The Book of Revelation – Lesson 9
9 - Chapters 17 & 18
(The great harlot and the scarlet beast - The fall of Babylon)
Explanatory Notes on the Whole Bible, by John Wesley, [1754-65]
And there came one of the seven angels, saying, Come hither - This relation concerning the great whore, and that concerning the wife of the Lamb, Rev 21:9-10, have the same introduction, in token of the exact opposition between them. I will show thee the judgment of the great whore - Which is now circumstantially described. That sitteth as a queen - In pomp, power, ease, and luxury. Upon many waters - Many people and nations, Rev 17:15.
With whom the kings of the earth - Both ancient and modern, for many ages. Have committed fornication - By partaking of her idolatry and various wickedness. And the inhabitants of the earth - The common people. Have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication - No wine can more thoroughly intoxicate those who drink it, than false zeal does the followers of the great whore.
And he carried me away - In the vision. Into a wilderness - The campagna di Roma, the country round about Rome, is now a wilderness, compared to what it was once. And I saw a woman - Both the scripture and other writers frequently represent a city under this emblem. Sitting upon a scarlet wild beast - The same which is described in Rev. 13:1-18. But he was there described as he carried on his own designs only: here, as he is connected with the whore. There is, indeed, a very close connexion between them; the seven heads of the beast being "seven hills on which the woman sitteth." And yet there is a very remarkable difference between them, - between the papal power and the city of Rome. This woman is the city of Rome, with its buildings and inhabitants; especially the nobles. The beast, which is now scarlet - coloured, (bearing the bloody livery, as well as the person, of the woman,) appears very different from before. Therefore St. John says at first sight, I saw a beast, not the beast, full of names of blasphemy - He had' before "a name of blasphemy upon his head," Rev 13:1; now he has many. From the time of Hildebrand, the blasphemous titles of the Pope have been abundantly multiplied. Having seven heads - Which reach in a succession from his ascent out of the sea to his being cast into the lake of fire. And ten horns - Which are contemporary with each other, and belong to his last period.
And the woman was arrayed - With the utmost pomp and magnificence. In purple and scarlet - These were the colours of the imperial habit: the purple, in times of peace; and the scarlet, in times of war. Having in her hand a golden cup - Like the ancient Babylon, Jer 51:7. Full of abominations - The most abominable doctrines as well as practices.
And on her forehead a name written - Whereas the saints have the name of God and the Lamb on their foreheads. Mystery - This very word was inscribed on the front of the Pope's mitre, till some of the Reformers took public notice of it. Babylon the great - Benedict XIII., in his proclamation of the jubilee, A.D. 1725, explains this sufficiently. His words are, "To this holy city, famous for the memory of so many holy martyrs, run with religious alacrity. Hasten to the place which the Lord hath chose. Ascend to this new Jerusalem, whence the law of the Lord and the light of evangelical truth hath flowed forth into all nations, from the very first beginning of the church: the city most rightfully called 'The Palace,' placed for the pride of all ages, the city of the Lord, the Sion of the Holy One of Israel. This catholic and apostolical Roman church is the head of the world, the mother of all believers, the faithful interpreter of God and mistress of all churches." But God somewhat varies the style. The mother of harlots - The parent, ringleader, patroness, and nourisher of many daughters, that losely copy after her. And abominations - Of every kind, spiritual and fleshly. Of the earth - In all lands. In this respect she is indeed catholic or universal.
And I saw the woman drunk with the blood of the saints - So that Rome may well be called, "The slaughter - house of the martyrs." She hath shed much Christian blood in every age; but at length she is even drunk with it, at the time to which this vision refers. The witnesses of Jesus - The preachers of his word. And I wondered exceedingly - At her cruelty and the patience of God.
I will tell thee the mystery - The hidden meaning of this.
The beast which thou sawest (namely, Rev 17:3) was, &c. - This is a very observable and punctual description of the beast, Rev 17:8, Rev 17:10-11. His whole duration is here divided into three periods, which are expressed in a fourfold manner. He, 1. Was; 2 And is not; 3. And will ascend out of the bottomless pit, and go into perdition. He, 1. Was; 2. And is not; 3. And will be again. The seven heads are seven hills and seven kings: 1. Five are fallen; 2. One is; 3. The other is not come; and when he cometh, he must continue a short space. He, 1. Was; 2. And is not; 3 Even he is the eighth, and is one of the seven, and goeth into perdition. The first of these three is described in Rev. 13:1-18. This was past when the angel spoke to St. John. The second was then in its course; the third woe to come. And is not - The fifth phial brought darkness upon his kingdom: the woman took this advantage to seat herself upon him. Then it might be said, He is not. Yet shall he afterwards ascend out of the bottomless pit - Arise again with diabolical strength and fury. But he will not reign long: soon after his ascent he goeth into perdition for ever.
Here is the mind that hath wisdom - Only those who are wise will understand this. The seven heads are seven hills.
And they are seven kings - Anciently there were royal palaces on all the seven Roman bills. These were the Palatine, Capitoline, Coelian, Exquiline, Viminal, Quirinal, Aventine hills. But the prophecy respects the seven hills at the time of the beast, when the Palatine was deserted and the Vatican in use. Not that the seven heads mean hills distinct from kings; but they have a compound meaning, implying both together. Perhaps the first head of the beast is the Coelian hill, and on it the Lateran, with Gregory VII. and his successors; the second, the Vatican with the church of St. Peter, chosen by Boniface VIII. the third, the Quirinal, with the church of St. Mark, and the Quirinal palace built by Paul II. and the fourth, the Exquiline hill, with the temple of St. Maria Maggiore, where Paul V. reigned. The fifth will be added hereafter. Accordingly, in the papal register, four periods are observable since Gregory VII. In the first almost all the bulls made in the city are dated in the Lateran; in the second, at St. Peter's; in the third, at St. Mark's, or in the Quirinal; in the fourth, at St. Maria Maggiore. But no fifth, sixth, or seventh hill has yet been the residence of any Pope. Not that the hill was deserted, when another was made the papal residence; but a new one was added to the other sacred palaces. Perhaps the times hitherto mentioned might be fixed thus: 1058 Wings are given to the woman. 1077 The beast ascends out of the sea. 1143 The forty - two months begin. 1810 The forty - two months end. 1832 The beast ascends out of the bottomless pit. 1836 The beast finally overthrown.
And I saw another angel coming down out of heaven - Termed another, with respect to him who "came down out of heaven," Rev 10:1. And the earth was enlightened with his glory - To make his coming more conspicuous. If such be the lustre of the servant, what images can display the majesty of the Lord, who has "thousand thousands" of those glorious attendants "ministering to him, and ten thousand times ten thousand standing before him?"
And he cried, Babylon is fallen - This fall was mentioned before, Rev 14:8; but is now declared at large. And is become an habitation - A free abode. Of devils, and an hold - A prison. Of every unclean spirit - Perhaps confined there where they had once practised all uncleanness, till the judgment of the great day. How many horrid inhabitants hath desolate Babylon! of invisible beings, devils, and unclean spirits; of visible, every unclean beast, every filthy and hateful bird. Suppose, then, Babylon to mean heathen Rome; what have the Romanists gained, seeing from the time of that destruction, which they say is past, these are to be its only inhabitants for ever.
And I heard another voice - Of Christ, whose people, secretly scattered even there, are warned of her approaching destruction. That ye be not partakers of her sins - That is, of the fruits of them. What a remarkable providence it was that the Revelation was printed in the midst of Spain, in the great Polyglot Bible, before the Reformation! Else how much easier had it been for the Papists to reject the whole book, than it is to evade these striking parts of it.
Even to heaven - An expression which implies the highest guilt.
Reward her - This God speaks to the executioners of his vengeance. Even as she hath rewarded - Others; in particular, the saints of God. And give her double - This, according to the Hebrew idiom, implies only a full retaliation.
As much as she hath glorified herself - By pride, and pomp, and arrogant boasting. And lived deliciously - In all kinds of elegance, luxury, and wantonness. So much torment give her - Proportioning the punishment to the sin. Because she saith in her heart - As did ancient Babylon, Isa 47:8-9. I sit - Her usual style. Hence those expressions, "The chair, the see of Rome: he sat so many years." As a queen - Over many kings, "mistress of all churches; the supreme; the infallible; the only spouse of Christ; out of which there is no salvation." And am no widow - But the spouse of Christ. And shall see no sorrow - From the death of my children, or any other calamity; for God himself will defend "the church."
Therefore - as both the natural and judicial consequence of this proud security Shall her plagues come - The death of her children, with an incapacity of bearing more. Sorrow - of every kind. And famine - In the room of luxurious plenty: the very things from which she imagined herself to be most safe. For strong is the Lord God who judgeth her - Against whom therefore all her strength, great as it is, will not avail.
Thou strong city - Rome was anciently termed by its inhabitants, Valentia, that is, strong. And the word Rome itself, in Greek, signifies strength. This name was given it by the Greek strangers.
Merchandise of gold, &c. - Almost all these are still in use at Rome, both in their idolatrous service, and in common life. Fine linen - The sort of it mentioned in the original is exceeding costly. Thyine wood - A sweet - smelling wood not unlike citron, used in adorning magnificent palaces. Vessels of most precious wood - Ebony, in particular, which is often mentioned with ivory: the one excelling in whiteness, the other in blackness; and both in uncommon smoothness.
Amomum - A shrub whose wood is a fine perfume. And beasts - Cows and oxen. And of chariots - a purely Latin word is here inserted in the Greek. This St. John undoubtedly used on purpose, in describing the luxury of Rome. And of bodies - A common term for slaves. And souls of men - For these also are continually bought and sold at Rome. And this of all others is the most gainful merchandise to the Roman traffickers.
And the fruits - From what was imported they proceed to the domestic delicates of Rome; none of which is in greater request there, than the particular sort which is here mentioned. The word properly signifies, pears, peaches, nectarines, and all of the apple and plum kinds. And all things that are dainty - To the taste. And splendid - To the sight; as clothes, buildings, furniture.
And they cast dust on their heads - As mourners. Most of the expressions here used in describing the downfall of Babylon are taken from Ezekiel's description of the downfall of Tyre, Eze. 26:1-28:19.
Rejoice over her, thou heaven - That is, all the inhabitants of it; and more especially, ye saints; and among the saints still more eminently, ye apostles and prophets.
And a mighty angel took up a stone, and threw it into the sea - By a like emblem Jeremiah fore - showed the fall of the Chaldean Babylon, Jer 51:63-64.
And the voice of harpers - Players on stringed instruments. And musicians - Skilful singers in particular. And pipers - Who played on flutes, chiefly on mournful, whereas trumpeters played on joyful, occasions. Shall be heard no more in thee; and no artificer - Arts of every kind, particularly music, sculpture, painting, and statuary, were there carried to their greatest height. No, nor even the sound of a mill - stone shall be heard any more in thee - Not only the arts that adorn life, but even those employments without which it cannot subsist, will cease from thee for ever. All these expressions denote absolute and eternal desolation. The voice of harpers - Music was the entertainment of the rich and great; trade, the business of men of middle rank; preparing bread and the necessaries of life, the employment of the lowest people: marriages, in which lamps and songs were known ceremonies, are the means of peopling cities, as new births supply the place of those that die. The desolation of Rome is therefore described in such a manner, as to show that neither rich nor poor, neither persons of middle rank, nor those of the lowest condition, should be able to live there any more. Neither shall it be repeopled by new marriages, but remain desolate and uninhabited for ever.
For thy merchants were the great men of the earth - A circumstance which was in itself indifferent, and yet led them into pride, luxury, and numberless other sins.
And in her was found the blood of the prophets and saints - The same angel speaks still, yet he does not say "in thee," but in her, now so sunk as not to hear these last words. And of all that had been slain - Even before she was built. See Mat 23:35. There is no city under the sun which has so clear a title to catholic blood - guiltiness as Rome. The guilt of the blood shed under the heathen emperors has not been removed under the Popes, but hugely multiplied. Nor is Rome accountable only for that which hath been shed in the city, but for that shed in all the earth. For at Rome under the Pope, as well as under the heathen emperors, were the bloody orders and edicts given: and whereever the blood of holy men was shed, there were the grand rejoicings for it. And what immense quantities of blood have been shed by her agents! Charles IX., of France, in his letter to Gregory XIII., boasts, that in and not long after the massacre of Paris, he had destroyed seventy thousand Hugonots. Some have computed, that, from the year 1518, to 1548, fifteen millions of Protestants have perished by the Inquisition. This may be overcharged; but certainly the number of them in those thirty years, as well as since, is almost incredible. To these we may add innumerable martyrs, in ancient, middle, and late ages, in Bohemia, Germany, Holland, France, England, Ireland, and many other parts of Europe, Afric, and Asia.