Revelation 17:9, “And here is the mind which hath wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth.”

When Describing the Harlot and the Beast, the Context is Always Symbolic

The first reaction of most prophecy pundits is that the seven mountains upon which the woman sitteth are the seven hills of Rome. There are, however, quite a number of problems with this common interpretation, the first of which is that the passage self-interprets its meaning to be something other than the city of Rome:

“And they are seven kings: the five are fallen, the one is, the other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a little while.” (Revelation 17:10)

The mountains are kings, not hills. But more specifically, they are kingdoms or empires. They are, like the wilderness and the waters of this seventeenth chapter of Revelation, yet another cipher. Furthermore, the passage states that the reader requires wisdom to understand the meaning. By wisdom in this context and in the context of understanding the proper meaning of the number of the Beast – 666 – it may only be understood with divine enlightenment orGod’s supernatural disclosure.[1]  Otherwise, discerning the truth, asserting its meaning amounts to nothing more than a simple, literal interpretation – such wisdom would not be required. So, it is appropriate that at the outset of Elliott’s commentary on Revelation 17:9, the commentator insists that the reader pay careful attention:

The seven heads are seven mountains where the woman sitteth upon them. The description seems to be drawn from Rome, the seven-hilled city. This keeps the reference to Rome before us, but at the same time the further explanation (in Revelation 17:10) widens our thoughts, and shows us that the literalism on which the imagery is based is used to convey a broader symbolical meaning. The seven heads are seven mountains, and they (the seven heads– the words “There are seven kings” in the English version are confusing) are seven kings: the woman rides on the seven-headed beast; even so Rome dwells on her seven hills, and so also the world-city,[2]seen in vision, sits among the various empires which have risen, like great mountains, in the history of the world.

The Expositor’s Bible, despite what many commentators have asserted, advises that these words cannot be applicable to the seven emperors of Rome (from Julius Caesar to Vespasian).  “It may be granted that the Seer had the thought of Rome sitting upon its seven hills in his eye as one of the manifestations of the beast, but the whole tenor of his language is too wide and comprehensive to permit the thought that the beast itself is Rome.” Additionally, if these mountains are hills, it makes the notion of their having fallen nonsensical.

Besides this, the heads are spoken of as being also “mountains;” and we cannot say of any five of the seven hills of Rome that they “are fallen,” or of any one of them that it is “not yet come.” Nor could even any five successive kings of Rome be described as “fallen,” for that word denotes passing away, not simply by death, but by violent and conspicuous overthrow; and no series of five emperors in other respects suitable to the circumstances can be mentioned some of whom at least did not die peaceably in their beds.

Finally, the Expositor’s Bible Commentary explains that the word “kings” in the language of prophecy denotes not kingsper se, but rather kingdoms.  As with many other commentators, the mountainsin this passage are more than mere kingdoms but empires, specifically, those which have conquered, enslaved, or counted the Hebrews part of their empire: Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, and Greece (the first five) which, citing Expositor’s commentary once again, “(have) fallen in the open ruin which they brought upon themselves by wickedness.”

The sixth such empire would be Rome and it exists concurrently with (at the same as) John.  “The seventh will come when Rome, beheld by the Seer as on the brink of destruction, has perished, and when its mighty empire has been rent in pieces.”  The commentator continues,

These pieces will then be the ten horns which occupy the place of the seventh head. They will be even more wicked and more oppressive to the true followers of Christ than the great single empires which preceded them. In them, the antichristian might of the beast will culminate. They are “ten” in number. They cover the whole “earth.” That universality of dominion which was always the beast’s ideal will then become his actual possession. They receive authority as kings with the beast for one hour; and together with him they shall rage against the Lamb. [Emphasis added]

Seven Heads Are Symbolic – So Why Aren’t the Seven Hills?

Gray’s Concise Commentarysuggests that the seven mountainsrelate to the woman the way the seven heads do to the Beast.  These are systems of authority or power, which he lists as “the politics, government, commerce, industry, education, religion, etc., making the one totality.”  However, the seven kings, he explains convey seven different forms of executive power in “the prophetic earth” (a label by which he, in my view, wrongly asserts the Mediterranean World only, and not the whole earth).  Says Gray regarding the history of this “executive power” (in quite a unique interpretation):

[It] commenced with Nimrod and concludes with the beast, both of whom stand connected with Babel or Babylon. The whole of these seven forms of “executive power” include, “the native Monarchy of Nimrod, the theocracy of Israel, the despotism of Nebuchadnezzar; the aristocracy of Persia, the military monarchy of Alexander, the empire of the Caesars, and the constitutional monarchies of modern Europe. The sixth, that of the Caesars, was existent when this revelation was given (“one is,” Revelation 17:10), the seventh is now in vogue, and the eighth (Revelation 17:11) will be that of the beast.

Jerusalem: A City on Seven Hills

The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Commentary also confirms other commentators’ emphasis that those who would understand Bible prophecy must seek discernment to understand the symbolic meaning of the mountains and kings. Likewise, this commentary repeats most other resources referenced here which challenge Rome as the obvious, literal interpretation of these particular symbols:

The connection between mountains and kings must be deeper than the mere outward fact to which incidental allusion is made, that Rome (the then world city) is on seven hills (whence heathen Rome had a national festival called Septimontium, the feast of the seven-hilled city [Plutarch]; and on the imperial coins, just as here, she is represented as a woman seated on seven hills. Coin of Vespasian, described by Captain Smyth [Roman Coins, p. 310; Ackerman, 1, p. 87]). The seven heads can hardly be at once seven kings or kingdoms (Rev. 17:10), and seven geographical mountains.The true connection is, as the head is the prominent part of the body, so the mountain is prominent in the land. Like “sea” and “earth” and “waters … peoples” (Re 17:15), so “mountainshave a symbolical meaning, namely, prominent seats of power. [Emphasis added]

Putting this sentiment into my own words, mountains, just like wilderness, waters, and tongues of Revelation is not a literal truth, it is a cipher disclosing to the true student of God’s Word the nature of the identity of Mystery, Babylon.

Mountains Symbolize Empires in the Bible

Jumping back to the passage cited above from the Expositor’s Commentary, the complete quotation demonstrates that the notion of mountains as kingdoms is, in fact, a most common biblical symbol.  With this elaboration, the reader should agree with this author’s contention that Babylon is not any one citybut could represent all cities at once; or more akin to my personal viewpoint, many distinct cities at different points in history or in the prophetic future as recorded by the Bible. We read:

So mountains have a symbolical meaning, namely, prominent seats of power. Especially such as are prominent hindrances to the cause of God (Psa 68:16, 17; Isa 40:4; 41:15; 49:11; Eze 35:2); especially Babylon(which geographically was in a plain, but spiritually is called “a destroying mountain,” (Jer 51:25), in majestic contrast to which stands Mount Zion, “the mountain of the Lord’s house” (Isa 2:2), and the heavenly mount; Rev 21:10, “a great and high mountain … and that great city, the holy Jerusalem.” So, in Dan 2:35, the stone becomes a mountain—Messiah’s universal kingdom supplanting the previous world kingdoms. As nature shadows forth the great realities of the spiritual world, so seven-hilled Rome is a representative of the seven-headed world power of which the dragon has been, and is the prince.[Emphasis added]

Athens – A City on Seven Hills

And the commentator offers an important distinction which we will take up another time:  The seven heads should be distinguished from the ten horns. The heads represent empires, the horns are subservient leaders answerable to the emperor. In the case of this passage, the ten horns are under the control of the Antichrist. That is, “The ‘seven kings’ are hereby distinguished from the ‘ten kings’ (Rev 17:12): the former is what the latter are not, ‘mountains,’ [that is] great seats of the world power.”  The commentator then attempts to identify these seven empires (one of which I would challenge – the reader can probably guess which one I wouldn’t include from the following interpretation):

The seven universal God-opposed monarchies are Egypt (the first world power which came into collision with God’s people,) Assyria, Babylon, Greece, Media-Persia, Rome, the Germanic-Slavonic empire (the clay of the fourth kingdom mixed with its iron in Nebuchadnezzar’s image, a fifth material, Dan 2:33, 34, 42, 43, symbolizing this last head). These seven might seem not to accord with the seven heads in Dan 7:4-7, one head on the first beast (Babylon), one on the second (Media-Persia), four on the third (Greece; namely, Egypt, Syria, Thrace with Bithynia, and Greece with Macedon): but Egypt and Greece are in both lists. Syria answers to Assyria (from which the name Syria is abbreviated), and Thrace with Bithynia answers to the Gothic-Germanic-Slavonic hordes which, pouring down on Rome from the North, founded the Germanic-Slavonic empire.

The Relationship of the Harlot to the Empires

The Pope – The Harlot’s Handler?

No doubt, the commentator subscribes to replacement theology since he asserts that the Church can be found not just in the New Testament, but in the Old as well.  But he shows no favoritism to the New Testament Church from its ancestor Israel. Additionally, the explanation offered touches on the implied relationship of “the woman riding on the beast”:

The woman sitting on the seven hills implies the Old and New Testament Church conforming to, and resting on, the world power, that is, on all the seven world kingdoms.[3]Abraham and Isaac dissembling as to their wives through fear of the kings of Egypt foreshadowed this. Compare Ezekiel 16:1-63; 23:1-49, on Israel’s whoredoms with Egypt, Assyria, Babylon; and Matt 7:24; 24:10-12, 23-26, on the characteristics of the New Testament Church’s harlotry, namely, distrust, suspicion, hatred, treachery, divisions into parties, false doctrine.

The Pulpit Commentary, my final resource employed on this topic, will conclude our analysis on the cipher of the seven mountains. This scholarly tome points out that the methodology we select for interpreting the meaning of symbols (or ciphers) in the Book of Revelation must be consistent. Mountains are not hills – so, in regards to Mystery, Babylon, unlike what many other commentators argue, Rome is but one of the empires standing in opposition to the LORD and His Christ – it is not the only one.  All human empires war against the true King of Kings.  The Devil (and the spirit of antichrist) hold sway over all human empires.  The more powerful any empire becomes, the greater the evil it embodies.

Is Mecca incarnate an evil empire?  Yes.  Would a revived Rome comprise a kingdom opposed to God?  Certainly.  Does a Pope seated in Vatican City represent an evil religious empire?  In my opinion, yes, without question.  Could the United States whose principal cities are New York and Washington D.C., constitute an instance of “Mystery, Babylon?”  No doubt it does. If any American doesn’t recognize what constitutes evil in America, I invite them to read my two books, Power Quest, Book One and Two.

And to the extent we deny that any of these qualify as evil empires, we fail to interpret the cipher of “the woman rides the beast” in its proper biblical context. And the greater the likelihood we will not take a stand against the evil we would encounter when the machinery of this empire reflects antichrist. 

Thus, to reiterate, in Revelation 17, mountains are kings or more ominously, kingdoms.  Like the commentaries mentioned above, the clarification offered by The Pulpit Commentary begins with the admonition that the reader must seek wisdom to understand.  This commentator provides the proper meaning of the passage, with perhaps one exception at the end of his commentary:

The Modern Tower of Babel, Brussels

[The words] also make it appear that the explanation which the angel offers of the “mystery” is not one to be understood without some difficulty. The seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth. The diversity of opinions on the interpretation of this passage is mainly owing to the fact that writers are not consistent in their application of symbols and numbers; in one place interpreting figuratively, in another literally. We have repeatedly seen that the language of the Apocalypse and its numbers are symbolical. The seals are not literal seals, the Lamb is not a literal Lamb, the beast is not a literal beast, etc. So here, the mountains are not literal mountains. A mountain is a symbol of power… seven is the number significant of universality… The plain meaning of the passage, therefore, is that the woman relies upon a visibly universal power. This is precisely the idea contained in verse 3, which describes the faithless part of the Church (the harlot) trusting to the power of the world (the beast). Of course, the most prominent form of this world power in St. John’s time was heathen Rome, hence some writers believe that “the seven-hilled city,” Rome, is referred to here – either pagan or papal Rome. And, indeed, this may be a partial fulfilment of the vision; but it is not the whole signification. To understand seven mountains literally in this place renders it necessary to interpret forty-two weeks, etc., literally in another.

While I might suggest the 42 weeks should be understood literally, that is a different question.[4]

On final thought: while Rome is known as the city on seven hills, Mecca, Jerusalem, and Washington D.C. are also sometimes considered cities built on seven hills. So is Moscow. Indeed, looking up the reference of a city sitting on seven hills in Wikipedia, one finds it identifies a list of almost 70 cities globally that claim that same ascription.  Apparently, a city is “no mean city” (quoting Paul in reference to his home town of Tarsus) unless the city in question sits on seven hills.

Given that Babylon occupied territory on a plain – and did not rest of seven hills – it would seem that Babylon, somewhat ironically, stands excluded from the list. 


[1]Revelation 13:18, “Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.”

[2]The “world city” introduced here is a phrase utilized by many commentators when discussing Babylon, not as a literal city in one place at a particular time, but a symbol of all humankind including its institutions.  We might consider this a “meta-symbol” in that the writer uses one symbol to help explain another, to make the initial symbol’s meaning clear. Just as we employ Washington to mean the United States, or Moscow to mean Russia, the suggestion is that we can use Babylon to mean “all the world” – not its animals, plants, or geography, but the civilization of mankind.  Francis Schaeffer might say that this is somewhat like the platonic “idea” which transcends a particular instance of any one thing to convey a universal idea of all things that fall intothe category.

[3]Not to mention that religious power and political or civil power form a formidable duality as illustrated by Mystery Babylon and the Beast.

[4]When should be take the assertions literally? Not here: 42 weeks is not an image or symbol in my view.

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