Now that I have your attention with the photograph of seven modern European leaders, I know that you are probably a dispensationalist in interpreting Revelation. But read on! I think you will be impressed with a better view of the famed seven kings of Revelation.
Postmillennialism holds that the future will be won by the spread of the gospel before Christ returns. And we believe this despite the seemingly negative outlook on history presented in the Book of Revelation. In my current series of postings I have been looking at the dating of Revelation, showing that Revelation was written prior to the destruction of the temple in AD 70, and in fact is focusing on the close of the old covenant economy with that event. Because of this, we must not deem Revelation as contrary to postmillennialism.
In Revelation 17:9-10 John records a vision of a seven-headed Beast. In this vision we discover clear evidence that Revelation was written before the death of Nero (June 8, A. D. 68), well before the temple’s destruction in August, A.D. 70:
Here is the mind which hath wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth. And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a short space.
Perhaps no point is more obvious in Revelation than this: Rome is here symbolized by the seven mountains. After all, Rome is the one city in history that is recognized for its seven hills: the Palatine, Aventine, Caelian, Esquiline, Viminal, Quirinal, and Capitoline hills. The Roman writers Suetonius and Plutarch refer to the first century festival in Rome called Septimontium, i.e. the feast of “the seven hilled city.” The Coin of Vespasian (emperor A.D. 69-79) pictures the goddess Roma as a woman seated on seven hills. The famed seven hills of Rome are mentioned time and again by ancient pagan writers such as Ovid, Claudian, Statius, Pliny, Virgil, Horace, Propertius, Martial, and Cicero, as well as by Christian writers, such as Tertullian and Jerome. Indeed, “there is scarce a poet that speaks of Rome but observes it.”1
John wrote to be understood (Rev. 1:3) and specifically points out here that the wise one will understand (17:9). The recipients of Revelation lived under the rule of Rome, which was universally distinguished by its seven hills. How could the recipients, living in the seven historical churches of Asia Minor and under Roman imperial rule, understand anything else but this geographical feature?
We learn further that the seven heads also represent a political situation in which five kings have fallen, the sixth is, and the seventh is yet to come and will remain but for a little while. It is surely no accident that Nero was the sixth emperor of Rome. Flavius Josephus, the Jewish contemporary of John, clearly points out that Julius Caesar was the first emperor of Rome and that he was followed in succession by Augustus, Tiberius, Caius, Claudius, and Nero (Antiquities 18; 19). We learn this also from other near contemporaries of John, including the Jewish 4 Ezra 11 and 12, and the Sibylline Oracles, books 5 and 8; the Christian Barnabas 4. The matter is confirmed just a little later from Roman historians Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars, and Dio Cassius, Roman History 5. The text of Revelation says that of the seven kings “five have fallen.” These emperors are dead, when John writes.
But the verse goes on to say “one is.” That is, the sixth one is then reigning even as John wrote. That would be Nero Caesar, who assumed imperial power upon the death of Claudius in October, A.D. 54, and remained emperor until his death in A.D. 68.
John continues: “The other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a short space.” As the Roman Civil Wars broke out in rebellion against Nero, Nero committed suicide on June 8, A.D. 68. When John writes, the seventh king/emperor was “not yet come.” That would be Galba, who assumed power in June, A.D. 68. But he was only to continue a “short space.” His reign lasted but seven months, until January 15, A.D. 69.
Now some evangelical commentators, such as John Walvoord, would attempt to circumvent this political evidence by pointing out that: (1) It is taken from a highly figurative vision and (2) it is introduced by a call for “the mind which has wisdom,” thereby indicating the difficulty of the interpretation.2 But this is twisting the text to say what it does not intend.
Upon seeing the symbolic vision itself, John was in fact perplexed: he “wondered with great wonder” (Rev. 17:1, 7a). But an interpretive angel appears with the promise that he would show John the proper understanding (Rev. 17:7): “Why do you wonder? I shall tell you the mystery.” Revelation 17:9 and 10 is the explication of the vision. It is not given to make the matter more difficult! The inherent difficulty requiring wisdom lay in the fact that the seven heads had a double referent: geographical and political. The angel functions here much like the angel in Revelation 7:13, 14 — to interpret the revelational data, not to confound the already perplexed apostle.
Thus, we see that while John wrote, Nero was still alive and Galba was looming in the near future. Revelation could not have been written after June, A.D. 68, according to the internal political evidence.
1. John Gill, An Exposition of the New Testament, vol. 3 (Streamwood, Illinois: Primitive Baptist Library, 1976 [rep. 1809]), 824.
2. John F. Walvoord, The Book of Revelation (Chicago: Moody, 1966), 250.