A brief primer on angels

Following is another in a series of excerpts from What Every Christian Should Know About the Angel of the LORD, released by High Street Press.

Exploring the angel of the LORD as the preincarnate Christ is like sailing into the wind. After all, if Jesus is the eternal Son of God and the creator of all things, how can he be an angel? How can we avoid putting Jesus into the same class of beings as Michael,  Gabriel, or – heaven forbid – Satan? To answer these questions, we need to understand how the Bible defines and applies the Hebrew and Greek words translated “angel.”

The words angel and angels appear a combined three hundred times in Scripture. The Hebrew word malak and the Greek term angelos normally are translated “angel” but essentially mean messenger. We must keep this vital point in mind as we advance through our study of the angel of the LORD. When you see the word angel, think messenger. More to the point, think of one who is sent.

An angel in Scripture may in fact be a created spirit being, either holy or fallen, or a human messenger. Or, in special cases, an angel may be God appearing in human form – specifically Jesus prior to his virgin birth. The context reveals which type of messenger the writer intends. As Christian author Vern Poythress notes in his book, Theophany, “The word [angel] itself does not determine what sort of personage is designated, whether divine or human or angelic, in our modern sense of the word angel.”

For example, Malachi uses the word malak to prophetically describe the coming of John the Baptist as a messenger (Mal. 3:1; cf. Matt. 11:10). Also in Malachi, the priest is “the messenger [malak] of the LORD of Armies” (Mal. 2:7). The same word applies to human messengers engaged in ordinary affairs. For example, during a time of civil war between the house of Saul and the house of David, we see Abner, David, Joab, and Ish-bosheth sending or receiving human messengers (2 Sam. 3:12, 14, 26). 

Further, Jacob sends messengers to his brother Esau in hopes of finding favor in his eyes (Gen. 32:3, 6). The elders of Jabesh send messengers throughout Israel in a desperate attempt to locate someone who might rescue their town from the dire threat of the Ammonites (1 Sam. 11:3, 4, 9; cf. 2 Sam. 11:19; 1 Kings 19:2; 2 Kings 5:10). 

Very often, malak refers to messengers God sends. Sometimes these are human messengers such as prophets (Isa. 44:26; Hag. 1:13; Mal. 3:1), priests (Eccles. 5:6; Mal. 2:7), or even the whole nation of Israel (Isa. 42:19). 

More often, however, the term refers to heavenly beings who may assume human form (Gen. 19:1; Judges 13:6, 15, 16) and appear to people as bearers of the LORD’s commands and tidings (Judges 6:11, 12: 13:3). They often are responsible for aiding, protecting, and fighting for those who trust in the LORD (Gen. 24:7; Exod. 23:20; 33:2; 1 Kings 19:5; Ps. 34:7; 91:11). And they act as instruments of divine judgment, meting out punishment on the rebellious and the guilty (2 Sam. 24:16, 17; Ps. 35:5, 6; 78:49; Isa. 37:36). 

As for the angel of the LORD, sometimes he and his message are so closely identified with the LORD himself that the text simply refers to the angel as “the LORD” or ”God” (Gen. 16:7; 22:11; 31:11; Exod. 3:2; Judges 13:18; cf. Gen. 16:13; 22:12; 31:13, 16; Exod. 3:4; Judges 6:22; 13:22). 

While any messenger sent from God may be called the angel of the LORD, we often see a particular angel who is distinguished from God, yet identified closely with God. This special angel reveals the face of God (Gen. 32:30). He shares Yahweh’s name (Exod. 23:21). His presence is Yahweh’s presence (Exod. 32:34; 33:14; Isa. 63:9). “The Angel of the Lord thus appears as a manifestation of Yahweh himself, one with Yahweh and yet different from him,” according to Rosemary Ellen Guiley in The Encyclopedia of Angels. “Sometimes the angel of the Lord may be described as a floating conception, at one moment an angel, at another the Lord.”  

In general, angels rarely are named or given center stage in divine activity, whether in heaven or on earth. One Michael S. Heiser writes in Angels: What the Bible Really Says About the Heavenly Host, “Though an integral part of how Scripture shows God’s will being carried out on earth, the heavenly host’s service operates like a computer program running in the background.” Even so, there are times when God dispenses his angelic host to break into the natural realm. 

The heavenly host

Heiser identifies Old Testament terms that describe spirit beings who inhabit the unseen realm. These terms either describe the beings’ nature (what they are), status (how they rank), or function (what they do). Here’s a sampling:

Spirit (ruah). The Old Testament is clear that members of God’s heavenly host are spirit beings. That is, they are not embodied, although some spirits appear briefly in physical form. For example, 1 Kings 22:19-23 records an event in heaven with the LORD on his throne and the host of heaven standing beside him. A spirit (ruah) steps forward and volunteers to be a lying spirit (ruah) in the mouths of Ahab’s prophets to entice the king to go into battle and die (cf. 2 Chron. 18:18-22).

Elsewhere, God sends an evil spirit (ruah) between Abimelech and the leaders of Shechem (Judg. 9:22-23). After the Spirit of the LORD departs from King Saul, the LORD sends a harmful spirit (ruah) to torment him (1 Sam. 16:14-16). We should note that ruah sometimes describes a person’s intellect or emotional state (Ps. 32:2; Prov. 15:13; Mal. 2:16). The context helps determine the proper application.

Heavenly ones (samayim). This word occurs more than four hundred times in the Old Testament and describes either the skies above the earth or the spiritual realm where God dwells. Sometimes, however, samayim denotes the members of God’s supernatural host. Parallelism is used in Psalm 89:5-7 to equate the spiritual realm and the heavenly host:

LORD, the heavens [samayim] praise your wonders — your faithfulness also — in the assembly of the holy ones. For who in the skies can compare with the LORD? Who among the heavenly beings is like the LORD? God is greatly feared in the council of the holy ones [or heavenly ones], more awe-inspiring than all who surround him. 

Stars (kokebim). Since the Hebrew Scriptures draw parallels between the heavenly realm and the spirit beings who inhabit it, we should not be surprised that these unseen creatures are identified with the stellar heavens. A good example is Job 38:4-7, where God addresses Job:

Where were you when I established the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who fixed its dimensions? Certainly you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? What supports its foundations? Or who laid its cornerstone while the morning stars [kokebe] sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

Holy ones (qedosim). This word may describe people (Ps. 16:3; Dan. 8:24), but more commonly it refers to spirits in service to God (Deut. 33:2-3; Job 5:1; Dan. 4:17; Zech. 14:5).

Gods / divine beings (elohim). The Hebrew term elohim often refers to God. However, it also is applied to created spirit beings. Psalm 82:1, 6-7 offers a good example:

God [elohim] stands in the divine assembly; he pronounces judgment among the gods [elohim] …

I said, “You are gods [elohim]; you are all sons of the Most High. However, you will die like humans and fall like any other ruler.” 

While elohim has a plural form, it often is applied singularly, as to God. In verse 1 above, we see it apply singularly to God and in a plural manner to members of the heavenly host. After all, God can’t stand in an assembly of one. Some interpreters apply this passage to Israelite judges, who represented God in their administration of justice. However, a better understanding is that the psalmist depicts Yahweh scolding the heavenly beings who have abused their authority over earthly realms. 

Keep in mind that elohim is used thousands of times for the singular God of Israel. Even so, the term is applied to spiritual beings whom God judges (Ps. 82:1, 6-7); gods and goddesses of nations (Judg. 11:24; 1 Kings 11:33); territorial spirits (shedim, Deut. 32:17); and the spirits of deceased people (1 Sam. 28:13). 

As Heiser states it, “A biblical writer would use elohim to label any entity that is not embodied by nature and is a member of the spiritual realm.” 

Angel (malak). We’ve already discussed this term, which means messenger, but it may prove helpful to keep in mind throughout our study that angel is more of a job description than a name. An angel is “a spirit being from God’s heavenly host sent by God to deliver or receive a message,” writes Heiser.

Minister (seret). Psalm 103:21 reads, “Bless the LORD, all his hosts, his ministers, who do his will!” (ESV). And Psalm 104:4 tells us the LORD “makes his messengers [malakim] winds, his ministers a flaming fire” (ESV; cf. Heb. 1:7). 

Watcher (ir). This Aramaic term appears three times in the Book of Daniel. In Daniel 4:13, King Nebuchadnezzar relays a mysterious dream in which he saw visions in his mind of “a watcher, a holy one, coming down from heaven.” This messenger warns the king that he is about to take on the mind and behavior of an animal in punishment for his arrogance. Verse 17 reads: “This word is by decree of the watchers, and the decision is by command from the holy ones.” 

Finally, in verse 23, as Daniel interprets the king’s dream, he acknowledges that Nebuchadnezzar did indeed see “a watcher, a holy one, coming down from heaven.”

Host (saba). This term generally refers to a large number of people (Ps. 68:12), compulsory labor (Isa. 40:2), military service (Num. 1:3; 31:3), or an army (2 Sam. 3:23). But it also is applied to spirit beings, as in 1 Kings 22:19, where the prophet Micaiah reports: “Therefore, hear the word of the LORD: I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left” (ESV).

We should add that when writers of Scripture refer to God as LORD of Hosts, or LORD of Armies, it certainly means he is commander in chief of all spirit beings. At the same time, the term may be applied as a synonym for Yahweh, the Almighty, a designation for the God-King enthroned between the cherubim, the uncontested ruler of all heavenly powers (1 Sam. 4:4; 2 Sam. 6:2; Ps. 80:1; 99:1). 

Mighty ones (gibborimabbirim). These terms frequently describe warriors but also may refer to community leaders or able-bodied persons. On occasion, they depict angels. For example, Psalm 103:20 reads: “Bless the LORD, all his angels of great strength [gibborim], who do his word, obedient to his command.” 

And Psalm 78:25 reads: “People ate the bread of angels [abbirim]. He sent them an abundant supply of food.”

Other terms could be cited. However, these examples illustrate a variety of Old Testament words that describe the nature and work of angels. These terms are important to keep in mind as we explore the most unique messenger of all: the angel of the LORD. While he is spirit, heavenly, mighty, and a messenger of Yahweh, we discover that he is much more than that. He distinguishes himself from all other heaven-sent messengers in that he bears the divine name Yahweh and exhibits the attributes of God such as omniscience, omnipotence, and the authority to forgive sins. 

Watching the watchers

Before moving on, let’s consider a few additional observations about angels as heavenly messengers:

First, angels represent God’s omniscience and omnipresence. They form his heavenly court and serve as his messengers. They are linked to the stars, the elements, natural phenomena, and powers, which they rule as God’s representatives. And when angels appear, the supernatural world breaks into the natural realm.

Second, angels are described as “ministering spirits sent out to serve those who are going to inherit salvation” (Heb. 1:14). This should be a particular comfort to followers of Jesus in that we do not need to fear God’s messengers (although deep respect is an appropriate response). Rather, when they perform their services to God either in the unseen realm or the natural world, they share with us a vision of a future day when God sets all things right.

Third, the number of angels can be described as both established and innumerable. It is settled because direct creation has ceased (Gen. 2:1-3) and angels do not procreate (Matt. 22:30). While angels are finite in number, they are many. Angels are associated with stars (Rev. 1:20), which are innumerable (Gen. 15:5; 22:17; Deut. 1:10); however, God knows their number (Ps. 147:4). Jesus claimed he could get the assistance of twelve legions of angels – a legion numbering forty-two hundred to six thousand soldiers (Matt. 26:53). They are described as a multitude (Luke 2:13) and an innumerable company (Heb. 12:22). They are numbered in the thousands (Ps. 68:17; Rev. 5:11).

Fourth, when angels appear on earth, normally it is one angel at a time, but sometimes they are in pairs (Gen. 19:1; John 20:12). Twice we are informed of a group of four angels (Rev. 7:1; 9:14) and three times we find a company of seven angels (Rev. 1:20; 8:2; 15:1).

Fifth, angels are beings of dazzling light, suggesting that their home is in heaven with God, who is light (1 John 1:5). The presence of God sometimes in Scripture is manifested as a luminous cloud: the Shekinah glory. Angels, as God’s messengers, are bearers of that glory. Hebrews 1:7 depicts angels as “flames of fire” (NIV). And Revelation 10:1 speaks of a mighty angel whose “face was like the sun” and whose “legs were like pillars of fire.”

Sixth, only a handful of angels are named in the Bible. These include Gabriel, Michael, Satan, Apollyon, and the mysterious angel of the LORD. Non-biblical writings such as 1 Enoch list others, including Raphael, Uriel, Remiel, and Raguel (1 Enoch 20).

Seventh, angels do not have wings. Although they often are said to descend from heaven, this doesn’t mean they need wings for flight. Remember that Jesus descended from heaven in the Incarnation but is never described as sprouting wings.

Eighth, angels do not have gender. They are spirit beings, and gender is a biological attribute. When they appear, they assume the form of males. Zechariah 5:9 sometimes is cited as an exception. Two women with wings like the wings of storks appear. But the women are not called malakim. And in the next verse, the prophet speaks to an angel, who is distinguished from the women (vv. 10-11). The women symbolize God’s removal of wickedness from the people and the land to Shinar, where it belongs, according to Heiser. 

Ninth, whenever angels are sent to people, they appear in human form. The only possible exceptions are in the New Testament, where members of the heavenly host appear against the backdrop of luminous glory, wearing dazzling white garments – although even here they could be in the likeness of humans (cf. Matt. 28:3).

Tenth, angels perform a wide variety of duties in service to God. For example, they participate in divine decrees (1 Kings 22:19-23); deliver God’s law (Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19; Heb. 2:2); help govern the world (Zech. 1:10; Deut. 32:8-9); deliver divine messages (Gen. 19:1-22; Dan. 4:17, 24; Zech. 1:9, 19; 2:3); explain God’s work (Dan. 8-10; Zech. 1:9-21; 4-5); carry out divine judgment (Isa. 13; 2 Kings 6:8-19); and praise God (Ps. 29:1; 103:20-22; 148:1-5).

In summary, we need to carefully apply the word angel as it is expressed in a biblical context. The Hebrew and Greek words translated angel most commonly refer to created spirit beings who inhabit the unseen realm. But at times these words depict human messengers sent either by God or by other human beings. 

Last, as we begin to see in the posts ahead, there is a unique figure called the angel of the LORD whom God sends at various times throughout the Old Testament. This messenger shares the divine name – Yahweh – and exhibits characteristics unique to God alone. Who is this special divine messenger?

Next: Cherubim and Seraphim