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Don Stewart :: Who Is the Angel of the Lord in the Old Testament?

Don Stewart
Though all the good angels are angels of God, or angels of the Lord, there is one special angel who is distinct and unique from all the other angels, he is called the "angel of the LORD."

In Both Testaments

The Bible, in both testaments, speaks of this personage called the "angel of the LORD," the "angel of the Presence" or the "angel, or messenger, of the Covenant." He appears in many important contexts in Scripture. The manner in which he is described sets him apart from all the other angels.

Three Possibilities

Three major views have been put forth as to the exact identity of the angel of the LORD.

1. A mighty angel who acted as the special representative of the LORD.

2. God the Father assuming a human body.

3. God the Son, taking a body for a short period of time.

Each of these three views has its supporters. To determine which view best fits the evidence, we will consider some of the major appearances of the angel of the LORD and make some observations about those appearances.

To Hagar

The first recorded appearance of the angel of the LORD was to Hagar, Abraham's mistress, and the mother of his son Ishmael.

The angel of the LORD also said to her, "I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude" (Genesis 16:10).

This angel said He Himself would multiply the descendants of Hagar.

After the appearance of the angel of the LORD Hagar said.

She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: "You are the God who sees me," for she said, "I have now seen the One who sees me" (Genesis 16:13).

She believed that she had spoken directly to God.

To Abraham And Sarah At Mamre

Three men appeared to Abraham and his wife Sarah at the plains of Mamre. They had come to inform Abraham and Sarah concerning two matters. The son that God had promised them would be born to Abraham and Sarah the next year, and the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah would be destroyed. One of the three visitors who gave them this information is specifically called the LORD.

The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day (Genesis 18:1).

To Abraham On Mount Moriah

God told Abraham to bring his son Isaac to Mount Moriah to be sacrificed. Abraham obeyed and was about to take Isaac's life when God intervened. The angel of the LORD stopped Abraham saying:

He said, "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me" (Genesis 22:12).

He called a second time to Abraham:

The angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven (Genesis 22:15).

In this instance the angel of the LORD, who called out to Abraham, seems to be the LORD Himself.

To Jacob

This angel appeared a number of times to Jacob.

Then the angel of God said to me in the dream, 'Jacob,' and I said, 'Here I am' (Genesis 31:11).

Jacob wrestled all night with a man who finally disabled him. The next morning Jacob understood that it was God Himself whom he had wrestled:

And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved (Genesis 32:30).

At the end of his life, Jacob spoke of God, and the angel of the LORD, as identical.

the Angel who has delivered me from all harm - may He bless these boys. May they be called by my name and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they increase greatly upon the earth (Genesis 48:16).

Moses And The Burning Bush

The angel of the LORD appeared to Moses in the burning bush.

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 (Exodus 3: 2).

The angel explained who He was.

He said further, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God (Exodus 3:6).

The martyr Stephen emphasized this special event.

And after forty years had passed, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in the flame of a burning thorn bush (Acts 7:30).

God's Promise

God promised to send His angel ahead of the children of Israel.

I am going to send an angel in front of you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. Be attentive to him and listen to his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression; for my name is in him. But if you listen attentively to his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes. When my angel goes in front of you, and brings you to the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, and I blot them out (Exodus 23:20-23).

The Israelites were told that they must obey this angel because the name of the LORD was in him. Since God would never share His name with any created being, this angel must be God Himself. Isaiah the prophet wrote.

I am the LORD, that is My name; My glory I give to no other, nor My praise to idols (Isaiah 42:8).

Since God will not share His name or glory with anyone else, this angel must be God.

Joshua

An imposing personage appeared to Joshua.

when Joshua was by Jericho, that he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing opposite him with his sword drawn in his hand, and Joshua went to him and said to him, "Are you for us or for our adversaries?" And he said, "No, rather I indeed come now as captain of the host of the LORD." And Joshua fell on his face to the earth, and bowed down, and said to him, "What has my lord to say to his servant?" And the captain of the LORD's host said to Joshua, "Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy." And Joshua did so (Joshua 5:13-15).

Having Joshua immediately remove his sandals reminds one of the LORD telling Moses to remove his sandals in God's presence at the burning bush.

Gideon

Gideon was a man who was called by God to raise an army to defeat the innumerable Midianites. Because Gideon was a timid person, God paid him a visit to assure him that all would go well. After the encounter Gideon exclaimed:

Then Gideon perceived that it was the angel of the LORD; and Gideon said, "Help me, Lord GOD! For 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" (Judges 6:22).

If it was only an angel, and not God, that Gideon saw, then why was he afraid for his life?

Samson's Parents

The angel of the LORD appeared to a Hebrew woman to announce the birth of a son, Samson. He was to deliver the people of Israel from their enemies.

The angel of the LORD did not appear again to Manoah and his wife. Then Manoah realized that it was the angel of the LORD. And Manoah said to his wife, "We shall surely die, for we have seen God" (Judges 13:21,22).

They identified the angel of the LORD with God Himself.

Other Appearances

Although these appearances identify the angel of the LORD with the LORD Himself, there are other appearances of the angel of the LORD where he is distinguished from God.

When the angel stretched out his hand to destroy Jerusalem, the LORD was grieved because of the calamity and said to the angel who was afflicting the people, "Enough! Withdraw your hand." The angel of the LORD was then at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite (2 Samuel 24:16).

Then they spoke to the angel of the LORD who was standing among the myrtle trees, "We have patrolled the earth, and lo, the whole earth remains at peace." Then the angel of the LORD said, "O LORD of hosts, how long will you withhold mercy from Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, with which you have been angry these seventy years?" Then the LORD replied with gracious and comforting words to the angel who talked with Me (Zechariah 1:11-13).

Case For A Theophany

The case for the angel of the LORD being a theophany, a temporary appearance of God in a body, is as follows.

1. Identified With God

In some contexts, the angel of the LORD is identified with God.

2. Power To Give Life

The angel of the LORD is said to have power to give life (Genesis 16:10). Only God has this power.

3. All-Knowing

The quality of omniscience, or knowing everything, is attributed to the angel of the LORD (Genesis 16:13; Exodus 3:7).

4. Judge The Earth

The angel of the LORD is called the "Judge of all the earth" (Genesis 18:25). This is a title that belongs to God alone.

5. Forgive Sin

The Bible says that only God can forgive sin.

I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake, and I will not remember your sins (Isaiah 43:25).

Yet the angel of the LORD had authority to forgive sins (Exodus 23:21).

6. Receive Worship

Worship belongs to God and Him alone. Yet the angel of the LORD was worshipped by Moses and Joshua.

God In Human Flesh

The evidence from these appearances seems clear. At certain times in the past God took upon Himself a human form to appear to people as the angel of the LORD. Though we do not know exactly which member of the Trinity is in view, the most likely candidate would be God the Son.

Other Occasions

Though the angel of the LORD is sometimes identified with the LORD Himself, there are other times when they are distinguished. Therefore we can conclude that on some occasions the angel of the LORD was God Himself, while at other times he was merely a messenger sent from the LORD.

Context Must Determine

The context must determine the identity of the angel of the LORD. If the angel of the LORD was, in some instances, Jesus Christ coming in a temporary body, then the term angel stresses the basic meaning of the word - one sent. God the Son was sent by God the Father. Therefore the word "angel" in that context would be referring to the office of the One sent-a messenger.

This is in keeping with nature of the mission of Jesus Christ - He is the one whom the Father has sent.

I am One who bears witness of Myself, and the Father who sent Me bears witness of Me (John 8:18).

If, however, it is one of the angelic host who is referred to as the angel of the LORD, then it is the nature of the being that is being stressed - one of the heavenly host, a created spirit-being.

Summary

On a number of occasions in the Old Testament when the angel of the LORD appeared, it seems to be the LORD Himself. The angel has attributes that belong to God and God alone. In addition, He is addressed as the LORD. If this be the case, then He is not a created being, but God Himself who took on angelic form. Though some have thought it to be God the Father, this would more likely be an instance of Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, coming to earth for a short time in a human form.

Other times, however, the angel of the LORD is clearly distinguished from the LORD. On these occasions the angel must be a created being rather than God Himself.
CONTENT DISCLAIMER:

The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.

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