Even more ancient
But at the beginning of chapter 17 John connects this same beast and the kings it represents with an even more ancient time. Here the beast is shown with the harlot riding on it (verse 3), and in verse 5 she is pictured with Babylon written on her forehead.
The Babylonian empire, which this symbolizes, appeared in the Near East in even more ancient times, not long after the Genesis creation.
Does this mean the final, end-time beast will be part of a religious tradition that has a long history behind it?
Is John just dabbling in symbolism when he connects the beast and its kings with ancient Babylon?
From olden days till now
Or did he intend to make us understand something special: that this is all part of an ancient tradition of kingship that began literally in ancient Babylonia and continues down to our day?
The answer to that is found by analyzing John's words more closely. In the beginning verses of this entire prophetic passage in Revelation 17, John sets the stage by portraying these kings as involved in an illicit relationship:
"Come, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot . . . with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication" (verses 1-2).
The history behind this passage is much too long to recount here. But the condensed answer is that this is a specific reference to an exotic ritual in ancient Babylonia called the "divine marriage."
Scholars have studied it, and a full account is in our book Spirit of Antichrist. The coronation of each new Babylonian king included a ceremony during which he was married to a goddess named Inanna. It was through his marriage to the goddess that he received power to rule as king.
The divine marriage had as its centerpiece a literal sex act between the king and a priestess who played the role of the goddess.
The goddess had the name Sacred Harlot as one of her prominent titles. During much of early Babylonian history many kings ruled at the same time, each presiding over his own city-state.
So, in this ancient time in Babylonian history, the "kings of the earth" (plural) were indeed committing fornication with a harlot goddess (quite literally!), exactly as John described in Revelation 17:1-2.
So for John this line of kings and their connection to ancient Babylonia is both historical and literal.
The question now confronting us is whether John intended to convey the idea that this Babylonian tradition of kingship has survived through time and is destined to produce the final great dictator who will dominate the world just before Christ returns.
As John's account unfolds through chapters 17-19, he uses the same symbolism of a beast to refer to additional kings who appear at points in this great span of time. And he continues to refer to the same harlot and her illicit sexual relationship with these additional kings. Note Revelation 17:5-6, 9; 18:3; and 19:2.
This could be very important. If the final beast king is part of an existing religious tradition that we can study in the historical record, then we should be able to find out more about what kind of person he will be.
We start by looking more closely at the original Babylonian cult. Babylonian religion claimed its kings were mortal men. But its adherents believed the divine marriage ceremony, in which they were married to the harlot goddess, transformed them into gods.
The Babylonians also believed in a god who rose from the underworld to become a chief deity ruling over all other gods in the Babylonian pantheon. Their deified kings were believed to be earthly representatives of that chief deity.
Remember from the previous installment: This is essentially the same description of the final end-time ruler. He too will claim to be divine and rule over all other religions (gods) on the face of the earth.
Does this make sense?
Is this beginning to make sense? It's all talking about the same thing. But now we realize it involves more than just the end time. It is a tradition that began long ago in ancient Babylonia, survives down through time and plays a key role at the very end.
John clearly considered this tradition of kingship to be evil and opposed to the true God of the Bible.
Once again, as we look to ancient Babylonian religion, we see why. The Babylonians interpreted their original supreme deity as abusive.
One of the primary functions of the deity who rose out the underworld was to liberate man from this abusive supreme deity. He passed on the same liberating power to all Babylonian kings, who serve as his earthly representatives.
He gives this power to the harlot, and she in turn gives it to each Babylonian king during the coronation ceremony when he commits fornication with her.
As a result, each king becomes an earthly representative of this god who rebels against the supreme deity and dominates all other gods.
Tradition of royalty
From all this we conclude that a tradition of kingship was present in ancient Babylonia, which had the same traits the Bible describes in connection with the end time. This same tradition of kingship has been present at many other times down through history and to the present day.
Revelation 17 talks about the survival of this same Babylonian tradition in the 1st century after Christ's birth. These are the seven kings, the sixth of whom was ruling at the very time John was writing Revelation (verse 10).
Notice how he again uses the symbol of a beast. He says it is a tradition of kingship that existed in the past but had lapsed and was being revived in his time (verse 8: it was, is not, and is about to ascend).
In our next installment we will investigate who these kings were, including the mysterious eighth king, and exactly what they teach us about the end time.
But first notice key ideas John mentions about these rulers.
What is the primary difference between the first seven kings and the mysterious eighth ruler? Notice that the first seven are heads growing out of the beast (Revelation 17:9).
But the eighth king is the beast himself: "As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth" (verse 11).
Next time we will explain how that is a key to identifying who they were and what they were up to.
What is your understanding of Revelation 17? How do you interpret its references to ancient Babylon and John's mysterious eight kings in the 1st century? How does it affect our understanding of the great end-time dictator who will dominate the world just before Christ returns?
Please share your ideas with us.
Highlights of new book
The information in this series is highlights of the new 512-page second edition of Spirit of Antichrist. Order copies of the paperback volume, with a list price of $24.95, directly from the author for a limited time for $12 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order to Alan Knight, 3629 206th Place SW, Lynnwood, Wash. 98036, U.S.A. Or contact Mr. Knight at email@example.com or (925) 352-6876.