“At thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Ps. 16:11).
“And the ten horns which thou sawest are ten kings, which have received no kingdom as yet; but receive power as kings one hour with the beast. These have one mind, and shall give their power and strength unto the beast. These shall make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them: for he is Lord of lords, and King of kings: and they that are with him are called, and chosen, and faithful. And he saith unto me, The waters which thou sawest, where the whore sitteth, are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues. And the ten horns which thou sawest upon the beast, these shall hate the whore, and shall make her desolate and naked, and shall eat her flesh, and burn her with fire. For God hath put in their hearts to fulfil his will, and to agree, and give their kingdom unto the beast, until the words of God shall be fulfilled. And the woman which thou sawest is that great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth.” (Revelation 17:12–18).
We turn from the seven heads as seven kings to the question of the ten horns. These ten horns are obviously subordinate to the heads, but they are in some manner kings. They have real authority, but it is a lesser authority than that of the seven kings. As it happens, the empire of Rome did have ten imperial provinces, and it is possible that this is what is intended. It could also be that the number ten is symbolic here, simply representing the complete number of subordinate governors and kings. Scripture itself uses the term king with some latitude—for example, Herod would be an example of this kind of lesser ruler. His technical position was that of a tetrarch (which is the term Luke prefers, e.g. Luke 3:1), but he is also called a king elsewhere (Matt. 2:1).
The basic set up is this. The waters here are many peoples, nations, tribes, etc. The beast arises from these waters, and the great harlot sits upon the beast. The harlot thus sits upon the many waters, ruling over them by means of her dalliance with the beast. The ten horns first make war on the Lamb, doing so by persecuting His followers. But the whole thing culminates when Rome turns on the woman who rides upon its back, thus destroying her. That said, we can dig into some specifics.
These ten rulers make war on the Lamb and on His followers ineffectually. They do not succeed because the Lord is King of kings and Lord of lords. They inhabit the realm of lower case kings and lords, and thus they are making war on their omnipotent sovereign. It is very specific—“the Lamb shall overcome them.” These kings will lose. And those who are with the Lamb are also identified by their calling and character—they are “called, chosen, and faithful.” They too are necessarily victorious.
Unable to defeat the Lamb or His people, the kings settle for an entity they can defeat—the harlot. They hate her, and when given the opportunity, they wipe her out. They leave Jerusalem desolate, and naked. They devour her, the ways beasts would eat a carcass, and then burn her with fire. This passage may intend for us to think of Jezebel, eaten at the last by dogs. This is the kind of terrible end that Ezekiel predicted for Israel, and it is now coming to pass.
“Behold, therefore I will gather all thy lovers, with whom thou hast taken pleasure, and all them that thou hast loved, with all them that thou hast hated; I will even gather them round about against thee, and will discover thy nakedness unto them, that they may see all thy nakedness. And I will judge thee, as women that break wedlock and shed blood are judged; and I will give thee blood in fury and jealousy. And I will also give thee into their hand, and they shall throw down thine eminent place, and shall break down thy high places: they shall strip thee also of thy clothes, and shall take thy fair jewels, and leave thee naked and bare. They shall also bring up a company against thee, and they shall stone thee with stones, and thrust thee through with their swords. And they shall burn thine houses with fire, and execute judgments upon thee in the sight of many women: and I will cause thee to cease from playing the harlot, and thou also shalt give no hire any more” (Eze. 16:37–41).
These kings are manifestly wicked, and we also see a plain statement of God’s absolute control of all such iniquitous rulers. They cannot prevail over the Lord’s people, and they will only prevail over their other enemies to the extent that God has determined for them to do so. The text here is as plain as an exegetical pikestaff. “For God hath put in their hearts to fulfil his will . . .” Like the ancient Assyrians, they were simply an axe in the hand of a sovereign God (Is. 10:15). They boasted in their prowess, but they had nothing to do but fulfill the will of God, and then be condemned for their wickedness in doing so. It was the same as with Herod, Pilate, and Judas, who fell under condemnation for the way that they fulfilled the will of God perfectly (Acts 4:26-28).
The woman was that “great city,” who rules over the kings of the earth—until she is destroyed by the kings of the earth. The power of Israel was not a political power. The beast was the political power, and the woman rode on the beast. Her authority, whether corrupt or righteous, was indirect.
There were Jews all over the Roman Empire, and they would all congregate in Jerusalem at the times of festival. “And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5). The Jews were God’s chosen people, which did not necessarily mean that they were His favorite people. When they trusted and obeyed God, the whole earth was blessed. “And all the earth sought to Solomon, to hear his wisdom, which God had put in his heart” (1 Kings 10:24; cf. Ezra 1:4-7). When they were disobedient, when they fell into unfaithfulness, the Gentile world was stumbled into blasphemy.
“Behold, thou art called a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God, And knowest his will, and approvest the things that are more excellent, being instructed out of the law; And art confident that thou thyself art a guide of the blind, a light of them which are in darkness, An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form of knowledge and of the truth in the law. Thou therefore which teachest another, teachest thou not thyself? thou that preachest a man should not steal, dost thou steal? Thou that sayest a man should not commit adultery, dost thou commit adultery? thou that abhorrest idols, dost thou commit sacrilege? Thou that makest thy boast of the law, through breaking the law dishonourest thou God? For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles through you, as it is written” (Rom. 2:17–24).
The Jews were appointed to show the world what blessing for covenantal faithfulness looked like. This meant also, necessarily, that they were appointed to show the world what fierce anger and indignation looks like when poured out on a virgin bride who became a wanton harlot. This image of harlotry, taken from the Old Testament, overwhelmingly refers to covenantal apostasy.
So the harlot Jerusalem rode on the back of Rome, but her position was entirely precarious.