Debating Bible Basics Duncan Heaster  


Unclean Spirits

Matthew 12: 43-45: “When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest, and findeth none. Then he saith, I will return into my house from whence I came out; and when he is come, he findeth if empty, swept, and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first. Even so shall it be also unto this wicked generation.”

Popular Interpretation

Unclean spirits are said to be servants of the Satan, who are responsible for entering people and making them sin.


1. Neither Satan nor the devil are mentioned as controlling the unclean spirit.

2. That sin comes from within and that nothing from outside a man can enter him and defile him (Mk. 7:15) was proved Biblically in the Debate.

3. Verse 45 concludes, “Even so shall it be also unto this wicked generation”, showing that this passage is meant to be understood as a parable. “Unclean spirit” is a phrase often synonymous with “demons” in the Gospels. We show elsewhere that Jesus was using the language of the day when talking about demons, and so He was here. Jesus was effectively saying, “In the same way as you believe unclean spirits can go out of a man and re-enter him, so this generation was once cleansed, but is soon going to become even worse than it was initially”.

4. This passage is in the context of Matthew 12:22-28, where Jesus uses the common ideas of the Pharisees to disprove their own argument: “Every city or house divided against itself shall not stand: and IF Satan cast out Satan, he is divided against himself...and IF I by Beelzebub cast out devils (demons), by whom do your children cast them out?” So Jesus was not saying He believed in Satan or Beelzebub - indeed, Beelzebub is clearly defined as a pagan idol in 2 Kings 1: 2 - but He was using the language of the day to confound the Jews. So it is not surprising that a few verses later He is talking in parabolic language again about unclean spirits. In the same way as He did not believe in Beelzebub, so He did not believe in unclean spirits.

5. That this passage is parabolic is indicated by Matthew 13:10, where “the disciples came, and said unto Him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables?” Jesus spoke the parables about Beelzebub and unclean spirits on the same day as He told that of the sower (Matt. 12:46; 13:1). The large amount of parabolic language used that day therefore prompted their question.

6. Careful reading indicates that “the unclean spirit” is synonymous with the man, as a deaf demon refers to a deaf man in v. 22 of the same chapter. “When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places...” Walking through a wilderness and deciding to return to one’s house is clearly language applicable to a man. This is all confirmed by the fact that Jesus is almost certainly alluding to a verse in the Septuagint version ( which was the Bible in common use in Christ’s time) at Proverbs 9:12, although it is omitted for some reason in the A.V. This verse clearly speaks of a man, not a spirit, “(the scorner of instruction) walks through a waterless waste, through a land that is desert, and with his hands garners barrenness”.

7. The “spirit” often refers to the attitude of mind (e.g. Deut. 2:30; Prov. 25:28; Is. 54:6; 61:3; Ez. 18:31; Mk.14:38; Lk. 2:40; 2 Cor. 2:13; 12:18; Eph. 4:23). An “unclean spirit” may possibly refer to and unclean state of mind, which would fit the context in vs. 34-36. Because, as a man “thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Prov. 23:7), the spirit would be synonymous with the man. Thus the parable would describe a man’s attitude of mind being cleansed and then his going into an even more degenerate state as happened when Saul’s “unclean spirit’ was cured by David playing the harp, and then it returned even worse. Notice that we read of “an evil spirit from the Lord” affecting Saul (1 Sam.16:14); this attitude of the mind was sent by God, not a super-human evil being.

Suggested Explanations

1. John the Baptist cleansed the Jewish nation to a certain extent; he tried to change the evil heart (spirit) of the Jews (Mal. 4:1 & 6 cp. Matt. 11:10 & 14). The man walking in the wilderness (“dry places”) is like the Jews going out to hear John preach in the wilderness. The whole discourse was sparked off by Jesus curing “one possessed with a devil, blind, and dumb” (Matt. 12:22). The cured man was probably standing by, and it would have been a powerful way of reasoning to imply: “You know what this man used to be like. It’s so wonderful that he is now whole. How tragic it would be if he became seven times worse than he was before. But that’s how tragic it will be for you, seeing you do not want to continue in the spiritual healing which John brought you”.

2. We have seen that Jesus was alluding to a passages in Proverbs 9:12, linking the man who rejects wisdom with the Jews, who were now rejecting “Christ...the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1: 24), Christ “who...is made unto us...wisdom” (1 Cor. 1:30). Other details in Proverbs 9 accord with this approach:-

“Wisdom...hath killed her beasts...furnished her table. She hath sent forth her maidens: she crieth upon the highest places of the city, Whoso is simple, let him turn in hither” (Prov. 9:1-4). This is the basis of the parable of the marriage supper, where the Jews refuse to accept the call to learn the wisdom of Christ (Luke 14). Wisdom crying upon the high place of the city recalls Jesus crying out in the temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem (Jn. 7: 37).

“Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be yet wiser: teach a just man, and he will increase in learning” (Prov. 9:9), would refer to those who learnt from John and went on to learn more from Christ.

“Come, eat of My bread, and drink of the wine which I have mingled” (Prov. 9: 5) recalls Christ’s invitation to eat His flesh and drink His blood, in symbol, at the communion service (Matt. 26: 26-28).

“Wisdom hath builded her house” (Prov. 9:1) would perhaps refer to Christ’s sweeping of His house in Matthew 12: 44. Thus the two women of Proverbs, the whore and wisdom, would represent the teaching of the Jewish system and Christ respectively. Apostate Israel are likened to a whore in Ezekiel (16: 28,29 & 31) and Hosea (chpts.. 1 & 2); see also Jeremiah 3:1,6, 8.

3. We are now in a position to trace some of the symbology in this passage a little deeper. The man, representing the Jews, who would not heed the teaching of Christ, walked through “dry places”. This may recall apostate Israel in the wilderness, who also “tempted Christ” (1 Cor.10: 9), thereby refusing to obey the teaching of Moses, who represented Christ (Deut. 18:18). God led Israel “through the wilderness, through a land of deserts and of pits, through a land of drought, and of the shadow of death, through a land that no man passed through, and where no man dwelt” (Jer. 2:6). This exactly recalls the language of Proverbs 9:12 in the Septuagint - “through a waterless waste, through a land that is desert...barrenness”. Notice that Israel in the wilderness sought for the “rest” of the kingdom, but never found it (Heb. 3:11). Similarly, the man in Matthew 12: 43 went through the dry wilderness “seeking rest, and findeth none”.

4. The man decided to return to his house. This must have reference to v. 29, spoken shortly before, which says that the strong man of a house must be bound before the contents of his house can be taken away. Luke 11:22 adds that this can only be done by a stronger man than he. This strong man is Satan, sin, which only Jesus was strong enough to overcome. Because Jesus bound Satan - sin - He was able to do miracles and thus share with us the spoils of the house. There is a hint in the Gospels that the people Jesus cured were also forgiven their sins and sometimes their illnesses were a direct result of their sins (Lk. 5:20; Jn. 5:14). The infirm woman was described as being bound by Satan (Lk.13:16) until Jesus cured her. Jesus could reason that it was just as effective to say, “Thy sins be forgiven thee” as to say “Rise up and walk” (Lk.5: 23). The devil - sin - kept us as bond-slaves in his house until Jesus destroyed him (Heb.2:14-18). Jesus began to bind the strong man of sin in His life, and therefore could share the spoils with us to some extent then, although He did so more fully through His death. Thus the house to which the man returned was empty - all the goods of the strong man (v. 29) had been taken away. This may have been symbolized by Jesus cleansing the temple (Mk.11:15-17). He described the temple to the Jews as “your house” (Matt. 23:38). The man, representing apostate Israel, would call the temple “my house”. Christ’s cleansing of the temple at Passover time would have mirrored the Jewish custom, based on Exodus 12:19, of the firstborn sweeping the leaven from the house. Jesus cleansed the temple, His “Father’s house” (Jn.2:16).

In prospect, the spiritual house of Israel was swept and emptied of the bad things sin had put in it. The house was “garnished”. Literally this is “kosmos-ed” (Gk. “kosmeo”). The word “Kosmos” describes an order of things. Jesus set up a new Kosmos in the house of Israel by doing away with the Law, which brought awareness of sin, the strong man, Satan (Rom.7: 7-11; 4:15). For more details see 2.3.2: “The Jewish Satan”.

The seven other spirits entering the man therefore represent the intense rejection of the Gospel by the Jews after having heard it. Peter seems to allude to “the last state of that man is worse than the first” (Matt.12:45); talking primarily of the Jewish Christians who had now turned away from Christ, Peter reasons that “If after they have escaped the pollutions of the world (cp. “swept and garnished” ) through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning” (2 Pet. 2:20). Thus it may be that Peter interprets the seven spirits entering the man, i.e. entering his house, as a prophecy of the many Jewish Christians who turned away from the faith due to the work of the Judaizers, who encouraged them to return to the Law. Verse 21 and 22 are on the same theme:

“For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, it turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them. But it is happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire”.