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A Study of Revelation 17:1-18 - Part II

This is a continuation of part one in which I examined vv. 1-8.

vv. 9-11

There are two primary interpretive approaches to this difficult passage: the historical view (within which are two options) and the symbolic view

The Historical Interpretation

(1)The first approach believes that the city and empire of Rome are principally in view. The “seven mountains” (v. 9) are a reference to the seven hills on which Rome sat (Palatine, Capitol, Aventine, Caelian, Esquiline, Viminal, and Quirinal). These seven mountains/hills are further identified with seven kings, five of whom are in the past, one presently rules, and the last has not yet come. The debate concerns which seven of the many Roman emperors are in view. One’s decision depends on two factors. First, when was Revelation written? Knowing this will tell us the identity of the king who “is”. Second, with which Roman emperor did John begin his count of seven?

Here is the list of Roman emperors, and the duration of their reigns, beginning with Julius Caesar.

Julius Caesar (101-44 b.c.)

Augustus (27 b.c. - 14 a.d.)

Tiberius (a.d. 14–37)

Caligula (a.d. 37-41)

Claudius (a.d. 41-54)

Nero (a.d. 54-68)

Galba (a.d. 68)

Otho (a.d. 69)

Vitellius (a.d. 69)

Vespasian (a.d. 69-79)

Titus (a.d. 79-81)

Domitian (a.d. 81-96)

Nerva (a.d. 96-98)

According to scheme A, the list begins with Julius Caesar (101-44 b.c.) and proceeds through Augustus (27 b.c. - 14 a.d.), Tiberius (a.d. 14–37),Caligula (a.d. 37-41), Claudius (a.d. 41-54), Nero (a.d. 54-68), and finally Galba (a.d. 68).

In scheme B, the first six are the same as in A. But the seventh is Vespasian (a.d. 69-79), skipping Galba, Otho, and Vitellius.

In scheme C, Julius Caesar is skipped and the series begins with Augustus (27 b.c. – 14 a.d.) and runs consecutively through Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, and concludes with Otho (a.d. 69).

According to scheme D, the series begins with Augustus and runs through Nero. Galba, Otho, and Vitellius are omitted, making Vespasian (a.d. 69-79) the sixth and Titus (a.d. 79-81) the seventh.

As stated above, one key is the statement in v. 10 that “one is”, i.e., the sixth king is ruling at the actual time of John’s writing of Revelation. If we adopt scheme “A” and begin the series with Julius Caesar, the sixth king is Nero and the seventh is Galba, who according to v. 10 remains only “a little while” (which would be historically true, for Galba ruled only from October 68 to January 69). But this would require a date of composition for Revelation in Nero’s reign, a view that is possible, but not likely.

View “B” arbitrarily omits Galba, Otho, and Vitellius. This is justified by appealing to the brevity of their reigns. However, brief though they be, they were still legitimate Roman emperors. As a matter of historical note, Galba was stabbed to death, decapitated, and his corpse mutilated; Otho committed suicide with a dagger (similar to Nero); and Vitellius was beaten to death. On view “B” Vespasian would be the seventh, but his rule was almost 11 years (is that consistent with “a little while”?).

If one begins counting the seven with Augustus, schemes “C” and “D” are possible. On view “C” John would be writing Revelation during Galba’s reign (late 68 – early 69), making Otho the seventh (whose time in office lasted from January 5th 69 to April 16th 69, which would certainly qualify as “a little while”). View “D” chooses to omit Galba, Otho, and Vitellius, making Vespasian the sixth (during whose reign John wrote Revelation) and his son Titus the seventh (whose reign lasted little more than two years).

The simple fact is, no scheme satisfactorily leads to Domitian as the sixth king who “is” reigning when John wrote Revelation. Be it also noted that if the seven hills point to Rome one would hardly need special divine wisdom to figure it out (as v. 9 asserts). In other words, “any Roman soldier who knew Greek could figure out that the seven hills referred to Rome. But whenever divine wisdom is called for, the description requires theological and symbolical discernment, not mere geographical or numerical insight” (Johnson, 162)

(2)The second option is to interpret the seven mountains of v. 9 as a reference not to Rome or any of its emperors but to seven world empires that oppressed the people of God (cf. Dan. 2:25; 7:17; Jer. 51:25; Isa. 2:2; 41:15; Ps. 30:7; 68:15-16; Hab. 3:6). Five of these pagan empires belong to past history from John’s perspective: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and Greece. A sixth kingdom, Rome, ruled the world when John wrote (hence, Rome is the one who “is”). The seventh, i.e., “the other who has not yet come”, is the emergence of a world empire at the close of history.

Many futurist interpreters of the book take this view and believe the seventh empire will be a revival of ancient Rome. They appeal to Rev. 13:3 and argue that the “head-wound” suffered by the beast was the fall of ancient Rome and the miraculous recovery (or resurrection) that astounds the world is the modern-day revival of Rome in all its power and glory. According to 17:11, the beast not only has seven heads; he also somehow is himself an eighth head. The beast is an eighth empire and is somehow related to (“of”) the first seven. That is to say, out of revived Rome will emerge yet another pagan power related to the previous seven, but nevertheless distinct in its own right. This, then, would be the final manifestation of pagan opposition to the kingdom of God.

One major problem with this view is that in order to make the five + one + one scheme of empires work it unjustifiably omits the devastating persecution of the people of God by the Seleucids of Syria and the evil Antiochus Epiphanes. Also, if the seventh world empire in this list has yet to appear, what does one do with the many major world empires that have come and gone in the past 1,600 years, especially those that sorely persecuted and oppressed the church?

The Symbolic Interpretation

Many believe there is a better solution, one that is more consistent with John’s use of numerical symbolism.

As we have already seen in our discussion of the numbers 7 and 10 in 12:3 and 13:1-2, John is most likely using them here in a figurative sense. Here is Beale’s explanation:

“The number ‘seven’ is not a literal number designating the quantity of kings in one epoch but is figurative for the quality of fullness or completeness, as in the OT, particularly Daniel 7, and throughout the Apocalypse, where ‘seven’ or ‘seventh’ occurs about forty-five times outside of 17:3-11 (e.g., 1:4,20; 4:5; 5:6; 12:3; 13:1-2), all in clearly figurative expressions. As in 12:3 and 13:1-2, fullness of oppressive power is the emphasis here. Therefore, rather than seven particular kings or kingdoms of the first century or any other, the seven mountains and kings represent the oppressive power of world government throughout the ages, which arrogates to itself divine prerogatives and persecutes God’s people when they do not submit to the evil state’s false claims” (869).

The seven heads of the beast, therefore, signify totality of blasphemy and evil. “It is much like our English idiom ‘the seven seas,’ i.e., all the seas of the world” (Johnson, 163). In sum, seven does not point to quantitative measure but to qualitative fullness. In John’s day the particular manifestation of the beast was, of course, Rome. This may well have been what influenced him to use the figurative number “seven” (with reference to its hills), although he would have insisted that the beast is far more than Rome.

John says that five heads of the age-old beast have fallen or been slain. In this sense the beast “is not” (vv. 8,11). But though defeated, he lives on (he “is”, v. 8) because the sixth head is still very much in power (v. 10). And a seventh is yet to appear. John’s point, then, in v. 10,

“is to inform his readers how far they stand from the conclusion of the full sequence of seven oppressive rulers. He tells them that only one more short reign will elapse until the end of the oppressive dominance of Rome, which represents all ungodly oppressive powers. As elsewhere, John tells the churches that the end is not far off and could come quickly: ‘the other,’ that is, the seventh, ‘has not yet come.’ This is to be understood, as elsewhere, as a near expectation. Thus an idea of imminence is expressed, but there is an indeterminate distance between the present and the future end” (Beale, 871).

In summary, the first six “heads” or kingdoms last a long time, throughout the course of history, in contrast with the seventh, and final earthly incarnation of evil, which will fail to sustain a lengthy tenure. It will remain only a short time.

When John says in v. 11 that the beast not merely “has” seven heads but “is” itself an eighth head that is in someway related to the seven, his point is that the manifestation of the dragon/beast through one of their authoritative heads (or earthly kings) at any particular point in history is tantamount to the full presence of the beast.

We must also determine the meaning of the “eighth” head.

(1) Beale argues that “the mention of an eighth king is not a literal quantitative referent to an actual eighth king in a historical order of succession from the seven preceding kings. Rather, ‘eighth,’ like ‘seven,’ has a figurative meaning. ‘Eight’ likely had such significance in earliest Christianity” (875), being a symbolic reference to the day of Christ’s resurrection (and even of Christ himself: recall that, using the method called Gematria, the sum of the Greek letters in the name “Jesus” = 888). Therefore, calling the beast an “eighth” may be another way of referring to his future attempted mimicry of Jesus who in his resurrection inaugurated the new creation.

(2) Richard Bauckham makes several observations based on his understanding of numerical symbolism in Revelation. One possibility is the fact that 666, the number of the beast, is the double triangle of 8 (i.e., 666 is the triangle of 36, which is the triangle of 8). Or again, 666 is the eighth doubly triangular number (in the series 1, 6, 21, 55, 120, 231, 406, 666). Thus the beast is, in a sense, both the “eighth” in that particular series of numbers and also related to the first “seven”. Another approach is to observe that the beast is called an “eighth” because “he is one of the seven recurring as a kind of final excess of evil. In him completeness [as symbolized by the first seven] becomes excess” (405).

Bauckham also believes the “seventh, yea eighth” sequence is an example of the Hebrew idiom known as graded numerical saying in which two consecutive numbers are used in parallel to indicate something that is illustrative and representative rather than literally exhaustive. For example,

“There are six things which the Lord hates, yes, seven which are an abomination to Him” (Prov. 6:16).

“The leech has two daughters, ‘Give,’ ‘Give.’ There are three things that will not be satisfied, four that will not say, ‘Enough’” (Prov. 30:15).

“There are three things which are too wonderful for me, four which I do not understand” (Prov. 30:18).

“Under three things the earth quakes, and under four it cannot bear up” (Prov. 30:21).

“There are three things which are stately in their march, even four which are stately when they walk” (Prov. 30:29).

“Divide your portion to seven, or even to eight, for you do not know what misfortune may occur on earth” (Eccle. 11:2).

“Then he will raise against him seven shepherds and eight leaders of men” (Micah 5:5).

I must confess that, in the final analysis, the meaning of vv. 9-11 may well remain in obscurity!

vv. 12-13

The next task is to determine who or what constitutes the “ten horns”. Those who embrace the historical view above usually find here ten literal rulers of the ten Roman provinces or perhaps ten specific nations in what they believe will be a revived Roman empire (hence the wild speculation and jubilation of some futurists when it was announced in January, 1981, that the European Common Market had just admitted its tenth member nation).

But as we have seen on several occasions, the number “ten”, like “seven”, is figurative. It likely symbolizes the variety and “multiplicity of sovereignties in confederacy that enhance the power of the beast” (Johnson, 165).

Johnson then goes on to identify the 10 with “the principalities and powers, the rulers of the darkness of this world, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms that Paul describes as the true enemies of Jesus’ followers (Eph. 6:12). To be sure, they use earthly instruments, but their reality is far greater than any specific historical equivalents. These ‘kings’ embody the fullness of Satan’s attack against the Lamb in the great eschatological showdown. They are the ‘kings from the east’ (16:12-14,16), and they are also the ‘kings of the earth’ who ally themselves with the beast in the final confrontation with the Lamb (19:19-21)” (166).

I’m more inclined to see the ten horns as representing any and all kings, i.e., the totality of the powers of all nations on the earth, which align themselves with the beast in a final attempt to crush the church. Their unified purpose in giving their power and authority to the beast (v. 13) is the result of God’s providential control (v. 17) pursuant to the fulfillment of God’s eternal prophetic purpose.

vv. 14-15

These verses answer the question raised in 13:4, “Who is able to wage war with him (i.e., the beast)?” The Lamb is able! Together with his “called and chosen and faithful” people he will conquer the one who to all outward appearances had conquered.

vv. 16-18

The scenario portrayed in vv. 16-17 is stunning. Evidently at the end of the age the nations of the earth (i.e., the “ten horns = ten kings”) will conspire with the beast for the purpose of destroying the harlot. Beale takes this to mean that “the political side of the ungodly world system will turn against the heart of the social-economic-religious side and destroy it” (883). The harlot, i.e., the apostate church together with every false religious institution and/or system, will be destroyed by a coalition of political and/or military powers. The OT language behind the demise of the harlot comes from Ezek. 23:25-29,47. Three metaphors are used to describe this event: her “nakedness is exposed like that of a whore, she is devoured like a victim of a fierce beast, and she is burned like a city” (Beale, 883).

The amazing thing is that the ten kings are inspired and energized to do this by God (v. 17)! This incredible internecine conflict between the religious and political spheres of the ungodly world system is so foolish, short-sighted, and ultimately self-destructive that only the hand of God could account for it.

This is a theologically fascinating assertion. Clearly, it is against God’s will for anyone to assist or align with the beast, for the beast’s ultimate aim is to wage war with the Lamb. Nevertheless the angel says (literally), “God gave into their [the ten kings] hearts to do his will, and to perform one will, and to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God shall be fulfilled” (v. 17). Therefore God willed (in one sense) to influence the hearts of the ten kings so that they would do what is against God’s will (in another sense). Go figure!

[Actually, you can examine this theological issue in more depth by checking out my articled titled, “Are There Two Wills in God?”]