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Bible Commentaries
Revelation 17

The Expositor's Greek TestamentExpositor's Greek Testament

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Verse 1

Revelation 17:1 . A fresh vision commences ( cf. Revelation 4:1 ), still punitive (Revelation 16:1 ), but with an exchange of angelic cicerones (as Slav. En. xxi.). The Beast which has already (in 13) done duty as the empire is now the support of the capital. Rome, personified (so Sib. Or. iii. 46 92, before 80 A.D.) as a feminine figure, rides on a beast of the same colour, like a Bacchante on the panther, or like the Syrian Astarte on a lion.

Verse 2

Revelation 17:2 . Tyre’s commercial intercourse with the nations (Isaiah 23:17 ) and Assyria’s political intrigues, by which her statecraft fascinated and seduced other states (Nahum 3:4 ) are both described by the same figure. Local and national cults, as a rule, were left undisturbed by the Romans; and indeed Oriental superstitions often reacted powerfully on Rome itself. But fresh conquests meant the extension of Rome’s intoxicating and godless suzerainty.

Verse 3

Revelation 17:3 . The wilderness was the traditional site of visions, but there may be an allusion here to Isaiah 21:1 or even to the Roman Campagna (Erbes). The woman in 12. is in the desert to be delivered from the dragon; the woman here is in the desert to be destroyed by the Beast. κόκκινον “crimson or scarlet,” = luxurious and haughty splendour (Mart. ii. 39; Juv. Sat. iii. 283 and xiv. 188 for purple). The Beast which in Revelation 13:1 bore the names of blasphemy upon its head, now wears them spread over all its body. Baldensperger (Revelation 17:15-16 ) conjectures a similar reference to Rome in En. 52. ( seven hills?); here at any rate the author is sketching the Roman Empire in its general magnificence and authority under the Cæsars, and the inconsistencies in his description (waters and wilderness, seat on waters, seat on the Beast) are natural to this style of fantastic symbolism. It is curious that no attack is directed against the polytheism of the Empire. Cf. Cebes’ Tabula : “Do you see a woman sitting there with an inviting look, and in her hand a cup? She is called Deceit; by her power she beguiles all who enter life and makes them drink. And what is the draught? Deceit and ignorance.” The mounting of divine figures on corresponding beasts is a Babylonian trait ( S. C. 365).

Verse 4

Revelation 17:4 . κεχρυς . goes by an awkward zeugma with λίθῳ (collective) καὶ μαργαρίταις ; “with ornaments of gold and precious stones and pearls” (like Ezekiel’s doomed prince of Tyre). The harlot in Test. Jude 1:13; Jude 1:13 :5 was also decked ἐν χρυσίῳ καὶ μαργαρίταις and poured out wine for her victims. Rome is pronounced luxurious, licentious and loathsome. Here, as in the contemporary 4 Esd. 3:2, 29, it is felt to be a mystery that prosperity and permanence should belong to a state flaunting its impiety and oppression, not merely enjoying but propagating vice.

Verse 5

Revelation 17:5 . Roman filles de joie wore a label with their names thus (Juv. vi. 123). μυστήριον (which hardly belongs to the title itself) indicates that the name is to be taken πνευματικῶς (Revelation 11:8 ), not literally; “a name written which is a symbol,” or a mysteriously significant title. μήτηρ κ . τ . λ ., Rome, the natural focus of Oriental cults in general, is charged with fostering all the superstitious and vicious practices of her subjects. βδελ . (partly justified by a perusal of Petronius and Apuleius) is an apt rebuke if it comes from the prophet of a religion which one Roman historian classed among the atrocia aut pudenda which disgraced the capital (Tacit. Ann. xv. 44).

Verse 6

Revelation 17:6 . Cf. Nahum’s “bloody city” (of Assyrian cruelty to prisoners, Revelation 3:1 ), and for the metaphor Cic. Phil. ii. 24, 29, or Suet. Tiberius , 59, or Pliny, H. N. xiv. 28, “quo facile intelligatur ebrius jam sanguine ciuium, et tanto magis eum sitiens,” also Jos. Bell . Revelation 17:8 ; Revelation 17:2 . When a Jewish source is postulated, καὶ … Ἰησοῦ is bracketed ( e.g. , by Vischer, Spitta, S. Davidson, Briggs, Charles and others) as from the hand of the later Christian editor, who here, as in Revelation 18:24 (Mommsen), is thinking of the condemnation of provincial prisoners to fight with gladiators or wild beasts in the arena of the capital. The ἅγιοι of the source would thus be defined as, or supplemented by, Christian martyrs. They are not contaminated, like the rest of men, but their purity is won at the expense of their life. The Jewish martyrs would be those killed in the war of 66 70, primarily. The whole verse, however, might be ( cf. Revelation 18:24 ) editorial; it is the contaminations, rather than the cruelties, of Rome which absorb the interest of this oracle.

Verses 7-18

Revelation 17:7-18 . An explanation of the vision, cautiously but clearly outlining the Nero-saga.

Verse 8

Revelation 17:8 . As the Beast seen by the seer cannot be described as non-existent, it must denote here (as in Revelation 13:3 f., though differently) not the empire but the emperor, or one of its own heads. Such an identification was natural in the ancient world especially, where a king and his capital or state were interchangeable terms. The emperor, here Nero redivivus ( cf. the saying of Apollonius, cited in Philostr. Vit. Apol. iv. 38: “Regarding this wild beast,” i.e. , Nero, “I know not how many heads he has”), embodied the empire. The Beast is a sort of revenant . To rise from the abyss was the conventional origin of the Beast ( cf. Revelation 11:7 ) even in the primitive tradition; the Nero-antichrist, however, introduces the fresh horror of a monster breaking loose even from death. True, he goes to perdition eventually, but not before all except the elect have succumbed to the fascination of his second advent. The Beast of the source here is evidently the antichrist figure of Revelation 11:7 (also a Jewish source) transformed into Nero redivivus. There is less reason to suspect the hand of the Christian editor in 8 (Bousset) than in 9 a (J. Weiss).

Verse 9

Revelation 17:9 . ὄρη , cf. Prop. iii. 11, 57 (“Septem urbs alta iugis, quae praesidet orbi”), Verg. Georg . ii. 534.

Verse 11

Revelation 17:11 . Bruston takes καὶ ἐκ τῶν ἑπτὰ ἐστιν as a translation of השבעה הוא ומן , in the sense that the eighth was more (or greater) than the seven, i.e. , realising more fully the ideal of the Beast. But even were the case for a Hebrew original clearer than it is, such an interpretation is forced. The verse is really a parenthesis added by John to bring the source up to date. Domitian, the eighth emperor, under whom he writes, is identified with the true Neronic genius of the empire; he is a revival and an embodiment of the persecuting Beast ( cf. Eus. H. E. iii. 17, Tert. Revelation 5:0; Revelation 5:0 : portio Neronis de crudelitate, de pallio 4: a sub-Nero) to the Christian prophet, as he proved a second Nero to some of his Roman subjects ( cf. Juvenal’s well-known sneer at the caluus Nero ). This does not mean that John rationalises Nero redivivus into Domitian, which would throw the rest of the oracle entirely out of focus. Domitian, the eighth emperor, is not explained as the Beast which was and is not and is to come up out of the abyss (Revelation 17:8 ), but simply as the Beast which was and is not ; no allusion is made to his term of power, and the concluding phrase καὶ εἰς ἀπ . ὑπάγει is simply the conventional prophecy of doom upon persecutors; it need not be a post-factum reference to D.’s murder in 96. He belonged to the seven , as he had been closely associated with the Imperial power already (Tac. Hist. iii. 84, iv. 2, 3; cf. Jos. Bell . iv. 11, 4). The enigmatic and curt tone of the verse shows that either from prudence (“some consideration towards the one who is beseems even a prophet,” Mommsen), or more probably from pre-occupation in the grim, ulterior figure of the Neronic antichrist, the prophet does not care to dwell minutely on the emperor’s personality as an incarnate Nero. He does not even allude to the suspicion, voiced by his contemporaries (4 Esd. 11:12) that Domitian had made away with Titus. His vision is strained, like that of his source, to the final and supernatural conflict; the Satanic messiah, the Beast who is to return from the abyss, bulks most prominently on the horizon. The absorbing interest of the oracle, even in its edited form, is eschatological. John simply puts in a few words, as few as possible, to bring this Vespasianic source up to date, since the death of Titus had not been followed by the appearance of the Nero-antichrist. The latter is still and soon to come however! John thoroughly shares, though he expands and applies, the prediction of his source. The addition he makes to it in Revelation 17:11 must on no account be taken as if it meant the substitution of “Domitian = Nero redivivus” for the supernatural expectation of the latter. There is certainly some awkwardness in the juxtaposition of Domitian as a second Nero and of Nero redivivus, but this was inevitable under the circumstances.

Verses 12-13

Revelation 17:12-13 . This political application of the ten horns probably means either the Parthian satraps of Revelation 16:12 , reckoned in round numbers, who occupied a royal position in the estimation of the East (so, e.g. , Eichhorn, de Wette, Bleek, Bousset, Scott, J. Weiss, Baljon, Wellhausen), or (“chefs d’armée,” Havet) the governors of the (ten senatorial) provinces, holding office for ( μίαν ὥραν ) one year (so Ewald, Hilg., Hausrath, Mommsen, B. Weiss, Hirscht, Briggs, Selwyn, B. W. Henderson [“the number may be derived from Daniel. In any case it is a round number, and the seer did not go round counting the number of the Roman provinces”]), unless it is to be left as a vague description of the allies (Weizs., Holtzm., Swete). Philo ( de leg. ad Caium xxxiv.) notes the facilities possessed by proconsuls for starting revolutions, especially if they commanded powerful armies such as those stationed on the Euphrates to protect Syria.

Verses 12-18

Revelation 17:12-18 : the campaign of Nero and his vassal-kings against Rome, which is slain by an arrow feathered from her own wings.

Verse 14

Revelation 17:14 . An abrupt and proleptic allusion to Revelation 19:11-21 ; the Christian messiah is the true King of kings (a side reference to the well-known Parthian title). This is the first time that John brings the Lamb on the scene of earthly action. He now appears at the side, or rather at the head, of his followers in the final crisis, not in a struggle preceding the sack of Rome. He and Satan (as represented by the empire) are the real protagonists. Note the share assigned to the faithful in this victory (after Revelation 2:26-27 ). The war fought on their behalf by the Lamb is their fight also ( cf. on Revelation 19:14 ); its success rests on the divine election and their corresponding loyalty ( cf. Revelation 12:11 , Revelation 13:8 ; a Zoroastrian parallel in Yasht xiii. 48; the favourite description of the saints in Enoch as “chosen [and] righteous”; and Passio Perpetuae , xxi., “o fortissimi martyres o uere uocati et electi in gloriam Domini nostri Jesu Christi”). The redeeming power of Christ, together with the adoration which he alone can rightfully claim, make his cause more than equal to the empires of the world ( cf. the thought of Isaiah 53:12 ).

Verse 15

Revelation 17:15 . The woman impiously rivals God ( κύριος ἐπὶ ὑδάτων πολλῶν , Psalms 29:3 ; Psalms cf.10). ὄχλοι is substituted for the more common φυλαί , perhaps with an allusion (after Ezekiel 16:15 ; Ezekiel 16:25 ; Ezekiel 16:31 ) to Rome’s imperial rapacity.

Verse 16

Revelation 17:16 . Rome perishes at the hands of Nero and his ruthless allies a belief loudly echoed in the Talmud. In Sib. Or. iv. 145, 350 f. the East then and thus regains the treasures of which the Oriental provinces had been despoiled. γυμνήν … πυρί the doom of a Semitic harlot (Ezekiel 23:45 f., Ezekiel 28:17-18 ). But no details of the disaster are given.

Verse 17

Revelation 17:17 . The remarkable unanimity and obedience of the usurping vassals, which welds them into an avenging instrument, can only be explained on supernatural grounds. A divine overruling controls all political movements ( cf. Revelation 11:2 , Revelation 13:5 ; Revelation 13:7 ), according to the determioism of apocalyptic tradition (Baldensperger, 58 f.). The irony of the situation is that the tools of providence are destroyed, after they have unconsciously served their purpose (as in Isaiah 10:12 f.). The Imperial power, hitherto the usual support of Rome, is to prove her deadly foe; John’s stern philosophy is that one partner in this hateful union is employed to ruin the other. Not long before this prophecy appeared, Vitellius and Vespasian in the person of their partisans had ravaged Rome in the near future Nero’s allies were to fight, like Corio-lanus, against their “cankered country, with the spleen of all the under-fiends”. μίαν κ . τ . λ . The same tradition, on a simpler scale, appears in 4 Esd. 13:33, 34 where, at the revelation of God’s Son, “every man shall leave his own land and their battles against one another; and a countless multitude shall assemble together, desiring to come and fight against him”. The dualism of God and Satan is not absolute; even the latter’s manœuvres are made to subserve some providential design.

Verse 18

Revelation 17:18 . The dramatic climax of the oracle: the great harlot is Rome, domina Roma, the pride and queen of the world! Cf. Spenser’s Ruines of Rome , 360 f. (“Rome was th’ whole world, and al the world was Rome”). For the probable position of Revelation 19:9-10; Revelation 19:9-10Revelation 19:9-10 at this point in the original form of the Apocalypse, see below ( ad loc. ).

After a prelude on the doom of this second and western Babylon (Revelation 18:1-3 ) two sublime songs follow: one of triumph in heaven (Revelation 17:4-8 ) one of wailing on earth (9 f.). Both are modelled in semi-strophic style upon the earlier taunt-songs ( cf. Introd. § 4) over Tyre and Babylon ( cf. also Apoc. Bar. lxxxii. 3 9). But the severe invective against Rome reveals the shuddering impression which this marvel and mistress of the world made upon the conscience of her provincial subjects, Jewish or Christian. They were half fascinated, even as they felt repelled, by the sight of her grandeur. This magnificent doom song (9 f.) like that of Apoc. Bar. 12. (cf. Revelation 17:13 ), however, celebrates her downfall, partly on grounds which might be justified from contemporary pagan authors ( cf. Renan’s Apôtres , ch. xvii.). ver. 24 (note the sudden change from σοί to αὐτῇ ) and 20 (in whole or part) are Christian editorial insertions, ( a ) either by some scribe or editor after the Apocalypse was completed, or ( b ) by John himself in an earlier source (Jewish or from his own hand). The presence of a special source is suggested by e.g. , the unexampled use of οὐαί ( cf. on Revelation 17:16 , and Oxyrh. Fragment of Uncan. Gospel , 31), the large number of ἅπαξ εὑρημένα ( στρήν . 3, διπλόω 6, διπλόος , cf. 1 Timothy 5:17 , στρην . 7 and 9, σιρικοῦ , ἐλεφ ., σιδήρου , μαρμάρου and θύϊνον in 12, κινν ., ἄμωμον , σεμίδ ., ῥεδῶν , and σωμάτων , [in this sense] in 13, ἀπώλετο (14), ἐργάζονται [in this sense in Apoc.] in 17, τιμ . 19, ὁρμ . 21, μους ., σαλπιστῶν , κιθαρῳδῶν [only in Revelation 14:2 ] 22, ὀπώρα and λιπαρά , 14) and rare terms, for which the special character of the contents can hardly account. Differences of outlook also emerge; e.g. , Revelation 18:9 f. is out of line with Revelation 17:17 and Revelation 16:13 f., Revelation 18:1-3 (Rome long desolate) hardly tallies with Revelation 18:9 f. (ruins still smouldering, cf. Revelation 19:3 ), and the kings of Revelation 18:9-10 lament, whereas in Revelation 17:16 they attack, Rome. These inconsistencies (Schön, Schmiedel) might in part be set down to the free poetic movement of the writer’s imagination, working in dramatic style and oblivious of matter-of-fact incongruities like the sauve qui peut of 4; just as the lack of any allusion to the Imperial cultus, the Lamb, or the martyrs (exc. 20 and 24) does not necessarily denote a Jewish origin. But the cumulative effect of these features points to 20 and 24 as insertions by John in a Jewish ( cf. e.g. , the special emphasis on the trader’s point of view, 11 17) Vespasianic source which originally formed a pendant to that underlying 17 (so variously in detail but agreeing on a source, probably Jewish Sabatier, Rauch, Spitta, Weyland, Bousset, J. Weiss, Schmidt, Baljon, Pfleid., Wellhausen, von Soden, de Faye, Calmes). The original breathed the indignant spirit of a Jewish apocalyptist against the proud empire which had won a temporary triumph over the city and people of God. John applies it to the Rome which was also responsible for the persecutions. The tone of it has been severely censured, as if it breathed a malignant orgy of revenge. “It does not matter whether Jewish or Christian materials are the ultimate source. He who takes delight in such fancies is no whit better than he who first invented them” (Wernle, p. 370). So far as this is true, it applies to Revelation 19:17-21 (or 14 20) rather than to 18. But the criticism must be qualified; see notes on Revelation 18:7 ; Revelation 18:20 . There is smoke in the flame, but a profound sense of moral indignation and retribution overpowers the mere vindictiveness of an unpatriotic fanatic who exults to see his oppressor humiliated.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Revelation 17". The Expositor's Greek Testament. https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/egt/revelation-17.html. 1897-1910.
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