The seven heads and 10 horns – Revelation 17:9-14

Previously: The woman and the beast explained – Revelation 17:7-8

The scripture

BibleRev. 17:9 – Here is the mind with wisdom: The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated. 10 There are also seven kings: Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he comes, he must remain for a little while. 11 The beast that was and is not, is himself an eighth king, yet he belongs to the seven and is going to destruction. 12 The 10 horns you saw are 10 kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but they will receive authority as kings with the beast for one hour. 13 These have one purpose, and they give their power and authority to the beast. 14 These will make war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will conquer them because He is Lord of lords and King of kings. Those with Him are called, chosen, and faithful.” (HCSB)

The seven heads

The angel now explains the meaning of the beast’s seven heads: “Here is the mind with wisdom: The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated. They are also seven kings: Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he comes, he must remain for a little while. The beast that was and is not, is himself an eighth king, yet he belongs to the seven and is going to destruction” (vv. 9-11).

The seven mountains probably symbolize Rome, built on seven hills. In John’s day, the Roman Empire is living in luxury, exporting false religion, corrupting its conquered people with idolatry, and persecuting the church. But the angel says the seven heads also symbolize seven kings or kingdoms, five of them past, one present, and one to come. The identity of the kings is highly disputed. Some interpreters say this refers to seven successive Roman emperors, but more hold that it refers to seven consecutive world empires.

If kingdoms are meant, then from John’s perspective the five past kingdoms are Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia and Greece. The present kingdom is Rome, and the future kingdom is that of the beast. If kings are meant, the five Roman rulers who have fallen are Julius Caesar, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. Domitian is the one that is (assuming Revelation is written in the 90s), and the one yet to come is the king of the revived Roman Empire. For those who say Revelation is written prior to the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, Vespasian is “the one who is” and Titus is the one who will come for a little while to lead the destruction of Jerusalem. Or, the one to come is Nero, referencing the legendary expectation that he would return from the grave.

The 10 horns

The angel tells John, “The 10 horns you saw are 10 kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but they will receive authority as kings with the beast for one hour. These have one purpose, and they give their power and authority to the beast. These will make war against the Lamb …” (vv. 12-14a). This is very similar to what we read in Daniel 7, in which the fourth beast – commonly accepted as the Roman Empire – displays 10 horns, which are explained as 10 kings.

The key difference is that in Daniel, another horn rises up after the 10 kings and subdues three of them. This king speaks against the Most High and oppresses His followers. He intends to change religious festivals and laws, and the holy ones are handed over to him for three and a half years, until the heavenly court convenes, removes his authority and destroys him. In Revelation, the 10 kings unite with the beast and war against the Lamb, but the Lamb conquers them because “He is Lord of lords and King of kings” and “those who are with Him are called, chosen, and faithful” (v. 14).

While there are similarities between Daniel 7 and Revelation 17, there also are differences. Some commentators believe Daniel 7 is fulfilled when Antiochus oppresses the Jewish people from 167-164 B.C. Others believe both Daniel 7 and Revelation 17 refer to a future Antichrist who persecutes the saints until the returning Christ stops him.

Futurists like Warren Wiersbe point to a similarity between the 10 horns and the 10 toes of Daniel 2. The 10 kings of Revelation 17 “parallel the ten toes of Daniel’s image in Dan. 2:36–45, the revived Roman Empire. In John’s day, these kings had not yet received their power; it is reserved for the last days when the federation of Europe, headed by the Beast, comes to power. Note that these ten kings willingly give support to the Beast in his battle against Christ and the saints; and, with the help of the Beast, they will destroy the great harlot” (Wiersbe’s expository outlines on the New Testament, p. 846).

Nero or Domitian?

But how would John’s first-century readers understand this? Certainly they would recognize the similarity between John’s vision and vision of Daniel. If Daniel 7 is fulfilled in Antiochus, then John’s vision indicates that a similar time of trouble is coming on Christians, perhaps very soon. If Revelation is written prior to 70 A.D., then John’s readers see the fulfillment in Nero and his oppression of Christians. If Revelation is written in the 90s A.D., however, then perhaps Domitian is the one bringing a limited time of terror on Christians. In any case, believers are to take heart. The Lamb will conquer the beast and the kings who have bought into his empire.

The reference to “one hour” in verse 12 may hark back to Rev. 3:10 in which Jesus assures the faithful in the church in Philadelphia that He will keep them from the “hour of testing” that is going to engulf the entire world.

However one understands the 10 horns, it is clear that these kings and the beast lead a kingdom opposed to God. They are one in purpose: to challenge the authority of the sovereign God of the universe, and to usurp His Son’s throne. It is rare for rulers to concede their authority to others. Usually when this happens, it is because they are defeated in war or in such a weakened position that they have no choice. More often, kings seek allies through marriage or mutually beneficial treaties. But here we see rulers willingly giving up power and authority to the beast in exchange for their own kingdoms.

In Jesus’ day, rival Jewish factions united in their efforts to defeat the upstart Messiah from Galilee. Caiaphas the high priest made deals with Judas Iscariot and Pontius Pilate to capture Jesus, put Him on trial and crucify Him on a Roman cross. Religious leaders and Roman soldiers exchanged money for false testimony about the risen Christ. So it should come as no surprise that power and authority are capital to be leveraged for personal gain, especially when the common enemy is the King of kings.

Sacrificing biblical purity

There is a lesson for us today. When our Christian organizations become too powerful, too entrenched, too proud, we run the risk of sacrificing biblical purity for the sake of maintaining the status quo. Once-great evangelical denominations have sold out to political correctness and ecumenism in an effort to keep their members from leaving and to ingratiate themselves with political or religious movers and shakers. In the end, the people leave anyway and the external powers demand more and more.

While evangelical Christians always should be gracious in upholding the truth, they should nevertheless uphold it, no matter what the earthly consequences. Christians in the first few centuries of the church faced homelessness, the sword, boiling oil, the lions of the coliseums, and much more for their allegiance to the resurrected Christ. Throughout the church age, believers have been used as pawns and punching bags. In the end, the rulers who gave their power and authority to another in exchange for personal gain could not annihilate the church or erase biblical truth. And in the end, their enemy was not Christians, but Christ Himself.

Verse 14 reads, “These [10 kings] will make war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will conquer them because He is Lord of lords and King of kings. Those with Him are called, chosen, and faithful.” Whenever people persecute Christians they are making war with the Lamb. Jesus warns His followers that if He is hated, they will be hated, too. He tells them plainly they will have trouble in this world. But he encourages them to take heart because, “I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Note that those with Jesus are “called, chosen, and faithful.” This demonstrates God’s sovereignty in salvation. Regardless of your position on the doctrine of election, it is clear that the saved are called by God. They are chosen – either through God’s foreknowledge, election, or by being chosen “in Christ.” And they are faithful; that is, God finishes the good work that He has begun in them. They walk the path of good works God laid out for them in eternity past (Eph. 2:10). They endure times of doubt, trouble, persecution, and hardship. And they are “with Him” because He is with them until the end of the age.

Unbelievers always have made war against the Lamb. They are the enemies of God. They have alienated themselves from Him by their sin. They are in darkness, blinded by the evil one, and set in opposition to Him. They make war in their souls, resisting the revelation of God in conscience, creation and Christ. They make war with their tongues, speaking against Christ and His followers. And sometimes they make war with their actions, giving up their power and authority in their own lives for acceptance by the world, and the world’s god.

In all cases, Christ is the victor and we are more than conquerors through Him. Christ is victorious in His virgin birth and early life, escaping Herod’s mad plot to destroy all male children in Bethlehem. He is victorious in His temptation in the desert. He is victorious in His earthly ministry as He heals the sick, raises the dead, and proclaims the good news of the kingdom. He is victorious on the cross, completing the work He is sent to accomplish. He is victorious in His resurrection. He is victorious in His ministry today at the right hand of the Father as our Mediator and Intercessor. And He will be victorious one day when He returns in power and great glory. Yes, they made war against the Lamb. It has always been so. But the Lamb will conquer them.

God has put it into their hearts

Finally, regarding the 10 horns, the angel tells us, “The 10 horns you saw, and the beast, will hate the prostitute. They will make her desolate and naked, devour her flesh, and burn her up with fire. For God has put it into their hearts to carry out His plan by having one purpose and to give their kingdom to the beast until God’s words are accomplished” (vv. 16-17).

The alliance of the woman and the scarlet beast comes unraveled. It is a tenuous relationship to begin with as each partner seeks out the other only to advance its own cause. The woman rides the beast for a time. She enjoys the luxury of wealth and prestige, seemingly in control of the powerful beast. The beast transports her happily, biding his time until he may throw her off and devour her. The 10 horns and the beast “hate” the prostitute. They tear off her clothes and expose her to shame. They consume her flesh with a vicious blood thirst. And they burn her with fire, as if her corpse is cast unceremoniously into Jerusalem’s burning trash heap in the Valley of Hinnom.

The story conjures up the fable of the fox and the crocodile. The fox needs transportation across the water and the croc hopes to make the fox his next meal. There is no interest in mutual benefit, although they discuss the common gains of working together; it is a zero-sum game.

But most troubling in this passage is John’s statement that “God has put it into their hearts [the 10 horns and the beast] to carry out His plan.” Yahweh is holy. He is not the author of evil. There is no shadow of turning with Him. He cannot be tempted with evil, neither does he tempt others to sin. So how can it be that God is involved in this wicked plot?

God’s sovereignty, human responsibility

First, consider that God’s plan here is for the destruction of the notorious prostitute who is drunk on the blood of the saints and those who follow Jesus. In other words, He brings judgment to bear on the wicked by using their own evil against them.

Second, God does not force people to sin, even if the result is the righteous judgment of the wicked. Many times in scripture we see God using people’s own sinfulness to accomplish His purposes so that the authors depict it as His own work. A case in point is pharaoh. We are told several times that God hardens his heart and that pharaoh hardens his own heart. These are not contradictory statements. Pharaoh is determined to keep God’s people captive and to make their lives increasingly difficult. He seeks to perpetuate their slavery and to dehumanize them while he exalts Egypt’s false gods. God allows this to happen for a time and then, through Moses and Aaron, performs miracles that demonstrate His sovereignty over counterfeit deities and human authorities. It could be said that God puts it into the heart of pharaoh to carry out His plan, which is the release of His people from bondage.

Finally, keep in mind that God is moving human history toward its climax in the return of Christ and the establishment of new heavens and a new earth. God endows humans with the ability to make real choices for which they are held accountable. And in His omniscience and omnipotence, He directs the exercise of human will in such a way that His ultimate purposes are realized. Yahweh does not force Judas to betray Jesus, or Caiaphas to plot His death, or Pilate to command His execution at the hands of Roman soldiers. Yet these acts of human will lead inexorably to the payment of our sin debt through the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, the Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world.

We need not worry that God’s hands are stained with the blood of innocent people, or that He is a divine puppet master pulling the strings of human beings incapable of making real choices.

Rather, He is the holy and sovereign Creator of the universe who takes even our most vile acts and conforms them to His eternal plan.

Next: The waters and the woman – Revelation 17:15-18