Atonement: The Powers in the Old Testament

As mentioned in the last post, the scriptural notion of “powers” and “authorities” is routinely ignored in our Bible studies. And yet the Christus Victor theory of atonement is based on God’s victory over the powers in Jesus by means of the resurrection.

(Col 2:15 ESV) 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

Triumphing over Rome and the Jewish rulers? Yes, indeed. But is that all?

(Eph 6:12 ESV) 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

Evidently, some of the time, Paul uses “rulers,” “authorities,” and “powers” to refer to spiritual forces of evil. Interesting …

The following outline is based largely the book God’s Rivals: Why Has God Allowed Different Religions? Insights from the Bible and the Early Church, by Gerald R. McDermott. McDermott argues that the Bible speaks of spiritual beings other than the Holy Trinity and the angels. He first refers us to —

(1Ki 22:19-23 ESV)  19 And Micaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the LORD: I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left20 and the LORD said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said one thing, and another said another. 21 Then a spirit came forward and stood before the LORD, saying, ‘I will entice him.’  22 And the LORD said to him, ‘By what means?’ And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.’  23 Now therefore behold, the LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the LORD has declared disaster for you.”

Who is this “host of heaven”? “Host” translates tsaba’, meaning most literally “army.” God is surrounded by an army of spirits, who speak of their own accord and may even disagree with God!

Well, this is just a parable, right?

We next consider Daniel, who after a time of fasting saw this vision —

(Dan 10:1 ESV) 10 And behold, a hand touched me and set me trembling on my hands and knees. 11 And he said to me, “O Daniel, man greatly loved, understand the words that I speak to you, and stand upright, for now I have been sent to you.” And when he had spoken this word to me, I stood up trembling. 12 Then he said to me, “Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words. 13 The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I was left there with the kings of Persia, 14 and came to make you understand what is to happen to your people in the latter days. For the vision is for days yet to come.” 15 When he had spoken to me according to these words, I turned my face toward the ground and was mute.

The angel that came to speak to Daniel says he was delayed for 21 days due to a confrontation with the “prince of the kingdom of Persia,” whom he finally overcame with the help of the angel Michael.

The vision continues —

(Dan 10:20-21 ESV) 20 Then he said, “Do you know why I have come to you? But now I will return to fight against the prince of Persia; and when I go out, behold, the prince of Greece will come. 21 But I will tell you what is inscribed in the book of truth: there is none who contends by my side against these except Michael, your prince.

Daniel speaks of Michael as the prince of the Jews, whereas there are evidently rival princes of the Greeks and Persians.

Of course, Daniel is filled with highly symbolic, apocalyptic imagery. Perhaps we aren’t to take these visions too literally?

But consider such passages as —

(Exo 12:12 ESV)  For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD.

(Num 33:4 ESV) while the Egyptians were burying all their firstborn, whom the LORD had struck down among them. On their gods also the LORD executed judgments.

(Deu 29:25-26 ESV)  25 Then people will say, ‘It is because they abandoned the covenant of the LORD, the God of their fathers, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt,  26 and went and served other gods and worshiped them, gods whom they had not known and whom he had not allotted to them.

Deu 29:26 is particularly surprising. The complaint about the other gods is not that they don’t exist but that God had not “allotted” the Jews to them.

And there’s —

(Jdg 11:21-24 ESV)  21 And the LORD, the God of Israel, gave Sihon and all his people into the hand of Israel, and they defeated them. So Israel took possession of all the land of the Amorites, who inhabited that country. 22 And they took possession of all the territory of the Amorites from the Arnon to the Jabbok and from the wilderness to the Jordan. 23 So then the LORD, the God of Israel, dispossessed the Amorites from before his people Israel; and are you to take possession of them? 24Will you not possess what Chemosh your god gives you to possess? And all that the LORD our God has dispossessed before us, we will possess.

This is extracted from a message to a pagan king, and perhaps is written in accommodationist language, that is, in the recipient’s terms rather than the sender’s.

One of the most disturbing stories is found in 2 Kings 3:

(2Ki 3:26-27 ESV) 26 When the king of Moab saw that the battle was going against him, he took with him 700 swordsmen to break through, opposite the king of Edom, but they could not.  27 Then he took his oldest son who was to reign in his place and offered him for a burnt offering on the wall. And there came great wrath against Israel. And they withdrew from him and returned to their own land.

The king of Moab appears to have defeated the forces of Israel by offering his oldest son to the god of Moab!

Keil and Delitzsch interpret the passage to mean that God was so upset with Israel for triggering this sacrifice by the king of Moab that he gave Moab the victory. Does that makes sense?

We next turn to the Psalms —

(Psa 58:1-6 ESV) Do you indeed decree what is right, you gods? Do you judge the children of man uprightly?  2 No, in your hearts you devise wrongs; your hands deal out violence on earth. 3 The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies. 4 They have venom like the venom of a serpent, like the deaf adder that stops its ear, 5 so that it does not hear the voice of charmers or of the cunning enchanter.  6 O God, break the teeth in their mouths; tear out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD!

(Psa 82:1-8 ESV) God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: 2 “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Selah  3 Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.  4 Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”  5 They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.  6 I said, “You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; 7 nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince.”  8 Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations!

(Psa 97:7 ESV) 7 All worshipers of images are put to shame, who make their boast in worthless idols; worship him, all you gods!

(Psa 138:1 ESV) I give you thanks, O LORD, with my whole heart; before the gods I sing your praise;

Now, the Scriptures uniformly declare that God is God of gods, Lord of lords. He is ultimately in charge. Only he is the Creator. He is not merely the God of the Jews; He is God of the entire earth.

But there certainly is language throughout the scriptures that suggests the reality of other, lesser, subordinate gods — gods who are not holy and good, not remotely like the angels — who are rivals of the One True God.

Indeed, we see in Psalm 82 a rebuke of the lesser gods by God, criticizing their wickedness and predicting their deaths. This is not paganism, in which there are many gods of near-equal power, fighting for supremacy, often at the cost of human life. The One True God, the God of the Jews, is plainly in control, and will put down all rebellion.

But neither is it “pure” monotheism. God is the Supreme God —

(Exo 15:11-12 ESV)  11 “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?  12 You stretched out your right hand; the earth swallowed them.

(Deu 6:14-15 ESV) 4 You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you–  15 for the LORD your God in your midst is a jealous God–lest the anger of the LORD your God be kindled against you, and he destroy you from off the face of the earth.

(Psa 136:2-3 ESV)  2 Give thanks to the God of gods, for his steadfast love endures forever.  3 Give thanks to the Lord of lords, for his steadfast love endures forever;

— but there are lesser gods.

On the other hand, it’s entirely fair to suppose that these and similar passages might be accommodationist language, written to speak to a primitive people in terms they could understand and appreciate — just as Joshua spoke of the sun standing still.

Or perhaps we see here an example of progressive revelation, in which true monotheism isn’t fully revealed until later — and there are indeed many monotheistic passages in the Old Testament.

What does the New Testament say?

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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10 Responses to Atonement: The Powers in the Old Testament

  1. Jerry says:

    Jesus quotes from Psalm 82:6

    Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came–and Scripture cannot be broken– (John 10:34-35)

    The key words in Jesus’ explanation of His quotation are emphasized. Whom does Jesus mean by “those to whom the word of God came”? Is it the magistrates – judges and kings – who, in the Old Testament stood as God’s representatives on earth, or is it, as this post implies, lesser gods.

    Your interpretation is one I have never heard in my 72 years. It is, however, interesting. I do not doubt for a moment that there are evil spiritual beings. I know the ECF often called the pagan gods demons. I am also aware of the heavenly conventions of the “sons of God” in the opening chapters of Job, among whom was Satan.

    I have long been convinced that we do not take the spiritual powers of darkness seriously enough. I will be waiting with interest to see where this takes us – and to see the reactions of those commenting.

  2. guy says:

    i’m not sure what to think about other gods, but i knew some of the early church father’s speak of Christ’s defeat of sin, death, and the devil–these are (i guess at least part of) the ‘powers’ Christ defeated.


  3. Tim Archer says:

    I have a post on my blog that touches on some of this. One paragraph that might be of interest:

    An interesting passage is Deuteronomy 32:8. Most versions follow the reading from the Masoretic text. The ESV chose to follow the Septuagint (and a text from the Dead Sea Scrolls) which reads: “When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.” (Deuteronomy 32:8) [Masoretic text says “sons of Israel”] The passage goes on to read: “But the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.” (Deuteronomy 32:9) This reading reflects the idea that the nations of the world were divided up. God kept Israel for himself and gave the rest to “the sons of God.” While God was king over Israel, others would rule the rest of the nations. Whether or not this reading is the original one, it reflects an ancient Jewish understanding of the relationship between the nations and the spiritual powers.

    The post is called “More Than Meets The Eye” and can be found here:

  4. laymond says:

    Gen 6:1 ¶ And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them,
    Gen 6:2 That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they [were] fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.
    Gen 6:4 There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare [children] to them, the same [became] mighty men which [were] of old, men of renown.

  5. Jay Guin says:


    That’s an important passage. I’ll express some similar thoughts in a future post.

  6. Jay Guin says:


    Thanks for that point. It appears that Jesus was arguing that if the Scriptures refer to the demons to whom God spoke as “gods” — in his condemnation for their evil works — he critics can hardly complain of his being called “Son of God” for doing good works.

    This especially fits in light of the passage Tim references below. Very interesting. And Jesus certainly doesn’t repudiate Psa 82 by this argument!

  7. aBasnar says:

    Many things see to fall in their place, when I read the above.

    Deu 32:8 (LXX) When the Most High divided the nations, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the nations according to the number of the angels of God.

    This really does shed light on the “Prince of Persia” in Daniel.

    Job 1:6 (LXX) And it came to pass on a day, that behold, the angels of God came to stand before the Lord, and the devil came with them.

    (I just stick with the LXX here, but it makes no difference:) Satan has access to God in heaven. This is also a bit “disturbing”, and what does he do there? He accuses the brethren (are these his fiery arrows?)! There will be a time when he will be thrown on earth, but before that there is a decisive battle in heaven:

    Rev 12:7 Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back,
    Rev 12:8 but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven.
    Rev 12:9 And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.
    Rev 12:10 And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.

    This event has not yet happened, if our spiritual battle with the powers in heaven is still going on (Eph 6:11-12). Notice the order of events: Satan and all of his angels will be thrown to earth, the beast from the sea will arise and rule and persceute the Christians for three and a half years, until he will be defeated – also in a decisive battle (Rev 19:11-21). Paul speaks ofthe same events in 2Th 2:8-9. Then Satan will be bound for a limted time (of 1000 years).

    The reason I add this is because it rules out a-millenialism that hinges on the idea that Satan is already bound (the millenium in Revelation being the “church-age”), which cannot be the case if Eph 6:11-12. Our spiritual fights with the powers in the heavenlies makes only sense when the enemies of God in the angelic realm are not yet cast out of heaven.


    P.S: One of the great comforts: Satan’s accusations do not impress God. He is on our side even though He knows our works and deals with them in the seven letters!

  8. BeABerean says:

  9. Pingback: 1 Corinthians 10:19-24 (authority, expedience, and edification) | One In Jesus

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