Angels and the Sovereignty of God
Ken Totton, Cambridge, England
This article briefly surveys the role of angels in supporting the sovereign purposes of God. The ‘sovereignty’ of God means that He is absolute in His decrees and actions and is accountable to no one. In the midst of a world of rebellion, this truth is deeply comforting to the believer. Scripture often designates God as ‘Jehovah of hosts’, alluding to the innumerable hosts of mighty angels at His direction.1 In Old Testament times, as the armies of Judah dwindled, in line with diminishing national fortunes, this was a great solace to the godly. What God has promised, He can, and will bring to pass.
The Constitution of Angels
First, we discern God’s sovereignty in relation to the nature and constitution of angels. Angels are each directly created by God, hence their frequent designation ‘sons of God’.2 However, unlike mankind they are not a race, for they do not reproduce. Yet they can appear as men, interact with humans, and indeed eat food, Gen. 18. 8.
The Hebrew word malak and the Greek angelos alike point to one of their basic functions – messenger.
In addition, a great variety of terms are used to refer to these mysterious spirit beings: holy ones (sometimes rendered ‘saints’ KJV), seraphim, cherubim, spirits, thrones, dominions, principalities, powers, rulers, watchers.
A. W. Pink has a helpful comment highlighting the sovereignty of God in respect of their hierarchical orders, ‘Consider the angelic hosts. Surely we shall find uniformity here. But no; there, as elsewhere, the same sovereign pleasure of the Creator is displayed. Some are higher in rank than others; some are more powerful than others; some are nearer to God than others. Scripture reveals a definite and well-defined gradation in the angelic orders. From arch-angel, past seraphim and cherubim, we come to “principalities and powers” (Eph. 3. 10), and from principalities and powers to “rulers” (Eph. 6. 12), and then to the angels themselves . . . Again we ask, Why this inequality, this difference in rank and order? And all we can say is “Our God is in the heavens, He hath done whatsoever He hath pleased” (Ps. 115. 3)’.
In a primeval revolt, probably associated with the fall of Satan himself, multitudes of angels rebelled and fell irretrievably. By contrast, holy angels are designated ‘elect’, reflecting their preservation, 1 Tim. 5. 21. As such, they constitute a heavenly council, 1 Kgs. 22. 19-23; they stand in close relationship to God.3
The following sections consider some of the more important activities of angels in the furtherance of God’s purposes.
According to Hebrews chapter 1 verse 14 RV, angels are ‘all ministering spirits, sent forth to do service for the sake of them that shall inherit salvation’. The psalmist celebrates their obedience in this capacity, ‘Bless the Lord, ye his angels, that excel in strength, that do his commandments, hearkening unto the voice of his word. Bless ye the Lord, all ye his hosts; ye ministers of his, that do his pleasure’, Ps. 103. 20-21.
Angels do not select, opt into, or back out of assignments! On the contrary they are versatile and fully at the disposal of God. For example, ‘one of the seven angels which had the seven vials full of the seven last plagues . . . talked with me, saying, Come hither, I will shew thee the bride, the Lamb’s wife’, Rev. 21. 9.
Moreover, if the conduct of the seraphim is indicative, their joyful service is mixed with deep reverence and worship, Isa. 6. 3, and they sing to the praise of the mighty Creator.4
There can be nothing more important than doing God’s will, ‘Thy will be done, as it is in heaven’, Matt. 6. 10. It is, therefore, most fitting that, amidst the awe-inspiring scenes of Sinai, the transmission of God’s law to Israel was ‘ordained through angels by the hand of a mediator’, Gal. 3. 19. In contrast to the gospel first announced by the Son of God, the law was ‘the word spoken through angels’, Heb. 2. 2 RV.5 At Sinai Israel entered into a formal covenant with God, with associated blessings and penalties. Whilst Moses officiated on the side of Israel, angels functioned on the divine side.
Throughout scripture, angels are seen as the executors of God’s selective judgements. We might think of the destruction of Sodom, Gen. 19. 13; the Egyptian firstborn on Passover night, Exod. 12. 23; the Israelite rebels in the wilderness, 1 Cor. 10. 10; Israel under David, 2 Sam. 24. 16; Sennacherib’s proud Assyrian army, 2 Kgs. 19. 35; or Herod for his impiety, Acts 12. 23. In every instance the judgement is delivered with unerring accuracy and lethal effect. Especially in the book of Revelation, we see the central role played by angels in the forthcoming trumpet and vial judgements on unrepentant ‘earth-dwellers’, see especially Revelation chapters 8 and 16.
Earlier, reference was made to the service angels perform on behalf of the people of God, Heb. 1. 14. Believers matter to God – He guards His people as the apple of His eye. Angelic ministry is often seen in relation to the patriarchs.6 Later, we see an angel’s tenderness in attending to the physically and spiritually exhausted Elijah, 1 Kgs. 19. 5f. When Elisha was in Dothan, surrounded by Syrian hosts, and his servant cried, ‘Alas! how shall we do?’, the Lord opened his eyes to see the mountain full of chariots and horses of fire round about, 2 Kgs. 6. 15, 17. Amidst oppression in the alien environment of Babylon, Daniel was saved by God’s angel in the lions’ den, Dan. 6. 22.
Then, in the days of the early church we see how the risen and sovereign Lord sent His angel at critical moments – undoing prison doors, directing evangelists, and reassuring Paul the apostle.7
Ministering to the Son of God
Angelic ministry in relation to the Lord Jesus may be regarded as a special case of the general protection and vindication just considered, and reveals how comprehensively God’s determinate counsel was fulfilled. Thus, angels are seen in the annunciation both to Mary and Joseph, the directions to the shepherds, the praises of the heavenly hosts, and the preservation of the infant Christ.8 Following the temptations in the wilderness, they ‘ministered’ unto their Creator, Matt. 4. 11. What our Lord steadfastly refused under satanic temptation, the Father amply provided, Ps. 91. 11-12. Again, amidst the gloom and anguish of Gethsemane ‘there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him’, Luke 22. 43. Yet for our eternal salvation, and in spite of the fact that more than twelve legions of angels were at His disposal, He chose to suffer alone, enduring the awful stroke of divine justice. Angels feature prominently in the accounts of the resurrection, attesting the vindication of the Crucified One, ‘Behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it . . .
He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay’, Matt. 28. 2, 6. The action of the angel shows the comprehensive power of God in the face of all human and infernal powers; the stone is rolled away not to let the Lord out, but rather to admit the witnesses of the empty tomb.
Agents of God’s sovereignty in history
At several points in the book of Daniel we find intriguing disclosures of the role of angelic hosts in relation to world rulers. Michael
the archangel is represented as Israel’s champion against her accuser Satan, Dan. 12. 1. More generally, Daniel chapter 10 unfolds the mysterious truth that there are evil patron-angels in the spirit world, answering to the proud and defiant leaders of kingdoms in the political world, the ‘prince of Persia’ and the ‘prince of Grecia’ standing in antagonism to Michael. How good to rest assured that ‘the Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will’! God decrees in relation to the dominion of His Son, ‘I will overturn, overturn, overturn . . . until he come whose right it is; and I will give it him’, Ezek. 21. 27.
The consideration of angels reminds us that God’s merciful purposes cannot be thwarted, His power is unlimited, and His providential care of His people is incessant. For our part, as servants of God frequently marked by failure and unworthiness, we can learn much from the example of angels: their prompt and unquestioning obedience; their unceasing worship; their staunch refusal of human adulation. Yet by infinite grace we are destined for greater glory, responsibility, and intimacy with God 9 – ‘which things the angels desire to look into’.
- J. B. Currie, Angels – a Biblical Survey, Ritchie, 1999.
- W. R. Lewis, ‘Angels’, in The Faith, a Symposium of Bible Doctrine, F. A. Tatford (Ed.), Pickering & Inglis, 1952, pp. 245-256.
- 1 Sam. 17. 45; Ps. 24. 10. As the ‘host of heaven’ designated the heavenly bodies, Gen 2. 1, and heavenly beings, 1 Kgs. 22. 19, the title came to signify Jehovah as the ruler of all heavenly powers, the supreme Sovereign of the universe.
- Job 1. 6; 2. 1; 38. 7.
- Matt. 18. 10; 24. 36
- Ps. 148. 2; Job 38. 7.
- cp. Acts 7. 53
- Gen. 19. 15; 28. 12; 32. 1.
- Acts 5. 19; 12. 7; Acts 8. 26; 27. 23
- Luke 1; 2; Matt. 1. 20.
- 1 Cor. 6. 3; Eph. 3. 10; 5. 29-30; Heb. 2. 5-11; 1 Pet. 1. 12c.