“At thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Ps. 16:11).
“And the angel said unto me, Wherefore didst thou marvel? I will tell thee the mystery of the woman, and of the beast that carrieth her, which hath the seven heads and ten horns. The beast that thou sawest was, and is not; and shall ascend out of the bottomless pit, and go into perdition: and they that dwell on the earth shall wonder, whose names were not written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, when they behold the beast that was, and is not, and yet is. And here is the mind which hath wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth. And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a short space. And the beast that was, and is not, even he is the eighth, and is of the seven, and goeth into perdition” (Rev. 17:7–11).
So the angel had shown John a vision of the great harlot, riding on the back of the beast. I believe the simplest way to understand this, as previously explained, is to see the harlot as apostate Judaism and the beast as the Roman Empire. Some additional reasons for taking it this way will unfold as we proceed.
John was amazed at the vision, and the angel asked him why. The mystery of the woman, and the beast carrying her, will be fully explained. The beast in question is the same one that was shown to us earlier in the book—he has seven heads and ten horns. The beast was at one time, is not now, and will ascend out of the Abyss on its way to perdition. On its way to perdition, it will make an impressive display—enough to make all the reprobate on earth wonder. If their names were not written down in the book of life (from before the foundation of the world), then they will be the kind of people who are impressed with this kind of thing. The cryptic expression about Rome’s reality (was, is not, etc.) is then repeated again, but this time it concludes with a statement about a contrary appearance. The second time John says the beast “was, and is not, and yet is.” The beast is finished in principle, but is somehow managing to keep up appearances. And yet is.
John then poses us a riddle, using a similar expression to what he used in Chapter 13 when introducing the mystery of 666. There he said here is wisdom, and here he says here is a mind with wisdom. It all amounts to the same thing, and is considering the same object.
Just as New York is the Big Apple, and New Orleans the Big Easy, and Chicago the Windy City, so also to the ancients Rome was the City of Seven Hills. The beast is identified here two ways—the seven heads of the beast represent seven mountains, and the seven heads of the beast also represent seven kings. The first places the identification as Rome geographically, and the second places it in a particular period of Roman history—the times of the caesars.
Out of the seven kings, five were already in the history books at the time this vision was given. They were Julius, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius (“five have fallen”). When John saw this vision, Nero was on the throne (“one is”), and we should also remember that his name can be extracted from John’s 666 riddle. The emperor who came after Nero was Galba, and he reigned for only seven months (“continue a short space”). Alternatively, because the time after Nero’s death was so tumultuous—a year with three emperors—it could be possible to read the one who continues a very short time as the scramble of all three contenders (Galba, Otho, Vitellius), none of whom were actually firmly established.
And this would mean that the indefinite “eighth” would be identified with the Flavian dynasty that followed. Vespasian was the general who was besieging Jerusalem when all this was happening, and he had to turn over military operations to his son Titus in order go back to Rome and establish order. This Flavian line was Vespasian, Titus, and then Domitian. They are distinct from the seven, and yet like them—like enough to be going to perdition also.
So the woman was riding the beast, but as the prophecy of this book establishes, the beast was going to turn on her. Rome was going to destroy the old Jerusalem, making way for the new Jerusalem.