angelI received the following question.

I was reading through 2 Samuel and remembering that once upon a time you stated that you had never thought that “angel” was referred to a celestial being that didn’t have a message. In all the instances that there was a message given it was an “angel” however with no message there was no mention of angel. So the question comes, “What about the angel of the Lord?” In 2 Samuel 24:16-17 there is mention of an angel but there was no message given unless it was a message of the plague that was caused because of David’s census. Is there any thought to the Greek mistranslation on the word or anything?

The word “angel” basically means “messenger.” It comes from the Greek word aggelos, which means “messenger,” and was used for any kind of messenger, not just supernatural ones. In Greek, when you have two “g”s in a row, the first one is pronounced like an “n,” so we have the word “angel.” This word is used for a class of heavenly beings that are sent by God to deliver messages to men. Yet it is also used for Jesus Christ Himself, as He sometimes would come to deliver God’s words to men. And, in the New Testament, I believe that there are times when just normal men who are sent by God as messengers are called “angels.” Men like the apostles were messengers sent by God.

“The angel of the LORD” would mean “The messenger of the LORD.” I believe that Christ Himself is usually the One to Whom this title is referring. He, after all, is truly the LORD’s Messenger in ways no one else can be, since He Himself is the image of the invisible God. Yet, there are other times when some would argue that the phrase seems to be referring to a created being, no doubt sent from heaven, to deliver a message from the LORD. I do not know that there is a hard-and-fast rule we can declare. We just note the meaning of the phrase, and when we come upon it, we examine the context to try to determine if the Lord Himself or some other messenger is meant.

The story you are referring to regards the angel the Lord sent to plague the people because of their sin and David’s pride in taking a census. The verses you refer to read:

16. And when the angel stretched out His hand over Jerusalem to destroy it, the LORD relented from the destruction, and said to the angel who was destroying the people, “It is enough; now restrain your hand.” And the angel of the LORD was by the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.

17. Then David spoke to the LORD when he saw the angel who was striking the people, and said, “Surely I have sinned, and I have done wickedly; but these sheep, what have they done? Let Your hand, I pray, be against me and against my father’s house.”

A messenger does not necessarily only deliver a message in words. For example, a woman who has had a spat with her fiancé might send one of her girlfriends to carry a message to him. But the message she gives might just be handing him his ring back. Although there were no words exchanged, the message given was plain and clear. Other times, a messenger might deliver words, but then also make himself available to aid the person he was sent to, or might offer assistance in whatever task the message was sent to bestow upon the one receiving it. At other times, the messenger might be sent mainly for the purpose of working for the one he was sent to, rather than to deliver any sort of message. I admit that we are getting further and further away from the primary definition of a “messenger,” but I hope you can follow the train of thought. The point is that a messenger does not have to just simply carry a message.

A friend has argued with me that what I am describing is no longer really a messenger, so that this really isn’t that good of a translation for the word “angel.” He suggested the word “agent” as more accurately describing what such a person was actually sent out to do. An agent is sent with a mission to represent the one sending him to the one he is being sent to. He becomes the go-between. His actions on behalf of the one sending him might be to carry a message, or to offer aid, or even to attack or punish. Thus, this word “agent” does fit quite well as an alternate explanation of what being an “angel” is all about.

In II Samuel 24, the angel is acting as God’s agent in bringing this plague and this punishment upon the people of Israel. The “message” he is delivering is one of judgment, contained not in words but in actions. He is acting as one sent by God to do His will. Again, the angel is doing a job. This word “angel” is not a description of what race of beings he belongs to.