The Hosts of Heaven

As modern people, when we think of the sun and the stars, we think of masses of incandescent gas; gigantic nuclear furnaces in which hydrogen is transformed into helium at, literally, astronomical temperatures.  When we think of the moon, we think of a large dusty rock which orbits around the earth every 27 days.  At some level, we are aware that ancient people did not think of them this way.  We believe that our modern understanding is superior because it is based on mathematics and scientific observation.  Ancient explanations and descriptions are viewed as quaint folktales and myths now supplanted by real knowledge.  This creates a difficulty for modern readers of the holy scriptures, as those scriptures are quickly seen to not be based in the modern view.  Modernity has had two typical response to this dilemma.  On one hand, the Biblical references are dismissed as some sort of condescension by God in his revelation to primitive people or outright fairy tales.  On the other, a modern understanding of these things is read back into the Biblical stories, so that the text of scripture is claimed to actually be talking about the clouds of gas undergoing nuclear fusion in the depths of space.  Both of these modern approaches represent a failure of modern people to listen to and properly hear the Biblical text and what it is attempting to tell us.  What the scriptures say about the stars of heaven, they are actually saying about our destiny as human persons in Christ.

Stars are repeatedly and consistently in scripture connected with angelic beings.  The term ‘heavenly host’ or ‘the host of heaven’ is used consistently to refer both to astronomical bodies visible in the sky (cf. Gen 2:1; Ps 33:6; Jer 33:22) and the angelic beings as a group (1 Kgs/3 Kgdms 22:19; 2 Chron 18:18; Is 24:21; 34:4; Dan 4:35; Luke 2:13).  In most cases, it is not clear which of these two is in view in a particular reference.  It appears most likely that the reference is to both (Deut 4:19; 17:3; 2 Kgs/4Kgdms 17:16; 21:3-5; 23:4-5; 2 Chron 33:3-5; Neh 9:6; Jer 8:2; 19:13; Dan 8:10; Zeph 1:5; Acts 7:42).  The title of the God of Israel, Yahweh Sabaoth, is directly related.  Sabaoth is the substantive form of the Hebrew verb ‘tsavah’ meaning ‘to command’ or ‘to set in order’, hence its typical translation as ‘hosts’ with a military connotation.  Yahweh Sabaoth proclaims his powers as the God of gods, worshipped by all of the heavenly powers.  This same interplay can be seen in references in the scriptures to the stars and to angels (Job 38:7; Mark 13:25; Rev 1:20).

This is not, however, a primitive confusion.  Ancient people did not believe that the lights in the sky were angels, whereas now we moderns understand that they are balls of gases.  Rather, all ancient people, both inside and outside of Israel, understood that there were spiritual powers associated with the governance of every aspect of the created order.  Nature spirits and gods were associated with all of the elements of the natural world, including those objects in the heavens above, those on the earth beneath, and those in the abyss beneath the earth (Ex 20:4; Deut 5:8).  The scriptures do not dispute that these beings exist.  Rather, they describe these beings as spiritual beings created by God which are either in service to or rebellion against him.  In speech, ancient people often did not distinguish between a person or object and the spiritual powers which stood behind it and animated it.  This represents a particular view of the sovereignty of God, that he governs his creation through the members of his divine council.  At the creation, a share in that governance was also given to humanity (Gen 1:26).

Philo of Alexandria describes the Jewish belief in the first century AD in the following way:  “Some have supposed that the sun and moon and the other stars were gods with absolute powers and ascribed to them the causation of all events.  But Moses held that the universe was created and is in a sense the greatest of commonwealths, having magistrates and subjects.  For magistrates, all the heavenly bodies fixed and wandering.  For subjects, such beings as exist below the moon, in the air or on the earth.  These magistrates, however, in his view do not have unconditional powers but are lieutenants of the one Father of all.  And it is by mimicking the example of his governance exercised according to law and justice over all created beings that they acquit themselves aright…So all the gods which the senses know in the heavens must not be supposed to possess absolute power but to have received the rank of subordinate rulers, naturally liable to correction…let us proceed to give honor to the immaterial, invisible, understood by the intellect alone, who is not only the God of gods, whether perceived by sense or by mind, but also the maker of all” (Special Laws, 1.3).  When St. Paul decries the nations for having worshipped creating beings rather than the creator, he is not speaking of the material stuff from which idols were made, but rather of the spiritual powers who were being worshipped instead of God Most High (Rom 1:25; 1 Cor 10:20).  St. Andrew of Caesarea describes this as also being the view of the Fathers in his interpretation of the Devil as the “prince and power of the air” (Eph 2:2).

Philo’s statement was made in commentary on Deuteronomy 4:19-20, “Beware if you should lift your eyes to the heavens and seeing the sun and the moon and the stars and all the host of heaven be led away and bow down to them and serve them.  These are things that Yahweh your God has allotted to all of the nations under all of the heavens.   But Yahweh has taken you and brought you out of Egypt, the furnace of iron, in order to make you a nation to be his inheritance, as you are today.”  After the Tower of Babel event, Yahweh had given over all the nations of the world to the governance of spiritual powers who, rather than imitating his governance, had become corrupt and begun to be worshipped by those nations (Deut 32:8, 17).  But he had chosen Israel for his inheritance and had revealed himself to them so that they might know him and worship the true God (Ps 117:27 Gk.).  The relationship of these spiritual beings as patrons and governors of various elements of creation remains, however, and continues into the present age.  Just as Israel had St. Michael as her prince (Dan 10:21; 12:1), churches have angelic patrons (Rev 1:20).  The rebellious gods of the nations are judged at the resurrection of Christ and thrown down (Ps 82).  God’s sovereignty, however, remains the same, and so these fallen former holy ones are replaced with new holy ones (read: saints).  And so, in the church, we now have not only angelic beings but glorified men as patrons of churches, cities, and nations.

The destiny of human persons is not only described as coming to share in the governance of God over his creation.  Our actual physical destiny, the destiny of our material bodies and their glorification, is associated with angelic beings.  Daniel, speaking of the resurrection, says that the righteous will shine forever like the stars of heaven (Dan 12:3).  Christ says that in the resurrection, human persons will be ‘like the angels’ (Mark 12:25; Matt 22:30).  St. Paul speaks at length of the resurrection of the body in light of the bodily resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  He directly utilizes the language of Deuteronomy 4 when he states, “There are celestial bodies and there are earthen bodies.  There is one glory indeed of the celestial, and another now of the earthen.  There is one glory of the sun and another glory of the moon and another glory of the stars, because a star is different from another star in its glory.  So also is the resurrection of the dead.  The body is sewn in corruption.  It is raised in immortality.  It is sewn in dishonor.  It is raised in glory.  It is sewn in weakness.  It is raised in power.  It is sewn an ensouled body.  It is raised a Spirit-filled body.  If there is an ensouled body, there is also a Spirit-filled body.  Just as it has been written, “Into the first man, Adam, came a living soul,” into the last Adam came the Spirit who gives life” (1 Cor 15:40-45).

For St. Paul, one consequence of the resurrection of Christ and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit is the glorification of humanity and this includes not only the soul but the physical body (Rom 8:17, 30).  St. Paul never questions, but always affirms the physical, bodily resurrection.  The transfiguring presence of God himself, however, transforms the human body from an earthen one to a celestial one as the angels possess.  But this is not all.  In Christ’s incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven he has brought with him our shared human nature, such that our humanity now sits enthroned in the heavens in his person.  Christ shares with us his own glory, the glory which he shared with the Father before the world was created (John 17:5).  We are now, like the holy angels, rightly called ‘sons of God’, but in the resurrection, mankind has an even greater destiny: to be conformed to the likeness of Christ himself (1 John 3:2).

11 comments:

  1. Good evening and thankyou for a lovely article regarding the heavenly bodies! Being that I am coming into the Orthodox Church this Easter, I have decided to look up all the Scriptures passages (in my new Orthodox Study Bible) you mention in this article.
    It’s good for us to sit back and calmly gaze upon the star and planets realizing that God created them just as He did plants, trees, flowers, animals and of course us. I do enjoy at times to hear about the sciences of nature, but really prefer to view everything with God’s hand in and on it – over and above all. If more of us could remember this and continue to think this way, our world would be a better place and a place that is cherished and protected; not abused and used for profit leading to waste. God bless!

  2. Perhaps a bit off the point, but pictures of galaxy formations always remind me a bit of a ‘wheel inside a wheel’ and the great Ophanim 🙂

  3. I am reminded here of this exchange from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:

    “In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”
    “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of.”

  4. So very good, Father!

    Your finale’s are always so edifying. Glory to Jesus Christ!

    Many thanks, Father Stephen.

  5. I’m still a little confused as to what your ultimate thesis is from this article. On the one hand, you admit that the modern scientific understanding of the sun, stars, and planets is correct, yet on the other hand you say that they can also be seen as spiritual entities that patron over different lands. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding or missing something, but where’s the connection? How can we reconcile the ancient cosmology of the Bible and the Fathers with the fact that it just doesn’t correspond to reality?

    1. God’s creation, in all of its various elements, is governed by him through intermediate spiritual beings whom he created and assigned those tasks. Ancient people didn’t distinguish in speech between a person, place, or thing and the spiritual power behind it. So, for example, St. Andrew of Caesarea doesn’t understand the Devil to be identical with the layer of nitrogen and oxygen surrounding the Earth when he discusses his being the prince and the power of the air. He understands that element of the creation to have been subject to his governance before his fall.

      Likewise, the Moabites chiefly worshipped Chemosh. Chemosh is the word for ‘moon.’ If you asked an ancient Moabite whether he was worshipping the moon itself or a moon god, I suspect his answer would be ‘yes’. So when God created the moon to ‘govern the night’ is it talking about the physical object, the rock in space, or the spiritual being assigned to Govern it? Probably the answer is ‘yes’.

      1. Father,
        I appreciate your reply here. A while back (years ago) I came to the conclusion that everything that happens in the world happens as a result of the spiritual world. As time moves on I am beginning to realize it is not ’cause and effect’ so much but that both the spirit and material world ‘happen’ simultaneously, or in conjunction. As you bring to the fore time after time, us moderns do not perceive reality this way, because the modern world simply perceives the spiritual as existing somewhere other than ‘with us’. It is a presupposition that enters into all modern thought about anything and everything. It is how we are raised, how we function, and how we interact with the world. It takes a lot of reconditioning to overcome this. I believe by the grace of God, He has made it possible through ‘the mind of the Church’. It is not a smooth transformation. I still think like a modern, but little by little am learning what Reality truly is. The hardest thing to overcome is my own understanding. But God is very patient.

        I find it very helpful where you say that for the ancients “there were spiritual powers associated with the governance of *every aspect of the created order* “. In a previous article you said that for the ancients there was no secular space. These reminders aid in a better understanding, for example, of the age old question of ‘why the wars’ of the OT, why God’s people did not question (as we do) conquering, killing and plundering of other lands and peoples who worshiped evil spirits. The fact that these wars are so very hard for us to accept is proof of a great disconnect of perception between ancients and moderns. Yet ironically we justify our modern wars in a modern way and call them ‘just wars’. But Reality is that Christ has overcome the evil spirits, whose influence God continues to allow and that we experience as spiritual warfare to this day. The same influence behind the OT wars are behind the modern quest for power and control in our modern political wars. But Christ has made the conquering of lands and peoples unnecessary. Christ has conquered, having overcome all evil, including secular separation from Him. This is the Reality the Lord Jesus Christ has made known.

  6. Father, I hope you might be able to explain how this Orthodox understanding of cosmology differs from a Mormon understanding of cosmology. The concept of being “raised up in power” seems similar to the idea of Exhalation in Mormon teaching.

    Thank you again.

    1. Well, I guess the element that you’re seeing that might be similar is an idea of deification or theosis. Even though a lot of contemporary LDS apologists have started trying to use passages from the Fathers to justify their doctrine, its really not even similar. Mormonism is outright polytheistic. More polytheistic, possibly, than any other religion in human history, in that it holds that there are millions, potentially endless, gods and goddesses of countless worlds. Mormonism teaches that any given world has a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother who produce all of the souls who will ever live in that world through a form of spiritual copulation. These souls pre-exist in heaven, and everyone from Jesus to Satan to all of us pre-existed there and have this same ontological status. All of those souls are later incarnated in bodies, meaning that Christ’s incarnation is no different than any of ours. Orthodox teaching is that the Holy Trinity is uncreated and ontologically completely other than anything in creation and that it is through the incarnation of Christ that our shared humanity is joined to God and comes to share in his glory. The promise is that we will be Sons of God, like the created angels, sharing in Christ’s rule over his creation through our union with him, which even the angels don’t possess. Mormonism teaches that through following a certain path which involves both esoteric temple rights and moral behavior, a human being can become a god or goddess of their own world. For Mormonism, the current God of this world was once a mortal human in another world who ascended to godhood.

      So, really, they’re not very similar at all.

  7. The Orthodox Church needs more teachers who can view summarize and articulate the conclusions found via academic biblical studies through the lens of Orthodox Christian tradition.

    It also wouldn’t hurt to have teachers who cite TMBG in their writings.

    Thanks for doing both.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *