This is a guest post by Lindsay John Kennedy.
Although many popular misconceptions exist, the Bible tells us quite a bit about angels. It may not answer all our questions, but what it says, it says clearly.
In this post, we draw from Michael Heiser’s Angels: What the Bible Really Says about God’s Heavenly Host to learn how the Bible speaks about angels, starting with a common misconception about the term “angel.”
Myth: All angels are heavenly beings
Though it’s common parlance to call any heavenly being an “angel,” this is not entirely accurate.
First, not all angels are heavenly beings. The English word “angel” comes from the Greek angelos. Both angelos and its Hebrew equivalent (mal’āk) refer to messengers, whether they be angelic or human. To avoid confusion, most English Bibles only use “angel” when a heavenly being is in view.
Second, not all heavenly beings are angels. Scripture refers to numerous heavenly beings with different roles (sons of God, cherubim, watchers). “Angel” is not a catch-all term for heavenly beings; rather, it is a job that some of them are assigned. Angels are heavenly beings sent to earth to communicate a truth or accomplish a mission.
This nuanced understanding is important for better understanding the hierarchy and roles of heavenly beings. However, for ease of reading, these posts will often refer to heavenly beings as “angels” according to the popular meaning of the word.
What the Bible says about angels
The Bible does not offer a clearly laid out systematic theology of angels; it simply assumes their existence. Any attempt to understand angels must be sensitive to the Bible’s way of speaking of them.
As Heiser says, “We need to grasp the fact that a given word will not necessarily yield the same kind of information about those spirit beings” (p. 1). He breaks down the various ways Scripture speaks of angels into three categories: nature, status, and function.
Truth #1. They are heavenly beings
- Several words tell us what angels are or are like. These words help us understand their nature:
- They are “spirits,” and are not embodied (Judg 9:22-23; 1 Sam 16:14-16; 1 Kgs 22:19–23; Heb 1:14). They do not have flesh like humans do. They are “heavenly ones.” Sometimes Scripture parallels the heavens with the beings that inhabit them. These are heavenly beings (Deut 32:43; Ps 89:5–7; Job 15:15).
- They are “stars,” transcendent and glorious (Job 38:5–7; Isa 14:13).
- They are “holy ones.” This does not mean they are incorruptible; rather, they dwell in the presence of Yahweh (Deut 33:2-3; Zech 14:5; Dan 4:17; 1 Thess 3:13; Jude 1:14).
- They are “gods.” They are supernatural, divine beings (Gen 35:7; Deut 32:17; Ps 82:1, 6; 2 Cor 4:4). Through Yahweh is the only supreme Creator God, “the biblical writers refer to the members of God’s heavenly host as gods, lesser divine beings in his heavenly council or assembly” (p. 10).
- These terms tell us what angels are. They are the heavenly host, divine spirit beings who dwell in the heavens in Yahweh’s presence.
Truth #2. They form a council.
- Angels relate to Yahweh and to each other in a council, which says something of their status:
- Heavenly beings constitute a council (1 Kgs 22:19–28; Ps 89:7; Job 1–2).
- The council is described in the Bible using a variety of terms: “court” (Dan 7:10), “council” (Job 15:8; Jer 23:18), “assembly” (Ps 89:7), “mount of assembly,” and “heights of the north” (Isa 14:13), and others.
- As is to be expected in a council, there is a hierarchy. There are the multitudes (Dan 7:10). Cherubim and seraphim closely guard the throne (Isa 6; Ezek 1, 10; Rev 4–5). Other beings, called “sons of God” (Ps 82) or “princes” (Dan 10:13, 20–21; 12:1), are “assigned as administrators of the nations” (p. 45; Deut 32:8–9). At the head of the council is Yahweh himself (Dan 7:9).
Truth #3. They have a variety of job descriptions
We know now that angels are immaterial, heavenly beings (nature), and that they are part of God’s divine council (status). But what do members of the heavenly host do?
Scripture lists some job descriptions that denote function:
- Some are “angels”—that is, messengers (e.g. 1 Kgs 19:5).
- Some “minister” (Ps 103:21; 104:4; Dan 7:10) and serve God like priests.
- Some are “watchers” (Dan 4:13, 17, 23), observing and recording the affairs on earth
- Some are the “host” and “mighty ones” (1 Kgs 22:19; Ps 103:21; Jer 33:22), making up God’s heavenly army.
- Some are “mediators” (Job 33:19–24) and have some kind of protective role over humans. (We’ll examine this in a future post.)
- Some are “cherubim” and “seraphim” (Exod 25:20; Isa 6:2), guardians of God’s presence.
More could be said, but this survey gives us a lot to work with. Angels, known by many names, are heavenly beings quite different to humans. They constitute Yahweh’s council and perform a variety of functions. With this surer footing, we can probe deeper into the workings of the heavenly council.