The Bible talks a lot about the “heavenly host”, “LORD of Hosts“, “host of heaven”, “heaven’s armies”, etc., depending on the translation. The Old Testament has many references about gods and God. While there is One God, maker of heaven and earth, who established a relationship with the nation of Israel, the Biblical writers clearly reference the other “gods.”
This phrasing freaks modern people out. If you use the biblical language to talk about other gods, modern people will start to hyperventilate and talk about how you’re a polytheist. They see “gods” in scripture and declare that really, the passage is talking about “men.” Not kidding. Had a discussion on Facebook where the “gods” in Psalm 82 were declared vehemently by many people to be “humans.”
If they were humans, the writer would have indicated that. Instead, the writer indicated “gods.” And that’s not the only place. “Gods” is the correct translation in over 200 instances, in the English Standard Version translation. In many cases, the writer has in mind specific spiritual entities that people were worshiping and which had actual power. They are spirits and they are not God, but being worshipped, they were called gods. Moses plainly states in Deut 32 that these “gods” are demons. 1
When I reference “divine beings”, I always mean entities that reside naturally in the spirit realm. And yet people often argue, “there are no such thing as divine beings. There’s only God.”
Yes, there is God. And there are other spirit beings that reside in heaven and in the spirit realm: divine beings.
The Bible Can Be Trusted
Here’s an idea: let’s take the bible on it’s terms, instead of projecting our modern ideas onto it. The Bible reveals an amazing amount of information about the spirit world; fully a third of it involves visions and dreams: stuff recorded by Seers!
What the Bible reveals about the spirit world and God’s sovereignty goes a long way to helping us understand the spiritual authority God has delegated to humans (particularly Christians) on the earth, as well as the authority he had delegated to other spiritual powers in the past.
Here’s a great introductory article about these concepts. As you read it, allow your mind to be transported to another time, another place, a different culture, a different worldview. Not a superstitious worldview, but one which embraced the reality of the spirit realm… a realm which seers can sometimes peer into. Thanks to Logos Bible Software for making this article available, and to Cris Putnam who pointed it out to me.
The Divine Assembly
E. T. Mullen Jr., “Divine Assembly,” ABD 2:214–17; idem, The Divine Council in Canaanite and Early Hebrew Literature (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1980).
The Bible presents us with an earthly world and a heavenly world, two interconnected-and sometimes indistinguishable-stages on which the biblical drama takes place. The view of the heavenly world focuses primarily on the divine throne room and related elements of divine royalty. This is the imagery of transcendence adapted by the Bible from its cultural environment. The gods of the ancient Near East were not spoken of in abstract terms-as theologians today might speak of divine sovereignty, omnipotence, omnipresence or aseity-they were vividly imaged in the language of kingship and warfare, love and fertility, house building and banqueting. And so also for Israel, to “do” theology was to tell God’s story and to fashion images and metaphors that both rightly described their subject and engaged the imagination. The theologians of the Bible-its poets and prophets, chroniclers and sages-borrowed, refashioned and subverted the images and symbols of the gods of their neighboring cultures. Their audiences expected to be offered glimpses of the heavenly court as a means of understanding the ways of God.
The Divine Assembly in its Cultural Setting. In Mesopotamian and Canaanite religion it was customary to speak of the high gods as kingly figures. Such a god was imagined to be enthroned in a heavenly palace (on which his earthly temple was modeled). The god had a heavenly assembly, or council, a deliberative body invested with the task of guiding the fate of the cosmos (see Cosmology). In the Mesopotamian myth of Enuma Elish, the gods are presided over by the high god Anu. In a Canaanite texts from Ugarit, we find the high god El presiding over the major and minor gods and addressing them as “gods” or “my sons.” Israel speaks of Yahweh as a heavenly king who presides over his council. But in the OT we find the status of the “gods” subverted, for they are demoted to subservient figures, frequently called angels or spirits.
The dwelling place of God is imaged as a cosmic mountain, which in Canaanite mythology is Mount Zaphon in north Syria, the dwelling place of the gods. Isaiah condemns the hubris of the king of Babylon as he deigns to set his throne “on the mount of assembly in the far north” and make himself “like the Most High” (Is 14:13 RSV). In the OT, God has chosen Zion as the site for his temple-palace. As the earthly counterpart to his heavenly dwelling place, Zion is called the “holy mountain of God” (Ezek 28:14, 16). It is “beautiful in elevation, … the joy of all the earth, Mount Zion, in the far north, the city of the great King” (Ps 48:2 RSV; cf. Ps 46:4). Thus in the biblical imagination the Canaanite mountain of the gods is displaced and the status of “holy mountain” and “mount of the assembly” is transferred to Zion. If Zion’s present elevation is admittedly not as grand as Mount Hermon and other mountains to the north, in the last days “the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains” (Is 2:2–4; Mic 4:1–3 RSV). Since it is the seat of the divine assembly, “out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” and from there God “shall judge between the nations” (Is 2:3–4; Mic 4:2–3 RSV).
The divine assembly is the celestial counterpart to the social institution of the “elders in the gate” (e.g., Deut 21:19; Ruth 4:1–11; Ps 107:32; Prov 31:23). It is a board of advisors or counselors with whom the supreme deity consults, an “assembly of the holy ones” (Ps 98:5). In context of war, its members can be called the “hosts,” or “army” of heaven, who engage in divine warfare under the “Lord of Hosts” (see Divine Warrior). Psalm 82 evokes the scene of the divine assembly: “God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment” (Ps 82:1 RSV). But in this case God is displeased with the members of the divine assembly. The assembly cowers as God hauls them onto the royal carpet: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?” (Ps 82:2 RSV). For their heedlessness toward the weak and needy as well as their other shortcomings, God pronounces judgment on them: “I said, ‘You are ”gods“; you are all sons of the Most High.’ But you will die like mere men; you will fall like every other ruler” (Ps 82:6–7 NIV).
Divine Assembly and Prophetic Messengers. The story of the prophet Micaiah ben Imlah in 1 Kings 22 offers a fascinating glimpse of deliberation within the heavenly council. On the earthly plane, Ahab, the king of Israel, is deliberating with Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah, over whether they should attack Ramoth Gilead. They inquire of the fawning court prophets, who heartily agree that they should attack. But then they inquire of Micaiah, who is always heedless of the party line, Micaiah speaks of his vision of the divine council:
“I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; and the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-Gilead?’ And one said one thing, and another said another. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ And the Lord said to him, ‘By what means?’ And he said, ‘I will go forth, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go forth and do so.’ ” (1 Kings 22:19–22 RSV)
This imagery of the prophet having access to the divine council-and being a messenger for the council-clarifies the “call” scene of the prophet Isaiah. In Isaiah 6 the prophet has a vision of “the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple” (Is 6:1 RSV). Here the earthly temple provides entrance to the heavenly temple (complete with marvelous creatures attending the throne), and the heavenly kingship of Yahweh is juxtaposed with the earthly kingship of Uzziah (Is 6:1). Struck by the wondrous sight of Yahweh the king and overcome with a sense of personal and corporate sin, Isaiah receives forgiveness. He then hears the Lord deliberating before his council: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” The response comes not from a “god” within the divine assembly but from Isaiah himself, “Here I am! Send me.” And the Lord responds, “Go, and say to this people …” (Is 6:8–9 RSV). Likewise we should perhaps understand Isaiah 40:1–2-“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem” (RSV)—as words uttered by Yahweh to the heralds assembled in divine council. The voice of the heavenly herald then cries out, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord” (Is 40:3 RSV).
The Assembly of Gods and Angels. It is clear that the Bible does not regard the “gods” of the divine assembly as peers of God: “There is none like thee among the gods, O Lord” (Ps 86:8 RSV; cf. Ps 135:5). “For who in the skies can be compared to the Lord? Who among the heavenly beings is like the Lord, a God feared in the council of the holy ones, great and terrible above all that are round about him?” (Ps 89:6–7 RSV; cf. Ps 29:1; 97:7; 138:1). Although among Israel’s neighbors these gods were clearly regarded as deities, later Judaism came to speak of them as high-ranking angels. In keeping with this view, the LXX often translates these “sons of God” or even “gods” as angels (Deut 32:8; Ps 8:5; 138:1 [LXX 137:1]). The NT often follows the LXX, so that “thou hast made him a little less than God” (or “gods,” Ps 8:5) appears as “a little lower than the angels” in Hebrews 2:7.
In the book of Job the divine assembly plays a role near the outset. It provides the background for understanding “the Satan” who enters on “a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord” (Job 1:6 RSV). In Job, Satan is not presented as the evil spiritual being we come to know in the NT but as one who plays a legal role in the heavenly court as “the accuser.” Even though he is not loyal to God, Satan, by virtue of his rank as a divine being, is permitted to appear at meetings of the council on a day when “the sons of God” come to present themselves before the Lord (Job 1:6; 2:1). Satan’s role as “accuser” requires this (Zech 3:1; Rev 12:10).
Another picture of the divine council is offered in Daniel 7. Here the scene is more highly developed. The council assembles for judgment of the great empires of the earth, depicted as dreadful monsters. As Daniel “looks” in his vision, he sees “thrones” placed and the “ancient of days,” with raiment “white as snow” and hair “like pure wool” taking his seat on a throne of “fiery flames, its wheels … burning with fire” and issuing forth “a stream of fire” (Dan 7:9–10 RSV). The council is attended by a stunning myriad of heavenly beings: “a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him” (Dan 7:10 RSV). Their business is to render judgment, and the books are opened. The result is that the dominion of the beasts is taken away, with the final beast causing a great commotion and then being executed (Dan 7:11). Then, on a cloud chariot, “one like a son of man” arrives at the assembly. This being, representing the “saints of the Most High” (Dan 7:27 RSV), is honored by the council with universal and eternal sovereignty (Dan 7:14). When the scene concludes, Daniel, his head spinning from the spectacle, approaches one of those standing in the assembly and inquires about the meaning of this event. A full explanation ensues (Dan 7:15–28). This fully elaborated vision of the divine assembly is a prototype for many later scenes of divine assembly and throne room in Jewish apocalyptic literature.
The Divine Assembly in the New Testament. In the NT the inner circle of the divine assembly consists of angels who surround the heavenly throne. The primary theme is worship, and there is an implied understanding that the worship of the church mirrors the worship of heaven. In Colossians 2:18 Paul exhorts the Colossian believers not to be influenced by those who place heavy demands on their access to the “worship of angels,” that is, the heavenly worship conducted by angels within the heavenly assembly (this meaning is more likely than “worship directed toward angels”). Paul warns against those who advocate a rigorous asceticism that purports to offer access to this heavenly worship (Col 2:20–23). Instead, Paul uses the imagery of believers being “raised with Christ” and setting their hearts on “things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (Col 3:1 NIV). Paul reminds the Philippians of their heavenly citizenship (Phil 3:20) and the Ephesians are blessed “in the heavenly realms” (Eph 1:3), for “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:6 NIV).
But the divine assembly is most fully developed in the book of Revelation. In Revelation 4–5 the seer enters the heavenly throne room where he first observes God the Father seated on a throne and attended by four living creatures who ceaselessly sing his praise (Rev 4:6–8). In a further circle around the throne are twenty-four thrones (Rev 4:4) on which are seated twenty-four elders, angelic figures who fall down in reverence and cast their crowns before the throne, singing of the glory and majesty of God. In the hand of the one seated on the throne is a scroll that no one is worthy to open except for a Lamb “as though it had been slain” (RSV), standing between the throne and the circle of four living creatures (Rev 5:5–7).
The Lamb receives the same worship from the heavenly assembly as does the one on the throne, and the assembly enlarges to include angels “numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands” and then to encompass the entire cosmos as “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all therein” join in the heavenly praise (Rev 5:11, 13 RSV). In a further scene we find 144,000 martyrs “who have come through the great tribulation” (Rev 7:14 RSV) joining the heavenly praise as they stand before the throne and the Lamb, praising God and the Lamb (Rev 7:9–12). In Revelation 14:1–5 the 144,000 appear again as a great army of saints accompanying the Lamb on Mount Zion.
The divine assembly in Revelation 4–5 is highly developed and transformed in comparison with the scenes we find in the OT, with its closest point of contact being Daniel 7. The emphasis on heavenly worship, is recapitulated in Revelation 19:1–8, though the motif of deliberation is present with the question of who will open the scroll (Rev 5:2–5) and takes more prominence in the judgment scene of Revelation 20. There we learn of “thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge” (Rev 20:4 NIV) and of a judgment that takes place before a “great white throne” (Rev 20:11–15). These heavenly assemblies are intimately linked to the destiny of the earth, its inhabitants and the spiritual world. Here, as in the OT, what transpires in the heavenly council has great consequences for the course of cosmic events.
See also Angel; Assembly, Human; Divine Warrior; Gods, Goddesses; Judgment; Prophet, Prophetess; Royal Court; Worship.
OT OT. Old Testament
- RSV RSV. Revised Standard Version
- cf. cf.. compare
- e.g. e.g.. for example
- NIV NIV. New International Version
- LXX LXX. Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament)
- NT NT. New Testament
- ABD ABD. Anchor Bible Dictionary
- Leland Ryken, Jim Wilhoit, Tremper Longman et al., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000, c1998), 50.
- Some ancient Hebrew words in certain contexts are confusing, with respect to if they refer to living humans, giants, or demons or other kinds of spirits (the Hebrew word rephaim, for instance), and I certainly have nothing to add to that scholarly discussion. ↩