image by Thomas Bresson on Wikimedia Commons
How you are fallen from heaven, Lucifer, son of the morning! How you are cut down to the ground, who laid the nations low! You said in your heart, “I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; and I will sit on the mountain of congregation, in the uttermost parts of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.”
Yet you shall be brought down to Sheol, to the uttermost parts of the pit. Those who see you shall gaze at you, they shall consider you: “Is this the man who made the earth to tremble, who shook kingdoms; who made the world as a wilderness, and overthrew the cities of it; who didn’t let loose his prisoners to their home?”
All the kings of the nations, all of them, sleep in glory, everyone in his own house. But you are cast forth away from your tomb like an abominable branch, clothed with the slain, who are thrust through with the sword, who go down to the stones of the pit; as a dead body trodden under foot. You shall not be joined with them in burial, because you have destroyed your land, you have killed your people; the seed of evil-doers shall not be named forever.
Isaiah 14:12 – 20
This passage is not about Satan. I know some translations say Lucifer is being addressed here, but have you ever wondered why we even call Satan Lucifer? Basically, it’s because of this passage, but why do we apply this passage to Satan? Because it refers to something called Lucifer. It’s completely recursive.
So Who Is It About?
The passage is talking about an unnamed king of Babylon. Pretty much all of chapter 13 is condemning a king of Babylon. Isaiah takes a break in the first couple of verses in Isaiah 14 to reassure the children of Israel they will return from captivity, and then he gets back on the Babylonian king’s case. Isaiah doesn’t change subjects until he gets to verse 24, where Assyria becomes the subject of judgment.
Also, look at some of the language. “You are cast forth away from your tomb … You shall not be joined with them.” This is a reference to kings being traditionally buried with their ancestors. Also, “Is this the man who … shook kingdoms; who made the world as a wilderness, and overthrew the cities of it; who didn’t let loose his prisoners to their home?” This is a description of a conquering king, possibly Nebuchadnezzar II or a whole line of Babylonian rulers.
So What’s Up with the Lucifer Thing?
When the first English translations of the Bible started popping up (the Tyndale Bible and the original King James Version among the most notable examples), some of the translators chose to anglicize certain words instead of directly translating them. βαπτιζω (pr. baptizo) is one such word. Baptize didn’t exist in the English language prior to the Bible being translated, and it came from anglicizing a Greek word. If it had been simply translated, everywhere we read baptize would instead read submerge.
The same basic thing happened with Lucifer. Lucifer is the Latin equivalent to הֵילֵל (pr. Heylel). It literally means “morning star” or “bringer of light” and makes reference to one of the brightest objects in the morning sky. We would call it the planet Venus. In the context of Isaiah 14, this king’s fame makes him shine brightly in the minds of the nations around him. He has grown proud because of this reputation, and Isaiah calls him by a name that reflects the magnitude of his pride.
How Did We End Up Making This About Satan?
I half-jokingly wrote that Satan getting pegged with the name Lucifer is recursive reasoning, but there’s probably a bit more at work here. First, we could be seeing some influence of Roman mythology (which has a lot of influence on many Catholic traditions). Prometheus was the bringer of godlike knowledge to man as symbolized by fire. He was a light-bringer. Satan does something similar in the Garden story. Therefore, the “bringer of light” in Isaiah 14 could easily be connected to Satan via Prometheus.
Canaanite mythology could be influencing tradition here as well. Ancient Canaanites called the morning star Attar, and Attar was a god who tried to overthrow Ba’al. He failed and instead went to rule the underworld. Historically, Satan has been depicted as an angel who wanted to usurp Jehovah. Perhaps this Canaanite legend melded with ancient Judaism and informed how Satan has been interpreted through the ages. (There are other similar legends throughout ancient Mesopotamian civilizations.)
Then there’s a small passage from the pseudepigraphic book of II Enoch:
And from the rock I cut off a great fire, and from the fire I created the orders of the incorporeal ten troops of angels, and their weapons are fiery and their raiment a burning flame, and I commanded that each one should stand in his order.
Here Satanail with his angels was thrown down from the height.
And one from out the order of angels, having turned away with the order that was under him, conceived an impossible thought, to place his throne higher than the clouds above the earth, that he might become equal in rank to my power. And I threw him out from the height with his angels, and he was flying in the air continuously above the bottomless.
II Enoch 29:2 – 4
Even though many Christians today don’t consider books like II Enoch to be canon, their influence can be felt in a number of traditional mythologies we carry alongside our faith. Here is a perfectly encapsulated retelling of the common Satan tradition, and, if you substitute Satanail with Lucifer, it would feel right at home in Isaiah 14. (Also, Prometheus imagery again. Just saying.)
I don’t know exactly when Lucifer became synonymous with Satan. It certainly wasn’t common in the time of Augustine. However, both Calvin and Luther condemn interpreting Isaiah 14 as referring to the devil. So the name became popular sometime after Saint Augustine of Hippo but before Martin Luther’s writings. That gives us a possible window of something like a thousand years.
What’s the Point?
We Christians should be making a habit of differentiating the Bible’s teachings from popular trends and mythology. We live in a culture where we share posts and images on social media without first checking the veracity of the content, and we therefore perpetuate popular myths and urban legends without thought. We should be holding ourselves to a higher standard — even moreso in matters pertaining to faith.
Instead of simply repeating what we’ve heard from pulpits or read from others’ writings, we need to be able to separate faith from fiction. And no matter how long we have held to a certain story, belief or doctrine, if the scriptural evidence doesn’t back it up, we have to be OK with letting it go. Let’s strive to be more like the Bereans of Acts 17 who not only received the apostles’ teaching with gladness but then also researched God’s word for themselves. Then we will all have far fewer confusions like this.
Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to determine if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.
I John 4:1