When most people hear the word “Lucifer,” they think of the Devil. This association is so common today that a television show titled “Lucifer” is simply understood to be about the Devil. But does “Lucifer” refer to Satan in the Bible? You may be surprised to learn that Bible never uses this title to describe the Devil. Poor readings of Scripture, combined with very old traditions, have led to this common misunderstanding.
SATAN IN SCRIPTURE
There is no doubt that Satan figures prominently in the biblical story. He is there in the Garden of Eden in the guise of a serpent. Though the writer of Genesis, Moses never explicitly tells us that the serpent is Satan, later biblical writers are clear about his identity. In the book of Revelation, John speaks of “that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan,” (Revelation 20:2).
Satan’s name means, “the accuser” or “the adversary.” He shows up among the “sons of God” in the book of Job, where he obtains permission from God to test Job’s character and faithfulness (Job 1-2). He tempts David to violate God’s command by taking a census of the people of Israel (1 Chronicles 1:21). He shows up by name again in Zechariah’s vision of Joshua the High Priest (Zechariah 3:1).
In the New Testament both the Hebrew name “Satan” and the closely related title “Devil” (from diabolos= adversary), are found with much greater frequency. Satan tempts Jesus in the wilderness. He manipulates Judas. Jesus mentions the devil multiple times in his teachings and parables. Paul warns us against the “schemes of the devil,” (Ephesians 6:11) and calls him “the prince of the power of the air,” who is “at work among the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:2-3). According to the writer of Hebrews he holds “the power of death.” Jesus came to destroy this death dealer by his own death (Hebrews 2:14). James warns his readers to “resist the devil” and Peter says that he “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”
Let no one convince you that Satan isn’t real or active in the world. His job is to tempt and accuse. He lures into sin, and then he declares our guilt. But the guilt-giving power of this accuser has been defeated by Jesus, who bore God’s just judgment in our place. Believers have no reason to fear the accusatory power of Satan. We must, however, be weary of his unceasing attempts to lure us into sin and make shipwreck of our faith. He is a real, active, powerful foe.
A QUICK LOOK AT ISAIAH 14:12
But is he to be identified with the name “Lucifer”? The only place in the Bible where “Lucifer” can be found is in Isaiah 14. In the King James Version of Isaiah 14:12, we read, “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!” The translation “Lucifer” comes from the Latin translation of the Bible. Most modern versions render the Hebrew word hellel as “daystar” or “morning star,” because of its association with the term “son of the morning.” The Hebrew term most likely means “shining one.” It is most likely a reference to Venus, the “morning star” that appears in the east before sunrise. Of course, this “shining one” is personified in Isaiah 14:12 and refers to some pompous and prideful, but now fallen and disgraced ruler.
Who is this “son of the morning” who has “fallen from heaven”? Isaiah is not talking about Satan in this passage. Isaiah 14:12 is found in the midst of a lengthy oracle of judgment spoken against the king of Babylon by the prophet. Here is how the oracle is introduced earlier in the chapter:
When the LORD has given you rest from your pain and turmoil and the hard service with which you were made to serve, you will take up this taunt against the king of Babylon… (Isaiah 14:3–4, emphasis added)
The “king of Babylon” is the target of Isaiah’s taunt. Why, if the introduction to this pronouncement of judgment is so clear as to its target, would anyone associate what is said here with Satan? Everything leading up to Isaiah 14:12 is clearly aimed against the tyrant king of Babylon who had conquered Israel and her neighbors. However, it is the next few verses that lead many to attribute the name “Lucifer” to Satan. Isaiah continues:
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.’ But you are brought down to Sheol, to the far reaches of the pit. (Isaiah 14:12–15)
“How could this language be applied to anyone but Satan?” some may ask. The simplest reply is to point out the obvious: in the context of Isaiah 14 these words clearly don’t refer to Satan or any spiritual being. Isaiah is talking about the king of Babylon.
We should probably also bear in mind that this type of language constitutes an appropriate critique of Babylonian kings and conquerors. The Babylonian kings often considered themselves to be gods among men. They demanded worship from their subjects and taunted the so-called “gods” of the nations they conquered. Who can forget Nebuchadnezzar’s boastful claims in the book of Daniel: “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” (Daniel 4:30). Against the self-proclaimed divine conquerors of the ancient world God often speaks a word of woe.
The LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, said: “Behold, I am bringing punishment upon Amon of Thebes, and Pharaoh and Egypt and her gods and her kings, upon Pharaoh and those who trust in him. (Jeremiah 46:25)
Thus says the Lord GOD: “Behold, I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt, the great dragon that lies in the midst of his streams, that says, ‘My Nile is my own; I made it for myself.’ (Ezekiel 29:3)
When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the boastful look in his eyes. For he says: “By the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my wisdom, for I have understanding; I remove the boundaries of peoples, and plunder their treasures; like a bull I bring down those who sit on thrones… ” Shall the axe boast over him who hews with it, or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it? As if a rod should wield him who lifts it, or as if a staff should lift him who is not wood! (Isaiah 10:12–15)
God uses the nations and their rules like a woodsman uses an axe. But when the axe begins to boast of its own greatness and strength, God cuts it down.
In Isaiah 14, the prophet is using well-worn mythological language and applying it to the king to highlight his arrogance and pride. The king of Babylon hadn’t literally “fallen from heaven,” but he had exalted himself as a divine being. He spoke and acted as if he were responsible for all of his success and worthy of the worship and admiration of the peoples. Isaiah is also likely drawing on the language of the familiar story of the Tower of Babel. In this biblical story the people of the ancient city of Babel sought to build a tower to heaven. In their pride, they believed that they could reach God’s domain. The current king of Babylon is beset with the same bravado. Isaiah’s purpose is to demonstrate how ridiculous such an attitude is.
That Isaiah has the human king of Babylon in mind throughout chapter 14 becomes clear when we arrive at 16. Isaiah says that this arrogant king will be brought so low that, “those who see you will stare at you and ponder over you: ‘Is this the man who made the earth tremble, who shook kingdoms…” (Isaiah 14:16, emphasis added). Isaiah’s intended target is a “man,” not an angelic or demonic being. We should not misunderstand the rhetorical language of Isaiah and read his words as a literal description of some beings fall from heaven to the earth. We should no more associate this oracle against Babylon’s king with Satan than we should Ezekiel’s oracle against the Egyptian Pharaoh, even though Pharaoh is there called “the great dragon,” (Ezekiel 29:3). Nothing in the context of Isaiah 14 leads us to believe that Isaiah has anyone in mind other than Babylon’s human, hubris-filled ruler. John Calvin’s comments on Isaiah 14:12ff are instructive:
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. But when passages of Scripture are taken up at random, and no attention is paid to the context, we need not wonder that mistakes of this kind frequently arise. Yet it was an instance of very gross ignorance, to imagine that Lucifer was the king of devils, and that the Prophet gave him this name. But as these inventions have no probability whatever, let us pass by them as useless fables.
THE ORIGIN OF THE ERROR
Why, then, have so many readers associated this passage, and specifically the title “Lucifer” with Satan? Some have conflated the language of the King of Babylon having “fallen from heaven” with Jesus’ statement in Luke 10:18, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” But Jesus says nothing to indicate that he has Isaiah 14:12 in mind. Neither Jesus nor any writer of the New Testament associates this passage with Satan. With no New Testament writer applying this text to Satan, and no indications that Isaiah meant to do so, we have no reason to advance such an interpretation. Indeed, many readers simply assume, upon seeing the title “Lucifer,” that the Devil is in view. This conclusion, however, is simply an illustration of the power of tradition to dictate our understanding of Scripture rather than the normal principles of biblical interpretation.
Indeed, reading the identity of Satan back into Isaiah 14 is found quite early among Christian writers. The third century Church Father Origen assumes that Lucifer refers to Satan in his work De Principiis. Tertullian, writing around the same period, also applies Isaiah 14:12 to the Devil. These seem to be the earliest known examples of this interpretation. In the medieval period, the association of “Lucifer” with Satan became mainstream in the church. As with so many other traditions not grounded in Scripture, the Reformers (see Calvin’s comments above) rejected this interpretation. Nevertheless, the association of “Lucifer” with Satan has persisted and remains a common misperception among Christians.
Interestingly, the title “morning star” is applied to Jesus in the New Testament (2 Peter 1:19). Jesus even uses a different form of this title as a reference to himself in the book of Revelation: “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star,” (Revelation 22:16). While it is true that Satan often masquerades as an “angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14), and that at some point he “fell” from his previous position through sin, there is no biblical warrant for associating Isaiah 14:12 with the Devil, much less applying the name “Lucifer” to him.
Why does this matter? First, we should always be concerned that we rightly handle the Word of God (2 Timothy 2:15). We should not build our theology upon incorrect or uncertain interpretations of Scripture. While this particular error is not likely to drive you toward heresy, the same kind error applied to other passages of Scripture may do just that. Second, we need to recognize those instances in which our tradition (be it very old or relatively recent) is dictating our theology rather than Scriptures themselves. Most Christians today would readily associate the name Lucifer with Satan with no idea what passage(s) of Scripture the idea comes from. Only a few would be able to point to Isaiah 14. Far fewer would be able to give a clear reason as to why they believe Isaiah 14 is about the Devil. Tradition is not bad, and can be a very helpful guide. Indeed, I would insist that we should not throw tradition out of the window; we should be grateful to stand upon the shoulders of giants. We should also, however, look to see if the feet of these giants are firmly planted upon the Word of God.