ANGELS: Before And Behind by Martin Shannon

Loving & Learning From Angelic Messengers

Before And Behind by Martin Shannon

From: All God’s Angels

The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them.  It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel.  And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.

I am going to send an angel in front of you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared.  Be attentive to him and listen to his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression; for my name is in him.  But if you listen attentively to his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes.  (Exodus 14:19-20; 23:2-22)

If asked by what miraculous instruments the people of Israel were guided and protected in their exodus from Egypt, most of us would think of the “pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night,” (Exodus 13:21-22).  But there was another presence.  According to Exodus 14, an angel scouted out the trail before the people, and when danger threatened them from behind (the chariots of Egypt), that same angel changed positions and became their rearguard.  Some traditions have used these verses to identify the fiery and cloudy pillars as actual angels.  If, as we have already found in earlier passages, angels must take a visible shape that is recognizable to the human eye in order to make their presence known, is it possible for them to take the form of nature’s powers?  Can they come in the breaking waves, in the moving clouds, in the rumbling thunder?

Marc Chagall painted a famous image of the passage through the Red Sea, depicting a giant angel leading the people through the parted waters, waving one arm and pointing the way with the other, (The Crossing of the Red Sea, 1955).  Did these same two colossal arms hold back the forces of Pharaoh and wrap themselves protectively around every man, woman, and child of Israel?  The psalmist writes,

For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. (Psalm 91:11)

This gives us the familiar understanding of the work of guardian angels.  Like the pillars of cloud and fire, and like Chagall’s gesticulating escort, such angels must be both sizable and powerful.  These are not beings that we would gaze on eye-to-eye.

But their authority is founded on more than size and strength.  In Exodus 23, we find another passage about an angel leading the people of Israel through the wilderness.  We are told of the divine authority entrusted to this angel: “Hearken attentively to his voice and do all that I say.”  His voice is to be treated as the voice of God – “My name is in him,” the Lord says.  God’s angel speaks and acts for God himself.  In the fourth century, Saint Hilary of Poitiers wrote that Israel was served by the angels during their entire forty-year sojourn – guided, protected, instructed, provided for.  This is why Origen says to those who feel lost or confounded, “Do not waver at the solitude of the desert; it is during your sojourn in the tents that you will receive the manna from Heaven and eat the bread of angels.”  With nothing less than the strength and authority of God, the angels assist us through desert and flood alike.  Behind the successful journey of each of God’s children lie the unseen hands and sleepless labors of these Heavenly ministers.

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