Christ casts out a demon as He had done many times before, yet the focus in this account is the reply of some of the crowd. Accusing Christ of utilizing demonic agency and demanding a sign from heaven, as if the sign performed in their sight didn’t count, they reveal the state of their heart. Truly in them is the prophecy of Isaiah fulfilled: “Seeing they do not see and hearing they do not hear” (Isaiah 6:9-10; Matthew 13:14-15).
King Ahaziah, laying sick upon his deathbed, sent messengers to ask Baal-zebub whether he would recover instead of seeking the Lord (2 Kings 1). Baal-zebub is described as the god of Ekron, one of the five principal Philistine cities (1 Samuel 5). The word “baal,” rendered in Luke as “beel,” simply means “lord” or “master.” It was frequently used among the Canaanites to describe their gods, and even some of the Israelites adopted the practice when they sought to worship the Lord and the Baals (Hosea 2:16-17). “Zebub” or “zebul” means “flies,” as in Isaiah 7:18 and Ecclesiastes 10:1. Whether this title was legitimate or an intentional corruption is hard to say. The accusation of the crowd is not that Jesus is using a particluar Philistine god to do His work, but rather that His power is not from heaven. Jesus Himself appears to identify Beelzebul with Satan, which is fitting, since the Scriptures frequently identify false gods with demons (Leviticus 17:7; Deuteronomy 32:17; Psalm 106:37; 1 Corinthians 10:20-21).
Jesus answers them according to their folly. Satan would not work against himself, since casting out demons meant an end of his authority and influence over a man. It would be tantamount to civil war. More than this, the Jews also practiced exorcism, as the sons of Sceva prove (Acts 19:11-20). If their sons were doing the same thing, why would they not accuse them of collaborating with Satan? Yet wisdom is justified by her children (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:35).
Christ describes His own work as “the finger of God,” or the direct action of God. The lector-priests of Egypt, no longer able to imitate Moses through their sorcery, cry out to Pharaoh that this was no trick, but God’s action among them (Exodus 8:19). God Himself wrote the Ten Commandments on the tablets with His finger (Exodus 31:18; Deuteronomy 9:10). Creation is also described as the work of His fingers (Psalm 8:3). Satan remains secure in his palace until the stronger Man, Christ the Lord, to bind him. Satan does not fight against himself and plunder his own palace. This is the work of God among them.
Yet as Pharaoh saw the finger of God and hardened his heart against God more and more, so the Jews are doing the same. Nor is this a neutral thing, because there is no middle ground. To walk with God is to be like God. To attribute God’s work to something else to to walk against Him. Whoever is not with Christ is against Him, and the final result of that way is death and destruction (Galatians 6:7-8). It is not enough that a demon depart from a man. It will go into “waterless places,” the wilderness which is the abode of demons (Leviticus 17:7), but when it returns it will bring spirits more evil than itself to take up residence again.
The same is true of spiritual hardening. It is a progressive process leading more and more away from God. The heart refuses to listen to God and closes its ears, so to speak, against Him. “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as at Meribah” (Psalm 95:7-8). Pharaoh in his pride hardens himself against God. Yet this hardening is also God’s judgment against sin. God hands us over to sin in order to bring on judgment even in this life (Romans 1:26). This is why God also hardens the heart of Pharaoh (Exodus 9:12). God hardens Israel’s heart so that they would not turn to Him and repent (as He plainly says in Matthew 13:15), though this partial hardening has come upon His people in order to further His plan of salvation (Romans 11). For those who persist in sin, God hardens them so that they cannot repent, because God will not allow it.
How then should we understand this? On the one hand, it is beyond our understanding (Romans 11:33-36). The potter has the right over the clay to shape it according to His will (Romans 9:21). Yet the heart which is not hardened is the heart which listens to God. The woman in the crowd who calls for a blessing upon Mary misses the point. Even her unique status as the mother of God changes nothing. Salvation is not a matter of the flesh. “Blessed rather are those who hear the Word of God and keep it!”