Did Satan Fall From Heaven? – Isaiah 14

Attempting to release all presuppositions, a plain contextual reading of Isaiah 14 does not overwhelming convict the reader that Isaiah is referencing the specific fall of Satan. The question of whether Isaiah 14 ‘refers’ to Satan’s fall must be understood in regards to authorial intent, and there is little evidence to suppose that Isaiah intends to point the reader to the singular precosmic event of Satan’s fall. Several observations lead to this conclusion.

(1) Analyzing Isaiah 14 in context, specifically following ch. 13, one can see that Isaiah is using the ‘king of Babylon’ (14:3) as a model or paradigm for all prideful rulers. Just as Isaiah utilized Babylon to “represent the pride and glory of all creation” (13:1), likewise he utilized the ‘king of Babylon’ to represent the pride and glory of all created rulers.[1] As John N. Oswalt commented, “chapters 13-14 have a much more universal flavor” (cf. 13:5, 9-11), too much for it to be limited in its reference to a specific nation or individual.[2] Therefore, the universal and paradigmatic nature of the text leads one to conclude that the specific fall of Satan is too limited an interpretation.

(2) Secondly, the text is concerned with human pride not angelic pride. Some church fathers observed the expressive and large language of the passage, rendering it too extensive to refer to one human ruler, and thus interpreted it as a specific reference to Satan.[3] However, to observe the largeness of the figure so much as to render them non-human does little justice to Isaiah’s apparent teaching; for the prophet is addressing the need to trust in God over human rulers. The only possible implication of angelic reference is in 14:12, ‘How you have fallen from heaven.’ Rather than strictly limit interpretation to a literal understanding, it is more attuned to the language of text to understand this as a sarcastic and ironic literary technique commenting on the inflated ego of those who would seek to overthrow the place of God.[4] It is the arrogant ruler who seeks to set his authority and will over the authority and will of God. Therefore, to interpret the passage as a reference to angelic pride (Satan’s fall) is inconsistent with the intended message and teaching of the text regarding human pride.

(3) Thirdly, in keeping with a hermeneutic rooted in the authorial intent of the text, one must consider whether Isaiah had an awareness of the existence of Satan as represented in the New Testament. John H. Walton noted:

‘Satan’ is one of the few words in English that has a Hebrew origin. In the Old Testament it finds usage both as a verb and a noun. As a verb satan means ‘to oppose as an adversary’ (Ps. 38:20; 71:13; 109:4, 20, 29; Zech. 3:1). As a noun it can be applied to a human being, thus designating him an adversary (1 Sam. 29:4; 2 Sam. 19:22; 1 Kings 5:4; 11:4, 23, 25; Psa. 109:6).[5]

The noun satan is also applied to supernatural beings (Job 1-2; Zech. 3:1-2; Num. 22:22, 32, 1 Chr. 21:1). Given the fact that the technical usage of satan was most likely a secondary development, “it is logical to assume that a supernatural being would have been given this designation as a description of his function, that is, a heavenly adversary.”[6] The noun is often used with a definite article (e.g., Job 1-2; Zech 3:12), where the reference is more functional than a reference to a specific individual – i.e. ‘the accuser’ rather than the proper name ‘Satan.’[7] Furthermore, observing the use of the Hebrew noun satan in the OT, it is apparent that the term does not always refer to the same supernatural being (cf. Num. 22:22, 32 where the ‘angel of the Lord’ is spoken of being a satan [an adversary] to Balaam). Therefore, as Walton concluded, “Based on the use of satan in the Old Testament, we must conclude that Israel had little knowledge of a being named Satan or of a chief of demons, the devil.”[8] Such an observation does not make it impossible for Isaiah to have known of the existence of the devil; but when coupled with the previous observations, it does raise a compelling argument against the interpretation that Isaiah 14 references the fall of Satan.

In light of the (1) symbolic use of ‘Babylon’ and ‘king of Babylon’ in Isaiah 13-14, (2) the apparent teaching regarding human pride, and (3) Isaiah’s unlikely understanding of a single supernatural being known as Satan, one can confidently conclude that Isaiah 14 is not a reference to Satan’s fall.

As to whether a canonical analysis leads one to partially or symbolically see the fall of Satan in Isaiah 14, three other passages ought to be considered: Ezekiel 28, Luke 10:18, and Revelation 12:7-9.

(1) Ezekiel 28 sounds very similar to God’s judgment on creaturely pride and arrogance found in Isaiah 14. Furthermore, Ezekiel 28:16, ‘I drove you in disgrace from the mount of God, and I expelled you,’ appears similar to Isaiah 14:12, ‘you have been cast down to the earth.’ There is also reference to specific kings (Tyre in Ezek. 28 and Babylon in Isaiah 14), pride being described as attempting to be God (Ezek. 28:2) or like God (Isa. 14:14), and God’s ultimate judgment on the prideful figure. Nonetheless, Ezekiel 28 has an interesting picture of the figure, where he is ‘but a man’ (Ezek. 28:2, 9), but also a ‘cherub’ (Ezek. 28:14, 16) who was at one time in the Garden of Eden (Ezek. 28:13). Applying the references to one specific individual is difficult. If one interprets the references literally, placement in the Garden of Eden logically narrows the choices between Adam, Eve, and the serpent. However, since the figure is ‘but a man,’ the only literal interpretation to take is Adam. While it can be possibly interpreted that Adam has some spiritual qualities like that of a ‘guardian cherub,’ though it would be an interpretive stretch throughout the entire passage, the whole literalistic interpretation really struggles given the plain address of the passage to the ‘ruler of Tyre’ (Ezek. 28:2) and ‘king of Tyre’ (Ezek. 28:12). Similar to Isaiah 14, the language of Ezekiel 28 is far too extensive to hold to a singular human being; yet the reference to the figure as ‘but a man’ struggles to point to a singular spiritual being. Therefore, like Isaiah 14, it appears best to interpret the ‘ruler’ and ‘king of Tyre’ as a symbol for all prideful rulers and kings who attempt to overthrow God’s authority and will. The specific arguments for this interpretation are not permitted here, but in the least it has been demonstrated that a reference to Satan’s fall in Ezekiel 28 is a difficult interpretation to uphold.

(2) Luke 10:18 is the strongest support for the ‘historicity’ of Satan’s fall. Jesus claims that such an event occurred – he ‘saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.’ A plain reading certainly appears to refer to Satan literally falling from heaven. Therefore, as far as that text affirms, one can confidently assert that Satan at one point fell from heaven. However, a good interpretation will not force the text to say more than it says. In the context provided, the emphasis is on Jesus’ authority and his delegated authority to his disciples. Jesus’ reference to Satan’s fall is apparently utilized to serve the essential teaching that he has authority over demons and Satan. It is possible that Jesus was not referring to Satan’s literal fall, just as Jesus was not promising the disciples that they would have authority to literally ‘trample on snakes and scorpions’ (Luke 10:19). Nonetheless, given the lack of reason to believe otherwise, the fall of Satan appears to have been an actual historical occurrence (though the exact literalness of the fall requires further examination).

(3) Revelation 12:7-9 is clouded with several preliminary questions, theological assumptions, and exegetical mysteries; and it is almost unjust to even mention it here. However, the verses ring familiar with the present discussion. The passage explicitly details a war in heaven between Michael and his angels and the dragon (the devil, Satan [Rev. 12:9]) and his angels (Rev. 12:7). Satan and his angels lost the battle and were ‘hurled to the earth’ (cf. Isa. 14:12; Ezek. 28:16). The passage sounds very similar to Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28, and the one ‘hurled to the earth’ is certainly Satan. The biggest struggle concerns whether Revelation is referring to a precosmic event or an eschatological event; and the answer to that question is extremely complex. With the observations noted in this analysis, the following summation appears best.

Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 both utilize symbolic prideful rulers to demonstrate that God’s authority cannot be overthrown; God’s will and purpose is ultimate and secure. Jesus’ affirmation in Luke 10:18 is an affirmation of his authority, God’s authority; and he communicated that teaching by similarly utilizing the imagery (falling from heaven) and method (a symbolic ruler – i.e., Satan) of Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28. The apostle John in Revelation 12 conducted a similar literary technique to describe the ultimate eschatological triumph of God’s authority and purpose, where he utilized the imagery of Satan’s being ‘hurled to the earth’ as reference to the teaching of Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 – i.e. God’s will and purpose ultimately triumph the prideful rulers of this world. There are certainly difficulties to hurdle with this interpretation; but the essential truth of all of these passages remains: God’s ultimate authority and purpose will prevail against the prideful rulers of this world, including Satan.

[1] John N. Oswalt, Isaiah, NIVAC (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 200. Barry G. Webb similarly interpreted Isaiah’s use of Babylon as primarily one of “symbolic significance” in The Message of Isaiah, BST (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 81. In regards to ‘Babylon’ in ch. 13, he commented, “The story of Babylon was, for [Isaiah], the story of all nations that defy God” (ibid., 81). In regards to the ‘king of Babylon’ in ch. 14, he commented, “The king of Babylon here, like Babylon itself in chapter 13, is a representative figure, the embodiment of that worldly arrogance that defies God and tramples on others in its lust for power” (ibid., 83).

[2] Oswalt, Isaiah, 199. Furthermore, Oswalt commented regarding Isaiah 14, “the language is much too sweeping and expressive to be talking only about one human being” (Ibid., 207-208).

[3] See Ibid., 208. Webb likewise noted, “it is equally misguided to reduce [Isaiah 14] to a description of the fall of a particular earthly monarch” (The Message of Isaiah, 83).

[4] The use of ‘heaven’ as a picture of God’s authority is similarly used in 14:13, where the mentioned ruler is (in contrast to 14:12) seeking to ‘ascend to heaven.’ If literally interpreted, one struggles to understand how the figure fell from heaven (14:12) and simultaneously sought to ascend to heaven (14:13). Was Satan already in heaven or not? The point being, falling and ascending from heaven are literary devices to mark the figure’s pride.

[5] John H. Walton, Genesis, New International Version Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 207.

[6] Ibid., 208.

[7] Ibid., 208.

[8] Ibid., 208.

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