7 But the angel said to me, “Why do you marvel? I will tell you the mystery of the woman, and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her. 8 The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to rise from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the dwellers on earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world will marvel to see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come. 9 This calls for a mind with wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; 10 they are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he does come he must remain only a little while. 11 As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction. 12 And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have not yet received royal power, but they are to receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast. 13 These are of one mind, and they hand over their power and authority to the beast. 14 They will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.”
15 And the angel said to me, “The waters that you saw, where the prostitute is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages. 16 And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the prostitute. They will make her desolate and naked, and devour her flesh and burn her up with fire, 17 for God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by being of one mind and handing over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled. 18 And the woman that you saw is the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth.” – Revelation 17:7-18 ESV
It’s fascinating that John is somewhat chided by the angel for having found all the talk about the great prostitute a bit difficult to understand. The angel promises to make the mystery clear and yet, this has become one of the most disputed passages in all of the book of Revelation. It seems apparent that the great prostitute introduced in the first six verses is a representation of the apostate church that comes to power in the world during the tribulation. Led by the false prophet, this false religion will promote the worship of the Antichrist. And it will lead the charge in the persecution of both orthodox Jews and tribulation saints. Countless believers in Christ, who come to faith during the seven-year period of the tribulation, will be put to death for refusing to accept the mark of the beast and for their unwillingness to worship the Antichrist.
But the angel promises to give John further insight into the identity of the woman and the beast. Back in verse three, John describes seeing the woman “sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns.” Now, in verse eight, the angel provides John with a bit more information regarding the identity of the beast:
The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to rise from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. – Revelation 17:8 ESV
The somewhat cryptic phrase, “it was and is not and is to come” shows up again later on in this same passage. But what does it mean? One of the things that makes it so difficult to determine just exactly who the angel is referring to in this passage is his use of the term, “beast.” Throughout the book of Revelation, that name is used to refer to Satan himself, the world ruler and the political government he sets up on earth. And because the three entities are so closely linked, it can become confusing as to which one is being talked about at any given time. In these verses, it seems that Satan, the Antichrist and his one-world government are all included in the angel’s description. The beast that was and is not and is about to rise from the bottomless pit seems to be a reference to the government or political system of the Antichrist. It will be a former world power that faded from the scene, but that will appear once again and become a the dominant political force on the planet – all because of the influence of Satan himself. The reference to the beast coming out of the abyss can only refer to Satan. The abyss or bottomless pit is his domain. It is from there that his power comes, and it is his power that makes possible this former world government to essentially resurrect and regain its former glory. And while Satan will be the invisible force behind this nation’s rise to former glory, the visible force will be Antichrist. And the people of the earth, those whose names are not written in the book of life, will marvel at his accomplishment. The unbelieving world will see the Antichrist as a political miracle worker and his kingdom as a sign of his divinity.
As always, when studying the book of Revelation, one must keep in mind other passages found in the book that can shed light on the seeming mysteries of John’s visions. Back in chapter 13, John was given another vision of the beast that coincides with what he is describing here.
1 And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads. 2 And the beast that I saw was like a leopard; its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority. 3 One of its heads seemed to have a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed, and the whole earth marveled as they followed the beast. 4 And they worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” – Revelation 13:1-4 ESV
What is important to note is that the dragon, or Satan, is the one who gives his power to the the beast. And, just as in chapter 17, this beast is described as having seven heads and ten horns – a point that the angel tells John “calls for a mind with wisdom” (Revelation 17:9 ESV). This is going to be difficult to understand. It is going to require wisdom and discernment. And, as if the imagery is not already confusing enough, the angel informs John that the seven heads are actually seven mountains, on which the woman sits. And they represent seven kings. So, which is it? First of all, we need to notice the use of the number seven. As usual, it is a reference to completeness or wholeness. These seven kings or nations will represent seven empires that will form a comprehensive picture of mankind’s power and authority. The angel describes these seven kings or kingdoms as, “five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come” (Revelation 17:10 ESV). They would appear to be progressive or sequential in nature, with five of these kingdoms having existed at one time, but having faded from prominence. The one that “is” refers to the Roman empire that ruled the world when John penned the book of Revelation. And the one that “has not yet come” refers to the kingdom of the Antichrist, which will rise to power and prominence during the tribulation. It seems most likely that the five former kingdoms referred to by the angel include Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and Greece. If you add Rome and then the kingdom that was yet to come and would remain a little while, you have the seven heads, mountains of kingdoms portrayed by the vision. And what do all of these kingdoms share in common? They have all persecuted or will persecute the people of God. Each has a less-then-ideal track record with the people of Israel and this will continue into the tribulation.
But what about the eighth nation mentioned in verse 11? To what could this be referring? Once again, the seven kings or mountains represent seven separate and successive kingdoms that will rule on earth. The first six include Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and the Roman empire of John’s day. But the Roman empire has since faded from view. The world is made up of a conglomeration of various nations and world powers, many of whom are remnants of the former Roman empire. A look at a map of the Roman empire at its zenith reveals that its domain was primarily located around the Mediterranean Sea and encompassed all of the land of Israel and extended all the way East into the former land of Babylon and Assyria. It seems that this empire will be revived in some form or fashion not long after the rapture of the church. That resurrected or restored Roman empire will form the seventh kingdom. And during the period of the tribulation, the Antichrist will come to power, setting up what is essentially an eighth kingdom. His rise to prominence will be accomplished by robbing power from a confederation of ten kings who will jointly rule the restored Roman empire. The angel makes it clear that the ten horns represent these ten kings, who will “receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast” (Revelation 17:12 ESV). Their joint rule will be brief in duration, ending with the Antichrist taking over as the supreme ruler over all the earth. As the angel states, these kings will “hand over their power and authority to the beast” (Revelation 17:14 ESV) or the Antichrist. He will have sole authority and power over all the nations of the earth, overseeing his one-world government from the restored city of Babylon. And one of Antichrist’s primary objectives will be to make war on the Lamb. He will stand opposed to Jesus Christ, but He will lose in his effort to overthrow Christ’s rightful position as King of kings and Lord of lords. The rest of the book of Revelation will present this epic struggle between the forces of Antichrist and Jesus Christ. It will culminate in a final battle and with the removal from power of Antichrist, Satan, and the false prophet. But more on that later.
This chapter ends with the angel providing John with an understanding of the symbolism behind the waters described in the first six verses. They are “peoples and multitudes and nations and languages” (Revelation 17:15 ESV). The great prostitute or false religion set up by the false prophet will have an overwhelming influence over the people of the earth. But Antichrist is not going to share his power and influence with anyone. So, under the divine instigation of God, Antichrist and his forces will turn on the apostate church, and destroy it. And the angel makes it clear that “God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by being of one mind and handing over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled” (Revelation 17:17 ESV). God is going to cause Satan’s kingdom to divide and turn against itself. Even at the zenith of his power and influence over the world, Satan will not be able to resist the greater power of God. During the final days of the tribulation, there will be a religious and political form to the Antichrist’s rule. There will be an apostate church and an all-powerful government, but Antichrist will ultimately eliminate any and all competition to his rule, consolidating all power under him alone. Even the false church will fall, yielding all its power, influence and wealth to his cause. But John is given good news.
“…the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.” – Revelation 17:14 ESV
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.