The Snake in the Garden

by James Montgomery Boice

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?"


Step by step the second chapter of Genesis has been preparing the reader for the third chapter, but coming to it for the first time we find we are still unprepared. We have been told that God made everything good. The universe was orderly. But suddenly we come upon a creature whose existence has not even been hinted at until now and we discover, as we read about him, that far from being good he is actually an evil being whose temptation of Adam and Eve brings evil on the human race.

He is described as "the serpent" (Gen. 3:1). Since Revelation 12:9 speaks of "that ancient serpent called the devil or Satan, who leads the whole world astray" we are no doubt right in identifying him as Satan, the ancient adversary of God. But where did Satan come from? Did God create him? Did God create evil? Few would maintain that God could or did create evil. But if not, where did evil come from? Some speak of God creating beings with a free choice, which He undoubtedly did, and therefore with the inherent possibility of choosing evil. But that does not solve the problem. If God created the angelic beings and then later the man and the woman, all with a fullness of virtue and every possible incentive to continue in virtue, as again He undoubtedly did, how could such beings possibly find disobedience to God or opposition to God attractive? To my knowledge no one has ever satisfactorily explained how such a thing was possible. But explained or not, it obviously was possible, for Satan first fell and then the man and woman. What we know-from Genesis 3 and other passages-is that there is such a being as Satan, who was created perfect but fell away from virtue through pride, that he carried many other angelic beings with him in his rebellion against God, and that he presented himself here in the garden at the beginning of the history of the human race to tempt the first man and woman.

WHO IS SATAN?

Although there are great and seemingly impenetrable mysteries connected with the fall of Satan and man, there are nevertheless several passages in the Bible that probably refer to Satan's fall and therefore throw light on it and on sin in general. I acknowledge that they do not necessarily refer to Satan; our observations on them must be tentative. Still they seem to refer to Satan and are not inconsistent with what we either know or can conjecture about him. The first such passage is Ezekiel 28:12-15. Earlier in this chapter there is a prophecy against the prince or ruler of Tyre, an important ancient city on the Mediterranean coast. The person involved is obviously a human ruler. In fact, it is said of him, "You are a man and not a god" (v. 2), though he boasted of being one. But after this prophecy there is a heightened or extended prophecy against the king of Tyre, which does not at all appear to be dealing with a mere mortal. It seems to be dealing with Satan or a satanic power that stood behind the earthly throne just as, by contrast, God Himself may be said to stand behind a godly ruler. It is from this section of the chapter that verses 12-15 come.

"Take up a lament concerning the king of Tyre and say to him: 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says: You were the model of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone adorned you: ruby, topaz and emerald, chrysolite, onyx and jasper, sapphire, turquoise and beryl. Your settings and mountings were made of gold; on the day you were created they were prepared. You were anointed as a guardian cherub, for so I ordained you. You were on the holy mount of God; you walked among the fiery stones. You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created till wickedness was found in you.'"

Obviously there is much about these verses that we probably will not understand until we get to heaven. But if they describe the original state and subsequent fall of Satan, as we may assume they do (though not with total certainty), they do tell us some important things about him. First, they describe him as being the wisest of all God's created beings, for he was "the model of perfection, full of wisdom." Presumably he used this wisdom to occupy the highest and most important post in the administration of the universe. Second, he is said to have been the most beautiful of God's creatures, for he was "perfect in beauty." The imagery by which this beauty is elaborated is that of precious stones-ruby, topaz, emerald and so on. Gems are valuable, lasting, brilliant and-most important of all-reflective of light. In a dark room gems are nothing; they do not glow by themselves. But they are brilliant when the sun's light shines on them. We are probably right in supposing that by this imagery the prophet is suggesting what we know to be true in other ways, namely, that Satan, like any other created being, was made to reflect God's glory and that the failure to do this plunged him into moral and spiritual darkness.

Satan was probably what we would call God's prime minister, to use a human analogy. He was to speak for God, administering the universe in God's name. He was to direct the worship and obedience of all created beings back to God. This was a very high position, indeed the highest possible position save that of God Himself. But he was still a creature rather than the Creator, and when he aspired to be more than a creature he sinned. The text says tersely and without any further explanation, "You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created till wickedness was found in you" (v. 15).

LIKE THE MOST HIGH

The second passage that throws light on the nature and fall of Satan is Isaiah 14:12-15. Again, this is a difficult passage to be sure of. Like Ezekiel 28:12-15, it occurs in the midst of a chapter dealing with the wickedness of an earthly king, in this case the king of Babylon. But the language of these particular verses seems to have a greater reference than this, and a quotation of verse 12 by Jesus in reference to Satan in Luke 10:18 seems to link these verses to him. They say,

"How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, 'I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.' But you are brought down to the grave, to the depths of the pit."

Two characteristics of these verses strike us. First, there is an ascending chain of ambition leading from the lower heavens through the stars to the mount of the congregation, to the utmost heights of the mountain above the stars to the very throne of God. Satan was attempting to displace God. Second, there is a fivefold repetition of the words "I will"-three times in verse 13 and twice in verse 14. Before this all was at harmony in the universe. There was one mind or one will. Now there was a second, dissonant will, and there has been a multiplicity of wills and disharmony since.

In Scripture the word "heaven" is used to refer to three different spheres. The first heaven is what we call the sky or atmosphere. It is where the birds fly. The second is what we would call space. It is where the created universe has been situated. The third heaven envelops everything and yet is more than all we can possibly see or know. It is the abode of God Himself and is beyond our full understanding. Satan dwelt in the second heaven, though he also had access to the third (cf. Job 1:6; 2:1). When we read of his desire to ascend "into heaven," what is probably in view is his sinful and base desire to take God's abode away from Him.

When Satan says, "I will raise my throne above the stars of God," we are probably to understand this as a reference to the other angels. Job 38:7 uses the phrase this way ("while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy"). Satan was probably saying that he would usurp authority over the rest of the angelic creation.

Isaiah 2:2 and Psalm 48:2 throw light on "the mount of assembly." This has an earthly reference to Jerusalem in which the people of God would gather to worship. It also apparently has reference to a heavenly gathering of God's people. When Satan said that he wanted to be enthroned on this mountain he was saying that he wanted to receive their worship.

Finally, there is a reference to the "clouds" of God. If this is referring to mere atmospheric clouds, the progression of these verses is broken. But it may refer to that special "glory cloud," the Shekinah, which appeared to and was with Israel during the days of her wilderness wandering. It moved before the people to indicate the direction they should be going and spread out over them to give shade during the daytime and warmth at night. It symbolized God's presence with the people. In my judgment the reference to "the tops of the clouds" in Isaiah 14:14 is to this cloud, which symbolizes God.

Immediately after this Satan declares with emphasis, "I will make myself like the Most High." Why "the Most High"? God has many names. Why did Satan choose this particular name to express his ambitions? Donald Grey Barnhouse answers, "In the story of Abram we have the record of an incident revealing the inwardness of the name 'the Most High.' Abram was returning home after the battle with the kings and the deliverance of Lot. We read that 'Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought forth bread and wine [the communion elements]; and he was the priest of the most high God. And he blessed him, and said, Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth. . .' (Gen. 14:18, 19). Here is the key to the pride of Satan. God is revealed as El Elyon, the Most High God, and in this character he is 'the possessor of heaven and earth.' This is what Lucifer wanted to be. His rebellion was not a request for God to move over so that he might share God's throne. It was a thrust at God himself. It was an attempt to put God out so that Satan might take his place as possessor of the heavens and the earth."

Clearly, when Satan appears in Eden in the guise of the serpent to tempt Eve and Adam, it is a renewed attempt to further this ambition. Having failed to take heaven, he is nevertheless determined to consolidate his hold on earth through earth's inhabitants.

The second prominent feature of the Isaiah passage is Satan's fivefold repetition of the words "I will." He said, "I will . . . I will . . . I will . . . I will . . . I will . . ." This feature gives insight into the nature of sin and possibly into the reason why God permits it and its accompanying evils in His universe.

Suppose for some reason that the word "sin" was suddenly eradicated from the English vocabulary, and suppose we still had the task of telling men and women about their need of God and of God's work of restoration through Christ. How could we go about it? One way we could go about it would be to speak of "sin" as the existence of a contrary "will" in God's universe. Before Satan's fall there was only one will. It was God's will; it was perfect. After Satan's rebellion there were two wills-Satan's and God's-but, of course, only one of the two was perfect-God's. When Adam and Eve were created there was an immediate problem as to which of the two they would follow. Satan thought he would get Adam and Eve to follow him. Although he got them to rebel against God, he did not succeed in getting them to follow his will. So, there were now four wills, each going its own way and only one of them (God's will) remaining perfect. In time there were six wills, as Abel and Cain were added. Then there were sixteen wills and thirty-two and sixty-four. Today there are billions of.wills, which explains the constant conflicts in the human race. But it is still the case that only one, the will of God almighty, is perfect and totally desirable.

Satan has been trying to fashion these rebellious and mutually hostile wills into a kingdom, but with very few exceptions he has been monumentally unsuccessful. God's permission of evil allows this truth to become increasingly evident.

But what Satan cannot do, God does. In Christ He is drawing the wills of His people back to Himself and establishing harmony where there was chaos before. That is why Paul admonishes us to be "transformed by the renewing of" our minds so that we will be able "to test and approve what God's will is" (Rom. 12:2). It is why he says, "We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ" (2 Cor. 10:4, 5).

Only God can give harmony. Satan cannot. Satan has power to tear down, but he cannot build up. He can divide, but he cannot bring together again. Actually, even his names show this. "Lucifer"-his name before his fall- means "the bringer [or bearer] of light," a reference to his role as reflector of God's glory. But "Satan" means "adversary," and "devil" means "disrupter." The last name is based on two Greek words: dia, meaning "through" or "among," and ballo, meaning "to throw." The devil is the one who from the beginning has been attempting to throw a monkey wrench into the machinery of the universe.

READING THE BOOK

Satan has been "unsuccessful," but this is in terms of his ultimate goals only. In many cases, as in the temptation of Eve and Adam, he has succeeded. He is a dangerous foe, "a roaring lion looking for someone to devour" (1 Peter 5:8).

The Christian must be on guard against him. How shall we do that? One thing we must do is learn about him. In the movie Patton there is a scene in which for the first time the American general encounters the tank corps of Germany's North African army under command of the brilliant German war strategist Rommel, the "Desert Fox." Rommel's tanks have been destroying the western armies. But Patton out thinks him and is waiting for Rommel with an ambush. The "Desert Fox" is routed, and Patton, who has succeeded by studying Rommel's writing, is jubilant. He laughs and says, "Rommel, you son-of-a-gun, I read your book." Patton defeated Rommel because he knew his enemy. In the same way, although Satan has not given us a war manual, God has; and we are therefore forewarned against Satan and his strategies.

Satan's strategies are going to emerge in part in our study of the fall of Eve and Adam. What we should note here is that Satan is a creature, as Ezekiel 28:15 makes abundantly clear, and therefore he does not possess the divine attributes. He is powerful, but limited.

The limitations of Satan are worth talking about in detail. To begin with, he is not omniscient. God knows all things, but Satan does not. Above all, he does not know the future. No doubt he can make shrewd guesses because he knows the nature of man and has observed history. The so-called revelations of mediums and fortune-tellers---when they are not outright deceits---fall in this category. But this is not true knowledge of what is to come. God stated this in a challenge to all false gods, saying, "Present your case...Set forth your arguments...Bring in your idols to tell us what is going to happen...Declare to us the things to come, tell us what the future holds, so we may know that you are gods. Do something, whether good or bad, so that we will be dismayed and filled with fear. But you are less than nothing and your works are utterly worthless" (Isa. 41:21-24).

Satan is not omnipotent. He cannot do everything he wants to do, and in the case of believers he can do only what God will permit. The great example here is Job, who was safe until God lowered the hedge He had thrown up about him, and even then God did this for His own worthwhile purposes and kept Job from sinning.

Satan is not omnipresent. He cannot be everywhere at the same time tempting everyone. God is omnipresent. He can help all who call on Him, all at one time. But Satan must tempt one individual at a time or else operate through one or more of those angels, now demons, who fell with him.

This means that while the Christian must never ignore or underestimate Satan and his stratagems, neither must he overestimate him. Above all, he must never do this to the point of taking his eyes away from God. God is our strength and our tower. He limits Satan. He will never permit a Christian to be tempted above that which he is able and will always with the temptation provide the way of escape that he may be able to bear it (1 Cor. 10:13). We will stand against the temptations of Satan only if we are united to God through the Savior and draw near to Him. Apparently neither Eve nor Adam sought such union; so they fell. But we, though far weaker than they, may stand because we stand in the power of Him who defeated Satan by His victory on the cross and who will return one day to judge him and confine him to the lake of fire forever (Matt. 25:41).


(from GENESIS: An expositional commentary, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, ©1982)