Who Is the Angel of the Lord in the Bible?

Was the mysterious visitor featured in the Old Testament Jesus in disguise?

Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise 19th-Century Print
Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise by the Angel of the Lord (9th-Century Print). Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

The mysterious angel of the Lord appeared dozens of times in the Old Testament, usually as a supernatural messenger, but sometimes as a fierce executioner. Who was he and what was his purpose?

Angel of the Lord

  • Altogether, the Bible makes more than 50 references to "the angel of the Lord" in the Old Testament.
  • The angel of the Lord is also referred to in Scripture as: The angel of God, commander of the army of the Lord; in Hebrew: malach Yehovah (the angel of the Lord), malach habberith (the angel of the Covenant); in Greek, from the Septuagint, megalhs boulhs aggelos (the angel of the Great Counsel).  
  •  In most instances, the angel of the Lord appeared to Bible characters when something dramatic and meaningful was about to happen, generally with serious consequences, whether good or evil, and often in some way related to God's plan of salvation.

God or Jesus in Disguise?

In his appearances on earth, the angel of the Lord spoke with the authority of God and acted as God. It's easy to become confused about his true identity because the writers of those Bible books switched between calling the speaker the angel of the Lord and God. Bible scholars clear things up by suggesting those visits were actually theophanies or manifestations of God in a physical body.

But why didn't God just show up as himself? Because no human can see the face of God and survive: "But," (God) said (to Moses), "you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live." (Exodus 33:20, NIV)

Many scholars think the angel of the Lord in the Old Testament was a pre-incarnate appearance of the Word, or Jesus Christ, as a Christophany. Bible commentators caution readers to use the context of the passage to decide whether the angel of the Lord was God the Father or Jesus.

If the angel of the Lord was the Son of God, he actually wore two disguises. First, he posed as an angel, and second, that angel appeared as a man, not in true angelic form. The adjective "the" before "angel of the Lord" indicates God disguised as an angel. The adjective "an" before "angel of the Lord" means a created angel. Significantly, the term "an angel of the Lord" is used only in the New Testament.

The angel of the Lord typically appeared to people during a time of crisis in their life, and in most instances, those characters played a major role in God's plan of salvation. Usually, the people did not realize right away that they were talking to a divine being, so we can assume the angel of the Lord was in the form of a man. When people realized he was an angel, they trembled in fear and fell to the ground.

Angel of the Lord to the Rescue

Sometimes the angel of the Lord arrived on the scene to bring rescue. He called to Hagar in the desert when she and Ishmael were cast out, and opened her eyes to a well of water. The prophet Elijah also got a visit from the angel of the Lord when he was fleeing evil Queen Jezebel. The angel provided him with food and drink.

Elijah in the Wilderness', 1877-1878, (circa 1902).
Elijah in the Wilderness', 1877-1878, (circa 1902). An angel from God brings bread and water for the sleeping prophet Elijah, to sustain him as he travels for forty days and nights to Mount Horeb. The Print Collector / Getty Images 

Twice the angel of the Lord was seen in fire. He appeared to Moses in a burning bush. Later, in the time of the judges, Samson's parents offered a burnt sacrifice to God, and the angel of the Lord ascended in the flames.

On two occasions, people had the boldness to ask the angel of the Lord his name. After wrestling with Jacob all night, the angel refused to tell Jacob his name. When Samson's parents asked the mysterious visitor his name, he replied, "Why do you ask my name? It is beyond understanding." (Judges 13:18, NIV)

Sometimes, instead of help or a message, the angel of the Lord brought destruction. In 2 Samuel 24:15, the angel inflicted a plague on Israel that killed 70,000 people. In 2 Kings 19:35, the angel put to death 185,000 Assyrians.

The best argument that the angel of the Lord in the Old Testament was the Second Person of the Trinity is that he did not appear in Jesus' incarnation. While created angels did visit people in the New Testament, the Son of God fulfilled his earthly mission in human form as Jesus Christ, through his death and resurrection.

Sources

  • "Who Is the Angel of the Lord in the Old Testament." https://www.blueletterbible.org/faq/don_stewart/don_stewart_26.cfm
  • "Who is the angel of the Lord?" https://www.gotquestions.org/angel-of-the-Lord.html
  • Adam Clarke's Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 1.
  • Expositions of Holy Scripture. Alexander MacLaren.
  • Harper’s Bible Dictionary (1st ed., p. 30).