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The Woman and the Beast


One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits by many waters. With her the kings of the earth committed adultery, and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries.”

Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. The name written on her forehead was a mystery:

Babylon the great

the mother of prostitutes

and of the abominations of the earth.

I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus.

When I saw her, I was greatly astonished. Then the angel said to me: “Why are you astonished? I will explain to you the mystery of the woman and of the beast she rides, which has the seven heads and ten horns. The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and yet will come up out of the Abyss and go to its destruction. The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast, because it once was, now is not, and yet will come.

“This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits. They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for only a little while. The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king. He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction.

“The ten horns you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but who for one hour will receive authority as kings along with the beast. They have one purpose and will give their power and authority to the beast. They will wage war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will triumph over them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings—and with him will be his called, chosen and faithful followers.”

Then the angel said to me, “The waters you saw, where the prostitute sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations and languages. The beast and the ten horns you saw will hate the prostitute. They will bring her to ruin and leave her naked; they will eat her flesh and burn her with fire. For God has put it into their hearts to accomplish his purpose by agreeing to hand over to the beast their royal authority, until God’s words are fulfilled. 18 The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.”
The Wilderness

This vision begins with John being carried away by an angel, in the Spirit, into the wilderness. (Revelation 17:3) The same thing happened to the prophet Ezekiel more than once (Ezekiel 3:14; 8:3; 11:24). But it is not as though John is being physically lifted up from Patmos and placed in the wilderness. This happens “in the Spirit”.

One of the recurring themes of the Bible is that God’s people encounter him in the wilderness, which, in most cases, means the desert. Moses met God in the desert (Exodus 3:1). Elijah met God in the wilderness (1 Kings 19:4). John the Baptist grew to manhood and ministered in the wilderness (Luke 1:80; Matthew 3:1). Even Jesus withdrew to the wilderness for spiritual preparation (Matthew 4:1; John 11:54). William Barclay says, “It may well be that there is not enough quietness in our lives for us to receive the message which God is eager to give.” Perhaps we would know God more intimately if we too spent time with him in the wilderness.

The Woman

So, what does John see when he is taken in the Spirit by an angel into the wilderness? He sees first a woman.

Why does John call the woman a prostitute?

John is following an ancient tradition in the Hebrew Scriptures. The prophet Nahum called Nineveh a prostitute (Nahum 3:4). Isaiah describes Tyre in the same manner (Isaiah 23:16-17). Isaiah and Ezekiel even call Jerusalem a prostitute because she prostituted herself to other gods. (Isaiah 1:21; Ezekiel 16:15)

Behind this image is the idea that God is the lover of human beings. We are meant to be the bride of Christ (Revelation 19:7; 21:2,9; 22:17). When we turn our backs on God and on Christ, it is not so much a sin against law as it is a sin against love.

Also, in this idea of Rome as prostitute there is inherent the idea that Rome is acting as “allurement to godlessness and immorality” (Barclay). Not only has Rome turned away from the one true God, but she is enticing others to do so as well.

When John describes the prostitute as sitting upon many waters, he is utilizing a common ancient description of Babylon. (Jeremiah 51:13) The Euphrates ran through Babylon and the city was also the center of a series of irrigation canals. John uses the many waters as a symbol of the many nations, people, and tongues over which Rome rules.

The woman is clothed in purple and scarlet and wearing all kind of jewelry. This is the picture of a wealthy prostitute, not your garden variety “Pretty Woman”. For John and his readers this is symbolic of the luxury of Rome. Purple and scarlet are the colors of royalty. Thus, in painting this portrait, John may have had in the back of his mind the image of Messalina, one of the wives of the Emperor Claudius, who, some ancient writers tell us, acted as a prostitute.

The woman has in her hand a golden cup filled with abominations. This picture of Babylon comes from Jeremiah 51:7, “Babylon was a golden cup in the Lord’s hand, making all the earth drunken; the nations drank of her wine; therefore the nations went mad.” For John, Rome holds the power of seduction that drives the world mad. As Tom Wright says, “His point is that the outward appearance of the whore is magnificent, but the inner reality is disgusting, stomach-churning filth.”

Was John exaggerating when he said that the golden cup held by the woman was filled with abominations? Hardly. Tacitus called Rome “the place into which from all over the world all atrocious and shameful things flow and where they are most popular.” Seneca called Rome “a filthy sewer”. John’s picture of Rome may actually be restrained by comparison to what these famous Romans said of their great city. It was into such a civilization that Christianity came, and what a difference Christianity made to countless lives.

The woman has a name on her forehead. In ancient Rome the prostitutes in the public brothels wore a frontlet on their foreheads giving their names. The name that the woman wears is a mystery. By the word “mystery” John means something unintelligible to the uninitiated but clear to the initiated. The mystery is the meaning of the woman’s name: Babylon. As we have already seen, this is John’s symbol or codeword for Rome that would have been obvious to his first century Christian readers. As my friend, Bob McCan, has written, Babylon was “a place of worldly wealth and power where the Israelites had been held captive for more than 70 years. Even as that ancient city was destroyed and the children of Israel released from captivity, so the city of Rome will be destroyed and Christians will be freed from their tribulation.”

The woman is drunk on the blood of God’s people, the martyrs. This is an obvious reference to the persecution of Christians by Rome. At times Rome did not merely persecute Christians as a sort of legal necessity, but rather took fiendish delight in hounding the Christians to death. When he wrote this line, John may have been thinking back to the persecution that took place under Nero. As we all now know, Nero started the great fire of Rome in AD 64 and then blamed it on the Christians. Tacitus described that persecution in this way:

All human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor (Nero), and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius, at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred of mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs, and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burned, to serve as a nightly illumination when daylight had expired… Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion, for it was not, as it seemed for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty that they were being destroyed.[1]

The Beast

Now let’s look at the second major image in John’s vision: a scarlet beast. First off, the beast is linked by its red color to the enormous red dragon mentioned in Revelation 12:3, that dragon who is Satan.

The woman sits on the beast and the beast is filled with blasphemous names. If the woman is Rome, then the beast is the Roman Empire. Many gods were worshipped throughout the empire. From John’s perspective, the worship of all these false gods was blasphemous. As we have seen throughout Revelation, even the emperor was worshipped as a god and, from John’s perspective, he had many blasphemous names given to him: Augustus (which means to be revered), “divus” or “theios” (meaning divine), “soter” (which means savior), and “dominus” or “kurios” (which means lord).

The beast has seven heads and ten horns. This is a repeat of what we read in chapter 13. The seven heads are seven hills. Rome was known as the city upon seven hills. John says the heads are also seven kings. This is one of the riddles of Revelation.

What is the meaning behind this riddle? This question has been debated by scholars for many years. Here is my take on the answer…

John says that five of these kings have fallen. Augustus is generally considered to be the first emperor of Rome. Julius was accorded this title, but when he died, the Senate thought it would reassume its powers. That did not turn out to be the case. Thus, Julius’ successor, Augustus, is generally considered to be the first official emperor of Rome. If that is the case, then the first five emperors depicted in John’s vision were: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. These are the five who have fallen.

After the death of Nero there were two years of chaos in which Galba, Otho and Vitellius followed each other in quick succession. They were not really emperors and so are not included in John’s list.

According to John’s vision, the one who is currently on the throne is Vespasian, the first emperor to bring stability back to the empire after Nero. He reigned from AD 69-79.

John says another has not yet come, and when he comes, he will only remain for a short time. Titus followed Vespasian and his reign lasted only two years from 79 to 81.

The beast who was, and is not, is himself the eighth. He follows from the series of seven emperors and is on his way to destruction. Thus, John identifies the emperor who follows Titus as the Nero redivivus and Antichrist. That emperor was Domitian during whose reign John was undoubtedly writing.

If this is correct, then it raises the question: Why does John make it sound like he is writing in the time of Vespasian? Well, it could be that John originally wrote this vision down in the time of Vespasian. Then he lived to see it come true in the emperors who followed and so he incorporated his later knowledge into the final draft of Revelation. In any case, most scholars, since the time of Irenaeus in the second century, have believed that John wrote Revelation in the time of Domitian.

John says that the beast was, and is not, and is about to come again. This is a parody on the title given to Christ in Revelation 1:4, “him who is, and who was, and who is to come”.

This image also takes us back to Revelation 13 and the Nero redivivus legend. The Nero Redivivus legend was a belief popular during the last part of the 1st century that Nero would return after his death in AD 68. The earliest written version of this legend is found in the Sibylline Oracles. It claims that Nero did not really die but fled to Parthia, where he would amass a large army and would return to Rome to destroy it.

John was not the only one who viewed Domitian as Nero redivivus. Juvenal’s Satires refer to Domitian as a “bald Nero”.

Was Domitian really as bad as some scholars make him out to be? No doubt he accomplished some good things as far as the empire was concerned, but that was during the early part of his reign. By the time of John’s writing of Revelation, Domitian had descended into cruelty. The Roman biographer, Suetonius, said that Domitian was an object of terror and hatred to all. Suetonius says that Domitian, at the beginning of his reign, “used to spend hours in seclusion every day, doing nothing but catch flies and stab them with a keenly-sharpened stylus.”[2] Hermogenes, the historian, wrote things which Domitian did not like; he was executed, and the scribe who had copied the manuscript was crucified. Senators were slaughtered right and left. Domitian revived the old punishment of having his victims stripped naked, fixed by the neck in a fork of wood and beaten to death with rods. Suetonius goes on, “After the victory in the civil war he [Domitian] became even more cruel, and, to discover any conspirators who were in hiding, tortured many of the opposite party by a new form of inquisition, inserting fire in their privates; and he cut off the hands of some of them.” Domitian began his official edicts: “Our lord and god bids this to be done.” Soon that was the only way in which Domitian allowed people to address him. It was Domitian who first made Caesar worship compulsory and who was, therefore, responsible for unleashing a floodtide of persecution against the early Christians.[3] There is no doubt, that as far as the Christians were concerned, Domitian was a bad actor.

Then, in Revelation 17:12 we read, “The ten horns you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but who for one hour will receive authority as kings along with the beast.” Who are these ten kings?

This question is hard to answer. Back in the 1970s, the popular answer among some Christian preachers to this question was that the ten kings represent the European Common Market and that the Scarlet Beast represents a revived Roman Empire. But then that interpretation foundered when more than 10 nations joined the European Common Market and later the European Union.

It seems to me far more likely that the ten kings represent rulers with whom John was familiar in his lifetime in or around the Roman Empire. William Barclay suggests that “By far the likeliest interpretation of this is that the ten kings are the satraps of the Parthian hosts, who will make common cause with Nero redivivus and under him fight the last battle in which Rome will be destroyed and the Lamb will subdue every hostile force in the universe.” This picture fits with the Nero redivivus legend and it also suits John’s purposes.

Of course, this is not how the Roman Empire came to an end. John may have been basing his description of the fall of Babylon on the biblical prescription for the punishment of a prostitute in Leviticus 21:9 and upon Isaiah’s description of the fall of the original Babylon in Isaiah 47. In any case, John could not foresee exactly how the empire would come to an end and the Lamb would triumph. Thus, he may have been wrong about his prediction of how the end would come for Rome, but he was right that Rome would come to an end and the Lamb would be triumphant. By the early fourth century, Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire and indeed it outlasted the empire.

Once again, John underlines for us the main message of Revelation: Jesus is going to win in the end. As Jesus himself says in John 16:33, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

[1] Tacitus: Annals 15:44


[3] William Barclay, Revelation, Volume 2, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976, pp. 139-141.


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