(10) 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.
The angel continues his explanation of the vision, stating that the seven heads are seven kings. He does not say that the seven heads are seven mountains which are seven kings, but that the seven heads represent both the terrain and the reign of the beast. The seven kings are not said to be all reigning at once, as is evident by “five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come.” We have seen that the symbolism of the beast points to the Romans, so why say “kings” and not emperors? Well, recalling that the book of Revelation is very Jewish in its language, the identity of the heads as “kings” makes sense. This is what the Jewish people called the Roman emperors! Notice how Peter, when writing to the Jewish exiles in 1 Peter, uses the term “king” to speak of Emperor Nero Caesar (1 Peter 2:13, 17). So it is natural to see the word “king” used for the emperors in Revelation.
The statement “five are fallen,” seems straightforward, but has been heavily debated by scholars. The problem lies with were to begin counting. Some want to begin counting the emperors with Augustus, others with Julius Caesar. Those who need to prove a late dating of the book of Revelation will argue for Augustus as the first head. I once held that view and had to “kick against the goads” every time I read through Revelation. So much has to be explained away, or simply passed over, in order to hold to the late date, and most importantly, all of Revelation’s references to Old Testament prophecies has to be explained as just “language” instead of references to prophecies being fulfilled (like the book says: 10:7, 18:20, 19:2). I have much more on this in my section on dating the book. It is more natural to consider Julius Caesar as the first head, after all, he is the start of the family line (Julio Claudian Dynasty), and he named Augustus as his heir. Some will say that he was dictator and not emperor, but Revelation is not interested in those titles anyway. When the Roman historian Suetonius (born in 69 A.D) recorded the biographies of the “Caesars,” he began with Julius, and the early emperors all took his name (Caesar) too, even those who were not of his family dynasty. So even though modern encyclopedias will say that August is the first, we are required to think like the original recipients of Revelation in the mid first century. If Julius named Augustus, his great-nephew, as heir in his will, then why would anyone claim Augustus as the first? The fact is that Augustus was the heir to what started with Julius Caesar. This is more likely what the first century people considered. Let’s stay away from “late date tunnel vision!”
The Five Fallen Kings:
The “one is” would then be in reference to the sixth ruler: Nero. But is Nero alive or dead when John saw this vision? One would think he is alive based off the description “one is,” but the context of beast may show the delicacy of the situation. Firstly, 13:3 described the beast as having one head mortally wounded, but that the beast (not the head) was healed (see comments on 13:3). There are only two things situations which that can symbolize, the death of Julius Caesar and the fall of Nero (not necessarily Nero’s death, but inclusive of his death too). The context of chapter 13 shows the revival of the beast after it had it’s head mortally wounded, and how he (the beast) went on to attack the things of God and the people of God. That doesn’t fit the timeline of the death of Caesar, for Christianity did not surface until over 70 years later. But this can certainly fit the fall of Nero, which began the great turmoil and civil war of the empire, but revived under Vespasian who soon sent his son, Titus, to put down the Jews and even the Christians (see comment on 17:14). So let’s put all the evidence together. The “one is,” being Nero, is said to be the mortally wounded head which never healed (only the beast healed). On top of that, the beast, although prophetically said to heal, has not healed yet, because in chapter 17 the beast “is not” (v.8,11). So if the beast “is not,” then the head has already been dealt the blow. This symbolism does not necessitate Nero’s suicide in June of 68, but of Nero’s fall. For before Nero committed suicide, his reign was altogether over earlier in 68, having lost power by those who rejected him and refusing to follow his commands; some even declaring Galba as emperor in March of that same year. This was the beginning of chaos. The efforts of the empire (the beast) to slay either Christians or Jews had ceased, and the beast “is not.” It could also be argued that John saw this vision after Nero’s suicide, and the mortally wounded head (now dead) on the beast (also now dead) stands as a placeholder until the Empire and it’s purpose to slay Jews and Christianity could be revived.
“The other is not yet come” would be in reference to the one in charge when the beast is revived/healed. This does not follow the order of the emperors, for the next three, Galba, Otho, and Vitellius, although considered legitimate rulers, did not revive the beast nor its purpose against the Jews (and that’s the point of this vision!). Instead these three caused havoc during the upheaval of the empire. They were considered by the Roman historians as usurpers and rebel leaders. Almost every commentator removes these three from the list of heads, some for better reasoning than others. I’ve heard many times that these emperors should not be counted in the list because few were even aware that they had assumed the throne. That is error. The Jewish historian, Josephus, spoke briefly about the rise and fall of these three men, saying “I have omitted to give an exact account of them because they are well known by all” (Wars 4.9.2). Their absence on the beast is not because they were unknown to the people, but because they usurped the throne while the beast was “not,” and it was after their reign that the beast will “ascend out of the bottomless pit, and go into perdition” (v.8). So, they may be apart of the history of Rome, but they are not a part of the beast. For the beast was raised in chapter 13 by Satan to extinguish the people of God, and that seemed to be going well, Nero not only declared war against the Jews, but he was also brutally persecuting Christians. But the fall of Nero put a halt to the hopes of Satan until it his purposes were revived again in Vespasian. Vespasian is the “other” who “is not yet come.”
“and when he cometh, he must continue a short space.” When Vespasian comes, he revives the purposes of Satan in the beast. He was intimately familiar with the Jewish war, having previously been commander of the war by the order of Nero. He immediately revived the war effort, putting his son, Titus, in charge of the army. The idea that “he must continue a short space” refers not to his length of time in office, but to the ascension of Titus against Jerusalem. Remember, the book of Revelation is not interested in providing us with history facts, but only relating information that deals with the purpose of the book (10:7), in showing the saints the fulfillment of the words of the prophets. The prophets spoke about the days of vengeance for the unfaithful Jews and the days of restoration for the faithful. If God wanted to talk about plain Roman history, he wouldn’t have stopped with seven heads, for there were over 170 heads! But seven heads is all it takes to reach the days of vengeance for the Jewish people.
“And when ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh. Then let them which are in Judaea flee to the mountains; and let them which are in the midst of it depart out; and let not them that are in the countries enter thereinto. For these be the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled.” -Luke 21:20-22.