I have never understood why the prophecy about the prince of Tyre in Ezekiel 28:1-19 and the taunt against the king of Babylon in Isaiah 14:3-23 have traditionally been interpreted as having reference to Satan. I have just come across the argument again in Greg Gilbert’s book Who is Jesus?
Gilbert accepts that the Ezekiel passage is ostensibly about the prince of Tyre but insists that it makes no sense to speak of the ruler of an obscure coastal city in the ancient Near East as an anointed guardian cherub, who was in Eden and on the holy mountain of God: “even as poetry, it would be overkill to the point of absurdity and poetic failure”.
Something else is happening here, he argues, and “the effect is almost cinematic”.
It’s as if the face of the evil king of Tyre is flickering in and out with another face—the face of one who stands behind Tyre’s evil, who drives it and encourages it and whose character it reflects.
Now, in the first place, I’m not sure that someone who is so patently under the spell of a modern “cinematic” aesthetic is fit to judge the success or failure of ancient poetry. Nor is it likely that Ezekiel would have dismissed Tyre as an obscure coastal city. But the basic problem is exegetical. The tradition has read into the texts something that simply isn’t there.
The prince of Tyre is accused of having made himself like a god, of claiming to “sit in the seat of the gods” (28:1, 6). Therefore, the Lord God will bring a ruthless nation against him, and he will die at the hands of foreigners. That will put an end to his boasting: “Will you still say, ‘I am a god,’ in the presence of those who kill you, though you are but a man, and no god, in the hands of those who slay you?” (Ezek. 28:9).
Ezekiel is then told to “raise a lamentation over the king of Tyre”:
You were the signet of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone was your covering, sardius, topaz, and diamond, beryl, onyx, and jasper, sapphire, emerald, and carbuncle; and crafted in gold were your settings and your engravings. On the day that you were created they were prepared.
You were an anointed guardian cherub. I placed you; you were on the holy mountain of God; in the midst of the stones of fire you walked. You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created, till unrighteousness was found in you.
In the abundance of your trade you were filled with violence in your midst, and you sinned; so I cast you as a profane thing from the mountain of God, and I destroyed you, O guardian cherub, from the midst of the stones of fire.
Your heart was proud because of your beauty; you corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendor. I cast you to the ground; I exposed you before kings, to feast their eyes on you. By the multitude of your iniquities, in the unrighteousness of your trade you profaned your sanctuaries; so I brought fire out from your midst; it consumed you, and I turned you to ashes on the earth in the sight of all who saw you. All who know you among the peoples are appalled at you; you have come to a dreadful end and shall be no more forever. (Ezek. 28:12–19 ESV)
The details of this Eden story present a number of difficulties, but the central line of thought is clear enough. The prince of Tyre is compared not with Satan but with Adam. He was originally blameless—a wise king who gained great wealth (28:3-5)—but he became proud and violent; therefore, God cast him from the garden, which is also the “mountain of God”. The fall of Adam is used as a metaphor for the corruption of a king who in the end thought he could become like a god.
The traditional association of this passage with Satan arose, presumably, because in the Hebrew Masoretic Text the king is also said to be an “anointed guardian cherub”, an angelic figure. But if the Hebrew were unpointed, we would naturally read verse 14a thus: “With a winged guardian cherub I set you”; and verse 16b: “the guardian cherub banished you from the habitat of the blazing gems”.1 This is what we have in the Septuagint:
From the day you were created, I placed you with the cherub in a holy, divine mountain…, and the cherub drove you from the midst of the fiery stones.
So the identification of the prince of Tyre with Satan renders the passage incoherent—he is both Adam and Satan—and is exegetically unnecessary. The lamentation concludes with the humiliation of the very human king, and the assurance that he “shall be no more forever”.
Gilbert also assumes that Isaiah 14:12-14 is a straightforward description of Satan:
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 again the object of the prophet’s satire is only a human ruler who imagined that he could make himself equal to God. YHWH will eventually give his people rest from their oppressor, and they will “take up this taunt against the king of Babylon” (Is. 14:3-4). The great king, once the “Day Star, son of Dawn”, who laid the nations low, will be cut down to the ground. He will be brought down to Sheol, and people will say, “Is this the man who made the earth tremble, who shook kingdoms, who made the world like a desert and overthrew its cities, who did not let his prisoners go home?” (Is. 14:12-17).
Whereas the prince of Tyre was Adam expelled (metaphorically) from Eden, the king of Babylon is the morning star cast down (metaphorically) from heaven. Hardly a “poetic failure”. The Septuagint translated “Day Star, son of Dawn” as “Eosphoros, who makes the morning rise”, which became in the Latin Vulgate “Lucifer, you who made the morning rise”. There we have the beginnings of a Satan mythology.
- 1See L.C. Allen, Ezekiel 20–48 (WBC 29, 1990), 90-91.