Revelation 17 is a section of Scripture for which the symbolism is given (v1-6) and then it is interpreted for one to understand with wisdom (7–18). In the first 6 verses of Revelation 17, “one of the seven angels that had the seven bowls” called John to show him “the judgment of the great harlot that
sits upon many waters” (v1). Now, John is told of who is the harlot. He describes the harlot in further detail as “with whom the kings of the earth committed fornication” (v2) and that she sat upon “a scarlet-colored beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns” (v3). What are these? Keep reading. The harlot is dressed “in purple and scarlet, and decked with gold and precious stone and pearls, having in her hand a golden cup full of abominations, even the unclean things of her fornication” (v4) with “Mystery, Babylon the Great, the Mother of the Harlots and of the Abominations of the Earth” (v5) written on her forehead. She was “drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (v6). Certainly, when John saw this, he wondered about it.
In Revelation 17:7, this angel asked why John wondered and the angel told John that he would tell him the mystery of the woman, the beast, the 7 heads, and 10 horns. The revealing of mystery in Revelation is to make the message clear to one with wisdom. The revealing of mysteries appears in specific places throughout Revelation. For example, Jesus revealed to John that, “the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks are seven churches.” This is the same here in 17:7 where the angel said, “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”. A plea to understand the mystery revealed is in Revelation 17:9, “Here is the mind that has wisdom”, which is also found “Here is wisdom. He that has understanding,” (Rev. 13:18). Let’s see what is revealed about these 4 things.
The Woman, the Harlot
Revelation 17 is clear when John in the Spirit points out that “the woman whom you saw is the great city, which reigns over the kings of the earth” (v18). This harlot “is” the great city of that time. John was writing at the time of the great city, the harlot, who reigned over the kings of the earth who also fornicated with her, which this is a common Biblical reference to idolatry and the worship of false gods. The time of the harlot did include the time of John’s writing in the first century. Though the time is not pinpointed yet, this great city existed at the very time that John was writing.
The identity of the harlot is clearer when one sees that the city is one that sits on seven mountains (17:9). Use your own research to find the city of the first century that was known as the city that sat on seven mountains (use a search engine). The angel also reveals to John that “the waters which you saw, where the harlot sits, are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues” (17:15). What does this mean? Again, use wisdom. Also, remember that the angel came to John to reveal the judgment of the harlot, and so he said, “And the ten horns which you saw, and the beast, these shall hate the harlot, and shall make her desolate and naked, and shall eat her flesh, and shall burn her utterly with fire” (Rev. 17:16). Who is the Beast that would harm this city?
The Beast that Carries the Woman
The Beast is the eighth and “is of the seven” heads (17:11). To answer exactly “What or who is the Beast?”, then we must know what are the seven heads. These are seven kings (17:10), an the Beast is said to be “an eighth but it belongs to the seven”.
“The beast that you saw was, and is not; and is about to come up out of the abyss, and to go into perdition” and “behold the beast, how that he was, and is not, and will come” (17:8). This is the same kind of description for the Lord God in Revelation 1:8, “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty'” (also 1:4, 4:8). How is “who is and who was and who is to come” a description of God? This is a description of God being the one who lives forever and always has (4:8-10). The Beast-king is described in contrast to God. Clearly, the Beast-king is the evil in contrast to Christ or as many call the Beast an anti-Christ.
The time of the Beast also gets us closer to a pinpoint on the timeline of Revelation. John reveals that the Beast-king is not and that at the time of John’s writing the king was and will come. The Beast-king “was, and is not, and will come”. The Beast had come and will come again after John’s revelation. Remember that the harlot, the great city on seven hills, sits upon this king. What great king would be associated in rule with the great city at this time? Study for yourself.
Who is the king? The Beast-king has “power, a throne, and great authority” “over every tribe and people and tongue and nation” and the whole earth followed the Beast (13:2, 3, 7). One of the seven heads of the Beast had mortal wound that was healed (13:3). There are other descriptions of the Beast that aid in understanding him as a king. Ten other kings will serve the Beast (17:12) and “These have one mind, and they give their power and authority unto the beast” (17:13, 17). Along this same description is that the world worshiped the Dragon, Satan (12:9), who at this time gave authority to the Beast. This king would fight against God’s holy ones. The Beast spoke great things and blasphemed God (13:5-6), and “it was given unto him to make war with the saints, and to overcome them” (13:7) for “42 months” (13:5).
The king’s due wrath would come. The king’s final destination is perdition, the second death, which is the lake of fire (Rev. 19:20, 21:8). The Beast and his ten kings “shall war against the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them, for He is Lord of lords, and King of kings; and they also shall overcome that are with Him, called and chosen and faithful” (Rev. 17:14). Also, use wisdom to understand that “the ten horns which you saw, and the Beast, these shall hate the harlot, and shall make her desolate and naked, and shall eat her flesh, and shall burn her utterly with fire” (Rev. 17:16). Now, who is this king? When will he come again? Look to the next section on the Seven Heads.
The Seven Heads
It has already been shown that “the seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sits” (17:9), which the great city sits on seven mountains. These seven heads also represent “seven kings” (17:10). This presents the most exact pinpoint on all of the timeline of Revelation and answers the question “When will the Beast come?” John speaks of the seven heads saying, “and they are seven kings; the five are fallen, the one is, the other is not yet come; and when he comes, he must continue a little while” (17:10). Clearly, this is a line of kings of the great city. Five kings are dead, one is alive, and one will come for a short time then the Beast will come. The time of the writing of John’s Revelation is during the sixth king, the one current and living king. This is the key to the timeline of Revelation that one of the kings of the line is living then. Who is the current king when John wrote the revelation? Study for yourself the line of rulers in the 1st century and you will know. One thing is extremely clear about the time of these kings that the sixth king’s life is during the time of John’s life in the later half of the 1st century. With the Beast being the eighth of these kings, then we know that the time of the Beast-king was to come shortly as in the 1st century, so the Beast’s tribulation upon the saints was coming soon to the 1st century along with Christ’s coming to cast the Beast into the Lake of Fire is to strike those who follow the Beast with the sword of His mouth (Rev. 19).
The Ten Horns
The identity of the ten horns and their actions have already been revealed above as these Scriptures present. “And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings, who have received no kingdom as yet; but they receive authority as kings, with the beast, for one hour” (17:12). “These have one mind, and they give their power and authority unto the beast” (17:13). “These shall war against the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them, for he is Lord of lords, and King of kings; and they also shall overcome that are with him, called and chosen and faithful” (Rev. 17:14). “And the ten horns which you saw, and the beast, these shall hate the harlot, and shall make her desolate and naked, and shall eat her flesh, and shall burn her utterly with fire” (Rev. 17:16). “For God did put in their hearts to do his mind, and to come to one mind, and to give their kingdom unto the beast, until the words of God should be accomplished” (17:17).
The identity and destruction of the harlot, the Beast, and the ten kings is clear. The time that this would occur is clearly in the late 1st century and into the 2nd. Revelation 17 debunks the idea of Premillennialism, which teaches that the Millennial kingdom has not come. After the casting of the Beast into the Law of Fire in 1st or 2nd century (Rev. 19), then Christ’s reign with His saints for one thousand years came (Rev. 20). Is this Jesus’ 2nd coming? No. Revelation 20 presents Jesus 2nd coming when after this, the Universe would be destroyed. Revelation 17 also debunks the common Preterist teaching that the great city of Revelation 11 is Jerusalem. The other Preterist belief that all of Revelation was fulfilled in the 1st century is refuted in Acts 1:11 and 2 Peter 3:10-13.
Finally, study for yourself Revelation 17. It is in the perfect spot to reveal mysteries to believers that God and His followers do not want revealed to the enemies of Christ.