You might have heard this narrative taught before: Satan was an exceptional angelic being who once was only second to God himself. Even more, in his angelic role, he was the great worship leader of heaven. Unfortunately, due to a swelling of pride, he desired to rise up and be exalted over all, even organizing an attempt at usurping the throne of God. Thus, he lost his place in heaven, along with a third of the other angels who joined his side, with them all being hurled from heaven to earth.
That’s the general framework of the story we’re taught.
But is this the best storyline for Satan? And was he actually the great heavenly worship leader so many imagine?
For starters, much of this understanding of Satan is built from two major Old Testament passages – Ezekiel 28:12-19 and Isaiah 14:12-17. In particular, it would be best to read the passages in the old KJV or NKJV. Not because those are the two best translations, but rather they help give a background to the story we carry in regards to who Satan is. Let’s get a small sample of the passages:
12…“You were the seal of perfection,
Full of wisdom and perfect in beauty.
13 You were in Eden, the garden of God;
Every precious stone was your covering:
The sardius, topaz, and diamond,
Beryl, onyx, and jasper,
Sapphire, turquoise, and emerald with gold.
The workmanship of your timbrels and pipes
Was prepared for you on the day you were created.
14 “You were the anointed cherub who covers;
I established you;
You were on the holy mountain of God;
You walked back and forth in the midst of fiery stones.
15 You were perfect in your ways from the day you were created,
Till iniquity was found in you. (Ezk 28:12-15, NKJV)
We then find these words from Isaiah:
12 “How you are fallen from heaven,
O Lucifer, son of the morning!
How you are cut down to the ground,
You who weakened the nations!
13 For you have said in your heart:
‘I will ascend into heaven,
I will exalt my throne above the stars of God;
I will also sit on the mount of the congregation
On the farthest sides of the north;
14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds,
I will be like the Most High.’
15 Yet you shall be brought down to Sheol,
To the lowest depths of the Pit.
After reading these two passages, it’s easy to think that our normal narrative of Satan is the best one available.
However, what we fail to remember is the simple hermeneutical rule that biblical teachers hammer day in and day out. That rule, or question, is this: What’s going on in the context?
When we recall this important guideline, a lot of unhelpful Bible interpretation can be alleviated. For example, when we read vs1 and 11 from Ezekiel and vs3-4 in Isaiah 14, we will get a different picture. These short and clear statements give us the setting of the ancient oracles given by the two prophets. They show us that the passages speak of actual human kings. Ezekiel’s words are spoken of the king of Tyre; Isaiah’s words are directed at the king of Babylon.
Consider Ezk 28:1. We are told, in a poetic way, that the ruler of Tyre has claimed: ‘I am a god, I sit in the seat of gods, In the midst of the seas.’ Pretty lofty words! This is not unlike the account given of King Herod in Acts 12:
21 On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. 22 They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” 23 Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.
Both are describing the despicable acts of human kings. The latter (of Herod) does not speak of Satan – of course, we know that. But considering the account, we can see the connection with the words of Ezekiel. Ancient pagan kings tended to be identified with the gods. Think of Caesar, think of Antiochus IV, think of Alexander, etc.
And, so, in Ezk 28 we are simply reading the words that have been spewed forth by a king.
But let’s go back to the prophetic passages of Ezekiel and Isaiah. If we are careful to consider the genre of what is given us, we will see we are reading very poetic descriptions of the two kings. And remember that poetry takes “license.” Imagery, metaphors, even exaggerations are taken at times to make the point. That’s the tact employed by the two Hebrew prophets of old.
So we read of the king of Tyre in Ezk 28:13: “You were in Eden, the garden of God.”
“Ah, that’s it. You see, this is describing the serpent in Genesis 3!” – one might argue.
Again, no. The context of Ezekiel tells us it is describing the king of Tyre. But we have poetic license (and non-western prophetic poetic license at that) to describe this king. And if you read the verses before and after vs13, it seems to be speaking more of this ruler’s original perfection rather than evil. Eden represented perfection before the incident with the fruit and fall. So, here in the words of Ezekiel, we don’t really have a connection to the serpent/Satan. Instead, vs13 is a statement of grandeur and wisdom before pride!
In regards to the worship leader question – Well, we can already discern there is no strong basis for Satan being identified as a worship leader. Again, the end of Ezk 28:13 does not speak of him, but of the king of Tyre.
So, does that make this king a worship leader? Well, in this discussion, it’s neither here nor there, but I’d probably say it’s still trying too hard. The statement in vs13 has differing translations, which makes it somewhat unclear as to the nature of its wording. But whether you read the KJV, NKJV, NIV, ESV or another translation, it’s pretty difficult to say the person being described is particularly a worship leader. The best one could argue is that there was a great assortment of ornate jewels and other fine elements, along with instrumentation, which were crafted and present at the birth of this man. And such makes sense knowing this passage speaks of one who will become king. Think of all that was brought to Christ at his birth! Kings of all types tend to be celebrated.
Now, obviously, there are some similarities between these two Old Testament texts and others that speak of Satan found in the New Testament. In Luke 10, we encounter the 72 who had been sent on a mission by Jesus. Upon their return, they have these words to offer: “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name” (vs17), to which Jesus replies, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (vs18).
Powerful mission, no doubt!
However, it is most important to note that Jesus’ statement speaks of that moment following the significant mission of the 72. It does not speak of something that happened “pre-Genesis” or “in the Garden.” A great defeat of the adversary was taking place in the ministry of Christ and his followers.
But what of Rev 12:3-4?
3 Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. 4 Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born.
I think when it comes to the all-important word, context (even more, a first-century, Jewish context), one will recognize that the apocalyptic vision of John, which is brimming with imagery, describes an ongoing battle of God’s people in his own day.
I know there are varying interpretive lenses for the book of Revelation. And I’ve shown my hand as to what lens I prefer. But when one gets down to the nitty-gritty of first-century Jewish ways of writing, especially in the form of apocalyptic prophecy, one is left realizing that John is describing a real battle taking place amongst the strongly persecuted church he knew. And that battle waged against God’s people had a great Satanic force behind it. John is capturing that in the most interesting of ways in ch.12 and throughout the whole of the text!
The one caveat I might add is that I think that a good case could be argued that Rev 12 does give a picture of the ongoing battle between the people of God and the personified evil of Satan. However, to claim this is a picture of a moment in heaven “pre-Genesis,” which also connects to the descriptions found in Ezekiel 28 and Isaiah 14, I believe the argument lacks a solid foundation.
Now, going back to Ezekiel 28 and Isaiah 14, what I will say is this: I do believe those two kings (of Tyre and Babylon) have characteristics that typify the work of the great adversary of God’s people, the Satan. It’s not unlike reading the Davidic psalms and seeing aspects of David typify the character and work of Christ. We actually identify many of the psalms as prophetic and messianic. And they are! The anointed one (messiah, christos) back then, David, typified the great anointed one to come, Jesus. However, we don’t irresponsibly apply all aspects of David to Jesus. Or we shouldn’t! Rather, we consider better interpretive wisdom.
I’d argue we need to remember the same when it comes to these ancient kings and Satan. We need responsible interpretation, sensible hermeneutics.
To end, I will champion the call that we do, indeed, need to stop identifying Satan as the former great worship leader of heaven. It’s hard to find any Scriptural basis for such. And I would argue that we tread carefully upon the passages of Ezekiel and Isaiah (and all Jewish prophetic literature) as we look to faithfully interpret them in their ancient context.