The purpose of this article is to study the two passages in the Old Testament that are frequently used to teach that Satan is a fallen angel. The intention is to consider the two passages, setting them in their literary and historical context, to see whether this is a legitimate interpretation.
The two passages are: 1) Isaiah 14:12-15, a taunt against the king of Babylon. 2) Ezekiel 28:11-19, a lament about the king of Tyre. Because Satan is not specifically named in either passage, we should be cautious about making any claim that they are describing Satan. This would be an interpretation of the text, which is open to different opinions, rather then a direct observation. It is also important to note that both of these passages are written in poetry, using the vivid picture language and imagery typically employed by the O.T. prophets.
The popular teaching on the fall of Satan
The popular teaching about the fall of Satan normally follows this, or a similar, outline: Satan was once a beautiful angel, the greatest of all created beings. He rebelled against God and became the devil before man was created. Originally there were three archangels, Michael, Gabriel and Lucifer; each ruled one third of the angels. Michael and Gabriel remained faithful to God, but Satan rebelled, taking one third of the angels with him, who became the demonic forces.
Some teach that Satan was the heavenly choirmaster, with musical instruments built into his body. This is supported from Ezekiel 28:13: "the workmanship of thy tabrets and of thy pipes was prepared in thee in the day that thou wast created". However this translation is only found in the King James Version (KJV). The NKJV is very similar. The NRSV renders it: "and worked in gold were your settings and your engravings", with a foot-note indicating that the meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain. The NIV is as follows: “Your settings and mountings were made of gold; on the day you were created they were prepared.”, also with a footnote saying that the meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain.
Some also teach that there was a population of humans on the earth before Adam, known as the pre-adamic race, which Lucifer was given authority over. They rebelled and were judged by a flood, and Lucifer became Satan. After judgement, the earth was remade as described in Genesis chapters 1 and 2. This is part of the "gap theory", which is an attempt to combine the Genesis account with the theory of evolution by saying there was a very long gap in time between the first two verses in Genesis.
Two other passages of scripture are used to support this teaching. The first is Luke 10:18, He (Jesus) said to them (the seventy sent out into the harvest-field), "I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning”. However when studied in context, this does not refer to a fall of Satan before the beginning of time, but to the effect the mission of the seventy had on the powers of darkness, when they said, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” (Lk 10:17). The second is Revelation 12:1-12, in which John sees a vision of the great red dragon, who is identified as, “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan” (v9). Michael and his angels fought against Satan, the deceiver of the whole world, who was thrown down to earth and his angels with him. The timing of this dramatic event is indicated in verse 10, when the loud voice in heaven says: "now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down". This did not happen at the beginning of time, but at the cross, where Jesus brought salvation, demonstrated the power of the kingdom and defeated the enemy. Jesus made a similar statement shortly before his death, “Now is the judgement of the world; now the ruler of this world (Satan) be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth (on the cross), will draw all people to myself” (John 12:31). So it is questionable whether either the Luke 10, or the Revelation 12 passage describe a fall of Satan from heaven before the beginning of time, but more apparent that both describe the defeat of Satan achieved by the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus.
There are references to fallen angels in Jude 6 and 2 Peter 2:4, but no indication is given that Satan was associated with them or that he fell at the same time. Both these passages are more probably referring to the rather mysterious account of the time when the sons of God lusted after the daughters of men (Gen 6:1-4). Both Peter and Jude use this event as a warning about false teachers. There are no other passages in the Bible which give a clear and unambiguous teaching about the origin of Satan, or of a fall of Satan from a place of glory.
Is Lucifer a name for Satan?
The name “Lucifer” only appears in Isaiah 14:12. The Hebrew word is “helel”, meaning “the shining one”. In the Septuagint (LXX), the translation of the O.T. into Greek, it was translated “heosphoros”, meaning the “light-bearer”. The first time it was translated as “Lucifer” was in the Latin Vulgate Bible (AD 382-404), “Quomodo cecidisti de caelo lucifer, qui mane oriebaris?”. In Latin, “Lucifer” was the name of the planet Venus, the morning star, from a word meaning “bright light” or “light-bearer”. Venus is the brightest planet in the sky (brighter than any of the stars), and is still known as the morning star.
In English translations, Wyclif was the first to translate Isaiah 14:12 as “Lucifer”, presumably because he translated from the Latin Vulgate, “A! Lucifer, that risidist eerli, hou feldist thou doun fro heuene;”. (In more modern English, it would read as follows: Ah! Lucifer, that rises early, how you have fallen down from heaven). This translation was followed by the KJV, "How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!”, and more recently by the NKJV, “How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!”
Other translations translate it as “day star”, or “bright morning star”. The RV: "How art thou fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of the morning!”, the RSV: "How you are fallen from heaven O Day Star, son of Dawn!”, the NEB: “How you have fallen from heaven, bright morning star”, the NRSV: "How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn!”, the NIV: "How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn!”, and the GNB: "King of Babylonia, bright morning star, you have fallen from heaven”. Luther translated it into German, “du schöner Morgenstern”, meaning, “you beautiful morning star”.
Isaiah uses it as a name for the king of Babylon who had set himself among the gods. Babylonian worship was strongly based on astrology. Both the Babylonians and the Assyrians personified the morning star (Venus) as Ishtar. The message of Isaiah is that none of the Babylonian gods are able to save the king, as all gods are powerless before the One True God. In the Ancient Near East it was common practice for kings to believe they were incarnations of gods. So, when a king was defeated in battle and his city was captured, it was a sign that their god had also been defeated by the more powerful god of the victorious enemy. The enemy would normally tear down images of the god, and take them captive, placing them in the temple of their own god to demonstrate its superior power. This would explain why the Philistines placed the captured ark of the covenant in the temple of their god Dagon (1 Sam 5:1-2). Jesus calls himself “the bright morning star” in Rev 22:16, and is referred to as “the morning star” in 2 Peter 1:19.
Tertullian (160 - 220) was the first of the church fathers who taught that Satan was a fallen angel, by quoting Ezekiel 28 (Against Marcion 2:10). Origen (c.185 - c.254) also quoted Isaiah 14, Ezekiel 28 and Luke 10:18 to teach that Satan, or Lucifer, had fallen from glory in heaven (De Principis 1:5:5, Against Celsus 6:44). Although rejected by the Reformers, this teaching was popularised through Milton's vivid description of Satan’s rebellion and fall in Book I of “Paradise Lost”, and now, at least on a popular level in the church, seems to be accepted without being questioned.
Isaiah chapters 13 to 23 contain prophecies against the pagan nations. Chapters 13 and 14 are prophecies specifically against the pride of Babylon, made 150 years before the rise of the empire. The most significant king of Babylon was Nebuchadnezzar. The kings who followed him were insignificant, with there only being five kings in a period of 23 years. The prophecies in Is 13-14 fit the character of the Babylonian empire, specifically king Nebuchadnezzar, perfectly.
Chapter 14:2-23 is a taunt against the king of Babylon, which Israel should take up after they have been restored to the land and have rest from their pain and turmoil (14:1-3). There is peace on earth, but Sheol (the land of the dead) is stirred up (14:9) as the dead world leaders are astonished when they greet the king of Babylon, saying that he has become as weak as they. His pomp has been brought down to Sheol. The passage often claimed to be a description of the fall of Satan is contained in this taunt. The one who laid the nations low (v12) will also be brought down to Sheol (v15), where the dead will ponder over him, asking if this is the man who made the earth tremble (v16).
The king of Babylon was the one who, “laid the nations low” (14:12). This is precisely what Nebuchadnezzar did when he expanded his empire by conquering the known world. Isaiah said that he said in his heart that, “I will ascend to heaven” (14:13). This is translated as the “tops of the clouds” in the NIV. This phrase does not necessarily speak about Satan exalting himself to heaven, but is often used poetically to describe excessive pride, as seen in the following examples: Daniel said to Nebuchadnezzar: "Your greatness has increased and reaches to heaven." (Dan 4:22). Jesus asked Capernaum, "Will you be exalted to heaven?" (Mt 11:23).
There are five statements of the king exalting himself, each saying, “I will ...” (14:13-14). These also fit Nebuchadnezzar’s character perfectly, so it does not have to be describing an angelic being. Isaiah says that he is “brought down to Sheol, to the depths of the Pit” (14:15). Sheol was the place of the dead in the O.T. This verse describes Nebuchadnezzar’s death and the surprise of the dead kings in Sheol who greeted him, rather than Satan being brought down to earth. The same picture is given in the previous oracle, when the dead kings express surprise of Nebuchadnezzar becoming as weak as them (14:9-11).
He is described as, “he man who made the earth tremble, who shook kingdoms?” (14:16). Nebuchadnezzar certainly did this through military conquest. It is difficult to see how Satan could be described as a man who shook kingdoms. He also, “made the world a desert and overthrew its cities” (14:17). Famine and starvation accompanied the invading armies of Nebuchadnezzar, when many cities through the Middle East, including Jerusalem, were overthrown. He was also the one, “who would not let his prisoners go home” (14:17). This fits the policy of Nebuchadnezzar who deported captured peoples and made them settle in camps outside the city of Babylon (Ezek 1:1).
Ezekiel chapters 25 to 32 are also prophecies against pagan nations. Chapters 26 to 28 are specifically against Tyre, a major city, important port and wealthy commercial centre at that time, under its ruler Ethbaal III (c.590 - c.573). Ezekiel described Tyre’s trading with other nations (27:12-25), and gave dramatic oracles about the ships and sailors of Tarshish wailing over the fall of Tyre (27:25-36).
The king of Tyre is described as, “the signet of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty” (28:12). Many say only Satan could be this, not a king or a city. However, elsewhere in these same oracles against Tyre, Tyre claimed this for itself: "O Tyre, you have said, 'I am perfect in beauty'" (27:3), “Your heart is proud and you have said, ‘I am a god’” (28:2). The prince of Tyre's wisdom, trade and great wealth are described in (28:4-5). The prince of Tyre compared his mind with the mind of a god (28:6). The Hebrew here is “elohim”, which can either mean “God”, or pagan gods (plural), so translations vary. Ezekiel also prophesies that “the most terrible of the nations shall draw their swords against the beauty of your splendour” (28:7).
He was, “in Eden, the garden of God” (28:13). This probably does not refer to Satan's presence in the garden of Eden in the account of the fall in Genesis 3, as Eden is often used poetically in the scriptures to depict a fertile place of great plenty. Elsewhere in Ezekiel, Egypt was likened to a cedar of Lebanon: “the cedars in the garden of God could not rival it ... the envy of all the trees of Eden, that were in the garden of God” (Ezek 31:8-9). Ezekiel also predicts that when Israel is restored, people will say, “This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden.” (Ezek 36:35). Joel said this about the locust swarm, “Before them the land is like the garden of Eden and after them a desolate wilderness” (Joel 2:3), and in Genesis, “Lot ... saw that the plain of Jordan was well watered like the garden of the Lord” (Gen 13:10).
The description continues by saying that, “every precious stone was your covering” (28:13). This does not have to be a description of Satan, as throughout history kings have worn richly decorated garments. There is also a similarity with the list of precious stones on the breastplate of the high priest (Ex 28:17ff).
God says that, “With an anointed cherub as guardian I placed you” (28:14). The NRSV has a footnote saying that the meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain. The KJV has: “Thou art the anointed cherub that covereth; and I have set thee so”. A cherub (plural - cherubim) is one of the 4 living creatures described in Ezekiel chapter 1 and Revelation chapter 4, whose job it is to guard the throne of God and to worship God. They are associated with God's glory and judgement. Other than this passage in the KJV, Satan is never described as a cherub in the Bible, neither are the archangels Michael or Gabriel, so this verse cannot be used to claim that Satan was once an angelic being.
The king of Tyre's judgement and fall were due to the abundance of its trade filling them with violence (28:16). Tyre was renowned around the ancient Near East as a important port and commercial centre.
One common argument used to support the view that Satan is a fallen angel says that Ezekiel 28 distinguishes between the prince of Tyre (v2), who they say was the physical ruler of Tyre, and the king of Tyre (v12), who they say is Satan. However, a study of Ezekiel's use of the words "king” and “prince” shows that they are used interchangeably. For example, David is called king in 37:29, but prince in 34:24 and 37:25. Jehoiakim is called king in 1:2, but chapter 19 is a lamentation for the princes of Israel, Jehoahaz, Jehoiachin and Zedekiah, all of whom were kings. In 7:27 king and prince are used in the parallelism: "the king shall mourn, the prince shall be wrapped in despair".
What do we know about the origin of Satan?
A simple answer is that we don't know, and probably are not meant to know. God does not reveal everything, and it is important not to speculate on what God chooses not to reveal to us, or to make additions to the Biblical revelation. We have to be satisfied with what information we have. In the end, does it matter? We know Satan exists and that he is a deceiver and liar; that is enough. We also know he is defeated by Jesus' death on the cross and his resurrection (Col 2:15, 1 John 3:8b). We also can be certain of his destiny of eternal torment in the lake of fire and sulphur (Rev 20:10). I'm sure that Satan enjoys people being taught about his glorious past, so that people think that he was some glamorous figure, rather than the liar, deceiver, adversary, accuser, condemner, that he really is. The Bible has nothing positive to say about him at all.
There are only two clues about his origin in the Bible. Jesus told the Pharisees, “You are from your father the devil ... He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth” (Jn 8:44). “From the beginning” probably means for all the time he has existed. Also in John’s first letter, “Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning” (1 John 3:8). These passages would indicate that the devil has always been a sinner and a murderer, and that he has no great and beautiful past.
Even though it causes philosophical problems, on a practical level there is very little difference between something that was created evil and something that was created good and became evil. The significant matter is that Satan exists and is evil now. Again, this is a question that is not answered in the Bible. God either created Satan as an adversary, or Satan later became an adversary, the end result is the same. One of the reasons for Satan's existence is so that humans as God's created beings should endure some testing. It is never God's will that we sin, but it is God's will that we are tested and tempted. Consistently through the New Testament it is taught that testing is part of the Christian walk (eg. James 1:2-4), so that we learn patience, our faith is strengthened, our love for God proven. Our love for God has to be a positive response and choice. In order to choose to love God, it is necessary to have opposite influence to choose to reject.
What the commentaries and Bible handbooks say
I have yet to find a commentary which, by looking at the whole book and the relevant passages in context, teaches with any degree of certainty that either Isaiah 14 or Ezekiel 28 describe the fall of Satan. However, there are plenty of topical books on spiritual warfare that quote these passages, saying that they definitely describe Satan's fall.
In the Keil-Delitzsch commentary, the fall of Satan mentioned and rejected in Is 14, and not mentioned in Ezek 28. Matthew Henry makes no mention of Satan in either Is 14, or Ezek 28. In the Expositors Bible Commentary, Geoffrey Grogan writing on Isaiah 14 says it points to Satan indirectly as working through world rulers, but not describing the fall of Satan. Also in the Expositors Bible Commentary, Ralph Alexander writing on Ezekiel says it is difficult to understand this passage as describing the fall of Satan. He says that Satan was the force behind the King of Tyre (as he is behind all anti-Christian governments), but that there is no scriptural backing for using this as a description of Satan's fall.
In an older edition of the one volume New Bible Commentary, Derek Kidner sees the similarity between Isaiah 14 and the pride and downfall of Satan in Lk 10:18, but sees the biblical descriptions of Satan's fall as the break-up and destruction of his kingdom, not his fall from grace. In the same volume, when commenting on Ezekiel chapter 28, G.R. Beasley-Murray makes no mention of Satan. In the one volume International Bible Commentary, David Payne writing on Isaiah says that it is inappropriate that Lucifer is a name for Satan, and F.F. Bruce writing on Ezekiel says that this passage contributed some details to the traditional picture of the fall of Satan, but makes no other comment.
In his commentary on Isaiah, Calvin makes some strong statements. He says that saying Lucifer refers to Satan, “has arisen out of ignorance, as the context clearly must be understood in reference to the King of Babylon.” He continues by saying, "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 (Isaiah) gave him this name. But as these inventions have no probability whatever, let us pass by them as useless fables."
In his three volume commentary on Isaiah, Edward Young dismisses any idea of Satan being mentioned in Is 14. He sees this passage describing the downfall and removal of a tyrannical king (Babylon), rather than Satan falling from heaven.
John N. Oswalt commenting on Isaiah 14 mentions that certain of the church fathers taught that this passage taught the fall of Satan, but that the reformers dismissed this when the book is studied in context. He says this passage describes human pride, rather than angelic pride, and says that the day star (Lucifer) is the planet Venus.
Barry Webb tries to seek a balance when he wrote this about Is 14:3-23: “The cosmic sweep of the poem led some early interpreters, and many since then, to see here a symbolic description of the fall of Satan. But if this reads too much into the text (and I think it does), it is equally misguided to reduce it to a description of the fall of a particular earthly monarch. The King of Babylon here, like Babylon itself in ch 13, is a representative figure, the embodiment of that worldly arrogance that defies God and tramples on others in its lust for power.”
Alec Motyer notes that in chapter 14, Isaiah is alluding to a Canaanite myth of Helal or Ishtar who attempted a heavenly coup but failed. However, he makes no mention of this being a description of Satan.
In his two volume commentary on Ezekiel, Daniel I. Block makes this comment: “Since the time of Origen many conservative Christians in particular have equated the king of Tyre with Lucifer (= Satan) ... Accordingly, Ezekiel’s prophecy is thought to recount the circumstances of the original fall of Satan, who had previously been one of the cherubim attending the throne of God. But those who interpret the oracle historically reject this approach. Ezekiel’s prophecy is indeed couched in extravagant terms, but the primary referent within the context is clearly the human king of Tyre. In any case, for this prophet and his professional colleagues, as well as for the Hebrew historiographic narrators, human rebellion is problem enough. A detailed treatment of the origin of the demonic is not to be expected from the O.T.” In a footnote he also gives a list of books which use this passage in Ezekiel to teach the fall of Satan.
In his commentary on Ezekiel 28, John Taylor makes no mention of Satan. In both Halley’s Bible handbook, and the Lion handbook of the Bible, no mention of Satan is made when comment is made on either Isaiah 14, or Ezekiel 28. It is only the Hodder Bible Handbook, which is published as Unger’s Bible Handbook in USA, which says that Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 give revelation of the fall of Satan, but no justification is given for this opinion.
Taking these two passages in their literary and historical contexts, it is a very questionable interpretation to claim they are describing the fall of Satan. This teaching is very popular, but was rejected by the Reformers and by most evangelical scholars in modern commentaries. The Bible appears to give little or no information about the origin of Satan or of evil, but very clearly describes the defeat of Satan through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and predicts his final judgement with great certainty.
It is not necessary for teaching on spiritual warfare to include an explanation of the origin of Satan. Spiritual warfare is real, and it is important to develop a biblical understanding of it. The existence of evil beings is assumed in the Bible, and their work consistently mentioned, particularly in the New Testament. Christians are given the assurance of Jesus’ victory over the powers of darkness, even though they are still active in this world until the time of the final judgement.
Bible quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), unless otherwise noted.
GNB Good News Bible
KJV King James Version
NEB New English Bible
NIV New International Version
NRSV New Revised Standard Version
RSV Revised Standard Version
RV Revised Version
Alexander, D & P. The Lion Handbook to the Bible. Lion Tring 1973.
Bruce, F.F., ed. New International Bible Commentary. IVP Leicester1986.
Gaebelein, F., ed. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations and Ezekiel. Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Zondervan Grand Rapids 1986.
Halley, H.H. Halley’s Bible Handbook. Zondervan Grand Rapids 1965.
Keil-Delitzsch. Commentary on the Old Testament. Hendrickson 1989.
Motyer, A. Isaiah. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP Leicester 1999.
Oswalt, J.N. The Book of Isaiah, chapters 1-39. The International Commentary on the Old Testament. Eerdmans Grand Rapids 1986.
Taylor, J.B. Ezekiel. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP Leicester 1969.
Unger, M.F. & Larson, G.N. The Hodder Bible Handbook. Hodder 1984.
Webb, B. The Message of Isaiah. The Bible Speaks Today. IVP Leicester 1996.
Wheaton, D.H, Lucifer, in The Illustrated Bible Dictionary (volume 2). IVP Leicester 1980.
Young, E. The Book of Isaiah (3 volumes). Eerdmans Grand Rapids 1992.
Calvin's commentary on Isaiah http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom13.htm
Latin Vulgate Translation http://www.sacred-texts.com/bib/vul/isa014.htm#012
Matthew Henry's commentary http://www.ccel.org/ccel/henry/mhc4
Milton. Paradise Lost http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/milton/pl01.htm
Origen. De Principis http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/ANF-04/anf04-45.htm#P6244_1101010
Origen. Against Celsus http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/ANF-04/anf04-61.htm#P10182_2698587
Tertullian. Against Marcion http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/ANF-03/anf03-29.htm#P4271_1391977
Wyclif’s translation http://sbible.boom.ru/wyc/isa14.htm