Does the Euphrates River in Revelation 16:12 represent the literal river, the territory through which the river flows, the ruler of that territory, or something else? Through the years I have heard many interesting but implausible interpretations. The drying up of the Euphrates means the drying up of Middle Eastern oil. It pointed to death or removal of Saddam Hussein from power. It represented the nation of Iraq. In these interpretations, the Kings of the East would often be Iran or Russia. When I was much younger, it was taken literally and the Kings of the East represented the armies of Japan or China who would one day invade the Middle East. All of these interpretations are interesting, but they are contemporary speculations. If John himself defined what the Euphrates River means, we should not look elsewhere for the meaning. We need not remain in doubt on any interpretation when the text itself defines a symbol.
In Revelation 17:1 an angel introduces an explanation of one of the bowl plagues, and that bowl plagues has something to do with water. Of the seven options, three of the plagues have something to do with water; the second is poured out on the sea, the third is poured out on the rivers and springs of the earth and the sixth is poured out on the Euphrates River. Which of these three plagues is the one in view in Revelation 17:1?
I would conclude that the plague being interpreted in Revelation 17 is the sixth plague, the one which mentions the Euphrates River. First of all, the woman who sits on the water in the first verse is later called Babylon (Rev. 17:5) and the Euphrates River flowed right down the middle of the ancient city of Babylon. The reference to “many waters” in verse one is an echo of Jeremiah 51:13, where the Euphrates River is described as “many waters.” So you have a strong allusions to ancient Babylon and its position on the Euphrates River in the first five verses of Revelation 17.
The explanation of the vision of verses 1-5 (Rev 17:7-18) goes in other directions for a while, but returns to the image of verse one in verse fifteen. The meaning of the river is defined in Revelation 17:15. According to that verse, the waters of verse 1 represent “peoples and multitudes and nations and languages” (ESV), in other words, the civil and secular powers of the entire world. These powers give their allegiance to Babylon for a short time (Rev. 17:3, 12-13), creating a worldwide, end-time confederacy in opposition to God and His end-time people.
This makes sense of the sixth plague. All the other plagues are massive in their effect, most of them affect the whole earth (Rev 16:1-2). But then along comes the sixth plague, but it only effects a medium-sized river in a dry part of the earth. The plague does not seem in proportion to the other six. But if the Euphrates River represent the civil, secular, economic and military powers of the world, then it plays a huge role in the final events. The drying up of the Euphrates would mean the withdrawal of support by the secular powers of the world for the great religious confederacy called Babylon in the last days of earth’s history. At some future time the religious and secular powers of the world unite to counter the work of the gospel in the world. In the middle of this brief grand union, the civil powers of the world come to realize they have been deceived and turn on the religious authorities and institutions that have deceived them (Rev 17:16). Thus is End-time Babylon destroyed and the people of God delivered.