Divine Agents: Speaking and Acting in God’s Stead

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The Bible records a number of instances where an agent of God is referred to as “God” or “the LORD” Himself, and in many of these cases the agent (usually an angel) actually speaks and acts in God’s stead. This is an important biblical phenomenon that foreshadows the coming of Christ. Jesus Christ represented God in a manner that went beyond the way the prophets represented Him. Christ claimed to act in God’s stead in a way that the prophets never said that they did: “…I always do what pleases him” (John 8:29), “…I do exactly what my Father has commanded me…” (John 14:31). Christ spoke as one who knew God and His will intimately through personal acquaintance.

He also claimed to speak and act with authority he had directly received from God Himself, whom he identified as his “Father.” His miracles, his command of the elements and demons, and his assertion that how people related to him determined their final destiny all speak of his unique and complete manifestation of God in the human sphere. As we have explored in Chapter 2 and throughout this book, Jesus Christ is the very image of God and therefore God’s ultimate communication of Himself. Yet it is clear that he is not God Himself, if only because he is God’s ultimate agent.

Many orthodox Bible commentators view some Old Testament accounts of angelic manifestations as appearances of Jesus in his “pre-incarnate” state, but in the following list we will cite evidence that even Trinitarian commentators recognize that this is an inference and not by any means conclusive. These examples of “God-manifestation” are qualitatively different from the speaking for God that prophets have always done. [1] The prophets have spoken for God, but not manifested His presence or been identified with God so powerfully and intimately that to see them was to “see” God. Isaiah, Jeremiah and others were recognized as God’s spokesmen, but were never identified with God Himself. The following are examples of angels actually standing in the place of God such that afterward the human beings involved said they had encountered God Himself. Their identity as angels is unmistakably preserved in Scripture despite the fact that they were making God’s very presence and power manifest.

The concept of agency is simply that an agent or representative speaks and acts on full behalf of the one who sent him. This is commonly practiced in modern times in what is known as power of attorney. In the Roman world an agent of the Emperor was called the Imperial legate, although the standard usage of the word “legate” today refers to a representative of the Pope. According to the Jewish understanding of agency, the agent was regarded as the person himself. This is well expressed in The Encyclopedia of the Jewish Religion:

Agent (Heb. Shaliah): The main point of the Jewish law of agency is expressed in the dictum, “a person’s agent is regarded as the person himself” (Ned. 72b; Kidd. 41b). Therefore any act committed by a duly appointed agent is regarded as having been committed by the principal, who therefore bears full responsibility for it with consequent complete absence of liability on the part of the agent. [2]

Modern agency usually means that an agent, not the principal, is present. In the Bible, it is occasionally less clear that an agent is speaking and not the principal, and most of us are not used to seeing an agent speak without identifying himself as an agent. Therefore, we thought it a significant enough aspect of this study on One God & One Lord that we should provide examples such that the reader could become familiar with it.


Hagar and the Angel (Gen. 16:7-14)

The beginning point for this idea of angels manifesting God’s presence is found in Genesis 16:7-10, 13 and 14. Charles Ryrie calls this use of “The angel of the LORD…” a “theophany, a self-manifestation of God.” The angel speaks as God, identifies himself with God, and claims to exercise the prerogatives of God. Ryrie also recognizes that the idea that this “angel” is the preincarnate Son of God is an “inference,” i.e., that it is not directly stated:

Since the angel of the LORD ceases to appear after the incarnation, it is often inferred that the angel in the O.T. [Old Testament] is a preincarnate appearance of the Second Person of the Trinity [emphasis ours]. [3]

The NIV Study Bible acknowledges the principle of divine agents being identified with God Himself. Recognizing this principle also leads the editors to back away from the traditional interpretation—that the angel was really Jesus in his “pre-incarnate” divine state:

…Since the angel of the Lord speaks for God in the first person (v. 10) and Hagar is said to name “the LORD who spoke to her: ‘You are the God who sees me,’” (v. 13) the angel appears to be both distinguished from the Lord (in that he is called “messenger”—the Hebrew for “angel” means “messenger”) and identified with him. Similar distinction and identification can be found in 19:1, 21, 31:11 and 13; Exodus 3:2 and 4; Judges 2:1-5, 6:11, 12, and 14, 13:3, 6, 8-11, 13, 15-17 and 20-23; Zechariah 3:1-6, 12:8. Traditional Christian interpretation has held that this “angel” was a pre-incarnate manifestation of Christ as God’s messenger-Servant. It may be, however, that, as the Lord’s personal messenger who represented him and bore his credentials, the angel could speak on behalf of (and so be identified with) the One who sent him…Whether this “angel” was the second person of the Trinity remains therefore uncertain…. [4]

We are glad that the authors of the NIV Study Bible allow for the possibility that the one talking to Hagar could be an angel, but we believe that is not stating the case strongly enough. The Bible says, “The angel of the LORD said to her….” Angels are quite common in the Old Testament, and are messengers of God, certainly not God themselves (and being “the second person of the Trinity” is being “God”). In order to make the jump from “a messenger for God” to being “God—the pre-incarnate Jesus Christ,” there would have to be some clear scriptural evidence that showed that was the case, but that evidence does not exist. The concept of agency, that the agent speaks on full behalf of the “sender,” explains the records more than adequately.

In Genesis 16, the angel of the LORD addressed Hagar—“…I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count.” She replied, “…I have now seen the One who sees me,” as though she were talking to God, but the record makes it clear she was speaking to an angel of God acting as God’s agent, not to God Himself.


Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:1-24)

God is said to have destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, but actually sent two angels to do the job. The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening (v. 1). They informed Lot that “we are going to destroy this place. The outcry to the LORD against its people is so great that he has sent us to destroy it” (v. 13). The angels grasped Lot’s hand and the hands of his wife and of his two daughters and led them safely out of the city for Yahweh was merciful to them (v. 16). Lot called the angels “my lords” (v. 18), asking them if he could retreat to Zoar instead of to the mountains. God spoke via the angels: “He [God, singular, not “they,” the angels] said to him [Lot]” that his request was granted (v. 21). ThenYahweh rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire, and He overthrew those cities, etc. (v. 24). These Scriptures combine to portray a beautiful picture of agency. Of course God is the one who supplied the power and authority, but the angels actually did the work. We use the same kind of language today. The owner of a construction company might be showing off some of the buildings his company had built. He might well say, “I built that building,” and everyone would understand that he did not actually do the physical work, but was the planner and the authority behind the job.


Jacob’s Dream (Gen. 31:11-13)

This is another record that clearly identifies the speaker as an angel. Jacob said to his wives, “The angel of God said to me in a dream…I am the God of Bethel…” This is powerful proof that the concept of agency was not confusing to the people who knew the customs and the culture. Jacob was comfortable saying that an angel said, “I am the God of Bethel.” Jacob knew nothing of a Trinity, and there is certainly no evidence that Jacob would have recognized that he was talking to the Messiah. Jacob understood the idea of agency and was comfortable with it.


Jacob Wrestles With “God” (Gen. 32:24 – 30)

In Genesis 32, Jacob wrestled with “a man” until daybreak (v. 24), but verse 28 says he had “…struggled with God and with men….” In verse 30, Jacob said he “…saw God face to face….” From Genesis alone we would have to assume that this was one of the times in which God Himself took on the form of a man in order to better relate to mankind [5] However, the book of Hosea speaks of the same record and lets us know that the one who wrestled with Jacob was an angel. Hosea 12:3 and 4 states: “…as a man he [Jacob] struggled with God, He struggled with the angel and overcame him….” Thus, the one who is called “God” in Genesis is identified as an angel in Hosea, a clear example of agency.


Moses and the Burning Bush (Exod. 3:2, 4, 6 and 16)

Exodus 3:2 says, “…the angel of Yahweh appeared to him [Moses] in flames of fire from within a bush….” Yet the record then goes on to say that “God” and “Yahweh” spoke to Moses. The reader has to pay attention in this record because, although the angel is said to be in the fire, the record never actually says the angel speaks. It is possible that this is an example of agency where the angel spoke for God, or it could be that the angel was involved with the fire and when Moses drew near the bush, then Yahweh Himself spoke.


Angelic Accompaniment in the Wilderness and into the Promised Land

Understanding the concept of agency allows us to better understand the records of the LORD accompanying the Israelites in the wilderness. Some records indicate an angel was in the pillar of fire, while others indicate that it was God in the pillar of fire.

Exodus 13:21a (NASB)
And the LORD was going before them in a pillar of cloud by day to lead them on the way, and in a pillar of fire by night to give them light….

Exodus 14:19 (NASB)
And the angel of God, who had been going before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them.

Exodus 23:20-23
(20) “See, I [God] am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared.
(21) Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion, since my Name is in him.
(22) If you listen carefully to what he says and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and will oppose those who oppose you.
(23) My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out.

Exodus 23:21 gives us more evidence of the custom of agency. God said that His “Name” was “in” the angel. A study of the culture and language shows that the word “Name” stood for “authority.” Examples are very numerous, but space allows only a small selection. Deuteronomy 18:5 and 7 speak of serving in the “name” (authority) of the LORD. Deuteronomy 18:22 speaks of prophesying in the “name” (authority) of the LORD. In 1 Samuel 17:45, David attacked Goliath in the “name” (authority) of the LORD, and he blessed the people in the “name” (authority) of the LORD (2 Sam. 6:18). In 2 Kings 2:24, Elisha cursed troublemakers in the “name” (authority) of the LORD. These Scriptures are only a small sample, but they are very clear. God told the Israelites to obey the angel because God’s name, i.e., His authority, was in him, and thus the angel represented God.


The Israelites and the Angel (Judg. 2:1-4)

In reading Judges 2, one might think that it was God Himself speaking.

Judges 2:1-3
(1) “. . . I brought you up out of Egypt and led you into the land that I swore to give to your forefathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you,
(2) and you shall not make a covenant with the people of this land, but you shall break down their altars.’ Yet you have disobeyed me. Why have you done this?
(3) Now therefore I tell you that I will not drive them out before you; they will be thorns in your sides and their gods will be a snare to you.”

This is a clear example of an angel standing in for God Himself. Verse 1 opens with, “The angel of the LORD went up from Gilgal to Bokim and said….” And verse 4 says, “When the angel of the LORD had spoken these things….” So the record clearly identifies that it was an angel who was actually speaking. He was speaking for God.


Gideon and the Angel (Judg. 6:11, 12, 14, 16 and 22)

The record of Gideon is another clear example of an angel acting as an agent of God. The one talking with Gideon is clearly identified as an angel in the record:

Judges 6:11 and 12
(11) The angel of the LORD came and sat down under the oak in Ophrah that belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, where his son Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress to keep it from the Midianites.
(12) When the angel of the LORD appeared to Gideon, he said, “The LORD is with you, mighty warrior.”

These verses are very clear, but in verse 14 “the LORD” turned to him and spoke to him, and in verse 16 “the LORD” talked to him. To English readers this can be confusing, but it did not confuse Gideon. He recognized that it was an angel who was speaking to him, and in verse 22 he said, “…Ah, Sovereign LORD! I have seen the angel of the LORD face to face!” Gideon had no trouble understanding that the angel could represent God.


Manoah and the Angel (Judg. 13)

The record in Judges 13 is very interesting because when the angel first showed up, he was not recognized as an angel at all. Both Manoah and his wife thought he was a man of God (Judg. 13:3, 6 and 21). Finally, they realized it was an angel: “…Manoah realized that it was the angel of the LORD.” However, no sooner had he recognized that he had been speaking to an angel, not a man, that he exclaimed, “We are doomed to die…We have seen God!” (v. 22). The fact that the record makes it clear that he knew what he saw was an angel shows us that he understood that he did not see God, but God’s representative. An intriguing fact about this record is that as long as Manoah thought he was with a man of God who was representing and speaking for God, he was comfortable, but when he realized he was talking to an angel, he became afraid. This is a good example of people being uncomfortable in the presence of God. God often wants to get closer to us than we, as humans and sinners, want Him to get.


The Angel and Joshua the High Priest (Zechariah 3:1-7)

Zechariah 3:6 and 7
(6) The angel of the LORD gave this charge to Joshua:
(7) “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘If you will walk in my ways and keep my requirements, then you will govern my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you a place among these standing here.

This record in Zechariah is similar to dozens of others in Scripture where men or angels speak in the name of the LORD.


Before the Lord or Before the Judge?

The concept of agency can cause translators some real difficulties. The Hebrew word Elohim is flexible and can refer to “the Supreme God” (which is how it is used most often), “a god,” “gods” (because Elohim is plural), “angels” or “heavenly beings” or “judges.” This has caused the translators some problems in verses such as Exodus 21:6, as the following translations show:

KJV: Then his master shall bring him unto the judges…

NIV: then his master must take him before the judges…

NASB: then his master shall bring him to God…

RSV: then his master shall bring him to God…

The situation in Exodus was that a slave was to be released after seven years of service, but in some cases the slave did not want to be released. In those cases the master was to bring him “to the Elohim” to become a slave forever. Because the judges represented God as his agents on earth, they are called by His name, “Elohim.” There is a sense in which both of the above translations are correct. The judges did in fact represent God, Elohim, and if they did not, there was no reason to bring the slave to them in the first place, because the vow was to be binding before the LORD. So there is reason to translate Elohim as “God” here. On the other hand, the actual representatives of God were the judges, and they were the ones who actually witnessed the slave’s commitment. They were the tangible, flesh and blood representatives of God on the earth. For that reason, “judges” is the better contextual translation of Elohim in Exodus 21:6, 22:8 and 9.


Conclusion

We have shown that there are times when someone acting as God’s agent is called “God” or is said to speak as “God.” The above verses demonstrate that both angels and men represent God on earth. Instead of squeezing these verses to prove the doctrine of the Trinity, which is clearly not taught in the Old Testament, we should instead understand them according to the culture of the times. The concept of agency was even more common then than it is now, because our swift means of direct communication, such as telephone and travel by car and airplane, have made the actual practice of agency less necessary. Instead of veiled references to the Trinity, what these verses clearly show that we have a loving, trusting God who allows angels and people to represent Him.


Endnotes:

1. Broughton and Southgate, op. cit., The Trinity, p. 64ff. Broughton and Southgate coined the term “God-manifestation” to represent these occasions when angels stood in for God. Back to top

2. (The Encyclopedia of the Jewish Religion, R. J. Z. Werblowsky and Geoffrey Wigoder. (New York, Adama Books, 1986), p. 15. Back to top

3. The Ryrie Study Bible, p. 30. Ryrie argues that in each of these “theophanies,” God Himself is present and acting, missing the point of the angelic agency. It is often argued that Jesus is probably “the angel of the Lord” because those words never appear after his birth, and it seems “reasonable” to Trinitarians that this angel would appear right on through the Bible. The fact is, however, that the angel of the Lord does appear after Jesus’ conception, which seems inconsistent with the premise that the angel of the Lord is the “pre-incarnate Christ.” The record of Jesus’ birth is well known. Mary was discovered to be pregnant with Jesus before she and Joseph were married, and Joseph, who could have had her stoned to death, decided to divorce her. However, “an angel of the Lord” appeared to him in a dream and told him the child was God’s. Matthew 1:24 states, “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.” Thus, Jesus was already in Mary’s womb when the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph. From this we conclude that “the angel of the Lord” cannot be Jesus because Jesus was at that time “in the flesh” inside Mary. Back to top

4. The NIV Study Bible, p. 29. Back to top

5. For times that God Himself comes in the form of a man see Verses that Trinitarians use to Try and support the Trinity (Gen. 18:1). Back to top