Like Isaiah, Ezekiel also has oracles against the nations: Ammon (25:1-7), Moab (25:8-11), Edom (25:12-14), Philistia (25:15-17), Tyre (26:1-28:19), Sidon (28:20-26), and Egypt (29:1-32:32). The passage sometimes applied to the devil, 28:12b-19, is in the heart of an oracle against the ruler of Tyre; in fact, verse 12 begins, “Son of man, take up this lament against the ruler of Tyre.” No one disputes that the context refers to the ruler of Tyre, but those who apply the text to the devil declare that it also applies to him, because (they claim) some features of the text cannot apply to anyone but the devil.
This argument, as we shall see, is not actually accurate. The lament calls this ruler arrogant about his wisdom and perfection of beauty (28:12, 17)–just as Tyre claimed to be perfect in beauty (27:3-4, 11) and full of wisdom that brought wealth (28:3-4), self-proclaimed wisdom that made the ruler think he was a god (28:6) though he was but a human being (28:8-10). This ruler was in Eden, the garden of God (28:13), which advocates of the devil-interpretation think must be taken literally: only the devil was in Eden, they say. But this claim is not true; Adam and Eve, who did seek equality with God (Gen. 3:5), also lived in Eden, and Ezekiel could compare the Tyrian ruler’s hubris with that of the first people.
Yet another explanation is better than either the devil-interpretation or the Adam-interpretation: Ezekiel explicitly compares the ruler of Babylon to a cherub (28:14-15). Genesis calls neither Adam nor the serpent a cherub, but does refer explicitly to cherubim in the garden: God’s angels stationed there to keep Adam and Eve out after their fall (Gen. 3:24; cf. Ezek. 28:14-15 NIV: “guardian cherub”). In other words, this is an image representing great prestige in God’s garden. (The “holy mountain of God”–28:14–might allude to Mount Zion, as often in Scripture, in which case the image of cherubim probably also recalls the cherubim on which God was enthroned on the ark in the Temple. The blamelessness until found wicked–28:15–may also be part of the cherub image.)
Some have objected that the king cannot simply be compared to a glorious cherub in Eden; the text calls him a cherub, and must be interpreted literally. Those who insist that all details of such prophecies should be taken literally, however, are not consistent in how they interpret other references to Eden in surrounding chapters. Ezekiel himself is full of graphic, poetic images and metaphors (comparisons in which one thing is simply called another without “like” or “as”), one of which is a statement that Pharaoh was a tree in Eden, God’s garden (Ezek. 31:1-18; he is also a sea monster, 29:3-5). Drawing on various images from the account of Adam and Eve’s fall, Ezekiel’s prophecies speak both of the stately cherubim and the greatest trees in Eden (perhaps the tree of life or the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?) Perhaps advocates of the devil-interpretation press their case that being in Eden refers to the devil in Ezekiel 28 but not in Ezekiel 31 because they can only fit Ezekiel 28 into their view in some other respects. (Some cite the “pipes” on his body, but this is based on only one translation, which the Hebrew does not appear to support here.)
The adornment of precious stones (28:13) alludes to Tyre’s great wealth, elsewhere described in terms of gorgeous array (27:4-7, 24) and trade in diverse merchandise including precious stones (27:16, 22). The wickedness of 28:15 is the wickedness of Tyre’s merchant interests (28:16), her “dishonest trade” (28:18 NIV) elsewhere referred to in the context (27:2-36; 28:4-5; cf. 26:17). The king’s pride on account of his beauty (28:17) recalls the pride of the ruler of Tyre who claims to be a god yet is merely a man (28:2), proud because of the wealth Tyre had amassed through trading (28:5). That fire would come forth from the ruler of Tyre (28:18), just as ancient cities were normally destroyed by burning in their midst (cf. e.g., Amos 1:4, 7, 12; 2:2, 5–especially Amos 1:10, against Tyre).
Ezekiel refers to an arrogant human ruler. The ruler in this passage exalts himself in pride and is cast down; the casting down is more explicit in the oracle earlier in the chapter (28:2-10). He claimed to be a god, enthroned in the heart of the seas (28:2; Tyre was off the seacoast of Phoenicia). God has Ezekiel mock this ruler: You think that you are as wise as a god (28:6), but God would bring judgment on this ruler by other nations (28:7); then would he still pretend to be a god in front of those who would kill him (28:9)? He was a “man,” not a god, and he would die a horrible and violent death (28:8-10). This is hardly a description of the devil, an immortal spirit; this is an earthly ruler who claimed to be a god, who would learn his mortality at the time of God’s judgment on Tyre.
Yet even if these two passages referred to the devil as well as to earthly rulers—though in context they do not—why do defenders of this view often apply these passages to the devil yet never apply them also to earthly rulers judged by God for their arrogance? Wouldn’t examples of human arrogance make even more useful passages for preaching or teaching matters relevant to our hearers? I suspect that many believers simply assume these passages refer to the devil because that is the way we have always heard them interpreted, but many of us never closely examined them in context. Whatever their views, I do not believe any reader can miss our point: this passage has a broad context in the surrounding chapters, and our short-cuts to learning the Bible have failed to study the books of the Bible the way God inspired them to be written.