There is no direct reference to the angel of the Lord by that name or title in the book of Joshua. However, there is a record of “a man . . . with a drawn sword in his hand” who confronts Joshua as he contemplates his attack on the city of Jericho. The man identifies himself as “commander of the army of the Lord” (5:14). Joshua fell down in worship before the man and asked what message he had for him. The man advised Joshua to remove his sandals, “for the place where you stand is holy” (5:15). Joshua complied with this demand.
Thereafter, the Scripture informs us that the Lord spoke with Joshua (Josh. 6:2) Specific instructions were given to Joshua as to how to take the city. No further mention is made of the commander of the Lord’s army. A good case could be made for identifying this man with the angel of the Lord. Nevertheless, we desist from drawing any definite conclusion about his identity, because other Scripture references more clearly establish this relationship of the angel of the Lord with God Himself.
Accordingly, we now turn our consideration to references to the angel of the Lord in the book of Judges. We first read of the angel of the Lord appearing to Israel at a place called Bokim. The angel rebukes the people for their failure to drive out the heathen nations and demolish their gods (2:1–5). The people apparently were touched by this admonition. We read that they “wept aloud” and “offered sacrifices to the Lord” (2:4–5). This angel identified himself as being Israel’s deliverer from Egypt as well as their covenant God. Israel’s sin was its failure to keep faith with God’s covenantal demands. Thus, again we see the angel of the Lord as being one with God in setting terms of the covenant with Israel, in being offended at Israel’s unfaithfulness, and in forgiving their sin so that they could again offer “sacrifices to the Lord” (2:5). We can confidently believe that this angel’s appearance is another pre-incarnate manifestation of our blessed Savior, the second person of the holy triune God.
In Judges 5:23 we read that the angel of the Lord said, “Curse Meroz, . . . curse its people bitterly, because they did not come . . . to help the Lord against the mighty.” Apparently the people of Meroz failed to help Barak and Deborah in their fight against Sisera, the commandeer of King Jabin’s army. Surely, failure to respond to a plea for help in a national emergency is just cause for punishment. But who but God has the authority to curse others? Here again, we see the angel of the Lord doing that which only God can rightfully do. Can he be less than God Himself? If he exercises authority that belongs to God by nature, then surely he is God’s equal. We must see him, therefore, as the pre-incarnate Christ, acting in behalf of His people.
When we come to Judges 6, we read about God’s plan to deliver Israel from the oppression of the Midianites. As usual, when God delivers His people from their enemies, He raises up a leader to rule over them. So here, Gideon was thrashing wheat when “the angel of the Lord came and sat down under the oak in Ophrah that belonged to Joash the Abiezrite” (6:11). Then we are told that “when the angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, he said, ‘The Lord is with you, mighty warrior” (6:12). When we reach 6:14 it reads, “the Lord turned to him and said.” Thereafter follows a conversation between the Lord and Gideon (vv. 14–18). In verse 20 there is mention again of the angel of God speaking, instructing Gideon about the sacrifice he was preparing to offer. Then the angel of the Lord consumed the sacrifice in fire and disappeared.
Gideon’s reaction is remarkable at this point. When he realizes that he had been conversing with the angel of the Lord, he says: “Alas, Sovereign Lord! I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face!” (Judg. 6:22). The implication of his response is that he feared he would now die. However, again “the Lord said to him, ‘Peace! Do not be afraid. You are not going to die’” (6:23). It is interesting to observe the change in persons speaking with Gideon. In verses 12 and 20 it is the “angel of the Lord” who is speaking while in verses 14 and 16 “the Lord” is said to be speaking. It clearly seems that the Lord and the angel of the Lord are one and the same. Surely, we have here another evidence of the divine nature of this special angel. He speaks as one with God in identity, sovereignty, and authority. He can be none other than God Himself, the pre-incarnate Christ watching over His flock.
The concern of the angel of the Lord for the sheep of God’s pasture is seen again in Judges 13. In 13:3 we are informed that the “angel of the Lord” appeared to Manoah’s wife. This angel took note of her sterile and childless situation and promised: “You are going to conceive and have a son.” The angel further instructed her on how to raise this son and that he is to be a Nazirite, “dedicated to God from the womb.” Through this son, God would begin to deliver Israel “from the hands of the Philistines” (v. 5). Observe that when the woman relates this encounter to her husband, Manoah, she tells him that “a man of God came to me,” and she adds, “he looked like an angel of God, very awesome” (v. 6) I believe we may rightly conclude that the angel of the Lord appeared here in the form of a man while His divine identity cast an angelic and awesome glow on His face.
After Manoah prayed to the Lord to send the angel again, the Lord answered him favorably “and the angel of God” came again to the woman while she was out in the field” (v. 9). The woman quickly summoned her husband, who came with her to meet “the man.” A conversation then follows between Manoah and the angel of the Lord. This so-called man is now referred to as the “angel of the Lord” (vv. 13–16). Yet this angel of the Lord instructs Manoah to “offer a burnt offering to the Lord” (v. 16). Thus, here also we see the close identity of the angel of the Lord and the Lord Himself. Surely we may fairly conclude that this angel is just as divine as God is. This is, therefore, one more reason the church considers the angel of the Lord to be the pre-incarnate Christ, the second person of the holy Trinity.
There seems to be no reference to the angel of the Lord in 1 Samuel. The mention of David being “as pleasing . . . as an angel of God,” by Achish, a Philistine king, has no connection with the angel of the Lord. The term “angel of the Lord” refers to the special angel by that identification. Achish, however, uses the term as descriptive of David’s character and conduct while living in his court for more than a year. So we can pass on to the next book of the Bible.
In 2 Samuel we also find a few instance of the term used descriptively of David. The woman of Tekoa, for example, likens David to “an angel of God in discerning good and evil” (14:17). She also describes David as having “wisdom like that of an angel of God—he knows everything that happens in the land” (14:20). A similar use of the term occurs in 2 Samuel 19, when Mephibosheth likens David to “an angel of God” (v. 27). In this context Mephibosheth is commending David’s ability to discern what is just and right in judging between him and Ziba, his servant, who slandered him to David. This, however, is again a descriptive use of the term and does not refer to the person of the angel of the Lord. There is another instance of the use of the term in this book which does refer to the being called the angel of the Lord. We find it in 2 Samuel 24:16–17. It is recorded in the context of “a plague on Israel” in which many thousands of people were being destroyed because of God’s punishment on Israel for David’s sin of enrolling “the fighting men of Israel” (v. 4). God was displeased with David’s action and swept the land with a plague. When the destroying angel was about to destroy Jerusalem, the Lord called a halt to his activity. We then read: “The angel of the Lord was then at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite” (v. 16). Take note especially that David saw this angel and then spoke “to the Lord” (v. 17). Thus, we see again the close identity between this angel and the Lord Himself. The merciful concern of this angel for the people of God at Jerusalem certainly foreshadows the activity of our Savior, who came “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). Both the angel of the Lord and the incarnate Christ are concerned with the well-being and security of God’s people.
When we come to the book of 1 Kings there is an interesting account of Elijah’s running away from Jezebel’s threat to kill him. He appears to be in a state of deep depression when he prayed to God “that he might die” (19:5). After falling sleep, Elijah was awakened by an angel and commanded to “get up and eat.” A second time Elijah laid down to rest, and now we read: “The angel of the Lord came back . . . and touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you’ ” (v. 7). Elijah did as he was told. Then, “strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God” (v. 8). While Elijah was spending the night in a cave, we read that “the word of the Lord came to him: ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ ” (v. 9). Elijah and the Lord then engage in conversation, with Elijah trying to justify his desire to die. The Lord then reveals his presence in “a gentle whisper” (v. 12). Later, the Lord gives Elijah a new assignment and tells him to return to the Desert of Damascus in order to fulfill what God has just commanded him to do.
The question we have to consider here is how the Lord conversed with Elijah. Did God converse through the angel of the Lord, who awakened Elijah from sleep and told him to eat? Or did God speak through Elijah’s mind and conscience? If God spoke though the angel, then likely this is another instance of the angel of the Lord acting as God’s equal. At any rate, this angel and the Lord seem to be in perfect agreement with the Lord’s desires and commands; a good indication that this was, very likely, the one and only angel of the Lord.
During Elijah’s time of ministry, Ahaziah, son of the wicked king Ahab, began to reign over Israel. Unfortunately for him, he suffered a fall “through the lattice of his upper room in Samaria and injured himself ” (2 Kings 1:2). Apparently it was a very bad fall, and he sustained a serious injury. The injury appears to be life-threatening, because the king sent messengers to inquire of Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron, “to see if [he would] recover from this injury” (v. 2). Because seeking help from a false god was an affront to Israel’s God, Jehovah, God reacted immediately to Ahaziah’s action. And so we read: “the angel of the Lord said to Elijah . . . ‘Go up and meet the messengers of the king of Samaria and ask them, “Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going off to consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron?” Therefore this is what the Lord says: “You will not leave the bed you are lying on. You will certainly die!” ’ ” (vv. 3–4). Take note that it is the angel of the Lord who spoke to Elijhah, but Elijah is commanded to tell Ahaziah “this is what the Lord says.” Once again we observe that two different persons are involved: the angel of the Lord and the Lord Himself. Yet the command is given and the penalty affirmed in the name of the Lord, that is, God Himself. It appears, therefore, that this angel of the Lord is the second person of the Godhead, functioning as the pre-incarnate Christ. The king sent two captains with their fifty men to take Elijah, and both were consumed by fire. When a third captain with his fifty men was sent and he pleaded with Elijah to spare their lives, it was the angel of the Lord who gave permission for Elijah to go with him to visit the king. Yet when Elijah delivers the message of the angel of the Lord to the king, he makes it clear that his message is “what the Lord says” (v. 16). Surely this angel of the Lord is one with the Lord Himself.
During the reign of Hezekiah, king of Judah, the Assyrian king, Sennacherib, threatened to attack and subdue Jerusalem. He even sent a threatening letter to Hezekiah boasting of all the kingdoms he had destroyed. He scorned Hezekiah’s trust in the Lord to deliver the city from his attack. Hezekiah prayed to the Lord for help, and the Lord sent the prophet Isaiah to him with a message of assurance that Sennacherib would not enter Jerusalem. How God fulfilled His promise is made clear by the following account. “That night the angel of the Lord went out and put to death a hundred eighty-five thousand men in the Assyrian camp” (2 Kings 19:35). While the record of this event in 2 Chronicles 32:21 says only that the Lord sent “an angel” to annihilate the Assyrian army, there can be no doubt that the angel of the Lord was in charge of this destruction of Israel’s enemy. God’s people are always under His watchful care, and the angel of the Lord is His messenger to carry out His will. Thus, again we see the harmonious functioning of the Lord and the angel of the Lord. It appears that God used Isaiah to proclaim to Hezekiah what the Lord says, and the angel of the Lord is the one who carries out God’s expressed will in the destruction of the Assyrian army. It seems reasonable to say of the angel of the Lord, as Jesus said of Himself: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34). Just as the incarnate Christ came to do the will of Him who sent Him, so the angel of the Lord similarly does God’s will as the pre-incarnate Christ. It seems right and proper, therefore, to honor this angel of the Lord as the second person of the Godhead, in the same manner as we honor Jesus as God’s eternal Son.
Dr. Harry Arnold is a retired minister in the Christian Reformed Church and lives in Portage, MI. He is a member of Grace Christian Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, MI.