There are five texts in the Bible that speak of the angels’ role in the giving of the law at Sinai. The first occurs in the last recorded speech of the 120-year-old Moses, at the start of the penultimate chapter of the Pentateuch—his blessing of Israel—where he tells us that he saw angels on Sinai thirty-eight years ago: “The Lord came from Sinai, and rose up from Seir unto them; he shined forth from mount Paran, and he came with ten thousands of saints: from his right hand went a fiery law for them” (Deut. 33:2).
David made the other Old Testament reference to angels at the giving of the law: “The chariots of God are twenty thousand, even thousands of angels: the Lord is among them, as in Sinai, in the holy place” (Ps. 68:17). The psalmist tells us that “twenty thousand, even thousands of angels”—Moses refers to “ten thousands” (Deut. 33:2)—came as an army (“chariots”). Like Moses, David also emphasises the impressiveness and awesomeness of the angels on the holy mount. (The psalmist’s reference to “angels” makes it clear that the “saints” or holy ones in Deuteronomy 33:2 are heavenly messengers.)
The first believer recorded in the New Testament as referring to angels at Sinai is the deacon, disputer, apologist and martyr, Stephen. As part of his defence before the Sanhedrin, he stated that the Jews “received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it” (Acts 7:53). Here we learn that the angels were not only present at Mount Sinai but also that they had a role in the communication of the law to Moses.
Paul, battling against the Judaizers, provides the fourth biblical reference to angels at Mount Sinai: the law “was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator” (Gal. 3:19). The word here rendered “ordained” has the same Greek root as that translated “disposition” in Acts 7:53. The basic idea is that of arranging, ordering or appointing.
Hebrews 2:2, our fifth and final text, tells us not just that the law was given in the presence of angels (Deut. 33:2; Ps. 68:17) or that it was conveyed in an orderly way through angels (Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19), but that the law was actually “spoken” by angels (to Moses): “the word spoken by angels was stedfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompence of reward” (Heb. 2:2).
What was communicated by the angels here? Was it just the ten commandments or the whole body of law given at Sinai (cf. Ex. 19:1–Num. 10:10)? The answer is the latter, the whole body of the law. First, not only the decalogue was delivered at “Sinai” (Deut. 33:2; Ps. 68:17). Second, in his critique of apostate Judaism, Stephen meant that Israel had broken all the law and not just the ten commandments. Third, there is a comparison and contrast between the Old Testament law of Moses (not merely the decalogue) and the new covenant or gospel of Christ (Gal. 3:19; Heb. 2:2).
What are the roles of the various parties in the giving of the law? Perhaps, before reading this article, you thought: God to Moses to the people. But there is a fourth party too, making it: God to the angels to Moses to the people. In fact, a fifth party is also involved: Christ (Acts 7:38, cf. v. 30), “the messenger of the covenant” (Mal. 3:1). This is the complete chain of revelation: the Triune God (the sovereign Lord and author of the law) to Christ (the pre-incarnate Word) to the angels (who were present to order and speak the law) to Moses (the Old Testament mediator) to the people of God.
This is analogous to the book of Revelation. Revelation 1:1 teaches this chain of revelation: God to Christ to an angel (not angels) to John (not Moses) to the people of God. A close reading of Daniel 8-12 and Zechariah 1-6 will reveal something similar regarding God’s revelation given through these two prophets.
Why should we have expected angels at Mount Sinai? First, we read of them in connection with key events in the Bible, e.g., creation (Job 38:7), the birth of Jesus (Matt. 1-2; Luke 1-2), Christ’s resurrection (Matt. 28:2-7) and the Lord’s second coming (II Thess. 1:7). Second, angels frequently are present at theophanies or appearances of God (e.g., Isa. 6; Eze. 1) and this was the greatest theophany in the Old Testament with regard to time (almost a year; Ex. 19:1, cf. Num. 10:11), viewers (a whole nation of some two million or more) and several impressive features (e.g., the earthquake, fire, clouds and voice of God). Third, angels are often involved in revelation (Dan. 8-12; Zech. 1-6; Rev. 1-22) and this is the greatest revelation in the Old Testament, both in terms of its “amount” (cf. Ex. 19:1–Num. 10:10) and its foundational role. Fourth, the good angels are especially interested in justice, a corollary of Jehovah’s law given at Sinai. All the unfallen angels live in the presence of the holy God and are all personally sinless and righteous. They all know what it was like before sin entered heaven and earth. They saw the fall of Satan and his angels (and God’s punishment of them) and the fall of Adam and Eve (and God’s judgment upon the human race and the earthly creation). No angel has experienced or will ever experience forgiving mercy.
The nature and history of the good angels and their role at the giving of the law are in full accord with the Bible’s presentation of them as ministers of God’s justice. They are powerful and holy, often evoking, even in believers, fear or trembling or falling to the ground. Look out for this as you read God’s Word. Also you will find that in Scripture the justice they administer to the impenitent wicked is usually death!
- Volume: 13
- Issue: 20
Rev. Angust Stewart (Wife: Mary)
Ordained - 2001
Pastorates: Covenant Protestant Reformed Church of Ballymena, Northern Ireland - 2001Website: www.cprf.co.uk/
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