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A Three-Tiered Divine Council?

Examining What the Holy Bible Really Teaches About the Heavenly Congregation

The inspired Scriptures reveal that God presides over a heavenly council, whose members include various spirit creatures, specifically angels. There are some biblical scholars that believe that this council not only consists of angelic beings, but also another group of spirit creatures that they call the sons of God. In their view, the heavenly sons of God are a different class of beings from the angelic ones. These same authorities also claim that these spirit beings are subordinate deities, gods of a lesser kind, whom the one true God created.

One OT scholar who espouses such a view is Michael S. Heiser. Here is what he has to say concerning this issue:

The Structure of the Divine Council. The divine council at Ugarit may have had four tiers, but the evidence is not conclusive (Smith, Origins, 41–53). A three-tiered understanding may be better.

The top tier consisted of El and his wife Athirat (Asherah). The second tier was the domain of their royal family (“sons of El”; “princes”). One member of this second tier, Baal, served as the co-regent of El. Despite being under El’s authority, he was called “most high” (Wyatt, “Titles”). A third tier was for “craftsman deities,” while the fourth and lowest tier was reserved for the messengers (mlʾkm), essentially servants or staff (Cho, Lesser Deities).

There is solid evidence in the Hebrew Bible for a three-tiered council. In the divine council of Israelite religion, Yahweh was the supreme authority over a divine bureaucracy that included a second tier of lesser… (elohim), also called “the sons of God” (… beney elim… beney ha’elohim, or… beney elohim) or “sons of the Most High” (… beney elyon). It may be significant that these “sons of God” are never clearly referred to as angels (… mal’akhim) in the Hebrew Bible, as that word denoted the lowest tier of the Canaanite council, and thus a third tier in the Israelite version. Still, mlʾkm at Ugarit were considered gods, despite their subordinate role. It is possible that… (mal’akhim) are referred to as… (elohim) in the Hebrew Bible.

In Israel’s divine council, the highest tier is different from the Canaanites’ conception. Instead of El and Baal, his vice-regent, Yahweh occupied both slots in a sort of binitarian godhead (Heiser, “Divine Council”). Yahweh is described in the Hebrew Bible by means of titles and abilities that both El and Baal have in Canaanite literature—these two were conceptually fused in Yahweh. This literary and theological device shows Yahweh superior to the two main divine authority figures in wider Canaanite religion. (Heiser, Divine Council and Biblical Theology http://www.thedivinecouncil.com/DivineCouncilLBD.pdf; underline emphasis ours)

Contrary to Heiser’s claim, the evidence is flimsy since there’s certainly nothing in the Holy Bible that places these so-called sons of God in a higher tier than God’s angels. In fact, there isn’t even a single place in holy Scripture where we find a group of spirit creatures identified as the sons of God that are then distinguished from God’s heavenly messengers. Heiser is importing this notion from sources outside of the canon of Scripture into his reading of these sacred writings. It is not something he derives from a sound interpretation of what the Holy Bible teaches as a whole.

According to the God-breathed Scriptures, the heavenly assembly consists of the following beings:

Jehovah God Almighty, whom the Bible identifies as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (cf. Matthew 28:19; 2 Corinthians 13:14).

The Twenty-four elders.

The four living creatures, which are the same class of being as the seraphim/cherubim.

The myriads of angels.

The spirits of those who have died in Christ (cf. Hebrews 12:22-24).

In this post I am going to show that the sons of God are not some different group of creatures from angels, but rather they are the angelic creatures of heaven.

God’s angelic host

The sacred Scripture often makes reference to the host of LORD/God/heaven:

“He said, ‘No; rather I indeed come now as captain of the host of the Lord.’ And Joshua fell on his face to the earth, and bowed down, and said to him, ‘What has my lord to say to his servant?’” Joshua 5:13 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

“And Micaiah said, ‘Therefore hear the word of the Lord: 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 out, 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 out and do so.” Now therefore behold, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has declared disaster for you.’” 1 Kings 22:19-23 – cf. 2 Chronicles 18:18-22

“You are the Lord, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you.” Nehemiah 9:6

“It grew great, even to the host of heaven. And some of the host and someof the stars it threw down to the ground and trampled on them. It became great, even as great as the Prince of the host. And the regular burnt offering was taken away from him, and the place of his sanctuary was overthrown.” Daniel 8:10-11

In the following texts, God’s angels are seen to be synonymous with his hosts:

“The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all. Bless the Lord, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his word, obeying the voice of his word! Bless the Lord, all his hosts, his ministers, who do his will!” Psalm 103:20-21

“Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights! Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his hosts!” Psalm 148:1-2

The myriads and myriads of angels

The inspired Scriptures further identify the angels as the ten thousands and the myriads that accompany and attend Jehovah:

“He said, ‘The Lord came from Sinai and dawned from Seir upon us; he shone forth from Mount Paran; he came from the ten thousands of holy ones, with flaming fire at his right hand.’” Deuteronomy 33:2

“The chariots of God are twice ten thousand, thousands upon thousands; the Lord is among them; Sinai is now in the sanctuary.” Psalm 68:17

“As I looked, thrones were placed, and the Ancient of Days took his seat; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames; its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and came out from before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him; the court sat in judgment, and (L)the books were opened.” Daniel 7:9-10

“It was also about these that Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied, saying, ‘Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of his holy ones, to execute judgment on all and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him.’” Jude 1:14-15

“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering,” Hebrews 12:22

“Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’” Revelation 5:11-12

A further indication that the myriads are angels comes from the fact that the Scriptures explicitly identify Christ as the Lord Jehovah who comes with his myriads of holy ones, with those holy ones being none other than his angels:

“For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.” Matthew 16:27

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’” Matthew 25:31-34

“And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” Mark 13:26-27

“For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” Luke 9:26

“This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering—since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.” 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10

This leads me to my next point.

How many classes of heavenly spirit creatures are there?

The Holy Bible refers to two other groups of council members besides the angels, namely, the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures:

“Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?’ And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. And one of the elders said to me, ‘Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’ And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.’ Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’ And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’ And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ and the elders fell down and worshiped.” Revelation 5:1-14

John actually describes what these beings look like:

“After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.’ At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne. And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads. From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God, and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal. And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’ And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, ‘Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.’” Revelation 4:1-11

John depicts the four living creatures as looking and saying the very exact things that the prophet Isaiah said in respect to the seraphim before God’s throne,

“In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!’ And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’ Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.’” Isaiah 6:1-7

And what the prophet Ezekiel wrote concerning the cherubim:

“And I looked, and behold, there were four wheels beside the cherubim, one beside each cherub, and the appearance of the wheels was like sparkling beryl. And as for their appearance, the four had the same likeness, as if a wheel were within a wheel. When they went, they went in any of their four directions without turning as they went, but in whatever direction the front wheel faced, the others followed without turning as they went. And their whole body, their rims, and their spokes, their wings, and the wheels were full of eyes all around—the wheels that the four of them had. As for the wheels, they were called in my hearing ‘the whirling wheels.’ And every one had four faces: the first face was the face of the cherub, and the second face was a human face, and the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle… Then the glory of the Lord went out from the threshold of the house, and stood over the cherubim. And the cherubim lifted up their wings and mounted up from the earth before my eyes as they went out, with the wheels beside them. And they stood at the entrance of the east gate of the house of the Lord, and the glory of the God of Israel was over them. These were the living creatures that I saw underneath the God of Israel by the Chebar canal; and I knew that they were cherubim. Each had four faces, and each four wings, and underneath their wings the likeness of human hands. And as for the likeness of their faces, they were the same faces whose appearance I had seen by the Chebar canal. Each one of them went straight forward. Ezekiel 10:9-14, 18-22

This strongly suggests that the four living creatures are in fact the seraphim that Isaiah beheld and the cherubim that Ezekiel describes, which in turn means that the seraphim and cherubim are one and the same class of heavenly beings.

Notice what is missing from all these passages. There is not a single reference to another class of spirit creatures identified as the sons of God, which are distinguished from the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures, or from the myriads and myriads of angels. Such a category simply does not exist, let alone a three tier council. This is nothing other than an extra-biblical doctrine imported from ancient near eastern pagan beliefs, which scholars like Heiser are forced to read back into the text of inspired Scripture. It certainly isn’t derived from the sound exegesis of God’s perfect Word.

The Greek Versions of the OT and the Identity of the Sons of God

There are only five indisputable texts where the various Hebrew expressions translated as “the sons of God” (beney [ha] elim/elohim) clearly refer to heavenly beings, namely Job 1:6, 2:1, Psalm 29:1, and 89:6. The other passages are questionable due either to variant readings (cf. Deuteronomy 32:8), or a dispute on whether the context is actually referring to spiritual beings (cf. Genesis 6:2, 4; Deuteronomy 32:8; Psalm 82:6). This is insufficient data to conclude that the Hebrew Bible presents a three tier heavenly council in which the sons of God are placed within the second tier, with the angels being placed in the third and lowest tier.

That’s not all. In certain places of the Greek versions of the Hebrew Bible, commonly referred to as the Septuagint (LXX), these sons of God are identified as angels. Note, for instance, the following verses from Job:

“And it came to pass on a day, that behold, the angels of God (hoi angeloi tou Theou) came to stand before the Lord, and the devil came with them.” Job 1:6 – cf. 2:1

“When the stars were made, all my angels (pantes angeloi mou) praised me with a loud voice.” Job 38:7

Instead of supporting the position of scholars like Heiser, these renderings actually prove that the heavenly sons of God are the angels. Therefore, appealing to the LXX doesn’t help Heiser’s case at all, but actually ends up refuting his claim, and that of the scholars who agree with him, that the sons of God are not the same as God’s heavenly messengers.

To, therefore, sum up what we have discovered we learned that the heavenly council consists of:

The one true God Jehovah, who Scripture reveals eternally exists as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The twenty-four elders.

The four living creatures who are the same as the seraphim and cherubim.

The myriads of angels whom the Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible identify as the sons of God.

The spirits of the departed who died in union with the Lord Jesus Christ (see Hebrews 12:22-24, specifically v. 23).

Lord willing, in my next post I am going to examine whether the council members are actually identified as gods of a lesser sort, divine beings who are subordinate to the one true God of all.

Unless indicated otherwise, all Scriptural references taken from the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Holy Bible.

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