Haydock's Catholic Bible Commentary, 1859 edition.

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APOCALYPSE - Chapter 17

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Apocalypse xvii.

Notes & Commentary:

Ver. 1. I must repeat what I have already taken notice of, both in the preface to the Apocalypse, and sometimes in the annotations, that there are three ways of expounding all the visions of this revelation, from the end of chap. iii. to the end of ver. 10. chap. xx. all of which seem grounded on the opinions of the ancient Fathers. According to the first, all these visions are only to be fulfilled in antichrist's time, a little before the end of the world. According to the second, the visions may be applied to particular events, which happened in the first three or four ages[centuries], under the persecuting heathens, till by Constantine, and the succeeding Christian emperors, idolatry by degrees was extirpated, and the faith of Christ triumphed over all its enemies, whether Jews or pagans. According to the third, by the great city of Babylon, is mystically and metaphorically signified all wicked great cities in the world, all the multitude of the wicked dispersed in all nations, their short and vain happiness, their persecutions and oppressions of the good and faithful servants of God, who live piously in this world, and who are called to be citizens of the celestial Jerusalem in the kingdom of God, where he reigneth for ever with his Angels and saints, and where they all reign with him, happy in his sight and enjoyment. I am more and more inclined to this third exposition, by reading this 17th chapter, with the contents of the 18th, 19th, and 20th chapters, till the 11th verse, and by reading what St. Jerome says in general terms, in his epistle to Marcella, tom. 4, part 1, p. 166, Nov. edit. "that all this book (of the Apocalypse) is either to be expounded spiritually, or if we follow a carnal interpretation, we must content ourselves with Jewish fables. And especially by reading what St. Augustine has delivered us upon the chief difficulties of the Apocalypse, in his 20th book de Civ. Dei[The City of God], from chap. vi. to chap. xvi. and from p. 578. to p. 594. tom. 7. Nov. edit. To expound then these chapters together according to this third interpretation. (Witham) --- Of the great harlot. Nothing can be better applied than this epithet to ancient Rome, which had conquered almost all the kingdoms of the known world, as it is said in ver. 18., she is the great city, a kingdom which hath dominion over the kings of the earth; ver. 9., it was built upon seven mountains; ver. 6., was watered with the blood of the saints and martyrs of Jesus Christ; and in fine, ver. 5., it was the great Babylon, as St. Peter, in his first epistle, pleases to call it. (Calmet) --- Come, I will shew thee the condemnation of the great harlot,...Babylon....the mother of the fornications. By this harlot, and this Babylon, is signified the multitude of all the wicked of all times and places, who have abandoned themselves to sensual pleasures, and sought for their happiness in riches and worldly grandeur; for this reason she is said to carry on her forehead this inscription, a mystery; that is, to be understood in a mystical sense of all the wicked, who make up as it were one city, as St. Augustine observes, which may be called Babylon, the city of confusion, the city of idolatry, and of all manner of vices. --- The beast, that is, the devil, carries her, whose suggestions the wicked follow. He comes out from the bottomless pit. He was, i.e. had a much greater and more extensive power over the wicked world before Christ's coming and incarnation; and he is not, i.e. according to St. Augustine, his power hath been much extenuated and lessened since that time. He is bound or chained up for a thousand years, as it is said, chap. xx. 2. By which may be understood all the time from Christ's coming, and the establishing of his Christian Church, till the last and severest persecution under antichrist. See St. Augustine, lib. xx. de Civ. Dei. chap. vii. And when he shall come again, and be let loose, as it were, in antichrist's time, he must continue a short while: for all the ancient fathers agree, by the interpretations they give to the Scripture, that antichrist, and consequently the devil with antichrist, must reign but a short time. The scarlet coloured beast, the devil, called the prince of this world, on whom the harlot gilded with gold sat; that is, all the wicked, and particularly all wicked kings and princes, with their worldly greatness, who were drunk with the wine of her prostitution; that is, who abandoned themselves and indulged their passions with all sensual pleasures, and contented themselves with the vain and deceitful happiness of this life; to be convinced of which, the Angel is said to have taken St. John in spirit into a wilderness from the company of the wicked world, the better to see and contemplate the vanity of their short and false happiness. This woman, this harlot, this Babylon, this multitude of the wicked, especially the heathen persecuting emperors at Rome, and in all other places, (and they who acted against the Christians under them) are said to be drunk with the blood of the saints, and the blood of the martyrs, by putting the Christians, the Catholics and the servants of God to death, from the foundation of the world to its consummation, by the instigation of the beast, the devil. The beast, the devil, is represented with seven heads and ten horns; that is, with many heads and many horns, signified by the numbers seven and ten. See St. Augustine, chap. xxiii. p. 606. --- The seven heads, as it is said, ver. 9, are seven mountains, and seven kings, i.e. a great many. And also the ten horns, (ver. 12.) are ten kings. (Witham)

Ver. 4. Cup....full of the abomination, &c. These are common scriptural expressions for the abominations of idolatry, with which ancient Rome had notoriously polluted herself. For not content with worshipping her own heathenish gods, she adopted those of all the countries and nations she had subdued. In Rome itself there were no less than 420 heathenish temples, so that one of their most famous poets, Ovid, (lib. i. Trist.) says:

Sed qu de septem totum circumspicit orbem,

Montibus Imperii, Roma, Demque locus.

Ver. 5. A mystery. That is, a secret, because what follows of the name and title of the great harlot is to be taken in a mystical sense. --- Babylon. Either the city of the devil in general; or, if this place be to be understood of any particular city, pagan Rome, which then and for 300 years persecuted the Church, and was the principal seat both of empire and idolatry. (Challoner)

Ver. 6. Drunk with the blood of the saints. Such was pagan Rome, for innumerable were the martyrs she put to death, both throughout the extent of her vast dominions, and even in her own bosom, the city itself. These were the victims of the ten persecutions raised by Rome against the Christians. Such was the woman drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. (Pastorini)

Ver. 8. The beast which thou sawest. This beast, which supports Babylon, may signify the power of the devil; which was, and is not, being much limited by the coming of Christ, but shall again exert itself under antichrist. The seven heads of this beast are seven mountains or empires, instruments of his tyranny; of which five were then fallen, as above, chap. xiii. ver. 1. The beast itself is said to be the eighth, and is of the seventh; because they all act under the devil, and by his instigation, so that his power is in them all, yet so as to make up, as it were, an eighth empire distinct from them all. (Challoner)

Ver. 9. Seven mountains. We have already observed that ancient Rome stood upon seven mountains. The same cannot be said of modern Rome, as some of the hills are not inhabited. --- The seven heads....are seven kings, or seven Roman emperors, who were particularly distinguished as the chief supporters of idolatry, and the most virulent persecutors of the Christian religion. Their names were Nero, Domitian, Severus, Decius, Valerian, Dioclesian and Antichrist. --- Five of them are fallen or gone, viz. Nero, Domitian, Severus, Decius, Valerian, who supported the idolatrous empire for a time; one is, viz. Dioclesian, with whom the reign of idolatry falls; and the other is not yet come, that is, antichrist.

Ver. 10. Five are fallen, one is, and the other is not yet. The meaning of this is obscure. And perhaps it were better to own with St. Augustine that we do not know the meaning, than to advance suspicions and conjectures. But it is not improbable that by these seven kings may be understood the collection of kings, in what are called the seven ages of the world, from its creations to its consummation. The first age, is reckoned from Adam to Noe[Noah], and the deluge: the second age, from Noe to Abraham; the third, from Abraham to Moses; the fourth, from Moses to David; the fifth, from David to Christ. These five were past, and fallen, when St. John wrote. The sixth is, and is to last from Christ to antichrist. And another, the seventh, is not, being the time of antichrist, and only a short time. See Cornelius a Lapide on this verse. (Witham)

Ver. 11. The beast that was, and is not: is the eighth: and is of the seven. The devil reigns with the kings in all these ages: he is of the seven, because he is the prince under whom reign the wicked in all ages: he is also the eighth, inasmuch as he is their prince, and they are only his instruments. (Witham)

Ver. 12. The ten horns, or ten kings, which thou sawest, as yet have received no kingdom, but shall receive power as kings one hour after the beast; or, as it is in the Greek, with the beast. According to the common interpretation, this must be referred to ten, or many kings, who are different from all the wicked kings that had been, and who should follow and live at the same time with the beast, by which here seems to be signified antichrist. Or, if by these ten kings we understand all the wicked kings, who were to come after St. John wrote, to the end of the world, they had not yet kingdoms, but the kingdoms which they should have, and all their vain happiness, would be very short, and at the same time they would be under the beast, and subject to him. (Witham) --- Ten horns. These denote ten kings or ten powers; namely, Goths, Huns, Alans, Vandals, Saxons, Burgundians, Franks, Heruli, Suevi, &c., the chief of the Barbarians that invaded the Roman empire in the fifth century. --- They shall receive power as kings, one hour after the beast; that is, they will serve under their own leaders, to assist pagan Rome a little against its enemies; and their one design is afterwards to take the fruitful provinces of Rome to themselves, which we know they did. (Pastorini) --- Ten kings. Ten lesser kingdoms, enemies also of the Church of Christ; which nevertheless shall be made instruments of the justice of God, for the punishment of Babylon. Some understand this of the Goths, Vandals, Huns, and other barbarous nations that destroyed the empire of Rome. (Challoner)

Ver. 13. These have one design, to make themselves as happy as they can in this world: and their power they shall give to the beast, being always slaves of the devil. (Witham)

Ver. 14. These shall fight with the Lamb. Their actions and affections being always led away with the love of this world, which is an enemy to Christ and his doctrine: but the Lamb, Christ, shall overcome them, and punish them, when he pleases: for he, Christ, God and man, is Lord of lords, and King of kings; and as St. John says again, (chap. xix. 16,) has written on his thigh, the King of kings, and Lord of lords, to signify to us his divinity, or divine nature. (Witham) --- All these different people were either heathens or heretics, and of course were bitter enemies to the Catholic religion; but the Lamb overcame them, by turning their hearts, and converting them to Christianity.

Ver. 15, &c. The waters which thou sawest, where the harlot sitteth, signify the different nations, in all which is a multitude of wicked, especially among the great ones of this world. (Witham) --- And the ten horns....shall hate the harlot. That is, ancient Rome; they will make her desolate, by laying waste all her provinces; they will make her....naked, by stripping her of her shining ornaments, her gaudy palaces, Egyptian obelisks, magnificent temples, theatres, triumphal arches, &c. --- They will eat her flesh, by plundering her of her wealth and riches, with which she has fed herself by plundering the rest of the world; and lastly, they will burn her with fire; all which we know has been accomplished, even to a tittle. (Pastorini) --- Alaric, the Goth, in 410[A.D. 410], took the city, pillaged it, and delivered it over to fire and the plunder of his soldiers for three days. The only privileged places that escaped were the churches. (Calmet) --- Genseric plundered it for fourteen days, in 455, and set fire to it. Odoacer took it, and deposed the emperor, in 476; and Totila, in 546, burnt it, and reduced it to a solitude. Procopius says he left not one human creature in the city. (Pastorini) --- These shall hate the harlot. There is no true love or friendship among them: the wicked hate, envy, make war against the wicked, though they make alliances sometimes one with another. --- For God hath put it into their hearts, permits them, and makes use of them as instruments of his justice, against one another: and they give their kingdom to the beast: the wicked reign under the prince of this world, the devil, as long as God pleases, and till his words and judgments are fulfilled. All the contents of the following chapters agree with this exposition. When the Angel cries, (chap. xviii.) Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, the false happiness of the wicked is come to its last period; though St. John speaks sometimes by anticipation, especially when the rejoicings of the saints are represented, and the miseries and consternation of the wicked, to encourage the servants of God to patience and perseverance under their trials and persecutions in this mortal life. Babylon will in a short time be the habitation of devils: and therefore the good are admonished by these words, go out from her, my people, avoid and detest her wicked ways. Almighty God hath remembered her iniquities, the provocations of the wicked, nor can they escape the hand of his justice. They lived as if they were never to be called to an account. Babylon, blinded with sensual delights, pride, and vanity, said in her heart, I sit as a queen above others, and sorrow I shall not see; like the wicked in the psalmist, who is Lord over us? (Psalm xi.) But all her plagues (chap. xviii. 8.) come in one day, at the day of death, or the day of judgment. Then are represented the weeping and mourning of all the accomplices of the wicked, like the disappointment of merchants by the burning and destruction of a great city, where they found so great profit in disposing and selling their merchandise. After this, in the 19th chapter, the blessed in heaven sing Alleluia, &c. the God Almighty hath reigned, or is about to reign. At the latter end of the 19th chapter, ver. 17, it is said, I saw an Angel standing in the sun; saying to all the birds, &c. Here are represented God's judgments on the wicked, as it were after a great battle, in which kings and many noblemen are slain, so that the birds are invited to drink of their blood. --- The beast was taken, and with him the false prophet. We may take this as spoken by anticipation of antichrist, and his great impostor, or false prophet. For still after this, (chap. xx. 7.) is foretold, according to St. Augustine, the last persecution by the devil, and by antichrist with Gog and Magog; for it is then that fire came down from heaven, and was to devour them; and there it is expressed that the devil, who seduced them, and all the wicked, was cast into the lake of fire, into hell, where also the beast, antichrist, and the false prophet shall be tormented for ever and ever. Now to give a short account of the two other expositions. The first of them, followed by a great many, (as may be seen in Alcazar and Cornelius a Lapide) holds that all these visions will come to pass in the short reign of antichrist, a little while before the end of the world. These interpreters are divided about the signification of Babylon: some understand Babylon the metropolis of Chaldea, where they think that antichrist will begin to reign; others understand Constantinople, the seat of the Turkish empire, which is also built upon seven hills: but many understand Rome, not Christian Rome, but Rome that was a heathen city in the first ages[centuries], and which they think will be heathen Rome again in antichrist's time. See a great number of the fathers and interpreters for this opinion cited by Cornelius a Lapide. By the beast that carries her with her idolatry and vices, they understand the devil; and by the seven heads and ten horns, kings, who shall be in the time of antichrist, and submit themselves to him. All these kings and persecutors will receive their power one hour after, or with the beast, by which they rather understand antichrist, whose reign shall be short, as shall be that of the devil, who shall be let loose, and have greater power for a little while. By the eighth, who is of the seven, they understand the devil, because all the seven will be as it were his instruments. The same kings who committed fornication with the harlot, are also said to hate her, and burn her, says Gagneius, by being the cause of her damnation and destruction: for none are greater enemies than sinners' accomplices. As to the other exposition, (for which see Alcazar, the bishop of Meaux[Bossuet], &c.) they look upon all these visions till the last persecution under antichrist, (chap. xx. 7. 10.) to be already fulfilled by the destruction of the heathen Roman empire, as they are also expounded by Dr. Hammond. Babylon is the ancient heathen Rome, mother of fornication, i.e. of idolatry and of all kind of vices, sitting upon a scarlet beast, supported by the pagan emperors in all their grandeur, pomp, and vanity. When it is said of her, that she was, and is not, this is not to be taken with a regard to the visions one after another represented to St. John, nor with a regard to the time when he wrote under Domitian. She is said to come again out of the bottomless pit, when the same heathen worship was again renewed by Julian the apostate, who had a design and endeavoured to destroy the Christian religion. The seven heads are ingeniously applied to Dioclesian, Maximian Herculeus, Constantius Chlorus, Maximus, and Maxentius, which in a vision of St. John, are said to be the five that are fallen. One, to wit, Maximinus, is the sixth, represented as then in being; and another, the seventh, it is said is not yet come; to wit, Licinius, whose persecution but a short time. The eighth, who is called also one of the seven, they take to be Maximian Herculeus, who had laid down the empire with Dioclesian, but took it up again, and so was the eighth, but of the seven mentioned before. The ten horns represented as not yet having a kingdom, but who are to receive power as kings, one hour after the beast, or at the fall of the empire, are those kings and princes by whom the Roman empire was destroyed; as the Goths, Vandals, Lombards, Burgundians, Franks, Huns, Alans, Suevi, also Persians and Saracens, who invaded and dismembered different parts of the empire: but no great stress need be laid on the exact number of ten; which, as St. Augustine says, may be taken for a great many. They all come with the same design, (ver. 13.) to enrich and settle themselves in the dominions of the empire; yet afterwards they gave their power to the beast, by entering into alliances with the emperors, as Alaric, the Goth, and others did. They at first fought with the Lamb, being then heathens, and afterwards many of them Arians, till the Lamb overcame them, and brought them to the true Christian faith. They are said to have hated the harlot, making her destitute by pillaging Rome and divers other cities: they devoured her flesh, her treasures, God putting it into their hearts, making use of them as instruments to punish these wicked persecuting idolaters; yet they afterwards sometimes agreed to give her their strength by agreements and alliances, till the time that God decreed the empire should be in a manner destroyed. These interpreters conclude that by Babylon must necessarily be understood Rome, because it is said that seven heads, upon which the woman sitteth, are seven mountains; and it is well known that Rome is built upon seven hills; and secondly, because the woman is said to be the city, which hath dominion over the kings of the earth. But first, those seven mountains are also called seven kings; secondly, Constantinople is also built upon seven hills; thirdly, seven may be taken for many. And I cannot but take notice, that some expressions in this and in the next chapter, seem to agree better with that exposition, which takes Babylon for the multitude of all the wicked: as when we read (chap. xviii. 3.) that all nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication; (ver. 23.) that all nations were deceived by her sorceries; (ver. 24.) that in her was formed the blood of the prophets, and of the saints, and of all that were slain upon the earth. For though the Roman empire was of so large an extent, yet a greater part of the world was never subject to the Romans: many apostles and martyrs were not put to death at Rome, nor by the Romans, but by the Persians, and in India, &c. so these general expressions are more easily expounded, if by the great city of Babylon we understand the multitude of the wicked in all parts of the world: not but that these visions may also regard heathen Rome as the chief place where such persecutions were acted, and where all kind of vices were practices. --- N. B.[Nota Bene, Note Well?] Some have taken notice, that the English Protestants print the 5th verse of this chapter in capital letters: Mystery Babylon the great, the mother of harlots, and abominations of the earth. I will suppose that these words are only printed in this manner, because they contain an inscription; as when it is said, that he who was called the word of God, had written upon him, the King of kings, and Lord of lords, which words are also printed in great letters: but if our adversaries do this, to make the Church of Rome to be looked upon as the whore of Babylon, and the pope as antichrist, nothing can be more unfair, nothing more ridiculous, as I may shew on the following chapters. (Witham)


Bible Text & Cross-references:

The description of the great harlot, and of the beast upon which she sits.

1 And there came one of the seven Angels, who had the seven vials, and spoke with me, saying: Come, I will shew thee the condemnation of the great harlot, who sitteth upon many waters.

2 With whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication: and they who inhabit the earth, have been made drunk with the wine of her prostitution.

3 And he took me away in the spirit into the desert. And I saw a woman sitting upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns.

4 And the woman was clothed round about with purple and scarlet, and gilded with gold, and precious stones, and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand, full of the abomination and filthiness of her fornication.

5 And on her forehead a name was written: A mystery: Babylon the great, the mother of the fornications and abominations of the earth.

6 And I saw the woman drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. And when I had seen her, I wondered with great admiration.

7 And the Angel said to me: Why dost thou wonder? I will tell thee the mystery of the woman, and of the beast which carrieth her, which hath the seven heads and ten horns.

8 The beast which thou sawest, was, and is not, and shall come up out of the bottomless pit, and go into destruction: and the inhabitants on the earth (whose names are not written in the book of life from the foundation of the world) shall wonder, seeing the beast, that was, and is not.

9 And here is the understanding, that hath wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains, upon which the woman sitteth, and they are seven kings.

10 Five are fallen, one is, and the other is not yet come: and when he is come, he must remain a short time.

11 And the beast that was, and is not: the same is also the eighth: and is of the seven, and goeth into destruction.

12 And the ten horns, which thou sawest, are ten kings: who have not yet received a kingdom, but shall receive power as kings one hour after the beast.

13 These have one design, and their strength and power they shall deliver to the beast.

14 These shall fight with the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them; *because he is Lord of lords, and King of kings, and they that are with him are called, and elect, and faithful.

15 And he said to me: The waters which thou sawest, where the harlot sitteth, are peoples, and nations, and tongues.

16 And the ten horns, which thou sawest on the beast, these shall hate the harlot, and shall make her desolate and naked, and shall eat her flesh, and shall burn her with fire.

17 For God hath given into their hearts, to do that which pleaseth him: that they give their kingdom to the beast till the words of God be fulfilled.

18 And the woman which thou sawest, is the great city, which hath dominion over the kings of the earth.

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*

14: 1 Timothy vi. 15.; Apocalypse xix. 16.