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The World-Rulers of this Darkness (Powers and Principalities, Pt. 2)

This series of articles contends that the Bible is set in the land of wild things. That is, the Bible is more fantastical—beautiful, dangerous, and strange—than we give it credit for. What we incorrectly call the natural and the supernatural, as if they are distinct and isolated realms, are actually part of a single, fascinating, and intertwined world. In the Bible, heaven and earth are constantly interacting and alive with all kinds of creatures, forces, and powers—both seen and unseen.

What are these powers? What do they do in the world? How do they operate? How do they relate to God, to humans, and to the story of rescue and redemption the Bible tells? It’s past time we re-engage the Bible’s overlooked story of the powers. The six articles cover the following major biblical topics:

  1. Ladies and Gentlemen, Meet the Powers
  2. The World-Rulers of this Darkness
  3. The Law and the Great Accuser
  4. Enslaving Creation
  5. The Secret Wisdom of God in Christ
  6. The Powers and the People of Jesus Today

* I am especially indebted to G. B. Caird’s small book Principalities and Powers for the main outline of this series (based on his Chancellor’s Lectures in 1954 at Queen’s University).


What’s wrong with the world?

The biblical answer: it’s complicated.

Humans have certainly lost their way. The overt story of the Bible is about divine image-bearers refusing to fully step into their fundamental vocation. Humans, made to reflect God’s purposes for the world, have instead become agents of creation’s undoing. This is central.

But there’s more. Alongside the storyline of people behaving badly there is one about another group of powerful creatures who’ve gone wrong. These two storylines are deeply intertwined and overlapping, each one influencing the other.

Two passages from the Psalms help us get our bearings on these other creatures, the powers:

The heavens will acclaim Your wonder, O Lord,
   Your faithfulness, too, in the assembly of the holy ones.
For who in the skies can compare to the Lord,
   who can be like the Lord among the the sons of the gods?
A God held in awe in the council of the holy,
   mighty and fearsome above all his surroundings.
Lord, God of Armies, who is like You,
   powerful Yah, with your faithfulness round You?
-from Psalm 89 (The Hebrew Bible, Robert Alter)

These “sons of the gods,” these “armies” and “holy ones,” constitute the heavenly council or assembly. They are clearly powerful spiritual beings, yet they are not equal to the Lord who is mighty and wonderful above them.

The collection of psalms about God’s enthronement as High King (Psalms 95-99) regularly reference the one true God’s place above all other gods. The gods of the nations are but idols, falsely claiming that they are due worship. Yahweh alone is truly Lord Sabaoth, the Lord over the Hosts.

But then we learn another crucial piece of information:

God takes His stand in the divine assembly,
   in the midst of the gods He renders judgment.
“How long will you judge dishonestly,
   and show favor to the wicked?
Do justice to the poor and the orphan.
   Vindicate the lowly and the wretched.
Free the poor and the needy,
   from the hand of the wicked save them.
. . . As for Me, I had thought you were gods,
   and the sons of the Most High were you all.
Yet indeed like humans you shall die,
   and like one of the princes, fall.”
-from Psalm 82 (The Hebrew Bible, Alter)

Wait a minute. Aren’t humans the ones who judge dishonestly and neglect the poor? Isn’t it wicked human rulers who fail to care for the needy and in fact oppress them?

Again and again the prophets enter charges against people failing to do justice. Yet here we see God directly assigning blame to the world’s spiritual powers for the injustices that takes place on earth. He renders judgment against them, even saying these gods will die.

Fallen humans are responsible for the world’s evil.

Fallen spiritual powers are responsible for the world’s evil.

The Bible says “Yes” to both of these statements.

The Deep Connection Between Humans and Powers

It helps to put the biblical pieces together to understand how this works. In Daniel 10–12 we see an angel responding to Daniel’s fasting and mourning with a crucial message. “The prince of the kingdom of Persia” and “the prince of Greece” are in active warfare against this angel and also against “Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people.” Angelic powers and nations go together – indeed, they seem bound together in some essential way.

We know from the regular prophetic denunciations against injustice that human institutions and systems are implicated, including such things as the way the law courts work and how economic structures function to favor the rich and harm the poor. So the entire realm of human cultural power is now tied to dark spiritual powers.

This, in turn, leads the Lord of the heavenly council to combine his judgments against both parties. So in Isaiah we see Yahweh showing up with punishment on his mind:

On that day the Lord will punish
   the host of heaven, in heaven,
   and the kings of the earth, on the earth.
They will be gathered together
   as prisoners in a pit;
they will be shut up in a prison,
   and after many days they will be punished.
-from Isaiah 24 (RSV)

Notice the strong emphasis on one party working in heaven, while the other operates on the earth. They are operating in different, but connected, realms. Destructive evil is their joint accomplishment.

The running of the world—the world in rebellion to God—is not merely in the hands of presidents, prime ministers, and kings. It is equally governed by the angelic rulers of the heavenly assembly, the world-rulers of this darkness.

The biblical evidence points toward created angelic beings who were given their authority by the Creator. They were meant to serve under God and facilitate his purposes for a well-ordered world. Their delegated rule was misdirected, however, particularly when they began to accept the idolatrous worship of humans. They became powerful forces for evil, for ruining God’s good creation.

Daniel has visions of wicked kings on earth who appear as terrible beasts coming up out of the sea (the regular home of chaos monsters in the Bible). These human kingdoms, working in concert with the powers, are represented as beasts precisely because they act in subhuman ways. This is another piece of biblical wisdom: when humans or angels seek to be more than they were created to be, they always end up being less.

When humans or angels seek to be more than they were created to be, they always end up being less.

It is perfectly appropriate, then, that the one who defeats these proud but false rulers is “one like a son of man.” A truly human one will appear, and as the representative of his now-restored people, he will be given “dominion and glory and kingdom” (Daniel 7).

Humans were made to rule as God’s deputies in the world. So God is determined that the powers be overcome and his people receive the gift of their own rule back again.

The First Testament testifies to spiritual powers which have turned false and enslaved of the world. They disrupt God’s intentions for the functioning and flourishing of the world according to true justice. They interfere with the intended role of God’s image-bearers. The names and titles of these powers move straight from the First into the New Testament via the Greek translation of the ancient Scriptures, showing that these are exactly the same powers as before.

So the story awaits a new announcement, some major turning point within this narrative of God and his world. Those under the reign of the dark lords surely need some good news for a change. Something like the arrival of “one like a son of man.”

Powers and Principalities: The Bible’s Most Overlooked Storyline

Maurice Sendak’s parents were poor Jewish immigrants to the United States from Poland. Their family that stayed behind were all killed in the Holocaust. The weekly Sunday afternoon gatherings of his extended family in Brooklyn brought in aunts and uncles that Maurice would later describe as “all crazy—crazy faces and wild eyes.”

These visits inspired Sendak to write the famous children’s book Where the Wild Things Are—the story of Max and his adventures in a faraway and fantastical land. In the story, Max’s mother calls him “WILD THING!”—a phrase derived from the Yiddish “vilde chaya” (or “wild animals”) to describe rambunctious children. Max is drawn to the wild side of life, but in the end he rediscovers the appeal of home, calmness, and a still-warm supper.

My contention in this series of articles is that the Bible itself is set in the land of wild things. That is, the Bible is more fantastical—beautiful, dangerous, and strange—than we give it credit for. What we incorrectly call the natural and the supernatural, as if they are distinct and isolated realms, are actually part of a single, fascinating, and intertwined world. In the Bible, heaven and earth constantly interact and are alive with all kinds of creatures, forces, and powers—both seen and unseen.

What are these powers? What do they do in the world? How do they operate? How do they relate to God, to humans, and to the story of rescue and redemption the Bible tells? It’s past time we re-engage the Bible’s overlooked story of the powers. The six articles cover the following major biblical topics:

  1. Ladies and Gentlemen, Meet the Powers
  2. The World-Rulers of this Darkness
  3. The Law and the Great Accuser
  4. Enslaving Creation
  5. The Secret Wisdom of God in Christ
  6. The Powers and the People of Jesus Today

Ladies and Gentlemen, Meet the Powers

The Bible is enchanted. That is, the Bible is literally words with power. It tells us how we’ve come to be enslaved. It tells us of the coming of the Word that can break the spell that lies over the human race, indeed, over the entire creation.

Unfortunately, many of our interactions with the Bible end up treating it as a very tame book. We’ve worked pretty hard to make the Bible into a nice, tidy, even rationalistic collection of true, but very calm religious propositions.

We’ve missed the enchanted part and mostly just embraced the tame part. In a world like ours, it’s very easy to live as functional deists—we believe there is a God, but we often end up acting like he’s essentially abandoned things and left us to run the world ourselves. We may believe, vaguely, that there are other spiritual beings around, but again, we act like they don’t really matter much. When we do this, we practice a naturalistic worldview. Christians often identify the 18th-century Enlightenment as the cause of much of the anti-religious bias in the world, but then we ourselves too often live our lives as if the Enlightenment view of the world is the operative one.

In a world like ours, it’s very easy to live as functional deists

There are, of course, some expressions of the Christian faith that are very much alive to the existence of the spiritual realm. These communities will talk about demons and spirits and their devastating and destructive role. But even here the way these spirits function within this worldview doesn’t always seem to line up with the story of the powers we encounter in the Bible.

We need to take another, closer look at the biblical story, and particularly the story about the powers and principalities. For they play a decisive role in the Bible’s life-or-death drama.

As always here at the Institute for Bible Reading, I begin by advocating that we read the Bible as a collection, not of verses, but of unique and quite literary books. Once books are taken seriously as the basic building blocks of the Bible, then we can look for the narrative thread that ties them together into a coherent whole.

Our job in this series is to understand and incorporate into our own biblical worldview the kind of story the Bible actually weaves. That story is not what we normally take it to be. For the Bible is not only the story of God and humanity. It is the story of God, humanity, and the powers.


In the Bible, the powers are seemingly sometimes personal, sometimes impersonal, but they are always big. They are most often forces of evil on a grand scale, typically interacting with human beings in rebellion to God. There is no systematic theology of the powers in the Bible, and it’s probably not a good use of time to try and create one. The topic is complex, and as it moves along with the storyline of the Bible, things change (as they tend to do in stories).

We begin at the very beginning, which I have on reliable authority is a very good place to start. Are the powers there at the creation of the world?

Speaking of the beloved Son of God, Paul writes to the Colossians:

For in him all things were created,
In the heavens and here on earth.
Things we can see and things we cannot—
Thrones and lordships and rulers and powers—
All things were created both through him and for him.

He is ahead, prior to all else,
And in him all things hold together . . .
– the song of the Son from The Kingdom New Testament

So the first thing to be said of the powers is that they were meant to be, and meant to have a positive function within God’s world. Whatever wrong turn they have taken, Paul goes out of his way to mention them as part of the creation intended to serve the Messiah and his purposes in the world.

How their role was meant to relate to that of God’s image-bearers—the humans—is not entirely clear. As I said, there’s no systematic theology here. We have to coherently piece together the parts of the story as best as we can. But as we follow the narrative trail, we will learn more about how the rule of the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve connects with that of the spiritual principalities and powers.

Paul goes on in his Colossian song concerning the Son to include the powers in the wide scope of Christ’s redemption:

He is the start of it all
. . . So in all things he might be the chief.
For in him all the Fullness was glad to dwell
And through him to reconcile all to himself,
Making peace through the blood of his cross,
Through him—yes, things on the earth,
And also the things in the heavens.

The positive, saving work of Christ is as big and wide as the destructive havoc wreaked in the cosmos from top to bottom. All earthly things and all heavenly things are brought back to God through the Messiah.

By the time we start encountering these hard-to-define beings in the flow of the story, they seem to have already taken up a negative role, and it only gets worse as the story progresses. We will look at how this plays out in more detail for different parties in the narrative: the nations, God’s own people, and even the rest of creation, what is often called nature.


So the major parameters of the story of the powers are set. These powers were created by and for Jesus the Messiah. They have fallen and have been actively working against God’s good intentions for his creation, including humanity. They are included in God’s redemptive plan through Christ to restore all things. This is the basic framework we’ll be working with throughout the series.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that what we are calling the powers are referred to in a wide variety of ways in the Scriptures. It seems that the authors of the Bible didn’t always have the full backstory and weren’t always entirely sure how to go about naming these . . . things.

Here are some of the names we will encounter (treated differently in various translations, of course): the gods, or the sons of God, the heavenly council or the hosts of heaven, the princes of the nations, the unclean spirits, demons, the beasts that rise out of the sea, principalities, thrones, dominions, authorities, the basic elements of the world, the god of this age, the prince of this world, the ruler of the air, the world-rulers of this darkness, and ha satan—the great Accuser.

There they are, right in the middle of the story, and from its beginning to its end. And yet they’ve been neglected. It’s a shortcoming we must start to correct lest we misconstrue the story God is telling us.

If you think the overall story of the Bible has anything at all to do with life in our world today, you have to give the story of the powers its due. We must all pay attention to where the wild things are.

* I am especially indebted to G. B. Caird’s small book Principalities and Powers for the main outline of this series (based on his Chancellor’s Lectures in 1954 at Queen’s University). Most studies on the powers seem to jump straight to Paul’s theology, but Caird helpfully takes the time to look at the powers in the larger biblical story.

Continue to Part 2: The World-Rulers of this Darkness >>>