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In almost every case I've heard Isaiah 14:12-15 quoted or preached about, I'm told that these are the words of Satan in his rebellion against God.

Isaiah 14:12-15 (KJV):

12How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! 13For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: 14I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High. 15Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit.

For example, here.

Yet if you jump up to verse 4, it says

That thou shalt take up this proverb against the king of Babylon, and say, How hath the oppressor ceased! the golden city ceased!

and continues on through the previously cited verses. So to me, a clear reading indicates that this it the Kind of Babylon saying in his heart,"I will ascend..."

I understand that the prophetical books are often open to interpretation, but I believe I'm missing something. Why are these quotes attributed to Satan, when it appears that they're meant to be attributed to the king of Babylon?

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This question actually seems like it could go better on the BiblicalHermeneutics.SE site. However, that mostly depends on what you want. Do you want strict exegesis (BH.SE) or can there be some doctrine involved (C.SE)? – El'endia Starman Oct 12 '11 at 22:55
I wasn't aware of that site. I posed the question because the identity of Satan/Lucifer is a question of doctrine. There is enough disagreement on whether Satan is real or figurative that I thought it was worth asking. Much of the preaching and teaching that I've been exposed to about Satan's characteristics present him as a real being, and refer back to these verses to show his nature, and reason for rebelling against God. In short, to me it is important doctrinally to be correct. – David Oct 12 '11 at 23:16
That's perfectly fine! :) – El'endia Starman Oct 13 '11 at 1:29
@DavidStratton: If you are looking for doctrinal answers about the nature of Satan (even ones defended through exegesis) it is definitely ok to ask that here. The BH site is great, but focuses more on the text and less on the resulting doctrine/applications. – Caleb Oct 13 '11 at 12:36
Please see this question for the logic behind my response. Your question should be down voted for "lack of research with some other translations first" - per Wikis. "A) Use a Bible in a language you speak and B) use a dictionary. Either or both of those things would save you from this sort of misunderstanding." - per Caleb. Lucifer isn't the devil or Satan. – The Freemason Aug 4 '14 at 14:52
up vote 3 down vote accepted

It's a case of parallelism. Isaiah is using the story of Lucifer (Satan) the fallen angel who was once mighty in heaven, which is familiar imagery to his audience, and applying it to the king of Babylon as an analogy. The king of Babylon is powerful and makes the world tremble in fear, as Satan does, but he will be overthrown and humbled and treated with contempt by those he used to oppress.

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I'm still not 100% sure myself, but this answer does tend to ring true to me. Isaiah does seem to be full pf prophecies that have two possible meanings, both of which can be equally true. (I also learned the term for it today - the "double-reference principle" in hermeneutics). Reading in context and expecting consistency from the author, this explanation offers a more consistent interpretation of the passage. – David Oct 13 '11 at 2:55
DavidStratton, I like your principles of "reading in context" and "expecting consistency from the author". Those naturally support @jchaffee's answer. Belief in Satan did not exist in Israel/Judah at the time of Isaiah. This answer is completely anachronistic, unsupported by the text itself. – Schuh May 29 '15 at 0:36
@Schuh: Belief in Satan did not exist in Israel at the time of Isaiah? What about the book of Job, who the text suggests most likely lived sometime around Abraham's day? – Mason Wheeler May 29 '15 at 9:39
Yes, @MasonWheeler, belief in Satan is a post-exilic development. Prior to the exile the Hebrew word transliterated as satan meant ‘adversary’ and was used only of humans and obedient angels. In Job and Zechariah, likely written in the 6th century, the word ONLY appears with the definite article, ha-satan, meaning ‘the accuser’. Satan emerged as personified evil, the chief opponent of God, in Enochic Judaism (1st-3rd centuries BCE). Wikipedia's 'Satan' entry provides references. See also: – Schuh May 29 '15 at 17:24
Although this is the "accepted" answer, it is just plain wrong (as other comments -- especially Schuh's, above -- and answers here suggest). See: "Has there been a paradigm shift in the 'image' of devil?" and the answer and comment trail there for documentation. – Davïd Sep 4 '15 at 16:32

Isaiah did not have the understanding of Satan that is commonly held today. You are correct that in the original context the passage is actually about the king of Babylon. Demonology really did not rise up until the Maccabean era, so to say that Isaiah was first writing with Satan in mind would be inaccurate (seeing as the language is more referencing the Tower of Babel). Isaiah 14 is a passage that has been looked back upon and interpreted in light of people's views of Satan to the loss of remembering the original context.

For more on the subject check out the Isaiah commentary put out by Westminster press! I hope this helps!

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I had a hard time deciding which answer to accept. Yours may be the correct one, or it may be the one I accepted. I'm just not 100% sure. Is the commentary you answered available online in whole or in part anywhere? – David Oct 13 '11 at 2:56
I'd be happy to find the commentary but really, our understanding of Satan comes from Revelation where he is cast down, which was written thousands of years after Isaiah. If anything, Isaiah is working with a concept of Satan much like the book of Job, that he can freel walk in and out of heaven. To say that Isaiah had Satan in mind first instead of the king of Babylon just before Israel was about to go into exile doesn't seem convincing to me at all and merely ignoring the context as well as that era's concept of Satan. – jchaffee Oct 13 '11 at 14:20
See Gary V. Smith’s Isaiah 1-39 commentary (link below) for a summary of the scholarly understanding of ‘day star’ in this verse, most agreeing it alludes to Canaanite/Mesopotamian mythology. He traces the “unfounded” view that 14:12 refers to the fall of Satan to Tertullian and Gregory the Great (fn.94). – Schuh May 29 '15 at 17:41

It is commonly believed to be Satan. "Lucifer", however, is a transliteration of the word in the Latin Vulgate. So, basically, it's a transliteration of a translation. Many more modern translations render the original word rather than following the traditional transliteration.

How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! (Isaiah 14:12, ESV)

quomodo cecidisti de caelo lucifer qui mane oriebaris corruisti in terram qui vulnerabas gentes (Isaiah 14:12, Biblia Sacra Vulgata).

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I voted this up because it contained something I'd never known before - the transliteration of the translation. This was a good answer, but I think that Mason Wheeler's answer got more directly to the heart of the question. Thank you for your time! – David Oct 13 '11 at 2:58
I understand. That was the whole point of this post... just to add a tidbit of information. – Narnian Oct 13 '11 at 12:02

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