Isaiah 14 and the Real “Lucifer”

It’s not unusual that people disagree about the interpretation of a Bible text. It is very strange, however, that a biblical inerrantist might argue for a meaning which contradicts what is on the page. Yet this happens with some frequency. Here is a case study from personal experience.

Classic Western Christianity reads Isaiah 14 as if it narrates the story of Satan (the angel “Lucifer”), his rebellion, and his fall from heaven. Verses 12-15 in particular might seem to tell the whole story, presented here in the King James Version for maximum impact:

[12] 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! [13] For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: [14] I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High. [15] Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit. (Isaiah 14:12-15, KJV)

As straightforward as this excerpt might seem to someone with basic Christian literacy, the traditional reading actually relies quite heavily on certain assumptions. For one thing, we really need to bring a pre-understanding of who “Lucifer” is into the text with us, as this represents the sole mention of the name. In fact, modern translations prefer the more accurate “day star,” which is not a proper name but a poetic descriptor. Technical quibbles aside, we don’t need fancy scholarship or multiple translations to discover that Isaiah 14 is about something very clear and specific, and it’s not the Devil.

A Parable Against the King of Babylon

The setting and meaning of Isaiah 14 are quite clear from the outset:

You shall recite this parable against the King of Babylon: How the taskmaster is vanquished, how oppression is ended! (Isaiah 14:4, JPS)

Isaiah 14 is an oracle, a poetic screed (in some translations a “taunt” or a “song of scorn”) against the King of Babylon. The prophet mocks the tyrant and celebrates his inevitable downfall. He is called “day star” or “shining one” because he has flown too close to the sun, so to speak, and has considered himself to be of heavenly stature. Like all emperors and despots he considers himself a god, and this makes his undoing that much more dramatic and worth celebrating.

And yet, I’ve had fundamentalist and inerrantist friends reflexively dismiss my “interesting interpretation” of Isaiah 14. One actually said to me, “Who are you to tell God what scripture means?” The doctrine of Lucifer the fallen angel and a particular understanding of “spiritual warfare” had bound my friend to a way of reading the Bible that willfully disregards what the text on the page actually says. How does something like this happen?

Demons Are Sexy, Politics Is Boring

Why would ostensibly “Bible believing” Christians so flippantly step over the clear context of scripture to impose a new meaning from elsewhere? The interpretive reappropriation of this particular text seems to originate in the writings of Church Fathers, especially Origen, who in his On First Principles connects passages like Isaiah 14:12 and Luke 10:18 with the Lucifer’s rebellion mythos. But most Christians I know aren’t engaging patristics, they have simply inherited a tradition which makes a certain kind of sense within their religious “worldview.” Hence they are far more interested in the otherworldly treachery of the Devil than of the long dead king of some extinct empire.

But this is to marginalize and mute one of the Bible’s most pervasive themes, a consistently emphatic condemnation of imperial regimes which damage the earth and oppress its inhabitants. Just listen to the crimes of which Isaiah accuses the King of Babylon, taunting:

Is this the man who shook the earth, who made realms tremble, who made the world like a waste and wrecked its towns, who never released prisoners to their homes? (Isaiah 14:16-17, TNK)

This isn’t some fallen angel, haunting people’s consciences and tempting them to commit mortal sins so he can drag them to hell. This is a “man” who imagines himself a god, who burns and destroys creation and imprisons and murders its peoples. This isn’t demons and brimstone, it’s headline news and politics as usual.

“Spiritual Warfare” As a Critique of Human Terror

Of course, it isn’t really an either/or proposition. Reckless, violent imperialism is often directly associated with the satanic (or “accusatory”) spirit throughout scripture. But this should not be understood as a sort of dualism, or used to foster a disregard for the temporal, social, and political implications of violence and oppression, as if these were just unfortunate side effects of a distant spiritual battle we cannot see. In fact, this ought to illuminate and expose human treachery and animate the Bible’s readers to work and pray against all such chaos and the human agents and systems which enact it.

For those American Christians with vested interests in the present imperial order, Bible interpretation can actually be a matter of expedience and diversion. The strict separation of a temporal earthly realm from an eternal spiritual realm makes it very easy to forsake one while exploiting the other. This is why some Christians shrug off (or embrace) war and “national defense” as necessary evils. This is why religious leaders like Franklin Graham, confronted by rampant gun violence and record fatalities, can repeat the tired mantra that America has a “sin problem not a gun problem.” This kind of generic faux-spiritualization privatizes the prophetic message of the Bible and effectively endorses the deadly imperial status quo. 

Bible passages which poetically and prophetically describe spiritual evil do so with urgent relevance and more often than not as a veiled critique of some earthly regime. In the case of Isaiah 14, there is no veil except one we might bring. We have once again screened out the Bible’s historical reality and imposed an unhelpful duality. But who are we to tell the Bible’s authors what scripture means?