Yet another prophesy of Israel’s impending doom
Matthew 12:43-45 – “Now when the unclean spirit goes out of a man, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came’; and when it comes, it finds it unoccupied, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and takes along with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.
That is the way it will also be with this evil generation.”
Is Jesus teaching a lesson on the behaviour of demons in this story? One might think so, given that He spoke these words shortly after casting a demon out of a blind mute (verse 22), and answered at length the accusations by the Pharisees that He had done this in the name of Beelzebul (vv24-28).
There are, I believe, good reasons for asserting that Jesus was in fact telling another parable, with (surprise, surprise!) the Jews the punchline.
- The most obvious is the way He ends the story: “That is the way it will also be with this evil generation.” Many, many parables concerning that evil generation are given, and yet many, many Christians believe Jesus was referring to someone other than the Jews living at that time. I don’t want to go into this particular theme in this study, however: I just want to talk about how Jesus was, in this case, referring to what would happen to that evil generation. To get back to the point, Jesus is obviously using the story of the unclean spirit as an illustration for what would happen to that generation.
- If Jesus were in any way referring literally to the casting out of the demon performed earlier, then what does it say about the character of Jesus? Almost matter-of-fact, Jesus explains that removing the demon does not help the man in the long run: it puts him into a worse state, with multiple demons now inhabiting his body! Was that the reason Jesus cast the demon out of the man? For that matter, was that the fate of all of the people Jesus ‘healed’ by casting out various demons: to inflict even greater suffering on them?
- If Jesus were referring to His earlier exercise, then He would have been talking about a specific demon and its specific victim. He would have said, “Now when the unclean spirit goes out of the man…”
He uses the definite article for the spirit, but not for the man: “Now when the unclean spirit goes out of a man…” He is not referring to a real situation, but putting forward a hypothetical case, talking about a certain unclean spirit. He might as well have said, “There was a certain unclean spirit, which went out of a man…”
So, the fate of the evil generation was like that of the unfortunate man who thought he was cleansed of an unclean spirit, but fell victim to multiple boarders.
Let’s summarise the points of the parable, and see if they fit the fate of the Jews.
- The man was possessed by an unclean spirit.
- The unclean spirit left the man. It was probably not willing to leave him, because it obviously was unsuccessfully seeking rest before deciding to go back.
- It comes back to the man, and finds it operating as normal.
- It brings several other spirits, more evil than itself.
- The man’s state is much worse because of it.
Now, I have learned that – unlike what I thought in my childhood – the Jews were not living more or less peacefully with the Romans until Rome suddenly decided to invade Jerusalem. The history of the Roman occupation of Judea was filled with riots, rebellions, and wars. There were false prophets and “Messiahs” who led Jews to rise up against the Romans, and factions of Jews who slaughtered other Jews who did not follow them. Jesus hinted (not very subtly) at that in detail (Matthew 24:4-8).
Here is a nutshell history of the destruction of Jerusalem:
- 64AD: Gessius Florus was appointed procurator to Judea by Emperor Nero. Florus was notoriously greedy and unjust, and was credited by Josephus (Jewish historian, at one time commander of Jewish forces but turned collaborator for Romans) as being the primary cause of the Jewish wars. The people started to cry out, and a strong Zealot movement began, leading to rebellion.
- 66AD: Rebellion started in Caesarea and mainly in Jerusalem. In November, Zealots drove out all Roman forces from Jerusalem, slaying some 600 Roman troops.
- Emperor Nero issues two commands: Destroy Jerusalem; Level the temple.
- Vespasian and his son Titus bring forces to accomplish this task, but are repelled.
- Massacres occur throughout Judea.
- Jerusalem has returned to “normal business” in that it has the appearance of independence; pilgrimages are made again to celebrate Passover etc. In fact, it was during one such pilgrimage, when the city was stuffed to the gills with people, the infamous Roman siege was laid, stretching already stretched resources beyond limits in a very short time.
- 70AD: Jerusalem was besieged. Meanwhile, the Jews, who had the strength to repel the Romans, spent much of their energy and resources fighting and slaughtering each other. By the time the Romans attacked the city, the Jews were already a spent force.
- The Roman legions, led by Titus, were augmented by legions from far and wide, and even non-Roman armies who were enemies to the Jews.
Needless to say, Jerusalem didn’t have a chance, and the rest is history.
What do we see in this history?
We see a man, possessed by an unclean spirit (Rome). The unclean spirit leaves (reluctantly). The decision is made to return. It finds the “house” unoccupied and in order. Business as usual. It brings with it other, fiercer spirits, and the condition of the man is worse than before.
So these spirits are Roman armies?
The interesting thing is, Jesus may well have meant actual spiritual forces as well. At the time of Jesus, there was certainly intense spiritual activity in Judea. Jesus and the disciples cast out demons all over the place, and continued well after Jesus’ resurrection. Where did they go? Well, if the accounts given of the conditions leading up to the temple’s destruction are anything to go by, I’d say the demons were alive and active right there and then, in greater number and fierceness! What else would account for the insane self-slaughter of the Jews in their factions within Jerusalem, with their common enemy just outside the gates? How else could one describe the unbelievable horrors that led to suicides, cannibalism and despair? Without going into the horrible details, I could simply say that this situation described Jesus’ man in the parable pretty well.
Luke 23:28-31 – But Jesus turning to them said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, stop weeping for Me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’ Then they will begin TO SAY TO THE MOUNTAINS, ‘FALL ON US,’ AND TO THE HILLS, ‘COVER US.’…”
I believe we have here both a physical (as in human, natural) as well as spiritual (as in ethereal, supernatural) explanation for this parable: it is the fate of the doomed Jews, unless they should repent and follow Jesus.
The context demands it – Jesus is not chatting about the demon He had just cast out, but about the wickedness of the Jews.
Logic demands it – How could Jesus ‘heal’ a man and then go on about how that man is about to suffer even more?
“That is the way it will also be with this evil generation.” History tells us that this was fulfilled, and that when Jesus talked about “this generation”, He was talking about those living at that time.
Matthew 23:34-36 – “Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city, so that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.”