Day 197: “Lucifer” in Isaiah 14:12

Illustration for John Milton’s “Paradise Lost“ by Gustave Doré, 1866.

““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 ‭ESV‬‬

Through the Bible: Isaiah 13-17

Centuries of biblical interpretation has conditioned many of us to look at this passage in Isaiah 14:12 and conclude that it is talking about the fall of Satan from heaven–either before the creation of man (see Revelation 12:1-17), or at the very end of time (same passage).

The popularity of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, published in 1667 and considered by many to be the greatest poem in the English language, fixed this interpretation in our minds like concrete. Indeed, it’s not a stretch to say that much of what we think we know about Satan in popular culture does not come from the Bible. It comes from Paradise Lost.

But is Isaiah 14 actually talking about Satan? If you read the King James Version, the answer seems obvious. The KJV, along with many older translations, renders “Day Star, son of Dawn” in verse 12 as “Lucifer:”

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!

Isaiah 14:12, KJV

We owe this to St. Jerome, who in 382 finished his work on the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Old and New Testaments. However, Jerome based his translation not on the Hebrew text, but on the Septuagint, the Greek translation of Hebrew. The Septuagint took the Hebrew word halel and translated it as “light bringer (ephosphorus)” Jerome translated the Greek into Latin, and rendered ephosphorus as lux ferrous, and concluded that this was a proper name, Lucifer.

The difficulty is that halel is another one of those one-off words–appearing in Isaiah 14:12 and nowhere else. As best as anyone can figure, it means either “A shining one” or “the shining one.” So at its most literal rendering, it would be “the bright son of the morning.” Since the morning star was associated with the east, it seems to be describing the King of Babylon (east of Israel) as the Shining One in the East.

So, not Lucifer? Probably not, or at least not as the proper name for Satan. Again, John Milton went where the Bible itself doesn’t. Hundreds of years of artistic and literary renderings have fixed it firmly in our minds that Isaiah 14:12 is describing Satan’s fall from heaven that we don’t realize we’ve built our understanding of Satan not on the Bible, but on a 17th century pop song.

The truth is, the Bible says very little about the origin of Satan. We infer from Revelation 12:1-10 that he was thrown out of heaven after making war with Michael the archangel, and that he took a third of the angels with him, but if you look closely at the next verse (11) you find that “the accuser of the Brethren” was cast down after he had been overcome by “the blood of the lamb and by the word of their testimonyand not in some time before the creation of man.

The danger of applying that filter to Isaiah 14 is that we lose sight of the fact that Isaiah was describing the fall of a human king (Nebuchadnezzar) who was being judged for his arrogance and pride (See Isaiah 13:11) and for his cruel oppression of the poor (see Isaiah 14:3-5). Isaiah’s reference to the Medes in 13:17 makes it even more clear. This was about Babylon in general and Nebuchadnezzar specifically. The same story is told in Daniel 5-6.

This doesn’t mean it couldn’t also have the interpretation of Satan and his fall from Heaven. Remember that Isaiah was writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who had a front row seat to how Satan came to be. But if we make it all about a supernatural, angelic being, we fail to acknowledge how deadly pride can be in our own lives. We lose sight of how our treatment of the poor and oppressed matter to God. And we forget that God can and will judge us for our own attitudes as much as He did Nebuchadnezzar’s.

Or Satan’s.

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