Who Is the Angel of the LORD & What Does the Bible Say about Him?
- Liz Kanoy Senior Editor, Salem Web Network
- 2018 30 Nov
The most important thing to remember when studying the identity of the angel of the LORD (also referred to as the angel of God in some instances) in the Bible is that the meaning may vary depending on the context of the passage. The best way to study the meaning is to look at the context of the passage, as well as the context of similar passages. We should use Scripture to interpret Scripture, and, as always, pray for discerning wisdom from the Holy Spirit.
Though there is some controversy surrounding the identity of the angel of the LORD, there are generally four schools of thought —that the angel of the LORD is either:
- A special angel messenger, a heavenly being, who acted as God’s representative (not God himself).
- God the Father, showing himself as a divine manifestation to humanity. This is known as a theophany - “appearance of God.”
- God the Son, manifested in a pre-incarnate body form. This is known as a Christophany - “appearance of Christ.”
- It varies. The figure is sometimes a manifestation of God and sometimes an angelic heavenly being representing God, depending on the context of the text.
The term angel means “one sent” or “messenger,” and LORD in Hebrew is YHWH or Yahweh. The angel of the LORD is one sent by YHWH or a messenger of YHWH. If the Bible passage is referring to the pre-incarnate Jesus, then the meaning of "angel" is referring to the office of one sent. This is in line with Jesus’ mission as the One the Father sent into the world. (John 8:18, John 3:17). He bore witness to himself, and he came to testify to the truth. When the passage refers to an angelic heavenly being sent to a deliver a message then the term “angel” is referring to the nature of the being - one of the heavenly hosts, a spirit-being created by God. So the word "angel" does not always refer to the nature of a being named in Scripture, it can refer to the office of a being.
To start, let’s take a look at where the Bible mentions the angel of the LORD. There are many Old Testament references.
Hagar and the angel of the LORD —Genesis 16:7-14
“The angel of the LORD also said to her, ‘I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.’ And the angel of the LORD said to her, "Behold, you are pregnant and shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael, because the LORD has listened to your affliction. ‘He shall be a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone's hand against him, and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.’ So she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, ‘You are a God of seeing,’ for she said, ‘Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.’” (vs. 10-13)
In Genesis 16, the angel is referred to as the angel of the LORD (LORD meaning YHWH); the angel of the LORD is speaking in a way that only God would speak—only God can multiply someone’s offspring and make promises like that. Hagar also believes this is God, as she gives the angel the name El Roi—the God who sees me. She spoke, “Truly here I have seen him who looks after me” (vs. 13).
The ESV Study Bible comments,
“The Hebrew word for ‘angel’ may also be translated ‘messenger.’ ...When ‘the angel of the LORD’ speaks, his words are perceived as being God’s words. Therefore, the impression is given that the angel is identical with God.”
The angel of LORD told Hagar to name her son Ishmael, which means “God hears.” Though the angel could be an angelic representative of God, it seems likely in this particular context that the angel or messenger of the LORD is God.
Abraham and the angel of the LORD —Genesis 18 & 22
In Genesis 18, Scripture tells us that the LORD appeared to Abraham and Sarah in the form of a man along with two other men:
“And the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth and said, ‘O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant.’” (vs. 1-3)
Abraham recognized these visitors as being extremely important, hence the out of character behavior (for someone of his age and wealth) running to greet them, but he noticed something different about one of them. The term “O Lord” here, as the ESV Study Bible explains, “(Hb. Adonay) is a distinctive one for God in the OT (e.g., 20:4)...If the spelling in the Hebrew text is correct—and there is no reason to doubt it—then Abraham recognizes that one of his visitors is a divine manifestation.”
Genesis 22:11-18 reads,
“But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here am I.’ He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’ So Abraham called the name of that place, ‘The LORD will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.’ And the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, ‘By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.’"
Abraham knew this was the LORD providing for him; in the same sentence as the angel of the LORD speaking we see the phrase “declares the LORD” — so clearly the angel of the LORD and the LORD (YHWH) are one and the same in this context as well. God reiterated his promise previously spoken to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3), and he ended his declaration by saying “you have obeyed my voice.”
Jacob and the angel of God — Genesis 31, 32, 48
“Then the angel of God said to me in the dream, 'Jacob,' and I said, 'Here I am!' And he said, 'Lift up your eyes and see, all the goats that mate with the flock are striped, spotted, and mottled, for I have seen all that Laban is doing to you. I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and made a vow to me. Now arise, go out from this land and return to the land of your kindred.'" (Gen 31:11-13)
It is clear the “angel of God” in Jacob’s dream is, in fact, speaking as God himself. In Genesis 32:24-30 we learn that Jacob also has a physical encounter with God:
“So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, ‘Let me go, for it is daybreak.’ But Jacob replied, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ The man asked him, ‘What is your name?’ ‘Jacob,’ he answered. Then the man said, ‘Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.’ Jacob said, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he replied, ‘Why do you ask my name?’ Then he blessed him there. So Jacob called the place Peniel,saying, ‘It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.’”
Jacob tells us that this was God he struggled with, and this figure had the appearance of a man. The ESV Study Bible notes, “By the time their contest comes to an end, Jacob is convinced that his opponent is God himself (see v. 30). This is not improbable, given that God had previously come to Abraham in human form (18:1-15).” And in Genesis 48:15-16, when Jacob was older he blessed Joseph and his two sons:
“And he 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.’" (bold emphasis added)
It is interesting that Jacob would use the term angel or messenger in his description.
Moses and the angel of the LORD — Exodus 3:2-7
“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. So Moses thought, ‘I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does 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, 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. The LORD said, ‘I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.’”
Here we read that the angel of the LORD took on the form of flames of fire; this manifestation is clearly God as the text states, “God called to him from within the bush.” It is in this same passage, in verses 14 and 15, that God reveals his name as YHWH to Moses:
“God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’’ God also said to Moses, ‘Say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’’ ‘This is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation.”
The ESV Study Bible notes this:
“Where the angel of the LORD appears in the OT, he is often described as acting or speaking in a manner that suggests he is more than simply an angel or messenger and that he is closely identified with God himself (e.g., Gen. 22:11-18). Here he appears to Moses in a flame of fire, which is a sign of God’s presence throughout the events narrated in the book of Exodus: in the pillar of fire and cloud that leads and protects the Israelites (Ex. 13:21-22); in the signs of God’s presence on Mount Sinai (19:18); and in the tabernacle (40:38). The angel also protects Israel when they come out of Egypt (14:9), and God promises that he will go before Israel in to the land of Canaan (23:20; 33:2). In 3:4 this angel of God is identified as ‘the LORD’ and ‘God.’”
The NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible similarly states:
“As elsewhere in the OT (e.g., Gen 22:11-18; Judg 13) this character is closely identified with God himself, reflected here in the interchangeable use of ‘the LORD’ (vv. 4,7) and ‘God’ (vv. 4,5,6) that immediately follows. His manifestation in flames of fire forms a strong link with the sign of God’s presence elsewhere in the book: the pillar of fire and cloud (13:21-22; 14:24), the fire and cloud on Mount Sinai (19:18; 24:15-17), and the fire in the cloud over the tabernacle (40:38). At the Red Sea this angel protects the fleeing Israelites from the pursuing Egyptians (14:19), and presumably it is this same angel that God promises to send ahead of the Israelites into Canaan (23:20-23; 33:2).
The angel of God and the pillar of cloud — Exodus 14:18-24
In Exodus 14:18-24, we read:
“‘The Egyptians will know that I am the LORD when I gain glory through Pharaoh, his chariots and his horsemen.’ Then 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. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night long. Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the LORD drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued them, and all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and horsemen followed them into the sea. During the last watch of the night the LORD looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion.” (bold emphasis added)
In the Book of Exodus, we see God taking on the form of flames of fire in the burning bush, a pillar of cloud by day for the Israelites, and a pillar of fire by night to guide them. God also sent “the angel of God” to go before Israel in their journey.
The NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible comments:
“14:19 angel of God. This divine messenger is closely associated with the pillar of cloud and fire, and thus with the Lord himself (13:21, see note on 3:2). withdrew ...moved. The almost identical description of the actions of the angel and the pillar of cloud possibly identifies these as a single phenomenon, although the different verbs used (‘went’/’stood behind’) could imply two separate entities; the angel’s movement then precipitates the cloud’s movement.”
Sometimes it’s hard for us to imagine God being able to do these things (be everywhere at once, know all things, manifest himself in fire and cloud etc.); we know intellectually that it’s possible, of course, because we know he is God —and he has told us his attributes in his Word. God is not bound by finite limitations; he is not bound by time or space. He is three-in-one, he can manifest himself however he chooses; these are things finite humans cannot do —and these are things that finite minds find difficult to understand.
I will not pretend to know which person of the Trinity is the manifestation of fire in the burning bush or the pillar of cloud/fire that went before Israel, and no commentary that I have read would claim to know this with absolute certainty. We can only know what God has revealed. What is important to take away is that this is God dwelling among his people; he drew near to them, he went before them, and he fought for them and protected them for the glory of his holy purposes and plans. It’s OK if we don’t know every detail . . . God’s Word says we can trust him, even when we don’t understand something fully.
Joshua and the commander of LORD’s army — Joshua 5:13-15
“Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, ‘Are you for us or for our enemies?’ ‘Neither,’ he replied, ‘but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.’ Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, ‘What message does my Lord have for his servant?’ The commander of the LORD’s army replied, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.’ And Joshua did so.” (vs. 13-15)
This commander of the LORD’s army had the appearance of a man, but it is only after the man or divine manifestation identified himself that Joshua falls to the ground in reverence. And it is this figure that tells Joshua the ground is holy, just as the angel of the LORD told Moses in Exodus 3.
The NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible reminds us that the angel of the LORD or these divine manifestations usually appeared before someone’s mission: “Like Jacob (Gen 32:22-32) and Moses (Exod 3:1-4:17), Joshua encounters the divine presence before he begins his mission.”
The Book of Judges and the angel of the LORD: Judges 2, 5, 6, 13
“The angel of the LORD went up from Gilgal to Bokim and said, ‘I brought you up out of Egypt and led you into the land I swore to give to your ancestors. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall not make a covenant with the people of this land, but you shall break down their altars.’ Yet you have disobeyed me. Why have you done this? And I have also said, ‘I will not drive them out before you; they will become traps for you, and their gods will become snares to you.’’ When the angel of the LORD had spoken these things to all the Israelites, the people wept aloud, and they called that place Bokim. There they offered sacrifices to the LORD.” -Judges 2:15
It is not clear whether this is an appearance of the angel of the LORD in Judges 2 or whether it’s a messenger in the form of a prophet. The reason the NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible mentions the possibility of a prophet vs. a divine appearance is because a prophet is mentioned in Judges 6:7, “When the Israelites cried out to the LORD because of Midian, he sent them a prophet, who said, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says…’” But then in Judges 6:11, the angel of the LORD does make a physical appearance (discussed further down).
In Judges 5, Deborah sings a poetic song of celebration —the victory of Israel over King Sisera and the Canaanites —and it includes a curse from the angel of the LORD: “‘Curse Meroz,’ said the angel of the LORD. ‘Curse its people bitterly, because they did not come to help the LORD, to help the LORD against the mighty.’”
The NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible explains,
“5:23 Meroz. A nearby Israelite town. This is a curse for not joining in the battle (cf. Sukkoth and Peniel in 8:7,9,16-17). The curse provides the transition from the battle of the kings to the fleeing king, Sisera. Meroz did not aid Yahweh in the pursuit, but Jael (a non-Israelite) did, and she is ‘blessed’ as fervently as Meroz is cursed (v. 24).”
Gideon and the angel of the LORD —Judges 6
In Judges 6:11-12 we see the angel of the LORD make a physical appearance again:
“The angel of the LORD came and sat down under the oak in Ophrah that belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, where his son Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress to keep it from the Midianites. When the angel of the LORD appeared to Gideon, he said, ‘The LORD is with you, mighty warrior.’”
The angel of the LORD in this passage is in human form as the verb sat down is used, and Gideon mistakes the angel for a mere human. Gideon does not realize this is God as he refers to the man as lower-case “lord.” Gideon even gets a little sassy as he proceeds to complain that if the LORD were with them they wouldn’t be in the state they’re in . . . and if he (God) were with them where are all those great wonders told by the ancestors (Judges 6)? The angel of the LORD responds to Gideon: “The LORD turned to him and said, ‘Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?’” Gideon still isn’t sure if this is God or not and the LORD speaks again in Judges 6:16-24:
“The LORD answered, “I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites, leaving none alive.” Gideon replied, ‘If now I have found favor in your eyes, give me a sign that it is really you talking to me. Please do not go away until I come back and bring my offering and set it before you.’ And the LORD said, ‘I will wait until you return.’ Gideon went inside, prepared a young goat, and from an ephah of flour he made bread without yeast. Putting the meat in a basket and its broth in a pot, he brought them out and offered them to him under the oak. The angel of God said to him, ‘Take the meat and the unleavened bread, place them on this rock, and pour out the broth.’ And Gideon did so. Then the angel of the LORD touched the meat and the unleavened bread with the tip of the staff that was in his hand. Fire flared from the rock, consuming the meat and the bread. And the angel of the LORD disappeared. When Gideon realized that it was the angel of the LORD, he exclaimed, ‘Alas, 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.’ So Gideon built an altar to the LORD there and called it The LORD Is Peace. To this day it stands in Ophrah of the Abiezrites.”
Jared C. Wilson, in his blog on TheGospelCoalition.org, writes:
“The greeting from the angel of the Lord, who may be the preincarnate Christ himself (in vv.14-16 the angel of the Lord becomes “the LORD”), is strange. Would you call a hiding man a “mighty man of valor”? You would if the Lord was with him.”
Samson’s Parents and the angel of the LORD —Judges 13
Here is a portion of Judges 13, you can read the chapter in full at the link:
“A certain man of Zorah, named Manoah, from the clan of the Danites, had a wife who was childless, unable to give birth. The angel of the LORD appeared to her and said, “You are barren and childless, but you are going to become pregnant and give birth to a son. … Then the woman went to her husband and told him, ‘A man of God came to me. He looked like an angel of God, very awesome. I didn’t ask him where he came from, and he didn’t tell me his name.’ … Then Manoah prayed to the LORD: ‘Pardon your servant, Lord. I beg you to let the man of God you sent to us come again to teach us how to bring up the boy who is to be born.’ God heard Manoah, and the angel of God came again to the woman while she was out in the field; but her husband Manoah was not with her. ...Manoah got up and followed his wife. When he came to the man, he said, ‘Are you the man who talked to my wife?’ ‘I am,’ he said. ... Manoah said to the angel of the LORD, ‘We would like you to stay until we prepare a young goat for you.’ The angel of the LORD replied, ‘Even though you detain me, I will not eat any of your food. But if you prepare a burnt offering, offer it to the LORD.’ (Manoah did not realize that it was the angel of the LORD.) Then Manoah inquired of the angel of the LORD, ‘What is your name, so that we may honor you when your word comes true?’ He replied, ‘Why do you ask my name? It is beyond understanding.’ Then Manoah took a young goat, together with the grain offering, and sacrificed it on a rock to the LORD. And the LORD did an amazing thing while Manoah and his wife watched: As the flame blazed up from the altar toward heaven, the angel of the LORD ascended in the flame. Seeing this, Manoah and his wife fell with their faces to the ground. When the angel of the LORD did not show himself again to Manoah and his wife, Manoah realized that it was the angel of the LORD. ‘We are doomed to die!’ he said to his wife. ‘We have seen God!’ But his wife answered, ‘If the LORD had meant to kill us, he would not have accepted a burnt offering and grain offering from our hands, nor shown us all these things or now told us this.’ The woman gave birth to a boy and named him Samson.”
In the beginning of the passage the angel’s appearance is mentioned as awesome, but his essential character was not revealed yet, as the ESV Study Bible points out. And in verse 18 we learn that the angel’s name is too wonderful to comprehend so he does not reveal it to Samson’s parents; in Isaiah 9:6 the Messiah’s name is listed as “Wonderful Counselor” among others. The angel of the LORD here in Judges 13, as well as chapter 6, performs miracles, which are normally attributed to God himself.
David and the angel of the LORD —2 Samuel 24:1-17
In 2 Samuel 24, the LORD’s anger burns against Israel and David must choose a punishment for his sin (though we don’t know the exact sin, it involved a lack of trust in the LORD). Here is a portion of the text ending at verse 17:
“Before David got up the next morning, the word of the LORD had come to Gad the prophet, David’s seer: ‘Go and tell David, ‘This is what the LORD says: I am giving you three options. Choose one of them for me to carry out against you.’’ ... David said to Gad, ‘I am in deep distress. Let us fall into the hands of the LORD, for his mercy is great; but do not let me fall into human hands.’ So the LORD sent a plague on Israel from that morning until the end of the time designated, and seventy thousand of the people from Dan to Beersheba died. When the angel stretched out his hand to destroy Jerusalem, the LORD relented concerning the disaster 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. When David saw the angel who was striking down the people, he said to the LORD, ‘I have sinned; I, the shepherd, have done wrong. These are but sheep. What have they done? Let your hand fall on me and my family.’”
It is hard to tell but it is likely the same angel that is referred to as “afflicting the people” and then at the “threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite;” it is unclear, however, whether David sees this angel of the LORD as the LORD himself or whether he sees the angel but then prays to the LORD as if they were separate. This angel, whether manifestation or angelic being, is capable of taking life, and we know that only God is the giver and taker of life (Deut. 32:39, 1 Sam. 2:6) angelic beings and demonic spirits do not have that power on their own.
[Note: God does not sin or commit evil; therefore, when humans make bad choices this is not a reflection of God because the choice in itself is a rejection of God . . . but God can still use what humans intended for evil for the good of others and his glory, even if we do not understand it at the time or ever in this life. We can trust that God is good and sovereign and everything he does is according to his holy purpose.]
We know that God allowed Satan to afflict Job, and in Genesis 19, for example, Moses wrote about the angels (angelic beings with the appearance of men) who visited Lot in Sodom:
“Then they struck the men who were at the door of the house, young and old, with blindness so that they could not find the door. The two men said to Lot, “Do you have anyone else here—sons-in-law, sons or daughters, or anyone else in the city who belongs to you? Get them out of here, because we are going to destroy this place. The outcry to the LORD against its people is so great that he has sent us to destroy it.” (bold emphasis added)
Angels are allowed to do certain work as it is decreed by God himself. In verse 29, Moses reiterates that it was God who brought the judgment: “So when God destroyed the cities of the plain, he remembered Abraham, and he brought Lot out of the catastrophe that overthrew the cities where Lot had lived.”
The Prophet Zechariah and the angel of the LORD — Zechariah 1:7-20
In Zechariah 1 we learn that the word of the LORD was revealed to the prophet Zechariah in a vision; a vision is different from a dream in that the participant is awake. In this vision, an angel speaks with Zechariah and Zechariah addresses him as “lord” (lowercase), which suggests Zechariah did not view the angel speaking to him as God himself but rather an angelic being. Zechariah 1:7-20 reads:
“On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius, the word of the LORD came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berekiah, the son of Iddo. During the night I had a vision, and there before me was a man mounted on a red horse. He was standing among the myrtle trees in a ravine. Behind him were red, brown and white horses. I asked, ‘What are these, my lord?’ The angel who was talking with me answered, ‘I will show you what they are.” Then the man standing among the myrtle trees explained, ‘They are the ones the LORD has sent to go throughout the earth.’ And they reported to the angel of the LORD who was standing among the myrtle trees, ‘We have gone throughout the earth and found the whole world at rest and in peace.’ Then the angel of the LORD said, ‘LORD Almighty, how long will you withhold mercy from Jerusalem and from the towns of Judah, which you have been angry with these seventy years?’ So the LORD spoke kind and comforting words to the angel who talked with me. Then the angel who was speaking to me said, “Proclaim this word: This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I am very jealous for Jerusalem and Zion, and I am very angry with the nations that feel secure. I was only a little angry, but they went too far with the punishment.’ ‘Therefore this is what the LORD says: ‘I will return to Jerusalem with mercy, and there my house will be rebuilt. And the measuring line will be stretched out over Jerusalem,’ declares the LORD Almighty. ‘Proclaim further: This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘My towns will again overflow with prosperity, and the LORD will again comfort Zion and choose Jerusalem.’’ Then I looked up, and there before me were four horns. I asked the angel who was speaking to me, ‘What are these?’ He answered me, ‘These are the horns that scattered Judah, Israel and Jerusalem.’ Then the LORD showed me four craftsmen.” (bold emphasis added)
The angel, an angelic being, speaking to Zechariah and the angel of the LORD are separate in the vision. There is a man by the myrtle trees on a red horse and later it is said that the horses (riders implied) report to the angel of the LORD who is by the myrtle trees; so the man on the red horse and the angel of the LORD are the same; the angel of the LORD as in most instances we’ve read has the appearance of a man. The angel of the LORD speaks directly to the LORD Almighty (“Yahweh of armies” is the title used 53 times for God in Zechariah), and the LORD answers him. The NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible states,
“The ‘man’ of v. 8 is ‘the angel of the LORD’ (v. 11), a different figure from the interpreting angel of v. 9. He represents God and speaks for God and yet is distinct from God (cf. 3:1, 5-6).”
The ESV Study Bible also comments that the angel of the LORD intercedes with the LORD; this reminds me of Jesus’ constant intercession for us now. However, we are still not given a clear answer to whether the angel of the LORD here is a representative or a manifestation, but we know the angel of the LORD has the appearance of a man which could suggest the pre-incarnate Jesus. However, because more details are not revealed, we can infer that it is not necessary to understand the distinction of the angel of the LORD in order to understand what is written in Zechariah and what God is trying to teach us in his Word here.
The angel of the LORD mentioned in the New Testament — Acts 7
Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin (30-38):
“‘After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai. When he saw this, he was amazed at the sight. As he went over to get a closer look, he heard the Lord say: ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ Moses trembled with fear and did not dare to look. “Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. I have indeed seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their groaning and have come down to set them free. Now come, I will send you back to Egypt.’ “This is the same Moses they had rejected with the words, ‘Who made you ruler and judge?’ He was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God himself, through the angel who appeared to him in the bush. He led them out of Egypt and performed wonders and signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the wilderness. “This is the Moses who told the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your own people.’ He was in the assembly in the wilderness, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors; and he received living words to pass on to us.” (bold emphasis added)
Here Stephen delivered a speech to the Sanhedrin to point out their rejection of the Messiah, but his sermon is cut short when they cast him out of the city and stoned him. Stephen started off by saying “an angel” but then followed it up by making it clear this was the LORD speaking. Later in the speech, he referred to God as “the angel who appeared to him in the bush” and “the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai.” Stephen is clearly saying that in these instances the angel of the LORD and the LORD himself are one.
The Bible says no one has seen the face of God, usually meaning God the Father or God the Holy Spirit because we know people have seen the incarnate Jesus in the New Testament. And because we know people have seen the incarnate Jesus, it makes sense that people would also have seen the pre-incarnate Jesus. Additionally, there are no instances in the Bible where the Holy Spirit is specifically called an angel or referred to as an angel.
What power and authority does this angel have?
- In some passages and contexts, the angel is clearly identified with God himself.
- This angel has the power to give life (Gen. 16:10), which is a power only God has, and to take life 2 Sam. 6.
- The angel is described as all-knowing in Genesis 16:13 and Exodus 3:7, which is an attribute only God has.
- He is called the judge of all the earth in Genesis 18:25, which is a title for God alone.
- In Exodus 23:21, the angel is said to have authority to forgive sins, which belongs to God alone.
- This angel was worshiped by Moses and Joshua, and the angel did not stop them. In other Bible passages, angelic beings stop people from worshiping them or giving them glory when it belongs to God alone.
- The angel had authority in the way that no other angel in Scripture has had authority.
It is clear that the angel of the LORD in many of the passages in the Old Testament is God manifested, and the only part of the Trinity that has been identified in Scripture as taking on flesh or the appearance of a man is God the Son, Jesus Christ.
Answers in Genesis says this concerning the angel of the LORD in the Old Testament:
“He is called God, given attributes of God, seen by people, worshiped, and distinguished from the Father and Spirit. So rather than undermining the uniqueness and importance of Christ, theophanies affirm the uniqueness of Jesus. They also show the intimacy of God with His creation, unlike the distant god of deism that some people incorrectly associate with the God of the Bible. Besides making for an interesting Bible study, the appearances of Christ in the Old Testament confirm the fact that He existed prior to the Incarnation, just as He plainly stated: “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58). The fact that Jesus is the Creator also demonstrates His existence prior to His first advent (John 1:1-3; Colossians 1:16).”
However some readers and commentators find the terminology “angel of the LORD” confusing and wonder why Moses, inspired by the Holy Spirit, wouldn’t have just used language that was more plain, especially since there are some instances where the angel of the LORD and the LORD appear to be separate and other instances where the figure appears to be a manifestation of God himself. Some claim that the angel of the LORD is either the angel Michael or Gabriel, but Michael and Gabriel are identified by their own names in Scripture and they are never confused for God. We can only know what has been revealed. This is why each Bible passage must be examined in context, with the help of other passages of Scripture.
What can we conclude then? Not everything is revealed to us or will be revealed to us during our time on earth; Deuteronomy 29:29 reads: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.”
God is mysterious, but he makes plain what needs to be made plain in order that we might understand what is most important through the Holy Spirit and that is salvation in Christ alone. We are sinners in need of a Savior and God through his mighty and sovereign plan gave of himself and allowed his Son to live a perfect life in our place, die an atoning sacrificial death in our place, and rise again to ensure our eternal destiny -- none of which we could possibly hope to do on our own merit.
What we can know for sure about the angel of the LORD is that he was and is part of God’s plan for the salvation of mankind and part of the plan to restore what was broken; he is associated with God on more than one occasion in Scripture, and he says and does things usually attributed to God in most of the passages where he is mentioned. The angel of the LORD also does not appear in the New Testament after Christ’s incarnation. The title “the angel of the Lord” is used in Acts 5 for the release of prisoners, but this is not the same as the angel of the LORD (all caps). So, using Scripture to interpret Scripture, we can form a limited conclusion as to who this figure was and is. We know for sure in certain passages the angel of the LORD is identified with God, and we know the angel of the LORD communicated directly with God. Yet there is still mystery, we can only know what has been revealed in God’s Word.
This article is part of our Names of God Series featuring the most used names and titles of God found in the Bible. We have compiled these articles to help you study all that God says He is and to help you understand His nature and character. Our hope is that you would focus on these truths and find hope as you rest in the promise of God’s presence, no matter the circumstances.
7 Meanings of Yahweh - God's Name in the Bible
Meaning of Elohim in the Bible
What Does it Mean that Jesus is the Lamb of God?
What Does Messiah Mean? - Biblical Usage
God is the Alpha and Omega - Meaning & Understanding
What is the Meaning of the Name El Shaddai?
Jehovah Jireh: “The Lord Will Provide” Name of God
What Does Yeshua Mean? Biblical Name for Jesus
Jehovah Nissi: "The Lord is My Banner" Name of God
Son of Man - Jesus’s Favorite Name for Himself
Photo credit: ©Thinkstock/den-belitsky