In my ordination doctrinal statement I included this statement, “If Isa 14 and Ezek 28 allude to Satan, we learn of his pride and pride of place in creation.” Well, the moderator was quick to point out that “if” statements do not belong in doctrinal statements. Lesson learned. But more importantly, the “if” statement revealed my ambivalence about applying these passages to Satan’s fall and Satan’s activity prior to the fall, respectively.
A member of our church recently asked me about these passages. The material in a discipleship book she is working through uses Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 as proof texts for the splendor and activity of the Devil prior to the fall (Ezekiel 28) and the nature of Satan’s fall through pride (Isaiah 14). Consequently, it provided me an opportunity to take a look at the texts and attempt to finally come to a conclusion on the meaning of these passages. This post offers you the results of my brief study.
What you will find below is a brief interaction with Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28, a survey of theologies, an overview of commentaries, and my conclusion. I’ve also included some practical helps if/when you use Bible study material that differs with your view. Here’s the fine print on the post: the investigation is limited by the resources available in my personal library. The commentaries with an asterisk are those I do not own but referenced. So I certainly invite you to pass along any resource(s) that contributes to the discussion.
Isaiah 14:12-14, “How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low!  You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God; I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north;  I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High’” (ESV).
Textual Considerations on Isaiah 14:12-14
In our Greek exegesis class, our professor taught us the “exegete’s cheer”: “Context! Context! Yeah Context!” The point of the cheer is to keep a very important interpretive principle before us: the context is critical to determining the meaning of a passage. The context in which Isaiah 14:12-14 is found is a lengthy section of oracles, or pronouncements of doom against nations and kings. In Isaiah 14, we find an announcement of judgment against the king of Babylon, “you will take up this taunt against the king of Babylon” (Isaiah 14:4, ESV). As interpreters, we are faced with an important question now. What clue in the text mandates that we move from a literal-historical approach to a figurative understanding of verses 12-14? I do not see any such interpretative license make this shift. Do we do this with any other nation or king mentioned in these oracles? We do not.
Concerning the pride manifested in the five “I wills,” is this arrogance ever manifested by oriental kings or only ascribed to Satan? Ancient kings, by virtue of their exalted position, were quite susceptible and all too often manifested this shameless conceit. For instance, you find this in Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4:30 when he arrogantly boasted, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” There is nothing alien to a king expressing this kind of egotism, viewing themselves as the supreme figure. There is nothing in Isaiah 14 that mandates assigning the “I wills” to Satan.
Ezekiel 28:11-15, “Moreover, the word of the Lord came to me:  “Son of man, raise a lamentation over the king of Tyre, and say to him, Thus says the Lord God: “You were the signet of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty.  You were in Eden, the garden of God every precious stone was your covering, sardius, topaz, and diamond, beryl, onyx, and jasper, sapphire, emerald, and carbuncle; and crafted in gold were your settings and your engravings. On the day that you were created they were prepared.  You were an anointed guardian cherub. I placed you; you were on the holy mountain of God; in the midst of the stones of fire you walked.  You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created, till unrighteousness was found in you” (ESV).
Textual Considerations on Ezekiel 28:11-15
There are some tough phrases to interpret with absolute certainty. For example,
- “You were a signet of perfection, full of wisdom, and perfect in beauty” (v. 12)
- “You were in Eden” (v. 13)
- “Every precious stone was your covering” (v. 13)
- “You were on the holy mountain of God” (v. 14)
- “You were blameless in your ways” (v. 15)
Some see a double reference in these verses. It is a reference to the King of Tyre and Satan at the same time. Is this a legitimate solution to the admitted difficulty of these texts? Ryrie thinks so as does Charles Feinberg. To apply some of these phrases to the king of Tyre seem difficult, especially “you were blameless in all your ways.” It almost seems like it takes more interpretive work to make them apply to an earthly king than to Satan himself. But there are plausible explanations such as the label “blameless” applied to Noah (Genesis 6:9) and Job (Job 1:1) and Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:6). Thus it is possible to have these phrases applied to a human king. Nevertheless, while these phrases are admittedly difficult to interpret with absolute certainty, we must use the overarching guide of an oracle grounded in a historical setting with some poetic language interspersed. Would Ezekiel’s readers have clearly discerned Satan in these verses? I’m not convinced that they would have.
Survey of Theologies
Isaiah 14 and/or Ezekiel 28 refer to Satan:
- Lewis Sperry Chafer (Chafer, Systematic Theology, 7:284-5).
- Charles Ryrie (Ryrie, Basic Theology, 141-5). Ryrie is one of the few theologians that interacts with the interpretative options for concluding that the passages apply to Satan. A very worthwhile read.
- Henry Thiessen (Lectures in Systematic Theology, 194-5).
- Millard Erickson does not address Satan’s fall in his section on angels (Christian Theology, 472). He does, however, point out that Isaiah 14 contains a picture of the fall of Satan (Christian Theology, 604).
- James Boice applies Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 to Satan (Foundations of the Christian Faith, 173).
Isaiah 14 and/or Ezekiel 28 do not refer to Satan:
- Berkhof, Systematic Theology and Dabney, Systematic Theology simply do not reference the fall of Satan or deal with Isaiah or Ezekiel. However, I take their silence to mean that they do not apply to Satan (though admittedly it is an inference from silence).
- As best as I was able to discern, Augustus Strong in his Systematic Theology does not apply Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 to Satan. He only provides passing comments on these passages and does not address the fall of Satan. He seems to take the approach in the brief remarks on each passage that it is referring to a historical, human figure (Systematic Theology, 450 and 518).
- Charles Hodge speaks little about the fall of Satan. Concerning evil angels in general he says, “When they fell or what was the nature of their sin is not revealed” (Hodge, Systematic Theology, 1:643). As far as Satan in particular, he only makes reference to the fact that he is fallen without reference to when he fell or the nature of his fall. Hodge makes a great point about the pride of Satan, which is alluded to in 1 Timothy 3:6, “He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.” The connection is “the condemnation which the devil incurred for the same sin [i.e. pride].” Hodge then goes on to say, “Some have conjectured that Satan was moved to rebel against God and to seduce our race from its allegiance, by the desire to rule over our globe and the race of man. Of this, however, there is no intimation in Scripture. His first appearance in the sacred history is in the character of an apostate angel” (Hodge, Systematic Theology, 1:643). So what Hodge seems to be saying is that there are no passages that refer to Satan’s fall. When he comes onto the Biblical scene (in the garden) he is already a fallen angel.
Survey of Commentaries
Isaiah 14 and/or Ezekiel 28 refer to Satan:
- I have a scant collection of commentaries on Isaiah and Ezekiel. But of those that I do have, not one concluded that these passages refer to Satan. However, I was able to track down a few which hold this view.
- *W.A. Criswell, Ezekiel, 149.
- * Lamar Cooper suggests that “the difficulty of the text makes it unwise to insist upon a particular interpretation, but the latter traditional view [that ‘the lament is an account of the fall of Satan not given in Scripture but alluded to elsewhere, especially in Isa 14:12-17’] appears to the present writer to account best for the language and logic of the passage” (Cooper, Ezekiel, NAC, 265).
- *Charles Feinberg states, “But as [Ezekiel] viewed the thoughts and ways of [the King of Tyre], he clearly discerned behind him the motivating force and personality who was impelling him in his opposition to God. In short, he saw the work and activity of Satan, whom the king of Tyre was emulating in so many ways” (Feinberg, The Prophecy of Ezekiel, 161). This approach parallels Ryrie who views both the King of Tyre and Satan in view in the passage.
Isaiah 14 and/or Ezekiel 28 do not refer to Satan:
- John Calvin (not surprisingly) is unequivocal in denying that Isaiah has anything whatsoever to do with Satan, “The exposition of this passage, which some have given, as if it referred to Satan, has arisen from ignorance; for the context plainly shows that these statements must be understood in reference to the king of the Babylonians” (Calvin, Commentaries, 7:442).
- Edward J. Young, says that Isaiah 14 has the king of Babylon in view, no more (Young, The Book of Isaiah, 1:441). He contends that the phrase, “how are you fallen from heaven” “is to fall from great political height” (Young, The Book of Isaiah, 1:440).
- Keil and Delitzsch say that applying the name Lucifer to Satan based on Isaiah 14:12 is “without any warrant whatever” (Keil and Delitzsch, Isaiah, 312). They contend that Ezekiel 28 is referring to the King of Tyre and no one else (Keil and Delitzsch, Ezekiel, 411).
- Matthew Henry also sees Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 as applying to the historical kings mentioned in each passage (Matthew Henry, Commentary, 4:67 and 4:721).
- *John D.W. Watts sees this as a poem as “a simile to picture the fall and disgrace of the tyrant” (Watts, Isaiah 1-33, WBC, 212). It is general in its scope and references neither the king of Babylon or Satan.
- *John N. Oswalt concludes that this passage deals with human pride manifested by the king of Babylon (Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah 1-39, NICOT, 320).
- *Jan Ridderbos straddles the fence saying, “there is an element of truth in the idea [that Lucifer is Satan]: by his self-deification Babylon’s king is the imitator of the devil and the type of the Antichrist (Daniel 11:36; 2 Thess 2:4); therefore his humiliation is also an example of Satan’s fall from the position of power that he has usurped (cf. Luke 10:18; Rev. 12:9) (Ridderbos, Isaiah, 142).
- *Gray takes this portion to be based on a Babylonian genre of a mythical hero. Strange as the interpretation is he does not find Satan in Isaiah 14:12-14 (Gray, Isaiah, ICC, 1:256-7).
- *Block contends that “Ezekiel’s prophecy is indeed couched in extravagant terms, but the primary referent within the context is clearly the human king of Tyre” (Daniel Block, The Book of Ezekiel, NICOT, 119).
- *Leslie Allen says that the interpreter who applies “vv 11-19 to Satan” is “guilty of detaching the passage from its literary setting” (Allen, Ezekiel 20-48, WBC, 95).
- Youngblood quips, “In this case, the devil is not in the details” (Ronald Youngblood, “The Fall of Lucifer,” in The Way of Wisdom: Essays in Honor of Bruce K. Waltke, eds. J.I. Packer and Sven Soderlund [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000], 171).
Both Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 are best interpreted in a grammatical-historical context. Moreover, the larger context in which the passages are found, namely oracles against other nations and kings, provides the reader an interpretive guide to view them in a historical light. Moreover, there is little problem ascribing the attitudes in each of the passages to ancient kings. Other biblical data corroborates this, e.g., Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4:30
The theologies seem to be divided: Chafer, Ryrie, Thiessen, Boice, and possibly Erickson affirm the position that Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 refer to Satan. Strong and Hodge deny that Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 refer to Satan. I gather that those who do not address the texts in their theologies don’t view these passages as allusions to Satan (Berkhof and Dabney), but I may be wrong.
As far as commentators, it seems that there is greater unanimity that Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 do not apply to Satan (e.g., Calvin, Young, Keil and Delitzsch, and Henry). I discovered in my reading that church fathers and conservative Christians apply Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 to Satan, while the reformers generally did not. They interpreted these passages in their historical context. This is significant because commentators are immersed in the text, while theologians are not in the text per se.
These passages are best interpreted in their historical contexts. Therefore, Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 do not apply to Satan. They are oracles directed at the king of Babylon and the king of Tyre respectively.
Has the doctrine of Satan, or any other Biblical doctrine, been radically altered by not applying Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 to his fall, splendor, and activity before the fall?
My short answer is no. What we do lose is any knowledge of his activity prior to the fall. But this is not really “lost” if Ezekiel 28 does not refer to Satan, which I am arguing it does not. Is there really any question that Satan is a fallen angel without Isaiah 14? No. Consider Luke 10:18, 2 Corinthians 4:4, and Ephesians 2:2. Satan is very clearly a fallen angel. Is the understanding of Satan’s nature or activity impacted if Lucifer is not among his other appellations? No. Ryrie states that Ezekiel 28:15 is the only place that specifically identifies the origin of sin (Ryrie, Basic Theology, 143). However, that sin originated and is sourced in Satan is easily discerned in Genesis 3:1-7; John 8:44; and 1 John 3:10.
So what do you do when you encounter a differing position in the curriculum of an evangelistic Bible study or in discipleship material?
- Don’t embroil them in the controversy. It is of little value to make them aware of the debate and will probably lead to more confusion than help.
- Cover the doctrine of Satan using texts that clearly refer to him.
- Finally, it is a terrific reminder that while we should be disciple-makers, we are always disciples ourselves. These questions require us to “search the Scriptures” ourselves to ensure we are rightly handling God’s word.