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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary

Angel

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a spiritual, intelligent substance, the first in rank and dignity among created beings The word angel, αγγελος , is not properly a denomination of nature but of office; denoting as much as nuncius, messenger, a person employed to carry one's orders, or declare his will. Thus it is St. Paul represents angels, Hebrews 1:14 , where he calls them "ministering spirits;" and yet custom has prevailed so much, that angel is now commonly taken for the denomination of a particular order of spiritual beings, of great understanding and power, superior to the souls or spirits of men. Some of these are spoken of in Scripture in such a manner as plainly to signify that they are real beings, of a spiritual nature, of high power, perfection, dignity, and happiness. Others of them are distinguished as not having kept their first station, Judges 1:6 . These are represented as evil spirits, enemies of God, and intent on mischief. The devil as the head of them, and they as his angels, are represented as the rulers of the darkness of this world, or spiritual wickednesses, or wicked spirits, τα πνευματικα της πονηριυς εν τοις επουρανιοις , Ephesians 6:12 ; which may not be unfitly rendered, "the spiritual managers of opposition to the kingdom of God."

The existence of angels is supposed in all religions, though it is incapable of being proved a priori. Indeed, the ancient Sadducees are represented as denying all spirits; and yet the Samaritans, and Caraites, who are reputed Sadducees, openly allowed them: witness Abusaid, the author of an Arabic version of the Pentateuch; and Aaron, a Caraite Jew, in his comment on the Pentateuch; both extant in manuscript in the king of France's library. In the Alcoran we find frequent mention of angels. The Mussulmen believe them of different orders or degrees, and to be destined for different employments both in heaven and on earth. They attribute exceedingly great power to the angel Gabriel, as that he is able to descend in the space of an hour from heaven to earth; to overturn a mountain with a single feather of his wing, &c. The angel Asrael, they suppose, is appointed to take the souls of such as die; and another angel, named Esraphil, they tell us, stands with a trumpet ready in his mouth to proclaim the day of judgment.

The Heathen philosophers and poets were also agreed as to the existence of intelligent beings, superior to man; as is shown by St. Cyprian in his treatise of the vanity of idols; from the testimonies of Plato, Socrates, Trismegistus, &c. They were acknowledged under different appellations; the Greeks calling them daemons, and the Romans genii, or lares. Epicurus seems to have been the only one among the old philosophers who absolutely rejected them.

Authors are not so unanimous about the nature as about the existence of angels. Clemens Alexandrinus believed they had bodies; which was also the opinion of Origen, Caesarius, Tertullian, and several others. Athanasius, St. Basil, St. Gregory Nicene, St. Cyril, St. Chrysostom, &c, held them to be mere spirits. It has been the more current opinion, especially in later times, that they are substances entirely spiritual, who can, at any time, assume bodies, and appear in human or other shapes. Ecclesiastical writers make a hierarchy of nine orders of angels. Others have distributed angels into nine orders, according to the names by which they are called in Scripture, and reduced these orders into three hierarchies; to the first of which belong seraphim, cherubim, and thrones; to the second, dominions, virtues, and powers; and to the third, principalities, archangels, and angels. The Jews reckon four orders or companies of angels, each headed by an archangel; the first order being that of Michael; the second, of Gabriel; the third, of Uriel; and the fourth, of Raphael. Following the Scripture account, we shall find mention made of different orders of these superior beings; for such a distinction of orders seems intimated in the names given to different classes. Thus we have thrones, dominions, principalities, or princedoms, powers, authorities, living ones, cherubim and seraphim. That some of these titles may indicate the same class of angels is probable; but that they all should be but different appellations of one common and equal order is improbable. We learn also from Scripture, that they dwell in the immediate presence of God; that they "excel in strength;" that they are immortal; and that they are the agents through which God very often accomplishes his special purposes of judgment and mercy. Nothing is more frequent in Scripture than the missions and appearances of good and bad angels, whom God employed to declare his will; to correct, teach, reprove, and comfort. God gave the law to Moses, and appeared to the old patriarchs, by the mediation of angels, who represented him, and spoke in his name, Acts 7:30 ; Acts 7:35 ; Galatians 3:19 ; Hebrews 13:2 .

Though the Jews, in general, believed the existence of angels, there was a sect among them, namely, the Sadducees, who denied the existence of all spirits whatever, God only excepted, Acts 23:8 . Before the Babylonish captivity, the Hebrews seem not to have known the names of any angel. The Talmudists say they brought the names of angels from Babylon. Tobit, who is thought to have resided in Nineveh some time before the captivity, mentions the angel Raphael, Tob_3:17 ; Tob_11:2 ; Tob_11:7 ; and Daniel, who lived at Babylon some time after Tobit, has taught us the names of Michael and Gabriel, Daniel 8:16 ; Daniel 9:21 ; Daniel 10:21 . In the New Testament, we find only the two latter mentioned by name.

There are various opinions as to the time when the angels were created. Some think this took place when our heavens and the earth were made. For this opinion, however, there is no just foundation in the Mosaic account. Others think that angels existed long before the formation of our solar system; and Scripture seems to favour this opinion, Job 38:4 ; Job 38:7 , where God says, "Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?— and all the sons of God shouted for joy." Though it be a universal opinion that angels are of a spiritual and incorporeal nature, yet some of the fathers, misled by a passage in Genesis 6:2 , where it is said, "The sons of God saw the daughters of men, that they were fair, and they took them wives of all which they chose," imagined them to be corporeal, and capable of sensual pleasures. But, without noticing all the wild reveries which have been propagated by bold or ignorant persons, let it suffice to observe, that by "the sons of God" we are evidently to understand the descendants of Seth, who, for the great piety wherein they continued for some time, were so called; and that "the daughters of men" were the progeny of wicked Cain As to the doctrine of tutelary or guarding angels, presiding over the affairs of empires, nations, provinces, and particular persons, though received by the later Jews, it appears to be wholly Pagan in its origin, and to have no countenance in the Scriptures. The passages in Daniel brought to favour this notion are capable of a much better explanation; and when our Lord declares that the "angels" of little children "do always behold the face of God," he either speaks of children as being the objects of the general ministry of angels, or, still more probably, by angels he there means the disembodied spirits of children; for that the Jews called disembodied spirits by the name of angels, appears from Acts 12:15 .

On this question of guardian angels, Bishop Horsley observes: "That the holy angels are often employed by God in his government of this sublunary world, is indeed to be clearly proved by holy writ. That they have power over the matter of the universe, analogous to the powers over it which men possess, greater in extent, but still limited, is a thing which might reasonably be supposed, if it were not declared. But it seems to be confirmed by many passages of holy writ; from which it seems also evident that they are occasionally, for certain specific purposes, commissioned to exercise those powers to a prescribed extent. What the evil angels possessed before their fall the like powers, which they are still occasionally permitted to exercise for the punishment of wicked nations, seems also evident. That they have a power over the human sensory, which they are occasionally permitted to exercise, and by means of which they may inflict diseases, suggest evil thoughts, and be the instruments of temptation, must also be admitted. But all this amounts not to any thing of a discretional authority placed in the hands of tutelar angels, or to an authority to advise the Lord God with respect to the measures of his government. Confidently I deny that a single text is to be found in holy writ, which, rightly understood, gives the least countenance to the abominable doctrine of such a participation of the holy angels in God's government of the world. In what manner then, it may be asked, are the holy angels made at all subservient to the purposes of God's government? This question is answered by St. Paul in his Epistle to the Hebrews, in the last verse of the first chapter; and this is the only passage in the whole Bible in which we have any thing explicit upon the office and employment of angels: ‘Are they not all,' saith he, ‘ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them that shall be heirs of salvation?' They are all, however high in rank and order, nothing more than ‘ministering spirits,' or, literally, ‘serving spirits;' not invested with authority of their own, but ‘sent forth,' occasionally sent forth, to do such service as may be required of them, ‘for them that shall be heirs of salvation.'"

The exact number of angels is no where mentioned in Scripture; but it is always represented as very great. Daniel 7:10 , says of the Ancient of Days, "A fiery stream came from before him; thousand thousands ministered unto him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him." Jesus Christ says, that his heavenly Father could have given him more than twelve legions of angels, that is, more than seventy-two thousand, Matthew 26:53 ; and the Psalmist declares, that the chariots of God are twenty thousand, even thousands of angels, Psalms 68:17 . These are all intended not to express any exact number, but indefinitely a very large one.

Though all the angels were created alike good, yet Jude informs us, verse Judges 1:6 , that some of them "kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation," and these God hath "reserved in everlasting chains under darkness, unto the judgment of the great day." Speculations on the cause and occasion of their fall are all vain and trifling. Milton is to be read on this subject, as on others, not as a divine, but as a poet. All we know, is, that they are not in their first "estate," or in their original place; that this was their own fault, for "they left their own habitation;" that they are in chains, yet with liberty to tempt; and that they are reserved to the general judgment.

Dr. Prideaux observes, that the minister of the synagogue, who officiated in offering the public prayers, being the mouth of the congregation, delegated by them, as their representative, messenger, or angel, to address God in prayer for them, was in Hebrew called sheliack-zibbor, that is, the angel of the church; and that from hence the chief ministers of the seven churches of Asia are in the Revelation, by a name borrowed from the synagogue, called angels of those churches.


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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Angel'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/wtd/a/angel.html. 1831-2.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, October 21st, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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