The modern mind cannot conceive of angelic beings. This is due in part to medieval art and literature, which relegate belief in angels to the realm of superstition. Or perhaps we like to try to explain away that which makes us uncomfortable. Indeed, there are those who would even dismiss the belief in God as mere superstition.
Yet virtually every philosopher who has recognized the God of the Bible has also believed in angels—not the cute cherubs of Christmas cards, but mighty and powerful spiritual beings who are servants of the Most High God.
In Hebrew, the word for angel" is malakh. A malakh is a messenger, either human or angelic.1 Yet there is one malakh who stands out from all the rest. The Bible calls him simply, "the angel of the Lord."
Since the time of Abraham, our people have known about the angel of the Lord. In the Talmud he is given the name Metatron, which indicates a special relationship with God. One meaning of meta and thronos, two Greek words, gives the sense of "one who serves behind the throne"2 of God. He is also known as "the Prince of the Countenance"3 because of the close proximity between this angel and God Himself. The implication for the malakh of the Lord is that he is, above all, the messenger of God, the one sent by God, the one who represents God himself.
His name, then, refers not to his nature but to his function, which is the Being who serves as the supreme messenger of the One True God. This viewpoint can be readily supported from Scripture.
The Angel Takes Action
Throughout the Tenach, the angel of the Lord often appeared in human form. He served in three ways—guiding the people of Israel, effecting miracles and executing judgment on Israel's enemies.
He is first mentioned in Genesis 16. After Hagar fled into the wilderness to escape from Sarah, Abraham's wife, the angel of the Lord found her and admonished Hagar to return to her mistress. He then promised to greatly multiply her descendants and prophesied the birth of Ishmael, who as a result became the progenitor of the Arab nations.
In Genesis 22, read every Yom Kippur, it is the angel of the Lord who called from heaven to stay the hand of Abraham as he took the knife to slay his son Isaac. In Exodus 14, he was in the pillar of cloud guiding the Israelites through the wilderness after their flight from Egypt. In Numbers 22:22-35, the angel of the Lord appeared to Balaam, the non-Jewish prophet, and gave him orders to be followed.
He instructed Gideon in Judges 6, telling him to deliver Israel from Midian. He prophesied the birth of Samson (Judges 13), directed Elijah to Mt. Horeb (1 Kings 19) and commanded King David to build the altar in Jerusalem which later became the sight of the temple of Solomon (1 Chronicles 21:18).
The angel of the Lord is also presented to us as an avenger of evil, a judge. When Assyria, which was one of the ancient super powers, threatened to destroy Israel (700's B.C.E.), it was the angel of the Lord who killed the 185,000 Assyrian soldiers besieging Jerusalem (2 Kings 19:35). This angel, powerful in battle, was gentle enough to succor a fleeing and frightened Hagar in the wilderness.
He's More Than An Ordinary Angel
This angel was perceived in a unique and remarkable way by those with whom he came in contact. In ancient times it was common knowledge that if one saw God it meant death for the individual. God stated this directly to Moses on Mt. Sinai: "You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live" (Exodus 33:20). After Hagar saw the angel of the Lord, it is recorded that she called him Lord and marveled that she was still alive after having seen him (Genesis 16:13). Jacob reacted in similar fashion when he wrestled with a "man" during the night. The man blessed Jacob and changed the patriarch's name to Israel. Jacob responded by calling the place of this encounter Peniel, "saying, 'It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared"' (Genesis 32:30). Jacob identified the "man" as God. Later in life, when Jacob blessed his son Joseph and his children, he said, "The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my Shepherd all my life to this day, the Angel who has delivered me from all harm…" (Genesis 48:15, 16). The parents of Samson, likewise, recognized the angel of the Lord to be God, "We are doomed to die! …We have seen God!" (Judges 13:22).
The angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in the midst of a burning bush (Exodus 3:2) but then in verse 4 "God called to him from within the bush…" When the Lord delivered the children of Israel from Egypt, the Bible says, "By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light…" (Exodus 13:21). But we read again in chapter 14, verse 19, that the "angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel's army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel" (Exodus 14:19,20). And then in verse 24 we are told that the Lord looked down on the Egyptian army through the pillar of fire and cloud, and fought against Egypt! Who is involved in this pillar—the angel of the Lord or God Himself?
In Judges 6, the angel of the Lord appeared to a timid Gideon and sat down under an oak tree to initiate a conversation with him (vss. 11,12). In verse 13, we see Gideon responding, but in verse 14 something strange happens: all of a sudden it is the Lord who is seen talking to Gideon! In verse 16, the conversation with the Lord continues, but in verse 20, it is the angel of God who is in conversation. The next verse relates a miracle performed by the angel.
Then Gideon responds: "'Ah, Sovereign LORD! I have seen the angel of the LORD face to face!' But the LORD said to him, 'Peace! Do not be afraid. You are not going to die"' (Judges 6:22,23). Are there two or three characters in this passage? One of course, is Gideon. In verses 11 and 12 we have the angel of the Lord, then the Lord in verses 14 and 16, then the angel of God in verse 20 and again the angel of the Lord in verse 21. This writer maintains that the angel of the Lord must be the Lord God. Yet in some sense, the angel of the Lord, even though he himself is deity, must be distinguished from the totality of the Godhead, for in Zechariah 1:12, the angel of the Lord is seen interceding on behalf of Israel, calling out to the Lord of Hosts! The Holy Scriptures have given us a paradox: The angel of the Lord is distinct from God, yet is himself very God!!!
God Steps Forth
This paradox is consistent with God's very nature. God, who is involved with His creation and interested in our welfare (Psalm 139:3,13), is also high above (Isaiah 55:8,9). God is a vengeful God to those who flaunt his revealed will (Deuteronomy 32:35), and yet He is merciful (Exodus 33:19). God is all-knowing (Psalm 139), and yet He willingly "forgets" (Jeremiah 31:34, Isaiah 64:9). God is an advocate, a defender of His people (Psalm 59:1, Job 16:19), but He is also a prosecutor and judge (Psalm 50:6, Ecclesiastes 3:17). When we study the nature of God, we find paradoxes.
The angel of the Lord, God Himself, revealed Himself in a visible, personal way—taking the form of a human being. This writer maintains that not only could the angel of the Lord assume human form, but that, in time, he took on true humanity by being born into the human race!
"Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness" (Philippians 2:6.7).
This writer also maintains that the Old and New Testaments are intrinsically connected and make up God's revelation to man. The claims in the New Testament portion concerning Jesus correspond to those claims in the Old Testament portion which refer to the angel of the Lord. Jesus claimed to be the supreme malakh of God: "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9). The angel of the Lord did miraculous acts; so did Jesus. (See John 2:9, Matthew 8:3, Luke 7:11, Matthew 15:32, etc.) The angel of the Lord taught and instructed people; Jesus was called "rabbi" (John 20:16). The angel of the Lord is a judge of mankind; in John 5:22 we see "The Father judges no one, but had entrusted all judgement to the Son." Are Jesus of Nazareth and the angel that wrestled with Jacob one and the same? Carefully study the Scriptures for God's answer.1Gesenius Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures, Translated by Samuel Prideaux Tregelles, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.: Grand Rapids, 1949, p. 475.
2Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. II, Keter Publishing House, Ltd.: Jerusalem 1971, p. 1446.
3Ibid., p. 1443.