Isaiah and the Devil

The “fall of Satan” is a story that even non-Christians know about.

Often, this tale is told from an amalgamation of different passages found throughout both Testaments. We take bits of Ezekiel 28, Luke 10, Revelation 12, and Isaiah 14 to splice together a story about a prideful angelic being forced out of heaven who is now wreaking havoc upon the earth.  The strange thing, though, is that if these particular passages are read independently of one another, the Satan’s-fall narrative isn’t immediately obvious.

Isaiah 14:3-23 is a good example of this.

This is one of the classic proof-texts for this narrative. But is it even talking about Satan at all? And if not, what are we to make of it?

Isaiah 14:3-23 in Context

Isaiah 14:3-23 is an oracle about the nation of Babylon. It’s found within a larger section of the book of Isaiah that contains judgement oracles against many of Israel and Judah’s neighbors (Isaiah 13-23). Babylon is first in line to be judged in chapters 13-14a, Assyria comes next in chapter 14b, and then Philistia, Moab, Syria, Edom, Egypt, Ethiopia, Philistia, and so on.

But more specifically, Isaiah’s taunt in chapter 14 follows a particular structure. Verses 3-4a introduce the taunt and the one meant to give it. That is, on the day that YHWH overthrows Babylon and its king, the people of Judah and Israel are to speak the words of 14:4b-23.

14:4b-10 detail the reaction of the entire created world at Babylon’s violence and arrogance. Even the underworld (sheol) is excited to greet the dead Babylonians once their bodies decompose in vv.9-11. Then, in 14:12-21, Israel and Judah’s taunt begins to use contrasting language to talk about Babylon’s arrogance and it’s coming judgement. For example:

  • 14:12-15 – Babylon thinks they’re as great as the bring shining morning stars. They think that their kings should have thrones in the clouds. They’ve boasted that they should even be enthroned over God himself. But on that day of judgement, it will seem like they have fallen from the height of the clouds down into the pit of the underworld.
  • 14:16-17 – Once they have fallen, the rest of the nations will look at their dead corpse and ask themselves: “wasn’t this the kingdom that made us once tremble? They don’t seem so strong anymore.”
  • 14:18-21 – All of the kings of the nations of the world have designated tombs that they are buried in. But the king of Babylon will not be given a tomb. Instead, he will be thrown out into the open and trampled upon. Even his children will be judged.

This oracle then concludes in 14:22-23 with a promise. YHWH will make all of this happen. He will rise up against Babylon, wipe out their nation, and make sure that there are no survivors left.[1]

What about the Devil Then?

So where do some find the Devil in Isaiah’s oracle?

Well, if we were to divorce certain contrastive poetry away from its context, it seems to fit Satan’s fall narrative. For example, here’s 14:12-15:

How you have fallen from heaven,
    morning star, son of the dawn!
You have been cast down to the earth,
    you who once laid low the nations!
You said in your heart,
    “I will ascend to the heavens;
I will raise my throne
    above the stars of God;
I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly,
    on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon.
I will ascend above the tops of the clouds;
    I will make myself like the Most High.”
But you are brought down to the realm of the dead,
    to the depths of the pit.”

A Babylonian king is being poetically depicted as falling from his throne in the heavens down into the pits below the earth. But if we were to take verse 12 and remove all of the surrounding context linking it to Babylon, doesn’t it sound like it’s talking about Satan? That’s the eisegetical move that’s been made by many. It’s also the move that John Calvin calls a “gross ignorance,” and that we should not link such scripture to “useless fables.”[2]

Why Have We Read It This Way?

There are a few reasons why this bad reading of Isaiah 14 is so popular.

The first is the mistranslation (or misunderstanding) of that phrase in 14:12. שָׁחַר בֶּן הֵילֵל, or “morning star, son of dawn”, was likely a reference to a literal star that still is found shining in the morning. And actually, this star in the ancient Near Eastern world was connected to all sorts of mythology.

For example, there was a popular story told in ancient times about a god named Helel son of Shachar. Helel, whose name means “morning star,” wished to take control of the mountain of Zaphon (see that Isaiah also references this mountain in 14:13), which was the home of the gods of El. If he were successful in doing so, he would gain for himself more power and a higher ranking among the gods. But his attempt failed, and consequently, he was hurled down into the underworld.[3] Isaiah was co-opting a popular story in the ancient Near East to taunt Babylon’s king. Everyone would have known the fate of Helel. And once YWHW brought His judgement, everyone would know the fate of Babylon.

However, שָׁחַר בֶּן הֵילֵל hasn’t always been translated: “morning star, son of dawn.” In the King James Bible, this phrase is rendered: “Lucifer, son of dawn.” It takes the morning star descriptor and turns it into a title. So, Lucifer, or at least in the minds of the King James translators, was another name for Satan.

Oddly, this word appears elsewhere in scripture too. But it never refers to Satan. In Job 38:7, the “morning stars,” referring to literal stars, sing to the Lord. In 2 Peter 1:19, Jesus is called the “morning star” who will illuminate the hearts of believers. And in Revelation 22:16, Jesus calls himself the “morning star.” So, Jesus might be “Lucifer,” but Satan isn’t.

The other reason why we often interpret Isaiah 14 incorrectly stems from a pseudepigraphal writing called “The Life of Adam and Eve.” This was a strange gnostic non-canonical writing that was popular among Jews from the 100’s B.C. to the 300’s A.D., and it seems to have risen in importance again during the Middle Ages.[4]

And ironically, it’s only in this non-biblical text that we see Satan’s fall narrative in its popular form.

According to “The Life of Adam and Eve,” Satan is an angel of light. But he takes the form of a serpent to trick Eve into eating from the Tree of Good and Evil. But Adam wasn’t so easily duped. Instead, Adam sees right through the Devil’s trickery and asks him why he’s behaving in such a way. Satan answers by explaining that “all [his] enmity and envy and sorrow concern [Adam],”[5] and it was this envy against Adam that was behind him being “cast out onto the earth.”[6] Satan then, in this pseudepigraphal tale, goes on to explain that Michael the archangel was attempting to force all angels to worship Adam because Adam was made in God’s image. But because Satan didn’t want to worship him, and because of jealousy, God kicked him out of the heavens. He also took with him all other angels who felt the same way.[7]

This pseudepigraphal story captured the minds of many theologians and Bible expositors in the Middle Ages. It’s from their influence, as well as the King James’ misinterpretation, that we likely still misread Isaiah 14:3-23 today.  

[1] J. Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1993), 141-142.  

[2] John Calvin’s commentary of Isaiah 14:1-32. See:

[3] John F. and Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Old Testament Edition, (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1985), 1061 and NET note 23 for Isaiah 14:12-13.

[4] James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha v.2, (New York: Doubleday, 1985), 253-255.

[5] Life of Adam and Eve 12:1

[6] Life of Adam and Eve 12:2

[7] Life of Adam and Eve 14-16

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