When an event like the tragedy in Newtown, CT takes places, it is common that in the news the same event is replayed from lots of different perspectives. That is the best way to view this section of Revelation as well. Rather than understanding chapters 16-19 chronologically, we are seeing the same fall of Rome from several viewpoints.
Today, John sees Rome (code-named Babylon) pictured as a gaudy, drunken prostitute riding on a red, seven-headed, ten-horned beast. She is drunk on the “blood of God’s holy people” (17:6). Rome is pictured here as a power-drunk manipulator of the nations, offering base pleasure, riding on the beast of brute power. So pictured, we can all think of many such prostitutes throughout the ages. Interestingly, when we talk about two powers — political, cultural, or economic — joining forces in order to increase their market share, we say they are “in bed” with each other.
The description of the beast is quite detailed. In what is clearly an inferior parody of the Lamb, the Beast is described this way:
. . . when they see the monster that was and is not and is to come. (17:8)
The seven heads symbolize both seven hills (just like Rome was built on) and seven emperors of Rome, much as they did on the seven-headed beast in Romans 13. The most salient point regarding the heads/emperors of the beast is that there will soon come an eighth head/emperor who “is also one of the seven” (17:11). This strange statement is best understood as a reference to the soon-to-ascend destructive Domitian, who will be like Nero returning from the dead. The ten horns are foreign puppet-kings that join the prostitute in her persecution of the Lamb.
In a strange twist of events, as the chapter ends the ten horns and the beast turn against the prostitute, destroying her with fire and eating her flesh. These ten kings will eventually revolt and overtake Rome. The prostitute discovers what many have found throughout the ages: “every revolutionary power contains within itself the seed of destruction” (Mounce, Revelation, 320 quoting Lilje). In opening the door of alliance, Rome also opened the door to defeat. Power attracts, but them it corrupts and turns people against each other. Power is Rome’s downfall.
John adds one more point that would have been most important to the first recipients of this book:
God has put it into their hearts to do his will. (17:17)
With all this talk of Satan, it would be easy to think dualistically as if God and Satan are fighting each other with near equal power, heading towards an uncertain end. John remind us all that God is sovereign and all that is done comes by His hand. God is ultimately responsible for Rome’s fall.