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Revelation 17:9–18

“The woman that you saw is the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth” (v. 18).

Why do people go along with evil nations as they persecute God’s people? The answer, at least in part, is that doing so is good for their interest in securing money and power. We may infer as much from Revelation 17:1–8. Babylon, representing in the first instance Rome but also, more broadly, all empires that hate believers, is dressed in royal robes and holds immense riches (v. 4). Those who live on the earth will marvel to see her and to join her (v. 8). She promises them authority and wealth, as well as many other pleasures (v. 4). And as we consider the course of church history, power and wealth have motivated people to join in the persecution of Christians. In communist countries, for example, people rise in power and attain wealth by swearing their allegiance to the state, rejecting Christ, and turning in believing neighbors to the authorities. In ancient Rome, participating in the pagan cults and handing over Christians who would not sacrifice to Caesar and the goddess Roma allowed one to fully participate in the economy and political order.

Revelation 17:9 clearly identifies Babylon as Rome by saying that she is seated on “seven mountains,” which are the “seven heads” of the beast that she rides. Ancient Rome was known as the city of seven hills. But John’s symbolic language has many layers. The seven heads of the beast are also “seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come” (v. 10). Many commentators have attempted to associate these kings with Roman emperors in order to identify the king who “is” at the time of the vision. Coming to a conclusion on this matter is difficult, partly because there is no consensus on who should be considered the first Roman emperor. Julius Caesar is often popularly seen as the first emperor, but he was not actually an emperor. His nephew and adopted son Augustus was the first true Roman caesar. Some have identified the king who “is” as Nero, but certainty on this point is currently impossible.

Further symbolism is seen in that the beast “is an eighth but it belongs to the seven” kings (v. 11). John seems to be saying that the beast whom Rome rides is yet to come and that this beast will be a worse persecutor of Christians than the Roman Empire. Other powers will hand authority over to this beast, at first as subjects of Rome. But when the Lamb conquers them, they will all turn on Rome and attack her (vv. 12–17).

Coram Deo Living before the face of God

We will continue to consider the beast and its identity in our next study. The important thing to focus on here is how the beast whom Rome rides and seems to control turns on her in the end. Many have toyed with evil, thinking that they can control it. In the end, however, evil cannot be controlled, and it will betray all who believe they have mastered it. To play with evil is truly to play with fire.

For Further Study
  • Proverbs 23:26–28
  • Isaiah 33:1
  • Nahum 3
  • Revelation 19:1–5

Evangelism and God’s Sovereignty

Coming Out of Babylon

Keep Reading The High Priestly Prayer of Jesus

From the December 2020 Issue
Dec 2020 Issue