The Slaying of Rahab the Sea Dragon (Psalm 89)

O LORD God of hosts, 
     who is mighty as you are, O LORD, 
     with your faithfulness all around you? 
You rule the raging of the sea; 
     when its waves rise, you still them. 
You crushed Rahab like a carcass; 
     you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm. 
The heavens are yours; the earth also is yours; 
     the world and all that is in it, you have founded them.

—Psalm 89:8–11

The steadfast love and faithfulness of God’s covenant is sure to endure forever because the might of God lies behind it. That might is spoken of here using the most striking of metaphors. In order to grasp it, it may be helpful to take an inventory of all the elements laid before us. We have sea, heaven, and earth, that is, we have creation as a noun. We also have creation as a verb, as an act. And then there is the might of God and the defeat of his enemies. But most uniquely, we have Rahab. The might of God that lies behind his forever steadfast love is that which crushes Rahab. Surely this doesn’t mean crushing a Canaanite woman. What is Rahab here?

Awake, awake, put on strength, 
     O arm of the LORD; 
awake, as in days of old,
     the generations of long ago. 
Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, 
     who pierced the dragon? 
Was it not you who dried up the sea, 
     the waters of the great deep, 
who made the depths of the sea a way 
     for the redeemed to pass over?” 

—Isaiah 51:9–10; emphasis mine
“The pillars of heaven tremble 
     and are astounded at his rebuke. 
By his power he stilled the sea; 
     by his understanding he shattered Rahab. 
By his wind the heavens were made fair; 
     his hand pierced the fleeing serpent” 

—Job 26:11–13; emphasis mine

This is very similar to the language used of Leviathan in Psalm 74.

“You divided the sea by your might; 
     you broke the heads of the sea monsters on the waters. 
You crushed the heads of Leviathan; 
     you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness. 
You split open springs and brooks; 
     you dried up ever-flowing streams. 
Yours is the day, yours also the night; 
     you have established the heavenly lights and the sun. 
You have fixed all the boundaries of the earth; 
     you have made summer and winter”

—Psalm 74:13–17

Piecing our clues together, it appears as though Rahab is a sea dragon, as in the Mesopotamian myths; a creature associated with chaos. For example, Marduk is said to have defeated the primordial sea goddess Tiamat and to have made heaven and earth from the rent carcass. Thus it is that some accuse the Bible of appropriating pagan mythology at this point.

But earlier in Isaiah we read this, “Egypt’s help is worthless and empty; therefore I have called her ‘Rahab who sits still’” (Isaiah 30:7; emphasis mine). Rahab is also clearly a nation in Psalm 87:4.

What are we to make of this? Back up. Take in the big story. When God delivered His people from Egypt in covenant faithfulness he did so with signs and wonders, with a mighty arm judging not only Egypt, but her gods (Exodus 12:12). Egypt is likened to a sea monster of chaos and by defeating her, by crushing the serpent’s head, a people are formed and brought into a land of milk and honey.

Listen to Isaiah 59 again: “Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the LORD; awake, as in days of old, the generations of long ago. Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon? Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep, who made the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to pass over?” (emphasis mine). At the Red Sea, Rahab was slain. The serpent crushed. The people of God delivered. The chaos stilled.

And here, all this is being reflected on in reference not to God’s covenant faithfulness to Moses, but to David. And of the King the psalmist will soon say, “I will set his hand on the sea and his right hand on the rivers” (89:25). Here is anticipated the serpent-crushing Seed of the woman who calms the chaos of the seas cursed with the serpent. One cannot but think of the Anointed One, the Christ, who after rebuking the tempest on the sea of Galilee then rebuked the Gaderene demoniacs so that the demons went into the pigs who then rushed down a steep bank and into the sea and drowned (Matthew 8).

Behold the Christ, the Son of David whose hand is on the seas and whose foot is on the serpent’s head. At the cross, when it seemed the King was forsaken, it was then that God’s steadfast love and faithfulness were most manifest as it was there, that the pierced foot crushed the dragon’s head.

A Drink from Brooks: The Devil Didn’t Make You Do It

“The whole frame of man is out of frame. The understanding is dark, the will cross, the memory slippery, the affections crooked, the conscience corrupted, the tongue poisoned, and the heart wholly evil, only evil, and continually evil. Should God chain up Satan, and give him no liberty to tempt or entice people to vanity or folly, yet they could not but sin against him, by reason of that cursed nature that is in them, that will still be a-provoking them to those sins that will provoke and stir up the anger of God against them (Jude 15, 16). Satan has only a persuading sleight, not an enforcing might. He may tempt us—but without ourselves he cannot conquer us; he may entice us—but without ourselves he cannot hurt us. Our hearts carry the greatest guilt in every sin. Satan can never undo a man without himself; but a man may easily undo himself without Satan. Satan can only present the golden cup—but he has no power to force us to drink the poison that is in the cup; he can only present to us the glory of the world, he cannot force us to fall down and worship him, to enjoy the world; he can only spread his snares, he has no power to force us to walk in the midst of his snares. Therefore do the devil so much right, as not to excuse yourselves, by your accusing him, and laying the load upon him, that you should lay upon your own hearts.”  —Thomas Brooks, Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices

A Drink from Brooks: Sin Is but a Bitter Sweet

The second remedy to consider, That sin is but a bitter sweet. That seeming sweet that is in sin will quickly vanish, and lasting shame, sorrow, horror, and terror will come in the room thereof: Job 20:12-14, ‘Though wickedness be sweet in his mouth, though he hide it under his tongue, though he spare it, and forsake it not, but keep it still within his mouth, yet his meat in his bowels is turned, it is the gall of asps within him.’ Forbidden profits and pleasures are most pleasing to vain men, who count madness mirth, &c. Many long to be meddling with the murdering morsels of sin, which nourish not, but rent and consume the belly, the soul, that receives them. Many eat that on earth that they digest in hell. Sin’s murdering morsels will deceive those that devour them. Adam’s apple was a bitter sweet; Esau’s mess was a bitter sweet; the Israelite’s quails a bitter sweet; Jonathan’s honey a bitter sweet; and Adonijah’s dainties a bitter sweet. After the meal is ended, then comes the reckoning. Men must not think to dance and dine with the devil, and then to sup with Abraham, Issac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven; to feed upon the poison of asps, and yet that the vipers tongue should not slay them. —Thomas Brooks, Precious Remedies against Satan’s Devices

A Drink from Brooks: Satan’s Presenting the Hook and Hiding the Bait

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“His [Satan’s] first device to draw the soul into sin is… to present the bait and hide the hook; to present the golden cup, and hide the poison; to present the sweet, the pleasure, and the profit that may flow in upon the soul by yielding to sin, and by hiding from the soul the wrath and misery that will certainly follow the committing of sin.” —Thomas Brooks, Precious Remedies against Satan’s Devices

A Drink from Brooks: Satan Sails with Our Wind

“Whatever sin the heart of man is most prone to, that the devil will help forward. If David is proud of his people, Satan will provoke him to number them, that he may be yet prouder (2 Sam. 24). If Peter is slavishly fearful, Satan will put him upon rebuking and denying of Christ, to save his own skin (Matt. 16:22; 26:69-75). If Ahab’s prophets are given to flatter, the devil will immediately become a lying spirit in the mouths of four hundred of them, and they shall flatter Ahab to his ruin (2 Kings 22). If Judas will be a traitor, Satan will quickly enter into his heart, and make him sell his master for money, which some heathen would never have done (John 13:2). If Ananias will lie for advantage, Satan will fill his heart that he may lie, with a witness, to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3). Satan loves to sail with the wind, and to suit men’s temptations to their conditions and inclinations. If they be in prosperity, he will tempt them to deny God (Proverbs 30:9); if they be in adversity, he will tempt them to distrust God; if their knowledge be weak, he will tempt them to have low thoughts of God; if their conscience be tender, he will tempt to scrupulosity; if large, to carnal security; if bold-spirited, he will tempt to presumption; if timorous, to desperation; if flexible, to inconstancy; if stiff, to impenitency.” —Thomas Brooks, Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices