Does God let ministers go up in flames?

Heb 1:7 is an interesting exegetical challenge, because it is one of those rare cases where the vast majority of translations seem to have gone astray. This mail is a bit long, and I have already discussed it in other fora, so if you know what I am going to say, skip it.

Let me start by quoting some English versions:

KJV: Who maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire.
RSV: Who makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire.
NIV: He makes his angels winds, his servants flames of fire.
TEV: God makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire.
NLT: messengers swift as the wind, and servants made of flaming fire.
CEV: I change my angels into wind and my servants into flaming fire.
—————-
NJB: appointing the winds his messengers and flames of fire his servants.

The last one is different from the others for very good reasons.

The passage is a word for word quote from the LXX version of Psalm 104:4 (103:4) with a very minor adjustment of the last two words from “flaming fire” to “flame of fire”. The last expression with the Greek noun FLOX is more common than the corresponding verb FLEGW. FLOX (a flame) occurs 7 times in the NT and 61 times in the LXX, whereas FLEGW (to flame) does not occur in the NT, but 22 times in the LXX.
The flaming fire is associated with the awesome presence of God as on Mt. Sinai and also with punishment. In Rev 1:14 Jesus is described as having eyes like a flame of fire.
It is at often associated with lightning or the fire that results when lightning strikes. For instance:
Isa 29:6 “the LORD Almighty will come with thunder and earthquake and great noise, with windstorm and tempest and flames of a devouring fire.” It is likely that the thunder and flames of a devouring fire (lightning) are connected by chiasm.
Isa 30:30 “The LORD will cause men to hear his majestic voice and will make them see his arm coming down with raging anger and  consuming fire, with cloudburst, thunderstorm and hail.”
Isa 66:15 “See, the LORD is coming with fire, and his chariots are like a whirlwind; he will bring down his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire.” (Another chiasm).
Ps 105:32 “He gave them hail for rain, and lightning that flashed through their land.” (RSV)
Ps 105:32 “He gave them hail for rain, [and] flaming fire in their land! (KJV)
Notice how “flaming fire” was correctly translated by “flashing lightning” in RSV.
Jer 23:29 “Is not my word like fire, says the LORD, and like a hammer which breaks the rock in pieces”
(Although the Hebrew here has only “fire”, the LXX has “flaming fire” the exact same phrase as in Ps 104:4). The image suggests lightning.

It is a fairly common theme in the OT for God to use the elements of nature in fighting against his enemies. When Barak and Deborah defeated Sisera’s army by the wadi of Kishon, the army was swept away by torrential rains and a surge of water through the river. See Judges 5:20-21. In this kind of attack from heaven, the thunderstorm, the lightning and the rain combine to a serious force against an army that depends on chariots that can get stuck in the mud.

So, the “winds” referred to in Heb 7:1 and Ps 104:4 must be the thunderstorm that God is using as his “messengers” to combat the enemy. Likewise, the “flames of fire” must refer to lightning and possibly accompanying fires that go with a thunderstorm and also are used by God as his “servants” to combat the enemy. The NIV study note for Ps 104:4 says: “The winds and lightning bolts of the thunderstorm, here personified as the agents of God’s purposes (see 148:8, cf. 103:21).”

The interesting thing about the translation of Heb 1:7 is that everybody agrees that this is a quote from Ps 104:4. So, how do these same translations render Ps 104:4? For ease of comparison, I am copying the rendering of Heb 1:7 from above as the first line. The second line is Ps 104:4:

KJV: Who maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire.
KJV: Who maketh his angels spirits; his ministers a flaming fire

RSV: Who makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire.
RSV: who makest the winds thy messengers, fire and flame thy ministers.

NIV: He makes his angels winds, his servants flames of fire.
NIV: He makes winds his messengers, flames of fire his servants.

TEV: God makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire.
TEV: You use the winds as your messengers and flashes of lightning as your servants.

NLT: messengers swift as the wind, and servants made of flaming fire.
NLT: The winds are your messengers; flames of fire are your servants.

CEV: I change my angels into wind and my servants into flaming fire.
CEV: The winds are your messengers, and flames of fire are your servants.

NJB: appointing the winds his messengers and flames of fire his servants.
NJB: appointing the winds your messengers, flames of fire your servants.

It is not clear why some versions say “your” rather than “his” for Ps 104:4, because the BHS text has “his”. I  assume it is a translation decision to avoid the poetic shifts between 2. and 3. person in this Psalm. In any case, this is not significant, since the reference to God is clear enough.
It is interesting that only KJV and NJB are consistent in giving the same translation of the Hebrew and LXX text. The KJV is clearly wrong, and it does not make sense. The other versions of Ps 104:4 make good sense in the context, since it talks about the power of God as the ruler of all creation, using the winds as his chariots and the thunderstorm as his weapon. I think the TEV did very well for Ps 104:4, but made nonsense out of Heb 1:7.

Why is NJB (New Jerusalem Bible) alone in making a translation that makes sense and recognizes that the author of Hebrews is quoting this Psalm, intending the same meaning? The point in Hebrews 1:7 is that the angels are not up there at the same level as God and Jesus (and not to be worshiped). Even the thunderstorm and lightning are used by God as his “angels”, i.e. messengers. “Jesus is far above the angels” is the major theme of this passage in Hebrews.

Let us look at exegetical summaries and commentaries. The Exegetical Summary gives two exegetical options:

1. The articular nouns TOUS AGGELOUS ‘the angels’ and TOUS LEITOURGOUS ‘the servants’ are objects of hO POIWN ‘the one making’, and the anarthrous [accusative] nouns PNEUMATA ‘winds’ and FLOGA ‘flame[s]’ are predicates [Alf, Blm, EGT, GNC, Hu, Lg, Ln, My, NTC, TH, TNTC, WBC; all versions except NJB];
2. ‘Winds’ and ‘flames’ are the objects, and ‘the angels’ (= ‘messengers’) and ‘the ministers’ are predicates [NIGTC; NJB]: who makes winds his messengers and flames of fire his servants. The Septuagint cannot carry the other interpretation [NIGTC].

One brave commentator (NIGTC) and one brave translation (NJB). NIGTC is Paul Ellingworth’s excellent commentary on Hebrews.
The UBS Handbook on Hebrews was written by Nida and Ellingworth in 1983. It says for Heb 1:7: “The Hebrew text of Psalm 104.4 may mean either (a) God makes winds and flames into his messengers and servants;  (option 2 above) or (b) God turns his servants into winds and flames. (option 1 above). The Greek text can mean only (b).”

Paul Ellingworth’s commentary was published in 1993, and it says:
“The meaning of the quotation is ambiguous in the MT, which may mean either:
(a) who makes winds/spirits his angels/messengers , or
(b) who makes his angels into winds.
The LXX cannot mean (b).”

The reader ought to be confused by now. The Handbook by Nida and Ellingworth says that the Greek text of Hebrews 1:7 can only mean (b), the same as option 1. Ellingworth says 10 years later that the Greek text of the LXX cannot mean (b), the same as option 1.

But the Greek text is exactly the same. I would say that both statements are overstatements. The Greek text is open to both interpretations, and what it can or cannot mean is the subjective evaluation of the exegete. If we take context and common sense into account, there is no doubt in my mind that Nida (and Ellingworth) was wrong in 1983 and Ellingworth right in 1993, and that the NJB gives the correct interpretation of Heb 1:7, although not a very clear translation.

For those who know Greek, let me quote the Greek text:

hO POIWN TOUS AGGELOUS AUTOU PNEUMATA
KAI TOUS LEITOURGOUS AUTOU PUROS FLOGA

Literally: He who makes/uses winds [as] his messengers
and [a] flame of fire [as] his servants.

Greek has a flexible word order so that one cannot know by the order what phrase is the object and what is the predicate. The order in this case is probably influenced by the Hebrew word order, since the LXX here is an extremely word-for-word Hebraic-sounding rendering. Nor does the case marking solve the issue, since both the objects and the predicates are in the accusative.
That the Greek words for winds and flame are without the definite article probably reflects that the Hebrew words have no articles here. But it also agrees with the indefinite nature of “winds” and “lightning”. The text is not talking about specific winds and a specific bolt of lightning, but of wind and lightning in general. God can use winds as his messengers, and lightning as his servant. It is certainly possible to understand the Greek text in Heb 1:7 and in the LXX in sense (a), option 2. If we did not have context to go by, both the Hebrew and Greek text might be open to both interpretations, but the context is decisively against sense (b), option 1 in both Ps 104:4 and in Heb 1:7.

The literal rendering “make” doesn’t make much sense in English. The idea is that God commissions or uses winds as his messengers and lightning as his servants in the context of war against his enemies or punishment of his enemies. Just think of Elijah who called down fire/lightning from heaven (2 Ki 1:10), and the “sons of thunder” who were tempted to do the same (Luk 9:54, cf. also Rev 13:13 and 20:9).

My suggestion for translation would be something like the TEV for Ps 104:4, but the same in both places (except possibly a “your” in the Psalm and a “his” in Hebrews.)

A footnote is needed in Heb 1:7 to explain the relationship between “messengers” and “angels”, unless the receptor language uses the same word for both.

25 thoughts on “Does God let ministers go up in flames?

  1. WoundedEgo says:

    >>>The UBS Handbook on Hebrews was written by Nida and Ellingworth in 1983. It says for Heb 1:7: “The Hebrew text of Psalm 104.4 may mean either (a) God makes winds and flames into his messengers and servants; (option 2 above) or (b) God turns his servants into winds and flames. (option 1 above). The Greek text can mean only (b).”

    If the Hebrew *can* read like (a), then the context would overwhelmingly, IMHO, suggest that it should read as (a), since the psalm is completely speaking of YHVH harnessing the natural elements for his service:

    Ps 104:
    1 ¶ Bless the LORD, O my soul. O LORD my God, thou art very great; thou art clothed with honour and majesty. 2 Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment: who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain: 3 Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters: who maketh the clouds his chariot: who walketh upon the wings of the wind: …5 Who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed for ever. 6 Thou coveredst it with the deep as with a garment: the waters stood above the mountains. 7 At thy rebuke they fled; at the voice of thy thunder they hasted away. 8 They go up by the mountains; they go down by the valleys unto the place which thou hast founded for them. 9 Thou hast set a bound that they may not pass over; that they turn not again to cover the earth.

    So, for this reader, the intent of the Hebrew is crystal clear, (which is not what the TEV has).

    >>>…hO POIWN TOUS AGGELOUS AUTOU PNEUMATA
    KAI TOUS LEITOURGOUS AUTOU PUROS FLOGA
    Literally: He who makes/uses winds [as] his messengers
    and [a] flame of fire [as] his servants.

    In a double accusative construction, wouldn’t the second accusative be in apposition to the first, so it would literally read:

    “the one making his deputies winds, and his servants fiery flames”?

    >>>My suggestion for translation would be something like the TEV for Ps 104:4, but the same in both places (except possibly a “your” in the Psalm and a “his” in Hebrews.)

    I would as well, but only if I were reading only the LXX, which is obviously what the writer of “To the Hebrews” was doing. But, ISTM, that to consider all of this without bias, the author’s sole dependence on the LXX pits him at odds with the Masoretic in several places. His argument rests on LXX mistranslation and misquotes repeatedly. I think we have to resist the temptation of “back-translation.”

    >>>The point in Hebrews 1:7 is that the angels are not up there at the same level as God and Jesus (and not to be worshiped).

    I would say that his point is that *sons* are higher than anyone else except God. He uses, for example, the examples of Solomon as son, Israel as son and mankind as sons. Look at Psalm 8:

    Psalms 8:5 For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels [ELOHIM], and hast crowned him with glory and honour.

    Hebrews 2:7 Thou madest him a little lower than the angels [AGGELOI]; thou crownedst him with glory and honour, and didst set him over the works of thy hands:

    Hebrews 2:9 But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels [AGGELOI] for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man.

    So Hebrews is arguing that men are a little lower than the AGGELOI using a text that, in the Hebrew, says men are a little lower than God! This is because *his* text (the LXX) was mistranslated:

    Psalms 8:5 (8:6) ηλαττωσας αυτον βραχυ τι παρ **αγγελους** δοξη και τιμη εστεφανωσας αυτον

    He says, “well, we don’t see humans with *all* things under their feet [“all” would include AGGELOI], as long as they are lower than the AGGELOI, but we *do* see Jesus higher than them.” So his argument is meaningless if he had access to the Hebrew, which says that humankind is a little less than God, but is brilliant if he argues from the Hebrew.

    So, presumption of concordance between “To the Hebrews” and Ps 104 in the Hebrew, IMHO, requires an inordinate amount of faith.

    The view from here…

  2. Bob MacDonald says:

    Flames of fire may not all be of war and punishment. (e.g. Moses and that fiery bush) Make makes perfect sense to me. To make something ‘into’ something else is reading more into the concatenated nouns that it should IMO. Hebrew like English like to concatenate nouns though we all do it differently. Best leave ambiguity where there is ambiguity. Spirit likes ambiguity – leaves more wriggle room for a prod. Given that these are emanations of God riding on the wings of the wind, one ought not further to read too much into either messengers or angels. In the Psalm they are the messengers of God and so not to be trifled with but through a protocol of ‘message received’ with thanksgiving – or resistance as Moses at the fiery bush. Depends on your character type perhaps. In Hebrews there is definitely an issue of superiority as you say underlined by the structure. We do not worship liturgists.

  3. iver larsen says:

    WoundedEgo,
    Thanks for your comments. I find it a bit hard to follow some of what you are saying, and I may not have understood you properly.

    I agree with your first point. In the context of Psalm 104 which talks about God’s lordship over the creation including winds, it seems fairly clear that the intention is (a), that God is using winds as his messengers and lightning (or “flaming fire”) as his servants. This does not have to be in the context of war, as Bob says. These powerful forces can help us to see the power of God who controls them. Jesus also subdued the wind. But it can include war which was so common in the OT. And note that the word used here is not simply “fire” but “flaming fire”. TWOT has this to say about the Hebrew word:
    “lahath may refer to literal burning, or it may be used as a poetic figure to describe God’s judgment. The Akkadian la’atu means “consume with fire.” The Aramaic lehath means “consume,” “burn up.”
    Some typical examples of lahath in the sense of literal burning are: the burning of Korah’s followers (Ps 106:18; cf. Num 16), the burning of mountain forests (Ps 83:14 [H 15]), and of trees (Joel 1:19). The breath of Leviathan kindled coals (Job 41:21 [H 13]). It refers to the burning behind the invaders mentioned in Joel (2:3). Once it refers to the way in which lightning burns up God’s enemies (Ps 97:3) and it describes as “flaming” the fires which serve God (Ps 104:4)” Let me add that a different word is used in Hebrew in the passage of the burning bush.

    You say: “In a double accusative construction, wouldn’t the second accusative be in apposition to the first, so it would literally read…”

    That applies to English and usually to Greek, although Greek word order is much more flexible than English. It does not apply to Hebrew in general and it does not apply to Psalm 104:4. Nor does it apply to the Greek found in the LXX when the passage in question is a word for word rendering of the Hebrew including the Hebrew word order. You have put your finger on the reason why so many English versions go astray when they translate Heb 1:7. They have a similar assumption about the Greek of Hebrews.

    I cannot understand your next comment. When the author of Hebrews quoted the LXX, he would keep the Hebraic word order he found in the LXX. That is why the Greek in Heb 1:7 looks a bit unnatural. However, it is quite clear to me that the author of Hebrews understood the Greek text of LXX in exactly the same way as the MT text, namely God using winds and lightning as his messengers and servants. That is how he uses the quote to support his theme. The problem with most translators of Heb 1:7 is their refusal to interpret the somewhat awkward Greek of the LXX in the context of the text it translates. This may indicate that Bible translators often do not have adequate experience working with “translationese”. I read a number of books that have been translated from English to Danish. At times the translated text in Danish does not make much sense UNTIL I make a literal back translation into English and then it becomes clear. Sometimes the LXX is like that (and even parts of the NT translated from Hebrew or Aramaic). The translator expressed himself awkwardly because he was too literal. My job as a translator who focuses on good and faithful communication is NOT to keep the awkwardness or claimed “ambiguity” of the Greek text, but it is to be faithful to the intention of the author. When people produce “translationese” they do not intend to do so. It is a by-product of their inadequate knowledge or lack of training in translation. Let me go back to the example of a poor Danish translation from an English book. If this Danish version were to be translated into German and the translator “faithfully” kept the misunderstood translation from the Danish book, would he be faithful to the originally intended meaning in English? No, he ought to check with the original, and if that is not possible, he can make a good guess as to what the original say from a literal back translation. In the case of Heb 1:7 and the LXX we do have the original Hebrew.

    On your last point, we are looking at section 1:4-14 which has the heading “The Son is greater than the angels” in NLT and similar in other versions that use headings. Your quote from Psalm 8:5 is in a different section in chapter 2 and therefore not relevant for the theme of 1:4-14 where we find 1:7.

  4. John Radcliffe says:

    Iver, I’d have to disagree with you for two reasons:

    1 Context

    The writer says that what follows is what God says “about” (or possibly “to”) “the angels” (with the article, so I see this as referring to all of them as a group)

    It would be strange, then, if he went on to talk about God making natural elements act as what we might call “proxies” for those angelic servants! So, as I see it, what follows must refer to the angels, i.e. to angelic BEINGS themselves, not to “things” acting as his messengers or servants “in their place”.

    Surely the writer’s argument is that God gives great powers to the angels, but even so they are still no match for his Son.

    2 The inclusion of the (definite) article

    You say: “That the Greek words for winds and flame are without the definite article probably reflects that the Hebrew words have no articles here. But it also agrees with the indefinite nature of “winds” and “lightning”. The text is not talking about specific winds and a specific bolt of lightning, but of wind and lightning in general.” I would agree.

    However, if “his angels” and “his servants” are the predicates, not the objects of the verbs, then wouldn’t we expect them to also lack the article? Such “messengers” and “servants” are not the ONLY ones he has. On the other hand, the opposing interpretation (taking it to say what he makes his angelic messengers and servants INTO: perhaps how he empowers them?) DOES apply to the entire group, and so one would expect the article (= “he makes [ALL] his angels”) rather than its omission (= “he makes [some of] his angels”)

  5. iver larsen says:

    Hi, John,

    I appreciate your defense of the other option. It is always helpful to try to see the other side.

    It is not clear to me whether you are only referring to Heb 1:7 or whether you also think that Ps 104:4 should be translated similarly.

    The first reference in v. 7 is τοὺς ἀγγέλους, and I agree that this refers to angels as a group. I don’t understand your idea of “proxies”. The way I see it, the quote is saying that God includes in his group of angels=messengers the winds and the lightning. We must remember that in both Greek and Hebrew, the word for “angel” is “messenger”, and the author is playing on this extended sense, i.e. extended from the viewpoint of English. We have a problem in English, because we don’t essily see that angel=messenger. Since the winds and lightning are God’s messengers and (obedient) servants, they are in that sense also his “angels”. The context is about the status of angels/messengers as being much lower than the status of Jesus=the Son, not about the power of angels. I do not understand how you can take “God makes his angels winds” to mean that God gives great power to the angels.

    Concerning the second point, when you have a possessive pronoun in Greek it makes the noun phrase more or less definite and it is expected that the definite article is there. It is very rare in Greek to have a noun with a possessive which does not also have the definite article. (Quite often you have only the article with the possessive pronoun or idea implied.) The Hebrew text has the possessive suffix without any definite article. It is supplied in Greek because it is natural to do so. The article does not imply “all”. The focus is on possession and being under God’s control. God takes the winds and “enlists” them among his messengers.

  6. John Radcliffe says:

    Iver, thank you for responding

    I’m sorry if I didn’t make myself clear in a number of places (not for the first time).

    First, I’m only considering Heb 1:7 not the underlying Psalm. While it would be natural to expect them to mean the same thing, we shouldn’t discount the possibility that the LXX translator(s) got it wrong, but the writer of Hebrews used it because it was appropriate. (A parallel to that might be Matthew’s use of the LXX in Matt 1:23)

    What I mean by “proxies” is that I understand the writer to be talking about angelic BEINGS at the start of v7, and so I’d expect what follows to also relate to such BEINGS, not to how God can use things that aren’t living, intelligent beings to carry out his purposes INSTEAD of such beings. Of course I realise that God can use “things” to carrying out his bidding (and that may be what the Psalmist is saying), but I don’t think that fits the context here, because here the writer is talking about how great angelic beings are, and yet they still fall far short of the Son.

    I’m aware that the basic meaning of the Greek term is “messenger”, but I doubt anyone would realistically deny that in the NT is also used as a “technical term” to refer to intelligent, non-human beings who act as God’s messengers. What we now in English call “angels”.

    You ask how I can “take ‘God makes his angels winds’ to mean that God gives great power to the angels.” Well the text has to mean something, and it is poetry, so doesn’t have to be literally true. More importantly, it has to have a meaning that fits the context, and I just don’t see how saying that God can also use wind and fire to perform his purposes does.

    As regards the article, while I agree that nouns with a possessive are by their nature typically “definite”, that doesn’t mean that noun + possessive always has the article. It depends (as I see it) on whether the group is seen as “exhaustive” (or all-inclusive) or not: e.g. “the friends of me” = ALL my friends (whether absolutely, or at least within the present context), while “friends of me” = some of my friends, where it is implied that others do or could exist (see e.g. John 15:14). So my point was that God has “messengers” other than “winds”, and “servants” other than “fire”, and so if the text is saying “God makes winds his messengers”, then the use of the article is inappropriate.

    Of course, I wouldn’t base my argument entirely on the presence of the article, but I do believe it adds weight to my first, main point: that the opposing view to yours is to be preferred because it best fits the context. (It would seem that the majority of English translators agree, and I doubt that they all failed to consider the alternative, especially as that is the OT rendering found in many of those versions.)

  7. Peter Kirk says:

    I wonder if this verse means something a little different from what we have been discussing. Could the understanding of the author of Hebrews have been something like this?

    He makes his angels out of winds,
    his servants out of flames of fire.

    This would tie up with Ellingworth’s NIGTC understanding of the Greek. But it would also fit with the context. For this verse must be about angels in the proper sense, as in the introductory line, and cannot be about an additional class of pseudo-angels or messengers consisting of winds and flames.

    On my proposed interpretation the verse is telling us that angels, God’s servants, are made of wind and fire, two of the four elements in ancient philosophy, and perhaps even more significantly that they are made, created – which is the contrast highlighted with the uncreated eternal and divine Son of the following verses.

  8. iver larsen says:

    Dear John,

    Thank you for adding some more background. I understand you better now.

    1. While I accept that NT authors occasionally extend the application of an OT quote beyond what we might think appropriate from our Western background, I do not see any need to appeal to such an option here. The meaning in Psalm 104:4 fits very nicely with what Hebrews 1:4-14 is all about, namely God’s use of messengers and the Son’s superiority over all creation, whether animate or not.

    2. You clarify your assumption that v. 7 talks about “angelic being”. I do not think that this assumption is shared by the author of Hebrews. It is probably caused by the English translation “angels”. It would have been better to translate AGGELOI in both v. 6 and 7 as “messengers”, because in this passage, the term is not restricted to “angels”. It is common in the OT for nature to bow down to and honour God, and since Hebrews is emphasizing that Jesus is like God, nature will also bow down to and honour/worship Jesus (verse 6.) When the author introduces “messengers” in v. 7 he already has in mind what he is going to say about those messengers, namely that they are mere servants that do God’s bidding. They are not rulers as Jesus is in v. 8. In the concluding verse 14, the author probably does restrict the messengers to angelic beings by saying “ministering spirits”, because he wants to counter the suggestion that angels should be worshiped, but he may still be playing on the the fact that PNEUMA includes “wind” in its semantic field, just as John played on this in his chapter 3. I do not see anywhere in this passage where the text talks about the greatness of the angels. Which verse(s) are you referring to?

    3. I cannot see that your point about the article is relevant. In my view the text of both Pslam 104:4 in Hebrew, the LXX and Hebrews 1:7 says exactly the same, namely that God is able to use EVEN winds as His messengers. It doesn’t matter that the winds are not ALL his messengers, and not even the major ones. The point is that angels are merely messengers which are in the same group of messengers as winds and lightning. God is USING all kinds of messengers to do his bidding, and this is in contrast to Jesus, who is the eternal ruler at the right hand of God.

    That so many English versions went astray is not surprising to me. I have found again and again that English translations follow a tradition, set by KJV (or earlier). It is not a coincidence that the only version that IMO got is right is the originally French NJB.

  9. Marshall Massey says:

    If I’m not mistaken, a relationship exists between Psalm 104:4 (103:4) and Hebrews 1:7, and such theophanies as Exodus 13:21-22, 40:34-38, Matthew 17:1-3 and Acts 2:1-3. There is an ambiguity in those theophanies, such that the light, the cloud, and the wind can be regarded either as supernatural (like angels), or as elements of this natural world (literal cloud, wind and light) marking God’s presence. And this ambiguity seems reflected in the two competing ways of reading the verses under consideration here.

    Without a clear indication in the text that these phenomena are meant to be regarded as supernatural, or as merely natural, I think I’d be inclined to let the ambiguity stand. If the verse is rendered one way, then it would be a kindness to have a footnote saying that one might also read it the other way.

  10. John Radcliffe says:

    Iver,

    In response to your numbered points:

    1. Regardless of what Psalm 104:4 might mean, I’d still have to say that I don’t think the interpretation “he makes winds his messengers …” fits here in Heb 1:7 (see on point 2 below).

    2. I’m sorry, but I just don’t see how a reference to messengers in general fits the context. “Messengers” or “angels” are mentioned in v5, 6, 7, 13, 14 and 2:2, 5, 6, 9. I think that 2:2, for example, demands that the term MUST refer to “angels” there, and the same could probably be said of some of the other references, so I’d favour taking them all the same way unless there is a good reason to do otherwise (I don’t think there is).

    As regards their greatness, I think this is taken as read. (Throughout Scripture whenever an angel appears, and is recognised as such, the human reaction is to be overwhelmed and awestruck. On occasion there’s even the danger of angel worship.) But I don’t think the writer is intending to correct that perception. Rather, as I see it, he is saying (here) that they ARE awesome beings (as powerful, awesome, and incapable of being deflected from their purpose as wind or fire), but still FAR inferior to the Son. Later (introduced in v14, and enlarged on in chapter 2) he’ll compare their place in creation and God’s purposes (especially his redemptive purposes) with that of human beings.

    3. As I said in my previous comment, I consider the presence of the article lends support to my position. However, it is the context that I see as decisive. The problem, of course, is that you would probably say the same about the opposing view!

    So I guess if we’re going to agree on anything here, it will have to be to disagree.

  11. iver larsen says:

    Hi, Marshall,

    I would say that a relationship exists to the verses you mention and many more. The wind that dried up the Read Sea was also a servant of God. I don’t agree that the point of Heb 1:7 or Psalm 104:4 is theophany, but rather God’s power in controlling physical phenomena of his creation and using them for his purposes. One should read the whole of Psalm 104 for a wider context.

    I am not sure wnhat you mean by “letting the ambiguity stand”. In most cases that is not possible in a meaning-based translation, but I would certainly put a footnote in a translation of Heb 1:7.

  12. iver larsen says:

    John,
    You are probably right that we will have to agree to disagree, but I thought it might be helpful to try to figure out why we come to so different results.

    1. I believe it is important to take Psalm 104:4 into account, simply because the author clearly quotes from this passage, and even has an almost verbatim copy of the LXX translation. You exclude the meaning of Psalm 104:4 as irrelevant or at best claim that the LXX has misunderstood or misrepresented the Hebrew text. Most English versions indicate in a footnote that Heb 1:7 is a quote from Psalm 104:4, but they still go ahead and produce a translation which is pretty much the opposite of the passage quoted. None of the English versions comment on the fact that their translation of Heb 1:7 makes little sense. You seem to accept that it makes little sense, but you accept this because it is poetry (or because it is the traditional rendering?)

    2. I accept that “angel” is a Biblical technical term in English with one sense. However, the Greek AGGELOS is not a technical term. It is only the context which will clarify whether it refers to a messenger or a specific “messenger of God” = “angel”. John the Baptist was an AGGELOS (Mat 11:10). John also sent some of his disciples as AGGELOI (Luk 7:24). Jesus sent his disciples as AGGELOI (Luk 9:52). Paul was disturbed by an AGGELOS from Satan (2 Cor 12:7). The two spies were AGGELOI (Jas 2:25). And then we have the AGGELOI of the 7 churches in Revelation. I could have looked at the 352 AGGELOI in the LXX, but let that be. I agree that the AGGELOI in chapter 2 refer to angels, but that is because of context.

    3. The immediate context takes priority over a distant context, so when there is no hint of the awesomeness of angels in this passage, I don’t think we should import concepts from other passages that do not seem to be relevant.

    4. As far as translation goes, I have said that I prefer the NJB in verse 7, but NJB does not adequately handle the translation of AGGELOS in the section, because it uses “angel” some places where it might have been better to use “messenger”. At least the translators should mention in a footnote that the Greek and Hebrew word can also mean simply a “messenger”.

  13. John Radcliffe says:

    Iver,

    If you thought that I accepted the “traditional” rendering just because it is “traditional” or the most common, then you’d be wrong. When I first read your post, I found your interpretation appealing. Then I wondered how I had handled it when our study group looked at Hebrews some time ago. When I looked up my annotated translation, I found I’d followed the “traditional” rendering and simply added a paraphrase (“He makes the angels who serve him as powerful as the wind and fire”).

    Now that didn’t settle things for me (I’m perfectly happy to change my position in such cases if something better comes along), but it did make me go and look at the passage again.

    It was the context that persuaded me (as I guess it had when I passed that way before) that the writer is taking about angels, not messengers in general, and not about wind or fire serving God rather than human or angelic beings.

    So for what it’s worth, here’s my reasoning:

    (1) The writer used the Greek word for “messenger/angel” first in v4: “So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs” (TNIV). I asked myself whether that could/should be “the messengers” rather than “the angels”, but immediately dismissed the possibility. His readers would know what he meant by “the angels”, but what definite group of “messengers” would he have expected them to see a reference to? The same reasoning carried me through v5, v6, v7a (we’ll come back to v7b), v13 and v14 (in the last I noted “ministering spirits”). The same applied to every reference in chapter 2.

    (2) However, that still left open the possibility that the word was used in a different sense in v7b (especially as it’s a quotation). But whatever v7b means, it is said ABOUT or TO “the angels”, and so must have some relevance to them.

    (3) So I then tried to see if the interpretation, “God makes winds his messengers” (or even “his angels”), fitted that context. The best I could come up with was the idea that the writer might be saying that God doesn’t need beings, such as the angels, to carry out his wishes: he can even command inanimate things such as wind or fire to do his bidding instead. But even didn’t really fit in with what he seems to be saying. I don’t see him belittling the angels; rather, he’s simply showing that the Son is much greater. (Nor does it fit the Psalm: there I don’t see the psalmist making any such comparison.)

    (You say: “The immediate context takes priority over a distant context, so when there is no hint of the awesomeness of angels in this passage, I don’t think we should import concepts from other passages that do not seem to be relevant.” I’d disagree. I think the attitude of his readership to angelic beings is entirely relevant. Why would he compare Jesus to angels if his readers had no interest in who or what they were? But mention of them would be especially appropriate if some were inclined to rank Jesus below the angelic beings (as “merely human”, perhaps), or even among them. But their perceived greatness is not a major point in my argument, so I won’t take it any further.)

    (4) I then looked at the Greek to see if (with my admittedly meagre understanding) I could identify anything that seemed to indicate which Accusatives were the objects of the verb, and which the predicates. Rightly or wrongly, I considered the word order and use the article suggested that “the angels / servants” were more likely to be the objects.

    (5) Then, having determined what I believe the text to be saying, I tried to make sense of it. Yes, I do believe that even poetry should make sense, but recognising it as poetry alerts me to the possibility that I shouldn’t necessarily expect it to be literally true. So as I see it, the text isn’t saying that God turns beings into inanimate things, such as moving air or flaming fire, but that he gives such beings the ability to act in ways that displays something of the dramatic character of wind and fire. (Personally, I don’t go with the TNIV’s “spirits” rather than the NIV’s “winds”, because I don’t think it fits the poetic parallelism.) So for example, if someone says, “Henry’s a real live wire”, I wouldn’t point out that he isn’t in fact an electric cable, live or otherwise. On the other hand, I might disagree and say that I think he’s a wet blanket.

    (6) That just leaves the question of what Psalm 104:4 means. As I know no Hebrew at all, there I have little option than to follow what seems to be the consensus, even if that means the two passages are saying different things.

    Today many accuse evangelicals of translating the OT to fit in with their understanding of the NT, even if the OT seems to be saying something else. Personally, I think the reverse procedure should also be avoided. Where other things are equal, I’d probably favour following a common rendering; but where that’s not the case, I think we have to be willing to let each say what its writer seems to want to say. My suggestion that the LXX translator(s) may have misunderstood the Hebrew was mere speculation, and my argument certainly doesn’t rest on such a premise.

    Anyway, I doubt I’ve persuaded you to “change sides”; but I suspect I have exhausted my arguments (or at least my ability to articulate them).

  14. Dannii says:

    His readers would know what he meant by “the angels”, but what definite group of “messengers” would he have expected them to see a reference to?

    The prophets of verse 1?

  15. iver larsen says:

    John,

    Since you have responded in some detail, I’ll make an effort to do the same. These exchanges are naturally rather brief, so what we are doing is to employ iterative approximation in order to come step by step closer to understanding where both of us are coming from. If we had time and opportunity to sit and talk for an hour or two, we would arrive at a better understanding, maybe even agreement.
    Your starting point was and is the traditional English renderings of this verse, and therefore your context is what these translations can possibly mean in English. My starting point is the original texts, and by that I mean not only the Greek text of Heb 1:7, but the Greek text of the LXX of Psalm 103:4 which corresponds to the Hebrew of Psalm 104:4 within its own context.

    Let me use the same numbers:
    (1) Since the Greek text in v. 4 uses a word that means “messenger”, the Greek reader would have this concept in mind. The English reader misses that. I agree that while the meaning of AGGELOS in v. 4 is “messengers” the reference is to “angels”. The same applies to v. 5 and 6, but not 7a. There is an important semantic disctinction between sense and reference. In v. 7 the reference is changed to messengers who are not angels, but the basic sense of the word does not change. How to get that across in translation, I shall discuss later. The theme of comparison between Jesus and angels is introduced here, and the point is that Jesus is so much higher than the angels. Why? Because Jesus is co-ruler with God, while angels are mere messengers who must do God’s bidding without questioning. Jesus willingly obeyed his Father. Angels do not have a choice, because they are only messengers.

    (2) Notice that I said that the reference changed in v. 7, so this verse is about messengers in general. It does have relevance to angels, because angels are one specific type of God’s messengers. The text is not talking about angels contra winds, but angels as being within the overall concept of messengers.

    (3) It is not an either-or situation. God needs his angels as his messengers, partly because they can talk, but he can also use wind and lightning to do his bidding. This is amply demonstrated in the OT. I agree that the comparison between angels and Jesus is found in Hebrews 1, not in the Psalm. One can hardly expect the Psalm to talk about Jesus. The context of the Psalm is God’s control over his created world. He is using the wind and other natural phenomena like clouds, winds, lightning, fire to fulfill his purposes.

    (4) It is crucial to look at the Greek text, but this particular text is translation Greek in the form of a literal translation of a Hebrew text. The Greek keeps the Hebrew participles for “making” and “flaming2 plus the exact Hebrew word order. Only the KJV keeps the same order in English (Who maketh his angels spirits; his ministers a flaming fire). The KJV is nonsense in English, because of its utter literalness, so GNB has given the meaning in better English: “You use the winds as your messengers
    and flashes of lightning as your servants.” Both Greek and Hebrew has the general principle that the more prominent element comes first. Psalm 104:3 already introduced the winds, so that is not new information in v. 4, but the fact that he uses winds as his messengers is new information. That is why “his messengers” occur before “winds” in both the Hebrew text and the LXX. To try to analyse the Greek text of Heb 1:7 without reference to the LXX text it quotes and the Hebrew text that the LXX translates is a serious exegetical mistake. (That the mistake is commonly made, does not make it right.)

    (5) You are doing what every reader would try to do. We assume that a text is to make sense, and when it does not, we try to bring some sense into it. You then take the wind and fire as metaphors that indicate the power of angels. Others have suggested that the angels are as fast as the wind and lightning. Such attempts are understandable, but they build on sand, because the English translation they try to make sense out of is flawed.
    When you have to “twist” a translated text to make sense of it, it is likely that there is something wrong with the translation as is surely the case here.
    Recognizing that the Hebrew word and Greek word for “make” can refer to “appointing” or “using x as y”, that both Hebrew and Greek use the word “messenger” to occasionally refer to what we call angels, that the meaning of the text of Psalm 104:4 as given in
    GNB is not “twisting” the Greek and makes perfect sense BOTH in the Psalm AND in Heb 1:7, then that meaning is most likely what the writer of Hebrews had in mind. Of course, he would be very familiar with the text and context of Psalm 104.

    Now, how might this be translated into better English? Let me give a suggestion for a dynamic translation of verses 4-8, but remember that I am not an native speaker of English:

    4. God’s own Son is far above God’s messengers, the angels, and he is talked about in a superior way to them.
    5. Did God ever say to one of his messengers: ‘You are my Son, today I have become your Father’ or ‘I will be his Father and he shall be my Son’?
    6. And when God sent his one and only Son into the world, he said, “All God’s messengers shall worship him.”
    7. While (on one hand) Scripture talks in the following way about God’s use of messengers: ‘He who uses even winds as his messengers and makes lightning to be his servants’
    8. (on the other hand) it talks about the Son like this: ‘Your kingdom, God, will stand forever, you rule in righteousness…’

    Does that make sense to you?

  16. Peter Kirk says:

    I have been enjoying this discussion, but surprised to see no response at all to my previous comment. But I continue to have reservations about both Iver’s and John’s solutions. I wonder if the true solution might be something different.

    If “spirits” or “winds” are not the material out of which angels are made, as I suggested before (and I accept that the Greek text we have would not be the most natural way of saying that – but then it is over-literal translation Greek), then perhaps they are the category of being into which angels fall. Thus perhaps something like “he makes his angels as spirits/spiritual creatures (rather than divine beings), his servants as flaming fiery beings”. This preserves the topic of the verse as being the angels (so not using equivocation about the various senses of aggelos) but also avoids the unlikely suggestion that angels are transformed into something else.

  17. John Radcliffe says:

    Peter

    Thank you for your comments.

    You said: “this verse must be about angels in the proper sense, as in the introductory line, and cannot be about an additional class of pseudo-angels or messengers consisting of winds and flames.” I entirely agree with you. It seems clear to me that the writer is talking about what we in English call “angels” throughout this section.

    When you suggested the rendering:

    “He makes his angels out of winds, his servants out of flames of fire.”

    I would in essence be happy with that, except that I would then interpret that metaphorically (which I guess neither you nor Iver are happy with) rather than introducing the idea of wind and fire being “two of the four elements in ancient philosophy”.

    I’d respond in a similar way about your later suggestion.
    _____

    Iver

    You asked: “Does that make sense to you?” Yes it does, but it’s just that I’m far from convinced that it’s what the passage is saying.

    I must also object when you say:

    “Your starting point was and is the traditional English renderings of this verse, and therefore your context is what these translations can possibly mean in English. My starting point is the original texts …”

    I thought I had spelled out in my previous comment that acceptance of the traditional rendering was definitely NOT my starting point. On the contrary, as I said, I initially favoured your version, but of course I wanted to check its validity against the data I found in the context and my (admittedly partial) understanding of the underlying Greek. I’m unsure why you seem convinced that everyone who disagrees with you is blindly following the “traditional understanding” of the passage.

    You also suggest that when someone attempts to understand a text metaphorically they are “twisting” it. I had hoped that my everyday examples would show that, on the contrary, people in general are happy to understand obviously non-literal statements as imagery. Just because people who do this here cannot tie down the image precisely doesn’t mean that the method is flawed.

    Anyway, thank you for the discussion. To be honest, I had hoped that someone with a better grasp of the text might have weighed in “on my side”, but perhaps from your point of view there is no one with a better understanding of the “traditional” viewpoint, as it is only followed by those who fail to understand the text properly! So perhaps all the others are just blindly following the “traditional” rendering.

  18. Gary Simmons says:

    Fires and winds, both indefinite, are very temporary things. Perhaps, then, angels are fleeting and mortal. After all, it is a contrast right afterward: “Your throne, O God, will last forever and ever.” This interpretation belongs to Dr. John Harrison — I take no credit here.

    This idea fits the NIV rendering for Hebrews 1:7, and actually connects to the immediate context. This does not fit the context of Psalm 104, but immediate context is more important.

  19. iver larsen says:

    John,

    Sorry if I come out too strongly. I did not intend to say that you follow tradition, simply because it is tradition. I only said that your starting point was the English rendering, presumably in NIV, because you said: “When I looked up my annotated translation, I found I’d followed the “traditional” rendering and simply added a paraphrase (“He makes the angels who serve him as powerful as the wind and fire”).”
    Nor did I say that you “blindly” follow tradition. You are reacting to things I never said. However, tradition is still a strong force for all os us, whether we think about it or not.
    Nor am I denying the reality of metaphors, but I am saying that there is no need to interpret Heb 1:7 as metaphorical. One cannot prove anything by examples, only illustrate what has otherwise been proven.

  20. iverlarsen says:

    Gary,
    I have often said that immediate context is more important than a wider context, so I’ll have to agree with you on that statement. However, Heb 1:7 is a verbatim quote from Psalm 104:4 and therefore that verse is the most crucial part of the immediate context.
    I suppose this is where I part ways with most others. I believe the author quoted this Psalm for a reason, but most commentators ignore this context.

  21. Gary Simmons says:

    I’ll admit, I don’t know what would best fit the context both the Psalm and its citation. And to be fair, I can’t think of fire or wind being often used as examples of something temporary.

    Yet the following verses in Hebrews do speak of permanency and, at least in the NIV’s wording, this is contrasted to verse 7.

  22. iver larsen says:

    Gary,

    Permanancy is only one aspect and not the main one. It is possible that the angels will be out of work in the new world, and maybe cease to exist, but I don’t know.
    The thematic contrast between angels and Jesus is that of superior position, introduced in v. 4 and referred to repeatedly. Jesus is the Son of God, angels are not. Jesus is to be worshiped, angels are not. Jesus has a throne, angels do not. Jesus rules, angels are only messengers and servants. This is what I consider the context of the whole passage, and that is why winds and lightning function as messengers and servants of God and therefore Psalm 104 fits with the theme of this section: God uses his creation, including angels, to fulfill his purposes, but these created beings and things have a position and function far below that of Jesus.

  23. iver larsen says:

    Peter,
    Since you introduced the concept of equivocation, I probably need to explain my point better.

    Those who are familiar with Relevance Theory will know about “contextual assumptions”. I don’t personally like this term, and would rather call it extra-textual assumptions or pre-textual assumptions. In any case, it includes the encyclopedic information that a reader or hearer brings to a given text in order to understand the intended meaning.
    Once we use the term “angel” in English, a number of ideas come to mind. My Collins dictionary list the following under “angel”:
    1. A spiritual being believed to be an attendant or messenger of God.
    2. A conventinal representation of an angel as a human being with wings.
    3. A person who is kind, pure or beuatiful.
    4. An investor in a theatrical production.
    (I thought an obedient child is also called an angel, but that must come under 3.)
    If a Greek person reads the word AGGELOS, he will have some very different ideas in mind. Numbers 2, 3 and 4 are completely irrelevant to AGGELOS. (Many are surpised that angels do not have wings.) Even number 1 does not properly cover the basic concept of AGGELOS, which happens to be “messenger”, whether human or not.
    The Greek term will evoke the sense of “messenger”.
    If I use “messenger” in English, a different set of ideas come to mind. My Collins only lists one sense:
    1. A person who takes messages from one person or group to another.
    This does not completely overlap with AGGELOS, but the overlap is greater than with “angel”, because the core meaning of AGGELOS is “messenger”. As soon as I say messenger, you are less apt to think of an awesome being, but more likelty to think of a person in a position of a rather low status, much lower than the “boss”.
    All of this to say that when you think of AGGELOS in terms of “messenger” and Jesus (and God) in terms of “boss”, you are closer to the intended meaning of the text, IMO. In most contexts, it is not crucial to know that the word for “angel” means messenger, but in this particular text it is important.

  24. Gary Simmons says:

    It is possible that the angels will be out of work in the new world, and maybe cease to exist, but I don’t know.

    That is a sad thought! Well, thank you for answering me, Iver. I learn from the instruction “with all patience” that you give.

  25. cyp says:

    i must disagree. the translation from hebrew is: who makes his angels serving spirits, and his servants consuming fire. it means that those who serve God have a burning flame inside them. They are like fire that burns powerful. They cannot be moved from their faith and God gaves them power to fight against those that oppose them. Their words become flaming fire that change pedople that hear them. Also if you read the verse that says: and love of God consumed me as a burning fire.

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