This Present Darkness
Head's up: This particular blog entry is part of a two-part series. If you haven't read the entry, "Welcome to the Apocalypse," you might want to take a moment to scroll over the there. Our modern Bibles break up Isaiah's prophecy of the downfall of Babylon into two chapters. So, in a blog project where each chapter is a distinct entry, sometimes there will be a "two-fer" on one continuous theme.
We saw in Isaiah 13 that many Biblical prophesies had a fairly immediate application and a future-oriented one. Isaiah 14 continues this theme. However, in this chapter we run into some disagreement. Some of the very theologians who see chapter 13 as more-than-meets-the-eye balk at seeing Satan as the figure depicted in chapter 14.
Yes, you can already see that this is going to be a very light-hearted entry.
For those who would like to see some names, it's Origen and Tertullian vs. Calvin and Luther. While normally I'd be more convinced by the latter, there are some compelling points to consider.
First, this whole issue shows that it's not just modern folks who are a wee bit uncomfortable talking about a literal Satan. (In defense to Martin Luther, however, he rarely showed discomfort on that topic, having some...uh...extremely colorful descriptions of his battles on the supernatural front).
Second, whether or not Isaiah 14 is talking about Satan's fall from heaven, other passages of Scripture reference it.
Ezekiel 28. In a similar type of prophesy against the King of Tyre, a figure again claims to be God and is consequently thrust down to the "Pit," a reference to the underworld.
Luke 10:18. Jesus himself references Satan's fall from heaven in response to the disciple's first successful solo flight into ministry.
I Timothy 3: 6. States explicitly that the sin that led to Satan's "fall into condemnation" was pride.
Third, Babylon becomes the personification of evil in the Bible. For example, Revelation 17 has an entire chapter devoted to "Babylon, the prostitute of the Beast." Babylon, therefore, came to represent far more than just its original geographic region.
For these reasons, I'll take Isaiah 14 as an opportunity to reflect on the reasons why the Bible occasionally pulls back the curtains, per se, and gives us glimpses into a great supernatural conflict that is going on while we lead our everyday lives.
We see in Isaiah 14 a taunt against the king of Babylon, using Babylonian and Canaanite mythology that depicts a fall from the heavens to the underworld, and a ghostly scene with dead kings greeting the fallen king.
It's argued whether "Lucifer" (or, "Morning Star," in verse 12) is a name or a title, but as we know, it eventually becomes a name used for Satan within the Christian tradition.
It's not very common these days to talk about Satan, aside from doing things like singing along to "Bohemian Rhapsody," which includes reference to an alternate name for the devil.
Yet, many people who struggle with believing in a literal Satan may wonder whether ghosts are real. They may believe in angels, and watch movies about demonic forces and wonder whether it's all true. Even in this age of science, the supernatural creeps in.
And maybe we need it to. Without supernatural figures to battle against, we seem to turn against one another, using apocalyptic language or the worst epithets we can think of (antichrists, Nazis) against our very human political opponents.
History professor Kristin Kobes Du Mez's book, Jesus and John Wayne, charts the hyper-militarization of American Christianity. Everything is an epic battle. Life or death struggles lurk behind every election. Verbal fights are needed to defend the cause of truth, even when we may struggle over the very concept of truth.
We have it backwards. Other people, no matter how disagreeable or wrong they may be, are not the ultimate enemy. Ephesians 6:12 says,
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
We may be in a battle, but many are currently fighting the wrong army on the wrong front. Even when we firmly believe that the opposing political party is promoting evil, they are still not the ultimate enemy. Constant criticism, name-calling, trolling, and worse is not the battle protocol for a Christ-follower.
Ephesians 6 goes on to tell us what is.
Therefore, put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.
And then we see the awesome passage that so inspired my artist husband that he painted this on his bedroom wall growing up:
Stand firm, then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist
With the breastplate of righteousness in place
With your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace
Take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one
Take the helmet of salvation
And the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God
And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints
Pastor Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, reflecting on this passage, said that many things can sap the strength of a Christian. These include:
Too much time in the wrong company
Too much foolish talk
A wrong attitude toward the word of God
Lloyd-Jones advocated watchfulness toward oneself (isn't it refreshing that we generally don't need to constantly be worried about others?) to see whether spiritual strength is being sapped or increasing.
Academic though I may be, I believe that the supernatural fight is real. Like many, I have felt it. I have been in places and with people where where it was almost as if there was a cloud of darkness surrounding everything.
This will likely anger some readers, but Christianity Today published an article at the end of January which quoted Republican congressman Adam Kinzinger saying this, in reference to the altercation at the capital on January 6:
"I’m not one of these people that senses evil all the time or anything. It’s probably only happened maybe twice in my life. But I just felt a real darkness over this place, like a real evil.”
He then called on Christian leaders to "lead the flock back into the truth." Worse than sensing the darkness would be being part of it. How would one know whether what you were up in arms about actually reflected your own thoughts or those suggested to you by more sinister forces?
Ephesians 6 doesn't tell us how to tell, but how to protect. This blog is about the book of Isaiah, so I won't dive into a verse-by-verse analysis of Ephesians. However, let's focus on the final item of armor: the helmet of salvation.
There are three "tenses" of salvation:
We have been saved from the penalty of sin (justification).
We are being saved from the power of sin (sanctification).
We shall be saved from the presence of sin (glorification).
I love these reminders, and keep a copy of this statement in my dining room. It's such a sweet release to put one's hope in Christ's ability to save us completely-- past, present, and future. To put on that final piece of armor, which protects the all-important brain, that crucial command center of the body.
Sci-fi aficionado that I am, it also reminds me of another helmet, which I share here in case this geeky example can be of use to someone else. When Ian McKellen's character, Magneto, in the 2000 film X-Men, dons his famous helmet, it's in order to protect himself from the Professor's telepathy. I love this image, and in my mind the helmet of salvation has similar protective properties. You don't go into a supernatural battle helmet-less, fighting on your own, separate from being connected to the Source of one's salvation. Doing so opens up your mind potentially to outside forces--anyone can be indoctrinated by a steady, constant stream of negative information. Our hope is misplaced if we feel that our brains can be barraged like this and still maintain a certain neutral independence of thought. We trust too much in ourselves, and study after study (and the Social Dilemma film on Netflix!) shows that we are wrong to do so.
That helmet of salvation is absolutely essential. For those of us who are convinced that spiritual battles are real, taking a break from the Twitter feed and donning one's spiritual armor (which, as many theologians have noted, is all defensive aside from the Word of God), is the real way to fight the battle....whose real location is in our own minds.