Vol. XII, June 2006


"The angel of His presence saved them" (Is 63:9)

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

To the “angel of peace,” identified by his task, we now direct our attention. The Prophet Isaiah speaks now a second time of an angels’ personal characteristics. We read in Chapter 63: “In all their affliction He [the Lord] was afflicted, and the angel of His presence saved them; in His love and in His pity He redeemed them; He lifted them up and carried them all the days of old” (Is 63:9). Due to the textual difficulty, we have to look first at the literal meaning, and only then to the lesson on the angels here.

1. The Textual Difficulty

The text of this verse, even for the experts, is difficult for two reasons: “The manuscripts and editions are much divided between the two readings of the text and margin in the common copies,” says one scholar (Clarke). First of all, there are two Hebrew words which are disputed in the manuscript, for each has a second meaning in Hebrew. The first word is read either as “affliction” or “messenger”; the second word reads either “to him” or as a negation, “no”. This leads to the following reasonable options:

“In all their affliction it was an affliction to Him [i.e. God suffers compassion—miseri-cordia] and the angel of His presence saved them.” Or: “In all their affliction, not an ambassador nor an angel, His presence saved them.” The first version fits in with the historical development and the harmonious theology of the angel of God’s presence in the OT. The second is rather Messianic, but does not deny the angel and the ambassador. After all, Christ is both ambassador and angel of God (cf. Mal 3:1).

This leads already to the second difficulty regarding the theology of the “angel of His presence”. Does the text refer to an angel or to Christ, the redeeming Son of God? Barnes summed up his study saying: “The sense of the Hebrew here is, that it was a messenger sent from the immediate presence of God, and therefore of elevated rank.” However, he continues: “The opinion that it was the Son of God is one that can be sustained by arguments that are not easily refuted.” As we are unable to decide on textual basis, we do good to try some reflections. The variation in translation from “angel of His presence” to “angel of His face,” or “countenance” is very useful for our question.

2. The Son of God or the Angel of His Presence?

Considering the content, there are various possibilities: If the sacred text wants to refer to salvation as liberation from sin, then it can be understood only with regard to the Son of God as the principal agent. For “who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mk 2:7). But as a minister, of course, the Seraphim purged Isaiah himself of his iniquity (cf. Is 6:7) and another angel cleansed the high priest, Joshua, of his iniquity in Zechariah 3:4. From this it is evident that if it refers to salvation from any other danger or need besides sin, then it can clearly be understood of creatures as well.

First, if Isaiah refers to the salvation of Israel from Egypt, that is, from the physical suffering under their oppressors, then it does not require a direct intervention of God. Rather, it is almost necessary to interpret the passage as referring to a real angel. For such a mission is typical for angels. God “makes use of His creatures’ cooperation” (CCC 306) and likes to act through secondary causes for many salutary reasons (cf. CCC 306-308). The text refers first to the historical liberation from their physical slavery, as well as to the immediate agent, the angel. And only insofar as the liberation from Egypt is to be considered a metaphor for the liberation from the slavery of sin can an allegorical application be made, foretelling the salvation from sin through the Son of God who was to become man.

Secondly, the messianic interpretations refer to the guidance and defense of the Chosen People on their way to the Promised Land, with frequent reference to Exodus 23:20 and parallel texts. On that occasion, God gives instructions for their journey to the Promised Land and adds: “Behold, I send an angel before you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place which I have prepared. Give heed to him and hearken to his voice, do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression; for My name is in him” (Ex 23:20-21; cf. 32:34, 33:2-4, 20-21; Num 20:16). This text is traditionally interpreted by the Church as a type of the Guardian Angel, as is read in the Office of Readings on the Feast of the Guardian Angels (cf. also CCC 332, note 194).

Thirdly, as is commonly found in Sacred Scripture, we have the alternation between God and angel within the same context. This does not cause problems; it just affirms that no angel comes by his own authority. It is always God who sends him. “My name is in him,” God said. Therefore, He continues, “if you hearken attentively to his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries” (Ex 23:21-22). And again, “When My angel goes before you, and brings you in to the Amorites, and the Hittites, and…I blot them out” (v. 23). Fr. William Wagner, ORC discussed this problem in his doctoral dissertation and the possible solutions. He decided against the identity-theory in favor of the angels as representatives of God, because the New Testament specifies that an angel mediated the Law (cf. Acts 7:53; Gal 3:19; Heb 2:2; cf. W. Wagner, The Mission of the Holy Angels, Fatima 1984, part I); a fortiori an angel is really present in this instance.

We might conclude that regardless of the philological position one takes, there is no theological reason to ignore the angel here. Even the explicit denial of his salvific work in the strict sense, the Septuagint includes implicitly the affirmation of the angels’ activity and mission in all other areas.

3. Angel and Man in the Presence of God

We may now reflect upon this “angel of His presence” or the “angel of His face”. Is it a question of a unique angel, or is this title just the distinguishing mark of all the faithful angels in contradistinction to the fallen spirits?

a) “The Angel of His Presence”

Jesus says of all the holy angels: “In heaven their angels always behold the face of My Father” (Mt 18:10). Therefore, all the holy angels can be called “angels of His face”. Even philosophically we can say that every faithful angel reflects and reveals the face of God. This is a sign of holiness. As such, all holy angels are no where but “in His presence.” The Catechism teaches: “‘Heaven’ refers to the saints and the ‘place’ of spiritual creatures, the angels, who surround God” (CCC 326).

Here however, the Prophet speaks of an individual angel. It is for that reason not necessary to think of an angel of a superior order. We might recall the two archangels who presented themselves personally. St. Raphael said to Tobit and Tobias: “I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels who…enter into the presence of the glory of the Holy One” (Tob 12:15). And St. Gabriel described himself in a just a slightly different way: “I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God” (Lk 1:19). Some translators read our text here as: “The angel sent from His presence.” The majority, however, understand “the angel of His face” to mean that God’s face was seen in this angel’s face, or that God’s name and perfections appeared through this angel (see St. John’s reaction before the angel, Rev 19:10 and 22:9). See also the observation of the Jews who disputed with Stephen: “Gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15).    

b) Model of Man’s Sanctity

The two expressions, “the angel of His presence” and “...of His face,” affirm that the holy angels live constantly in dependence on God and do nothing without His will. They are like Jesus, Who most perfectly   “reflects the Glory of God” (Heb 1:3) and says of Himself: “I do as the Father has commanded Me” (Jn 14:31). This description unites the two essential attitudes of the holy angels: They fix their gaze (faces) on the face of God, adoring and contemplating Him; they are also unconditionally ready to be sent anywhere and to do whatever God asks them to do. Such constant union with God is the great goal of all Christian life, even more so of us priests, and particularly of all those devoted to the holy angels (cf. J. Ratzinger, On the Way to Jesus Christ, Ignatius Press, 2005, pp. 13-31: “The Face of Christ”).

This presentation of the prophet Isaiah encourages us to seek God with the help of our angelic brothers. They are holy persons, deeply immersed in God. And in the name of God they surround us and save us from many dangers. Esteem and confidence, gratitude and love should motivate us to draw nearer to them, particularly to the “the angel of His presence”. We can and should strive for a deeper contact and union with the holy angels. For as St. Thomas Aquinas points out, the greatest commandment, “the friendship of charity also [includes] the angels” (Summa Theo. II-II, Q. 25 a. 10). Friends “grow” in union with each other and assimilate each other’s attitudes. Friendship with “the angel of His presence” lifts up our mind and heart and takes us into the presence of God. There, the face of God shines upon us, His love and will, His goodness and peace. The company of the “the angel of His presence” will help us to walk more faithfully in the presence of God and, with time, even to reflect the divine attributes and become an “angel of His face.” Then we too will reveal Him to others.

Further, this holy angel must be interested in Eucharistic Adoration. Man is there face to face with the Eucharistic Lord, our God, as the angels are in heaven. The transforming communication in the presence of God in heaven is certainly intended by Jesus in His Eucharistic presence.

4. Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

Does an “Angel of the presence of God” not recall to us our priestly identity and mission? Jesus said to Philip: “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9); should He not be able to say to anyone of us, His representatives: “He who sees my priests sees Me!”? It can be said, although in a different way, of the “angel of the presence of God”. With his help we will certainly persevere more faithfully before God in prayer and in interior recollection, will find greater clarity about the will of God in all we have to say and do, and become more and more transparent for Our Lord and His Father. With the help of this angel and all the holy angels it will be easier for us to live in the presence of God and according God’s expectations!

Fr. Titus Kieninger ORC