The fall of Lucifer in Isaiah 14: Is the interpretation still valid?
Editors’ note: This manuscript merited one of two first prizes in the most recent Ministry Student Writing Contest.
Traditionally, the king of Babylon in Isaiah 14 was interpreted as being Satan, with particular application of verses 12–14 to his fall from heaven. This interpretation has lost traction among scholars in the past two centuries with the rise of different approaches to Scripture. Archeology’s findings of ancient Near East myths and sagas have contributed much to this abandonment of the traditional interpretation, leading many to seek explanations in extrabiblical sources. Even so, many Christians still use the text to explain the origin of evil and the notion that Satan was called Lucifer before his fall. Can this interpretation be sustained by the biblical text?
Isaiah 14 is a prophetic song of God’s victory over evil. Its opening informs the reader that the Lord has promised to give rest to His people, explaining the circumstances under which this rest and its commemorative song should be remembered (v. 3). The song then elaborates on how He will achieve this. In verse 4, the construction “take up + proverb + say” carries negative connotations and introduces a prophetic warning,2 indicating that God is going to achieve His purposes by destroying the king of Babylon. The song is appropriately patterned after a funeral song,3 but, ironically, after the Lord defeats the wicked rulers and the king of Babylon by breaking their staff and rod (vv. 4–6), then the earth breaks forth in exultant singing (v. 7), a joyous occasion for God’s people.4 God is again active in the conclusion of the song, where Isaiah once again makes it clear that the destruction of the king was the result of divine judgment (vv. 22, 23), His actions creating the frame around the poem, emphasizing that God is faithful in fulfilling His promise of providing rest for His people.
The poem is built almost entirely by using parallelism. The parallels are mostly between two elements, one expanding on the meaning of the other. In verse 5, for example, we are not only dealing with the “wicked” but with wicked “rulers.” This type of parallelism is found in both short and longer phrasal units.5 This becomes relevant to the comprehension of the scope of the song when we observe the changes in perspective within the poem:
|4-7||Third person||Wicked rulers|
|8-12||Second person singular||The king seen by others|
|13&4||First person singular||Intimate wishes of the king|
|15-20||Second person singular||The king seen by others|
|21-23||Third person||Offspring of the king|
The paralleling of the two thirdperson sections leads to an interesting observation. In the opening verses, the impression the reader has is that God deals with the wicked rulers of the earth in general, resulting in peace throughout the entire earth (v. 7). In the ending section, however, the subject receiving judgment is more specified—judgment is particularly directed to the king’s posterity. How are these groups receiving judgment related? Is the second group included in the first group of wicked rulers? Or are both groups to be seen as parallel? By applying the same parallelism principle found in the smaller units of the poem, we reach the conclusion that both groups are complementing each other, stressing the view that the wicked rulers mentioned in verses 4–7 are equaled to the offspring of the king, who are judged in verses 21–23. This implies that all the wicked rulers of the earth are in some way directly connected to or influenced by the king of Babylon. The notion of God destroying the power of rulers and enemies in general, all considered “offspring” of the king, points to a universal perspective in which oppression and tyranny will be completely wiped out.
By observing the movement and space within the poem, two dimensions come to light. First, the word earth is a “connecting thread” throughout the poem.8 Adding its synonyms nations and land, we reach a total of 12 occurrences. As Alter comments, this is one way of underlining the cosmic scope of the poem.9 References to this perspective are made by using expressions such as “whole earth” and “all the kings of the nations.” The entire space is used up: the forests and deserts, the cities and waters. The whole earth sings, trembles, gets destroyed, and eventually finds peace. Then, there is the vertical dimension. Activity is not restricted to the whole earth; it extends its reach to include Sheol and the heavens, completing the vertical axis. The attention shifts between those three levels, and God’s judgment against the king of Babylon affects heaven, where he is cast out from; the earth that finds the promised rest; and Sheol, excited over the coming of the king, thus further developing the universal reach of Isaiah 14.
The heart of the king
When observing the parallelism within the poem, something distinctive happens in the two central verses. After an introduction (“For you have said in your heart,” verse 13, NASB), a series of seven parallel phrases describe the king’s desire to elevate himself. Since all other forms of parallelism found in the song involve only two elements, this concentration of parallels clearly stands out, demanding closer study. An analysis of the king’s innermost thoughts reveals the reason why he was eventually destroyed. All of the desires are connected, expressing the wish to go up to a heavenly sphere and to make for himself a stable reign, where God is enthroned and resides (Pss. 27:5; 57:5; 78:69). The ultimate desire of the king is to sit on the highest and mightiest throne possible. Not only that, but an analysis of the theological connotations of the verbs indicates that he tries to gain such status and position as God. One cannot compare God with earthly beings or kings—it is foolish to even try (Ps. 89:7; Isa. 40:18; 46:5). Still, that is exactly what the king of Babylon sought after. And instead of humbling himself before God, recognizing His superiority, he wished to be the one receiving homage. Instead, he fell from heaven to a humiliating, violent, and degrading end.
Because of their magnitude, mountains were often associated with the unchangeable. But even the mighty mountains are subject to God, and He frequently chooses mountains as symbol of His control. On Sinai, Israel experienced the greatest manifestation of God’s presence. Both Sinai and Zion (cf. Ps. 48:2) “are linked with covenant and theophany.” The connection to the word automatically reminds the reader of the tent of meeting, the sanctuary, chosen residence of God amongst His people, and implies that on this mountain is God’s throne, the place where He meets His creatures. Thus, the ambition of the king was to sit on an exalted throne on the mount of assembly in heaven, in the dwelling place of God Himself.
Therefore, what caused his downfall was his pride and refusal to bow down to God. He might have achieved temporary glory, but, ultimately, he failed and lost the little glory he had, becoming like the dead, weak kings of the nations (v. 10). Thus, God’s victory over the king of Babylon is justified, for the adversary dared to occupy God’s own throne.
The designation of the king of Babylon as “morning star, son of dawn” in verse 12 (NASB) has led many com-mentators to the ancient Near East, where astronomy and astrology often played central roles.12 Some associate the title with Canaanite mythology13 because the information was found in the Ras Shamra texts,14 though, as Watts points out, “no such myth has been found in Canaan or among other
peoples.”15 Probably Isaiah was simply making an astronomical analogy by associating the king with the morning star: even though the star tries to rise above the horizon every morning, this morning star disappears when the sun comes out and does not succeed its ascension “above the stars.”16
Isaiah 14 gives us insights into the world of the powers of darkness and to God’s act of overcoming these powers. Such insights appear throughout the Old Testament (OT) passages where the desire to become like God (Gen. 3) or willing to reach heaven (Gen. 11) are portrayed. The character in Ezekiel 28 also has striking similarities to the king of Babylon.17 Together, the text and the OT as a whole point to a universal, cosmic reality beyond the historical figure of the king of Babylon, but the New Testament (NT) gives us a clearer picture of the great controversy between the powers of good and evil. Even though there are no direct quotes of Isaiah 14 in the NT, there are several allusions to it—particularly to verses 12–15—all in contexts where Satan is mentioned (Luke 10:13–16, 18; Rev. 8:10; 9:1; 12:9; 20:3), thus completing the bridge between the cosmic conflict hinted at in the OT and the identification of Satan as God’s opponent found in the NT.
Tertullian, Justin, and Origen were probably some of the first Christian writers to identify the king of Babylon as the devil,18 an association that was no doubt influenced by intertestamental Jewish apocalyptic literature19 in their attempt to identify Satan as a fallen angel, a connection which was later picked up by the NT and the early church fathers.20 This identification was common during the Middle Ages but lost its popularity in recent times, especially after biblical criticism gained force in theological circles. Possible connections with pagan mythology spoke more loudly, making most scholars lay aside the traditional interpretation as being allegorical and seek explanations in ancient Near East myths. Today, only a minority of authors even bring up the subject of Satan when commenting on Isaiah 14.
It seems, however, prejudicial to the text to seek parallels exclusively in sources outside the Bible, for they neglect the biblical point of view. The identification of the king of Babylon as Satan is an idea that does not come explicitly from Isaiah or the OT, but sufficient indications clearly point beyond a mere historical figure to a greater, cosmic battle. Turning to the NT, there seems to be enough evidence that the NT itself—via Jewish tradition—provides the basis for the traditional interpretation. That way, it is Scripture itself that shows us how we should understand the king: not only as Israel’s historical enemy but as the evil power working against God and His people, identified in Revelation as the devil and Satan.21
Isaiah 14 was written first and fore-most with the promise of release from the Babylonian exile in sight. At the same time, we notice that there are some aspects that are very hard to explain on a historical level, leading many authors to maintain the impossibility of identifying the king with one historical figure.22 A linguistic study of the passage confirms the universal reach of the poem, taking us into a greater spiritual battle between God and adversaries who stand in the way of the ultimate rest promised to God’s people. When scrutinized and compared with the rest of Scripture, we reach the conclusion that identifying the king of Babylon with Satan is both possible and legitimate. The focus the Hebrew text gives to verses 13 and 14 highlights of the fairness of the divine judgment against the king, whose defiance against the Lord eventually led to his ruin.
Thus, when God says in Isaiah 14:22 that He will destroy Babylon’s name and posterity, He is not only freeing Israel from their historical enemy but also giving all humanity a promise of freedom from the powers of evil and of rest from their sorrow and bondage. Nothing will stand in the way of the earth breaking forth into singing and rejoicing, for the king of Babylon, the ultimate enemy, is struck down.
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1 The Hebrew word mashal is often translated as taunt, proverb, or elegy. The construction in which it is found, “take up + proverb + say,” is a typical formula of a prophetic warning against someone. The rhythm of the poem is characteristic of a funeral song, but the use of rinnah in verse 7 indicates joyful singing. Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York: Basic, 1985); Gerald Wilson, New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (NIDOTE), s.v. “msl.” In this paper I have chosen to call it a song because of its nature as a poem and an elegy, but with divine prophecy in mind.
2 Robin Wakely, NIDOTE, s.v. “sahar.”
3 The rhythm of the song is 3 + 2, typical of a lament or a funeral song. The “how” cry in verses 4 and 12 also usually describes the lament at someone’s death. See Leander E. Keck, Isaiah–Ezekiel, New Interpreter’s Bible 6 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2001), 150–61.
4 The irony is further stressed by the fact that instead of qinah, “lament,” Isaiah uses rinnah, “joyful singing.” Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry, 18.
5 In verse 9b, e.g., “all the leaders of the earth” is parallel to “all the kings of the nations” (NASB).
6 The changes in perspective relate to verbs and suffixes.
7 John D. W. Watts, Isaiah 1–33, Word Biblical Commentary 24 (Waco, TX: Nelson, 1985–1987), 203, 204; Wim Beuken, Ulrich Berges, and Erich Zenger, Jesaja 13–27 (Freiburg: Herder, 2007), 61.
8 Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry, 149.
10 A. H. Konkel, NIDOTE, s.v. “dmh.”
12 Jack Sasson, ed., Civilizations of the Ancient Near East (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2000), 1860, 1907.
13 John Goldingay argues that these motifs would be recognized by the Israelite audience as coming from foreign myths, for both “morning star” and “son of the dawn” are titles of Canaanite gods. Isaiah, New International Bible Commentary 13 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2001), 102–03. J. Oswalt says, “The indications are that the prophet was not dependent upon any one story, but used a number of current motifs to fit his own point.” The Book of Isaiah 1–39, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 322. However, it cannot be said for sure that the Israelites were influenced by foreign mythology. There is always the possibility that the influence went the other way around.
14 Wakely, NIDOTE 4:85–9.
15 Watts, Isaiah 1–33, 209.
16 G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmut Ringgren, eds., Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Alten Testament, vol. 7, Lothar Ruppert, s.v. “sahar.”
17 Walther Eichrodt, Der Herr Der Geschichte Jesaja 13 - 23 u. 28 - 39, Botschaft des Alten Testaments 17 (Stuttgart, Germany: Calwer, 1967), 25.
18 Otto Böcher, Theologische Realenzyclopädie, s.v. “Teufel.”
19 See 2 En. 29:1–4 and Apoc. El. 4:11, where echoes to Isaiah 14 are found.
20 Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, s.v. “Satan.” These early identifications of Satan and the widespread belief that Satan was called Lucifer (in Lat., “light bearer”) before his fall led “morning star” to be translated as “Lucifer” in “literature affected by the Latin Bible and the KJV. However, the translation ‘Lucifer’is untenable and is no longer found in new versions.” Larry L. Walker, Isaiah, Jeremiah & Lamentations, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary 6 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2005), 68. See also: Keck, Isaiah–Ezekiel, 159.
21 Walker says: “Although Satan is not the immediate referent in Isaiah, the rest of Scripture makes it clear that he is the evil being behind evil kings” (Isaiah, Jeremiah & Lamentations, 68). So also Derek Thomas: “Despite the fact that Satan is not referred to specifically in 14:12, his shadow lies behind this passage.” God Delivers: Isaiah Simply Explained, Welwyn Commentary Series (Darlington, U.K.: Evangelical, 1991), 126.
22 “The attempt to identify a precise historical figure is probably futile. . . . None of the kings of the Neo-Babylonian empire fits, nor do any of the Assyrian kings of Isaiah’s day.” Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah 1–39, 311–14.