Exorcisms In The Old Testament

What part of the Bible comes to mind when you think about exorcisms? Probably one of the several accounts of Jesus encountering a demon possessed man. These are wonderful examples that show us the physical and spiritual tole demon possession has on people, how afraid demons are of Jesus, and how obedient they are to God. So if these New Testament examples are so great, why do we care about what’s in the Old Testament? Because the Old Testament tells us why it happens, and because an entire ideology of how demons operate today has been created that is dangerous and false. Spiritual warfare is very real, demonic possession is happening today, and exorcisms occur all the time.

What Should Get Your Attention

“Now if I drive out demons in the name of Satan, by whom do your followers drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” – Luke 11:19-20

Jesus performs an exorcism on a man, and the Pharisees think he’s doing it using the power of Satan. Jesus sets them straight but said something that should make you think of where else this is happening. He challenged them by asking “by whom do your followers drive them out?” This is acknowledging that there were other exorcisms being performed before Jesus. I have always believed that the New Testament gives us nothing truly new, but fulfills the Old Testament. This means that the things Jesus did were not unique, as we know people were raised from the dead, healed, and experienced other miracles in the Old Testament. This means that exorcisms happened in the Old Testament too. But in order to recognize exorcisms from before Jesus’ time, we need to know what they are, and we need to look at strong examples of demonic activity in the Old Testament.

What is an Exorcism

The commonly understood definition of an exorcism is when someone is a slave to the power of a demon, and that power is removed and the person is freed. But we’re going to go deeper than this, because the Bible describes many more things as demonic than simply being violently possessed. Consider these wide sweeping callouts of demonic activity:

Worldly Wisdom

This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. – James 3:15

Idolatry (worship of self, family, wealth, or other gods)

What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. – Corinthians 10:20

Sin

And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to Satan. – Ephesians 2:1-2

If any demonic power over someone is removed, they are no longer a slave to it. And we can be slaves to worldly wisdom, idolatry, and simply all of sin. To have these influences removed is to cast out these demonic influences. When we serve these things, we are serving demons. An exorcism isn’t just removing a violent demon from someone, but the demonic powers of sin. God’s spirit does not dwell in someone who is under this control.

When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. – Romans 6:20

An exorcism is the opposite of this passage from Romans. It is freedom from the control of demonic power, freedom from sin.

The Old Testament

Understanding that an exorcism is the removal of demonically sinful influence on someone, freeing them from the power of Satan, we’re led to see what the Old Testament has to say. There are three unique individuals who encounter a spectrum of demonic power, and we learn how much power Satan has over us through these examples, why they happen in the first place, and what the solution is. The first is an example of demonic influence that doesn’t end in a remedy, that is, there’s no exorcism:

Ahab

Micaiah continued, “Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne with all the multitudes of heaven standing around him on his right and on his left. And the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab into attacking Ramoth Gilead and going to his death there?’ One suggested this, and another that. Finally, a spirit came forward, stood before the Lord and said, ‘I will entice him.’ ‘By what means?’ the Lord asked. ‘I will go out and be a deceiving spirit in the mouths of all his prophets,’ he said. ‘You will succeed in enticing him,’ said the Lord. ‘Go and do it.’ So now the Lord has put a deceiving spirit in the mouths of all these prophets of yours. The Lord has decreed disaster for you.” – 1 Kings 19-23

This powerful prophecy shows us demonic power, its source, and its purpose all in one. The difficult truth we must acknowledge from this and further verses is that God controls “the deceiver” and all the demons. He gives them power and allows them to tempt and to possess. They have no autonomy, but fear God and obey him. Why else were they always so afraid of Jesus, and did everything he told them to do? If you think that God controlling who demons tempt and possess is unfair, you’re not the first person to think this:

What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. – Romans 9:14-18

The demonic influence on Ahab’s false prophets was because they and the king wouldn’t listen to God. And when we reject God, he can choose to turn us over to what we rely on:

When you cry out for help, let your collection of idols save you! The wind will carry all of them off, a mere breath will blow them away. But whoever takes refuge in me will inherit the land and possess my holy mountain. – Isaiah 57:13

The demonic influence on Ahab’s prophets was a result of God’s decision to give Ahab over to the things he worshipped. And when Ahab worshipped other gods, he was worshipping demons. So God gave him over to the demons, who deceived him and his false prophets, leading him to die in battle.

Nebuchadnezzar

The second example is very much like Ahab, but there is a good ending.

All this happened to King Nebuchadnezzar. Twelve months later, as the king was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, he said, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” Even as the words were on his lips, a voice came from heaven, “This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar: Your royal authority has been taken from you. You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like the ox. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.” Immediately what had been said about Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled. He was driven away from people and ate grass like the ox. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird. At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever. – Daniel 4:28-34

It was prophesied by Daniel that Nebuchadnezzar would be cast out from his throne and act like an animal if he continued rejecting God. Only until he finally acknowledged God and received salvation was he cured of this insanity. Nebuchadnezzar’s rejection of God was in itself a demonic worship of his own gods and his own power. He was a slave to sin and Satan. God hands him over to his Babylonian gods and to his own royal power to show him how powerless he is and that God is the only true God.

I find it interesting that Nebuchadnezzar’s name means “O god Nabu, preserve/defend my firstborn son.” And Nabu is the Babylonian god of wisdom and rational thought. But we know from Romans that when Nebuchadnezzar worshipped Nabu, he was worshipping demons. So when God hands him over to who Nabu truly is, he isn’t given the gift of wisdom or rational thought, but is turned insane and acts like an animal. This reveals the real influence on his life, and shows once again that God can choose to give demons power over people who reject him.

Only when Nebuchadnezzar’s time of insanity was over with did he finally give up his Babylonian gods, and accepted the one true God. God gave him mercy and the demonic influence on his life was exorcised.

Saul

The last example is Saul. This is a middle ground between Ahab and Nebuchadnezzar. Saul receives mercy from God and experiences exorcisms, but in the end we know that he ultimately rejects God and dies. Demons are given power over Saul frequently throughout his life, which is due to his constant stubbornness with God. But this example also shows us that if someone has demonic influence removed, that doesn’t mean they’re invincible for the rest of their life.

Now the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him. Saul’s attendants said to him, “See, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you. Let our lord command his servants here to search for someone who can play the lyre. He will play when the evil spirit from God comes on you, and you will feel better.” So Saul said to his attendants, “Find someone who plays well and bring him to me.” One of the servants answered, “I have seen a son of Jesse of Bethlehem who knows how to play the lyre. He is a brave man and a warrior. He speaks well and is a fine-looking man. And the Lord is with him.” – 1 Samuel 16:14-18

Understand what is being said here if you’re still not sure about where demonic influence comes from:

Now the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him

God sent a demon to cause Saul pain. God was tired of the wickedness of the king of Israel, and this demonic influence caused Saul to get introduced to David, replacement later on. But again, how is it fair that God would do this to Saul? Did he even have a chance? Lots of chances. Saul had choices to make in life, and he constantly chose himself. We see here that the spirit of God left Saul, and something wicked took its place. This only happens, the spirit of God leaving us, when we’re a slave to sin, free from righteousness:

When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. – Romans 6:20

The exorcism in this event occurs only when David plays music for Saul, and God removes the demonic power.

Whenever the spirit from God came on Saul, David would take up his lyre and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him. – 1 Samuel 16:23

Understand that this example of exorcism is very different from Nabuchadnezzar. Saul doesn’t receive salvation as a result of the removal of this demonic influence, but instead continues serving himself and never turning to God. So God uses it to raise up David. There is one last example of demonic activity with Saul that never mentions an exorcism:

The next day an evil spirit from God came forcefully on Saul. He was prophesying in his house, while David was playing the lyre, as he usually did. Saul had a spear in his hand and he hurled it, saying to himself, “I’ll pin David to the wall.” But David eluded him twice. – 1 Samuel 18:10-11

Don’t be distracted by the word “prophesying” because we know an evil spirit cannot produce righteous prophecy. In fact, the original Hebrew for this word is Hithpael, which is only used to describe madmen and false prophecy, such as in the following verse from Elijah’s encounter with idolaters:

Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention. – 1 Kings 18:29

In Elijah’s example, these people were worshipping other gods, which are actually demons. Likewise, Saul’s demonic possession was because God gave him over to his idolatry of himself. But the very interesting thing is that it’s never mentioned when this evil spirit leaves Saul. In fact, David’s playing of the Lyre doesn’t even work this time, because God chose another plan. The presence of this particular demon is influencing Saul to try to kill David. After this event, he continues on to try and get David to marry his daughter so that the Philistines would try to kill him. And he gives him armies to command so that he’ll die in battle. In fact, he never stops trying to kill him for the rest of his life:

When Saul realized that the Lord was with David and that his daughter Michal loved David, Saul became still more afraid of him, and he remained his enemy the rest of his days. – 1 Samuel 18:28-29

It would seem this final demonic influence would never leave Saul until his death. Saul is given many chances in life to stop his own demonic activity of idolatry and rejection of God, but in the end he never does and he dies. Saul experiences an exorcism only during specific times when David plays music for him. But he never relents from his rejection of God, and so God brings up David as his replacement.

What Can We Do?

The Old Testament is full of demonic activity, and we’ve only glossed over a handful of the big ones. But the three examples of Ahab, Nebuchadnezzar, and Saul show us something very important to understand:

  1. God controls all demonic activity
  2. Salvation is not a byproduct of an exorcism
  3. Demonic influence is a sign of unrepented sin

So what can we do about this? Is it all hopeless? Certainly not! The Old Testament shows us flawed people just like you and me, and what happens if we continue to reject God, or if we proclaim that He is our King! Nebuchadnezzar returned to God, and so God removed the evil power from his life. Saul was given many chances and many exorcisms, but his stubbornness destroyed him. And Ahab was given neither exorcism nor mercy, because God was so fed up with his life of wickedness. Will we receive mercy? Will God give us another chance? We will, because Jesus died so that we may receive mercy and have the ability to call on his name to remove the sin and demonic influence in our life. If there is sin in your life, there is demonic power at work and you need to take a step towards God, because it is dangerous and sin will destroy you.

So what do you do if you’ve had demonic power removed from your life, and you don’t want it to come back like it did with Saul?

As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed. – Mark 5:18-20

What do you do if there’s demonic power currently in your life, like Ahab?

When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him. “Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.” “You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed at that moment. Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” – Matthew 17:14-20

And what do you do if you’re like Nabuchadnezzar after his insanity, free from the power of sin?

As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give. – Matthew 10:5

A Final Word

Demonic influence is a product of sin, so we have all experienced this at some point in our lives. But the solution is repentance. You are able to ask God to remove this influence from your life if you have faith and repent. There is no need to feel unqualified to fight against Satan like this, because Jesus will do it for you, you just have to start asking. So do not fear demons, who only have power when you throw out God from your life; but fear God, who has the power to give mercy and to save us from our sin.

The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” Jesus replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” – Luke 10:17-20

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