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Today's Study

Isaiah 14:12-14: Lucifer: Satan or the King of Babylon?

In a prophecy of Isaiah addressed to the king of Babylon, there is a sudden shift from this world to a realm outside it. It describes a being with a hubris that will brook no rival who wishes to challenge God himself for position, authority and power.

Some of the early church fathers, such as Tertullian, along with Gregory the Great and scholastic commentators, linked this prophecy in Isaiah with Luke 10:18 and Revelation 12:8. As a result, they applied the passage to the fall of Satan or Lucifer. The expositors of the Reformation era, however, would have no part of this exegesis, which they regarded as a popular perversion. The passage, in their minds, discussed human pride, not angelic--even though the pride was monumental, to be sure. Which interpretation, then, is correct? Is this passage a record of the time when Satan fell like lightning from heaven? Or is it a description of the Babylonian king only?

The key word for resolving this problem is helel, rendered at first as an imperative of the verb signifying "howl" ("Howl, son of the morning, for your fall"). Then it was connected with the verb to shine and made a derivative denoting "bright one," or more specifically "bright star," the harbinger of daybreak. The Latin term for it became Lucifer.

In Canaanite mythology from Ugarit, the god Athtar seems to be connected with the morning star. At one point, the gods attempted to replace Baal with Athtar, but he declined, as he found that he was unsuited for the position. The throne was too large for him. Athtar was the son of the Ugaritic god El and his wife Asherah. Athtar was the chief god in the South Arabic pantheon, known there as an astral deity, the planet Venus. In the Ugaritic world he was known as "the terrible, awesome one" or as "the lion." Some have translated the first epithet as "a flash [of lightning]." The Ugaritic text 49, column 1, tells how his greed for power caused him to ascend the vacant throne of Baal, who had been dealt a death blow by the god of death, Mot. Assisted by his mother, he attempted to fill the vacuum left by Baal, but he was unable to do so. His feet did not reach the footstool, and his head did not clear the top of the throne. So he descended from the throne of Baal, stepping down so that "he might rule over the grand earth." Like Isaiah's Lucifer, he had aspired to ascend to a throne above the heavens but suffered a fall.

While there are a number of similarities between the Ugaritic myth and Isaiah's account, no great interpretive advantage seems to be gained by following this lead. "The mount of assembly" is parallel with Mount Zaphon or Mount Cassius in North Syria, where the gods assembled. Whether the story Isaiah tells came first or the Ugaritic myth cannot be decided from this text. Normally one would expect the real event to have been told before the mythmakers took up the tale and made secondary applications of it.

So is the story referring to the king of Babylon in hyperbolic terms, or does it refer to Satan? Normally the rules of sound interpretation demand that we assign only one interpretation to every passage; otherwise the text just fosters confusion.

In this situation, however, the prophet uses a device that is found often in prophetic texts: he links near and distant prophecies together under a single sense, or meaning, since the two entities, though separated in space and time, are actually part and parcel of each other.

Isaiah saw the king of Babylon as possessing an enormous amount of disgusting pride and arrogance. In cultivating aspirations that exceeded his stature and ability, he paralleled the ultimate ruler with an exaggerated sense of his own accomplishments: Satan.

Just as there was a long messianic line in the Old Testament, and everyone who belonged to that line was a partial manifestation of the One to come and yet not that One, so there was an antimessianic line of kings in the line of antichrist and Satan. The king of Babylon was one in a long line of earthly kings who stood opposed to God and all that he stood for.

This would explain the hyperbolic language, which while true in a limited sense of the king of Babylon, applied ultimately to the one who would culminate this line of evil, arrogant kings. In this sense, the meaning of the passage is single, not multiple or even double. Since the parts belonged to the whole and shared the marks of the whole, they were all of one piece.

Just as the king of Babylon wanted equality with God, Satan's desire to match God's authority had precipitated his fall. All this served as a model for the antichrist, who would imitate Satan, and this most recent dupe in history, the king of Babylon, in the craving for power.

A similar linking of the near and the distant occurs in Ezekiel 28, where a prophecy against the king of Tyre uses the same hyperbolic language (Ezek 28:11-19). In a similar fashion the prophet Daniel predicted the coming of Antiochus Epiphanes (Dan 11:29-35); in the midst of the passage, however, he leaps over the centuries in verse 35 to link Antiochus Epiphanes to the antichrist of the final day, since they shared so much as members of the line of the antimessiah. Thus this prophetic device is well attested in the Old Testament and should not cause us special concern.

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