27 January 2009

Angels: fixed attention

by Dan Phillips

[NOTE: this is a reworking of this post from my blog, from 2007]

We know a lot about angels, and that we don't know a lot about angels. There is a great deal of Biblical material, on the one hand; but there are many gaps, holes, and lacunae.

We know that angels are spirit beings of great knowledge, antiquity and power. They can move quickly (Daniel 9:21; Luke 2:13), can appear on earth (Genesis 18:2), or in the throne room of God (Job 1:6). They are spirits (Hebrews 1:7), but can take tangible form and interact with matter (Daniel 10:10). They have consciousness of self and of others (Luke 1:19).

Artists have represented angels often, but almost always clearly wrongly. The effeminate—indeed, often female!—angels of the painters are dead wrong in almost every respect. Angels are never certainly depicted as female in the Bible, and virtually always depicted as definitely masculine. Not merely masculine, but awesome and fear-inspiring. Artists' angels look as if they're about to say "Please, may I have another chocolate?" Real angels usually have to start out with saying, "Dude, dude — try not to die!"

I surmise that there's a reason for that.

What fills an angel's day, though? The Bible seems to indicate various classes or even species of angels, with differing functions or specialties. As to the angels' potential scope of interest and activity, perhaps one can be forgiven to reflect on the information we have.

Being spirit, angels presumably wouldn't be limited by any need for a particular atmosphere or temperature-range, or gravity. They'd not need food or water. They could travel wherever they needed to, within the will of God.

So, in theory at least, an angel could choose to make a study of marine life at the ocean's depth, or the life of the most distant glittering star; of the tiniest atom on the highest mountain peak, or the rotations of Jupiter or Neptune. They could equally wander the Gobi Desert or the Milky Way, watch a homeless man in New York, or a prince in the Middle East or Europe.

But unlike Tolkien's angelic Istari such as Gandalf the Grey and Radagast the Brown, who study hobbits or animals, real angels are mostly interested in God. Usually, they're seen functioning as their title indicates: as God's messengers. We observe them characteristically running errands, carrying messages, sent on missions.

Still, the Bible does give us strong indication as to what fascinates angels. Both Testaments indicate that angels are particularly fascinated with our redemption.

Consider Exodus 25:18—"And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat." Isn't it interesting that they are not described? It is as if Moses says, "Okay, you know what cherubim look like, right? So, make two of them, and...." Wouldn't it be interesting to know what they knew about cherubim, and how they knew what they knew?

But if that were important, God would have given the details. A crucial rule of interpretation is to make much of what God makes of (and the converse). So what is of interpretive importance to us is that the cherubim's appearance is not of interpretive importance to us, or else they would have been described. God tells us what matters about them. What matters about them is that they are of hammered gold, they are at the two ends of the mercy seat, and that...
...[t]he cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be (Exodus 25:20)

So what are the cherubim looking at, as they face inward? They are depicted, by command of God, as forever fixing their unblinking gaze upon the mercy seat, the kapporeth, the solid gold lid to the chest of the covenant.

What is the significance of this lid? Yahweh appears and speaks there (Exodus 25:22), and bloody atonement is made there, on the great and highest holy day (Leviticus 16, especially vv. 14-15). This locus is the focus. The angels' two objects of fascination are closely tied to it: Yahweh, and believers' blood-bought redemption. The turning away of Yahweh's wrath by means of blood atonement absorbs them fully, as they are depicted as frozen in rapt attention towards that spot.

Does Peter possibly have this in mind as he writes? The apostle tantalizingly remarks, as it were in passing, that angels intensely desire to bend over and get a good look [παρακύψαι] at the truths of the Gospel that we preach (1 Peter 1:12). It is an object of great interest and perhaps curiosity to them. God constituted the church as an eternal exhibit of His grace and wisdom — for the angels (Ephesians 3:8-10).

Think of it: angels know nothing of redemption themselves, except as spectators. Some of their number fell into rebellion, and not one of that company will be redeemed. The others stood fast with the Triune God, and not one of them needs redemption. Angels experience nothing of redemption. They either have no chance of it, or they have no need of it.

That Yahweh Himself would undertake to set His love on filthy rebels, would design an intricate tapestry of pointers to that redemption, would come in person to effect that redemption — these are great mysteries to the angels, and are objects of intense fascination to them.

Reflect just a moment longer. Once again, can we even imagine the vantage-point of the angelic mind? Thousands of years old, unclouded by sin, mighty in power and great in knowledge — what couldn't they study, if they wished to and God permitted? Planets, suns, comets, meteors, processes we can scarce imagine; all these are tomes available at the angelic library for their casual checkout.

But what draws angels and holds them is the drama of redemption.

And here we can't but tarry one moment longer to wonder if there isn't even a greater mystery to the angels — an absolute bafflement, in this case?

We know what fascinates them. But as they observe us (1 Corinthians 11:10; 1 Timothy 5:21), what do they see fascinating us? As we gather together, ostensibly in the name of Christ, what is it that occupies us, that draws us, that fascinates us? Is it the truths of redemption: its Author, its plan, its unfolding, its implications, its consummation, its celebration, its communication? Is it the Word that ALONE reveals these truths?

Or is it games, pageantry, frippery, triviality, entertainment, froth, foam, and inanity?

We must be much smarter than the angels, mustn't we, to yawn and shrug at what so absorbs their vast attention?

Yeah. Right.

Dan Phillips's signature


David Kyle said...

We know what fascinates them. But as they observe us (1 Corinthians 11:10; 1 Timothy 5:21), what do they see fascinating us?

Oh what precious treasures we (I)trade for the worthless, gaudy baubles of this world.

I have been sufficiently and rightly shamed, thank you.

donsands said...

Excellent post.

"But if that were important, God would have given the details. A crucial rule of interpretation is to make much of what God makes of (and the converse)."

Essential principle I pondered this morning while reading through Acts, and asking myself, why didn't Luke, please, tell us a bit more about Paul on Malta. It can be excruciating to not have more details at times.

And, so angels rpolly don't look like Clarence, and don't get their wings when a bell rings?

DJP said...

Yeahno, Don. Sweet movie, I love it, but it's wrong in just about every essential doctrinal way.

Lee Shelton said...

I have always wondered why artists would depict cherubim as chubby little babies with wings. These seem to have been the most fearsome of God's angels. It was the cherubim who guarded the Tree of Life with a flaming sword. It was the cherubim who were in the Most Holy Place.

By the way, I know how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But I'm not telling. :)

David said...

Outstanding post, Dan. Especially liked "This locus is the focus."

Dr. Paul W. Foltz said...

Hebrews tells us they are ministering spirits over them that shall be the heirs of salvation. Therefore i infer God gave angels charge over me to keep me until I was saved, and all the way to the Father's house.
Angels kept me alive until I was saved. They do what God wants them to do reguarding me.

seraphs, and cherubs are an altogether different class. They have to do with God's justice and holiness.

Unknown said...

What a terrific post! As I read your concluding comments, I was ushered back a couple of days in my mind to a sanctuary and shuddered at how unenthralled I might have appeared to one of these creatures, despite a powerful Gospel presentation from the pulpit. Would they asked among themselves, "What's that guy's problem?"

greglong said...

Thanks, Dan. Love the connection between Ex. 25:18 and 1 Pet. 1:12.

My favorite angelic point to ponder is (by way of Wayne Grudem) whether, based on Ps. 91:11-12; Mt. 18:10; and Acts 12:15, angels play zone or man-to-man (or should we say "angel-to-man") defense.

Barbara said...

Ooooooh....nice one!

Stefan Ewing said...

That's 2 for 2, Dan.

If we popularly imagine angels as harmless, dainty creatures, then that kind of takes the edge off, doesn't it? Like seeing God as a kindly, avuncular old fellow who smiles knowingly at our weaknesses, rather than the holy and righteous, sovereign Lord of the Universe. It's hard to fear God or honour or obey him when he's like a heaven-dwelling version of our uncle Fred. Likewise, how are we to fear the awesome power entrusted to cherubim (e.g.) when we imagine them sitting on clouds playing miniature harps and posing for idyllic paintings?

Perhaps the popular image of angels is the work of another (fallen) angel.

Rick Frueh said...

It is curious that one of the largest cults came through an angel supposedly named "Moroni".

dum, dum, dum, dum, dum.

Susan said...

Dan said: "Artists' angels look as if they're about to say "Please, may I have another chocolate?" Real angels usually have to start out with saying, 'Dude, dude — try not to die!'

ROTFL--even with an injured foot!! :D

Rachael Starke said...

"Dude, dude — try not to die!"

Hilarious. Where's the little Hallmark greeting card with that kind of angel?!

FWIW, there are multiple tragic levels of irony that those two little cherubs are actually just decorative add-ons at the bottom of a much larger work featuring Mary, two Catholic saints, and the baby Jesus. The "saints" are looking at Mary and the angels repsectively, Mary is looking at nothing, and the angels appear to be thinking about lunch, just like you said. No one looks at the baby.

But the two cheruby creatures are the ones who end up the Renaissance equivalent of the Olsen Twins.

There's an art history class for the kids - "Alright children - let's count how many different Biblical principles are violated in a single painting. Go!"

Stefan Ewing said...

Not to mention the fact of the painting itself, depending on how strictly we apply the Second Commandment to the depiction of Jesus (let alone Mary and the saints!).

Dr. Paul W. Foltz said...

COLOSSIANS 2;18-''Let no man cheat you of your reward, takong delight in false humility and worship of angels, intruding into those things which he has not seen.''

trogdor said...

Excellent post, and extremely convicting, especially since it ties in so well to yesterday's. I get so frustrated when a preacher wastes his pulpit by seeking to entertain instead of preaching the word. Yet I don't seem to get quite so mad when I waste my life on entertainment instead of the gospel.

Randy said...

In reference to Cherubims:
" Isn't it interesting that they are not described? It is as if Moses says, "Okay, you know what cherubim look like, right? So, make two of them, and…”

Could it be possible that Moses SAW the angels that delivered the law? Reference Acts 7:53 & Heb 2:2.

I understand that the writers are speaking about inferior mediators…angels & Moses. Christ being the only true Mediator.

just a thought.

Dr. Paul W. Foltz said...

Ezekiel 1;10 compared with Ezekiel 10 ;4 describe the cherubim, and tells us why the serpent in Genesis 3 was cursed above all cattle.

Dr. Paul W. Foltz

Rick Potter said...

Thanks for your constant reminders to us to find all of our delight in God. I am reading John Piper's "Taste and See" and your exhortation fits perfectly. Thanks for your committment.


Randy said...

Thanks Dr Foltz but I don't see the optative description of cherubims in Ezek.(subjective yes but not actual) For one to build anything, the mental vision must be known.

Of course our visual of what we think the top of the mercy seat looks like is subjective.

Rick Potter said...

Dr. Folts,

You said: "COLOSSIANS 2;18-''Let no man cheat you of your reward, takong delight in false humility and worship of angels, intruding into those things which he has not seen.''

Looking at that verse, I read further into the context. In verse 23 the greek work ethelothreskeia is translated as "will worship" in KJV. I think this reinforces - in a roundabout way - Dan's thesis. Yes, we do experience a "basic" reliability of senses and to an extent, our volition has experienced a partial healing. But, the opposite is also true, as we experience a bondage of our wills. I believe your verse shows that and leaves me wondering where the argument (from some) for "Free Will" comes from. Thanks for your comment...made me study a little further....and sorry Dan, don't mean to get off topic here, just musing.


Dr. Paul W. Foltz said...

Rick Potter;
Adam had a free will until fe fell, since then the will of man is enslaved to his old sin nature. no man has a free will today. we are saved by God's will-see John 1;12-13.
for an in dept studt see blog on regeneration under my blog
Dr. Paul W. Foltz

jeff said...

I have wondered about the fallen angels and why it is not possible for them to be redeemed. I guess "not possible" is not the correct choice of words, since "With God, all things are possible". I suppose it's just not Gods' will in the matter. Just musing.

Prodigal Knot said...

Well done!

Angels wish they could comprehend what has been revealed to us; and we hardly treat it as precious as it is. I guess that's why God calls us sheep!