The Might Of Death
There is a remarkable passage in Hebrews 2 which alludes to an aspect of the Devil’s work among men. Speaking of Christ, the writer tells us that: “Since therefore the children partake of blood and flesh, he also, in like manner, took part in the same, that through death he might annul him who has the might of death, that is, the devil; and might set free all those who through fear of death through the whole of their life were subject to bondage” (vs 14, 15, my emphasis).The question naturally arises as to how the Devil can have the “might of death”. Some think that he acts as an executioner, implementing the divine commandment expressed as regards man “thou shalt certainly die” (Gen. 2: 17). But if this is the force of the expression “who has the might of death”, then in what sense has the Devil been annulled or rendered powerless by the death of Christ? Christians die at the same rate as unbelievers, a fact which would point in the direction of the Devil still being effective in the use of the “might of death” rather than not! The explanation given is clearly wrong.
The Devil’s Works
To understand the passage, it is essential to look more closely at how the Bible presents the Devil. The word Devil too often brings to the mind a picture of utter repulsiveness—a gargoyle–like creature, whose sole object is to lure souls into lives of depravity. I say too often, because it is not a picture the Scriptures present. Man is very capable of performing depraved acts quite apart from any satanic involvement. The Lord Jesus Himself said “For from within, out of the heart of men, go forth evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickednesses, deceit, licentiousness, a wicked eye, injurious language, haughtiness, folly; all these wicked things go forth from within and defile the man” (Mark 7: 21–23, my emphasis). The Son of God was manifested to “undo the works of the devil” (1 John 3: 8), but to confine these “works” to what men call ‘immorality’ would fall well short of the truth. 2 Cor. 11: 14–15 alone ought to be sufficient to preserve me from this delusion: “And [it is] not wonderful, for Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. It is no great thing therefore if his ministers also transform themselves as ministers of righteousness”.
The Covering Cherub
Let me pursue this thought of Satan in association with light and righteousness.
In Ezekiel 28, the prophet begins with a condemnation of the “prince of Tyre”, but later takes “up a lamentation upon the king of Tyre” (vs 2, 12, my emphasis). The prince is the human ruler of Tyre, but the king of Tyre, who “wast in Eden” (v13) is the spiritual power behind the throne, none other than the Devil himself. In verse 14, the prophet describes him as “the anointed covering cherub” (v14). Now the word anointed speaks of divine appointment in the most solemn form. It was a similar anointing on Saul that always led David to speak of him with a respect amounting to reverence (see 1 Sam. 24: 6 etc.). This also helps explain Jude 9: “But Michael the archangel, when disputing with the devil he reasoned about the body of Moses, did not dare to bring a railing judgment against [him], but said, [The] Lord rebuke thee”. So much for anointed, what then is to be gathered from the word cherub? Its first occurrence in the Bible is in its plural form: “And he drove out Man; and he set the Cherubim, and the flame of the flashing sword, toward the east of the garden of Eden, to guard the way to the tree of life” (Gen. 3: 24). A sin–hating God could not allow fallen man access to the tree of life. The distinctive service of the cherubim then is the upholding of God’s righteousness. Take as a beautiful confirmation of this the figurative teaching of the curtains of the tabernacle: “of twined byssus, and blue, and purple, and scarlet: with cherubim of artistic work shalt thou make them” (Exod. 26: 1). Each colour, as well as the beautiful material, speaks of some lovely feature in the Lord Jesus Christ. Do the figures of the cherubim accord with and add to these? Indeed they do, for they tell us that those attractive colours of blue, purple or scarlet (the meaning of which I cannot now enter upon) were never displayed at the expense of divine righteousness. The cherubim were in every act of His life. If he said “the Son of man has power on earth to forgive sins” (Luke 5: 24), that was indeed the ‘purple’ of His imperial authority, and yet it was also cherubic for those very sins He took upon Himself and bore “in his body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2: 24). With every act, the righteousness of God was scrupulously upheld.
So when Ezekiel speaks of Satan as the cherub it indicates that his office was in connection with the maintenance of righteousness. Couple this thought with anointed, a word which clearly speaks of appointment by the throne to high office in the government of God, and what do you get? One whose service was to maintain inviolate the righteousness of the throne. Some may object that God, being the Almighty, would not need such a defence. In answer, it is not a question about what God needs, but rather a revelation about what God has chosen to arrange. He did not need the cherubim at the gate of Eden, yet He placed them there. The view given of Satan’s office in God’s government will be confirmed by the words that have been passed over so far: ‘the anointed covering cherub’. So why covering? Why is Satan described in this way? Read Exodus 25: 18, 20: “And thou shalt make two cherubim of gold … And the cherubim shall stretch out [their] wings over it, covering over with their wings the mercy–seat”. What was that mercy–seat? It was the very seat or throne of God: “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel … thou that sittest [between] the cherubim” (Ps. 80: 1). So why then are the figures of the cherubim represented as taking, as it were, that throne under their protective wing? It can only be to keep that throne from anything that might shake its foundations. The slightest infringement of justice, the slightest reversal of perfect righteousness—whether of punishment inflicted or mercy given—and the throne would be overturned, for “Righteousness and judgment are the foundation of thy throne” (Ps. 89: 14). It is not difficult to see the propriety of the blood being placed on the mercy–seat, a mercy–seat to which the faces of the cherubim were forever turned.
The Accuser of the Brethren
As already seen from Ezekiel 28, it is not at all uncommon in the prophetic writings for them to begin with a mere man, and either gradually or suddenly to go behind and beyond the man to another, higher personage altogether. How often I will be looking at David, and even as I look, David disappears, and I find myself occupied with ‘David’s greater Son’? Thus in Isaiah 14, it would surely be beyond the limits of hyperbole to say of any mere human king of Babylon “And thou that didst say in thy heart, I will ascend into the heavens, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God, and I will sit upon the mount of assembly, in the recesses of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds” (v13, 14)! What is presented here is the exalted pride of the Devil: the prophet has passed from the earthly king to the spiritual personage that lay behind. Not content with guarding the throne of God, Satan wanted to “be like the Most High” (Is. 14: 13, 14). God will brook no rival, however, and divine retribution swiftly followed: “How art thou fallen from heaven, Lucifer, son of the morning!” (v12). However, though deposed from his position, the Scriptures give every indication that Satan remained an ardent champion of righteousness, and it is in this character he stands as the accuser of the brethren: “And I heard a great voice in the heaven saying, Now is come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ; for the accuser of our brethren has been cast out, who accused them before our God day and night: and they have overcome him by reason of the blood of the Lamb, and by reason of the word of their testimony, and have not loved their life even unto death” (Rev. 12: 10, 11). In a perverse kind of way Satan is here continuing to act as God’s covering cherub, ensuring that there is no diminution in divine righteousness in God’s dealings with His people. The “brethren” here are merely tools that suit the Devil’s purpose: the object of his relentless attack, as ever, is the throne. And yet all his accusations must fall to the ground, for the saints have “overcome him by reason of the blood of the Lamb”—the blood is on the mercy–seat and God can righteously bless His sinful creature. No wonder that when Satan is finally cast out of the presence of God he is described as “having great rage” (v12).
The Terrors of Death
Men at large prefer to forget the matter of death until it forces itself upon them. Perhaps now and again, in the darkness of the night when sleep refuses to come, the dread beyond with all its possibilities and uncertainties imposes its reality on the mind: “My heart is writhing within me, and the terrors of death are fallen upon me. Fear and trembling are come upon me, and horror hath overwhelmed me” (Ps. 55: 4, 5). Though men try to force the reality of death out of their minds, they cannot escape. They are those “who through fear of death through the whole of their life were subject to bondage” (Heb. 2: 15, my emphasis). From where does this fear come? The fact that death is not the end is the very cause of its terror, for “it is the portion of men once to die, and after this judgment” (Heb. 9: 27). The godless soul that can pass out of life without fear is either a madman or deluded, for the sting of death is not its certainty, its pain, its sorrow or its mystery, but sin (see 1 Cor 15: 56). “Each of us” (saint and sinner alike) “shall give an account concerning himself to God” (Rom. 14: 12).
Yet how does the Devil have the might of death? If sin gives death its sting, how is this connected with the Devil, and in what sense does that put the “might of death” in his hands? By doing what comes easily to a “covering cherub”—accusing. Of course conscience itself may accuse or excuse (see Rom. 2: 15) but its witness is frequently enfeebled. The Devil is a much more reliable tormentor. Let me illustrate: I am in prison on a charge that carries the death penalty. The prosecuting lawyer who will speak against me is bound by his office to see that the righteousness of the government is maintained and justice done. He is also an individual of stupendous skill and intelligence. I must conduct my own defence but I know I have none. Every day the lawyer visits me in my cell to assure me that he will press the case and to convince me of its hopelessness. Oh the bondage of my spirit as well as of my body! I am in constant fear of death and this lawyer has the might of it! Yet one day a man of stainless integrity visits my cell with strange yet wonderful news: ‘Your case has been settled. You were indeed as good as condemned already, but one who dearly loves you has voluntarily taken your place and has been accepted as a substitute by the authorities. Even now his body swings on the gallows in the prison yard. You are free to go’. Am I not now delivered from the bondage of death? Do I now fear that stern lawyer and his malicious witness? Am I affected now by his threats? How much of his power is left to him? It is altogether gone. As an accuser, he is annulled.
The illustration may be defective but it will serve my purpose. As a guilty sinner, death was an awful prospect, for after death is certain judgment. How the Devil delighted to remind me of my unworthiness in the face of unbending justice! He transformed himself into an angel of light, and posed as one who desired to maintain what was true and right, pressing on my conscience that righteousness surely demanded my eternal condemnation. All was changed, however, when I heard and believed the good news of the Gospel. Through death, His death, the Lord Jesus has brought to nothing all the accuser’s power, and according to the simplicity of my faith in the Gospel proclaimed, that will be my deliverance from the fear of death. Christ has not yet put away the pain or sorrow of death, but He has put away its sting, and delivered me from its bondage.
Oh happy beyond expression is the guiltiest sinner who has believed the Gospel, for he knows that righteousness, strict righteousness, even the righteousness of God, demands, not his condemnation, but his justification! The Devil cannot utter one word of protest—the might of death is ineffectual against a child of God. The apostle could say “For for me to live [is] Christ, and to die gain … But I am pressed by both, having the desire for departure and being with Christ, [for] [it is] very much better” (Phil. 1: 21, 23). To die, gain! To depart, much better! What might has death over one who can speak in this way? It amounts to nothing—the enemy is annulled. Tremendous victory! Blessed be the Saviour’s name!