Changes to the Text: Isaiah’s Morning Star

In part four of my look into the Bible translation debate, I examine a couple of places where modern translations have changed the word(s) of a verse or passage. Do they change the meaning or are they offering some much-needed clarity? We’ll begin by looking at a troubling verse in Isaiah.

In the previous entry to this series, I examined some complaints regarding missing verses in our modern translations of the Bible. In this entry, we’ll switch our focus to verses that remain in the text but have been altered in ways that, as argued, change the meaning of the text. Let’s dive in.

How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! (Isaiah 14:12 KJV)

We’ll begin with a verse that is among the most passionately argued. Here is how the NIV translates this verse,

How you have fallen from heaven,
morning star, son of the dawn!
You have been cast down to the earth,
you who once laid low the nations! (Isaiah 14:12 NIV)

Instead of the name “Lucifer,” the NIV version renders it “morning star.” The problem, critics argue, is that if this is what the NIV calls Satan then it also calls Jesus Satan as well in Revelation 22:16.

“I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.” (Revelation 22:16 NIV)

Blasphemy, right? Let’s hold off on that accusation until we make sure our assumptions are correct. The assumption, of course, being that the KJV has the correct reading. If we put Isaiah 14:2 in its proper context it gives us a completely different picture. Our narrative begins at the start of chapter 13; we’ll use the KJV so there’s objection of foul play.

The burden of Babylon, which Isaiah the son of Amoz did see. (Isaiah 13:1 KJV)

From the start, the KJV gives us an idea of what the following passage is about: Babylon. Chapter 13 speaks about the destruction of Babylon (see 13:19) and chapter 14 continues this narrative. Verses 1-3 details Israel’s return from exile and verse 4 reveals their enemy,

That thou shalt take up this proverb against the king of Babylon, and say, How hath the oppressor ceased! the golden city ceased! (Isaiah 14:4 KJV)

Verses 4-8 speak about this king’s destructive rule and Israel’s eventual victory against him (see verse 9). Also, verses 16-17 explicitly reference “a man” as the one who caused destruction, not a spirit or angel. The KJV itself gives us proof that this passage is not about Satan but the King of Babylon.

But if this is so, why does the KJV call him “Lucifer”? The answer comes down to a simple translation error. Both the KJV and the NIV are basing their translation on the Hebrew word heilel which is read as “shining one” because the verb form of the word means “to shine.” It is not a proper name for Satan but it can be used as a descriptor as it is here towards the King of Babylon. John Walton in his background commentary of the Old Testament writes,

“This “shining one” probably refers to Venus and is found also in Ugaritic mythology, with mention of “daughters of the morning star.” The (Latin)Vulgate translators in the fifth century AD rendered this as “luciferos,” also a reference to the morning star, Venus.”

The Babylonian myth this is based on refers to a star that rises high and bright in the sky in the morning but then quickly fades. Ancients saw this star as Venus and often applied it to glorious or powerful rulers. Isaiah uses this parallel to describe the King of Babylon as one who rose to power and ascended above the heavens but soon fell from his position in defeat. The NIV changes the text to make it reflect how Isaiah’s readers would have understood it. The reference to Jesus in Revelation as the “Morning Star” most likely refers to the star in Numbers 24:17. It could be read as Christ ruling by coming down to earth and dying on a cross but that is merely speculation.

In summary, the Latin Vulgate translated heilel to a word that bears similarities to Lucifer. Translators after the fact assumed that it actually was the devil the text was talking about and therefore began rendering it as such. It continued to be read as Lucifer until our modern translators corrected the mistake and changed it to reflect Isaiah’s thoughts. I don’t blame critics for using this verse in their defence and the NIV could have potentially made things a little clearer. But at the end of the day, I’d take a correct reading that one needs to dig a little deeper to understand over a clear one that presents a false reading any day.