In the scriptures, when the hosts of angels, archangels, thrones, dominions, virtues, principalities, powers, cherubim and seraphim are described, they are described using predominately one of two metaphors. The first of these has already been used here in the previous sentence, that of the ‘heavenly hosts’. This reference to the multitude of angelic beings forms one of the names given to the God of Israel in the Old Testament, Yahweh Sabaoth. Because of the similarity in English transliteration, this title is often confused with a reference to the Sabbath. It is not, however, the Hebrew words ‘shabat’. Rather, it is the plural substantive form of the verb ‘tsavah’. This is the verb that is used in Genesis 1, for example, to describe the way in which the waters and the skies teemed with life brought forth by God. It is also used at the beginning of the book of Exodus to describe the way in which the Israelites had been fruitful and multiplied even in Egypt, and become many. Yahweh Sabaoth can best be translated into English as ‘Lord of Hosts’. This phrase is not merely pointing to the vast number of angelic beings, however, but to their array. This is properly speaking a military title for Israel’s God, and is most often used within military metaphors to describe the Lord as commander of armies and mighty in battle.
The second metaphor, which will be the focus of this post, and developed further in two subsequent posts, is on the other major metaphor, which is the description of the divine council. Simply put, the God of Israel is depicted as a king enthroned, ruling over his creation. The angelic beings then are part of his royal court, a divine council, over which he presides. This divine council is both directly depicted and alluded to throughout the Old Testament. In the New Testament, particularly centered around the incarnation and ascension of Jesus Christ, the nature of the divine council is transformed. Ultimately, it is through understanding the scripture’s teaching about the divine council that we will see the way in which the scriptures clearly teach the reign and intercession on our behalf of the saints in glory, as has been recognized in the Orthodox Church throughout the ages.
Two key terms used in describing God’s divine council recur whenever it is being discussed. The first is the reference to the mountain of God as the ‘mountain of assembly’, in Hebrew ‘har moed’. This is not a particular mountain where the God of Israel lived, ala Mt. Olympus in Greek mythology, but rather, as the angelic beings are part of the invisible creation, various mountains become the ‘mountain of assembly’, such as Sinai when God’s presence descends upon it, or Zion when it becomes the site of divine worship, or Tabor at the time of the Transfiguration of Christ. Importantly, in the book of Revelation, the ultimate battle between Christ and his enemies takes place at ‘armageddon’, a Greek transliteration of ‘har moed’. In whatever place God is, he is surrounded by his divine council and presides. It is for this reason that his throne is depicted as also serving as a chariot, as discussed in a previous post. The second important term is another title of the God of Israel, and that is ‘God Most High’ or ‘the Most High God’. As we will see, the pagan nations will come to worship some fallen members of the divine council as ‘gods’. Setting apart Yahweh as the ‘Most High’ is pointing to the fact that while there are other spiritual beings whom some call gods or worship as gods, none of them are like Yahweh, the God of Israel. It is not surprising then that the title ‘Most High’ is the one which we most often see spirits, both angelic and demonic, using to refer to God (cf. Mark 5:7, Luke 1:32, 35, 76, 8:28, Acts 16:17).
The rebellion of Satan, and his fall, takes place within the context of the divine council as it is described in Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28. Isaiah describes the first rebel’s intent, to set his throne on high, on the mount of assembly (14:13). He intends to make himself like the Most High (v. 14). Instead he is thrown down into Sheol, into the earth. He is the god of nothing but dust and ashes. Ezekiel’s description is in even greater detail. It describes Satan’s state before his fall, a beautiful creation of God walking in the garden of God, Eden (28:13). God had created him for, and had given him, a position near to his own throne (v. 14). Yet Satan became filled with arrogance over his own beauty and position (v. 17) and he committed evil, and therefore was thrown down from the heavens to the earth and ashes (v. 18). Ezekiel 28 is further connecting Satan to the figure of Baal, who was the primary deity worshipped in Tyre, against whom Ezekiel 28’s oracles are directed. Baal is a title, meaning ‘lord’ or ‘master’, which was applied to many different gods by Phoenicians and other Semitic people groups. There are therefore references in the Old Testament to Baals as a plural, or to the Baal of a particular place. Baal when used alone, and particularly in reference to the Phoenicians as here and in the life of Elijah refers to the god Hadad.. In the mythological Baal cycle, the arc of the story, which became the basis for the festivals and rituals of the Baal cult, the story is told of how Baal rose up amongst the gods of the high council of gods to achieve a throne over them all and a position of supremacy. Ezekiel 28, then, can be seen to both argue that the Baal cycle is a false version of the story of Satan’s fall in which he achieved his goal, and that worshippers of Baal are in fact worshipping Satan. This is why Ezekiel can speak of the devil having ‘sanctuaries’ (v. 18). It is also why Baal will be identified with the devil throughout later Jewish history (cf. Matt 10:25, 12:24,27, Mark 3:22, Luke 11:15, 18, 19). These descriptions of Satan’s fall from within the prophetic books are also important to our understanding of the curse of Genesis 3, which is not the story of how snakes ‘lost their legs’. The imagery of being cast to the ground and eating dirt and ashes matches the imagery used in these prophetic texts and represents, in both places, the dead who are seized and swallowed by Sheol or Hades. It is for this reason that in Christian iconography and art Hades is often depicted as an open-mouthed serpent, and it is this imagery that lies behind, for example, St. John Chrysostom’s poetic description of the resurrection of Christ.
Satan, however, is not the only angelic being who fell into sin. A group of angelic beings did so in the days of Noah (Gen 6:1-2, 1 Pet 3:19-20). Another group, like Satan became arrogant and sought to be worshipped as gods by the nations of the world. The tower of Babel, a ziggurat in the city of Babylon, was an attempt by human beings to create the mount of assembly through their own efforts, to draw God down from heaven and thereby seek to manipulate and control him. As punishment and to prevent further such evil, God scattered and disinherited the nations. He then immediately, in the narrative of Genesis, began with Abraham to create a nation for himself, through which ultimately he planned to reconcile all nations to himself in Christ. In regard to those other nations, however, Deuteronomy 32:8 reflects on what took place. God reckoned to the nations of the world (numbered in Genesis at 70) their inheritance, to all the sons of Adam, he set their boundaries according to a certain number. Most English translations at this point reflect the medieval Hebrew text and say, “according to the number of the sons of Israel”. In addition to making little to no sense in context, nowhere do the scriptures number the nations at 12. The Greek text of Deuteronomy from the Septuagint translates an earlier form of the Hebrew, stating that God divided them ‘according to the number of his angels’. Recently, among the Dead Sea scrolls, we have recovered what that Hebrew originally read, that they had been divided ‘according to the number of the sons of God’ (4QDeut). Deuteronomy is here saying that when he disinherited them, God assigned these nations to angelic beings in the divine council. These beings became corrupt, however, and were worshipped by the nations they were to govern. This is why ‘all the gods of the nations are demons’ (Deut 32:17, Ps 96:5, 1 Cor 10:20). This situation is also described in Daniel 10, as Daniel’s angelic visitor describes being delayed by a ‘Prince of Persia’, against whom he was aided by St. Michael the Archangel (v. 13), and that he is due for further battle alongside St. Michael against both this ‘Prince of Persia’ and the ‘Prince of Greece’ (v. 20-21). Psalm 82, then, describes the pronouncement of judgment made by God against these beings, that they shall perish. The final verse of this Psalm is sung in the Orthodox Church on Holy Saturday, to celebrate the victory of Christ over the dark powers and the beginning of God’s inheritance of all of the nations.
These rebellions did not destroy the divine council, as it continues to be described in scripture. And the role of the spiritual beings who are a part of the divine council is not purely a passive one. Deliberations take place within the council as depicted in scripture. The book of Job features a famous example of the ‘sons of God’ gathering to present themselves to God including ‘the Satan’. This is a throne room scene, and in it Job stands accused, and discussions regarding him take place (Job 1:6-12). A less well known example takes place in 1 Kings 22:19-23. God has decreed that Ahab will be brought down as King of Israel for his many egregious sins, but as the prophet speaks of this, he describes a meeting between the Lord seated upon his throne, and the heavenly hosts gathered about it on all sides, in which God puts the question to them as to who will persuade Ahab to go to Ramoth-Gilead where he will die (v. 20). There are various proposals from various angelic beings, until one spirit volunteers to go and speak through Ahab’s false prophets to promise him victory in this battle in which he will die (v. 22). This plan is accepted by God, and goes forward, though it is worth noting that a true prophet is then sent to Ahab to tell him all of this, and give him one final chance to repent. Within Second Temple Judaism, this participation of the angelic beings in God’s council was also seen in a positive light Particular angelic beings were seen to bring the prayers for mercy and the tears of God’s people before the throne of God and offer them to him. Requests were made to these angelic beings to represent a person’s cause before the Lord. Angels of mercy were requested to plead for mercy for God’s people. Before the shofar was blown on holy days, a prayer was said requesting the angels of the horn’s music to intercede before the throne of the Lord for atonement for the people. While it is God who reigns from the throne and shows mercy and kindness, God is seen, here in the Old Testament, to involve his angelic creations in his governance of his creation as a grace to them.
Next week’s post will discuss the relationship between the divine council and certain important human persons of the Old Testament. In two weeks, with this basis laid, the way in which the scriptures teach the intercessory role of the Theotokos and all the saints will be explained.