43 “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. 45 Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.”
21 When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe; 22 but when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil. 23 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 24 “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ 25 And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order.26 Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first.”
(1) Is it a literal event?
We need to start with a more general answer on why the Old Testament has no demons, but the three synoptic gospels and Acts do have eye witness accounts of exorcisms.
Please do not skip this link: Why do OT and NT teachings on demons appear to differ?
Now, having read the above link, the first and essential background to all New Testament demon questions, now back to this question:
The parable itself is further secondary proof against literal demons, since if Jesus literally believed and taught this then Jesus would invalidate every healing he ever made. For if he did mean this to be taken literally then it means all Jesus’ healing of mentally ill people were of no value because the demon could return.
As a third internal proof that this parable is not a literal event, it is often missed that Jesus explains the parable in Matthew 12 at verse 45 with “this evil generation”
45 Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.”
This explanation by Jesus of his own parable suggests that the clean house represents the nation of Israel after the cleansing work of John the Baptist and Jesus. And so it happened, After the beheading of John and crucifixion of Jesus the nation of Israel went from bad to worse till it was destroyed in AD70.
Christ’s parable also applied and applies today to individual Christians:
– 4 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. (Hebrews 6:4-6)
(2) Why seven?
The idea of seven demons seems to have been a regular number association at the time. Mary Magdalene was thought to have had seven demons cast out:
And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means. (Luke 8:1-3)
Similar references to seven demons are found in the so-called ‘Testament of Solomon’ – a book of Pharisee exorcism lore from the time of Jesus.
45. And I Solomon, on hearing this, said to him: “Tell me how thou dost discharge forth the fire? Out of what sources dost thou emit it?” And the spirit said to me: “From the Day-star . For here hath not yet been found that Elburion, to whom men offer prayers and kindle lights. And his name is invoked by the seven demons before me. And he cherishes them.”
There is also the inverse event in Acts 19:13-16 where one demon-possessed man beats up the seven sons of Sceva, Jewish exorcists. Of course seven is a positive number also in the Bible but in this case it looks from the description of Mary Magdalene that “seven demons” was simply the convention for saying “very demonized”.