However, like many words which have been overused, a specific instance of the word has become the common usage--to the point of creating misunderstandings. The general term for "Accuser" (satan) has become so commonly associated with the Devil that we tend to want to read that into any passage in which a "satan" is referenced. For example, when Jesus uses the word “satan” to refer to Peter (Matt 16:23), people wrongly sometimes say that Peter was possessed by the devil: not so! Jesus is calling him an adversary, someone who is working against the cause of God. So be careful that you do not necessarily believe that any use of satan is applied to the Devil. As you can see with a simple concordance search, sometimes a “satan” is just a human adversary, or even a holy angel of the Lord.
So, that being said, let us see what we can about the devil in the passages where satan does refer to our enemy.
Job 1:6-7 says (replacing “satan” with its translation, “Adversary”):
“Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and the Adversary also came among them. The Lord said to the Adversary, ‘From where have you come?’ The Adversary answered the Lord and said, ‘From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.’ “
So you see a few interesting things here. First, the devil can enter the throne room of heaven. He is not banned from it (that will come later, as we will learn). In fact, he is required to come before it, to present himself before the Lord along with the sons of God (the angels). (We find out why he appears along with the angels later.) We also learn that he travels throughout the earth—without God’s permission (“From where have you come?”).
As we move into the rest of Job 1, we find out that the Adversary speaks to God against the righteous. Job, who is upright, makes God proud. God presents Job to the angels like a proud father, saying, “there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man” (Job 1:8). Some misinterpret this passage as 'baiting' the Devil; "Look," they say, "God is the one flaunting Job in front of the devil!" But such is not the case at all. God calls all the angels together and presents one of His children proudly before all of them--not just the Accuser. Reading the passage with fresh eyes, you get the idea that God does this with some regularity--perhaps the same way that you or I might brag about our kids with friends.
But the Adversary (who is there with the other angels) stands up and interrupts at this point. He says that Job’s righteousness is only because God gives him life on a ‘silver platter’, so to speak – the devil says that if God would make things hard on Job, Job would crumble.
What is really interesting to me here is how the devil uses the opposite argument to God that he used against Eve. To Eve, he argued that God was withholding good things from her. To God, He argues that God is giving too many good things to Job! The devil is trying to play both sides against the middle: he tries to convince us that God is the reason for our struggles; he tries to convince God that our faithfulness is only because he is good to us.
Because of his argument, God decides to appoint the devil to test Job's faith. God wishes to prove that Job's faith is genuine. The devil thus goes out and does the things that God told him to do.
From this passage, we learn that the devil cannot do anything to Job without God’s approval. He must ask God’s approval to do things to us. When given permission, though, he clearly has a great deal of power: he is given the authority to incite war (1:15, 1:17), call down fire from heaven (1:16), control storms (1:19), and create physical ailments (2:7). We see also that the devil is a master at timing and coordination (note how all of the messengers arrived at the same time in 1:15-17).
These things are rather scary. However, note also the severe limitations: he appears to have to ask for God’s permission to do anything at all other than passively accuse us (e.g., 2:5). Furthermore, the devil is not omnipresent (everywhere at once)—he locates a physical location, and must travel “to and fro” around the earth to get to different people. (Now, he may travel at light speed, but he still cannot be both here and in Russia at the same moment in time).
Furthermore, there is a clear implication here: the Adversary asks specifically to be allowed to do these things in an extraordinary way to Job. That is, this is not a ‘normal’ or standard request. There is nothing at all to imply that all of the other wars, and storms, and physical ailments, are anything other than natural—this is a special case and not a typical ‘day at the office’ for the devil. In fact, it is so unusual that it warranted being recorded as a book of Scripture!
Now these comments are in total opposition to the way some interpret the Devil. Far too many Christians today see the Devil as the 'evil twin' of Jesus. Recently, a friend-of-a-friend was at a church service when a tornado came through. The tornado narrowly missed the church (though it did kill 2 and put 60 people out of their homes further down its path). This friend-of-a-friend stated, "Satan is trying to ruin our services, but God won't let him!"
Do you see the wrongness of this theology? He is saying that (a) the Devil started the tornado; (b) he aimed at the church; but (c) God stepped in and redirected it. This is completely wrong. The book of Job would indicate that the Devil could only start the tornado if God gave him permission and told him the limitations of using it. It isn't that the Devil did something that caught God off guard and then He stepped in and narrowly averted disaster! Far from it - if the Devil created that particular tornado, then God said, "Here is the path you can take, here are the people who can be killed, and here are the homes that can be destroyed."
In other words, the Devil can only act within the specific boundaries God gives him. And the testimony of the book of Job seems to be that the Devil's excessive persecution on a physical basis was an unusual request.
So can the Devil bring tornados? You bet! Can he do it without God's knowledge or approval? No. Is the Devil the normal 'cause' behind tornados? Again, no - they are the natural result of our world's physical laws. They can be from the Devil--but that is not the normal way of things.
Moving out of Job, the next use of the term satan shows up with regard to David’s census. In 2 Samuel 24:1, we are told that “the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah.” In 1 Chronicles 21:1, we are told, “Satan stood up against Israel and moved David to number Israel.”
There are three different ways of looking at this: (1) this is a textual error (either a contradiction or a mistake in copying); (2) the Chronicles verse is using satan as a generic term for “adversary”, with God being the adversary—in other words, God here is the satan/adversary; or (3) God (at least in some instances) dispatches the Devil (satan ) with a command to carry out His wrath.
In my mind, the third solution is clearly the correct one when taken with regard to the rest of Scripture. God chose the Devil to be the angel who would be carrying out His wrath on Israel in this case. (This could lead one to wonder if the Devil is always the angel who is assigned as the agent of God’s wrath; was he the “angel of death” in Exodus? Of course, this is idle speculation and nothing which is verifiable from the text.) What we can conclude here is that (likely) God was angry and chose to move David to number Israel – and He assigned this task to the Devil to carry out.
Now think this through—the Devil had to comply with God’s wishes, even though it was to further God’s plan. When God wants to do something, the Devil does not even fight it—he will follow God’s direct order without question, even though it is bringing about God’s desires rather than the Devil’s.
Zechariah’s vision in Zech 3 also contains a reference to the Adversary. He is again seen as standing in the throne room of heaven. He is contrasted to the angel of God in this passage. The agenda of the Devil is explicitly said to accuse the Lord’s high priest (Zech 3:1). So again we see confirmation that his primary role is to accuse.
This is the final use of the term satan to describe the devil. So now we add a few more things to the list of what we know about the Devil:
1. The devil is clever and works against God’s people subtly.
2. The devil deceived Eve (and us) by trying to convince us that God withholds good from us, and thus cannot be trusted.
3. He is subservient to God, and does not directly fight Him.
4. He presents himself before God in the throne room of heaven, along with the angels.
5. His primary action is to accuse us before God as being unworthy of His love.
6. He is not omni-present (i.e., he can only be in one place at a time).
7. He is not allowed to harm us without God’s explicit approval.
8. When given authorization, the devil has a great deal of power, including the ability to bring down fire from heaven, incite riots/armies, control storms, and cause physical sickness.
9. Being given such permission does not seem to be the ‘ordinary’ course of things, but does happen in extraordinary cases.
10. God sometimes dispatches the devil to carry out His orders—and the devil follows the commandment, even when it does not support the devil’s agenda.
11. While the devil (to our knowledge) always does what God orders him to do, it appears that (unless under direct order), he is free to roam ‘to and fro’ across the earth and act independently from God’s will.