Beyond the archangels, there are a number of other celestial ranks that the Bible seems to note. Among these are the Principalities, the Powers, the Virtues, the Dominions, and the Thrones. While nothing is actually attributed to these ranks Biblically, commentators¹ have over the years inferred a number of responsibilities for each by looking to the scriptures for clues.²
In the minds of these scholars, we find the duties of each rank as such:
- The Principalities, also known as “Princedoms” and “Rulers,” are believed to be angels that oversee the going-ons of nations, people groups, and the church itself
- The Powers, sometimes known as “Authorities,” are tasked with supervision of the stars, planets, and other heavenly bodies, ensuring that the cosmos carry on in an orderly fashion; they also are believed to be responsible for many of the miracles and celestial signs we witness across our world
- The Dominions appear to be rulers over the lower ranks of angels, and they rarely make themselves known to the likes of man
- The Thrones are strange beings that are identified as living representations of God’s authority and justice; intriguingly, they may be described in the Bible, in the book of Ezekiel, being said to appear as a pair of wheel-like elements, one within the other, emerald-like in color, and covered in eyes on every surface!
Now, as I said earlier, the exact duties and responsibilities of each of these four celestial ranks come not from the Bible itself, but from the mind of man as it interprets the scriptures. It could most certainly be wrong.
Now we come to two of the strangest angels that the Bible notes, and much to our benefit, there are descriptions of their build, and from the scriptures associated with each, their duties appear to be much more confidently known. Behold the cherubim and seraphim!
If ever there was a form of angel that strikes fear into the hearts of men, it would be the cherubim. Singularly they are known as cherubs, and no, these are not the cute, cupid-like babies that decorate renaissance art and valentine’s day card. That imagery is actually an old deviation. No, in reality cherubim were imposing celestial creatures, and as Ezekiel describes, manlike but possessing calf-like legs, four arms, four wings, and four faces (one on each side of the head, with one being that of a man, one that of a lion, one that of an ox, and one that of an eagle)! They were colored like burning coals or shiny, burnished brass, and covering their whole bodies, like that of the Thrones, were countless eyes!
The role of the cherubim appears to have been that of guardians and even divine beasts of burden. Early on, in Genesis 3, cherubim armed with flaming swords were places at the gate to the Garden of Eden to protect the way to the Tree of Life within. In Ezekiel and the Psalms, they appear to be like mounts for God, carrying his throne. Interestingly, their appearance in Ezekiel describes them as being situated near the Thrones, or Ophanim, that we have looked at already.
-Engraving of the “chariot vision” of the Biblical book of Ezekiel, featuring the artist’s concept of a Cherub and a Throne, by Matthäus Merian (1593-1650)-
Now, there is a school of thought that holds that cherubs are not in fact angels but rather some form of celestial creature. This notion seems to be easily dismissed however when we consider that one of the most hated figures in history was described as being both an angel and a cherub. Who was this individual? Lucifer, the first of the fallen. Lucifer, also known as Satan, the Devil, etc, is referred to in Ezekiel 28 as the “guardian cherub,” noting his presence and his role in the Garden as the apparent overseer of that place until his ambition and pride dethroned him. Bear this in mind the next time you see a silly little caricature of a red man with horns and a pitchfork: the Devil instead is much more frightening!
The next and final class of angels are the seraphim. Apparently, these creatures make up the highest and most prestigious rank of the celestial hierarchy, not only being extremely graceful in their appearance but also residing right near the side of God Himself!
The most relevant mention of the characteristics of seraphim come to us in Isaiah 6:2-3:
“Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.”
Six-winged creatures flying near the throne of God! One pair provides lift, with another pair of wings are used to shield their eyes from the intense holiness of the Lord, and the last pair of wings used to cover their feet (something traditionally viewed as dirty or unclean) from Him. Strange creatures already, yet even stranger are the details that yet remain.
-Серафим, via Wikicommons –
The name seraphim is derived from a root (Saraph – שָׂרָף) meaning “burning ones,” “venomous,” “serpent,” or even “dragon,” and it may be a reference not to some physical feature but rather fast, extremely agile and powerful motions and reflexes. Alternatively, some scholars have inferred that the seraphim may in fact possess features akin to serpents, at least the pre-fall variation of that kind of creature.
Bearing that in mind, when we consider how Satan became a serpent in Genesis 3, ultimately using that form to deceive Adam and Eve, one is left wondering if Satan in fact chose that form as a slap in God’s face. Could It be that he chose the earthly serpent, not necessarily because of the beauty and ability that it possessed (as noted in Genesis 3), but rather because something about them reflected those angels closed to God, the seraphim? It is an intriguing, if ultimately unanswerable, notion.
One honorable mention before moving in, we read in Revelation 4 about 4 heavenly beasts. While there are certainly features described that make them sound like cherubs, other aspects of their build, indeed their very proximity to God, make them a bit like seraphs. Consider them for yourself:
“And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.” (Revelation 4:6-8)
As to what they are, your guess is as good as mine, but I feel they may be seraphim. This is my opinion, so take it or leave it.
Now, looking back at all those ranks of angels we discussed, indeed considering the wide range of features they are said to have possessed, from in beautiful, if relatively mundane, malakim to the wildly unusual cherubim, we are left with a final thought: Are these in fact what these celestial beings look like, or is there much more to their composition? Do not forget that we are discussing spiritual beings, things that seemingly possess no natural, physical body as we do. As such, could it be that all those forms they appear to take are not necessarily natural to them, but rather symbolic of their abilities or standing with God? Consider the various forms that are said to be covered in eyes. Could these apparent eyes be not function in the natural sense but rather a projection to the viewer of their ability to “see,” to perhaps perceive energies, both good and bad, around them that normal, physical creatures may be more apt to miss?
Paraphrasing Pseudo-Dionysius from his De Coelesti Hierarchia (On the Celestial Hierarchies), could it be that angels do not naturally look like lions and eagles and horses but rather our limited minds, unable to fully perceive or even comprehend the depth and majesty of those high realms above, formulate them as such, assembling in our own way figures to ground that majesty to our world, making them more accessible to our current physical capacities? Could it be that those golden creatures of light and fire are nothing like what we perceive them as, nothing like what we could even imagine? I suppose time will be the judge, for one day we all shall see them, indeed the entirety of that world beyond our ken?
- Namely Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and Thomas Aquinas
- “Christian Angelology,” From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Feel free to share this article using the buttons below, and as always, if you enjoy what you read here, I’d love to know!
Thank you very much, and God bless!