3.2.17 Serpent/Dragon: Deceiver
Volume 3: Living Symbols—Chapter 2.17
It’s kind of depressing when you think about it. The Bible has barely begun when we read of Satan’s successful temptation of Eve, who then enticed her husband into the same sin—not so much of eating the fruit of the forbidden tree, but rather of placing human desires and reason above God’s clear instructions. It was the first demonstration of “religion” in the scriptures.
It’s impossible for us to know how “literal” Eden’s serpent was. Obviously, snakes don’t ordinarily talk to people, nor do they seem to have an agenda of evil toward us. And yet, the story of mankind’s fall into sin is recounted with a perfectly plausible talking serpent playing the role of the villain. Not only is the slithering menace talking, he’s seen debating, persuading, making what seemed to the naïve and innocent Eve a reasonable argument. “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that Yahweh, God, had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God actually say, “You shall not eat of any tree in the garden”?’ And the woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die….”’” Eve was doing okay until she decided to embellish Yahweh’s instructions: God never actually said not to touch the tree—that was something Eve added in order to “put a hedge around the law,” a practice that would one day be elevated to the status of an Olympic event (and a contact sport at that) by the scribes, Pharisees, and rabbis of Israel, thoroughly obfuscating what Yahweh’s intended message had been.
Having thus gained his opening, the serpent struck. “But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die.” Technically, he was right: if she merely touched the tree, she would be perfectly safe. But now Satan began planting the seeds of sedition in her mind by impugning God’s motives. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” The correct answer would have been, ‘I don’t care why God said not to eat the fruit. He has told us what to do, and I trust Him to know what’s best for me. So I’m going to go over there and get myself a banana instead.’ But what she did (as we all know) was accept the serpent’s argument. “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.” (Genesis 3:1-7) The score was Snakes-1, People-0. But the game was far from over.
Eve’s subsequent confrontation with Yahweh established the serpent’s symbolism: he was a deceiver. “Yahweh, God, said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent deceived me, and I ate.’” (Genesis 3:13) Ironically, if she hadn’t bought into the serpent’s lie, she may never have known that he was a deceiver. The only thing she “gained” by eating the fruit was the “knowledge of evil.” So presumably, before she disobeyed Yahweh, she was not equipped to recognize evil for what it was. Most of us were just like Eve at one time in our lives—it’s called infancy. One of my very first childhood memories is deciding I wouldn’t play in the front yard, like mom said, but I’d take my tricycle for a spin around the block. I must have been three or four years old. When she finally caught up with me, I couldn’t figure out why she was so angry. But all I had ever known was love and shelter; I had no idea how dangerous the world could be, though mom did. My “sin” had put the one she loved (me) in jeopardy, whether I knew it or not. And her reaction was not unlike Yahweh’s. The difference between me and Eve, however, was that I hadn’t been deceived by anyone but myself—I was born with a propensity for disobedience.
Back in Eden, “Yahweh, God, said to the serpent, ‘Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field. On your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.’” (Genesis 3:14-15) This is the first Messianic prophecy in the Bible. The “offspring” of the woman—who would turn out to be Yahshua the Messiah—has indeed endured the “bruising of His heel,” though the serpent still hasn’t gotten his “head” bruised—yet. The word translated “bruise” (the Hebrew shuph), means to crush or batter—a repeated striking motion causing injuries. Although you can’t actually kill a spirit, “bruising” or “crushing” his head would indicate that he can be permanently put out of commission, insofar as his ability to affect events is concerned. “Bruising” one’s heel, while causing inconvenience and pain, is nowhere near as debilitating. Considering the mechanics of crucifixion, it is true that Yahshua’s physical heel was literally crushed during the passion. But note that the word for “heel” (Hebrew: ’aqeb), in addition to the back of one’s foot, can also mean both “movements, formally footsteps, i.e., the places one moves about in a daily routine as a figurative extension of a footstep,” and “a rear guard, i.e., the back part of an army or military band.” (Dictionary of Biblical Languages) Thus it is no stretch to see the “heel,” that which the seed of the serpent would bruise, as the church—we who follow in Yahshua’s footsteps as a “rear guard” behind our Messiah. It could even denote humanity in general: the “rear guard” of Adam and Eve. Satan has been “bruising” us all since the beginning.
And what about the rest of this prophecy? Does “On your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life” mean that the snake was divested of his legs because his species was used by Satan to tempt Eve? No, it doesn’t. Serpents have apparently been legless ever since God introduced them into the biosphere (although there are some very old and rare snake fossils with two “hind” legs). I once saw a photo of an interesting fossil find—a snake coiled around a clutch of dinosaur eggs, frozen in time in some rapid inundation. But what we have here in Genesis is a figurative description of Satan’s destiny in light of his role as tempter—he, formerly the most splendiferous angel of them all, was to be utterly abased. Rather than being able to hold his head high in the courts of Yahweh, he would be forced to “lick the dust” of the earth in abject humiliation. We get a picture of the same sort of thing in this passage from the prophet Micah: “The nations shall see and be ashamed of all their might. They shall lay their hands on their mouths; their ears shall be deaf. they shall lick the dust like a serpent, like the crawling things of the earth. They shall come trembling out of their strongholds. They shall turn in dread to Yahweh our God, and they shall be in fear of you.” (Micah 7:16-17) He is describing the conditions that will prevail at the end of the Tribulation and the beginning of Christ’s Millennial reign, when Israel has been restored and elevated to the status of “capital of the world.” The nations who formerly stood against her—a description that’s increasingly turning out to be “all of them”—will grovel at her feet. Israel will at last receive respect, not because of her own greatness, but because of who her God is. The nations, like Satan in the Garden, will learn first hand what awaits those who go out of their way to harm to Yahweh’s children.
Unfortunately, the deception that went on in Eden, the sort of thing that got us into this pickle in the first place, is not a thing of the past. As I said, the serpent isn’t done bruising us. Paul writes, “I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you may well put up with it.” (II Corinthians 11:2-4) Once again, the dichotomy between religion and relationship is being stressed. It is quite possible to deceive people who fancy themselves “religious” into believing all sorts of goofy (not to mention unscriptural) things. The “Jesus” acknowledged by Muslims, Hindus, Mormons, and even some Catholics and liberal Protestants bears no real resemblance to the Yahshua of history, prophecy, and Torah symbol. Why anyone would want to invent an alternate “Jesus”—one who is something other than God incarnate, one whose sacrifice is not quite sufficient for the atonement of our sins—is beyond me. Even a little child knows the difference between a daddy and my daddy. You’d think grown-ups would be more discerning, since eternity itself is at stake.
By the way, based on the Genesis record alone, it might seem a stretch to declare that the serpent who tempted Eve is actually Satan. All things considered, we have very little hard information about our Adversary in scripture. But at the very back of the Book, we’re finally told who’s who in no uncertain terms: “And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan.” (Revelation 20:2) The “dragon” (as we shall soon see) is Satan’s terrifying persona as it applies to the events of the Last Days, just as the cunning serpent is how he was presented in the Garden. “Devil” is the Greek diabolos, meaning slanderer or accuser. And Satan (transliterated from the Greek satanas, which is in itself a transliteration of the Hebrew word shatan) means “adversary”—one who opposes another in purpose or act. If there were any question about it, it is laid to rest here: all four words refer to the same demonic entity. Note too who is seen “seizing” the dragon here at the un-battle of Armageddon: it’s not King Yahshua. It’s “just” an ordinary angel from heaven. It took a while, but the promise of the Garden’s curse has finally come to pass: Satan is at last being compelled to slither on his belly and eat dust, so to speak. Couldn’t happen to a more deserving creature.
Since serpents are so obviously depicted as deceivers, I’ve always had a hard time understanding this statement from Yahshua: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” I’ve never thought of “wisdom” as being a component of deception. It helped, therefore, to look up the word translated “wise.” It’s the Greek phronimos, meaning intelligent, shrewd, prudent, sensible, mindful of one’s interests, or having the capacity to understand. This is contrasted with being “innocent,” the Greek akeraios, literally denoting “unmixed, pure (as in wines or metals)…without a mixture of evil, free from guile.” (Strong’s) We are to be both things as once—shrewd and pure. I’m afraid we Christians have a tendency to forget either one or the other of these essential attributes. But both things are needful, because of what we face in the world: “Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for My sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (Matthew 10:16-20) In other words, we aren’t to play the game the world’s way, lying to gain an advantage—even if we are on God’s side: the end does not justify the means. But we aren’t to “check our brains at the door,” either. When contending with “governors and kings,” we can rest assured that logic and factual data will always support God’s truth, even if the world doesn’t want to hear it.
Moses was someone who appeared “before governors and kings” for Yahweh’s sake, and interestingly enough, serpents played a role in his presentation of God’s message before men. To understand what happened, we must first go back to the burning bush, where Yahweh’s theophany told Moses what to do to convince the Israelites that he had indeed been sent by God: “Then Moses answered, ‘But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, “Yahweh did not appear to you.”’ Yahweh said to him, ‘What is that in your hand?’ He said, ‘A staff.’ And He said, ‘Throw it on the ground.’ So he threw it on the ground, and it became a serpent, and Moses ran from it.” The first lesson is that any tool Yahweh assigns for our use—in this case, the shepherd’s staff—will be efficacious as long as we’re holding on to it; but if we let go, it can become something dangerous. “But Yahweh said to Moses, ‘Put out your hand and catch it by the tail’—so he put out his hand and caught it, and it became a staff in his hand” The second lesson is that Satan’s power to deceive can be neutralized if we’ll grab it by the tail—that is, seize the initiative to immobilize the threat. Bear in mind, however, that we’re to catch the serpent by the tail—it’s God’s job to “bruise” his head. “‘—that they may believe that Yahweh, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you.’” (Exodus 4:1-5) Note too that the only good reason for dealing with “snakes” at all is to facilitate belief, to encourage people to make good choices.
Same song, second verse: “Then Yahweh said to Moses and Aaron, ‘When Pharaoh says to you, “Prove yourselves by working a miracle,” then you shall say to Aaron, “Take your staff and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it may become a serpent.”’” There was nothing special about the staff Moses was using—the same thing happened to his brother’s staff when used in obedience to Yahweh’s instructions. “So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as Yahweh commanded. Aaron cast down his staff before Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a serpent. Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers, and they, the magicians of Egypt, also did the same by their secret arts. For each man cast down his staff, and they became serpents.” Part of Satan’s strategy of deception is presenting counterfeits of God’s deeds if they’ll serve to obfuscate the issues. But his counterfeits are eventually revealed to be worthless fakes, as demonstrated by what happened next: “But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs.” (Exodus 7:8-12) This should have been Pharaoh’s first clue: at the very least, Yahweh’s “magic” was more powerful than the sorcery of his own court magicians. I would hate to have been the guy assigned the task of explaining to Pharaoh precisely what had happened to his magicians’ staffs. But the nuance was apparently lost on him. It’s still true today, unfortunately: politicians see only what they want to see.
There was one more “serpent” incident in Moses’ experience. And this one would turn out to be a potent Messianic prophecy. “And the people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food….’” Really? This took place not at the beginning of the exodus, when they didn’t really have a very good handle on Yahweh’s constant provision. This was closer to the end of the forty-year sojourn, as they approached Canaan—when they should have known better. No water? Not one single Israelite perished of thirst during the entire wilderness experience. And food? They’d had manna to eat for decades. It was (if given a fair assessment) perfectly nutritious, tasty, abundant, and free. The only thing it lacked is variety. I must admit that, until recently, I’ve never been able to empathize with the Israelites. I’m an American, used to the kind of abundance and wide selection of foods about which they could only dream—along with most of the rest of the world, to this very day. But of late, I’ve been forced by reason of health and prudence to become a vegan (of sorts). It’s not a “religious” thing, I assure you; I have no moral qualms at all against killing animals and eating them. It’s strictly a health consideration. Anyway, all of a sudden I miss eating meat; I miss poultry; I really miss cheese and eggs. I’ve even given up coffee, ’cause I prefer it with cream and sugar. Don’t even ask me about chocolate. If I concentrated on what I don’t have now (rather than on the amazing bounty I still enjoy) I, like the Israelites of old, might be tempted to complain.
But I won’t complain, not even one little bit. Not after reading of Yahweh’s reaction to the Israelites’ ungrateful attitude: “Then Yahweh sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.” There’s nothing like a plague of poisonous snakes to help you sort out your priorities. “And the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against Yahweh and against you. Pray to Yahweh, that He take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people.” We’ve all been there, repentant and expectant, waiting to see how Yahweh would extricate us from our self-made predicaments. This time, however, God’s solution was a bit stranger than usual: “And Yahweh said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.” (Numbers 21:4-9) The people’s sin (as usual) consisted of failing to trust Yahweh—though He had provided food and water for them since the day they left Egypt. To conclude at this late date that things had changed is an indication that they were self-deceived—hence the form of the curse God sent to remind them of what they’d face if He weren’t there 24/7 protecting them: serpents.
The generalized Hebrew word for a serpent, snake, viper, dragon, or even a sea serpent is nachash. Interestingly enough, it’s virtually identical to the word for “bronze” (or copper). Spelled the same (though apparently pronounced slightly differently), the two words are so similar we should at least take notice. It may be a mere linguistic coincidence, but if it’s not, the serpent (symbolic of deception) is associated in the Hebrew tongue with bronze (symbolic of judgment). The fact is, deception and judgment are causally linked in scripture. Anyway, this “bronze serpent on a pole” was supposed to serve as a visual reminder or representation of the people’s sin. It wasn’t an object of worship—or at least, it wasn’t designed to be. But somewhere along the way the Israelites began burning incense to it, as if it were some sort of pagan god, so King Hezekiah destroyed it (see II Kings 18:4) as part of his reforms. Yahweh’s instructions specified that only when the Israelites “looked at it,” that is, when they came to terms with the fact that their own self-deception had brought the poisonous plague upon them, could they be healed. If they refused to face the reality of their sin, they would die from sin’s effects.
In symbolic hindsight, it’s rather obvious that the serpent on a pole in the wilderness was prophetic of the crucifixion of Christ. Yahshua Himself tied the two things together as He explained what His role was going to be to the curious Pharisee, Nicodemus. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15) Moses’ bronze serpent represented the sin of the people—their self-deception concerning the gracious provision of Yahweh. Looking at it in faith was the only possible way to be saved from death once the viper of sin had struck. But this was all only a pale reflection of what the Messiah’s crucifixion achieved in the world. In a symbolic sense, Yahshua became that bronze serpent mounted on a pole: He took upon Himself the sin that had been perpetrated by all mankind—all of our rebellion, ingratitude and delusion—suffering the judgment (which is what bronze signifies) that was our rightful due. As Paul put it, “For our sake [Yahweh] made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” (II Corinthians 5:-21) Not exactly a fair trade, but I’ll take mercy over justice any day of the week. In the same way (sort of) that the Israelites obtained mercy, we too may obtain forgiveness: by “looking” in faith at the One who took our sins upon Himself—that is, by honestly acknowledging our condition as lost, sinful, dying people. We must admit that we’re snake-bitten, that we’ve swallowed Satan’s lie, that we’ve been deceived, and that we are in desperate need the kind of help that only God Himself can provide.
The imagery is a bit easier to get a handle on once we realize that the Greek word invariably translated “cross” in our English Bibles (stauros) actually denotes a stake or upright pole, not a T-shaped device. When Moses “lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,” he did it on a “pole,” the Hebrew nes, which literally means something lifted up—a standard, signal, ensign, banner, sail, or flag, including the pole upon which such a standard is displayed. Isaiah delivered a prophecy concerning a nation that (according to my analysis) can only be identified as last-days America. One of the clues to this people’s identity is as follows: “All inhabitants of the world and dwellers on the earth: when He [i.e., Yahweh] lifts up a banner [nes] on the mountains, you [the nation in question] see it; and when He blows a trumpet, you hear it.” (Isaiah 18:3) That banner, standard, or pole is the “cross” of Christ (and by extension, what it signifies—atonement for our sins). Throughout its history, America has been the nation that—when contrasted with all others—has seen this standard and responded to it, paid attention to it, heeded it, and found delight in it (all of which is implied in the verb ra’ah—to see). Beyond that, the “trumpet” (the shofar) is inextricably linked in scripture to the rapture of the church. So according to the theory (and not a bit unreasonably), America will be affected—one might say “brought to its knees”—by the rapture far more extensively than other nations will (though the rapture will be a harvest of souls from all over the earth, both living and departed).
Unfortunately, Isaiah 18 pronounces “woe” upon this nation: it is destined to be pruned back like a diseased grapevine. And when will this pruning take place? Before the harvest—that is, prior to the rapture. When I first figured this out—decades ago—I hoped that I was wrong about that assessment; but now, as I write these words, it has become patently obvious that my beloved homeland is indeed being pruned back by God in an effort to bring it back to repentance and health. Whether through “natural” disasters, enemies foreign and domestic, or godless (not to mention clueless) governance, we are beginning to experience the same kind of curses that Israel once faced in the wake of her idolatry. It’s like we’re channeling the Israelites of the exodus, being bitten by the poisonous serpents of apostasy and ingratitude. We need to look once again upon the bronze serpent on the pole (i.e., Christ), honestly confront our sins, and receive Yahweh’s cure.
Paul points out precisely the same thing. “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.’ We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer.” These things are a clear reference to the nonsense described in Numbers 21-25, from the snakes to the Balaam debacle. But it’s not just ancient history. There’s a moral to the story: “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (I Corinthians 10:6-13)
In the case of the serpents in the wilderness, the “way of escape” was to look (as instructed) upon the bronze snake Moses had mounted on the pole. While Paul’s point—that we are never subjected to temptations to sin that are physically or emotionally impossible to withstand—is perfectly true, I must point out that none of us has flawlessly “endured” the temptations that confront us—none of us has taken full advantage of the “way of escape” God has provided. In the terms of Numbers 21, we have already sinned: we’re already snake-bit. And once the bread dough is leavened, it can’t be unleavened. Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, so to speak, there’s no way to put it back. As Solomon put it, “If the serpent bites before it is charmed, there is no advantage to the charmer.” (Ecclesiastes 10:11) And David adds the rather depressing truth that the charm-proof “serpent” has bitten us all: we’re “born bad” under Adam’s curse. “The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies. They have venom like the venom of a serpent, like the deaf adder that stops its ear, so that it does not hear the voice of charmers or of the cunning enchanter.” (Psalm 58:3-5) We all start out “wicked.” (See John 3:18—we’re all “condemned already” if we haven’t been born from above in Yahweh’s Spirit.) So the lesson of the serpent on the pole in the wilderness (not to mention that of the cross of Christ) is essential: we may receive what Paul called “the way of escape” retroactively. Even though the serpent of self-deception has already struck, even though we are each condemned by both our common human heritage and our individual history, we may still receive life if we will look in faith upon what God has placed upon the pole. Yahweh has run the banner of His redemption up the flagpole. It’s up to us to salute.
Ever since the Garden of Eden debacle, snakes have been universally portrayed in scripture as evil, something to be avoided. If someone is compared to a serpent, it’s always a bad thing—notwithstanding the fact that Yahshua called them “shrewd” in the Matthew 10 passage we looked at above—a quality to be emulated as we present His truth to the world, though tempered with peaceful intentions. David, who spent his entire adult life as a man of war, longed for such peace, knowing that wars don’t just happen: they’re the purposeful invention of evil, covetous men. He says, “Deliver me, O Yahweh, from evil men; preserve me from violent men, who plan evil things in their heart and stir up wars continually. They make their tongue sharp as a serpent’s, and under their lips is the venom of asps.” (Psalm 140:1-3) A “tongue as sharp as a serpent’s” is a reference to the sort of deceptive counsel Eve received from the serpent in the Garden. The verb shaman—to sharpen—used here bears a revealing secondary connotation: to teach (as in, to sharpen the mind). Satan’s “sharp tongue” deceptively “instructed” Eve, so David prays for protection from similar deceitful “snakes” with evil on their minds: “Hide me from the secret plots of the wicked, from the throng of evildoers, who whet their tongues like swords, who aim bitter words like arrows.” (Psalm 64:2-3) There is a common proverb that says, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” David (and Yahweh) would beg to differ.
The sixth trumpet judgment of Revelation describes a two hundred million man army from beyond the Euphrates River (other clues identify them as being a Chinese military force—no surprise there), riding horses—symbolic, as we have seen, of military might, with whom they will conquer the entire Far East, killing one third of the earth’s already-decimated population—roughly two billion souls. These “horses,” however, are not of the literal equine variety, but are described as having three very un-horselike weapons up front: “By these three plagues a third of mankind was killed, by the fire and smoke and sulfur coming out of their mouths.” I would guess that conventional, nuclear, and bio-chemical weapons are being described. But that’s not all they’ve got. “For the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails, for their tails are like serpents with heads, and by means of them they wound.” (Revelation 9:18-19) These serpent-like tails are our concern here. Since the Greek ophis—snake or serpent—carries the same secondary connotation that the word does in English, that of a sly, sneaky person, I’m inclined to read in this description the same thing David saw above: “The secret plots of the wicked…who whet their tongues like swords, who aim bitter words like arrows.” That is, in addition to weapons of war, the Chinese (who are understood to be operating under the suzerainty of the Antichrist and the dragon at this late date) are using either spycraft or bad-faith negotiations with the more formidable of their neighbors in order to undermine their ability to defend themselves. Included in the description of the serpents’ abilities might be such things as economic blackmail and cyber terrorism—both things China excels at even today.
We’ve seen how horses are symbolic of military strength—especially man’s version of it. It’s interesting that horses are seen in the same context as serpents several places in scripture—specifically associated with one tribe of Israel, Dan. Jacob had prophesied concerning his son, “Dan shall be a serpent in the way, a viper by the path, that bites the horse’s heels so that his rider falls backward.” (Genesis 49:17) Dan was assigned a particularly nice plot of land to settle in—near the coast in the middle of the country. But relying as they did on their own strength instead of God’s, they soon decided that the fight for their inheritance was too tough for them. So they sent spies up north, who found a poorly defended region they figured they could take without Yahweh’s help. (The story is related in Judges 18.) The city of Laish was conquered and renamed Dan. Thus Dan forsook real strength (found only in Yahweh) and used deception instead: they had become the “serpent in the way.” Their move to the far north of Israel, besides putting them on the geographical and cultural fringe of their nation, also made Dan the first tribe to see invading armies coming from the north—like Assyria and Babylon—the inevitable result of Israel’s apostasy and idolatry (see Deuteronomy 28:49). So we read: “For a voice declares from Dan and proclaims trouble from Mount Ephraim. Warn the nations that he [Nebuchadnezzar, in this case] is coming; announce to Jerusalem, ‘Besiegers come from a distant land.’” (Jeremiah 4:15-16) Oops.
Jeremiah gets a bit more specific a few chapters later: “Yahweh our God has doomed us to perish and has given us poisoned water to drink, because we have sinned against Yahweh. We looked for peace, but no good came; for a time of healing, but behold, terror.” There he goes, sugar coating it again. No wonder Jerry was so popular among his contemporaries—not! “The snorting of their horses is heard from Dan; at the sound of the neighing of their stallions the whole land quakes.” The Babylonians were invading from the north (where the fords of the Euphrates were). So Dan was the territory who heard “the snorting of their horses” first. (I say “territory,” and not “tribe,” because the Assyrians had chewed up Dan and spit them out long before Jeremiah wrote this.) “They come and devour the land and all that fills it, the city and those who dwell in it. For behold, I am sending among you serpents, adders that cannot be charmed, and they shall bite you, declares Yahweh.” (Jeremiah 8:14-17) There it is again: horses, serpents, and Dan, all in the same prophetic breath. The lesson: honor Yahweh and heed His word, or be prepared to face both horses and serpents: both invasion and evasion, destruction and deception.
In light of all this, is it any wonder that Dan will be the only tribe of Israel not represented among the 144,000 sealed witnesses of Revelation 7 and 14? It’s not that they’re extinct, however: Dan is listed among the tribes receiving an inheritance during the Millennial Kingdom. But they’ll be situated furthest from Jerusalem (see Ezekiel 48:1), relegated to the far north, just where they chose to be during the conquest of Canaan. It’s still in Israel, to be sure, but as far away as you can get from the center of blessing and still be within the promised land. What did they give up? Only downtown Tel Aviv—the Millennial equivalent of Manhattan, London, or Hong Kong.
If you’ll recall, in our discussion of wine as a scriptural symbol, I characterized man’s propensity for drunkenness as a strategy for dodging reality—whether good or bad. At it’s root, substance abuse stems from the same root cause that made the tribe of Dan want to leave their allotted parcel of land and find an easier path: failure to trust in Yahweh. It is revealing, then, that Solomon links drunkenness with the sting of a poisonous snake—the same symbol prophetically attributed to Dan: “Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? Those who tarry long over wine; those who go to try mixed wine. Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly. In the end it bites like a serpent and stings like an adder. Your eyes will see strange things, and your heart utter perverse things.” (Proverbs 23:29-33) What does it mean for “your eyes to see strange things?” It means that your mind has been deceived. Like Eve in the Garden, your willingness to let “serpents” call the shots in your life (in this case with alcohol, but any worldly substitute for Yahweh’s word would do the trick) will result in your being misled and betrayed—by your own mind.
Is the serpent (i.e., deception) the problem, or the punishment? Actually, it can be both. Amos wrote at a time when Israel—both the northern and southern kingdoms—were enjoying prosperity and security, with a strong economy and weak neighbors. These circumstances lulled them into a false sense of well-being: even while thriving materially, they were sinking deeper and deeper into a morass of apostasy, idolatry, materialism, immorality, and injustice—deceived by their comfortable situation into believing they must be okay with Yahweh, since He hadn’t done anything (yet) to force them to pay attention to His word. (Once again, it reminds me of recent American history.) But Yahweh doesn’t work that way: first He sends warning after warning—and prophet after prophet. So Amos, the shepherd and farmer, became a prophet and preacher: “I saw Yahweh standing beside the altar, and He said: ‘Strike the capitals until the thresholds shake, and shatter them on the heads of all the people; and those who are left of them I will kill with the sword. Not one of them shall flee away; not one of them shall escape.” This all sounded absurdly unlikely to his immediate audience, but within thirty years, it had come to pass in Ephraim, the northern kingdom. There was to be no escape: “If they dig into Sheol, from there shall My hand take them. If they climb up to heaven, from there I will bring them down. If they hide themselves on the top of Carmel, from there I will search them out and take them; and if they hide from My sight at the bottom of the sea, there I will command the serpent, and it shall bite them.” Here we see the snake metaphor as a “sea serpent,” perhaps indicating that the peril would arise (as it did) from the gentile world—Assyria. “And if they go into captivity before their enemies, there I will command the sword, and it shall kill them. And I will fix my eyes upon them for evil and not for good.” (Amos 9:1-4) Not even exile and enslavement would turn away God’s wrath: if they would not repent, He would see to it that bloodshed followed them wherever they went. Over the past two and a half millennia, that dire prophecy has proven all too accurate.
It isn’t just that Israel broke a few rules. It isn’t that they failed in their attempts to negotiate the maze of Torah precepts Moses had handed down. And it isn’t that they didn’t comprehend that Yahweh’s Instructions were a prophesy of the coming Savior of all mankind. They didn’t have to understand. The Torah was a paint-by-numbers kit. All they were asked to do was try to stay within the lines and use the right colors, and trust God to make it all beautiful in His time. But they didn’t trust God. In Judah, the effort to honor Yahweh’s Instructions was sporadic and often insincere; in Ephraim, it was nonexistent. Why? Because Israel had, to a large extent, deceived itself: they were following the serpent, not Yahweh.
This truth, however, wouldn’t become clear until the One whom the Torah had been designed to reveal was here to explain it. The chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees—the religious elite of their day—assumed that they were in compliance with God’s Law, when in truth they were merely following their own traditions—teachings that had grown out of the same man-centric mindset that had gotten their ancestors thrown out of the promised land in the first place. Edersheim writes, “It is one of those strangely significant, almost symbolical, facts in history, that after the destruction of Jerusalem the spiritual supremacy of Palestine [which is what Judea was properly called in Edersheim’s day, the 1880s] passed to Babylonia, and that Rabbinical Judaism, under the stress of political adversity, voluntarily transferred itself to the seats of Israel’s ancient dispersion, as if to ratify by its own act what the judgment of God had formerly executed.” (The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah.) Yahweh had incessantly told His people to flee from Babylon, to escape the judgment that was to fall upon this symbol of organized idolatry. But the rabbinical elite of Yahshua’s day had retreated to Babylon—and everything it represents. Even today, the Babylonian Talmud is held in higher regard among religious Jews than is the Jerusalem Talmud.
Yahshua therefore took the religious leaders of Israel to task for their spiritual affiliation with those who had stood against the prophets that Yahweh had sent to warn His people: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’” The hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees was that they posed as defenders of the prophets (who, having been vindicated by history, were seen as heroes of the faith by the Jewish laity) while promoting the same sorts of heresies that had been promulgated by the prophets’ persecutors. “Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?” (Matthew 23:29-33)
By calling them “serpents” and a “brood of vipers,” Yahshua was identifying who their spiritual father was: “the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan.” (Revelation 20:2) Since we’re in the Greek scriptures now, let us define our terms. The ordinary Greek word for serpent is ophis—a snake or evil person; the ancient emblem of cunning and shrewd sagacity. The parallel “viper” is the Greek echidna—a poisonous snake; also a cunning, malignant, or wicked man. Note that as in English, a snake, serpent, or viper is both the slithering reptile and a metaphor for a person who acts in a sneaky, conniving, deceptive manner—a characterization that (because some snakes are poisonous) implies a high degree of danger. The “dragon” is a transliteration of the Greek drakon, a hideous, serpent-like monster, a demonic animal representing Satan. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament notes, “Of all beasts, the serpent [i.e., the drakon] was regarded as demonic in antiquity, thereby revealing the duality of the ancient conception of demons. It plays a great part in Persian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Egyptian and Greek mythology, and in essence this role is always the same: it is a power of chaos which opposes God either in the beginning or at the end of things, or both.” Drakon is a word used to describe Satan thirteen times in the Book of Revelation alone.
Yahshua wasn’t the only one who had a handle on the true nature of the religious elite. John the Baptist also recognized their devious agenda: “But when [John] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” John preached a message of repentance in preparation for the coming of the Messiah, and his message was quite popular among the masses. The Pharisees desired to get a “bump” out of being associated with the charismatic prophet. But John recognized that their plan was to deceive: they had no intention of actually repenting of anything—of turning around and going in a different spiritual direction. He, like the Messiah he had come to announce, saw right through them. “And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 3:7-10; cf. Luke 3:7-9) This “fruit” that John (not to mention Yahshua) kept talking about was the evidence that their attitudes had been adjusted for the better—that they had actually repented and were thus proper candidates for the baptism of John. God was looking for “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control” (as Paul put it in Galatians 5:22-23). But while appearing outwardly righteous, the Pharisees and Sadducees were actually growing “fruit” of another kind—perhaps not all of Paul’s alternative listing of the works of the flesh, but certainly some of it: “hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissentions, and heresies,” along with pride, greed, racial prejudice, and a bumper crop of delusion.
Yahshua too stressed the “fruit” they were bearing, coming to the same conclusion John had—that the Pharisees were a “brood of vipers.” Their spiritual parent was Satan. “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:33-37) What had the Pharisees said, specifically, that brought down this tirade upon their heads? Yahshua had performed a couple of wonderful healing miracles. So far, so good. But He’d done it on the Sabbath, providing “rest” to the afflicted. The Pharisees, of course, couldn’t see past what day of the week it was, and what they had unilaterally decided that this must mean: no “work” of any kind was to be done, by anybody. (I guess they’d never read about all the stuff the Torah commanded the High Priest to do on the Sabbath—he worked his butt off.)
First, Yahshua had told a man with a withered hand to stretch it out—and it was instantly healed. I don’t quite get it. Technically, the only “work” that had been done was by the guy who stuck out his hand. Either Yahshua had healed him without actually “doing” anything—displaying the power of God—or the man had healed himself by poking out his shriveled paw. Although it was obvious to everyone what had really happened, there was no evidence that Yahshua had actually done any “work” on the Sabbath. That kind of conundrum has to be frustrating, if you’re a Pharisee.
But then a demon possessed guy showed up, who was both blind and mute. Yahshua (being God in flesh) healed him too. Though the results of His actions were plain to see, the source of His power (which should have been equally obvious) eluded the Pharisees. Since they were clueless concerning Yahweh’s power and desperate to trash Yahshua’s reputation, they claimed that Yahshua had used “Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons,” to exorcize the poor fellow. In other words, they claimed Yahshua was working for the devil by working against the devil. Somebody’s confused. Healing a demoniac was obviously a “good work,” and yet the Pharisees refused to call it good, simply because of who had done it and when it had been done. Their envy of Yahshua had boiled over into rage-induced delusion. And they had revealed themselves to be a brood of vipers, the spiritual offspring of Satan.
In Yahshua’s handling of the Pharisees, we were given a subtle hint or preview of what it would mean to “bruise the head of the serpent’s seed,” the fulfillment of the Genesis 3:15 Messianic prophecy. Eventually, Yahweh will see to it that every deceptive ploy Satan ever used against mankind will be brought to light and proved to be a lie. In the meantime, we must content ourselves with symbols, examples, and the sure word of Yahweh describing the inevitable outcome of our situation. One such symbol was introduced when Yahshua sent out seventy-two disciples to prepare the way before Him, healing the sick and proclaiming the good news of Messiah’s coming. The results of their “short-term missions trip” were enlightening: “The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name!’ And He said to them, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:17-19)
His very first instruction was, “Don’t fixate on your spiritual authority, but rather celebrate the life I have given to you.” How sad it is that some folks would ignore that admonition, take the “authority to tread on serpents” symbol hyper-literally, and build a whole new religion out of it. The Great Commission as recorded in the Gospel of Mark didn’t help in that regard: “And He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: in My name they will cast out demons. They will speak in new tongues. They will pick up serpents with their hands. And if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them. They will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (Mark 16:15-18) In the early 20th century, mostly in rural Appalachia, it became fashionable among hyper-charismatic churches to stress these “signs” over all else as a demonstration of one’s salvation. (Never mind what God actually said—that love was the litmus test.) So “snake handling” became an indicator of unbalanced religious fanaticism—an object of ridicule for critics of Christianity in general. It mattered not that this sort of thing was neither commanded nor encouraged by Christ: the signs enumerated were merely examples of what sort of power and protection might be evidenced, as needed, in the lives of Spirit filled believers. The signs were intended to be witnesses to the lost, not entertainment—and certainly not an occasion for pride—for the saved. They were neither necessary for, nor proofs of, one’s salvation.
I don’t want to muddy the waters, but I should point out that these verses may not even be in the original text. Ryrie notes, “These verses do not appear in two of the most trustworthy manuscripts of the New Testament, though they are part of many other manuscripts and versions. If they are not a part of the genuine text of Mark, the abrupt ending at verse 8 is probably because the original closing verses were lost. The doubtful genuineness of verses 9-20 makes it unwise to build a doctrine or base an experience on them, especially verses 16-18.” That being said, all of these signs except one actually appear in the scriptural record as indications of the Holy Spirit’s power manifested in the lives of the early saints and apostles. The sole exception, as it’s translated here in the ESV, is “drink any deadly poison,” but that translation is a bit presumptuous: the word “poison” isn’t actually there in the Greek. The text merely reads, “drinks anything deadly.” The connotation is roughly the same as in this observation: “No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” (James 3:8) “Deadly” (the word is based on thanatos) might be more accurately translated, “that which causes death.” So it seems the real meaning of Mark 16:18 is, “If these believers encounter any spiritual peril—something that if ‘swallowed’ would cause separation from God—it will do them no harm.” Or something like that.
So the Pentecostal serpent handlers of rural Appalachia are on shaky ground, theologically. But there was an instance, recorded in the book of Acts, in which a poisonous viper played a role in vindicating the apostle Paul among a group of naïve and superstitious pagans. He and his companions had been shipwrecked on the journey to Paul’s trial in Rome. “After we were brought safely through, we then learned that the island was called Malta. The native people showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and was cold. When Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand. When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, ‘No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.’” It appeared at first as though karma had come home to roost. But the Maltese witnesses didn’t have all the facts: “He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. They were waiting for him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god.” (Acts 28:1-6) Well, that wasn’t quite right either, but it was true that Paul worked for a god—the real God. Paul still had a job to do, letters to write, people to witness to, and a life to surrender in honor of his Savior. So the Boss said, “No dying on the job, son. Break’s over. Time to get back to work.”
There are three undefined beasts mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures that, symbolically at least, can be thought of as related to serpents. The tannin, rahab, and leviathan all take on somewhat mythical proportions, if for no other reason than their descriptions don’t support identification with any single species of animal to the exclusion of all others. It’s probably just as well, however, because these creatures are seldom spoken of in a literal sense (as are cattle, sheep, or birds), but are invariably recruited as literary metaphors for some characteristic or attribute that God deemed important for us to know.
The tannin is presumed to be a dragon, serpent, sea monster, a large venomous snake, or even a whale. It is (or was) a real creature (i.e., not mythological), for it was mentioned in the inventory of Yahweh’s work on the fifth day of creation: “And God said, ‘Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.’ So God created the great sea creatures [tannin] and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.” (Genesis 1:20-21) Since the word “sea” is not in the Hebrew (although “waters”—mayim—is), it would be premature to define it as a “whale.” Consider this: “How could one have chased a thousand, and two have put ten thousand to flight, unless their Rock had sold them, and Yahweh had given them up? For their [i.e., Israel’s enemies’] rock is not as our Rock; our enemies are by themselves. For their vine comes from the vine of Sodom and from the fields of Gomorrah. Their grapes are grapes of poison; their clusters are bitter. Their wine is the poison of serpents [tannin] and the cruel venom of asps.” (Deuteronomy 32:30-33) At the very least, then, the tannin seems to describe a broad class of large, noteworthy creatures. It would probably be best to translate it as “monster” and call it a day.
Moses’ use of the word in Deuteronomy gives us our first clue as to what we are to discern about the tannin monsters: metaphorically, they are (like serpents) dangerous and destructive to God’s people. We need never encounter them if we are mindful of Yahweh’s Instructions; we needn’t fear them if we are resting in His love. But the tannin is out there, lying in wait, hoping to prey upon unsuspecting souls who have forsaken Yahweh. Like Satan, it is going about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour (as it’s put in I Peter 5:8). The tannin has therefore been recruited as a metaphor for Satan and the peril he represents. We’ll find this true of rahab and leviathan as well.
Jeremiah spent decades warning people of the Babylonian menace in their future—the inevitable result of Judah’s apostasy. He reports: “For thus says Yahweh of hosts, the God of Israel: ‘The daughter of Babylon is like a threshing floor at the time when it is trodden. Yet a little while and the time of her harvest will come.’” Then Jeremiah speaks prophetically for the hapless Judah: “Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon has devoured me. He has crushed me; he has made me an empty vessel. He has swallowed me like a monster [tannin]. He has filled his stomach with my delicacies.” (Jeremiah 51:33-34) A colorful description, to be sure, but one that proved uncannily accurate. You don’t have to know what a tannin is to get the picture.
It didn’t have to be that way. Yahweh has made it possible for His people to treat the monsters of this life with indifference and impunity—but only if they rested not in their own strength, but in His. The Psalmist describes the protection Yahweh affords for the one who “dwells in the secret place of the Most High” and who “abides under the shadow of the Almighty”: “Because you have made Yahweh your dwelling place—the Most High, who is my refuge—no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent. For He will command His angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone….” Satan, while not exactly admitting that Yahshua was the Messiah, applied this promise to Christ immediately after His baptism by John, and Yahshua did not contradict him. What we often miss is that the promise is made to anyone who honors Yahweh—not only His “only begotten Son.” Considering Yahshua’s subsequent human history (not to mention ours) it is clear that these are spiritual truths—we aren’t being promised temporal protection from any and all evil that might visit our mortal bodies, but rather spiritual defense against anything that might separate us from Yahweh’s love.
As if to remind us that “text without context is pretext,” however, we find that Satan’s quote was incomplete. The Psalmist goes on to state what the one who trusts in Yahweh can do to the devil: “You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent [tannin] you will trample underfoot.” That’s right: the ordinary believer will (in the strength of Yahweh, of course) overcome any “authority” Satan exercises in the world, and he will crush the poisonous spiritual monsters that slither across his path. So Yahweh says, “Because he holds fast to Me in love, I will deliver him. I will protect him, because he knows My name. When he calls to Me, I will answer him. I will be with him in trouble. I will rescue him and honor him. With long life I will satisfy him and show him My salvation.” (Psalm 91:9-16) What will Yahweh show to His loved one? Actually, the question should be “who.” The English reads “My salvation,” but the Hebrew is yâshuw`ah—phonetically indistinguishable from the Messiah’s name: Yahshua.
So much for the tannin. What about Rahab? This is a mythical sea monster, supposedly the monstrous embodiment of primordial chaos, conceptually similar to the Babylonian goddess Tiamat. The name is based on a verb meaning to behave like a storm—i.e., boisterously, arrogantly, or insolently. Thus Job describes Yahweh: “By His power He stilled the sea; by His understanding He shattered Rahab [NKJV: ‘He breaks up the storm’]. By His wind the heavens were made fair; His hand pierced the fleeing serpent.” (Job 26:12-13) The point is that chaos and confusion cannot stand before Yahweh; destruction and disorder flee before Him. Interestingly enough, the nation of Egypt is sometimes metaphorically referred to as Rahab. As the acknowledged world center for “Islamic scholarship” (I know, it sounds like an oxymoron), and especially considering the turmoil Egypt has experienced in recent days—and will continue to endure until the Tribulation—the chaos of Rahab would seem the perfect epithet for this hapless people.
Again, referring to the irresistible force that is Yahweh, Job asks, “Behold, He snatches away; who can turn Him back? Who will say to Him, ‘What are You doing?’ God will not turn back His anger. Beneath Him bowed the helpers of Rahab . [NKJV: ‘The allies of the proud lie prostrate beneath Him.’] How then can I answer Him, choosing my words with Him?” (Job 9:12-14) We can see the symbol beginning to gel. Rahab—the proud, insolent, chaotic storm—is being personified as a beast that, for all its bluster, arrogance, and anarchy, will be brought under submission to Yahweh. The question, then, is how we puny mortals can presume to pretend to hold our ground before Him, to shake our fists in the face of God and demand to know, “What on earth do you think You’re doing?” Yahweh may be patient, but He’s not stupid. Don’t mistake His longsuffering for weakness.
In a passage in which many commentators equate Rahab with Egypt, the Psalmist Ethan, like Job, personifies Rahab as the proud sea, tossed in the storm’s chaos by the wind. “You [Yahweh] rule the raging of the sea. When its waves rise, You still them. You crushed Rahab like a carcass. You scattered Your enemies with Your mighty arm.” (Psalm 89:9-10) Who stilled the waves? Yahshua did. This is one of those innumerable instances in which Yahweh is predicted in the Old Testament to do something, only to see it literally fulfilled later by Yahshua, the “Son of Man.” They are the same person. “Then [Yahshua] rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. And the men marveled, saying, ‘What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?’” (Matthew 8:26-27) What sort of man? The “sort” that is in reality God in the flesh. Since we (here in the shadow of the resurrection) know that, we are in a position to discern something else here that the ESV totally misses. “You crushed Rahab like a carcass” sounds like it’s Rahab who has been slain, like some sort of beached sea monster. But a more literal translation would read, “You crushed Rahab as one slain.” In other words, it’s the other way around: Yahweh defeated Rahab (the personified chaos) by dying—i.e., through the act of Yahshua’s crucifixion. The word translated “wounded” is chalal, meaning slain, fatally wounded, pierced, or bored through. In the shadow of Yahshua’s resurrection, the imagery is hard to miss.
Let’s review another “Rahab sighting.” Isaiah writes, “Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of Yahweh. Awake, as in days of old, the generations of long ago. Was it not You who cut Rahab in pieces, that pierced the dragon [tannin]?” The Prophet is referring to something in Israel’s past, some event in which the “arm of Yahweh” was in glorious, indisputable evidence. He then clarifies what this event was: “Was it not You who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep, who made the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to pass over?” (Isaiah 51:9) The reference is to the destruction of the Egyptian armies in the Red Sea.
A couple of things bear notice. First, Rahab—the monster of chaos—is once again associated with Egypt (which is in turn symbolic of “bondage in the world”). Second, Rahab is metaphorically equated with the tannin—the demonic “sea monster.” If nothing else, this parallel usage should serve as a warning against fixating on what these beasts might be in a literal sense, and to concentrate rather on what the spiritual ramifications of the symbols are. Third, Isaiah is asking Yahweh to come once again to the rescue of Israel, just as He did in the days of Moses. That Yahweh will indeed to this—during the darkest days of the Tribulation—is a prophetic fait accompli a hundred times over: it will happen, or God is a liar. And fourth, for those skeptics who are in their desperation still seeking ways to explain away every overt miracle God is ever said to have performed—in this case, insisting that the armies of Pharaoh were not drowned in the Red Sea, but rather merely got bogged down in a shallow marsh called the “reed sea”—note that Isaiah calls the waters “the great deep” and “the depths of the sea.” Somebody’s confused, and it isn’t Yahweh or His prophets.
Another unidentified serpent-like animal recruited in scripture to symbolize the forces of evil lurking in the world is Leviathan (a transliteration of the Hebrew term—livyathan). This beast, like Rahab, is used to illustrate that from which Israel was saved in the Red Sea—and it wasn’t just the Egyptian army: it was Satan himself. We just read a passage from Isaiah that parallels Rahab with the tannin—the serpent/dragon. This is also done in the case of Leviathan. Asaph writes, “Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation [yâshuw`ah] in the midst of the earth. You divided the sea by Your might. You broke the heads of the sea monsters [tannin] on the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan. You gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.” (Psalm 74:12-14) In case you were wondering, “heads” (in both instances—of the tannin and of Leviathan) is plural. He’s not saying that the animals upon which these symbols are based have multiple heads; he’s saying that we face many spiritual enemies, not just one; but Yahweh has “crushed the heads” of all of them on our behalf.
Another example: “In that day Yahweh with His hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting [or coiled] serpent, and He will slay the dragon [tannin] that is in the sea.” (Isaiah 27:1) Yahweh doesn’t “punish” dumb animals, since they have neither free will nor the capability of making moral choices. But what those animals represent (like the serpent, the dragon, Rahab, and Leviathan) is another matter. In the end, they comprise a complex euphemism for the deceiver, Satan—our adversary. This is he whom Yahweh will punish—the one He will “slay” (insofar as its ability to deceive mankind any longer is concerned—the word harag can also mean to ruin or destroy). Note that the dragon—the tannin—is said to reside “in the sea,” that is, figuratively speaking, within the gentile nations. This, then, is a subtle rebuke against anti-Semitism. Those who blame everything on the Jews need to look closer to home for the culprits—like beneath the rocks under which they themselves live. The dragon is “in the sea.”
The lexicons suggest that Leviathan is some sort of sea monster or dragon, a large aquatic animal, a serpent-like sea creature that assumes mythological and terrifying proportions. Perhaps it was (in the literal sense) a whale or crocodile. Confirmation that a literal beast is at the root of the symbol is evidenced by passages such as this: “O Yahweh, how manifold are Your works! In wisdom have You made them all. The earth is full of Your creatures. Here is the sea, great and wide, which teems with creatures innumerable, living things both small and great. There go the ships, and Leviathan, which You formed to play in it.” (Psalm 104:24-26) But once again, it matters not what the animal is; what’s important is what it means, what comprises the symbol’s objective.
Once we come to terms with the fact that all of these quasi-mythical beasts are actually stand-ins for Satan, the pointed cross-examination of Job by Yahweh makes more sense. God asks, “Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook or press down his tongue with a cord? [Picture putting a bit in a horse’s mouth to control him.] Can you put a rope in his nose or pierce his jaw with a hook? Will he make many pleas to you? Will he speak to you soft words? Will he make a covenant with you to take him for your servant forever? Will you play with him as with a bird, or will you put him on a leash for your girls? Will traders bargain over him? Will they divide him up among the merchants? Can you fill his skin with harpoons or his head with fishing spears?” (Job 41: 1-7) As a man representative of his race, Job could honestly answer, “Well, yes, sort of. Someday I will be able to hunt and kill whales in wooden ships—or if the Leviathan is a crocodile, I’ll be able to shoot him and make a pair of cowboy boots out of his hide. It was Adam’s original job, after all, to exercise dominion over all of Yahweh’s creation—including the Leviathan—to fill the earth and subdue it.” But when we realize that Leviathan is actually a euphemism for Satan, we, like Job, can only stand there like an idiot and shuffle our feet. No, we can’t capture, contain, or toy with our spiritual adversary. No, he won’t negotiate with us, reason with us, or serve us. No, we won’t be able to tame him, use him, sell him, or slay him. The best we’ll ever be able to do with Leviathan is to hide from him, flee from him, find refuge from his terrifying presence in the arms of Yahweh our Father. There, and only there, will we find safety.
Liberals and atheists (among others) long for a world free from the inconvenient presence of evangelical Christians. Since the doctrine of the rapture (though grossly misunderstood) has become fodder for ridicule among the mainstream media, some of them are even beginning to cynically voice their fondest desire: that the rapture would finally occur and rid the world of all of us troublemakers, leaving them in peace to create a one-world socialist utopia, a worker’s paradise, free from the Christians’ tiresome morals, superstitions, and religious hysteria. Be careful what you wish for, folks: you just might get it. Yahweh has a message for these mockers: “Woe to you who desire the day of Yahweh! Why would you have the day of Yahweh? It is darkness, and not light, as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him.” (Amos 5:18-19)
What was true when Israel was facing destruction in Amos’ day is no less true today—when the whole world is facing judgment. Notice the symbols used to describe the change in circumstances between “business as usual” and “the day of Yahweh.” First, the lion (representing authority, legitimate or not) is replaced by the bear—symbolizing raw, brute strength. Those who confuse liberty with license, who opine that anarchy is preferable to ordered (they’d call it repressive) society, and who therefore long for the demise of duly constituted human governments, are in for a shock. When the rule of law is replaced, it won’t be with licentious freedom, but with the rule of force, and blood will flow in the streets. This was true when the “bear” was Sennacherib or Nebuchadnezzar, and it will be no less so when the democracies of the world surrender their sovereignty to the new world order and bow before the Antichrist.
Amos’ second example is more directly germane to our present topic—serpents. At issue is where to find safety. It used to be that a man’s home was his castle, at least in principle. As long as you minded your own business and kept your own counsel, you were relatively safe from those who would rule over you. But in the day of Yahweh’ wrath, safety, even within one’s own four walls, is an illusion. Here, the danger is stealthy, sneaky, and treacherous. Focusing strictly on the last-days ramifications of Amos’ prophecy, it is clear that our homes are no longer the bastions of privacy they once were. Personally, I think privacy is overrated: nothing is hidden from God, after all. But government isn’t God—they have no legitimate right to our thoughts and dreams, or even our beliefs. It is here—in our homes—that the “serpents” that would deceive us are least expected and most dangerous. Between our email correspondence, our social networking activities, and our cell phone usage, our lives are an open book to anybody with tech skills and the desire to examine our lives. Online commerce, digital communication, mass media and the Internet are capable of great good—and great harm—and our lives are getting increasingly dependent on these things. Living “off the grid,” however, isn’t really a viable solution. The technology is spiritually neutral—it in itself is not the problem. But the principle we must remember at all costs is to trust in Yahweh. Filter everything you see, hear, and read through the truth of His word; say nothing to your neighbor (read: your Facebook friends or your Twitter feed) that you wouldn’t want to have to defend before God.
Isaiah saw the same basic truth from a different angle. But this time, instead of “Be careful what you wish for,” it’s “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.” “Rejoice not, O Philistia, all of you, that the rod that struck you is broken, for from the serpent’s root will come forth an adder, and its fruit will be a flying fiery serpent.” (Isaiah 14:29) When he wrote this (715 BC) Assyria was the reigning regional menace. Philistia had already lost their independence to Tiglath-Pileser III of Assyria by 732 BC, and the ten northern tribes of Israel were taken by Sargon II in 722. But in 701 BC, Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem would end in disaster for the invaders, when Yahweh killed their entire 185,000-man army in a single night (see Isaiah 36-37). The “rod that had struck Philistia” was indeed broken. But it was too late for the Philistines: although the poor of the land survived (see 14:30) the national entity that was Philistia never recovered. It was swallowed in turn by Babylon and then by Persia, disappearing forever into the recycling bin of history by the late fifth century BC.
The last-days ramifications of Isaiah’s prophecy are even more interesting, if you’re willing (as I am) to see the modern permutation of “Philistia” as symbolic of Palestine—i.e., the Arab Muslims who occupy the former Philistine territory of the Gaza Strip. (I’m fully aware that Philistia had been history for over half a millennium when Rome’s Emperor Hadrian evicted the rebellious Jews from the promised land and renamed the place “Palestina”—after the ancient and extinct Philistines—in a vain effort to sever Israel’s emotional ties to the land. And it would be another half a millennium before the Muslims invaded the place, late in the seventh century.) What did Isaiah say? “From the serpent’s root will come forth an adder, and its fruit will be a flying fiery serpent.” The “serpent” in this case would be Muhammad, the great deceiver of men—whose “root” was Satan himself. The “adder,” then, would appear to be the “Gog” mentioned in Ezekiel 38—a charismatic Muslim warlord (known in Islamic eschatology as Imam Mahdi or the Twelfth Imam) who will unite the world’s non-Arabic Muslim forces into an unprecedented coalition whose sole aim is to drive Israel into the sea. The invasion will utterly fail, but only because of the direct and devastating intervention of Yahweh Himself on Israel’s behalf. Who then is this “flying fiery serpent” described as the “fruit” of the adder? It’s none other than the Antichrist (or the demonic “dragon” who manages him) who will cobble together a one-world government under Luciferian ideology from the ashes of the world war that will be precipitated by Gog’s invasion, the Battle of Magog.
Symbolically, the point of all this is that Islam, a prison of false hope built and run by the father of lies, will be replaced with an even grander deception during the last days—one that will sweep the entire globe. It is little wonder that serpents and dragons pop up time after time in the Apocalypse narrative. Spiritual fraud will be the order of the day. The Tribulation—and especially the second half, the forty-two month “great” Tribulation, a.k.a. the “time of Jacob’s trouble”—will be characterized by Satan’s unprecedented preoccupation with the destruction of man—and especially Israel—for he knows (as we shall see in a moment) that his allotted time is just about over.
In Revelation 12, John saw a vision revealing (in admittedly esoteric terms) what the role of Satan—the dragon—would be. “And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” I’m no astronomer, but I’m told that the position of the stars at the time of Christ’s birth—specifically as they related to the constellation Virgo—is accurately reflected in this description. From a symbolic point of view, it is all too obvious (in light of historical events) that the “woman” is Israel. “She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth.” This was the role Israel was assigned to play from the very beginning—bringing Yahshua the Messiah into the world. “And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns [more on this detail in a moment], and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it.” Anyone familiar with the Gospel narratives will easily be able to sort out the characters here. The “great red dragon” is Satan; the “stars that he swept out of heaven” are the spiritual beings that he was able to deceive into mutiny against God—making them fallen angels, demons. Amazingly, fully a third of the angels were so deceived. That must have been some line he fed them. “She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne….”
This is the history of the thing, boiled down to its bare essentials. The “male child” is Yahshua (as we can see from His subsequent description as the One who wields a rod, or scepter, of iron). Satan wanted to “devour” the Christ-child before He could fulfill His mission. (The thwarted attempt is recorded in Matthew 2.) But Yahshua “escaped” from his clutches, albeit the hard way—by submitting to the cross, taking the penalty for our sins with Him. I find it interesting that the word rendered “caught up” here (harpazo) is the same Greek word (filtered through its Latin equivalent) from which we get our concept of the “rapture.” Yahshua, we are reminded, is first in everything.
“And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days….” The rest of this is yet future from our perspective: Israel (the “woman”) will be compelled to flee from the dragon, finding refuge “in the wilderness” for three and a half years, nourished (and, dare I say, educated) by God. As we saw in Volume 2 of this series, the wilderness is a place of preparation and trial, positioned between bondage in the world (where Israel has been living) and the “Promised Land” (ultimately, the place of blessing and security in Christ’s Millennial kingdom—something foretold in literally hundreds of prophecies).
Satan has been free to roam the earth since Eden. Why then was his advent described as “a sign appearing in heaven?” I believe it’s because of what John saw next: “Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world.” There it is again—the equivalence of the dragon, the serpent, Satan, and the devil—not to mention the identification of his primary character trait: deceiver. “He was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him….” Remember, the term “satan” means “adversary.” I know, it’s customary to capitalize it as if it’s a name, but it’s not. The devil has been spending the bulk of his time in heaven accusing us before Father Yahweh. It’s not always slander, however. He’s usually got a strong case against us because we are, in fact, guilty as sin. But the penalty for our crimes has already been paid—by the Judge’s only begotten Son, no less. So after eons of enduring slick, pointless testimony and thinly veiled contempt from this slithering fork-tongued prosecutor, Yahweh has finally run out of patience, ordering his bailiff, Michael the archangel, to evict the dragon from his courtroom once and for all.
This is the paradigm shift we’ve all been waiting for: “And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, ‘Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them!” It’s a good news-bad news story. Our accuser no longer has access to God (not that Yahweh was listening to him anyway). And we who were “the accused” have won our case, sort of. Actually, it’s been thrown out of court on a technicality: the blood of Christ has been deemed worthy to atone for our many sins. That being said, Satan the disgraced and disbarred prosecutor has begun to take the law (as he sees it) into his own hands, killing as many believers as he can (though he’s not picky: any human still alive will serve nicely as a target). “But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!...” There’s the rub: Satan knows that once he has been formally banished from the courts of Yahweh, the clock is ticking. Time, times, and half a time; forty-two months; 1,260 days—any way you count it, Satan’s days on earth are numbered. When they’re over, he will be thrown into the lake of fire for a thousand years, unable for the first time in man’s history to deceive anybody.
The whole thing plays out like a TV drama. Unwilling to shoulder the blame for his own faults (does that sound familiar?), the villain goes berserk, seeking revenge on those he deemed responsible for his woes, i.e., “getting caught.” His first target? Israel, the vehicle through which Yahweh brought redemption to the human race. “And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child.” It’s a time honored tradition among the damned: attack the messenger. God, however, has other ideas. “But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle so that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time….” That’s three and a half prophetic years, forty-two months, 1,260 days, during which (as Daniel put it) “the power of the holy people will be completely shattered.” Israel’s remnant will be totally dependent upon Yahweh, and for once in their lives, they’ll realize it.
Escaping to the wilderness will prove to be an adventure in itself: “The serpent poured water like a river out of his mouth after the woman, to sweep her away with a flood. But the earth came to the help of the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth….” This may be a literal flood, but I sort of doubt it. I find it more likely that a “deluge” of troops will be sent out to capture the rebellious Jewish escapees, but like Korah before Moses (see Numbers 16) the ground will open up beneath the horde of pursuers, swallowing them whole.
“Then the dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.” Unable to touch Israel, the frustrated serpent (a.k.a. the dragon, the devil, and Satan, being represented by the Antichrist) turns to his secondary target, the “church of repentant Laodicea,” as I like to call them. Remember, at this point in time, the rapture of the church is long past, but multitudes have subsequently realized their error and have come to faith in Christ, informed of their situation—and their “options”—by angelic messengers, described in Revelation 14:6-13. The results of the serpent’s attacks on these new believers are recorded in Revelation 7:9-17. They are martyred by the millions for their faith, only to find themselves redeemed, cleansed, and blessed in the presence of the Lamb of God. Who are these martyrs? Since Satan can’t touch the Jews, they are by default gentiles, something that’s confirmed (if we heed the symbology) in the last sentence of the chapter: “And he [the dragon] stood on the sand of the sea.” (Revelation 12)
The “sea” invariably represents the gentiles, as “the land” indicates Israel. Note that the dragon “stood” on them; that is, he held the entire gentile world under submission. This is confirmed in the very next chapter, as the Antichrist (here called “the beast”) is introduced. “And I saw a beast rising out of the sea [defining him as a gentile], with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads.” You’ll recall how both the tannin and Leviathan mentioned in Psalm 74 were described as having multiple heads. “And the beast that I saw was like a leopard [the swift killer]; its feet were like a bear’s [having brute strength], and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth [that is, the beast speaks with authority].” And where did these abilities come from? From Satan himself. “And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority….”
The ignorant elite of Yahshua’s time were always asking him for signs and wonders. So their spiritual descendants, we may presume, will be quite impressed with the dragon’s showmanship. “One of its heads seemed to have a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed, and the whole earth marveled as they followed the beast.” Those who were skeptical of Yahshua’s resurrection despite the evidence will swallow the devil’s counterfeit hook, line, and sinker. “And they worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, ‘Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?’” (Revelation 13:1-4) Oy vey! We’ve sunk a long way from the reverential wisdom of Job, haven’t we?
“And the beast [i.e., the Antichrist or the demon that inhabits him, deriving his power from the dragon] was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming His name and His dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven.” This would include both the raptured saints and the Tribulation martyrs—those whom Satan can no longer touch. We will be posthumously be held up as scapegoats. The blame for the Antichrist’s “man-caused disasters” will be laid at our feet, like disingenuous politicians blaming anything and everything on their predecessors. Remarkably, this time the ploy will actually work, turning public opinion against the neo-Christians and the Jews who are so belatedly coming to comprehend the nature of Yahweh their God: “Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. Authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slain.” That last sentence is one of the scariest in the Bible, for it speaks of a time when everyone on earth will have received either Satan’s spirit or Yahweh’s. There will be no more sitting on the fence; no more choosing not to choose; no more passive agnosticism; no more insidious apathy. And the vast majority (it would appear) will have chosen the dragon over the Lamb. It makes my heart sick to consider it, but we must take God’s prophecies as they’re given to us. “If anyone has an ear, let him hear.” (Revelation 13:5-9)
I observed that the first beast (i.e., the Antichrist) will be a gentile, since he is said to come “from the sea.” But he has a powerful ally of Jewish descent: “Then I saw another beast rising out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. It exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence, and makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast.” (Revelation 13:11-12) This man, also know as “the false prophet,” gets his power and authority from the same place the Antichrist does—from the dragon, Satan. This demonic duo will attempt to fool all of the people all of the time, and they’ll apparently come terrifyingly close to achieving that goal. While the Antichrist doesn’t have the proper credentials to be recognized as Israel’s Messiah (a prevarication high on the dragon’s priority list), the Jewish false prophet is there to provide the requisite bona fides—giving Jews and gentiles alike a reason (however illogical) to accept the Antichrist as der Führer, the “anointed one,” the messianic leader for which the lost world has been clamoring.
A few pages back, we looked at a great Far Eastern army revealed under the sixth trumpet judgment. We see them again under the sixth bowl judgment, this time preparing to answer the dragon’s call to invade Israel one last time. The objective is genocide: to succeed where the hordes of Magog failed (see Ezekiel 38-39). “The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up, to prepare the way for the kings from the east.” The theory is, after killing off some two billion souls back home, rubbing out a few million helpless unarmed Jews ought to be child’s play. “And I saw, coming out of the mouth of the dragon and out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet, three unclean spirits like frogs. For they are demonic spirits, performing signs, who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty…. And they assembled them at the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon.” (Revelation 16:12-16)
Not surprisingly, the Antichrist, the false prophet, and the dragon that empowers them both are all singing out of the same hymnal: “kill the Jews.” In truth, this has been the rallying cry of Satan’s followers ever since the exodus. As a “sign” indicating who’s side you’re on (Yahweh’s vs. Satan’s), this one is absurdly simple and completely foolproof. Were it not for the dragon’s insane hatred of everything that Yahweh loves, the Jews would be an irrelevant blip on the world’s demographic radar screen. There are more people living in Guatemala than there are Jews in the world today (as far as we know). The world’s incessant collective angst concerning this otherwise insignificant population serves to demonstrate the extent of the spiritual warfare that’s constantly being waged all around us. God’s promise to Abraham has never ceased being true: “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:3)
The book of Isaiah ends with a statement that would seem to describe the fate of the losers of Armageddon, those, like the Antichrist, whom the returning Christ will “consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming.” (II Thessalonians 2:8) Isaiah says, “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against Me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” (Isaiah 66:24) But I think there’s more going on here than meets the eye. First, the “they” who are viewing the slain are described in the previous verse as “all flesh,” those who “shall come to worship before Me, says Yahweh,” that is, the redeemed of the Millennial kingdom—both mortals and immortals, I’m guessing. Does this mean that the rotting corpses of the Tribulation rebels will just be left lying on the ground so people can look at them in revulsion and disgust? No; I think there’s something even worse going on here.
Our first clue is that “their fire shall not be quenched.” Since any literal fire that might be used to dispose of dead bodies would eventually go out, we’re being given a hint. This is speaking of their spiritual condition: with their souls indwelled with the spirit of Satan, these hapless denizens of hell will suffer Satan’s eternal fate—the unending, everlasting torment of knowing that they have deceived themselves by rebelling against Almighty God. Yahshua used a figurative term for this state: Gehenna (a.k.a. the valley of the sons of Hinnom) was the place, just south of old Jerusalem, where Molech worshippers used to burn their infant children alive to appease this bloodthirsty false god. It later became a site of perpetual trash fires, an apt metaphor for hell itself. The fires of remorse will never go out. Those who allied themselves with the serpent will experience the horrible, unceasing realization that they threw away God’s love.
But the second clue is the clincher. When Isaiah says, “Their worm shall not die,” he’s speaking not of maggots invading physical corpses. The word translated “worm” here is our old friend nachash—the Hebrew word for serpent or snake. This “serpent” that won’t die is Satan, the deceiver who led these wretched souls to their eternal doom in the first place. John explains how this “worm who won’t die” lost his freedom: “Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while.” (Revelation 20:1-3) What’s remarkable about all of this is that, according to Isaiah, the citizens of Christ’s Millennial kingdom will be able to witness—and be horrified by—the fate of those who chose to be deceived by the serpent. And yet many of them, born into this perfect world, will still choose the same disastrous path when Satan is released for a short time to tempt them at the close of the kingdom age (see Revelation 20:7-9). How could this happen? It’s hard for me to comprehend, but the words of the prophet are still true: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. Who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)
Thus from the beginning to the end of the human experience, deception—the agenda of the serpent—is our constant nemesis. How relieved we should be, then, to read this prophecy: “And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” (Revelation 20:10) No more deceit; no more fraud; no more lies and half-truths designed to encourage us to betray our heavenly Father. It was no accident, of course, that the serpent showed up as soon as man was given the “breath of life,” the neshamah, the thing about us that makes spiritual indwelling possible. Nor is odd that the demon-serpent was allowed to slither among us for as long as the sons of Adam walked the earth. Without the possibility of deception, the agency of choice would be rather meaningless. Free will isn’t exactly “free” if we have no alternatives to choose between. So as odd as it may seem, I thank God for creating the serpent; I rejoice in the capacity I’ve been given to choose to reciprocate His love.
But I’m really looking forward to the day when the slithering deceiver will be locked away for good—and I, along with countless brothers and sisters, will be counted as having chosen wisely, rejecting the dragon’s deceptions and choosing instead to revere Yahweh, rely upon His Messiah, and receive His Spirit.
(First published 2014)