1. The Nature of the Angels
The work of the Angels is vital to understand, for it is through them that God works moment by moment in our daily lives to bring about His purpose with us, and it is through them that the trials of life are ministered in order for us to be developed so that we may reach the Kingdom. It is one of our fundamental beliefs that God is everywhere present by His Spirit; but the Spirit is not an abstract essence, it is always manifested in something (as 'diabolism' is). It seems reasonable to suggest that the Spirit is largely invested in the Angels, making them the practical means by which God manifests Himself throughout the universe and in our lives.
The fact that our reward will be to take over some aspects of their present role makes a study of their present capabilities and organisation a way of looking forward to some details of the "joy set before" us. "Unto the Angels hath He not put in subjection the world to come"; "the children of the resurrection...are equal unto the Angels" (Lk. 20:35,36). When Col. 1:12 speaks of our sharing in the inheritance of the holy ones in light, he may well have Angels in mind. Several themes emerge from this study; not least that the Angels are not all powerful in their own right- they have limited power and knowledge, and this fact is sometimes reflected by the ways in which they act in our lives.
Often we read God spoken of with what we will call the 'language of limitation'- He is spoken of as if He has certain constraints on His actions due to lack of strength and power. We know that this cannot be true of God Himself in person- He "fainteth not, neither is weary" (Is. 40:28). It follows therefore that such language must be concerning the Angels who manifest God's Name; in the same way as we explain Moses' seeing God's face in Ex. 33:12 as him speaking personally to the Angel, seeing that no man can see God Himself face to face.
Non-trinitarians are used to expounding the phrase 'God' - elohim- in Gen. 1:26 "And God said ,Let us make man in our image" as referring to the Angels, and rightly so. It seems logical to interpret most of the other references to 'Elohim' in the chapter -and in the whole of Genesis?- as also referring to the Angels, especially due to the 'language of limitation' associated with them- e. g. v. 25 ". . . and God saw that it was good", implies that God noticed it was good as He stood back and looked at what He had made. We know it was the Angels who did the actual physical work of creation, so it was them who could notice the goodness of it. God Himself knew its goodness before it was made; He did not notice it afterward, seeing that He knows the end from the beginning as He does. Similarly in Gen. 2:2 when Elohim rested on the seventh day, the implication is that they were tired- language impossible to apply to God Himself. The Hebrew for "rested" does not only mean that He ceased, but that He ceased for a reason. Ex. 31:17 is even clearer- " In six days the LORD made Heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He rested, and was refreshed"- the word used to describe refreshment after physical exhaustion, e. g. regarding David and his men at Bahurim when fleeing from Jerusalem (2 Sam. 16:14). Notice in passing that the Angels who gave the Law of Moses are often mentioned specifically as instituting the sabbath (e. g. Ex. 31:3; Ez. 20:12,13,16,20)- because it is "the sabbath (the rest) of the Lord" (Lev. 23:3)- i. e. of the Angels who rested on that day back in Genesis. The fact man was to physically rest on the sabbath as a replica of how the Angels "rested" on that day implies that they too physically rested.
Scripture abounds with this language of limitation- e. g. :
Gen. 8:1 "God remembered" Noah in the ark, implying He has the capacity to forget or be oblivious;
Gen. 11:5 "The Lord came down to see the city and the tower" (of Babel), as if He had to search and come to have a closer look;
Gen. 16:7 "And the angel of the LORD (called 'God' in v. 13) found her (Hagar) by a fountain", as if He was not sure where she was and had to search;
Dt. 32:20,27: "I will see what their end shall be. . were it not that I feared the wrath of the enemy. . and lest they should say. . the Lord hath not done this". God Himself knows the end from the beginning and need fear no man; but His Angels do not have ultimate knowledge or strength, and therefore such language is more suited to them.
More obvious examples of Angelic limitation are seen in the Angel having to wrestle with Jacob, the prince of Persia withstanding an Angel (Dan. 10:13) and Gabriel being caused to "fly with weariness" (Dan. 9:21 AVmg. ), or perhaps Zechariah’s Angel being surprised that his charge Zechariah didn’t understand (Zech. 4:13). However, this concept of 'language of limitation' should not be allowed to obscure the personal, direct relationship that is possible between God Himself and us His children. The whole idea of God manifestation through the Angels does not preclude God from direct feeling and action towards His people. A simple analogy would be that when the Queen speaks and acts, it is normally through one of her ambassadors. But sometimes the Queen may speak personally to someone, or take pity on a child by the roadside. That she is usually manifested through an agent does not stop her doing this. And how much more so with the gracious King of Heaven.
Rev. 9:14 commands: “Loose the four angels which are bound at the great river Euphrates” (R.V.). They then eagerly go forward to prepare the way for the second coming. The implication is surely that those Angels were geographically bound / limited in the scope of their work by the Euphrates River- and yet in their eagerness to progress the timetable of events leading to the last day, they yearned to go beyond that limitation. The reference to “the Angel of the waters” likewise suggests that an Angel was operative in one geographical area. It could be that as the future elohim we likewise will have areas of geographical influence in the age to come- the “cities” over which we are given dominion.
That the Angels do not have complete knowledge is vital to understand, as we will see later how Angels change their minds and purposes, and that we too as Angels in the future will not rise from the judgement seat with a sudden full spiritual comprehension and knowledge. The Angels are often described as questioning God or being uncertain as to why He acts as He does- e. g. in the parable of the wheat and tares the "servants of the householder (interpreted by Jesus as the Angels, v. 39) came and said unto Him, Sir, didst not Thou sow good seed in Thy field? from whence then hath it tares?. . wilt Thou that we go and gather them up?" (Mt. 13:27). As will be shown later, we have here an example of the Angels in the presence of God trying to understand His ways and eagerly offering their help in bringing about His purpose as they perceive it.
It is possible for the Angels to do this in a manner which God finds inappropriate (how similar to us in this life!). A good example of this is found in Ez. 9:4,5: "And the LORD said unto Him (the man in linen of v. 2- another Angel), Go through the midst of the city. . . and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof. And to the others (Angels) He said in mine hearing, Go ye after Him through the city, and smite: let not your eye spare, neither have pity". The 'LORD' of v. 4 here seems to be an Angel; it is the 'He' of verse 1 who "cried also in mine ears. . saying, Cause them that have charge over the city to draw near. . ". The phrase "also" refers back to the "spirit" of 8:3 who put forth "the form of an hand" (language used about the cherubim, which as we shall see were representative of Angels) and carried Ezekiel to various places in the vision. The mighty being of 8:2 with "the appearance of fire. . as the colour of amber" also refers to this same Angel. Those of v. 1 which "have charge over the city" were Angels (as in Is. 62:6). These Angels were now being told to go through the city and slay without pity any that did not have the mark the other Angel had put on them, thus showing how the same Angels that preserve us through life can also turn against us to minister God's judgements if we are unworthy. For the present we want to note the repeated command to these Angels to not allow emotions of pity to hinder their work: "Let not your eye spare, neither have ye pity: slay utterly old and young, both maids, and little children and women". Surely this implies that the Senior Angel speaking to these Angels knew that their judgement could be affected by emotional considerations, therefore the point was stressed. In the same way, we know God does make judgements based on what to us we would call 'emotion'- we read of God pitying Israel in their early days for no logical reason, and also of Him refusing to pity them in His judgements upon them. So many of David's prayers show him persuading God to show pity on him. The psalms often start off with him in trouble, claiming God has cast Him off and is insensitive to him, and then progress to a triumph of faith and the power of prayer, through him sensing that God has now pitied and helped him.
The Angel of Gen. 18:21 seems to recognize His own limited perceptions: “I will therefore go down and see, if they completely correspond with the cry which comes to me, and if not, that I may know” (LXX).
"Is God a man?"
This lack of ultimate knowledge results in the Angels taking time to think things out and discuss their action with each other, which may result in an apparent delay to we humans. Thus in Gen. 18:17 "The LORD (an Angel- see later) said, Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do?". However, this same incident shows that there are varying degrees of knowledge amongst Angels or in the same Angel over time. The Angel who destroyed Sodom reasoned: "I know him (Abraham), that he will command his children and his household after him" (Gen. 18:19). Yet perhaps the same Angel, or the mighty Angel of Israel which made the promises to the patriarchs (see later), said to Abraham a few months later after his offering up of Isaac: "Now I know that thou fearest God" (Gen. 22:12), implying that he did not know whether Abraham's faith was genuine before that incident, and that the knowledge of Gen. 18:19 was merely that Abraham would 'teach his children the truth' and did not reflect any knowledge of Abraham's personal faith. On reflection, this seems the only sensible way of reconciling the two statements. In this case, Sodom might have been preserved by reason of Abraham's known willingness to teach others 'the truth' rather than because of any personal faith in God he may have had. Thus the lesson comes home that a man's zeal or success in preaching can be unrelated to his personal faith or spirituality.
The idea of the rainbow being a ‘reminder’ to God not to destroy the earth again with a flood is rather hard to understand when applied to God. But if this is a reminder to the Angels, who brought the flood in the first place [see later], this makes more sense (Gen. 9:16). Ex. 2:24,25 is another example: "God heard their groaning (of Israel in Egypt), and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob (all actually made by an Angel). And God looked (the Angels are God's eyes- see later) upon the children of Israel, and God had respect unto them". God remembering and taking notice of Israel is surely the language of limitation, and applicable to an Angel.
There even seems to be the suggestion that Angels have the capacity to forget. In Is. 63 we read of the Angel of the presence that went with Israel through the wilderness, and of His subsequent thoughts: "They rebelled and vexed His Holy Spirit (the "Angel of His presence"): therefore He was turned to be their enemy, and He fought against them. Then He (the Angel) remembered the days of old, Moses and His people, saying, Where is He that brought them up out of the Sea. . that led them through the seep. . the Spirit of the Lord (an Angel) caused him (Moses) to rest: so didst Thou lead Thy people" (vv. 10-14). This shows the Angel looking back to the days when He led them through the wilderness, and in wrath remembering mercy. "Where is He that brought them up. . " He asked- it was the same Angel which is speaking who brought them up. So the Angel was remembering His former manifestation of God as He brought them up from Egypt, and deciding to go back to the attitude towards the people which He had then. This again shows the place of pity and emotion in affecting Angelic decisions, although all under the over-ruling hand of God Himself.
We also have the fact that Angels pray for more knowledge. They "earnestly desire to look into" spiritual things and seek for signs of the times as much as we do- e. g. "The Angel of the Lord answered and said, O LORD of Hosts (recognizing God's control of the Angels), how long wilt Thou not have mercy on Jerusalem. . ?" (Zech. 1:12).
It may even be that Angels use language and writing skills (e. g. for writing in the book of life? how about "the language of Angels" in 1 Cor. 13:1?), and it appears that they have limitations in these too- Psalm 81 describes the work of the Angel in bringing Israel out of Egypt:
v. 1 "God of Jacob"- an Angelic term; Jacob conceived of his God in terms of an Angel- Gen. 48:15,16
v. 5 "He went out through the land of Egypt"-the Angel of the Lord did this to kill the firstborn
v. 4,5 "He ordained a Law and a statute"- the Angels ministered the Law of Moses, as Paul stresses in Hebrews 1 and 2
v. 6 "I removed his (Israel's) shoulder from the burden"- the Angel led them out of bondage
v. 7 "I proved thee (their faith) at the waters of Meribah"; as we will see, proving is the work of Angels rather than of God Himself, who has full knowledge of all things and doesn't need to "prove" anyone.
We then come to the amazing statement "I heard a language that I understood not" (v. 5)- as if the Angel being talked about didn't understand Egyptian? Or is this because the Angel was so strongly identified with His people that what was true of them became true of Him?
v. 10 "I. . brought thee out of the land of Egypt"- the Angel in the pillar of cloud did this.