The word for angel in Hebrew is malach, which means “sent one”. We see this in Psalm 103:20-21…
Bless the Lord, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his word, obeying the voice of his word! Bless the Lord, all his hosts, his ministers, who do his will!
Angels are sent to do the will of God and carry out His word. But the whole subject of angels and demons is quite mysterious in the Bible. We are given glimpses into this unseen realm from time to time throughout the Scriptures but we are not given very much information. In Daniel we see Archangels with high responsibility fighting with demonic entities in Persia, and a whole heavenly host joyfully declaring the praise of God on the arrival of the Messiah in Bethlehem. And every now and again this character named the Angel of the Lord appears. Not an angel, mind you, but The Angel.
What kind of angel is this?
There are a good number of times where it seems that this angel (perhaps we should use the capital letter, the Angel) carries the characteristics of God Himself. Here, this Angel speaks as if He is, in fact, God:
Now the angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, “I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed my voice…” As soon as the angel of the Lord spoke these words to all the people of Israel, the people lifted up their voices and wept. And they called the name of that place Bochim. And they sacrificed there to the Lord. (Judges 2:1-5)
Here, Jacob talks about God’s kindness to him interchangeably with the Angel. Incidentally, even some Jewish translations capitalize the “A” for Angel in this verse.
And he [Jacob] blessed Joseph and said,
“The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked,
the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day,
the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the boys;
and in them let my name be carried on, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac;
and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.” (Genesis 48:15-16)
In other places, the Angel receives worship, something no ordinary angel would do.
Consider Samson’s parents (Judges 6:11-16) offering a sacrifice to said Angel, and calling him “Lord”, then being afraid they would die because they had seen God! An ordinary angel would never accept worship, but would surely react like the one speaking to John when he bowed down in Revelation 22:8-9. This is more like the way you might expect an angel to react when someone tries to worship them:
I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God.”
Jesus flatly refuses to worship Satan, quoting God’s commandment to worship Him alone. Indeed we are warned several times in Scripture to worship only God. Romans 1:25 bewails the wickedness of worshiping God’s creatures rather than the Creator, and Colossians 2:18 specifically warns against worshiping angels:
Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind.
As the angel tells John, “Worship God!” So what’s going on?
A heavenly conundrum for the rabbis
This results in more than a little consternation among the rabbis. It is recognized that something unusual is going on, but it’s hard to know how to reconcile it with God’s uniqueness. Thirteenth century rabbi, Bachya Ben Asher, pointed out that in Genesis 22 the Angel of the Lord seems to have authority and status that were above the rank of an ordinary angel.1 In the story of the binding of Isaac, God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, but the Angel of the Lord suddenly appears and tells him not to.2 Rabbi Bachya Ben Asher points out that surely Abraham wouldn’t have been dissuaded from disobeying God by a mere angel. Nifredim as he calls them (disembodied spirits) don’t have that authority. But this angel seems to have a unique relationship to God, with no less authority.
Rashi was another famous rabbi who saw that there was something divine about the Angel of the Lord. His commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures is the most well known in Jewish circles even till today. Here’s his commentary on Exodus 23:20-21:
Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him. (Exodus 23:20-21)
Rashi: “For My Name is within him: [This clause] is connected to the beginning of the verse: Beware of him because My Name is associated with him. Our Sages, however, said: This is [the angel] Metatron, whose name is like the name of his Master (Tractate Sanhedrin 38b). The numerical value of 431 [מֵטַטְרוֹן – Metatron] equals that of 314 [שַׁדַּי – Shaddai] – From Tikunei Zohar 66b.3
As is noted by the seventeenth century chief rabbi of Jerusalem, Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, this “Metatron” Angel who uses the divine voice seems also to have been active in matters of creation:
“The fact that Rashi mentions that the numerical value of Metatron is Sha-dai = 314, clearly establishes that Metatron is active in matters of Yetzira [creation], an activity requiring the attribute of Sha-dai [Almighty God]“.4
So even the rabbis, who squirm at any hint that God’s nature might be more complex than they thought, are able to see that this is no ordinary angel. He commands authority along with God Himself, happily accepts worship, and was involved in the creation process which requires the attribute of Almighty God. That’s quite some angel.
The Angel of the Lord is the pre-incarnate Messiah
Many times throughout Scripture, this Angel speaks as if He is God. As Dr. Michael Brown teaches, the Angel is the pre-existent Word of God, acting for the Lord yet addressed as the Lord, with the authority and character of God.
And the angel said to those who were standing before him, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” And to him he said, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments” …And the angel of the Lord solemnly assured Joshua, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: If you will walk in my ways and keep my charge, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you the right of access among those who are standing here”. (Zechariah 3:4,6, see also v.7-10)
The Angel speaks as if He is God and moreover says that He is the one who removed Joshua’s iniquity! We see something similar in Hagar’s meeting with the Angel of the Lord in Genesis 16 whom she later names El Roi, the God who sees, after He saw her plight and rescued her and her son (Genesis 16:7-13). She was evidently convinced she’d met God. This Angel also appeared to Gideon, leading him to the same conclusion, much to his terror:
Then Gideon perceived that he was the angel of the Lord. And Gideon said, “Alas, O Lord God! For now I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face.” But the Lord said to him, “Peace be to you. Do not fear; you shall not die.” Then Gideon built an altar there to the Lord and called it, The Lord Is Peace. To this day it still stands at Ophrah, which belongs to the Abiezrites. (Judges 6:22-24)
Samson’s parents, along with Gideon, thought that since they had seen God, they would die. They believed, in encountering the Angel of the Lord, that they had seen God Himself, and that they were now in big trouble. But who had they seen?
The Messiah is God
So if the Angel of the Lord was the pre-incarnate Messiah, ie. Jesus, does that mean that Jesus is some kind of an elevated angel? Absolutely not! The writer of Hebrews goes to great lengths in the first two chapters of his book to explain the differences between Jesus and angels. Hebrews 1 and 2 are worth reading if you have any doubts about that. Not only is Jesus not an ordinary angel, but He’s quite another being altogether. He is divine. He is God.
We see the deity of the Angel of God appearing in the pillar of cloud and fire which protected and led Israel out into the desert (Exodus 14:19,24, 33:9-10, Numbers 12:5, 14:14, Deuteronomy 31:15) and at the beginning of the Exodus adventure, in the burning bush, where His divine identity is made explicit:
There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up…. When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
And Moses said, “Here I am.”
“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then he said, “I am the God of your father,[a] the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God. (Exodus 3:2, 4-6)
The Bible tells us that we’d die if we saw God: “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). However just as we see Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, the three friends of Daniel, mysteriously not consumed in the blazing furnace because that mysterious fourth person “like a son of the gods”, the Angel of the Lord, was in there with them, so we are not consumed by God’s glory thanks to Jesus our Messiah. He is the visible image of our invisible God. He is the face of God, our Messiah, our Savior. He has removed our iniquity, cleansed us from all sin, and given us robes of righteousness so that we can stand before our holy God and live.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20)