Who is the "angel," referred to in Exodus 23:20-23?


Exodus 23:20-23 reads, in the Authorized Version:

“Behold, I send an Angel before thee, to keep thee in the way, and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared. Beware of him, and obey his voice, provoke him not; for he will not pardon your transgressions: for my name is in him. But if thou shalt indeed obey his voice, and do all that I speak; then I will be an enemy unto thine enemies, and an adversary unto thine adversaries. For mine Angel shall go before thee, and bring thee in unto the Amorites, and the Hittites, and the Perizzites, and the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites: and I will cut them off.”

Much has been speculated as to the identity of the “Angel.” We should note, first, that these words are spoken by “the LORD” (compare Exodus 20:22). The Hebrew word for “angel” is “mal-ak” and means “messenger.” It can have reference to a human messenger, an angelic being, or God Himself, depending on the context. In Malachi 3:1, “the LORD” is referred to as the “Messenger of the covenant.” The specific reference in that passage is to Jesus Christ–not God the Father. The designation “LORD” can refer to both God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son–again, it is a matter of context. In most cases, the Hebrew word for “LORD” refers to Jesus Christ–but not always.

In Hebrews 1:10, Paul cites an Old Testament Scripture, speaking of Jesus Christ, the Son, and calling Him “LORD.” On the other hand, Peter cites an Old Testament Scripture in Acts 2:34, speaking of God the Father and calling Him “LORD.”

Turning to the passage in Exodus 23, some claim that the “Angel” spoken of in that Scripture is the archangel Michael, the “great prince who stands watch over the sons of your people” (Daniel 12:1). Others claim that the “Angel” is identical with the “Angel of the LORD,” spoken of in many Biblical passages, for instance in Exodus 3:2, where the “Angel of the LORD” appeared to Moses in the midst of the burning bush. The “Angel of the LORD” is also referred to as the “Angel of God” in Exodus 14:19. In both cases, the reference is to Jesus Christ, the “Messenger” of the LORD, God the Father.

Let us consider who it was who accompanied the Israelites on their journey through the wilderness. We read in 1 Corinthians 10:4: “For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ.” We see, then, that it was Christ, the “Messenger” of God the Father, who led the Israelites. The “Angel,” as mentioned in Exodus 23, who was sent before them, appears to be none other than Christ, “the Messenger.”

It is noteworthy that Jesus said that no one has ever seen the form of God the Father, nor heard His voice (John 1:18; 5:37). However, the ancients saw the form and heard the voice of the second member of the God Family–that of the Son, Jesus Christ (Exodus 24:9-11; Numbers 12:5-8). Still, if the passage in Exodus 23:20 refers to Christ as the “Angel” or better “Messenger,” then the words which were spoken by the LORD to Moses were obviously the words of the Father, who said that He would send His Messenger, Jesus Christ, before the Israelites. But since no human being has ever heard the voice of the Father, the Father did not directly speak to Moses; rather, Jesus Christ communicated those words. He only spoke what the Father told Him to speak (compare John 14:24). Therefore, Christ communicated the words of the Father to Moses, when He told him that the Father would send His Angel or Messenger before the Israelites.

We find a similar account in the book of Revelation. We read that the Revelation came from God the Father, but He gave it to Christ “to show His servants… things which must shortly take place” (Revelation 1:1). In that case, Christ did not speak directly to John, but sent an angel to communicate the message of God the Father, which had been delivered to Christ.

Let us also remember what happened when John the Baptist baptized Jesus Christ. We read in Matthew 3:17: “And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.'”

As we know from other Scriptures, this was not God the Father who spoke, but, in that case, an angel. However, it was what God wanted conveyed through His representative or messenger. This example shows that when God the Father is quoted, His words are spoken exactly as if He is personally being heard!

Consider as well the vision that Peter, James and John experienced with Jesus. In this account, a voice speaking in the first person is heard by these disciples: “…a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!'” (Matthew 17:5). Peter later on made reference to this experience speaking of “such a voice” and “this voice” (compare 2 Peter 1:17-18). Again, it was an angel who spoke in that instance–not the Father–but the angel communicated the exact words of God the Father.

This Biblical pattern helps us to understand the passage in Exodus 23, as in this case, God the Father’s words were conveyed by God the Son–that is “the LORD.”

Let us note how many commentaries feel that the reference to the “Angel,” in Exodus 23:20-23, is a reference to the LORD Himself.

The Scoffield Bible states in a footnote to Judges 2:1, where the phrase, “angel of the LORD,” is used:

“He is named the ‘angel of the LORD…’ (Gen. 16:7), ‘the angel of God’ (Gen. 21:17), ‘the angel of his [God’s] presence’ (Isa. 63:9), and… ‘the messenger [angel] of the covenant’ (Mal. 3:1)… He is clearly identified with the LORD Himself… In Gen. 31:11-13 the angel said to Jacob, ‘I am the God of Bethel.’ In Ex. 3:2-6 the same angel said to Moses,’ I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham.'”

However, even though many commentaries understand that the terminology “angel of the LORD,” can refer to God Himself, some don’t seem to understand that God did NOT manifest Himself in or through an angel. Jesus Christ, the second member of the God Family, dealt directly with Moses and the Israelites. Christ is not an “angel,” but the divine Messenger of, or Spokesman for God the Father.

The Ryrie Study Bible states:

“Most likely the Angel of the Lord [was] the Lord Himself, though He was represented by His leaders, Moses and, later, Joshua.”

These comments allow for an additional possible explanation; namely, that the “Angel” or better “angel” is a reference to a human leader. Taken it in this way, God would have been telling the Israelites (Note that He used the plural word, “thee,” not the singular word, “thou”): “Provoke him not and obey his voice, because I will tell him what to say, and I will lead you into the Promised Land.”

The tragic story is that the Israelites did not obey Moses, and as a consequence, they did not enter the Promised Land. A similar incident, when the word “angel” could refer to angelic beings or human leaders, can be found in passages such as Revelation 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14. Please also note that the meaning of the name of the prophet Malachi is, “My Messenger.”

However, Clarke, in his commentary, explains the meaning of Exodus 23:20 as follows:

“Some have thought that this [reference to the Angel was a reference to] Moses, others Joshua, because the word ‘malach’ signifies an angel or messenger; but… it is more likely that the great Angel of the Covenant, the Lord Jesus Christ, is meant, in whom dwelt all the fullness of the Godhead bodily. We have had already much reason to believe that this glorious personage often appeared in a human form to the patriarchs… Nor does it appear that the description given of the Angel in the text can belong to any other person.”

Gill’s Commentary agrees with the foregoing, stating:

“Not a created angel, but the uncreated one, the Angel of God’s presence, that was with the Israelites at Sinai, and in the wilderness; who saved, redeemed, bore, and carried them all the days of old, whom they rebelled against and tempted in the wilderness; as appears by all the characters after given of him, which by no means agree with a created angel… Philo the Jew… applies the word unto the divine Logos [the “Word,” Jesus Christ, compare John 1:1, 14], and says,”he (God) uses the divine Word as the guide of the way; for the oracle is, ‘behold, I send my Angel.'”

From all the evidence, it is very likely that the reference to the “Angel” in Exodus 23:20 refers to the uncreated God being Jesus Christ–the Logos; the Son of God; the Messenger of God the Father. (However, the explanation that the “angel” could refer to a literal angel like the archangel Michael or even to human leaders, such as Moses or Joshua, has some merit, because they also functioned in “messenger” roles.)

If the terminology of “angel” or messenger” in Exodus 23:20 applies to Christ, then Christ, when talking to Moses, communicated the words of the Father, telling Moses and the Israelites that the Father would send His Son, Jesus Christ, to lead them through the wilderness to the Promised Land. The ancient Israelites failed, but the Church of God–spiritual Israel–must do better and follow their leader–Jesus Christ–to the Promised Land of the Kingdom of God, without provoking Him to anger, but rather, by obeying Him fully and completely.

Lead Writer: Norbert Link

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