From A Catalogue of Angels
He will order his angels
to guard you wherever you go.
They will carry you in their hands
lest you hurt your foot on a stone.
(Psalm 91:11-12, Tanakh)
One of the most popular beliefs about angels is that they protect us from harm. The vast majority of present-day accounts of angelic encounters have to do with people’s being snatched from death: invisible hands pulling a person out of the path of an oncoming car, a child being led by a light or voice or a kind stranger out of harm’s way. In one account, a mountain climber lost in a blizzard is spared twice from falling over precipices by railroad crossing signs that appear out of nowhere and then disappear.
The Christian belief in guardian angels is based in part on a statement Jesus made in Matthew 18:10: Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in Heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in Heaven. In the book of Genesis, the patriarch Jacob, when he is near death, offers a blessing upon Joseph: The God before whom my ancestors Abraham and Isaac walked, / the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, / the angel who has redeemed me from all harm, bless the boys.
Saint Basil wrote, We pray to God who is well disposed toward men in order that he might give an angel of peace as a companion to protect us. And also, An angel is put in charge of every believer, provided we do not drive him out by sin. He guards the soul like an army.
Belief in guardian angels is long established in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim doctrines about angels. In Jewish lore and tradition, each person is guarded by not one but thousands of angels. It is also believed that each person has one angel on his left and another on his right. Early church fathers proclaimed that every person was assigned a guardian angel at birth that accompanied the person throughout life. The Qur’an states that each person has an angel in front of him and one behind.
The nations were believed to have their guardian angels as well. These angels are called ethnarchs or archons. Saints Basil and John Chrysostom, and Pseudo-Dionysius are among the early Christian thinkers who were convinced that, based on scriptures such as Deuteronomy 32:8 and Daniel 10:13-21, each nation had its guardian angel who not only watched over a people in the physical sense but was held responsible for the spiritual direction they took. This belief certainly predated the Christian church, originating with the ancient Jewish teaching if not earlier.
Beyond guardian angels are those sent to rescue people, especially righteous people, who are in danger. When the three Hebrew youths are thrown into the fiery furnace in Daniel 3, a fourth “man” appears, looking different from the others – witnesses recognize him as looking like “a divine being.” A few chapters later, when Daniel is thrown into the lions’ den, an angel comes to shut the lion’s mouths, and Daniel survives the night.
In one story, a misguided prophet is rescued from his own plans. Balaam is on his way to meet with Balak, who wants the prophet to curse the people of Israel and thus protect the interests of Balak’s tribe. Balaam knows God’s will in this matter, that he is not to curse the Israelites, and he has told Balak this, but Balak sent “more numerous and more distinguished” messengers, and Balaam asked God a second time if he should go. God said to go but to do only what God told him to do. But from what follows, it seems that God was quite angry that Balaam came back a second time when he already knew the answers:
God was incensed at his going; so an angel of the Lord placed himself in his way as an adversary.
He was riding on his she-ass, with his two servants alongside, when the ass caught sight of the angel of the Lord standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand. The ass swerved from the road and went into the fields; and Balaam beat the ass to turn her back onto the road. The angel of the Lord then stationed himself in a land between the vineyards, with a fence on either side. The ass, seeing the angel of the Lord, pressed herself against the wall and squeezed Balaam’s foot against the wall, so he beat her again. Once more the angel of the Lord moved forward and stationed himself on a spot so narrow that there was not room to swerve right or left. When the ass now saw the angel of the Lord she lay down under Balaam; and Balaam was furious and beat the ass with his stick.
Then the Lord opened the ass’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times? Balaam said to the ass, You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you. The ass said to Balaam, Look, I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you? And he answered, No.
Then the Lord uncovered Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, his drawn sword in his hand; thereupon he bowed right down to the ground. The angel of the Lord said to him, Why have you beaten your ass these three times? It is I who came out as an adversary, for the errand is obnoxious to me. And when the ass saw me, she shied away because of me those three times. If she had not shied away from me, you are the one I should have killed, while sparing her. (Numbers 22:22-33, Tanakh)
This rich little tale brings a couple of concepts to the fore. One is that angels often are charged with protecting us from ourselves. The other is that animals are probably much more aware of spiritual presences than are humans. There’s plenty of anecdotal material indicating that animals and small children are often able to perceive angels when adults remain oblivious to them. Of course, this is a story, a legend, in which a donkey talks and his owner is so caught up in his own anger that he seems not to notice that he’s conversing with his own beast of burden. And the angel is highly frustrated with Balaam and would have killed him but let the donkey live because the poor thing was doing its best to serve its master and avoid annihilation.
The persistence of the angel in the Balaam story is reminiscent of another story in Genesis concerning Lot, the nephew of Abraham. The three angels come to Sodom to judge its fate, and when it is clear that the city must be destroyed, the angels tell Lot to take his wife, daughters, and their husbands and flee the city immediately. Lot relays the message to his sons-in-law, who don’t take him seriously, and the next morning, the whole family is still in Sodom. So the men [angels] seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand, the Lord being merciful to him, and they brought him out and left him outside the city.”
Angels showed up in the life of Jesus Christ several times according to gospel accounts, and he was aware of their continuing presence. From his words in Matthew 26:52-53, we see that he acknowledged their guardianship on a grand scale. He has just been arrested, and one of his disciples tried to defend Jesus by drawing a sword:
Then Jesus said to him, Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?
Shortly after the death and resurrection of Jesus, his followers experienced the help of guardians, particularly when being associated with Jesus became dangerous.
Then the high priest took action; he and all who were with him (that is, the sect of the Sadducees), being filled with jealousy, arrested the apostles, and put them in the public prison. But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors, brought them out, and said, Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life. When they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and went on with their teaching.
Judging from the contemporary stories of angel encounters, it would seem that the majority of cases involve protection or rescue of some kind. In the collective mind at least, guardian angels are very much present to us today as in past centuries.