Leading Question: “Does the Bible tell us why Lucifer, the highest of created beings, fell from his exalted position?”
Theme: Vulnerability of created beings, illustrated in the fall of Lucifer
Key biblical passages: Isa 14:12-14; Eze 28:12-19; Deu 8:1-18
1. Is pride the worst sin? Just why and how sin could originate in a perfect being will always be a puzzle. But the nature of that first sin is indeed something we can explore. Two Old Testament passages have been interpreted by Christians as highlighting the sin of Lucifer: Isaiah 14:12-14 and Eze 28:12-19. Interestingly enough, in their original context, these passages describe the flaws of earthly monarchs: the king of Babylon in Isaiah 14 and the prince of Tyre in Ezekiel 28. Can we read these passages in such a way as to illumine human sinfulness, not just the sinfulness of supernatural beings? Traditionally, Christians have said that pride was the essence of the original sin. Do the passages in Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 confirm that conclusion? Can humans be as deadly with our sins of pride as Lucifer was with his?
Question: Is the subtle nature of sin revealed in our tendency to enjoy our pride? C. S. Lewis suggests something like that in this quotation:
One doesn’t even want to be cured of one’s pride because it gives pleasure. But the pleasure of pride is like the pleasure of scratching. If there is an itch, one does want to scratch; but it is much nicer to have neither the itch nor the scratch. As long as we have the itch of self-regard we shall want the pleasure of self-approval; but the happiest moments are those when we forget our precious selves and have neither but have everything else (God, our fellow humans, animals, the garden and the sky) instead…. – C. S. Lewis, Letter to a lady, 18 February 1954′ in Letters, 256
2. The dangers of being chosen and saved. When believers know that they are chosen or saved, how can such knowledge be shared without arrogance or pride? When we have been blessed by the Lord, how is the caution of Deuteronomy 8 still applicable in our modern world? Israel was warned that wealth could make them forget that it was God who had given them their wealth. What steps can believers take to help us remember the one who has given us gifts and talents? Is it also possible to be arrogant in our humility?
For Further Study: The alert student of Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 may question whether or not these passages originally applied to Satan since they are described as applying to the king of Babylon (Isaiah 14:4) and to the prince (Ezekiel 28:2) or king (Ezeliel 28:12) of Tyre. In a sense, for our understanding of the “spiritual” application of these two passages, their “history” is irrelevant since pride looms large whether it is describing human or demonic evil. Still, the question is a legitimate one: Do these passages really describe the fall of Satan? It is worth noting that there is no record of their being applied to Satan until some 200 years into the Christian era. In other words, the Old Testament does not explicitly make that application.
In a strange sort of way, however, their original connection with Satan may have been obscured in their Old Testament context because of the way the Old Testament deals with Satan as a supernatural being opposed to God. To summarize an otherwise longer story, the author of this study guide (Alden Thompson) is convinced that God assumed full responsibility for evil in the Old Testament in order to prevent Israel from worshiping Satan as an evil deity. In polytheistic cultures, the evil deities loomed large in the thinking of the people because they were the gods that could hurt you. Hence magic and incantation were seen as a means of placating these evil deities. Several passages in the Old Testament hint at the ban against magic and incantation. Leviticus 19:31 prohibits mediums or wizards. King Saul apparently tried to be faithful to that command, for the witch of Endor, before she knew she was talking with Saul, refers to the king’s efforts to eliminate all mediums (1 Sam 28:9).
A careful reading of the second command indicates that God prohibited Israel from worshiping others gods, but did not deny their existence. Elsewhere, the OT reveals that God had actually assigned the other gods to the other nations. In Deuteronomy 32:8, for example, reflecting a reading from a Dead Sea Scroll manuscript, the NRSV declares that God “fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods.” The Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, actually reads “according to the angels of God.” The story of Naaman in 2 Kings 5 reflects the same understanding. After he was healed by Israel’s God, Naaman declared, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel,” and he asked for two mule-loads of earth to take with him back to Syria for he intended to offer burnt offerings and sacrifice only to Yahweh, Israel’s God (2 Kings 5:15-17).
Given the needs of the people of Israel, it is possible that the original application of these stories to the fall of a supernatural opponent of Yahweh, may have been preserved in pagan cultures. Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 are a first step toward recovering that history. Then, in the Christian era, after the role of Satan was fully established, the application of these passages to Satan could be more confidently made by Christian authors.
Chapter 3 of Alden Thompson’s Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? (“Whatever happened to Satan in the Old Testament?”), includes a brief comment on the probable history of Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 18, the two passages that highlight “pride” as the essence of sin. That section is excerpted here (pp. 42-44 in the 2003 Pacesetters edition):
Before moving on to further implications of the disappearance of Satan from the Old Testament, I would like to comment just briefly on those passages in the Old Testament which do not explicitly mention Satan but which have been interpreted within the Christian community as applying to Satan: Genesis 3; Isaiah 14:12-15; and Ezekiel 28:11-19.
In Genesis 3, an unbiased reader will strongly suspect the animosity which exists between the serpent and God, pointing in the direction of a full-fledged Adversary relationship. But the serpent figure is, in fact, an ambiguous one in the Old Testament. The serpent attack recorded in Numbers 21 is successfully warded off by Moses’ raising a brass serpent, the later symbol of the opponent of God! There is even evidence to suggest that the people began to worship this serpent; thus it had to be destroyed (2 Kings 18:4).
The first clear identification of the serpent as Satan in Judeo-Christian writings does not come until Revelation 12:9. There is no doubt; the Dragon, the Serpent, the Devil, and Satan are all one and the same. Considering the strong role that the serpent plays in Christian interpretation, it is perhaps surprising that his identity is never really clarified in the Old Testament. An explanation might lie in the fact that in Egypt, the serpent is both a symbol of a good deity and of an evil one. The biblical writers thus could not really develop the serpent motif without raising the spectre of dualism or something worse.
Turning to Isaiah 14:12-15 and Ezekiel 28:11-19, we find two passages which share several similar characteristics. Both passages have been applied to the ‘prehistory’ of Satan and both appear in prophetic oracles or “taunt songs” against heathen kings. Isaiah 14 is directed against the king of Babylon; Ezekiel 28 is directed against the prince or king of Tyre. Modern scholarship has been very much intrigued with the parallels between these passages and similar passages in the literature of other Ancient Near Eastern cultures. Two general conclusions can be drawn from the research done on these passages. First, that the parallels in pagan cultures are striking indeed; second, that the prophets themselves are speaking of the historical enemies of Israel, not of the supernatural realm. The supernatural appears only by way of analogy. In other words, most modern scholars would say that these prophetic oracles would not have been understood by an Old Testament audience as describing Satan. That conclusion seems to be verified by the fact that the first clear application of the Lucifer passage, Isaiah 14:12-15, to Satan, was not made until the time of Tertullian, a church father who died in AD 240.
The history of the interpretation of Ezekiel 28:11-19 is less clear, for the passage has been applied not only to a supernatural being, but to the first man as well (cf. RSV), a problem of interpretation which stems from ambiguity in the original text. In any event, the application to Satan was apparently not made until several centuries into the Christian era.
The question naturally arises: is it legitimate to apply these passages to Satan when such was apparently not the intent of the original author? That is a difficult question to answer, for within the Christian tradition, an interpretation has often been drawn from a biblical passage which was clearly not the one intended by the original writer. A second meaning may have been implied but that is quite a different matter from saying that such a meaning was the one intended by the original writer. Nevertheless, as long as we do not use a second application to obscure our study and understanding of the author’ s original intent, such second meanings can be useful. Certainly if we choose to stand within traditional Christianity we must be willing to admit that such secondary meanings have been very popular within the Christian community, and to a certain extent, we must be resigned to such an approach even if we aren’t very happy with it. But the problem has been that such traditional interpretations have often obscured or even replaced the original meaning. I actually suspect that the vehemence with which traditional Christian positions are sometimes attacked is a direct result of Christian reluctance to admit the first meaning of the text. Thus, one of my concerns as I write this book, is to show that it is possible to stand within a conservative Christian tradition and still be able to read the Old Testament for the purpose of discovering its most likely original meaning.
But after admitting that the original intent of Isaiah 14:12-15 and Ezekiel 28:11-19 was probably not to outline the pre-history of Satan, I still suspect that Satan is lurking somewhere in those passages. Connected with that suspicion is the probability that the prophets have apparently borrowed from cultures other than their own. We must make it clear, however, that prophets are free to “borrow” whatever they choose and from wherever they might wish. It is the final product that is the result of the divine inspiration, not the bits and pieces. Yet even if that is the case, what right do we have to suspect that pagan religions had bits and pieces of a sort that could be used? That is where I think we ought to take the events of Genesis 3-11 more seriously. Whatever mankind may have originally known about the cosmic struggle would have certainly made its way into pagan cultures and would have come in a distorted fashion to that line of patriarchs which retained the slender thread of the knowledge of the true God. Suddenly, here in prophetic literature, bits and pieces of that cosmic struggle begin to appear, but in a way which does not threaten God’s first concern, the development of faith in him as the one true God. Certainly Isaiah 14:12-15 and Ezekiel 28:11-19 do define the issues of the cosmic struggle, namely, that selfishness and pride are the supreme distortion of the will of God and lead inevitably towards full opposition to God himself. The personality of the Adversary, however, is certainly well hidden behind the mask of his quite human proteges. Perhaps, then, the primary criticism of the Christian usage of these passages stems from the impression that has often been given, that these passages must have clearly outlined to the Old Testament audience the knowledge of God’s Adversary. Within the context of the approach of this book, I would say that such a knowledge was still too hot for the Old Testament to handle; it had to come later.