The Trinity in the Old Testament (part 3): The Divine Messenger of Yahweh

Print

In previous blog posts (part 1part 2), I began a series exploring the expression of God’s Triune nature in the Old Testament, an oft-neglected subject among Christians today. In this article, I will discuss the divine messenger of Yahweh, who shows up numerous times in the Old Testament.

The Trinity in the Old Testament Part III

Before we dive into the relevant Biblical texts, however, let me say a word about the translation of the Hebrew phrase malak Yahweh, often translated as the “angel of the Lord” in our English Bibles. The truth is that the word malak does not necessarily refer to angelic creatures such as Gabriel or Michael, but can refer to anyone who is a messenger. Even human messengers are identified by the word malak. Indeed, the name of the last prophet prior to Jesus, Malachi, literally means “my messenger”. Below is a table, excerpted from a doctoral dissertation by Gunther H. Juncker entitled “Jesus and the Angel of the Lord: An Old Testament Paradigm for New Testament Christology,” in which he lists cases where the word malak is used of human, angelic, or divine messengers (as well as instances where the identification is uncertain).

As can be seen, the phrase malak Yahweh can be correctly translated as “messenger of the Lord”, and does not by itself tell us whether the messenger is human, angelic or divine. This must be discerned from the surrounding context. However, since the word “angel” is how the term is translated in our English Bibles, I will from henceforth be using the expression “the angel of the Lord” or “the angel of Yahweh” throughout this article. It is my contention that when this expression is used with the definite article in the Hebrew Bible, it always refers to a divine person who, as I will show, turns out to be the awaited Messiah Himself.

The Angel of the Lord Removes Sins

I have already discussed, in part, Exodus 23:20, in which we read the words of the Lord,

20 “Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. 21 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. 22 “But if you carefully obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries.

As I mentioned in the first article in this series, God says of this angel that God’s very name is in Him. What does this mean? For God’s name to dwell somewhere implies, His omnipresence notwithstanding, that His presence resides particularly there (e.g. see Deuteronomy 12:4-6,11; Psalm 20:1,7; and Isaiah 30:27). Just to select one example, in 2 Samuel 6:1-2, we read,

David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 2 And David arose and went with all the people who were with him from Baale-judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called the name, the name of the Lord of hosts who sits enthroned on the cherubim.

Why was the ark called the name of the Lord of hosts? It is because the ark of the covenant is where God’s presence especially dwelt. Likewise, God’s presence dwells especially in the angel of Yahweh. This is why God proclaim that His name dwells in Him (Exodus 23:20). Indeed, we see this same angel identified in Isaiah 63 as “the angel of His presence”. I drew attention to Isaiah 63, and how it reveals the whole Trinity, in my previous article, but it is worth highlighting again.

 7 I will recount the steadfast love of the LORD, the praises of the LORD, according to all that the Lord has granted us, and the great goodness to the house of Israel that he has granted them according to his compassion, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. 8 For he said, “Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely.” And he became their Savior. 9 In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. 10 But they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit; therefore he turned to be their enemy, and himself fought against them.

Here, we have identification of three divine persons. We have the Lord, who is described as a Father to his people, Israel (verse 8); we have the angel of His presence (verse 9); and we have the Holy Spirit (verse 10). Note that the Holy Spirit can be grieved according to this text, implying His personal identity (you cannot grieve an impersonal active force). Furthermore, verse 10 connects with Psalm 78:40, in which we read again of the Hebrew rebellion in the wilderness:

How often they rebelled against him (i.e. the LORD God) in the wilderness and grieved him in the desert!

By putting those two texts together we can infer the deity of the Holy Spirit.

Further support for the angel of the Lord being the very presence of God Himself is found in Deuteronomy 4:37, in which we read that God “brought you [Israel] out of Egypt with his own presence, by his great power…”

Furthermore, going back to our text in Exodus 23:20, the angel of Yahweh has the ability to forgive and withhold forgiveness of sins — an exclusive prerogative of deity. We also see this in Zechariah 3, in which the restoration of the priesthood of Israel is pictured by filthy rags being removed from the high priest Joshua and him being clothed with clean clothes and a turban being placed upon his head. The angel of the Lord says to him (verse 4),

“Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.”

Thus, we see that the angel of Yahweh, once again, has the power to pardon and remove sins.

The Deity of the Angel of Yahweh

Numerous texts could be adduced to demonstrate the deity of the angel of Yahweh (I have already covered Exodus 23:20). Here, I give a selection.

The first time the angel of the Lord is introduced, he makes an appearance to Hagar, the servant of Abraham’s wife Sarai. In Genesis 16:7-13, we read,

7 The angel of the LORD found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. 8 And he said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?” “I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered. 9 Then the angel of the LORD told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.”10 The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.” 11 The angel of the LORD also said to her: “You are now pregnant and you will give birth to a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the LORD has heard of your misery. 12 He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers. 13 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.” 14 That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered.

What is of particular interest here is that the angel of Yahweh speaks as though He is distinct from Yahweh yet also presumes Himself to be the very mouthpiece of God. In fact, he speaks in the first person and says “I will increase your descendants.” This is very peculiar. What’s more, in verse 13b, Hagar identifies the Angel of Yahweh as “the God who sees me,” saying “I have now seen the One who sees me.” What’s more, verse 13a indicates that it was Yahweh Himself who spoke to her.

Another instructive text is to be found in Genesis 22:11-12. When Abraham was about to offer up his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God, we read that the angel of Yahweh intervened,

11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 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.

A yet further text in Genesis which establishes the deity of the angel of Yahweh is Genesis 48:15-16, in which we read of Jacob’s blessing of the sons of Joseph. He 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,

16 the angel who has redeemed me from all evil,

may he bless the boys…”

Here, we see a poetic parallelism where the angel is identified as God. In fact, in the Hebrew, verse 16b uses the singular pronoun, “may he bless the boys”, implying that the angel and God are one and the same.

A further example is in Exodus 3, in which the angel of Yahweh speaks to Moses out of the burning bush. In that text, the angel of Yahweh and God are used interchangeably.

It may be argued in response to texts like these that the author is simply using the law of agency, and all that the original author meant was that God speaks through the agency of His angel. However, this doesn’t account for the parallelism we observed in Genesis 48:15-16. It also fails to account for the fact that various people throughout the Hebrew Bible marvel at the fact that they have seen the angel of Yahweh and yet their lives have been spared (people aren’t supposed to be able to see Yahweh and live — Exodus 33:20).

For example, consider the words of Jacob after having wrestled with a man in Genesis 32, one who is identified in Hosea 12:4 as the angel of Yahweh:

So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.”

Further support for the individual with whom Jacob wrestled being the angel of Yahweh comes from the parallel between Genesis 32:29 and Judges 13:18, in which the man and the angel of Yahweh respectively say, upon being asked for their name, “Why do you ask my name?” Another occurrence of this is in Judges 6 where we read of Gideon’s encounter with the angel of Yahweh. In verses 22-24, we read,

22 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.” 23 But the Lord said to him, “Peace be to you. Do not fear; you shall not die.” 24 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.

Yet a further instance occurs in Judges 13, which records the appearance of the angel of Yahweh to Manoah and his wife to announce the birth of Samson. In verse 21-22, we read,

21 The angel of the Lord appeared no more to Manoah and to his wife. Then Manoah knew that he was the angel of the Lord. 22 And Manoah said to his wife, “We shall surely die, for we have seen God.”

Thus, we see that numerous texts (and there are plenty that I have not mentioned) bear witness to the deity of the angel of Yahweh. Curiously, however, many of these texts also distinguish the angel of Yahweh from God. This is very consistent with a Trinitarian paradigm that views the messenger of God to be Yahweh and yet in another sense somehow distinct from Yahweh.

The Divine Personal Distinctiveness of the Angel of Yahweh

This is where we begin to uncover a truth that is truly beautiful. Let’s begin by taking a look at Genesis 31:10-13:

10 In the breeding season of the flock I lifted up my eyes and saw in a dream that the goats that mated with the flock were striped, spotted, and mottled. 11 Then the angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘Jacob,’ and I said, ‘Here I am!’ 12 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. 13 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.’”

Thus, here the messenger of Yahweh identifies Himself as the God of Bethel from Genesis 28, where Jacob had had a vision of a staircase ascending to heaven with the Lord God standing above it (Genesis 28:13). This gets rather interesting when we turn to Genesis 35:1, and find that God, when speaking to Jacob about God’s appearance to him at Bethel, switches to the third person:

God said to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there. Make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.”

Here, we have a curious use of the third-person when God refers back to Bethel. This is very consistent with the idea of divine plurality within the being of God. If this were merely one instance, we could write it off as something weird going on in the text of Genesis 35. But it isn’t.

Let’s consider the example of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. In Genesis 18:1-2, we read,

And the LORD appeared to him [Abraham] by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him.

In verse 22, we read,

So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the Lord. At this point, Abraham intercedes with the LORD over the fate of the people of Sodom.

At the start of Genesis 19, we read,

The two angels came to Sodom in the evening…

Thus, one of the three men/angels who appeared to Abraham in Genesis 18 turns out to be the Lord Himself, since two of the angels have come to Sodom and one has evidently remained to talk to Abraham (and he is identified in Genesis 18:22 as the Lord Himself). But then something interesting happens, in Genesis 19:24:

Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven.

Thus, we read that Yahweh rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from Yahweh out of heaven. This suggests that there are two distinct individual persons who bear the title of Yahweh — there is a Yahweh on earth and a Yahweh in heaven. This is consistent with the messenger of Yahweh Himself being in very essence Yahweh and yet in another sense distinct from Yahweh. But this is where we come back to the switching between the first and third persons when describing actions carried out by the messenger of Yahweh (recall my comments on Genesis 35:1). Let’s examine the references in Scripture to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

  • Isaiah 13:17-19: 17 Behold, I am stirring up the Medes against them, who have no regard for silver and do not delight in gold. 18 Their bows will slaughter the young men; they will have no mercy on the fruit of the womb; their eyes will not pity children. 19 And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the splendor and pomp of the Chaldeans, will be like Sodom and Gomorrah when God overthrew them.
  • Jeremiah 50:39-40: 39 “Therefore wild beasts shall dwell with hyenas in Babylon, and ostriches shall dwell in her. She shall never again have people, nor be inhabited for all generations. 40 As when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah and their neighboring cities, declares the LORD, so no man shall dwell there, and no son of man shall sojourn in her.
  • Amos 4:11: “I overthrew some of you, as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, and you were as a brand plucked out of the burning; yet you did not return to me,” declares the LORD.

In all three of these allusions back to Sodom and Gomorrah, God consistently switches from speaking in the first person to speaking in the third person.

As I said in my first article in this series, the subtle consistency of the presentation of God’s nature in Scripture is what I call intricate harmonies — an evidence of the divine inspiration of Scripture. But there is more. Much more.

The Angel of Yahweh is the Commander of Yahweh’s Armies

Consider Joshua 5:13-15:

13 When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” 14 And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the LORD. Now I have come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, “What does my lord say to his servant?” 15 And the commander of the Lord’s army said to Joshua, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so.

The image of the man standing before Joshua with his drawn sword in his hand recalls a similar scenario recorded in Numbers 22:31, where the angel of Yahweh appears to Balaam. We read,

“Then the LORD opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown.

This suggests strongly that the commander of Yahweh’s armies, encountered by Joshua, is likewise the same individual as the angel of the Lord. This conclusion is further supported by the connection to Exodus 3:5, in which the angel of the Lord instructs Moses to “take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” This parallel further links the commander of the Lord’s armies to the angel of Yahweh.

Intriguingly, in the very next chapter (Joshua 6:2), we see that the individual with whom Joshua has been conversing is in fact Yahweh Himself.

We again see the angel of Yahweh presented as the commander of Yahweh’s armies in Zechariah 1:7-11, in which Zechariah speaks of horsemen reporting to the angel of Yahweh.

7 On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, which is the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius, the word of the LORD came to the prophet Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, son of Iddo, saying, 8 “I saw in the night, and behold, a man riding on a red horse! He was standing among the myrtle trees in the glen, and behind him were red, sorrel, and white horses. 9 Then I said, ‘What are these, my lord?’ The angel who talked with me said to me, ‘I will show you what they are.’ 10 So the man who was standing among the myrtle trees answered, ‘These are they whom the LORD has sent to patrol the earth.’ 11 And they answered the angel of the LORD who was standing among the myrtle trees, and said, ‘We have patrolled the earth, and behold, all the earth remains at rest.’

We also see in verses 12-13 that the angel of Yahweh serves in an intercessory role:

12 Then the angel of the LORD said, ‘O LORD of hosts, how long will you have no mercy on Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, against which you have been angry these seventy years?’ 13 And the LORD answered gracious and comforting words to the angel who talked with me.

Here we see that, despite Himself being Yahweh, He is in some sense distinguished from Yahweh. In fact, just like God’s Messiah (Isaiah 53:12), the angel of Yahweh makes intercession for His people. Verse 13 gives us a glimpse of the extent of His love for His people, since Yahweh answers gracious and comforting words to the angel of Yahweh.

The Angel of Yahweh is Israel’s Messiah

In part 2 of this series, I have already shown some of the evidence that Israel’s Messiah is Himself a fully divine person who, much like the angel of Yahweh, is also in some sense distinguished from Yahweh. It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, then, to discover that the Messiah and the angel of Yahweh turn out to be one and the same. Multiple lines of evidence converge on this conclusion. For example, consider Malachi 3:1:

“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.

This is yet another text that affirms the deity of Israel’s Messiah, for He is identified by the title, in Hebrew, of ha Adon, a title only ever used of Yahweh. Notice also that the Messiah is identified by the title “the messenger of the covenant”. It is the same word Malak that is also translated “angel”, e.g. Malak Yahweh. Who, then, is the messenger/angel of the covenant? The answer is given in Judges 2:1:

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…

Thus, the messenger/angel of the covenant, Israel’s Messiah, turns out to be none other than the angel of Yahweh Himself! Furthermore, Malachi 3:1 appears to be the converse of Exodus 23:20, in which we read,

20 “Behold, I send a messenger before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared.

The parallel is so striking that the conclusion seems inescapable that Malachi intended to recall this verse. The point being made by Malachi, I think, is that just as the angel of Yahweh prepared the way for the coming of the Hebrews, so now a Hebrew will prepare the way for the coming of the angel of Yahweh.

Another line of evidence for the angel of Yahweh being the Messiah is that the Messiah is identified in Isaiah 9:6 with the Hebrew word pele, translated “Wonderful”, curiously paralleling the words spoken by the angel of Yahweh to Manoah in Judges 13:18, “Why do you ask my name, seeing it is wonderful?” The Hebrew word used in the latter is peli, which comes from the same root. In fact, this connection seems to be recognized by the translators of the Greek Septuagint, for in Isaiah 9:6, the Messiah is identified as “the angel of the great council”. Again, the Greek word ἄγγελος (angelos) can be translated “messenger” or “angel”, and is a direct parallel to the Hebrew word malak.
A further clue as to the identity of the angel of Yahweh spoken of in Judges 13 is verses 19-20:

19 So Manoah took the young goat with the grain offering, and offered it on the rock to the Lord, to the one who works wonders, and Manoah and his wife were watching. 20 And when the flame went up toward heaven from the altar, the angel of the Lord went up in the flame of the altar. Now Manoah and his wife were watching, and they fell on their faces to the ground.

Just as the Messiah was to be laid upon the alter and made a sacrifice to God, so this is prefigured by the angel of Yahweh who ascends from the alter towards heaven in the flame from the burnt offering.

But yet there another hint as to the identity of the angel of Yahweh. We have already discussed how Isaiah 63:9 identifies Him as the angel of His presence. This strikingly parallels the title given to the Messiah in Isaiah 7:14, of Immanuel (meaning, “God with us”).
But there is yet further, and perhaps more clear, evidence for the identification of the angel of Yahweh with the Messiah. Consider Daniel 8:10-11,25 in which we read of the little horn spoken of by Daniel:

10 It grew great, even to the host of heaven. And some of the host and some of the stars it threw down to the ground and trampled on them. 11 It became great, even as great as the Prince of the host. And the regular burnt offering was taken away from him, and the place of his sanctuary was overthrown…25 By his cunning he shall make deceit prosper under his hand, and in his own mind he shall become great. Without warning he shall destroy many. And he shall even rise up against the Prince of princes, and he shall be broken—but by no human hand.

Here, the little horn prophetically represents the tyrannical Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphanes. There is a reference in verse 11 to the “prince of the host”. Now, the host of heaven refers to God’s heavenly council (see 1 Kings 22:19-22). The reference to “the stars that it threw down to the ground” is also an allusion to the members of God’s council (see its parallel usage in Isaiah 14:12-15). Daniel 11:36-37 describes the same evil tyrant, saying,

36 “And the king shall do as he wills. He shall exalt himself and magnify himself above every god, and shall speak astonishing things against the God of gods. He shall prosper till the indignation is accomplished; for what is decreed shall be done. 37 He shall pay no attention to the gods of his fathers, or to the one beloved by women. He shall not pay attention to any other god, for he shall magnify himself above all.

This same evil and wicked tyrant is said to oppose the god of gods in Daniel 11:36-37:

36 “And the king shall do as he wills. He shall exalt himself and magnify himself above every god, and shall speak astonishing things against the God of gods. He shall prosper till the indignation is accomplished; for what is decreed shall be done. 37 He shall pay no attention to the gods of his fathers, or to the one beloved by women. He shall not pay attention to any other god, for he shall magnify himself above all.

Piecing these clues together, it appears likely that the prince of the host and the prince of princes is in fact the same individual, who is also identified as being the God of gods. Both are opposed by the little horn, and so it seems quite probable that these are in fact the same person, who is given multiple titles. And yet the prince of the host seems to be the same individual as the commander of the host from Joshua 5. Thus, the prince of princes can be identified as the messenger of Yahweh. But here’s the thing: The Son of Man’s dominion is described in the same manner in which the reign of Yahweh is depicted. Compare Daniel 7:14 (discussed in part 2 of this series) to the words of king Darius in Daniel 6:26 when he speaks of the God of Daniel:

I make a decree, that in all my royal dominion people are to tremble and fear before the God of Daniel, for he is the living God, enduring forever; his kingdom shall never be destroyed, and his dominion shall be to the end.

Thus, the Son of Man must thus occupy the very highest office of authority. Therefore, he must be the prince of the host, which means he is the commander of the Yahweh’s armies and thereby the messenger of Yahweh.

Summary

As in previous posts, we have only scratched the very surface. Much more can be said on this topic. My goal though is to inspire further study of this subject, and the Word of God more generally, among readers. I trust by now you can see the power of intricate harmonies, as a cumulative case, for the divine inspiration of Scripture. Could so many human authors have maintained such subtle consistency and interlocking texts over so many centuries and across different genres and historical settings? In my next post, I will consider the apostle John’s theology of Jesus as the divine Logos and how it fits against the backdrop of the Hebrew Scriptures. We will also examine the witness of texts outside of the Bible to determine how the ancient Jewish audiences read these texts, and whether my analysis is consistent with theirs.

Free CrossExamined.org Resource

Get the first chapter of "Stealing From God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case" in PDF.

Powered by ConvertKit

Facebook Comments