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Would you please explain Revelation 17:9? Who or what are the seven heads of the scarlet-colored beast, on which the fallen woman sits, and who is that woman?

There can be little doubt what Revelation 17:9 describes. The previous verses in the same chapter talk about a fallen woman sitting on a scarlet-colored beast, with seven heads and ten horns. As we explain in our free booklet, “Europe in Prophecy,” the scarlet-colored beast on which the woman sits depicts the last seven revivals of the ancient Roman Empire.

In Biblical terminology, a religious entity is many times depicted as a woman. The true Church of God is identified as a woman (Revelation 12:6, 13-17); a virgin (2 Corinthians 11:2); and the wife of Jesus Christ (Revelation 19:7). Likewise, Christ’s true followers are identified as “virgins” (Matthew 25:1; Revelation 14:4).

However, the woman who sits on the scarlet-colored beast is a FALLEN rich woman who has committed “fornication” with the inhabitants of the earth (Revelation 17:2; compare also verse 4, and Revelation 18:3, 9). She is identified as “the great harlot who corrupted the earth with her fornication” (Revelation 19:2). In Biblical terminology, she is a fallen church, pretending to be the true Church of God, but persecuting Christ’s true disciples.

The woman is called, in verse 5, “Mystery, Babylon the Great, The Mother of Harlots and of the Abominations of the Earth.” This fallen church is called the “Mother Church,” which has “daughter churches.” We are told in verse 6 that the woman is drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.

Verse 18 explains: “And the woman whom you saw is that GREAT CITY which reigns over the kings of the earth.”

Again, in Revelation 18:10, 16, 18, 19, 21, Babylon is identified as a prosperous and wealthy “great city” and a “mighty city” (compare, too, Revelation 14:8). Revelation 18:23 adds that by “your sorcery all the nations were deceived,” and Revelation 19:2 speaks of the judgment of the woman “who corrupted the earth with her fornication.”

With this background, let us read Revelation 17:9, which says: “Here is the mind which has wisdom: The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits.”

According to Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, the Greek word for “mountain,” “oros,” means “mountain” or “hill” (see Strong’s No. 3733).

Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Bible agrees, defining the Greek word used in Revelation 17:9 as “mountain, mount, hill.”

This same word is used in Matthew 5:14, where Christ says: “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a HILL cannot be hidden.” It is also translated as “hill” in Luke 4:29.

The New English Bible translates Revelation 17:9, as follows: “The seven heads are seven HILLS…” So do the Revised English Bible; the New International Version; the New American Bible; the Moffat Translation of the Bible; the Jewish New Testament, by David Stern; and a German Bible translation, “Die Gute Nachricht.”

The New Jerusalem Bible states: “The seven heads are THE seven hills…”

The Living Bible gives the following interpretation of the verse: “And now think hard: his seven heads represent a certain city built on seven hills where the woman has her residence.”

Verse 10 explains that the seven mountains or hills symbolize seven kings–seven military and political rulers. They describe the seven last resurrections of the ancient Roman Empire–with the last king or revival of the Roman Empire still to appear in the near future (compare verse 10).

But remember that the woman is also identified as a CITY which sits on seven mountains or hills.

Some Catholic and Protestant commentaries grasp for an explanation of this passage, which is different from the most obvious one (discussed below), because they realize that the passage is speaking about them. If they were to give the intended meaning of the passage, they would indict themselves as deserving of Godly judgment. Others accept the obvious explanation (discussed below), but claim that it has only historical relevance, without any meaning for us today or our immediate future. However, Revelation 17 is a prophecy, culminating, in Revelation 19, in the return of Christ–something which did not yet happen.

So, what, then is the OBVIOUS explanation of Revelation 17:9? Which RELIGIOUS city is built on seven mountains or hills?

Let us quote several commentaries which are honest enough to represent the obvious intended meaning of Revelation 17:9 without apology or an attempt to hide the truth.

Some few commentaries claim that the city described is Jerusalem. But this explanation makes no sense, neither historically nor prophetically. As Stan Lindsay accurately explains in “The Human Drama,” on page 91:

“The most problematic passage in identifying Babylon as Jerusalem is Revelation 17:9, which says that the seven heads of the beast are seven mountains upon which the woman sits. This has been taken almost universally as a reference to Rome’s origin on seven hills. While topographically Jerusalem might be divided into seven hills, utilizing important ‘mounts’ that are inside and outside of the city walls, it would sound contrived. The seven hills almost certainly signify Rome.”

As mentioned by Lindsay, this is the overwhelming consensus of most Biblical commentaries, and for valid and correct reasons.

John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible explains:

“As the woman is a city… these seven mountains, on which she sits, must be so many mountains on which the city is built; and what city can this be but Rome, which is so famous for being built on seven hills? This is taken notice of by Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Claudian, Starius, Martial, and others; and indeed there is scarce a poet that speaks of Rome but observes it: hence it has been sometimes called, by writers, the seven hilled city, and sometimes Septiceps, the seven headed city, which comes near to the language here: the names of the seven mountains were these, Capitolinus, Palatinus, Aventinus, Esquilinus, Coelius, Viminalis, and Quirinalis; the four first of these were taken in by Romulus, the first founder of it, and the three last by Servius Tullius, when he enlarged it; and upon the addition of the seventh mountain there was a feast kept, called Septimontium; and which was kept in seven places in the city; and was annually observed; and in this situation it was in John’s time; for Pliny, who was contemporary with him, expressly says, that in his time it took in seven mountains; and that this refers to a city in John’s time, then reigning over the kings of the earth, is certain…

“Now there was no imperial city, so built in his time, but Rome: for though Constantinople is built on seven hills, yet this was not in being in John’s time, but was built by Constantine many years after, in imitation of Rome; and though the situation is much altered now, being in Campus Martius, it being greatly reduced, and in a less compass, yet this hinders not but that it is the same city here designed: and this confirms that the beast before spoken of, on whom the woman sat, is the Roman empire, since she is here said to sit on the seven mountains, on which Rome, the metropolis of that empire, was built; and this shows the pope of Rome to be antichrist [however, this designation is Biblically incorrect, see our Q&A in Update #285, “Who Is the Antichrist Prophesied to Come?”], the great whore, Babylon, the mother of harlots, since no other has his seat at Rome but he.”

Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible states: “Seven mountains – the seven hills on which Rome stands…”

Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible agrees: “The seven heads are seven mountains – Referring, undoubtedly, to Rome–the seven-hilled city–Septicollis Roma.”

He adds, in his comments to Revelation 12:3: “Rome was built, as is well known, on seven hills… and was called the seven-hilled city (Septicollis)… Tertullian: ‘I appeal to the citizens of Rome, the populace that dwell on the seven hills’ (Apol. 35). And again, Jerome to Marcella, when urging her to quit Rome for Bethlehem: ‘Read what is said in the Apocalypse of the seven hills.’…”

Halley’s Bible Handbook points out:

“This description of Babylon the Great Harlot, Seated on the Seven-Headed Ten-Horned Beast, while it may have ultimate reference to a situation yet to appear, Exactly fits Papal Rome. Nothing else in World History does fit.”

Unger’s Bible Handbook states:

“The revived Roman Empire with its end-time emperor (the beast) appears as the agent of the harlot’s destruction… The revival of the Roman power under the beast will occasion great wonder and deception… The woman (ecclesiastical Babylon) has her headquarters in the beast’s capitol… which is the seven-hilled city of Rome… He rules over a ten-kingdom federation… and makes war against the Lamb… The harlot who has dominated and exploited the peoples of the earth… and who has ridden into last-day power on the beast, shall find the beast turning against her at the end to utterly destroy her… Destruction is her judgment… because of her evil desire to dominate earthly rulers for her own selfish and deceptive interests.”

Dave Hunt, “A Woman Rides the Beast,” quotes the “Catholic Encyclopedia” on page 67, as follows: “‘It is within the city of Rome, called the city of seven hills, that the entire area of the Vatican State proper is now confined.”’

The Ryrie Study Bible adds: “the name [Babylon] here seems to be a symbolic reference to Rome… In chapter 17 Babylon represents the false religious system that will center in Rome during the tribulation period. In chapter 18 it represents more the political and commercial aspect of the revived Roman Empire… Thus the term stands both for a city and for a system (religious and commercial) related to the city (much like ‘Wall Street,’ which is both a place and a system).”

The Nelson Study Bible states: “The seven heads of the beast… symbolize both seven mountains and seven kings. Since the word mountains also means ‘hills’… most interpreters understand this as referring to the seven hills along the Tiber River, a well-known designation of the city of Rome. However, seven mountains may also refer to successive world empires…”

The New Scoffield Reference edition points out: “There are two forms which Babylon is to have in the end-time: political Babylon… and ecclesiastical Babylon… Political Babylon is the beast’s confederated empire, the last form of Gentile world dominion. Ecclesiastical Babylon is all apostate Christendom, in which the Papacy will undoubtedly be prominent; it may very well be that this union will embrace ALL RELIGIONS OF THE WORLD.”

Lehmann Strauss writes in “The Book of the Revelation,” pages 295-301: “The Babylon of the Revelation is an apostate religious system clearly identifiable with all of Christendom, with papal Rome taking the lead in its formation… the world might applaud such a union, but we may be certain God is not in it… We are not surprised, then, when we see men and women of various religious faiths making pilgrimages to Rome to see a man who has been exalted as ‘the holy father,’ ‘the voice of God,’ and then bowing down to him as though he were a god.

“The Roman Catholic Church is playing her most strategic role in world affairs. Never before has she wooed and won so many devotees of other religions… Rome is known as the seven-hilled city… Here then is a prophecy referring to papal Rome, not history referring to pagan Rome… The wealth of the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant denominations combined adds up to many billions of dollars… Students of ancient coins remind us that the coin of Vespasian represents Rome seated on seven hills. The Roman Catholic Church itself, in the Confraternity Edition of the New Testament (new edition, New York, 1963, page 337), claims that Rome is Babylon.”

In conclusion, any honest evaluation of Revelation 17:9, in its context, must admit to the fact that John is describing, in prophetic terms, an end-time religious system, which is centered in the seven-hilled city of papal Rome, influencing and dominating the peoples of this world.

Lead Writer: Norbert Link