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The woman pictured in Revelation 17 is different from the beast that she rides, though obviously they are closely connected. The woman is “the great city which reigns over the kings of the earth” (Revelation 17:18), but the beast itself is a collection of kings (kingdoms) over which the woman-city reigns. The beast is thus portrayed as a creature “having seven heads and ten horns” (Revelation 17:3).
Revelation 17:7, 8 says,
7 And the angel said to me, “Why do you wonder? I shall tell you the mystery [secret] of the woman and of the beast that carries her, which has the seven heads and the ten horns. 8 The beast that you saw was and is not, and is about to come up out of the abyss and go to destruction. And those who dwell on the earth will wonder, whose name has not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, when they see the beast, that he was and is not and will come.”
John’s Misplaced Admiration
The angel saw that John was awestruck by the woman and asked, “why do you wonder?” The Greek word is thaumazo, which means to admire, marvel, or wonder. If the apostle himself could be amazed by the woman, how much more the kings of the earth, who have had no angel to warn them? So Revelation 17:8 tells us, “those who dwell on the earth will wonder” (thaumazo).
The word thaumazo is used also in 2 Thessalonians 1:10,
10 when He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day and to be marveled at [thaumazo] among all who have believed…
In other words, some day when Christ comes to be glorified in His saints, the rest of the people will marvel at them with admiration of the awesome glory of God. It appears that John, however, was admiring the woman with her counterfeit glory, and the angel then took him to task about this. Instead of John admiring the woman, she will one day admire the glorified saints, for the glory of God is far greater than the glory of the woman riding the scarlet beast.
Who is the Beast?
As for the beast itself, the angel links it to the beast from the sea in Revelation 13:1,
1 … And I saw a beast coming up out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads, on his horns were ten diadems, and on his heads were blasphemous names.
The woman, then, rides the religious beast of Revelation 13, who is also the little horn of Daniel 7:8. Here is where it becomes important to understand the book of Daniel before studying the book of Revelation. Daniel was the first to receive revelation about the little horn. What he saw was complex, but not nearly as detailed as John’s revelation.
Most Bible teachers tend to get lost in these details, because they do not know history, and even if they did, many of them are Futurists. Hence, they can only speculate about future things, not knowing that much of the prophecy has already been fulfilled. This only adds to the confusion and usually makes it virtually impossible to understand the prophecy about this scarlet beast.
The first step toward understanding is to see that the great harlot is riding the beast from the sea that was presented to us in Revelation 13. The beast comes up from the sea in Revelation 13:1, but Revelation 17:8 says the beast comes up from the “abyss,” a word that meant the deep sea.
In both chapters the beast has seven heads and ten horns. In both chapters the beast wages war against the saints (Revelation 13:7 and 17:14), which is the chief characteristic of the little horn in Daniel 7:21.
Finally, the end of Revelation 17:8 says that “those who dwell on the earth will wonder [thaumazo]… when they see the beast, that he was and is not and will come.” This is similar to John’s statement in Revelation 13:3,
3 And I saw one of his heads as if it had been slain, and his fatal wound was healed. And the whole earth was amazed [thaumazo] and followed after the beast.
The amazement, or “wonder,” is on account of the beast being “slain” by a “fatal wound” and yet healed. At the end of Revelation 17:8, John describes the same beast, saying, “he was and is not and will come.” It is plain that we are to interpret this in terms of the event described earlier in Revelation 13:3. It occurred when the pope was taken captive in 1798, the papacy receiving a fatal head wound, only for the church institution to be revived and “healed” in 1804 when Napoleon felt he needed a pope to crown him as emperor.
This is complex, because the full picture is seen only by collecting all the data from these three chapters, one in Daniel and two in the book of Revelation. Scripture gives us a progressive revelation, rather than organizing all the details into a single passage. This is inconvenient for us as readers, but it is what we have been given.
The Angelic Interpretation
Revelation 17:9 says,
9 Here is the mind which has wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits.
Mountains are both literal and spiritual, for we know that Rome sits on seven literal hills, and yet mountains also represent kings or kingdoms. The seven hills of Rome are called:
These seven hills spiritually represent seven forms of government in the history of Rome:
5. Military Tribunes
6. Military Emperors
7. Christian Emperors
These forms of government are the most important, of course, since the physical hills only serve as signs to help us locate the city of Rome.
The angel continues his explanation in Revelation 17:10,
10 and they [i.e., the seven mountains] are seven kings; five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain a little while. 11 And the beast which was and is not, is himself also an eighth, and is one of the seven, and he goes to destruction.
The angel says that “five have fallen.” Keep in mind that this was spoken in the first century. In that context, the first five forms of Roman government had already fallen and had been replaced by the sixth—the military emperors—after the death of Nero in 68 A.D.
After Nero committed suicide in 68 A.D., there was a power struggle as various Roman military generals attempted to take the throne. First was Galba (June of 68 to January of 69). Then Otho, reigned from January to April of 69. Vitellius succeeded Otho and reigned from April of 69 to December of 69.
Finally, Vespasian’s troops (who were in Judea suppressing the Jewish Revolt) proclaimed their general to be the emperor of Rome. Vespasian then left the troops under the command of his son, Titus, while he went to Rome to secure the throne. Once he secured the throne, he sent word to Titus to continue the war in Judea. Titus then surrounded Jerusalem at Passover in April of 70 A.D., and the city was destroyed a few months later.
This was how Rome came to be ruled by military emperors. This was the sixth type of government in Roman history, and it was the type of government that existed when the angel interpreted the seven mountains to John at Patmos around 96 A.D.
The seventh form (Christian emperors) “has not yet come,” because this began with Constantine, who took Rome in 310 A.D. Of this seventh form of government, the angel says, “when he comes, he must remain a little while.” The time is non-specific, and since God speaks from a timeless perspective, “a little while” to Him can be a very long time to us. We see this in Revelation 22:20, where Jesus tells John, “I am coming quickly.”
Well, it has been more than 1900 years since He said that to John in 96 A.D. Our mortality gives us a shorter time frame for “quickly” than how God sees it from His frame of reference.
So the Christian emperors in the East and the popes in the West—all religious leaders in their own way—were to continue for “a little while.” How long? It is vague, but the time seems to end with the “fatal wound” of the beast. At that point, there is a shift in prophetic history, as the seventh beast becomes also the eighth (Revelation 17:11). The angel makes it clear that the eighth is “one of the seven,” so this is like Part Two of a previous “king.” Which king? It can only be the seventh which was healed of the fatal wound, for in coming back to life, the seventh became the eighth.