Who is “the angel of the Lord”?
He appears at many key moments in the Old Testament. But who is he? Is he a normal angel, like a seraphim (Isaiah 6:2) or cherubim (Genesis 3:24)? Is he an archangel? Who is he?
A survey of his appearances in the Bible may be helpful.
Angel of the Lord Appearances in the Bible
The exact phrase “the angel of the Lord” appears in the following places:
- Genesis 16:1-15 (esp v. 13) – With Hagar.
- Genesis 22:1-19 (esp v. 11, 15-16) – With Abraham.
- Exodus 3:1-7 (v. 2, 7) – The burning bush.
- Numbers 22:22-35 – To Balaam.
- Judges 2:1-5 – In sorrow.
- Judges 5:23 – A curse.
- Judges 6:11-24 (esp. v. 12, 16, 22-23) – To Gideon.
- Judges 13:1-25 (esp. vv. 18, 21-22) – To Samson’s mother and father (Manoah).
- 2 Samuel 24:10-17 (esp. v. 16) – Striking down people.
- 1 Kings 19:1-8 (esp. 5-7) – Encouraging Elijah.
- 2 Kings 1:3 – Elijah.
- 2 Kings 19:35 – Striking down.
- 1 Chronicles 21:1-30 – Striking down.
- Psalm 34:7 – Encamps around those who fear him.
- Isaiah 37:36 – Striking down.
- Zechariah 1:8-12 – To Zechariah.
- Zechariah 3:1-10 – With vision of priest Joshua.
In addition to these passages, other variations on the name appear in the Bible. We could add to the above list passages where the “angel of God” appears.
- Genesis 21:17 – Angel of God responds to Hagar.
- Genesis 31:11-13 – Appearing to Jacob during Laban’s unfairness.
- Exodus 14:19 w/ Exodus 13:21 and Exodus 32:34.
- Judges 13:6 – Samson’s parents.
And then, more generally, the Angel of the Lord is sometimes referred to simply as “angel” or understood to be an angel in hindsight.
- Hosea 12:2-4 with Genesis 32:30.
- Genesis 48:15-16 – “The angel that redeemed me.”
- Exodus 32:34 – “my angel” with Exodus 14:19 and Exodus 13:21.
- Exodus 23:20-21 “an angel” with the Lord’s name “in him.”
- Numbers 20:16 – “an angel” delivered us from Egypt.
- Isaiah 63:8-9 – “the angel of his presence saved them”
- Malachi 3:1 – “the angel/messenger” is the Lord you seek.
- Genesis 18:1-22 – Abraham (per son and Lot), with Genesis 19:1.
- Daniel 3:24-25 – One who is like a son of the gods, with Daniel 3:28.
You should know that some of the sightings above are disputed. For example, Grudem (1995) does not believe the angel of 2 Samuel 24:10-17, Psalm 34:7, and Zechariah 1:8-12 is the Angel of the Lord. Frame (2013) is more open to the possibility. To be clear, the dispute is not about whether the phrasing appears but whether the phrase “the angel of the Lord” is referring to the Angel of the LORD.
Who is the Angel of the Lord?
The survey of scriptures of above provides us with three clues.
Clue 1: The definition of “angel.” When you hear the word “angel,” you might picture a creature with wings. But in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, the word “angel” does not necessarily refer to a specific type of being. There certainly are what we typically think of as “angelic beings,” which are called the cherubim (Genesis 3:24) or the seraphim (Isaiah 6:2), but the word “angel” itself does not necessarily designate a particular type of being. Instead, the word means something like “messenger” or “representative.” In Hebrew, the word is mal.akh, and this is its meaning. In Greek, the word is angelos, and it also means “messenger” or “envoy.” And in fact, it’s related to the Greek word behind “gospel,” euangelion, which literally means “the good message.” So, “angel” means something more like messenger, emissary, envoy, representative.
Clue 2: People’s reactions. When people interact with the Angel of the Lord, they say and do weird things, remarkable things. When Gideon realizes the person he’s been speaking to is the angel of the Lord, he cries out, “Alas, O Lord GOD! For now I have seen the angel of the LORD face to face” (Judges 6:22). And the Lord reassures him that he won’t die. When Manoah, Samson’s dad, realized that he had been talking to the angel of the Lord, he too exclaims, “We shall surely die, for we have seen God” (Judges 13:22). And their remembrances of these encounters are given interesting names. The well where Hagar sees the angel is called Beer-lahai-roi, which means “the well of the Living One who sees me” (Genesis 16:14). Abraham calls the place where he meets the angel “Jehovah Jireh,” which means “the Lord will provide.” Gideon builds an altar where he meets the angel, and he calls it “The Lord is Peace” (Yahweh Shalom, Judges 6:24). Jacob names the place where he met the angel “Peniel,” which means “the face of God” (Genesis 32:30).
Clue 3: The Burning Bush. Exodus 3:1-7 reveals some interesting wordplay that reveals his identity. Notice the bolded phrases used interchangeably: “ Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.  And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed.  And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.”  When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.”  Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”  And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.  Then the LORD said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings…” So, who is speaking to Moses here? According to verse 2, it’s the angel of the Lord. According to verse 4, it’s God. According to verse 7, it’s the LORD. Do you see? There are three terms here, and they are all used interchangeably. The “Angel of the Lord” interchanged with “God” interchanged with “Yahweh.”
So, who is the angel of the Lord?
The Angel of the Lord Is the LORD
The angel of the Lord is the LORD himself! This is the only conclusion that makes sense of all the data. This conclusion makes sense of all the clues.
Why is he called an “angel”? Because he is the representative of God. “He is the image of the invisible God…” (Colossians 1:15; 2 Corinthians 4:4). “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature…” (Hebrews 1:3a). He is not an angel like a cherubim or seraphim, what we typically think of when we hear that word (Hebrews 1:3b-4). He is an angel in the “representative,” “messenger” sense. The angel of the Lord is a messenger, representative, emissary, envoy of the Lord himself, and he is the Lord himself, made visible.
Why does everyone panic when they realize they’ve seen the angel of the Lord? Why do they give these places names like “the Living One sees” or “the Lord Provides” or “The Face of God”? Because they have seen the LORD!
Why are the terms angel of the Lord, the LORD, and God used interchangeably at the burning bush? Because the angel of the Lord is the Lord! The image of the invisible God.
And yet, there is one more twist. Who is the Angel of the Lord? Clue number four...
Jude 5 refers to Jesus saving Israel out of Egypt (“Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt…”). That’s interesting. Jesus was in Egypt at the time of the Exodus? Then in John 8:56–58, we see this scene: “ Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.”  So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?”  Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.”” The “I AM” is the essence of the name YHWH, and it is the same thing the LORD told Moses at the burning bush to say when someone asked who sent him. Tell them “I AM” sent you. Jesus claims that name. What’s going on?
Malachi provides the verbal link. In Malachi 3:1, we read, “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger [angel] of the covenant [i.e., Jesus] in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.” Guess who the messenger of the covenant is. The Christ! Jesus. And guess what the Hebrew word for “messenger” is. Mal.akh…the same word used for angel!
Who is the Angel of the Lord? He is…God, yes…but more specifically, where a human figure appears…often, he is God the Son! These appearances of the angel of the Lord in a visible, physical form seem to be appearances of the preincarnate Christ (Ligonier; Scrivener; Bible Project; Grudem, 1995). We have the Lord appearing as a man. In the incarnation, we have the Lord becoming and staying in the physical form of a man. In these Old Testaments scenes, we get glimpses of the incarnation.
Why the Angel of the Lord Matters
A study of the Angel of the Lord reveals an amazing truth: The Lord is with his people!
Not some. Not a little bit. But from day one to the end. From ancient days, the Lord is with his people.
As we glimpsed in the Old Testament passages above and as we see so brightly in the Gospel accounts, the Lord does not just interact with our brokenness remotely, with the flip of a switch. Instead, He enters our mess. He appears to Hagar while the child cries. He provides for Abraham. He stands between his people and the armies of Pharaoh. He walks through the parted waters with us. He enters the furnace with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He leads his people like a Shepherd with his sheep. He is with us. He is Immanuel, God with us…
BibleProject. (2019). Angel of the Lord. Retrieved June 5, 2020, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qgmf8bHayXw
ESV Study Bible (2008). Crossway.
Frame, J. M. (2013). Systematic theology: An introduction to Christian belief. P & R Publishing.
Grudem, W. (1995). Systematic theology: An introduction to biblical doctrine. Zondervan.
Scrivener, G. (2018, December 20). Where Is Jesus in the Old Testament? How to Find Him on Every Last Page. Desiring God. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/where-is-jesus-in-the-old-testament