The seventeenth chapter of the Revelation probably contains more definitions and explanations of prophetic symbolism than all the rest of the New Testament put together. These explanations have been of invaluable help in understanding other prophecies, such as those of the Book of Daniel.
Yet Revelation 17 has itself remained an enigma until very recent times. All sorts of strange interpretations have been offered. Of course the general meaning of the two main symbols is too plain for equivocation. Even Roman Catholic theologians admit that in prophecy a woman means a religious body, or what is commonly called a "church"; but since they boast that Rome never errs and never can err, this drunken, dissolute woman cannot possibly mean her. And they see nothing wrong or reprehensible in the woman riding the beast, that is, the church dominating or directing the civil power; so that if the other parts of the chapter could by mischance or possibility point in her direction, nothing evil or blame worthy would be meant by the position and activity of this harlot.
Those who call themselves Fundamentalist Protestants are of course completely debarred from interpreting this chapter in terms of past history of any sort, for they follow the example of certain Catholic expositors in pushing antichrist and all his evil works over into a hypothetical future age. So what possible interest can they have in the historical interpretation of this or any other prophecy of the New Testamentí, Uriah Smith and other Adventists have always applied this prophecy to the great apostasy, and in this they were undoubtedly correct. But Smith had little to say about the details.
This study takes the position that no correct understanding of this chapter was possible as long as the many explanations here found were understood as having been given by the angel from the standpoint of the Roman Empire, instead of having been viewed by John and explained by the angel in terms of the last days, the time of the end. Was it not one of the angels with the seven last plagues who showed this vision to John? And was not John picked up and carried "away in the spirit" from his own place and time, to see conditions as they would be down at the very close of earthís history? With this viewpoint clarified we can at least make a good start in trying to interpret the message of this chapter.
A second vital viewpoint needs to be settled concerning verses 8 and 10, for these two verses seem to be meant as contemporary. No slightest hint is given of a change of viewpoint from the one verse to the other. They are both given by the same angel, in the same explanation, of the same vision, at the same time. Both verses deal with the same numerical symbols, and both verses use all three tensesópast, present, and future. Hence what every law of exegesis puts together, no a priori theory of interpretation should dare to put asunder.
It is not fair or safe exegesis that would separate verse 8 from the following verses, saying that the angelís explanation begins with verse 9. Like all the explanations of Danielís extended prophecies, this one in Revelation 17 begins with a brief summary of the entire message, down to the end of human history or the going into perdition. But this outline is a vital part of the angelís explanation and must not be separated from the remainder. It is arbitrary and unscholarly to divide what the angel says, applying part to one age and part to another, when the text gives no hint of any such division.
If verses 8 and 10 were meant to be contemporary, they must be an intentional paradox, or an apparent self-contradiction. Verse 8 says that the beast of persecution "was, and is not"; verse 10 de dares that one of the heads "is," or "is reigning" (Goodspeed). However, Jesus constantly used paradoxes in His conversations, so why should a puzzle like this be considered strange in this passage?
Fundamental to making any good sense out of this chapter, as it seems to me, is the settled conviction that these two verses must be regarded as contemporary, meant to portray conditions that would be contemporary in our modern world, the time of the end. If so, then there must be some essential difference between the meaning of the "beast" of verse 8 and the "head" of verse 10.
But such a difference is easy to recognize. They cannot be exactly the same in meaning, and probably the apparent contradiction in their meaning was employed in order to lead us to study out the highly important message which they have for our generation. The "beast" plainly does not mean the Catholic Church per se, for she is alive and prosperous, though her power to deal with "heretics" is gone, and this is the sense in which the deadly wound of the beast (not the woman) is still unhealed. Thus the "beast" in this verse has the power to persecute for religion, or the ability to enforce conformity.
Let us now look at the meaning of the "heads" of verses 9 and 10, one of which "is" or "is reigning" at the very same time. Repeatedly we have shown our view that these seven heads signify successive civilizations, from the earliest times down to the present. Accordingly, the five that "are fallen" would be the five preceding stages of world history which passed away before the beginning of the time of the end in 1798. And our modern times may be described as characterized by the two freedoms, civil and religious, as already explained. These have culminated in the anti-Genesis apostasy here in America, while via the French Revolution they have culminated in the communism now dominant throughout so much of the rest of the world.
Thus we see a distinct difference between the meaning of these two verses, because the "beast" of the one verse is not identical with the "head" of the other. We can also see that there is no contradiction between the two statements when we look upon them as contemporary. And further, we can recognize that it is the present-day spirit of toleration by the reigning "head" which keeps the deadly wound of the "beast" from healing. Yet we must never forget that "the false science of the present day, which undermines faith in the Bible," will become the chief factor in the healing of the deadly wound, which is equivalent to the making of the image of the beast. (See The Great Controversy, p. 573.)
Indeed we may say that we are even now in the latent or embryonic stage of the image of the beast. Persecution has not yet started, for the wound is not yet fully healed. But the "head" now reigning has long been deceiving the earth dwellers by means of the miracles which he has been permitted to do; and it will not be long until the rest of the prophecy will be seen as being fulfilled.
But I must not be dogmatic, for I realize that many of my readers have been taught otherwise, and this suggestion that verses 8 and 10 tell us of contemporary conditions during the last hours of human history sounds to them unduly revolutionary. So let us merely try out this idea to see if it will work. I mean that we should follow out the logical consequences of this hypothesis to see what it involves.
Surely everything here is plain, consistent, and harmonious.
But the factor of paradox merits further comment, and we shall revert to that topic here. "Paradox," wrote Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in one of his recently published letters, "takes the scum off the mind." Obviously we have in these two texts an intentional paradox, an apparent self-contradiction, designed to wake up a sleepy mind so that it may perceive an important truth which otherwise might be overlooked. To say that the beast "is not," and then almost in the same breath to say that one of the seven heads is at the same time in existence, is plainly paradoxical. But Jesus, the great Master of paradox while here on earth, might well be expected to give us here an important truth in the intriguing form of an apparent self-contradiction.
But the basic truth involved in these two statements is duplicated by the actual situation in modern times, which also is paradoxical. Although the beast of religious intolerance has indeed been put out of action for some two centuries, yet our Occidental civilization ("head" No. 6 of the series) is so completely under the control of the evil one that it is deceiving mankind more completely than ever before. Not only is "the false science of the present day" pre paring the way for the acceptance of the Papacy (The Great Controversy, p. 573), but "the power of Satan now to tempt and deceive is ten-fold greater than it was in the days of the apostles."óSpiritual Gifts, Vol. 2, p. 277.
Remember that this part of the prophecy is dealing with the beast, not the woman. Not the woman but the beast is out of action during this time-of-the-end period. In chapter 17 the two are plainly differentiated. In chapter 13, where the church and the state are blended and not separated, it is the leopard beast which receives the deadly wound; and this leopard beast is usually defined as symbolizing the Roman Church. But it is not a safe exegesis to consider the thirteenth chapter alone, and not compare it with its parallel, or duplicate, in the seventeenth chapter. Revelation 17 says nothing about the woman being put out of action, but it does say that at the time spoken of "the beast that thou sawest was, and is not." (Verse 8.)
This agrees exactly with the reality. The Catholic Church certainly is not out of action; it is very much alive. But if we separate the woman from the beast on which she rides, we reach a more accurate picture of the present situation. Then if we define the beast in the more abstract way as the devilís power to persecute Godís people, always exercised through some human organization, then the beast can be said correctly to be out of existence whenever the evil one has no human organization through which to exercise this power. And this is now the situation. Persecution on a worldwide scale has not been seen for nearly two centuries. The Roman Church is still very much alive; but its "great iron teeth" (Daniel 7:7) have been pulled. The beast is still powerless because of the deadly wound. It "was, and is not."
There seems no possibility of denying that this "is not" stage of the beast is meant to correspond to the time of the deadly wound of Revelation 13:3. This means the whole of what we call modern times and corresponds to the youthful stage of the beast arising out of the earth with two horns like a lamb. At this stage in its career this two-horned beast has not yet become one of the seven heads, for the latter term is used only of world powers when acting the devilís part in actively opposing the work and the people of God. Later, when it speaks like a dragon, it will become No. 7 of the series, and with the leopard beast will be "cast alive" into the lake of fire. (Revelation 19:20.)
But our present day, or from 1798 onward, comes between the five that "are fallen" and No. 7, which "is not yet come." (Revelation 17:10.) Hence this time of the end must be the time for No. 6, as has been explained in a previous chapter. And the time from which this vision was shown to the apostle would have to be during the latter part of this time of the end, during the reign of No. 6 of the seven "heads."
A third problem involving the time viewpoint, the time in the worldís history from which these matters were shown to the prophet, appears in verses 12 to 17 of this chapter. These verses tell of the ten kings finally having "one mind" (verse 13), and agreeing to "give their kingdom unto the beast" (verse 17). Ellen G. White very plainly applies these passages to the very last hours of time, when all the world will unite against Godís people.
It used to be taught by some writers that this condition of having "one mind" was during the Dark Ages, when Rome did rule most of the civilized world. But this is scarcely what this prophecy means. These verses are a part of the same divine explanation given by the angel with the seven last plagues; and they apply to the last days of human history. It seems to be a misapplication of these verses to assign them to the Dark Ages; instead they portray an absolutely global combination, when all the powers of earth will combine in a warfare against the apparently helpless people of God.
Such an interpretation agrees fully with the following statement by Ellen G. White:
Isaiah 8:9-15 is an Old Testament prophecy foretelling this same worldwide combination of the nations in the last of the last days. The "confederacy" here spoken of is exactly equivalent to the statement about the ten kings having "one mind." And both are parallel to the passage in chapter 16 about the three unclean spirits gathering the kings of the entire world "to the battle [war] of that great day of God Almighty." (Revelation 16:13, 14.)
As for the part which the dragon, or atheistic communism, will play in these closing events, we may not be able to see clearly from our present limited human viewpoint. In the passage last quoted, however, the dragon is mentioned along with the beast and the false prophet as making war against God and His people.
The spectacular and tragic doom of the drunken woman is told in the funeral dirge of chapter 18, while the end of the beast on which she was riding is given in Revelation 19:20. Thus these three chapters, seventeen to nineteen, are a unit, dealing with the various ways in which all the powers in opposition to God and His truth in the last days finally meet their tragic and inglorious termination, their ultimate destruction.
And chapter 17 is the introduction to all this. Babylon the Great is a divinely chosen symbol that in its broadest sense represents the devilís style of apostate religion during all human history, from the first beginnings of Babylon at Babel down to the second triumph of Rome, when the false prophet induces all the world to worship the beast and his image. Similarly the beast on which the woman is mounted symbolizes the devilís style of civil government during the same time, the seven successive attempts, more or less successful, to control the national affairs of the world.
Some form of apostate religion has always been used by Satan to manipulate the civil power to hinder Godís work and make trouble for His people. I say "always," but that means until the period spoken of in the prophecy when the beast "is not." (Revelation 17:8.) During our modern times, the time of the end, the people of God have been having a rest from governmental persecution. The two horns like a lamb, civil and religious freedom, have been dominant for nearly two centuries. The beast has been suffering from a death stroke, a deadly wound; in the Greek it means that it looked as if it had had its throat cut "to death."
But soon this deadly wound will be healed, the beast will come to life again, and then the entire world will follow after him in admiring wonder. Then the false prophet will begin to speak like a dragon, and all the other events prophesied will follow in rapid succession.
May God protect us from delusion and deception during the horrible times just ahead.
Read Chapter 8 ó The Badge of Loyalty
| Articles Index | Time of the End - Index
Sabbath Studies | Contact Us