24. The Devil and Satan: Old Testament

This chapter and the next one look at the references to the devil and satan in Scripture. We shall see that they are not the same thing, and that the words are used differently in the Old Testament from the way they are used in the New Testament.

Focus passage: 1 Chronicles 21:1–8

This event took place near the end of the time David was king. Satan prompted him to instruct Joab, the commander of Israel’s army, to count the Israelite troops. God was angry with David for doing this. Joab understood that counting the army was wrong, and he did not complete the task.

  1. What did David do wrong? [Hint: see Psalm 33:16.]
  2. Read about the same event in 2 Samuel 24:1–10. What new things do we learn in this passage?
  3. What differences are there between the two passages? Can you explain them?
  4. Who was Satan?

Satan

The word satan is a Hebrew word which simply means opponent or adversary. When it occurs in the Old Testament, it is usually translated into the English word “adversary”.

Sometimes the adversary was an angel or a godly person. For example:

  • an angel is described as a satan in Numbers 22:22;
  • David is described as a satan in 1 Samuel 29:4.

In both cases, the word satan does not appear in our English Bibles because it has been translated. In 1 Chronicles 21:1, God is described as a satan because he was opposing David. Here the translators chose to leave the word untranslated. In this incident, God was acting as a satan or opponent because he brought about a trial in David’s life.

In other passages, the adversary was not a godly person. For example:

  • Hadad the Edomite and Rezon the king of Syria were satans to Solomon (1 Kings 11:14,23) because they led armies against Israel;
  • David’s enemies are described as satans in Psalm 38:20.

Again, in these cases the word satan has been translated.

In Job chapters 1 and 2, the word satan is left untranslated. Satan (the opponent) comes before God and claims that Job is only righteous because he has been blessed. He says that if Job were made to suffer, he would not be so righteous. Then Job suffers a series of disasters including the loss of all his possessions, the death of his ten children and a severe skin disease. It was God who brought about the series of disasters (see Job 2:3; 19:21; 30:21; 42:11; etc.). So, although Satan wanted Job to suffer, it was God who acted on his suggestion. Satan himself did not have the power to do it on his own—God gave him the power.

So who is Job’s opponent in this case? We do not know. Whoever Satan was, he was suspicious that Job would not maintain his faith under suffering. After Satan complained to God about Job, God decided to test Job’s faith and righteousness.

Devil

In the KJV, the word devils only occurs four times in the Old Testament. The four passages are given in the box on the following page. For example, Leviticus 17:7 in the KJV says

And they shall no more offer their sacrifices unto devils

Modern versions translate the word differently— Leviticus 17:7 in the NIV says

They must no longer offer any of their sacrifices to the goat idols

These were hairy idols which looked like goats. The RSV calls them satyrs. Whatever name is used, the“devils” in the Old Testament were simply idols which were worshipped by the nations around Israel. There is no connection between these and what is called a devil in the New Testament.

Some relevant passages
Where ‘satan’ is translated
Numbers 22:22; 1 Samuel 29:4; 2 Samuel 19:22; 1 Kings 5:4; 11:14,23; Psalm 38:20.
Where ‘satan’ is not translated
1 Chronicles 21:1; Job 1&2; Zechariah 3:1–2.
Devils (KJV)
Leviticus 17:7; Deuteronomy 32:17; 2 Chronicles 11:15; Psalm 106:37.
Lucifer
Some people believe that when satan is untranslated, it refers to a wicked angel called Lucifer who sinned at the time of Adam. Since then, they say, he has been going around tempting people to sin. The name Lucifer comes from Isaiah 14:12 which says (in the KJV)

How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning…

This is the only place in the Bible where the word Lucifer occurs and it does not occur at all in most modern versions. If you look back to verse 4 it is clear that this passage is about the king of Babylon! Also verses 16 and 17 call him a “man”—not a fallen angel!

Lucifer means the “morning star” or Venus, the brightest object in the sky just before dawn. In fact, modern versions translate the word as “morning star”. The king of Babylon was very proud and imagined himself to be a god. He said “I will make myself like the Most High” (v14) and apparently thought of himself as being “in heaven” like Venus. Instead, he fell to the earth in defeat.

A similar passage is Ezekiel 28 which is about the king of Tyre.

Summary

  1. Satan is a Hebrew word which means adversary or opponent. Usually it is translated like that. Even when it is not translated, it just means an opponent.
  2. A devil in the Old Testament was an idol which was worshipped by the nations around Israel.

Thought provokers

  1. Read Psalm 109. What is David concerned about?
  2. The word satan occurs in verses 4, 6, 20 and 29. How is it translated in each case? Who was the opponent in this case?
  3. What does the Psalm tell us about these opponents?
  4. The Psalm is a prayer of David asking God to punish his opponents. Do you think David was right to pray like this? Should we?

Further investigation

  1. Use a concordance to make a list of all the verses in the Old Testament where the Hebrew word satan occurs. Who is the opponent in each case?
  2. How do we know Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 are not talking about a bad angel?

Want to know more?

  • The devil: the great deceiver by Peter Watkins (published by The Christadelphian, 1976). 128 pages. A detailed and careful study of all the major passages on the devil, satan, demons, etc.
  • What the Bible teaches by Harry Tennant (published by The Christadelphian, 1986), Chapter 16 “Jesus and the devil”. 20 pages. See also Appendix II.
  • The very devil by Harry Whittaker (published by Biblia, 1991). An interesting and comprehensive book on the use of devil and Satan in Scripture (98 pages).
  • Wrested scriptures by Ron Abel (published by The Christadelphians, Pasadena). Pages 163–184 deal with passages about the devil and Satan that are frequently misinterpreted.

See also

    16. Temptation
    17. Sin
    23. Demons and ghosts
    25. The Devil and Satan: New Testament

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