From: All God’s Angels
When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called out to him from Heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!
“Here I am,” he replied.
“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.” (Genesis 22:9-14)
Here is an unmistakable example of Heaven’s perfect sense of timing, and of the split-second readiness of God’s angels to act on behalf of God’s servants. Since the time of Shakespeare, to arrive “in the nick of time” has meant to be in precisely the right place at precisely the right time, neither too soon nor too late. Virtually every artistic depiction of this scene shows Abraham wielding a knife, his arm raised above the prone and helpless Isaac, about to inflict the violent, mortal blow that will take the life of his only son. Just at that moment, as if emerging from outside the frame or jumping up from behind a tree, an angel appears, reaching forth and withholding Abraham’s arm, strong enough to prevent him from plunging the knife.
Consider, for example, the famous painting by Rembrandt. Abraham forcefully holds down his bound son atop the wood of the fire, covering his face and pushing his head back. The whiteness of Isaac’s neck and chest draws the eye of the viewer to this image of total exposure and vulnerability. Isaac is powerless to resist as Abraham readies to kill him. While the tragic outcome seems inevitable in what appears at the bottom half of the painting, something equally active but entirely different is happening in the upper half of the scene. Suddenly (in the nick of time) an angel appears out of nowhere. While Abraham grips his son’s face with one hand, the angel takes hold of Abraham’s other wrist, forcing him to release the knife he is wielding. The artist depicts the instrument of death in midair, the blade’s potential for destroying still apparent in its shimmer as it falls. The young Isaac doesn’t know it yet, but he is saved. Meanwhile, the light on Abraham’s face reveals a look of both wonder and relief: “Could it be that I, too, am saved?”
The scriptures say nothing about any of this action, only that the angel called to Abraham “from Heaven” and that Abraham immediately stopped what he was doing. But, in pictorial form, artists present to us the same message: the angels of the Lord are ready to act with precision and swiftness. They can come into our presence invited (as in the previous story of Abraham from Genesis 18) or uninvited, and they can move with such speed that their actions catch us unawares. Their hands are always at the ready to serve as God’s hands in the world. And when they do, they always succeed in their task. “Angels are powerful and quick to do God’s will,” wrote John of Damascus. “Their nature is so speedy that, as soon as the divine glance orders them to go somewhere, immediately they are there.” It’s a good thing! Sometimes they keep us from harm; perhaps just as often they keep us from doing harm. In either case, they are never too late.