A Promised Deliverer

Perhaps more than any other Old Testament passage, Exodus 23:20-23 serves as a backdrop against which we may view the record of the angel of the Lord’s visits to human beings. As Moses meets Yahweh at Mount Sinai, receives the law, and prepares for the journey to the Promised Land, there’s a brief message from God about what lies ahead: 

I am going to send an angel before you to protect you on the way and bring you to the place I have prepared. Be attentive to him and listen to him. Do not defy him, because he will not forgive your acts of rebellion, for my name is in him. But if you will carefully obey him and do everything I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes. For my angel will go before you and bring you to the land of the Amorites, Hethites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites, and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out.

Exod. 23:20-23

Something extraordinary happens here. The description God gives Moses is of no ordinary angel. This angel has the authority to forgive sins, an authority that belongs exclusively to God. Even more curious is God’s statement that “my name is in him.” God’s name oftentimes is used in Scripture to depict God’s presence. In this case, the very essence of Yahweh is in the messenger being sent.

Michael Heiser writes:

When God told Moses that his name was in this angel, he was saying that he was in this angel – his very presence or essence. The I AM of the burning bush would accompany Moses and the Israelites to the promised land and fight for them. Only he could defeat the gods of the nations and the descendants of the Nephilim whom Moses and Joshua would find there.

The Unseen Realm, 143

Other Scriptures confirm this angel is Yahweh.

Consider the following Old Testament passages about the one bringing the Israelites out of Egypt:

For I am the LORD [Yahweh], who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God.

Lev. 11:45

You were shown these things so that you would know that the LORD is God; there is no other besides him…. Because he loved your fathers, he chose their descendants after them and brought you out of Egypt by his presence and great power.

Deut. 4:35, 37

For the LORD our God brought us and our fathers out of the land of Egypt, out of the place of slavery, and performed these great signs before our eyes. He also protected us all along the way we went and among all the peoples whose lands we traveled through. The LORD drove out before us all the peoples, including the Amorites who lived in the land. We too will worship the LORD, because he is our God.

Josh. 24:17-18

The angel of the LORD went up from Gilgal to Bochim and said, “I brought you out of Egypt and led you into the land I had promised to your fathers.”

Judge. 2:1

In these verses, “the LORD” (Yahweh), “the angel of the LORD,” and “his presence” are used interchangeably to identify the divine deliverer of Israel. We are not told of three separate deliverers. They are the same, with one of them – the angel of the Lord – appearing, at times, in human form. The angel is Yahweh because Yahweh is inseparable from his presence.

The importance of the name

The term name has particular relevance throughout Deuteronomy. As the very presence of God, “his name” resides in the tabernacle, the holy city, and eventually the temple. Consider, for example, Deuteronomy 12: 

Destroy completely all the places where the nations that you are driving out worship their gods – on the high mountains, on the hills, and under every green tree. Tear down their altars, smash their sacred pillars, burn their Asherah poles, cut down the carved images of their gods, and wipe out their names from every place. Don’t worship the LORD your God this way. Instead, turn to the place the LORD your God chooses from all your tribes to put his name for his dwelling and go there…. Then the LORD your God will choose the place to have his name dwell. Bring there everything I command you: your burnt offerings, sacrifices, offerings of the tenth, personal contributions, and all your choice offerings you vow to the LORD.

Deut. 12:2-5, 11, emphasis added

Returning to Exodus 23 in light of these other passages, God reveals a glorious truth to Moses: The divine name – indeed, the very presence of Yahweh – is in the angel of the Lord. Vern Poythress writes:

We are dealing with a preincarnate appearance of Christ, anticipating his incarnation. At the same time, it is God the Father who appears in the Son, and through the presence of the Holy Spirit. The theophany is Trinitarian. Since Christ is closely linked to this messenger, he is also linked to the pillar of cloud and fire. It is Christ who leads Israel through the wilderness.

Theophany, 279

Next: The Error of Balaam

This post is excerpted from Jesus Before Bethlehem: What Every Christian Should Know About the Angel of the Lord, available from Amazon and other retailers.