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In verses 9-11 John is receiving some details about this. The angel calls for wisdom. The last time we saw this call was in Revelation 13:18. The meaning was for the people to have spiritual perception and insight about the deceptive nature of the beast. The angel begins with the seven heads. Remember that the beast has seven heads and ten horns. The angel is giving us an explanation about these images. When we first read the description of the beast in chapter 13 we noted that the heads, horns, and crowns represented the beast’s great authority, strength, and power. The angel tells us much more about the seven heads and the ten horns now. The seven heads represent the seven mountains on which the woman is seated.
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary states, “Most scholars have no doubt that the seven hills refer to the seven hills of Rome and the seven kings to seven successive emperors of that nation. Mounce states, ‘There is little doubt that a first-century reader would understand this reference in any way other than as a reference to Rome, the city built upon seven hills’ (Revelation, pp. 313-14).” History and literature refers to Rome repeatedly as the city on seven mountains. In fact, a Roman coin depicted the goddess Roma sitting on seven mountains. To know that we are right, notice that the end of verse 9 tells us that the woman is seated on the seven mountains. Go back to verse 1 of Revelation 17 and recall that the woman is the great prostitute, representing the city of Rome. Rome and its empire is in view. The seven heads represent Rome.
However, there is more meaning to the seven heads. The seven heads, we are told, are also seven kings. Throughout our study I have been adamant about the fact that these numbers and images are to be understood as symbols. Revelation 1:1 told us that these things were put into signs. Revelation 17:3 reminds us that John is seeing a vision as he is carried away by the Spirit. Everything we read in Revelation is a symbol for a historical reality unless the text demands otherwise. We have understood all the sevens in the book (seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls) as symbolically representing a complete judgment against a nation. However, there is one seven that we took literally. Back in chapter 1 we read about the seven churches of Asia. We understood these churches to be actual churches and not symbolic of all churches for all time because each church was named. The naming of each of the churches is the text demanding to understand the seven churches to refer to seven literal churches.
In the same way, we are told about the seven heads representing seven kings. If the angel had left the image at this we would be forced to understand the seven kings as a symbol representing all the kings of the Roman Empire and what they would do. However, the angel goes on and numbers the seven kings and gives details about them. The angel says of the seven kings, “Five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he does come he must remain only a little while.” Verse 11 tells us more that the eighth king belongs to the seven and goes to destruction. These details do not make any sense in a generic, symbolic way. If seven king represents all the kings of the Roman Empire, then what does it mean that five have fallen, one is, and one is yet to come that must rule for a little while? These is no way to symbolically apply these images. We are forced to understand these kings as literal emperors of the Roman Empire and something about their rule is being told to the people of God. Since something is being told to us about the actual kings that ruled over the Roman Empire, it is important that we learn about the timeframe of the emperors of Rome. Below is a list of relevant rulers for our study.
Julius (48-44 BC) as dictator Augustus (27 BC-14 AD) as emperor Tiberius (14-37 AD) Caligula (37-41 AD) Claudius (41-54 AD) Nero (54-68 AD) Galba (68-69 AD) Otho (69 AD) Vitellius (69 AD) Vespasian (69-79 AD) Titus (79-81 AD) Domitian (81-96 AD)
There are a number of reasons to exclude Julius from the count. Julius was appointed as dictator over the Roman Republic, not emperor over the empire. There was a 17 year gap of time before Augustus was established as emperor. Also, if Julius is counted, then why wouldn’t Sulla and Marius who also seized power to themselves to rule the republic also be counted? Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius state that Augustus was the first emperor. As we will see the counting of seven emperors only works properly if Julius is excluded. If we leave the list as is but with Julius removed, the five fallen kings would be from Augustus to Nero. The one king who is would be Galba and the one yet to come would be Otho. This would put the writing of the book of Revelation at 68-69 AD.
However, there are a couple of reasons to consider removing Galba, Otho, and Vitellius. While these three emperors were approved by the senate, their reigns would have been hardly known throughout the empire. Remember that the year 69 AD is the year of four emperors. It was a time of civil war as these emperors all laid claim to being emperor, yet were murdered or committed suicide. Each of their reigns is of no consequences. Further, it is possible that the prophet Daniel was speaking about these three emperors being uprooted quickly.