Psalm 99

January 2nd, 2014

This week’s psalm gives us a brief but tantalizing glimpse into the heavenly realms. In verse 1, we hear of the Lord “enthroned upon the cherubim.” This gives us the opportunity to reflect a little on the “angelic orders” and to consider whether or not we see these details as belonging, as it were, to an ancient thought system that no longer can form a meaningful part of the way we follow our modern faith.

In the Old Testament Book of Exodus we encounter the cherubim in the context of the design of the ark of the covenant (Exodus 25:18-22). The golden cherubim’s wings in this account overshadow the mercy seat, which, in the conception of the ark, was the place where God’s presence “sat.” In this way, the physical ark was a “type” of the heavenly original—the throne of God—the meaning being that God had chosen to be present with the people of Israel in the most direct way possible. The ark was an object of almost terrifying power because of this; hence, the story of the person who died merely by inadvertently touching it (1 Chronicles 13:9-10). The other main “angelic division,” if one may express it in such a way, is that of the seraphim. These beings also appear with God. One thinks immediately of the vision of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 6) where we are given, perhaps for the first time, what has become for artists of succeeding generations almost a cliché for angelic beings; that is, their wings. However, it has to be said that we are dealing with a vision here. The prophet is given an intense insight into a reality that is, strictly speaking, impossible for the mortal mind to grasp. In the Old Testament, the seraphim and cherubim form, as it were, the “court” of the Lord. We can think of them as created beings, perhaps each one a unique creation in the same way as each human being is a unique creation.

However, there are several other angelic “embassies” in human affairs in the Old Testament where the action concerns “the angel of the Lord.” Whether this is a different kind of angel or one of the seraphic or cherubic orders is not specified. We think of the angels sent to find Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian maid (Genesis 16:7) and to warn off Balaam (Numbers 22:25). A more mysterious appearance is that of the “men” who meet Abraham when he is resting in the shade at Mamre (Genesis 18:1-2): “He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him.” Interestingly, Abraham’s reaction is immediate recognition of “the Lord” (in the singular), which has meant that the church has always seen this event as a foreshadowing of the Holy Trinity in the earliest period of the Bible story.

We have both kinds of appearances in the New Testament. The Archangel Gabriel first is involved with the father of John the Baptist (Luke 1:19) and then appears later to the Virgin Mary who receives the message of the birth of Jesus (Luke 1:26). The fact that we know the angel’s name is important in terms of our understanding of the spiritual orders. Apart from angelic beings, the contrary is also true. In the case of exorcism of unclean spirits, Christ requires the demons’ name (Mark 5:9). Gabriel has already appeared in the role of teacher and guide in the Book of Daniel (Daniel 8:16-17) where the Lord (who has the form of a man) tells Gabriel to explain the vision to the prophet. The significance of an archangel being sent to Mary is naturally the supreme importance of the mission and his message—the sign that she (and with her all humanity) is indeed “favored.” Finally, an angel in the form of a “young man” appears in the description of the resurrection (Mark 16:5-8), again with a message to impart (the message of messages!) that the Lord is risen.

With all these many comings and goings it would seem rather unwise simply to see these angelic presences as figurative language or metaphors for the activity of God. I have met too many people in parish life who have had experiences that make me believe that the embassies of angels still continue. I remember once sitting with a dying man in a hospital and being sure that we were both in the presence of a being of unimaginable holiness and power.

For Reflection

Have you had an experience of the angelic powers?


Holy God, you are served by a myriad of angelic beings, light upon light. Yet you invite us to stand before you as children and citizens of heaven. Make us worthy of this call. Amen.

excerpt from My Strength and My Song: A Year With the Psalms by Simon Peter Iredale. Copyright©2013 by Abingdon Press. Used with permission.

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