In the bible, the serpent is used as a metaphor for the devil. The serpent uses lies to tempt and persuade people to sin. After their sins have made them vulnerable, the serpent gains spiritual power over them.
The serpent or snake is a commonly used metaphor to describe a deceptive or treacherous person. In our culture, serpents have long been identified and associated with evil. Presumably, their association with evil comes from the bible, where the serpent is one of many names given to Satan himself (Revelation 12.9).
Of course reasonable people know that literal snakes are not evil, and that in the bible the serpent is used as a symbol to convey deeper knowledge. It would seem very immature to conclude that because the devil is called the serpent, that serpents are agents of the devil. Snakes have served man well for thousands of years by eating rats, mice, and other vermin that destroy crops, infest homes, and caused untold suffering through the spread of disease.
It's a sad commentary that some Christians feel a need to hate a particular animal because they don't understand the usage and intent behind biblical metaphor. While we shouldn't tolerate dangerous or poisonous animals where we live and work, snakes are not demonic servants of the devil.
So why does the bible use this metaphor of a serpent to describe evil? What are the salient characteristics of a serpent that would cause God to choose this animal as opposed to some other animal? It turns out that there is a lot more being said in the serpent metaphor than is common knowledge.
Any general or strategist will tell you that if one wants to have success in dealing with a particular enemy, one must have intelligence or information about that enemy. One must be able to identify their enemy's habits, motivations, and behaviors. The bible informs us about our main spiritual enemy through the metaphor of the serpent. Therefore, the serpent metaphor is an insight into the nature of the devil, and how he operates in the world. The serpent metaphor reveals the devil's tactics and modus operandi, through which he takes control of people's lives.
Serpents are essentially ambush predators. They don't chase down or pursue their prey, but instead rely on its own carelessness. When the prey happens to get too close, or allows the snake to get too close, the serpent will quickly strike and envenomate it. The serpent will then back off, and allow its venom to go to work. It waits in the shadows while the venom quickly paralyzes, digests, and destroys the animal from the inside out. When its prey finally succombs, and is completely helpless, then the serpent will swallow it whole. This is the serpent's survival strategy, and how it derives sustenance from other creatures. It doesn't use brute force, but relies on its own stealthiness and the power if its venom.
Naturally, the devil doesn't go around literally biting and poisoning people, but he does overpower and consume them on a spiritual level. He increases his power over them in a pattern that is similar to the way that natural serpents hunt and feed. The venom of the biblical serpent is not a literal poison, but something more insidious and clandestine, that happens to relate to another of a snake's characteristics.
The serpent's poison through which he overpowers mankind is the incredible deceptive power of his lies. The forked tongue of the serpent is a symbol of this propensity for dishonesty and deception. From the beginning, the devil has been a liar and a father of lies (John 8.44). He uses the power of his lies to create dissension between man and God. God is of course more powerful than the devil, but as the spiritual estrangement between man and God becomes greater, man becomes more susceptible to the serpent's authority.
So spiritually speaking, the devil's venom is his lies, and his lies act like a spiritual toxin, working to destroy and incapacitate those listening to him. In this way, the serpent uses his lies and deceptions to hold a place of power over the world, at the top of the spiritual food chain.
How does the serpent actually use his lies to destroy people? In other words, what is the process through which the serpent enslaves people with his venomous lies?
What basically all lies have in common is that they create false thoughts and distorted perceptions within people. The devil creates false perceptions within people so that they think and act in ways that increasingly alienate them from God. God is the truth and the light, and as one drifts away from God, the devil is free to increasingly exercise authority over that person.
That's not to say that the serpent is behind every false perception and mistruth that is in the world, because man can certainly err on his own. However, many of the most destructive lies originate with the serpent, and he is a spiritual trafficker of lies, sowing them throughout the the world.
There isn't one set type of lie that the serpent uses to deceive, but he tailors them to people's individual dispositions, weaknesses, and insecurities. These false thoughts and perceptions are unique for each person, and operate within them at their basic spiritual level. The serpent can puff up and flatter people, getting them to think they are special, and have a right to mistreat others. He can get people to feel like victims that are owed something.
Sometimes he will give false hopes, that lead people astray and into traps. Other times, he will steal away what has the potential to be real hope, "Those [seeds] by the way side are they that hear; then cometh the devil, and taketh away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved" (Luke 8.12 KJV bible).
The serpent's lies will tear people down, and make them feel worthless and alone, as if they have no place in the world. In some, he creates a spirit of self-righteousness and false honor, so that they only see other people's flaws. The serpent will often influence people's values, so that they seek after meaningless things, and deny the people and things that are important. He will attack any aspect of someone's life that he can, from their self-perceptions, to their relationships, to their perceptions of the past. Whether positive or negative, all the serpent's lies are distortions of reality that push us toward sin, and sow seeds of destruction in our lives.
While some of the serpent's lies are more targeted, there are some that seem to work on a lot of people. One of his simplest and most common lies is that we'd be happy if only we got our way all the time. Another common strategy is to make sin look cool and exciting, as if there are no bad consequences for those who revel in it (he gets a lot of help from the entertainment industry on this one). Among groups of people, the serpent will often work to inflame feelings of anger, hatred, and fear, so that they react to their false emotions. Many of the serpent's lies have led to great chaos, war, and suffering.
One favorite tactic of the serpent is to appeal to our fleshly desires and weaknesses, "And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred. And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread" (Matthew 4.2-3 KJV bible).
Here the serpent attempts to corrupt Jesus, by getting him to use his power for personal gain and satisfaction, even for something as simple as bread. Of course his efforts were futile because our Lord cannot be tempted, even when the devil offers him all the kingdoms of the world (Matthew 4.8-10). Whether building people up on false foundations and promises, or plunging them into hopelessness, the serpent's intention is the same; increasing sin and alienation from God.
Perceptions and beliefs control our thoughts, which in turn control our actions. We grow up in a kingdom of lies, and as certain lies take root in our minds, they affect our thoughts. These thoughts then culminate in the temptation and compulsion to sin through our words and actions.
The serpent's lies work to constantly blind us to the spiritual reality of our own culpabilities. When our thought process is guided by these lies and false perceptions instead of the truth, we cannot make righteous choices. Then when the lies lead us to sin, the venom has finished its job, and the result is spiritual incapacitation and death, "For the wages of sin is death..." (Romans 6.23 KJV bible) (see also Saved from Spiritual Death). Thereby the serpent metaphor is complete, and he is able to digest us on a spiritual level.
When we succomb to the lies of the serpent, we can enter a kind of "death spiral" that we have all experienced to some degree. When our sins increase, we drive an increasingly larger wedge between us and God. This gives the serpent more power over us, making us more susceptible to his lies. We often respond to the grief and misery that we feel by using sin as an outlet. This can create a downward death spiral, where we try to deal with our grief and misery through sin, but in the end the sin just leads to more grief and misery.
This is similar to the alcoholic who drinks to drown out his sorrows, but the reason he has so many sorrows is because he drinks. Another example is the overeater who is sad and depressed about his situation and life, and so copes with this grief by overeating even more. The serpent's lies tell us that it's hopeless to resist, and then even if we do resist and overcome one self-destructive behavior, another pops up to take its place.
However, the self-destructive over eater or alcoholic is at the more noble end of the spectrum. Especially, when compared to a person such as a pedophile. This type manages his pain by inflicting that same emotional pain on others, thus spreading evil and sin like a spiritual plague throughout the world. Con-artists are another example of this type, as they are often motivated by the sense of power that they feel by taking advantage of someone else's vulnerability. There are of course a whole host of methods that people use to cope with their own spiritual chaos at someone else's expense.
So whether it is by the destruction of ourselves or others, or often a combination of the two, the very things people instinctively do to feel better, end up driving them deeper into the serpent's clutches. The resulting destruction is the serpent's food. Crawling on his belly through the dust, the serpent feeds on the remnants of people's lives, "upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life" (Genesis 3.14 KJV bible).
Paul alludes to this devastation when he speaks of the devil's snare in 2nd Timothy, "In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; And that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will" (2nd Timothy 2.25-26 KJV bible). Here Paul describes sinners as being spiritually captured in the snare or trap of the devil.
There are many different kinds of snares or traps that hunters use, but a traditional snare trap often involves some kind of noose which the animal runs into, or triggers. The snare works like a slipknot that becomes increasingly tighter around the animal as it struggles to get away, sometimes suffocating it. So with this and many other kinds of traps, it is the instinctive reactions of the animal that cause it to become more entangled, and less likely to get away.
Similarly, the serpent's trap is like a snare that further entangles its victims by their reactions to what has occurred. Their innate responses and actions cause them to become increasingly bound so that they are unwittingly surrendering to him.
The word that is translated here as "recover" (Greek: ananayfo), means literally to regain one's senses from an intoxicated state. Paul uses this word to describe sinners recovering or escaping from the trap of the serpent. In other words, rather than being physically held captive, they are spiritually trapped in a cloud of lies and delusions that prevent them from thinking and seeing clearly. As opposed to an external trap, they are trapped internally by a venomous cocktail of lies.
This is why the passage says in the Greek that sinners are taken captive "unto his will", meaning unto serving the devil's will. A lot of commentators fumble with this sentence, but it makes sense in the context of this discussion. The devil's trap is a snare of lies that spiritually entangles its victims through their own sins. Once entangled in the serpents lies, they are held captive according to his will, and the authority that he has gained over them.
This might come across as though I am making excuses for the evil deeds of the wicked. It might seem as if I am saying that because the serpent lies to people and uses them, that their sins are his fault. If sinners are trapped under the serpent's influence, then how can they be held accountable for their own actions? One could argue that they are just doing what seems right, or at least practical, according to their own spurious perceptions.
While it's true that people get used and manipulated by the serpent, it's also true that they will be held responsible for their sins. We know that all people sin, and are susceptible to the serpent's lies in one way or another. However, its up the individual how far they are willing to go, and in this respect they are accountable. The serpent doesn't take over and control every aspect of every person's life, but probes for weaknesses and areas of control, through which he can gain a foot hold.
Even though the serpent has a foothold in the lives of all the unsaved, many of them have engrained values and moral codes, and cannot be prodded to do evil things beyond a certain point. Their natural empathies and boundaries of right and wrong create inner conflicts that prevent them from being fully entrapped, "For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves" (Romans 2.14 KJV bible). So even though nonbelievers dwell in spiritual darkness and have no real fellowship with God, some do have an innate revulsion to evil, and refuse to be manipulated beyond certain points.
All people succomb to sin, but there are some individuals who are drawn to the serpent's lies more than others. For these wicked ones, the devil's lies serve to liberate them through the realization of their innermost desires. The serpent provides them with a spirit of self-righteousness and justification for their wicked deeds.
The wicked embrace the lies of their spiritual father, and willingly render themselves unto his purposes, "Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it. And because I tell you the truth, ye believe me not" (John 8.44-45 KJV bible).
Loving the wages of unrighteousness, they serve their master, and have no yearning for the light and truth of God. They despise the truth because it stands against who they are, and what they feel in their hearts. To the wicked, the serpent's lies are a gospel of power. He is their spiritual overlord, using lies to serve their mutual interests of narcissism and self-glorification.
The serpent's lies are very sinister because they influence our perceptions, together with our thought processes. The problem with overcoming the serpent's lies, is that we as people have no foundation of truth with which to expose and defeat them. One cannot have the power to reject a lie unless one has some truth or insight that undermines and exposes that lie. There is no innate yard stick within us, or the world, to spiritually distinguish between the truth and the lies. Just because we want to believe something, doesn't make it true, and just because we don't want to believe something, doesn't make it a lie.
Further, the lies corrupt our thought process itself, so regardless of how intelligent we are, we cannot overcome the false presumptions and errors that entangle us. There are just too many lies, and too many possibilities for us to have a clear vantage point with which to perceive and understand the world. A lot of the lies operate within us at a subconscious level, so we aren't even aware of them, much less able to defeat them.
For those of us who have experienced it, salvation is like slowly finding our way out of a dark tomb, and into the light of day (John 5.21). In this process, we are drawn out of the confusion and darkness of the world, and into the light of Christ. In the light, we can perceive what is happening spiritually, and distinguish between the truth and the lies
"Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life" (John 8.12 KJV bible). In Christ, we have freedom from the lies, because we are no longer being continually shackled and blinded by our sins. When we understand the Word, he gives us light and life, becoming a true frame of reference within our souls. Therefore, we can identify and uproot the serpent's lies, so that they no longer find shelter within us.
Christ is the antidote to the poisoning of lies that has bound and sickened us our entire lives. In him, we are finally cut loose from the serpent's snare, and sobered up from the cloud of deceit that afflicts us. When we believe in the Word, we are spiritually immunized to the serpent's venom.
This is why when Paul is bitten by a serpent, he suffers no ill effects, "And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand. And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live. And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm" (Acts 28.3-5 KJV bible).
The bite is described as being very severe, with the serpent hanging off his hand. Yet by the power of God, Paul is completely unphased by it. This miracle symbolizes how Christ was immunizing and protecting Paul from the power of the serpent. The Word had formed a foundation of truth within Paul, so that he was spiritually impervious to the enemy's lies, "Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you" (Luke 10.5 KJV bible).
When we understand the biblical usage of the serpent metaphor we can begin to have a more mature perspective on what the bible really teaches. The bible is a composite of reality itself, giving us insight into every detail of how the world works on a spiritual level, including the modus operandi of our adversary, the serpent. He's not some cartoon character trying to blow up the world, but he is a predator who can wreak havoc and devastation in the lives of those who succomb to his lies. The bible guides us to spiritual freedom from these lies, through the light and authority of Jesus Christ.
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