Although the terminology ‘demon-possessed’ is commonly used, the correct phrase in the King James Bible is, ‘possessed with devils‘ (Mt 4:24).
I’ve wondered what the semantics of that phrase tells us. If ‘possess’ means ownership, control, and occupancy, then why doesn’t it say “possessed by devils” or “possessed of devils,” instead? The normal way of looking at it is that the man is the victim of the devils, after all, don’t they control him and maintain their residence in him against his will?
But perhaps the phrase reflects one’s own retention of the evil spirits, that the man is the possessor of them because he has gathered them, collected them, nursed them, lodged them, and taken them into himself. The phrase here is used of what a man owns:
This man, whom hand to hand I slew in fight,
May be possessed with some store of crowns;
And I, that haply take them from him now,
May yet ere night yield both my life and them
To some man else, as this dead man doth me.
King Henry VI, part III: II, v
To be ‘possessed with crowns’ means he owns crowns. If that is how we are to understand the phrase, ‘possessed with devils,’ it would indicate that people bear responsibility for inviting unclean spirits into their lives.
How do we reconcile that with the indication that unsaved people can be taken captive by the devil ‘at his will’ ?
“…if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; And that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will.” 2 Timothy 2:25-26.
The entire passages seems to indicate that those who are freely taken captive by the devil are also those which won’t acknowledge the truth or repent. They have embraced lies and will not stop. Having freely chosen to believe lies, God gives them over to it, and thereby he hardens them in what they have chosen: “Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.” Romans 9:18.
So taking the path away from the truth, a man embraces lies, and then his heart is hardened as he rejects the opportunity of repentance, and so God takes his sense of truth and repentance away, and the devils come and take that man captive at their will, and there is then no remedy from or escaping the miserable trap in which he is ensnared.
The only hope for such a one is if God in his mercy opens his eyes to once again see the light that shines on the door of repentance – and then if that man indeed repents with his whole heart of all his lies and wickedness, God will deliver him from the evil one.
There is another definition of ‘possessed’ which Johnson defines as, ‘To affect by intestine power‘ – and ‘intestine’ here means internal, contained within the body. The idea is that something as if swallowed inside now greatly affects from within.
The examples he gives also come from Shakespeare:
possess'd he is with greatness,
And speaks not to himself but with a pride
That quarrels at self-breath...
Toilus and Cressida: II, iii
I find the people strangely fantasied;
Possess'd with rumours, full of idle dreams,
Not knowing what they fear, but full of fear
King John: IV, ii
These examples seem to confirm the sense of the phrase, and go further in showing that having taken the unclean spirits into possession, now, from the inside, they affect those who have become possessed with them.
In Matthew 8:16 it says, “they brought unto him many that were possessed with devils: and he cast out the spirits with his word“. A man who chooses to be filthy and malicious makes his human spirit resonate in tune with the filthiness and malice of the unclean spirits, connecting the spirits, thereby giving entrance to the devils.
It is said of the demoniac in Luke chapter 8 that he, “had devils long time” (v. 27). And it says, “…For oftentimes it had caught him: and he was kept bound with chains and in fetters; and he brake the bands, and was driven of the devil into the wilderness.” (v. 29).
The spirit of the devils would catch the man as often as they willed, which agrees with what 2 Timothy 2:26 says, they are taken captive, caught, at the will of the devil.
Mark 5:15 says, “And they come to Jesus, and see him that was possessed with the devil, and had the legion, sitting, and clothed, and in his right mind: and they were afraid.” Obviously possession of devils and having “the legion” are related, but the wording suggests they are also separate. The ‘legion’ seems to have been a personality disorder that the man developed in fantasy with his unclean spirits. When Jesus asked him for his own personal name, the man responded instead by identifying himself as the battalion of devils: “And he asked him, What is thy name? And he answered, saying, My name is Legion: for we are many.” Mark 5:9. “And Jesus asked him, saying, What is thy name? And he said, Legion: because many devils were entered into him.” Luke 8:30.
This guy went far beyond just harbouring a few devils – he had reached the point of giving over his entire personality to be swallowed up by them. Thus the two things: he was possessed of devils, and he had the legion.
(By the way, notice that you have to have a King James Bible to catch the fact that Jesus was not talking to the man’s nutty devils – he was addressing him singularly, the human man, “thy name.” All the modern versions use “your,” which is also plural, making it seem as if Jesus was speaking to the legion – which is never what Jesus did. He always commanded unclean spirits to shut up: Mark 1:34, Luke 4:41.)
The phrase ‘possessed with’ is also used in Acts 16, “And it came to pass, as we went to prayer, a certain damsel possessed with a spirit of divination met us, which brought her masters much gain by soothsaying … Paul, being grieved, turned and said to the spirit, I command thee in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her. And he came out the same hour.” (v. 16,18).
It is interesting that evidence of the change didn’t happen immediately. Did long minutes pass while the young lady wrestle to acknowledge the Apostle’s rebuke? It doesn’t say whether she rejoiced, got saved, or experienced any gratitude at being freed. But once her ‘gift’ of fortune-telling abruptly ends, the next verses describe how her masters stir up persecution against Paul and Silas. But God sends an earthquake against that city and delivers his servants out of their hands. The God of the saved Christians is all powerful! Little trouble-making devils don’t stand a chance.
Rev. 12:3; 13:1; 17:3.
As for the difference between devils and devil, it is important to remember that, according to Revelation 12:3, Satan is a 7 headed dragon: “And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.” In Revelation 20:2 it says, “And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years,” So he is a literal serpent (Job 41); and although he is one Devil, yet he is also seven devils because that’s how many heads he has (Psalm 74:14). Satan is thus also a singular unclean spirit, and also a plural of unclean spirits (cf., “And certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils,” Luke 8:2).
Jesus said, “the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.” John 6:63. Although Christ and the apostles could command unclean spirits to go at their word – we now have the words of Christ and the apostles written in the Bible, and translated by the Holy Ghost into English in the Authorized King James Version. It would behove us to preach those words from the scriptures, inviting all those vexed by devils to hear and obey those words, that the hearers would, by God’s grace, soften their hearts, and that they would believe the truth, seek repentance, and indeed repent of all lies, to embrace the truth of the gospel, and thereby be saved and delivered of unclean spirits.
The gospel is that the Lord Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose again – in his name and by his blood alone is forgiveness of all sins, and the redemption, and eternal life.
“Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual.” 1 Corinthians 2:13.