts 4:27-28). The ungodly are united in the bond of hatred against the Son of God, the Anointed One. That is why we are told the outcome of the conspiracy of Herod and Pilate against Christ: “Now Herod and Pilate became friends with one another that very day; for before they had been at enmity with one another” (Luke 23:12). Enemies will unite in fighting a common foe, and in the Advent of Christ we see the world of pagans and apostates joining together in rebellion against Him. But the Psalmist long before had warned kings and rulers to “worship the LORD with reverence, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest He become angry, and you perish in the way, for His wrath may soon be kindled. How blessed are all who take refuge in Him!” (Ps. 2:11-12). The outcome of this cosmic struggle is thus assured, and inevitable: And the Lamb will overcome them, because He is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those who are with Him are the called and chosen and faithful. St. John assures the Church that in their terrible and terrifying conflict with the awesome might of imperial Rome, the victory of Christianity is guaranteed.

15       The angel now explains the significance of the waters… where the Harlot sits. These are described in terms of a fourfold designation: peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues, i.e. the world. The identification of the ungodly, rebellious nations of the world with the raging sea is a familiar one in Scripture (cf. 13:1). Isaiah wrote of “the uproar of many peoples who roar like the roaring of the seas, and the rumbling of nations who rush on like the rumbling of mighty waters! The nations rumble on like the rumbling of many waters, but He will rebuke them and they will flee far away, and be chased like chaff in the mountains before the wind, or like whirling dust before a gale” (Isa. 17:12-13). “The wicked are like the tossing sea; for it cannot be quiet, and its waters toss up refuse and mud. There is no peace for the wicked, says my God” (Isa. 57:20-21).

Jerusalem could truly be portrayed as seated on “many waters” (i.e., the nations) because of the great and pervasive influence the Jews had in all parts of the Roman Empire before the destruction of Jerusalem. Their synagogues were in every city, and the extent of their colonization can be seen in the record of the Day of Pentecost, which tells us that “there were Jews staying in Jerusalem, devout men, from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5).[18]

16       In their war against Christ, the raging nations turn against the Harlot, because of her connection with Him.[19] The angel portrays this new enmity toward the Harlot by a fourfold description: The peoples of the Empire will hate the Harlot and will make her desolate and will make her naked, and will eat her flesh and burn her up with fire (cf. Jer. 13:26; Lam. 1:8-9; Nah. 3:5). Jerusalem had committed fornication with the heathen nations, but in A.D. 70 they turned against her and destroyed her, making her desolate (the same word is used in Matthew 24:15, Mark 13:14, and Luke 21:20, reflecting the Greek version of Daniel 9:26-27: the abomination of desolation). One of the punishments for a convicted adulteress in the ancient world was the public humiliation of being stripped naked (cf. Isa. 47:2-3; Jer. 13:26; Lam. 1:8; Ezek. 16:37, 39; 23:29; Hos. 2:10; Nah. 3:5).

Another connection with “Jezebel” (2:20; cf. on 17:5) is made here: The nations eat her flesh, as the dogs (cf. 22:15) had eaten the flesh of the original Jezebel (I Kings 21:23-24; 2 Kings 9:30-37). The prophets who spoke of Jerusalem as the Whore had said that just as a priest’s daughter who became a harlot was to be “burned with fire” (Lev. 21:9), so God would use Jerusalem’s former “lovers,” the heathen nations, to destroy her and burn her to the ground (Jer. 4:11-13, 30-31; Ezek. 16:37-41; 23:22, 25-30). Russell observed that “Tacitus speaks of the bitter animosity with which the Arab auxiliaries of Titus were filled against the Jews,[20] and we have a fearful proof of the intense hatred felt towards the Jews by the neighbouring nations in the wholesale massacres of that unhappy people perpetrated in many great cities just before the outbreak of the war. The whole Jewish population of Caesarea were massacred in one day. In Syria every city was divided into two camps, Jews and Syrians. In Scythopolis upwards of thirteen thousand Jews were butchered; in Ascalon, Ptolemais, and Tyre, similar atrocities took place. But in Alexandria the carnage of the Jewish inhabitants exceeded all the other massacres. The whole Jewish quarter was deluged with blood, and fifty thousand corpses lay in ghastly heaps in the streets.[21] This is a terrible commentary on the words of the angel-interpreter: ‘The ten horns which thou sawest upon the beast, these shall hate the whore,’ etc.”[22]

It is important to realize, as we noted above, that the Beast destroyed Jerusalem as part of his war against Christ; the Roman leaders’ motive in destroying the Temple was not only to put down the Jewish rebellion, but to obliterate Christianity, as Sulpitius Severus recorded:

Titus is said, after calling a council, to have first deliberated whether he should destroy the temple, a structure of such extraordinary work. For it seemed good to some that a sacred edifice, distinguished above all human achievements, ought not to be destroyed, inasmuch as, if preserved, it would furnish an evidence of Roman moderation, but, if destroyed, would serve for a perpetual proof of Roman cruelty. But on the opposite side, others and Titus himself thought that the temple ought specially to be overthrown, in order that the religion of the Jews and of the Christians might more thoroughly be subverted; for that these religions, although contrary to each other, had nevertheless proceeded from the same authors; that the Christians had sprung up from among the Jews; and that, if the root were extirpated, the offshoot would speedily perish.[23]

The Beast thought that he could kill the Whore and the Bride in one stroke! But when the dust settled, the scaffolding of old, apostate Jerusalem lay in ruins, and the Church was revealed as the new and most glorious Temple, God’s eternal dwelling place.

17       The sovereign Lord is thus not at the mercy of the Beast and his minions; rather, all these events have been predestined for God’s glory, through the execution of His decrees. For God has put it into their hearts to execute His purpose by having a common purpose, and by giving their kingdom to the Beast. Obviously, it is a sin for these kings to give their kingdoms to the Beast, for the purpose of making war against the Lamb. And yet it is God who put it into their hearts! Some will complain, of course, that this makes God “the Author of sin.” The obvious answer to such an objection is that the text says that God placed the evil purpose into their hearts; at the same time, we are assured that “the LORD is righteous in all His ways.” If we believe the Bible, we must believe both Revelation 17:17 and Psalm 145:17. We must hold firmly to two (seemingly contradictory) points: First, God is not responsible for sin; Second, nothing happens in spite of Him, or in opposition to His purpose.[24] Thus, to those who fight against the Word of God, the Biblical response is blunt: “On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this,’ will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honor, and another vessel for dishonor?” (Rom. 9:20-21). St. Augustine observed: “It is, therefore, in the power of the wicked to sin; but that in sinning they do this or that is not in their power, but in God’s, who divides the darkness and regulates it; so that hence even what they do contrary to God’s will is not fulfilled except it be God’s will.”[25]

The whole purpose for the heathen kings’ wrath, for their joining in conspiracy against both the Bride and the Harlot, for their surrendering their kingdoms to the Beast and receiving power for one hour with him, is now revealed. God has put it into their hearts to fulfill His purpose, until the words of God should be fulfilled. The war between Christ and the Beast, culminating in the desolation of the Harlot, took place in fulfillment of God’s announcements through His prophets. The curses of the Covenant (Deut. 28) were executed on Israel through the Beast and the ten horns. They were the instruments of God’s wrath, as Christ had foretold in His discourse on the Mount of Olives. During these horrifying “days of vengeance,” He said, all things that were written would be fulfilled (Luke 21:22). Vision and prophecy would be sealed and completed in the destruction of the old world order (Dan. 9:24).

18       The angel now identifies the Harlot as the Great City, which, as we have seen, St. John uses as a term for Jerusalem, where the Lord was crucified (11:8; 16:19). Moreover, says the angel, this City has a Kingdom over all the kings of the earth. It is perhaps this verse, more than any other, which has confused expositors into supposing, against all other evidence, that the Harlot is Rome. If the City is Jerusalem, how can she be said to wield this kind of worldwide political power? The answer is that Revelation is not a book about politics; it is a book about the Covenant. Jerusalem did reign over the nations. She did possess a Kingdom which was above all the kingdoms of the world. She had a covenantal priority over the kingdoms of the earth. Israel was a Kingdom of priests (Ex. 19:6), exercising a priestly ministry of guardianship, instruction, and intercession on behalf of the nations of the world. When Israel was faithful to God, offering up sacrifices for the nations, the world was at peace; when Israel broke the Covenant, the world was in turmoil. The Gentile nations recognized this (1 Kings 10:24; Ezra 1; 4-7; cf. Rom. 2:17-24).[26] Yet, perversely, they would seek to seduce Israel to commit whoredom against the Covenant – and when she did, they would turn on her and destroy her. That pattern was repeated several times over until Israel’s final excommunication in A.D. 70, when Jerusalem was destroyed. The desolation of the Harlot was God’s final sign that the Kingdom had been transferred to His new people, the Church (Matt. 21:43; 1 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 11:19; 15:5; 21:3). The Kingdom over the kingdoms will never again be possessed by national Israel.

[1] The failure of the priesthood, and the consequences of this for the Bride, are recurring themes in Scripture. See James B. Jordan, Judges: God’s War Against Humanism (Tyler, TX: Geneva Ministries, 1985).

[2] It is noteworthy that Tyre and Nineveh – the only two cities outside of Israel that are accused of harlotry – had both been in covenant with God. The kingdom of Tyre in David and Solomon’s time was converted to the worship of the true God, and her king contracted a covenant with Solomon and assisted in the building of the Temple (1 Kings 5:1-12; 9:13; Amos 1:9); Nineveh was converted under the ministry of Jonah (Jon. 3:5-10). The later apostasy of these two cities could rightly be considered harlotry.

[3] For a brief survey of the harlot motif in Scripture, see Francis Schaeffer’s excellent little book The Church Before the Watching World (Downers Grove, IL: lnterVarsity Press, 1971), Chapter 2: ”Adultery and Apostasy – The Bride and the Bridegroom Theme.”

[4] For a full discussion of this point, see Calum M. Carmichael, “Treading in the Book of Ruth,” ZAW 92 (1980), pp. 248-66.

[5] The attitude of the Rev. H. Foster, Rector of Clerkenwell in the early nineteenth century, is probably representative. Discussing the propriety of preaching from Canticles (the Song of Solomon), he says: “I have preached from various independent texts in the Canticles. I once went through Ezekiel 16, but dared not do it again.” Quoted in John H. Pratt, ed., The Thought of the Evangelical Leaders: Notes of the Discussions of the Eclectic Society, London, During the Years 1798-1814 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, [1856] 1978), p. 441. In a more down-to-earth age, John Calvin was able to be much more explicit in his lectures – so much so that his nineteenth-century translator simply deleted several passages, with this note: “The Reformer dwells so minutely on the language of the Prophet, that the refined taste of modern days will not bear a literal translation of some clauses.” Thomas Myers, in Calvin’s Commentaries on the First Twenty Chapters of the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979 reprint), Vol. 2, p. 127. Cf. another translator’s omission of Calvin’s comments on Gen. 38:8-10 (Commentaries on the First Book of Moses, Baker Book House, 1979, Vol. 2, p. 281).

[6] See on 12:6; cf. remarks on the wilderness theme in David Chilton, Paradise Restored: A Biblical Theology of Dominion (Ft. Worth, TX: Dominion Press, 1985), pp. 24, 46, 50-53.

[7] Josephus, The Jewish War, v.v.4.

[8] For an extended, though preliminary, discussion of the relationships between culinary and sexual purity in the Law, see Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, [1966] 1969), Ch. 3: “The Abominations of Leviticus” (pp. 41-57); idem, Implicit Meanings: Essays in Anthropology (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975), Ch. 16: “Deciphering a Meal” (pp. 249-75).

[9] J. Massyngberde Ford, Revelation: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1975), p. 288.

[10] Eugenio Corsini, The Apocalypse: The Perennial Revelation of Jesus Christ (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1983), p. 335.

[11] Milton S. Terry, Biblical Apocalyptics: A Study of the Most Notable Revelations of God and of Christ in the Canonical Scriptures (New York: Eaton & Mains, 1898), pp. 429f.

[12] Ford, p. 289.

[13] In context (v. 6-8), St. Peter is quoting from Isaiah’s prophecies of the Jews’ rejection of Christ (Isa. 8:14; 28:16; see Matt. 28:12-15). John Brown of Edinburgh commented on 1 Peter 2:8: “The direct reference in the term disobedient is, no doubt, to the unbelieving Jews. When God proclaimed to them, ‘Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner-stone, a sure foundation; he that believeth shall not make haste,’ – they disbelieved the declaration. They disobeyed the command. They rejected the stone. They would not build on it. They would not receive Jesus as the Messiah; on the contrary, they ‘took him, and with wicked hands they crucified and slew him.'” (Expository Discourses on 1 Peter, two vols.; Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, [1848] 1975, Vol. 1, p. 314).

[14] It is not at all necessary, with Russell (The Parousia, p. 492), to seek seven mountains in Jerusalem as the fulfilment of this statement. The Harlot is seated on the Beast, and thus on the seven hills of Rome; in other words, apostate Judaism, centered in the City of Jerusalem, is supported by the Roman Empire.

[15] This has been called into question by some, since, in a technical sense, the Empire began with Augustus, not Julius (d. Tacitus, The Annals, i.1). Yet that was a technicality which, as far as the normal conversation and writing of the first century were concerned, was irrelevant. For all practical purposes, Julius Caesar was Emperor: He claimed the title imperator, and most early Roman, Christian, and Jewish writers count him as the first Emperor. Suetonius begins his Lives of the Twelve Caesars with Julius as the first Emperor, as does Dio Cassius in his Roman History. Book 5 of the Sibylline Oracles calls Julius “the first king,” and 4 Ezra 12:15 speaks of Augustus as “the second” of the emperors. For our purposes, Josephus seems to provide the most convincing testimony, since he wrote for both a Roman and a Jewish audience, in the common parlance of the day. In his Antiquities of the Jews he clearly speaks of Augustus and Tiberius as the second and third emperors (xviii.ii.2), of Caligula as the fourth (, and of Julius as the first (xix.i.11). The most extensive discussion of all the evidence is in Moses Stuart, Commentary on the Apocalypse, two vols. (Andover: Allen, Morrill, and Wardwell, 1845), Vol. 2, pp. 445-52; cf. Isbon T. Beckwith, The Apocalypse of John: Studies in Introduction with an Exegetical and Critical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, [1919] 1979), pp. 701f.

[16] These were: Italy, Achaia, Asia, Syria, Egypt, Africa, Spain, Gaul, Britain, and Germany. See F. W. Farrar, The Early Days of Christianity (Chicago and New York: Belford, Clarke & Co., 1882), p. 532.

[17] Terry, p. 433.

[18] Luke goes on to list some of these nationalities: “Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs” (Acts 2:9-11).

[19] The destruction of the Harlot by her former “lovers” is inexplicable apart from the hypothesis that she is Jerusalem. There is clearly a contextual connection between the nations’ war against Christ and their war against the Harlot. Their opposition is, first and foremost, against Him; their destruction of her is represented as an aspect of their attempt to destroy Him.

[20] Cornelius Tacitus, The Histories, v.l.

[21] Josephus, The Jewish War, ii.xviii.

[22] J. Stuart Russell, The Parousia: A Critical Inquiry into the New Testament Doctrine of Our Lord’s Second Coming (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, [I887] 1983), p. 503.

[23] The Sacred History of Suipitius Severus, in A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, [n.d.] 1973), Second Series, Vol. 11, p. 111. This information from Sulpitius seems to have been derived from Tacitus’s record of eyewitness accounts. See Michael Grant, The Twelve Caesars (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975), pp. 228f.

[24] These seem contradictory to us because we are creatures. Problems such as the relationship of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, or of God’s sovereignty and God’s righteousness, or of unity and diversity within the Trinity, cannot be “solved” by us because we are not capable of comprehending God. Cornelius Van Til writes: “Human knowledge can never be completely comprehensive knowledge. Every knowledge transaction has in it somewhere a reference point to God. Now since God is not fully comprehensible to us we are bound to come into what seems to be contradiction in all our knowledge. Our knowledge is analogical and therefore must be paradoxical” (The Defense of the Faith, Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed. third revised ed., 1967, p. 44). For this reason, “all teaching of Scripture is apparently contradictory” (Common Grace and the Gospel, Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1972, p. 142; cf. pp. 91f.; cf. Van Til’s Introduction to Systematic Theology, Presbyterian and Reformed, pp. 2471f.). For a full consideration of this matter, see John Frame, “The Problem of Theological Paradox,” in Gary North, ed., Foundations of Christian Scholarship (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1976), pp. 295-330.

[25] St. Augustine, Anti-Pelagian Works, Peter Holmes and Robert Ernest Wallis, trans. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, reprinted 1971), p. 514, italics added; cf. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ii.iv.4.

[26] Josephus points out repeatedly that the nations had historically recognized the sanctity and centrality of the Temple: “This celebrated place… was esteemed holy by all mankind” (The Jewish War, v.i.3; cf. v.ix.4; v.xiii.6). In fact, the action of Jewish rebels, in the summer of A.D. 66, of halting the daily sacrifices for the Emperor (in violation, Josephus points out, of long-standing practice) was the single event which finally precipitated the Roman war against the Jews (ii.xvii.2-4). Even at the very end, as Titus prepared to raze the city to the ground, he was still pleading with the Jewish priests to offer up the sacrifices, which by now had been entirely discontinued (vi.ii.1).