When an evil spirit goes out of a person, it travels over dry country looking for a place to rest. If it can’t find one, it says to itself, ‘I will go back to my house.’ So it goes back and finds the house empty, clean, and all fixed up. Then it goes out and brings along seven other spirits even worse than itself, and they come and live there. So when it is all over, that person is in worse shape than at the beginning. This is what will happen to the evil people of this day.
Whenever I read this before, in my normal manner of just kind of skimming over what is being said by Jesus, I always thought this was a simple scripture about deliverance from demons. Now that I reflect on it within the context of his apparent anger about being asked to perform a miracle by some Pharisees and teachers of the Law, I think it’s more of a parable. Or a metaphor. While it may have some applicability to deliverance, I think it’s an indictment of the state of Jewish religion.
As I researched it a little more, I found some writings by a guy named Alfred Edersheim who lived in the 1800s. He was a Jew who converted to Christianity and was a recognized Biblical scholar known for his book The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Here’s what he had to say about this passage:
As compared with the other nations of the world, Israel was like a house from which the demon of idolatry had gone out with all his attendants, really the ‘Beel-Zibbul’ whom they dreaded. And then the house had been swept of all the foulness and uncleanness of idolatry, and garnished with all manner of Pharisaic adornments.
Yet all this while the house was left really empty; God was not there; the Stronger One, Who alone could have resisted the Strong One, held not rule in it. And so the demon returned to it again, to find the house whence he had come out, swept and garnished indeed, but also empty and defenceless.
So this house, swept of the foulness of heathenism and adorned with all the self-righteousness of Pharisaism, but empty of God, would only become a more suitable and more secure habitation of Satan; because, from its cleanness and beauty, his presence and rule there as an evil spirit would not be suspected.
So, to continue the illustrative language of Christ, he came back ‘with seven other spirits more wicked than himself’ -pride, self -righteousness, unbelief, and the like, the number seven being general – and thus the last state – Israel without the foulness of gross idolatry and garnished with all the adornments of Pharisaic devotion to the study and practice of the Law – was really worse than had been the first with all its open repulsiveness.
To make a long story short, he’s saying that after the Jews returned from exile and rebuilt the temple, their emphasis was on combating idolatry (the worship of other gods) by demanding strict obedience to the letter of the Law of Moses. Jesus said that they were successful in this effort. However, somewhere along the line, their zeal to make things “clean and all fixed up,” they forgot about God. He said that the house (referring to the temple or religious practice in general) was empty because God had left the building. So now things were even worse. Religious practice had become the new idolatry. Idolatry had returned in the guise of religion but they failed to recognize it. Along with the original spirit of idolotry, the pretense of religion was accompanied by other evils that Edersheim refers to – pride, self-righteousness, unbelief. One might also add many others like legalism, insensitivity, skewed priorities, meanness and pettiness to name a few. Many other demons.
I would disagree with Edersheim, however, about the reference to “seven” spirits as arbitrary. In the Jewish tradition the number seven is significant because it is the number of days that it took God to create the earth. It is the number of “completion.” So when he says that the house has seven evil spirits, it is completely evil.
Further, in Proverbs seven sins are listed. Maybe these are the seven evil spirits that Jesus is referring to:
There are seven things that the LORD hates and cannot tolerate:
• A proud look,
• a lying tongue,
• hands that kill innocent people,
• a mind that thinks up wicked plans,
• feet that hurry off to do evil,
• a witness who tells one lie after another,
• and someone who stirs up trouble among friends. (Proverbs 6:16-19)
Finally, the last line in this scripture, “This is what will happen to the evil people of this day” is a direct reference back to the first thing he says after they request the miracle (see Day 121) “How evil and godless are the people of this day!”
I think it all ties together nicely. In this instance, I’m pretty sure I am hearing what Jesus has to say. And I think it’s must as much of a danger today as back then. When a church starts running smoothly and efficiently, they stop relying on God. Without the presence of God, then pretty soon pride, gossip, troublemaking, legalism, judgmentalism and all the rest of it start slipping in. A lot of drama is a sure sign that God has left the building. In our times one of the dangers is that the church becomes a business enterprise instead of a house of prayer. The only thing that can turn it around is a serious shift in priorities. God’s Holy Spirit never turns down an invitation by the church. But the Holy Spirit needs to be the one in charge, the one making the decisions. The Spirit tends to slip out the back door when ignored.
So, it’s better if a church is not a “clean” house. I have learned that when God is there it can get messy. There may be people with serious problems. There may be homeless people. There may be creative people. The kitchen may be messy because there’s so much eating going on. The building may be messy because people are always hanging out at the church. The services may be messy because there is deliverance, or healing, or shouting, or dancing, or celebrating or crying. There may be sounds or sights that are not of this world. There may be miracles that make people uncomfortable. The church may become so generous that it loses its financial reserves. When the Holy Spirit takes over you never know what will happen because God if full of surprises for his people. But spirituality without the spirit part is pretty useless. It may be “clean and all fixed up” but Jesus would say it’s godless and evil. He likes the messy stuff.
What does this scripture say to you?