“And here is the mind which has wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits. And they are also seven kings: five have fallen, and one is, and the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must continue a little while. And the beast that was, and is not, also is himself the eighth, and is of the seven, and goes into perdition” (Revelation 17:9-11).

The fact that this is not a simple identification is indicated by the phrase,“Here is the mind which has wisdom.” Numerous interpretations have been suggested, each with its own problems. The first phrase, “The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits” points to Rome, which from antiquity has been called the city built on seven hills.[1] This is consistent with the identification given above of the harlot as being the Roman Catholic Church. It is also one of the few options that would fit with verse 18, “And the woman whom you saw is that great city which reigns over the kings of the earth.” There is no city in history that has reigned over kings as Rome has, and that was never more true than when Revelation was written.

The second phrase, “They are also seven kings.[2] Five have fallen, one is, and the other has not yet come” is more difficult. One interpretation that has been suggested is that the kings represent the progression of empires that were identified by Daniel. According to this view, the five kings which have fallen would be Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, Pagan Rome, and Papal Rome, with the fall of Papal Rome being the deadly wound which was received in 1798 (See 13:3 The Deadly Wound). This would make the sixth king, the “one” which “is,” the United States, “the beast coming up out of the earth,”[3] which will set up the image and mark of the beast. Thus the perspective of the vision would be the time of the end, before the time of trouble. One problem with this view is that it does not have a convincing identity for the seventh empire that “has not yet come. And when he comes he must continue a short time.” The book of Revelation does not seem to indicate another kingdom before that of “the beast” which is identified in verse 11 as being the eighth king.

Another interpretation is that the context of the “one [who] is” refers to the time of John when he wrote Revelation. In this view the heads would represent all those empires that had a major impact on God’s people. Thus the first would be Egypt which held the children of Israel in slavery, the second Assyria which conquered and led captive the northern ten tribes, the third Babylon, the fourth Medo-Persia, the fifth Greece and the sixth, the “one [who] is” would be pagan Rome during the time of John. A major difficulty with this theory is the identity of the seventh king, which “must continue a short time.”[4] Moreover, we saw in the previous section that verses 8 and 12 indicate that the context is not the time of John, but the last days, after the deadly wound is healed but before the appearance of the antichrist.

Actually, the interpretations that consider the heads to be empires are problematic because the passage talks about kings, not kingdoms.[5] Furthermore, the beast “who is of the seven” and “is going to perdition” seems to be more like a person than an empire—in the New Testament only people go to perdition, not political entities. And finally, one would have to wonder why this passage would focus on ancient empires when the obvious purpose is to identify end-time Babylon.[6]

A more likely possibility takes into consideration the fact that there is no mention of the scarlet beast having a "deadly wound," which was so prominent in the sea beast of chapter 13. It also considers the context, the time just before the appearance of the antichrist and the fall of Babylon. This would suggest that the whole history of the “scarlet beast” takes place after the deadly wound is healed.

When did this happen in history? Some commentators have seen the succession of kings as beginning in 1929, when the papacy again became a sovereign state. According to this view, the kings are the popes of the Catholic church, and at the time of this writing there have been seven popes which have "fallen" since 1929,[7] which would make the present pope, Francis, the eighth and final anti-Christ king ("the beast"). Since the beast who "will ascend out of the bottomeless pit and go into perdition" arises during the fifth trumpet, this scenario is obviously incorrect.

A more likely possibility considers the fact that the healing of the deadly wound was a gradual process which may have started in 1929 but was not complete until at least the early 1960's. At that time pope John XXIII officially closed the First Vatican Council and opened the Second Vatican Council. The First Vatican Council, which began in 1868, established the principle of papal infallibility and intended to define the nature of the church, but in September 1870 the Kingdom of Italy, having already annexed the other papal territories, captured Rome which had been ruled by the papacy. Pope Pius IX suspended and never reconvened the First Vatican Council and declared himself a "prisoner of the Vatican," recognizing that the Roman Catholic Church had lost her temporal authority.

When Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council the first action was to officially end the First Vatican Council,[8] closing a painful chapter of Catholic history and opening a new one in which the council determined that the Roman Church would seek to renew the church, restore unity among all Christians, and start a dialogue with the contemporary world. It could be argued that this was the true healing of the "deadly wound." If 1962 is the beginning date for counting the 7 kings, we are now living during the time described in the vision of Revelation 17; five "kings" have fallen, the current pope, Francis, is the sixth who will "reign" during the chronological context of the vision when the harlot, "drunk with the blood of the saints," will gain control over the "scarlet beast." The next pope will only "continue a short time" and then will come the eighth king, the final antichrist.

Another credible possibility considers that the essence of the deadly wound was the loss of temporal and political power, which was manifest in the medieval church by the union of church and state in which the church used the power of the state to enforce her agenda. This kind of union of church and state was not recovered until the 1980's with the "holy alliance" between the Roman Catholic Church headed by Pope John Paul II and the United States headed by Ronald Reagan (see 13: The Deadly Wound Healed). In 1984 the United States appointed an ambassador to the Vatican and by 1990 the alliance had managed to topple Soviet communism, first in Poland and then in eastern Europe and Russia. This is particularly significant since Revelation 13:11,12 predicts that the final oppressive "image to the beast" will be an alliance between the United States and the Papacy. If the "holy alliance" marks the beginning of the seven kings, we are now with Pope Francis in the reign of the third king with four more to go before the final antichrist.

For further discussion of this issue see Appendix 7. Since John devoted a whole chapter to identifying this end-time entity, it is obviously very important that God’s people seek to understand. This requires “A mind which has wisdom,” and fortunately God has given a specific promise which we can claim—“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5). This is an issue that deserves a great deal of study, prayer and discussion.

Continue to next section: 17:12-18 TEN HORNS AND THE HARLOT

[1] "The City of Seven Hills usually refers to Rome, although there are many cities that claim to be built on seven hills" Wikipedia contributors, "List of cities claimed to be built on seven hills," Wikipedia, The Free Encylopedia, of cities claimed to be built on seven hills&oldid=625314419 (accessed September 17, 2014)

[2] The KJV and NKJV read "There are also seven Kings." Most other versions, including the ESV, NRSV, NIV and NASV read “They are also seven kings,” showing that the hills and the kings are integrally related.

[3] Revelation 13:11

[4] If this is Papal Rome, 1260 years is not a very short time, and there is no accounting for the United States, which is a major player in chapter 13. If Papal and Pagan Rome are lumped together as the sixth king, this is somewhat out of harmony with Daniel which seems to consider them related but separate. Be that as it may, according to this scenario the United States or papal Rome would be the seventh king which continues “a short time” and the eighth, the beast, would be the future resurgent Roman power with its “ten horns.”

[5] Although the book of Daniel seems to use the words interchangeably, it makes it clear that it is doing so, which is not the case in Revelation (compare, for example, Daniel chapter seven verses 17 and 23).

[6] See Appendix 7 for further discussion of this view.

[7] Pius XI 1922-39, Pius XII 1939-58, John XXIII 1958-63, Paul VI 1963-1978, John Paul I 1978, John Paul II 1978-2005, Benedict XVI 2005-2013.

[8] "The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War interrupted the council. It was suspended following the entry of the Italian Army in Rome, the so-called capture of Rome and never resumed. It was not officially closed until decades later in 1960 by Pope John XXIII when it was formally brought to an end as part of the preparations for the Second Vatican Council." Wikichristian contributors, "First Vatican Council" WikiChristian, Vatican Council (accessed Sept. 17, 2014).