Then the angel said to me: “Why are you astonished? I will explain to you the mystery of the woman and of the beast she rides, which has the seven heads and ten horns. 8 The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and yet will come up out of the Abyss and go to its destruction. The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast, because it once was, now is not, and yet will come.
9 “This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits.10 They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for only a little while. 11 The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king. He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction. (Revelation 17:7-11 NIV)
I find politics to be confusing. It seems that many countries have so much bureaucracy and plotting in their inner workings that it is sometimes very difficult to see who is in charge. If contemporary politics are confusing, than endtimes prophecies about politics are even more confusing, because they describe actions that occur in a context that doesn’t exist yet. So naturally passages like the one above are very difficult to interpret. There have been may writers over the years who have tried to interpret passages 9 through 11, some with a great degree of precision. However, I am not sure that we can really completely understand this passage at our present time. Some of it will, no doubt, only become evident when it takes place, and even then, only to those who are carefully watching.
So I openly admit that I do not have all the answers to this difficult prophecy. Here are some of my general thoughts about what it might mean.
“The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits.” The seven hills here probably represent the Roman Empire, since Rome was well known in the ancient world as being the city of seven hills. This great empire is both Babylonian and Roman. It is possible that the prophet is seeing on capitol as being the political capitol (like Washington DC) and other other being the culture capitol (like New York City). The Cultural capitol of this empire, from where the evil comes, is Babylon. The political capitol, “on which the woman sits” is Rome.
They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come. These “seven kings” are probably not individual rulers, but kingdoms (e.g the “king of the North” in Daniel 11). Therefore they represent 5 deceased empires, one “contemporary” (to the time of John) empire, and one still future empire. The deceased empires are possibly Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and Alexander’s empire. The one that “is” is obviously the Roman empire. Then there is one more that “has not yet come.” This could be the Antichrist’s kingdom, or another kingdom that comes first. I think it is most likely the antichrist’s kingdom, since Daniel’s prophecies never predict an empire between the Roman empire and the Antichrist’s empire.
“But when he does come, he must remain for only a little while.” The seventh kingdom, probably the antichrist’s kingdom, will not last for very long. The Antichrist himself is only given seven years to rule after he makes a peace treaty with the Israelis (Daniel 9:27).
“The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king. He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction.” Now we see an eighth king being presented here. The 7th kingdom will probably transition into the eighth kingdom, possibly half way through Daniel’s 70th week around the time of the Abomination of Desolation. Some Bible teachers suggest that the Antichrist will die around this time and be resurrected. If so, the ressurrection of the individual and the empire might coincide somehow. Notice that this eighth and final king “was, and now is not.” It seems to be saying that an empire will be revived in those days other than the Roman empire, because this empire “now is not.” My opinion is that the Babylonian aspect of the Antichrist’s empire is in view here. The Babylonian empire “once was, and now is not.” Therefore the Babylonian phase/emphasis of the Antichrist’s empire will come after the Neo-Roman phase. The Ne0-Roman Empire will provide the political groundwork necessary to create this nation, after which it will culminate culturally into a nation of pure evil with its headquarters at Babylon.