“What is that?”
“There’s something in the water!”
Friday morning, my wife, children, and I sat on the white sand of Pensacola’s Casino Beach, letting the waves wash over our feet and legs. These were the cries we heard all around us, and they were the reason we were sitting on the sand instead of wading out into the warm Gulf waters. We had been in the water earlier, long enough to notice the little bits of jellyfish floating amidst all the seaweed that had been churned up during Thursday’s thunderstorm. We got stung. We got out. Now, new visitors to the beach were each making their own discoveries. We could only imagine what was happening to that guy snorkeling about 30 yards out, and we had to laugh as we watched people wade out even farther, their eyes glued to their feet, peering into the water to try and spot whatever it was that felt like sharp needles piercing their flesh. It was a beautiful day, the water calm and inviting, but there was a lot more going on under the surface.
When we look in our Bibles, the same thing is true. Oh, I don’t mean that the Word of God is secretly painful and dangerous; I mean that unless we’re willing to look beneath the surface, there is a lot going on that we’ll miss. In fact, to return to our beach encounter, sometimes the surface can be a little bit misleading. Again, that’s not to say that God ever intends to deceive us, but we often make false assumptions about what we see. If we never look below, we may go on, thinking we understand but, in fact, missing what was really there.
We find an example of this in Isaiah 14, where the Bible speaks of one called Lucifer. Centuries of Bible interpreters have taken this to refer to Satan, the Devil, and his fall from angelic glory into fiendish darkness. Last week, I posted several reasons why this interpretation is not likely, but this week I wanted to take a look beneath the surface of Isaiah 14 and see if there’s anything there that we might be missing.
A Little Background
Ironically, some of the most prominent Bible interpreters have created this interpretation precisely because they were trying to peer beneath the surface. For instance, Church Fathers such as Origen and Augustine often sought to go beyond the literal sense of Scripture and connect the words to larger theological truths, whether to find a moral lesson or demonstrate the presence of Christ in all of Scripture or some other noble goal. They meant well, but in attempting to go deeper, they sometimes missed the text altogether.
However, there have been others throughout church history who have gone beneath the surface, not by allegorizing and spiritualizing, but by examining the meaning of the words, the context in which they were found, and the culture in which they were written. During the Reformation of the 1500s, there was a call to abandon many of the fanciful interpretations that had developed over a millennium of allegory, and interpreters like Martin Luther and John Calvin were among those who called for a return to the plain meaning of Scripture. Writing about Isaiah 14 and Lucifer, Calvin said,
“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 has given him this name. But as these inventions have no probability whatever, let us pass by them as useless fables.”
Think about Calvin what you will, but in this instance he’s right on: if we are to understand Scripture, we must look at what it says, as well as how, why, when, and to whom it was said.
One major challenge that confronts today’s Christian it that we must read God’s Word in a translation. That is, we read it in our own language and in our own culture, unavoidably bringing our own ideas to the text. That’s not to say that we can’t understand God’s Word in our own language; it is simply acknowledging that we’re not reading the exact words that were originally written. Every translation must cross a language and a culture barrier, and no translation is free from difficulty. Modern translations, attempting to use more common English, often drift away from the actual words written in the original languages. Older translations sometimes lack the benefit of archaeological discoveries that shed light on the culture and languages in which the originals were written. In fact, this has been a problem for interpreters of the Bible since the earliest days of the church, when the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek and Latin and read through the eyes of Greek and Roman cultures. (This partially explains the problem with Origen and Augustine.)
What are we to do? How are we to get beneath the surface? The answer is, as it has always been, to study the original languages and the times and cultures in which the Scriptures were written. Again, I’m not saying that a person needs a Ph.D. in ancient languages to understand the Bible, only that sometimes there is a lot going on beneath the surface. And Isaiah 14 is a great example.
Where did Lucifer go?
Isaiah gives us the unforgettable picture of dead kings stirring about and speaking to Lucifer after his fall. But just where were they? Tradition has taught us that Satan lives in Hell, perhaps even reigns there, and so we have this picture of Satan having a conference in Hell with all the damned rulers of the earth. But, wait, how accurate can that even be? Forget for the moment the notion that there was anyone in Hell when Satan fell, and let’s ask why Satan would even be in Hell. If, as the Bible says, God has prepared eternal fire for the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:41), Hell is a place of punishment for Satan, not a kingdom where he may reign. In fact, the Bible shows him reigning over earth, not Hell. (2 Cor. 4:4) I ask, as I did last week, why would anyone suppose that Satan has ever even been to Hell?
But that’s just the beginning because Isaiah doesn’t even say that these dead kings were in Hell. Wait, yes he does…at least the King James Version says so: “Hell from beneath is moved for thee to meet thee at thy coming…” OK, I know what the KJV says, but that’s not what Isaiah says. (And it’s not even what the KJV says either.) Isaiah actually said that Sheol was stirred up to meet Lucifer when he fell. Isaiah spoke Hebrew, not English, and he said Sheol, which means “the place of the dead,” or, “the grave.” Now, I’m not going to get into the discussion of whether ancient Hebrews thought of Heaven and Hell in exactly the same way that Christians do today (they didn’t), but I’d simply point out that Isaiah used a word that referred to the dead without any reference to whether they were blessed or damned. His point was that Lucifer would be just as dead as all the kings that he had killed, which is kind of a strange thing to say about Satan when you think about it. (Of course, I will freely acknowledge that those kings were pagan, wicked, damned, and bound in that place that we would today call Hell, even if that’s not what Isaiah was talking about.)
So why did the older translators, such as those responsible for the KJV, use the English “Hell” to translate Sheol? Because hundreds of years ago, the English “Hell” could refer to the grave just like the Hebrew Sheol or even the Greek Hades. The word was already in use when the Bible was first translated into English and began influencing our language. Only more recently has it referred exclusively to a place of eternal torment.
Where did Lucifer want to go?
Say what you want about Lucifer, the man lacked no ambition. He wanted altitude, to set his throne above the clouds, among the stars. (Honestly, who among us has ever watched Superman or Star Trek and not wished for something similar?) The problem, of course, was that these were the stars “of God,” and he was all about putting his throne above them. This wasn’t about flying; it was about ruling in a realm where he had no claim. And nowhere is this more clear than upon the North Face of the congregation’s mountain. At least, that’s what Isaiah seems to say.
But when we take a closer look, we might see something else. In fact, I have always suspected there was more to it than this. Really, what in the world is the significance of the northern slopes of this mountain? What if it has nothing to do with cardinal directions?
Remember, Isaiah was writing in Hebrew, and what he wrote was – literally – “the mount of the congregation (or “assembly”), on the slopes of Zaphon.” Now, to be fair, the Hebrew Zaphon almost always means “north” or “northern;” this is not a translator’s mistake. But what if a mountain became so significant in someone’s mind that it came to be referred as The North Mountain, or in Isaiah’s terms, a place was located on “the slopes of North?”
And that’s what we find when we look to the popular religions of Isaiah’s day. Under King Ahaz, Isaiah’s neighbors were not the God-fearing worshippers of Jehovah that they would be under Ahaz’s son, Hezekiah. In fact, Jerusalem was filled with altars to false gods. They worshipped Baal, the stars (!) in the heavens, and the various deities of surrounding nations, and in the mythology of the Canaanite religion, there was a mountain called Zaphon.
In the mind of many of the pagan worshippers of Isaiah’s day, Mount Zaphon stood as the domain of the gods, much as Mount Olympus would later stand for the pantheon of the Greeks. Even Psalm 48:2 seems to acknowledge this and takes a swipe at the pagan religions by exalting Zion instead of Zaphon as the mount of the LORD, the true God.
When we understand the pagan culture of Isaiah’s day, we should not be surprised to find a king attempting to exalt himself above the popular deities. His subjects worshipped the stars of God (or, El – more on this in a bit), so he would rise above them; their gods met on Mount Zaphon, so that is where he would set his throne. As he conquered nation after nation, he was not content to rule; he demanded to be worshipped.
Who did Lucifer think he was?
We might as well acknowledge that “Lucifer” might not be anyone’s name (except for the cat in Disney’s Cinderella). Isaiah called him Helel, which means “Shining One.” From the time when the Bible was translated into Latin in the late 4th century, the translators have used the Latin word “Lucifer” to translate this word. The English translators of the King James Version, New King James, and the Catholic Douay-Rheims version are among the few that have retained the Latin word as a proper name, rather than translating the Hebrew term.
On the other hand, it may have been a proper name, though not a Latin one. Some scholars have suggested that the Canaanite myths contained a story about a god named Helel, who was the son of Shachar (“morning”), and attempted some sort of divine coup. The parallels aren’t exact, but close enough for Isaiah to have been likening this pagan king to a fallen god from within his own pantheon.
Of course, even if that isn’t what Isaiah was doing, the notion that the Shining One was the Son of the Morning also points to another pagan idea, centered around that bright object that we today call Venus. That the ancient religions worshipped the stars is no secret, and the wandering stars (we call them planets, from the Greek planao, “to wander”) in particular. However, the brightest of them was never able to command the whole sky, for no sooner had it risen in the morning and dominated the horizon, than it was quickly followed by the sun, whose glory completely obscured it from view. The mythological connections are tempting: here is a lesser god, who for a moment shines brighter than all the others but is quickly obliterated by the brightness of the sun. (If you’re thinking about the parallel between this and Antichrist vs. the Second Coming of the Son of God, just wait.) In fact, such a story may well have existed within the Baalish cults.
Does this mean that Isaiah was endorsing false religions? Of course not, no more than Paul was on Mars Hill in Acts 17. He was addressing people who might have been tempted to turn to false religions, and so it was fitting to use language from their own culture to show the downfall of pagan leaders and the supremacy of the LORD.
That might also explain two other names found on Lucifer’s lips. When Isaiah said that Lucifer wanted to be above the stars of God, he used El, which means “god.” We who worship the One, True God recognize God with a capital “G,” while we know that there are others called “gods” with a lower-case “g.” For example, we know that the Arabic word for “god” is Allah, and while the Christian God and the Muslim god are not the same – the Christian God is incarnate in Jesus Christ, for example – translators still debate the best way of translating the simple word “god” into Islamic cultures. (“Son of God” is the current dilemma.) All this is to say that when Lucifer wants to exalt himself above the stars of “God” and to be like “the most High,” he may very well be using names – El and Elyon – that have one meaning for Jews and Christians, and another, very different meaning for the pagan worshippers of Isaiah’s day. Once again, this was a hubristic attempt at securing the worship of all the world, a failed attempt, but one that will be repeated by at least one other individual that we’ve not yet met. (See 2 Thessalonians 2 for an example.)
Back to the Beach
I suppose at this point, I should say that on Friday afternoon, my family and I returned to the beach and enjoyed several sting-free hours in the warm waters of the Gulf. The flotsam had been washed away, and what the surface promised, it delivered, though that didn’t stop my kids from using a net to scoop up seashells from the ocean floor.
And that brings us back to the Bible. There are treasures to be found that reward diligent study. In His mercy, God has given us His Word in a way that is understandable by any who take it up to read but also contains truths so deep that we will never fully sound them out. Sometimes we will dive beneath the surface to find more of what we saw above; other times we’ll find things we didn’t see so clearly before. In either case, we’ll see more of the glory of God. And that’s what we see in Isaiah 14. I don’t think we see the fall of Satan, either on or beneath the surface, but I know that we see the supremacy of God exalted above all men and gods-falsely-so-called. We see all pretenders put down and the Lord exalted. And even though the language is slightly different, we know that in the end, it is Jesus, not Venus or the sun itself, who is the true Bright and Morning Star. (Rev. 22:16)
If you’ve happened to read this far, congratulations! How do you feel?