October 30, 2021 - Satan and Belial

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Today, because it’s Halloween weekend, we’re going to talk about Satan and Belial, 2 names for the same character. Let’s start with the name Belial.

The name beliyya‘al starts out as an ordinary Hebrew noun. The ranch-hands at Nabal’s ranch in 1 Samuel 25:17 complain that their boss is “such a son of beliyya‘al that one cannot speak to him.” (“Son of beliyya‘al” is the equivalent of our English term “S.O.B.”) Most of our Bibles (other than the KJV) do not show the presence of the Hebrew term beliyya‘al in this verse. Instead, they say that Nabal is “so ill-natured” (NRSV) or “such a scoundrel” (NKJV). But “S.O.B.” would be a fitting abbreviation of this expression “Son Of Belial.” Poor guy – even his wife Abigail calls him a “Son Of Belial” in 1 Samuel 25:25!

We look in vain for the word beliyya‘al in any other Semitic language that I know of. It is actually a combination of a poetic word for “not” plus the word “profitable,” giving us the meaning “worthless(ness)” or “good-for-nothing.” All but five of its 27 occurrences in the Hebrew Bible refer to people. It is also used for a wicked thought in Deuteronomy 15:9, and for a deadly disease in Psalm 41:8. The writer of Psalm 101:3 declares, “I will not set before my eyes anything that is base / wicked.” And in 2 Samuel 22:5 (= Psalm 18:5), beliyya‘al is personified as an evil power partnered with Death that is poised to gang up on David.

It’s interesting to look at who all is called a son (or man) of beliyya‘al in the Bible, an expression usually translated as “worthless man” or “scoundrel.” We begin the list with the lone example of the expression “daughter of beliyya‘al.” In 1 Samuel 1:16, Hannah begs Eli the priest not to think that she’s a daughter of beliyya‘al when he mistakes her for a drunken woman.

The men in Deuteronomy 13:13, who would lead an entire town astray to worship idols, are called “sons of beliyya‘al.” So are the men of Gibeah who demanded sex from the traveling Levite (Judges 19:22, 20:13). So are the sons of Eli (1 Samuel 2:12), who treated the sanctuary offerings with contempt, and slept with the women who served at the sanctuary. So are the men who questioned Saul’s appointment as king (1 Samuel 10:27), and the men who refused to share the Amalekite plunder with the men who stayed behind with the baggage (1 Samuel 30:22).

Shimei calls David a man of beliyya‘al while throwing rocks and dust at him in 2 Samuel 16:7. Sheba son of Bichri, who seeks to lead another rebellion against David, is also called this name in 2 Samuel 20:1. Two “Sons Of Belial’s” are recruited as false witnesses to accuse Naboth and put him to death (1 Kings 21:10, 13). And Abijah is quoted as saying that it was “Sons Of Belial” who pressured Rehoboam into making a bad decision that lost him the kingdom (2 Chronicles 13:7).

Nahum is the only prophet to use the term beliyya‘al (1:11 and 1:15). He uses it to refer to a “counselor,” who is probably the king of Nineveh, who plots evil and destruction against all surrounding nations, and even the Lord himself. Judah is promised that never more shall Belial pass through her, at least, not as an Assyrian king. In the book of Nahum, Beliyya‘al is beginning to transform from an unflattering adjective to a character larger than life.

When we get to the New Testament period, the personification of beliyya‘al as an evil power, which we found only in 2 Samuel 22:5 = Psalm 18:5, becomes a standard name for Satan, a function it almost never serves in the Hebrew Bible. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 6:15, in a passage that contrasts light with darkness and the temple of God with idols, “What agreement does Christ have with Beliar?” (The spelling Beliar is used when the name occurs in Greek.) Here Belial is clearly another name for Satan.

Belial is also mentioned in at least two different sections of the Dead Sea Scrolls. He is named eleven times in the War Scroll (1QM). Belial is also mentioned four times in “The Coming of Melchizedek” (11Q13), where he is named among the spirits who have rebelled against God and have become utterly wicked; some future Melchizedek “will deliver all the captives from the power of Belial.”

In the book The Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah, we hear that “Beliar, the great angel and king of this world…will descend from his firmament in the form of a man, a king of iniquity, a murderer of his mother” (sounds like a reappearance of Nero). It says he will claim to be God and will speak and act like the Beloved, and all will believe in him; many of the saints will be led astray. He is to raise the dead and perform many signs, like making the sun rise at midnight. He will rule for 3 years, 7 months, and 27 days, he will set up his image in every city, and do whatever he wishes. And at the end of his rule, the Lord will come “and will drag Beliar, and his hosts also, into Gehenna.” After this revelation, Beliar gets Manasseh to saw Isaiah in two.

The Sibylline Oracles also present Nero in a similar way: “Then Beliar will come from the line of Augustus…and he will raise up the dead and perform many signs for men…And he will lead astray many faithful, chosen Hebrews.” In the end, God sends fire to burn up Beliar and his followers (Sibylline Oracles 3.63-74). In other Jewish writings in Greek, Beliar is also found twice in Jubilees (1:20, 15:33), and 11 times in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs.

It would certainly appear that Satan is the greatest “Son Of Belial” – if not for the fact that he is the spiritual father of them all!

So what do we know about Satan? Let’s take a look at his names. We already talked about Belial. Satan is a Hebrew noun that means simply the “Enemy” or “Opponent,” making Satan the great arch-enemy of God. He is sometimes called the Devil (in Greek, Ho Diabolos), meaning “Slanderer,” which fits with the passage in Revelation where he is called “the Accuser of our brethren.” Jesus also calls Satan the “Ancestor of Lies” (John 8:44) – he pours a constant stream of lies into our ears. The Rolling Stones’ song “Sympathy For the Devil” speaks the truth where Mick Jagger’s Devil in that song sings that “confusing you is the nature of my game.”

Satan’s original name was Lucifer, Latin for “the One Who Bears Light.” The apostle Paul teaches in 2 Corinthians 11:14 that Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Satan likes to appear as a bright shining angel. In fact, Satan started out as God’s #1 ranking angel, before he led the original rebellion against God. We find this story in Isaiah 14 and in Ezekiel 28.

In Isaiah 14, Isaiah declares God’s judgment against the future king of Babylon. Then in verses 12-15, Isaiah shifts his attention to the power behind the king of Babylon, where we read, “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! ...For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven. I will exalt my throne above the stars of God... I will ascend above the heights of the clouds. I will be like the Most High! Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit.”

So here we learn that Lucifer (named after the morning star Venus) is a character who wants to become like the Most High. The problem is that only one God belongs on that throne. There is no room for 2 or more to reign from heaven. Anyone else reigning in heaven (like we find in Revelation 22:5) reigns under the authority of the one true God, not as his rival or replacement. Lucifer’s wish to become like the Most High becomes his downfall.

Let’s see what more we can learn in Ezekiel 28. Here, we begin by seeing God’s judgment on the prince of Tyre. In verse 9, God asks, “Will you still say before him that slays you, I am a god? But you are a man, and not God, in the hand of him that slays you.” So the prince of Tyre is only a man. But then in verse 12, Ezekiel laments the fate of the “king” of Tyre, the power behind the earthly ruler. “Thus says the Lord God: You were the seal of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone was your covering.” He says, “You were on the holy mountain of God. You walked up and down in the midst of the stones of fire. You were perfect in your ways from the day you were created, until iniquity was found in you.” It says, “Your heart was proud because of your beauty.” Therefore, God says, “I cast you as a profane thing from the mountain of God.”

Here we find a guy whom most scholars understand to be the same character referred to as Lucifer in Isaiah 14. He is definitely superhuman. He starts out on the holy mountain of God. The place is called Eden, but there are stones of fire, and nowhere are we told that the Garden of Eden in Genesis is on a mountain (it’s probably a heavenly Eden). Depending on how we translate, this character either has a cherub or angel at his side, or he is an angel himself (I take him to be an angel himself). He is perfect in all his ways from the moment he was created, until iniquity was found in him, and then he is cast out as an unclean thing from the mountain of God.

Isaiah and Ezekiel give us brief glimpses of a monumental event that happens in heaven at some point before human history begins, possibly before the world was created, when a great evil power first turns to the dark side and rebels. Genesis does not tell us when this happens. Genesis picks up the story when this evil power comes to earth in the form of a serpent to drag the newly-created human race into his power.

Lucifer (also known as Satan) is a fallen angel. Angels are not resurrected human beings. They were here before we humans were ever created. They are the beings called the sons of God who “shouted for joy” when the universe was created (Job 38:7). Angels are immortal spirits who are like God, but who do not have bodies of flesh like ours. They often appear in human form, but they also often have wings, and can appear and disappear instantaneously.

The term “angel” in both Hebrew and Greek (we get our word from the Greek angelos) is a term that means simply “messenger.” Often the word means a human messenger, sometimes it means a heavenly messenger, and sometimes it’s hard to tell which. Angels can be messengers of either good or evil, fallen or unfallen.

Revelation 12 speaks of a great dragon, whom it says “is called the Devil and Satan,” who takes a third of the stars and sweeps them with his tail down to earth. In Revelation, we are told that stars are angels. So Revelation tells us that Satan is cast down to earth (apparently before the dawn of time), and then he drags 1/3 of the angels with him.

Satan is mentioned by name very few times in the Hebrew Bible. The most important place is at the beginning of the book of Job, where Satan appears before God along with the other sons of God (meaning angels), and tries to make the case that God’s most faithful man on earth is faithful only because nothing bad has happened to him. (Here we see Satan functioning in his role as “accuser of our brethren.”) When God tells Satan to confess what he’s been up to, Satan boasts that he’s been “going to and fro in the earth,” and “walking up and down on it.” Satan can’t be everywhere at once, like God is, but Satan has help from other fallen angels to cover the territory, and we might be surprised how much territory Satan can cover on his own. In Job, God also allows Satan to inflict Job with tragic losses and with sickness, although God is able to stop Satan any time he chooses.

Satan is only mentioned 2 other places in the Hebrew Bible. In 1 Chronicles 21, Satan prompts David into numbering Israel, against God’s will. And in Zechariah 3, Satan is firing accusations against Joshua the high priest, and God says, “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you!” Leave this guy alone!

But Satan is all over the NT. We find his name 37 times, particularly in the Gospels. When God comes to earth in human flesh, Satan shows up and tries his best to shoot him down. We find Satan trying to tempt Jesus in the desert. Jesus sees Satan fall from heaven while his disciples are on their mission tour. We find Satan again entering into Judas to betray Jesus. And we find Satan at work in the early church

Satan is not make-believe or a myth. Satan is real. Too much evil in the world has to be more than blind chance or coincidence, nor can it all be traced to a conspiracy of human agents. We have an invisible enemy who seeks to throw our lives off track in any way he can, whose tactics are artfully described in C S Lewis’ novel The Screwtape Letters.

Satan seeks to blind those who do not know God, and to neutralize believers, to cripple their spiritual lives. And he doesn’t have to use horrible sins to do the job. For Satan, apathy works just as well as adultery. Church conflict is as good as atheism. Stubbornness is as good as Satan worship.

The devil doesn’t normally use full-scale demon possession to attack us. That usually happens only through drugs and the occult (witchcraft, séances, and devil worship). Cases of demon possession appear to be relatively rare, except on the mission field, although who know how much mental illness could be more than just illness?

But Satan knows that most of us will never fall prey to drugs or the occult, so he finds other ways to attack us wherever our weaknesses lie, whether it be through pride, anger, laziness, sexual desire, or slander. Satan has 2 basic objectives. 1. If we have never gotten right with God by placing our faith in what Christ has done to take away our sin, Satan wants to make sure we never do so. 2. If we have been saved, Satan will try to knock us out of action, so we will not be a threat to his plans.

Anything Satan can do to stop us is fine with him. Distraction (getting your mind off God) works just as well as sin. Why bother trying to tempt good Christians to sin, if you can just get them to do nothing? Satan does the same with churches. He can use pastoral misconduct or church fights to do tremendous damage. Or he can sweet-talk a church into becoming one big harmless couch potato. Satan uses illness, breakdowns, delays, and enormous wastes of time to keep missionaries from doing their job.

Satan can be a prime cause of depression and discouragement (in addition to normal medical and emotional causes). Satan wants to paralyze us, to immobilize us, to get us to quit trying. He wants to destroy our confidence, to paralyze us with feelings of fear and inferiority. Satan wants us to dwell on our failures, to flounder around in despair, kicking ourselves for past mistakes. He wants to devastate us with guilt. When we sin, Satan says, “God will never forgive you for that!” And if we believe him, he’s got us right where he wants us.

God doesn’t want us paralyzed by guilt. God wants to lift us out of the mud. But Satan wants us to dwell on our failures, to get us so depressed that we never fix what’s wrong. Satan is sneaky. If he can’t get us through pleasure or violence, he’ll use pride or self-righteousness. He loves to get people fighting each other rather than him. That’s why Paul says “we wrestle not with flesh and blood, but with evil powers in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).

Satan loves to sell lies. Satan loves religion, as long as it’s false! He offers all kinds of idols and half-truth. Some of Satan’s most effective work is done through religious people. That’s why Paul says that his servants disguise themselves as ministers of righteousness (2 Corinthians 11:15). And because Satan disguises himself as an angel of light, Paul warns the Galatians (1:8) that if an angel from heaven preaches any other gospel to them, let him be cursed. But Satan’s cleverest tactic is to pretend he does not exist – that way, he can operate unseen.

Don’t let Satan bully or distract or devastate you with defeat or guilt. Don’t let him tell you that you are powerless to resist. James 4:7 says, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”

The apostle Paul was one of Satan’s prime targets. But it is amazing how much Paul was hated by his fellow Jews, more than they hated Jesus. Why did they hate Paul so much more than Jesus? We’ll take a comprehensive look at Paul next time on Biblical Words and World.