Chapter seventeen begins a new section with a new vision. Remember as you read: symbols with meaning are always explained. Symbols that are not explained should be considered as “color,” and their meaning should not be guessed at. We’ve enough to do to consider the meanings revealed.
The vision is that of a woman named “Babylon” sitting on a red beast with seven heads and ten horns. She and the beast ride over “many waters.” The waters stand for “people, multitudes, nations, and languages.” The beast “once was, now is not, and will come up out of the Abyss only to go to his destruction.” I believe the beast is either Satan, or a deputy of Satan – both described similarly in 12:3 and 13:1. Either way, neither has the authority of God who is first and last and lives for ever and ever (1:17).
The seven heads of the beast stand for seven hills on which the woman also sits. This description seals it for us: the woman is the ancient city and empire of Rome. She is drunk on the blood of God’s people. The seven heads also stand for earthly kings who likewise derive their power (life) from Satan.
Satan, his henchmen, and kings of the earth will eventually turn on Rome and destroy her. No one should imagine this to be a “natural course.” It is all by the purpose and will of God. If all things are guided by that purpose and will, the people of God, whose blood is often consumed by their opponents, should not imagine God has abandoned them, but is working out His will for them and all things. As the old hymn says: “The Kingdoms of earth pass away one by one but the kingdom of heaven remains. It is built on a rock and the Lord is its king and for ever and ever He reigns.”