Reading for Tuesday, Dec 4: Revelation 17
In 16:17-21, John envisions the seventh bowl pouring out wrath on “the great city” which he describes as “Babylon”. We perceive this to be a reference to Rome, an allusion that draws on exilic prophetic tradition in Babylon and conflates it with the present Roman empire.
An angel calls to John: “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great prostitute who is seated on many waters,” (v1). This is the same angelic utterance that we find at 21:9 as John envisions the Bride of the Lamb, the holy city of the new Jerusalem. Here we find a stark contrast between prostitute / Babylon / Rome and the bride of Christ / new Jerusalem. Both women are beautifully adorned, but the prostitute is not interested in fidelity. The kings of the earth are intoxicated by her sexual immorality (v2) and they drink deeply from her cup of abominations (v4). And the prostitute is herself drunk, the blood of the martyrs dripping from her lips (v6).
John’s angelic guide explains the deeper reality of the vision. “The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to rise from the bottomless pit and go to destruction,” (v8). This is a parody of the true God “who is and who was and who is to come” (1:4; 1:8; 4:8; 11:17; 16:5). Rome liked to declare herself an “eternal city” and “eternal empire”. But John’s vision tells an alternate story, a Gospel truth: Rome will always fall, and only God will reign eternal.
Many have tried to determine precisely when John wrote Revelation based on his description in v10 — there are seven kings, five have fallen, one is, and there’s one more to come. I think this misses the point. I believe John uses the number seven here to indicate the total number of Roman emperors (15 in all, from Julius Caesar to Hardrian in AD138). Again, the point here is that Rome is not eternal, but she is simply a part of human history, all of which will be brought to completion / fulfillment by God, the One who “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,” (v17).