"And There Are Seven Kings"
Who Are These Seven Kings?
by Bob Pickle
In Revelation 17, John sees a woman sitting upon a scarlet-colored beast. This beast has seven heads and ten horns. Who is the woman and what are the heads?
The city that reigned over the kings of the earth for so long and which sits on seven hills is unquestionably Rome. Somehow connected with this scene are seven kings:
It is these seven kings that we want to deal with in this paper. Basically, there are three different interpretations that could be considered about who these seven kings are:
One of the most important questions that needs to be answered is: When is it true that five kings have fallen? Is this something that is true in John's day or at the end of time?
Revelation 17 is much like Daniel 11. While most of the prophecies of these books are dreams and visions of pictorial scenes, these two chapters are largely conversations between an angel and the prophet.
We do have another example on a smaller scale of this kind of thing in Revelation 11:
Notice the future tenses. The one speaking to John places both the preaching and the slaying of the two witnesses into the future. Thus the time context of the conversation with John is prior to those events. And yet:
Notice the past tenses. Now John is describing what he actually saw in the vision, not a conversation with some heavenly being. He describes scenes he saw of the future as if they were already past.
When John describes scenes of the future that he saw, he describes them as being past. When John records a conversation explaining future events, he describes those events as if they are yet future. We may safely conclude that the time context of such a conversation is John's day. Thus, when the angel speaks to John in Revelation 17 about the five kings being already fallen, he is speaking of them already being fallen in John's day, not at the end of time.
We could have looked at other passages in Revelation to arrive at the same conclusion, but it may be significant that we used Revelation 11, for it is only in Revelation 11 and in Revelation 17 that we find an explicit statement about a beast arising out of a bottomless pit.
One last thought on this matter:
John saw scenes of a beast and horns as if they already existed. After this, he is told that the beast doesn't yet exist again, and that the horns have no kingdom yet. So he saw them as if they already existed, but he is told they don't exist yet. This would be true if the time context of the angel's conversation was in John's day.
If five kings were already fallen in John's day, we can narrow down the
possibilities for the identification of the seven kings. The idea that
they are seven popes is out, as well as the idea that they are seven
kingdoms beginning with Babylon. If they are indeed seven kingdoms, the
sequence would have to start with Egypt, for if we start the sequence with
Babylon, only the three kingdoms of Babylon, Medo-Persia, and Greece would
be fallen in John's day.
The problem with the last two lists is that there doesn't seem to be any logical reason to exclude the emperors prior to Claudius and Galba. Why not include Augustus, Tiberius, and Caligula? But that would then give us too many kings.
The first list necessitates that John be exiled to Patmos during the reign of Nero, which seems unlikely. Julius Caesar was never really an emperor. And what would be the point of ending with Galba? What would be the point of the prophecy?
Daniel 7:24 also speaks of ten horns representing ten kings, which parallels Daniel 2's ten toes. Of those toes we are told:
These ten kings arise out of the fourth kingdom in both Daniel 2 and 7. (The four kingdoms are Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome.) When Rome broke up in the fifth century, ten nations arose in western Europe, most of which still exist today. What Daniel 2:44 is telling us is that these kingdoms will still be around when Jesus returns at His second coming. Clearly, the ten kings of Daniel 2 and 7 are still around at the end of time.
If the ten horns of Revelation 17 are also ten kings at the end of time, they must be the same ten kings as those in Daniel 2 and 7. Otherwise we would have to have twenty kings, two sets of ten, at the end of time.
Where should we look to find the seven kings? We'll glean some possible answers by looking at Rome's seven hills and her history.
The names of these seven hills are:
To this list we can add an eighth. More on that later.
There are supposed to have been seven kings reigning in Rome before the Roman Republic was founded around 509 BC:
To this list we can add an eighth. Titus Tatius ruled jointly with Romulus after the Sabines, of whom he was king, united with the Romans.
The history or legend of Rome's founding tells us this about the kings and the hills:
While the Emperor Aurelian during his reign from 270-275 AD extended Rome's walls further than these hills, the old "Wall of Servius" included just these seven (most of the Caelian and the Esquiline, and all of the other five) within Rome's limits. This Wall of Servius was named after the sixth king who had supposedly extended the walls that far, but modern authorities feel it was built after the Gauls destroyed Rome in 390 BC. Regardless of which is true, in John's day there were just seven hills enclosed by the walls of Rome.
Since all of the seven original kings of Rome were kings of Rome, and since all the seven hills of Rome were within the walls of Rome, it would make sense for the seven kings of Revelation 17 to also all be in some way a part of Rome. This suggests that we should consider the idea that the seven kings of Revelation 17 are seven forms of government within Rome.
The crowns are upon the heads. Why?
While the dragon is primarily Satan, it is also secondarily pagan Rome, since it was through pagan Rome that Satan persecuted the church after Christ's ascension (Rev. 12:5, 6, 12, 13). Since pagan Rome had a strong central government, having crowns upon the seven heads of the dragon makes sense.
No crowns are upon the heads. Instead, they are upon the horns. Why?
Papal Rome was not the strong central government that pagan Rome had been. Papal Rome consisted of independent, sovereign nations held together by a common religion headed by the pope. Crowns upon the horns instead of upon the heads symbolized this fact. It was the horns that were sovereign, not the beast itself.
A similar picture is found in Daniel 2. Clay holds together iron fragments, somewhat, in the feet and toes. Likewise, the beast holds together, somewhat, the ten horns with their crowns. During the Middle Ages what unity there was between the nations of Europe was only somewhat. It was the papacy that provided a unifying force, but whatever unity was achieved was never complete. Constantly there was political intrigue, political differences, and outright war.
The beast of Revelation 17 has no crowns at all, suggesting that the form of government being represented by this beast is one that has no king. Indeed, this thought is not new.
The present author would differ a little with the above, but the point is that Bates identified the beast of Revelation 17, the one without crowns, as being a republic, a revival of the republicanism of old Rome, a republicanism that was dead at the time John wrote the book of Revelation. This coincides with the idea that the absence of crowns indicates a government that has no king.
Four passages are linguistically tied together in Revelation, while their typical interpretations have been totally unrelated.
Typically, historicists have identified the beast from the bottomless pit in chapter 11 as being France during its Revolution, while the beast from the bottomless pit of chapter 17 has been identified as a revived papacy. The king, the angel of the bottomless pit of chapter 9, has been identified in some way with Islam (see "The Seven Trumpets of Revelation, Were the Later Reformers Right?"). The beast of Revelation 13 that has no crowns on either his head or his horns, just like the beast of Revelation 17, has been identified with the United States. Four very different interpretations. Is there nothing that ties these symbols together?
There indeed is something, and that something is republicanism. An atheistic brand of republicanism or democracy wrecked havoc during the French Revolution. A Protestant brand of republicanism gave birth to the freedoms found in the United States. And the Moslems?
So when we read, "And the beast that was, and is not, even he is the eighth, and is of the seven, and goeth into perdition" (Rev. 17:11), we are reading about a confederacy of republics, a revival of the republican form of government of old Rome. Republicanism and democracy is the only conceivable tie between the four passages.
Revelation talks about the dragon and several beasts. How do we keep from confusing one beast with another?
Revelation 13 gives us a clue. The first beast of Revelation 13:1-10 seems to be consistently called throughout the book "the beast." The second beast of 13:11 is identified as "another beast," and then is never called a "beast" again. Instead, to prevent confusion, he is called the "false prophet" in Revelation 16:13; 19:20; and 20:10. In all three of these passages he appears along side "the beast." Both are pictured together. One is called "the beast," and the other is called "the false prophet."
What this suggests is that whenever we read about "the beast," we must be reading about the first beast of Revelation 13.
If John sees things that he has already seen before, he prefaces his words with "the." If he is seeing something new, he omits the "the."
Apparently John is indicating that he is seeing something new, something different than "the beast" he saw in Revelation 16:13. We would then expect that in every place afterwards where the first beast of Revelation 13 is intended, he will be identified as "the beast." In every place where the beast of Revelation 17 is intended, some sort of qualifier will be added to enable us to distinguish him from the first beast of Revelation 13.
What makes this more apparent is the fact that Revelation 16:13 pictures the dragon, beast, and false prophet all involved in getting people to the Battle of Armageddon. Then we have the scarlet beast of Revelation 17. Then we have an actual picture of the Battle of Armageddon in Revelation 19:19 ff., in which the dragon, beast, and false prophet are all seen. Clearly, the beast of 16:13 must be the same as the beast of 19:20. In as much as the scarlet beast of chapter 17 is "a beast" instead of "the beast," he must be a totally different beast set apart by some sort of qualifiers wherever he is mentioned.
Which beast? Clearly the qualifier identifies this beast as the one John just saw, the scarlet beast.
Which beast? The scarlet beast. Republicanism was the order of the day before Augustus Caesar. It was not in John's day. It would ascend and be a dominant force in the end.
Interestingly, not until World War I did this even begin to come true (though it almost did during the revolutions of 1848). During World War I, the monarchies of Turkey, Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Russia all met their demise, and the world has been marching on toward a confederacy of republics and democracies ever since. Not that communist Russia fit the bill, but that's where the world has been heading ever since World War I.
As mentioned before, the interpretation being suggested here typically identifies the first five kings as being five of the following forms of government: a) kings, b) consuls, c) dictators, d) decemvirate, e) military tribunes with consular power, and f) triumvirate. Some expositors have left out military tribunes, and others have left out the triumvirate, but both of these were legitimate heads of the government at one time or another. Perhaps the simplest solution to needing to choose five of the six is to start with the founding of the Republic in 509 BC. This then leaves out the monarchial from of government from the list. Would this be permissible?
The records of the seven monarchs who reigned before the Republic start with Romulus. His father was said to be the god Mars, and he was suckled as an infant by a she-wolf. Obviously, there are aspects of the story that are fictitious. For such reasons, the list of seven kings is often called "legendary."
The last three of the seven monarchs were Etruscans, not Romans. After the founding of the Republic in 509 BC, we have Rome being ruled by Romans. This suggests that perhaps we should start the five at that time.
Daniel 7:7 said that Rome was diverse from all other beasts before it, and it was. Babylon, Persia, and the Grecian Empire founded by Alexander did not repeatedly change their form of government like Rome did. They also were monarchies, not republics. Rome indeed was diverse.
The imperial form of government was the one that existed in John's day. This would be the sixth head.
Some have suggested that the seventh head was the Exarch of Ravenna. Since he didn't rule from Rome, this does not seem likely. Each of the seven heads should be a form of government that ruled from the seven hilled city of Rome.
It therefore seems more probable that this seventh head is the medieval papacy. Yet how could his 1260-year-long reign be considered a short space?
This is spoken probably soon after Christ's ascension (Rev. 12:5). The "short time" the devil has would then last from Christ's ascension to the end of time. If the last 2000 years can be called a "short time," surely 1260 years can be called a "short space."
Which beast? The qualifier points back to verse 8, which in turn pointed us to the scarlet beast. So the scarlet beast of Revelation 17 must be the "eighth king."
Interestingly, there is an eighth hill of great significance over at Rome. It sits across on the other side of the Tiber River from the original seven. It is the Vatican. Aurelian's walls never surrounded it. Until around 850 AD, it sat outside of Rome. After the papacy returned from Avignon, France, in the 1370's, the Vatican Hill became the headquarters for the papacy.
Thus we have a prophecy that the world in the end of time will become a conglomeration of republics and democracies under the spiritual leadership of the a papacy, the grand headquarters of which will be upon the eighth hill.
A popular rendering of the phrase "one hour" has been "at the same time." Thus these ten kings, already identified with the ten toes and horns of Daniel 2 and 7, receive their kingdom at the same time as the beast.
Which beast? Since there are no qualifiers here, the beast referred to would be the first beast of chapter 13, not the scarlet beast of chapter 17. That being so, we have a picture here of the ten nations of western Europe coming to power at the same time as the papacy did, and that is precisely what happened during the fifth century.
This indeed happened during the Middle Ages, but it would appear that the prophet is speaking more specifically of end-time events. Thus we have a prediction that the ten horns, now republics and democracies instead of monarchies, will again surrender their sovereignty in some way to the papal power.
Similar wording is used in verse 17:
The woman who sits upon the scarlet beast must certainly be a representation of at least the papacy. Thus when the ten kings give their kingdom to the beast, this is the same as saying that they are giving their kingdom to the woman. For this reason she was pictured riding upon the scarlet beast, whom she had under her control. Yet a predicted change is to come:
The very ones who gave her her power would be the instruments of taking it away. Thus it was in 1798. The French nation was to a large extent responsible for the papacy's initial power. That very same nation took that power away.
We are thus given a view of the political landscape of the world at the time of the battle of Armageddon. Under the spiritual leadership of the papacy, a conglomeration of republics and democracies unite in rebellion against the mild and beneficient rule of Christ.
In all fairness I should acknowledge those who have expressed similar opinions before me.
W. B. Godbey in his Commentary on the New Testament says regarding Revelation 12:3:
Regarding Revelation 17:11, he states:
Godbey specifies the reign of the seventh, the popes, as being 1260 years. He identifies the beast who is an eighth as being the papacy in the end of time.
Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible states regarding Revelation 17:7-14:
Family New Testament Notes on Revelation 17:10:
The learned Baptist commentator John Gill on Revelation 17:10:
Adam Clarke, the prominent Wesleyan commentator, states on 6B:1167 of his work:
Uriah Smith wrote an entire tract on the subject. Regarding Osiander he writes:
He also writes concerning Elliot, and in the process refers to the views of Mede, Newton, Daubuz, King James, Pareus, Aretius, Napier, Brightman, and Fulco:
William Miller expressed two different opinions on the matter:
Q. Can the word "fallen" refer to governments? Should it not be applied to the death of individuals instead?
A. In Acts 15:16, it is most definitely used to refer to a form of government which has lost its power. As far as individuals go, it may be doubtful that the word "fallen" can refer to a natural death. If we interpret the seven kings as either seven emperors or seven popes, we would have to have at least some of the first five dying natural deaths, and then how could it be said that they had "fallen"?
Q. I've heard that we should start the sequence of seven kings in 1929. What about this?
A. A simple problem with this idea is that the seven popes identified as coming after 1929 never ruled the seven hills. The papacy lost control of the seven hills of Rome in 1870 for the last time. It seems more appropriate to start the sequence while the woman still controlled the seven hills.
Another problem is that we would then have the horns coming before the heads. Unquestionably the ten horns must be the same as the ten toes and horns of Daniel 2 and 7. If the heads don't come until 1929, then the horns predate the heads by over 1400 years, for the horns all arose in the fifth century.
Q. Are you sure that we are talking about two different beasts in Revelation 17, "the beast" and the scarlet beast?
A. We have two possibilities: Either this one or the possibility that the beast that ascends from the bottomless pit in chapter 11 is not the same as the one that ascends from the bottomless pit in chapter 17. Though both possibilities seem a bit awkward, which is the more plausible of the two?
If the scarlet beast of chapter 17 is the papacy, it cannot also be the beast that slays the witnesses in chapter 11 (cf. Great Controversy 268, 269). Yet in chapter 17 we definitely have the papacy brought to view (SDA Bible Commentary 7:983). It appears that it is the woman that is the papacy, not the beast she is riding upon (Ibid.). Thus we have the woman of Revelation 17 representing the same power as the first beast of Revelation 13, while the scarlet beast represents something that is supporting her at some point in time.