Weird Scenes in the Desert: Appearances, Visitations, and the Watchfulness of God

“Ye watchers and ye holy ones, 
bright seraphs, cherubim, and thrones, 
raise the glad strain, Alleluia! 
Cry out, dominions, princedoms, powers, 
virtues, archangels, angels’ choirs: Alleluia! Alleluia! 
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!”

                                    —Athelstan Riley   

“They say there’s a place down in Mexico
Where a man can fly over mountains and hills
And he don’t need an airplane or some kind of engine
And he never will
Now you know it’s a meaningless question
To ask if those stories are right
‘Cause what matters most if the feeling
You get when you’re hypnotized
Seems like a dream
They got me hypnotized”

                                   —Bob Welch, “Hypnotized”

Scripture passages and notes are from the Jerusalem Bible, except from the King James Version (KJV) where noted.

If I am driving late at night I tune in to Coast to Coast AM, a radio program devoted to mysterious occurrences of all sorts: UFOs, the paranormal, alien abductions, conspiracies, time travel, life after death, and, frequently, visitations by extraterrestrial beings.  It is entertaining and keeps me awake.  Through the 30 year plus history of the program these stories never seem to be exhausted—there are always new things to tell and callers to tell them.  Well, the Bible has these too, encounters of a distinctly spiritual kind.  As long as this post may be, I am only scratching the surface in an attempt to provide an appreciation of these manifestations.   I wish to give you the ones which stand out to me and have the most spiritual significance.   More, including post-resurrection appearances of Christ, are included in my post I Just Want to See His Face.

A brief but gripping vision occurs early in the Old Testament.  It appears in Genesis 4:18, the visit of the mysterious Melchizedek, “a priest of God Most High”, who appears to Abraham (then called Abram), bringing bread and wine.  He stays for awhile, and before leaving pronounces a blessing on him.  The name Melchizedek appears later in the Book of Hebrews, this time applied to Christ.  So it is possible that from the beginning of the Old Testament scriptures we have a pre-incarnation appearance of Christ. 

In Genesis 34 Jacob wrestles with God (or an angel of God?) until daybreak, not willing to let him go until he is blessed.  At the end of the struggle Jacob proclaims, “I have seen God face to face and I have survived.”  This is a special privilege indeed, for, as the Jerusalem Bible notes state, “to look upon God is death to man; if he survives, it is by special privilege”.  This is confirmed later in Exodus 33:20 when God tells Moses, “You cannot see my face…for man cannot see me and live.”  Again, from the notes, “God’s sanctity is so removed from man’s unworthiness that man must perish if he looks on God.  The man who remains alive after seeing God is overwhelmed with astonishment and gratitude.  It is a favor God rarely concedes.  Man cannot look on God’s face except in heaven.”  This vision of God’s glory corresponds to the New Testament transfiguration of Christ, of whom John says, “who alone has gazed on the father”, and in 6:46 “Not that anybody has seen the Father, except the one who comes from God (KJV “he that is of God”): he has seen the Father.”

Exodus 33 and 34 contain the story of Moses on the mountain.  Here, Yahweh passes by after Moses begs, “show me your glory”.  It is worth returning to the notes for vs 24:16-18 to get a better sense of this “glory”:  It is described as a fire, which is clearly distinguished from the cloud which covered the mountain, and which accompanies it.  This cloud will later fill the Temple of Solomon (1Kings 8:10-13), manifesting itself so powerfully that the priests could no longer perform their function, with Solomon proclaiming, “Yahweh has chosen to dwell in the thick cloud”, and that, in the Temple, has been provided a place “to live in for ever”.  The images in Exodus have a thunderstorm as their setting, but also something that the cloud does not.  There is a brilliant light (which needs no storm for its appearance) and which leaves its glow on the face of Moses.  This emanates from God’s unapproachable majesty. 

Later in the narrative, Moses calls Yahweh’s name, upon which Yahweh self-describes his nature as “rich in kindness and faithfulness”,  yet also a God who “lets nothing go unchecked”.  This awesome appearance causes Moses to bow to the ground, imploring forgiveness for the “headstrong people” he leads and asking not only forgiveness but that Yahweh “adopt us as your heritage”.  When Moses comes down from the mountain with the tablets of the Testimony, he is not aware that his face was radiant after speaking with Yahweh.  In fact, he glows so much that Aaron and the “sons of Israel” dare not approach him.  In future encounters Moses solves this problem by putting a veil over his face when he spoke with the people, removing it only when he goes into Yahweh’s presence.  It is worth noting here that, even without personal encounters with the Divine, this “glow” widely appears in the descriptions of saints and mystics of many traditions.  Ezekiel, too, observes Yahweh’s glory as it leaves the city on the eve of its destruction, and later (chapter 43) sees it return to the new temple, where it assumes a shining human form. 

The Book of Ezekiel opens with his famous account of the Chariots of Yahweh. Chapter 1 contains many signs: a “stormy wind” which “blew from the north”, accompanied by “a great cloud with light around it, a fire from which flashes of lightning darted, and in the center a sheen like bronze at the heart of the fire.”  It is then that he sees what appear to be four animals, with “human form”.  Each one had four faces and four wings, with straight legs and hooves like oxen.  Under their wings were four hands.  Along with their human faces were the faces of a lion, a bull, and an eagle.  There was a set of wings spreading upwards that touched, and another set that covered the body.  They are recorded as moving “where the spirit urged them’.  And, between the animals, the familiar image of lightning appears flashing from the fire.  Ezekiel continues to look and sees a wheel on the ground by each of the four.  All of the wheels looked alike.  They  “glittered as if made of chrysolite”, and all moved together as “the creatures ran to and fro like thunderbolts”.  More light appears from above, coming from “a sort of vault, gleaming like crystal”.  Then he hears the sound of their wings moving, “like rushing water, like the voice of Shaddai, a noise like a storm, like the noise of a camp”.  Ezekiel then casts his eyes above the vault, to see a throne the color of sapphire, and upon the throne was “a being that looked like a man.  I saw him shine like bronze…”  Around him was “what looked like fire, and a light all round like a bow in the clouds on rainy days; that is how the surrounding light appeared.  It was something that looked like the glory of Yahweh.”  Few other biblical visions contain this richness of imagery and variety of description, although  Revelation 4:1-8 comes close and has similar elements: a rainbow that looked like an emerald, a Person on the throne like a diamond and a ruby, flashes of lightning, peals of thunder, seven lamps burning, a sea that seemed to be made of glass, and, again, the four animals “with many eyes, in front and behind”. 

What are we to make of the animals?  First, they resemble the Assyrian Karibu, which the notes state is “akin to that of the cherubs over the ark”.  Also, these were the statues of the animals which stood outside the palaces of Babylon.  More than just a cultural borrowing, “these servants of the pagan gods are here shown harnessed to the chariot of the God of Israel, a vivid illustration of Yahweh’s transcendence.”  The universality of the images of the bright cloud and its accompanying phenomena lend connection and unity to the “glory of Yahweh” which appears throughout the Old Testament scriptures.  Finally, the expression “son of man”, used by both Ezekiel and Daniel, here “emphasizes the distance between God and man”, and later in Daniel 7:13-14 “becomes a messianic title which is later adopted by Jesus.”  In the cryptic passage in Matthew 8:20, Jesus says, “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”  This lends itself to many interpretations, and is referred to in numerous other New Testament passages to which the commentators feel it is linked.

The prophet Daniel has a glorious vision of this Man.  Daniel 10: 6 reads, “A man dressed in linen, with a girdle of pure gold round his waist; his body was like beryl, his face shone like lightning, his eyes were like fiery torches, his arms and his legs had the gleam of burnished bronze, the sound of his voice was like the noise of a crowd.” Ezekiel 8:2-4 provides a further description: “I looked and saw something that looked like a man (in Greek; Hebrew reads “like fire”).  Downwards from what seemed to be his loins he was fire; and upwards from his loins he seemed to shine like polished bronze.  He stretched out what seemed to be a hand and took me by the hair; and the spirit lifted me into the air and, in visions from God, took me to Jerusalem, to the entrance of the inner north gate, where the idol of Jealousy stands….There I saw the glory of the God of Israel, as I had seen it in the valley.”  The vision of the glory of “the man” is accompanied by astral travel! 

This brings us to Ezekiel 43 and his experience in the Temple .  Here he sees the glory of God coming from the east, accompanied by a sound like that of the ocean, “and the earth shone with his glory”.  At this point the spirit again lifts him up and brings him into the inner court of the temple.  Here Ezekiel hears “someone speaking to me from the Temple while the man stood beside me.  The voice said, ‘Son of man, this is the dais of my glory, the step upon which I rest my feet, I shall live here among the sons of Israel for ever…”  Daniel’s vision (7:13-14), while not as extensive as Ezekiel’s, supports it: “I gazed into the visions of the night, and I saw, coming on the clouds of heaven, one like a son of man.  He came to the one of great age and was led into his presence.  On him was conferred sovereignty, glory and kingship, and men of all peoples, nations and languages became his servants.  His sovereignty is an eternal sovereignty which shall never pass away, nor will his empire ever be destroyed.”  Clearly, this man, who is “mysteriously more than human” is messianic and is to be applied to (and fulfilled by) Jesus.

Narratives describing God’s glory, as we have seen, are full of luminous colors emanating what may be seen in spiritual perception.  Of particular note is the word bronze, used here in the Jerusalem Bible, or brass in the King James Version. This is actually more correct because the alloy used was copper and tin.  In some scriptures “copper” is meant.  The one Hebrew word for copper and bronze was rendered brass by the KJV translators because at that time bronze had not yet been introduced into the English language. These details aside, the extensive use of the word(s) to describe the glowing, luminous, shining presence of God is what is important: the writers were making the attempt to capture God’s glory in an understandable image.

On a different note, have you ever wondered why some are granted the gift of prophetic perception?  Perhaps a clue lies in the persistent appearance of “humble” and “humility” throughout the biblical narrative.  Isaiah 57:15 reads: “For thus speaks the Most High, whose home is in eternity, whose name is holy” ‘I live in a high and holy place, but I am also with the contrite and humbled spirit, to give the humbled spirit new life, to revive contrite hearts.’ ”  Humility, it seems, readies the human spirit to receive the Divine and to receive revelation and direction.

At this point I turn to what are called the “watchers”, as well as the watchfulness of God, a persistent Old Testament theme and one worth examining apart from the other accounts.  Ezekiel warns Israel in 7:6 (KJV), “An end is come, the end is come, it watcheth for thee, behold it is come.”  Daniel prophesies concerning King Nebuchadnezzar, “Let a beast’s heart be given him and seven times pass over him!  Such is the sentence pronounced by the watchers, the verdict announced by the holy ones, that every living thing may learn that the Most High rules over the kingship of men…”  Here the Watchers, or Holy Ones, proclaim what God has determined.  Later, he interprets the dream of the king of a watcher or holy one coming down from heaven and saying, “Cut the tree down and destroy it, but leave the roots in the ground, bound with hoops of iron in the grass of the field…”, meaning that his kingdom will be kept for him until he understands that heaven rules all.  Daniel 9:14 reads, “Yahweh has watched for the right moment to bring disaster on us, since, Yahweh our God is just in all his dealings with us, and we have not listened to his voice.”  There is a beautiful symbol contained here, as well as a play on words: the almond tree (sheqed), which is the first of flowering trees to bloom, introduces the oracle of Yahweh who watches (shoqed) for the moment to make his word come true, whether for good or evil.  (Jerusalem Bible notes)

Jeremiah continues this tree imagery in 1:11-12: “The word of Yahweh was addressed to me asking, ‘Jeremiah, what do you see?’ ‘I see a branch of the Watchful Tree’ I answered.  Then Yahweh said, ‘Well seen!  I too watch over my word to see it fulfilled.’ ”   This watchfulness is continued in 31:27-28.  “See, the days are coming—it is Yahweh who speaks—when I am going to sow the seed of men and cattle on the House of Israel and on the House of Judah.  And as I once watched them to tear up, to knock down, to overthrow, destroy and bring disaster, so now I shall watch over them to build and to plant.  It is Yahweh who speaks.”  And further in 44:27: “Yes, I will watch over them for their ruin, not for their good; all the men of Judah in the land of Egypt shall perish either by the sword or by famine until they are wiped out.  Yet, though few in number, those who escape the sword will return to the land of Judah from the land of Egypt.  Then the entire remnant of Judah who have come to settle in the land of Egypt will know whose word came true, mine or theirs.”  Hard words, indeed.  But the last word always belongs to God.

Job, too, was aware of the watchfulness of God. In 7:12 he asks, “Am I the Sea, or the Wild Sea Beast [KJV “a whale”], that you should keep me under watch and guard?  This was a reference to Yahweh the conqueror who set Chaos in order and then held the sea and its creatures in control.  In 14:16 he speaks to Yahweh, saying, “now you count every step I take…”.  Psalm 141:3 implores, “Yahweh, set a guard at my mouth, a watcher at the gate of my lips.  Let me feel no impulse to do wrong, to share the godlessness of evil-doers.” The final reference comes from the prophet Micah, warning “the day of thy watchman and thy visitation cometh”. (KJV)  The quality of watchfulness is conferred upon the prophet Isaiah, foretelling the fall of Babylon in Isaiah 21:6: “For this is what the Lord has said to me, ‘Go and post the watchman, and let him report what he sees’.”

So God is watching but then there are the angels of God (also watchers) who play an important role.  In many ways they serve as the instruments of God.  In Daniel 4:10 Nebuchadnezzar in his dream sees “a watcher, a holy one come down from heaven”.  The notes reveal that this is an angel, always alert to carry out the command of God” and suggests that we compare it to the wheels “with eyes all around” in Ezekiel 1:18 and to the “eyes of the Lord” in Zechariah 4:10.  The notes further state that the term “watcher” is common in apocryphal literature and there designate archangels or fallen angels, but in later tradition the guardian angels.  In Daniel 8:13, he hears a “holy one” speaking.  Daniel knows who this angel is.  It is Gabriel, who has significant power, for when he touches Daniel it causes him to fall senseless to the ground.  This causes Daniel to beg Yahweh for mercy and pardon for the sins of the people, and in 9:14 he says, “Yahweh has watched for the right moment to bring disaster on us, since Yahweh our God is just in all his dealing with us, and we have not listened to his voice.”  God is watching.  Angels are watching.  It seems that messengers such as these appear at the times in history when most needed.  (We certainly need them today.)  The notes explain the imagery: “…the symbol of the almond tree introduces the oracle of Yahweh who watches for the moment to make his oracle come true, whether for good or evil.”  It is at this point, while Daniel is still at prayer the angel Gabriel suddenly flies down to him and explains his purpose.  In 9:22-23, “Daniel, you see me; I have come down to teach you how to understand.  When your pleading began, a word was uttered, and I have come to tell you what it is.  You are a man specifically chosen.  Grasp the meaning of the word, understand the vision:”  Angels, then, interpret and explain, delivering the message, making the watchfulness of God more explicit.  And, again, these visitations are tied to the moments in history when they are most needed. 

Zechariah sees “a man standing among the deep-rooted myrtles”.  It is a vision of Joshua, the high priest, who stands before the angel of Yahweh, “with Satan standing on his right to accuse him”.  The dialog which ensues is a powerful message of God’s power to cleanse and to make right.  The angel speaks: “May Yahweh rebuke you, Satan, may Yahweh rebuke you, he who made Jerusalem his very own, Is not this man a brand snatched from the fire?  Now Joshua was dressed in dirty clothes as he stood before the angel of Yahweh.  The angel said these words to those who stood before him, ‘Take off his dirty clothes and clothe him in splendid robes of state, and put a clean turban on his head’.  They clothed him in splendid robes of state and put a clean turban on his head.  The angel of Yahweh was standing there and said to him, ‘Look, I have taken away your iniquity from you’.  The angel of Yahweh then proclaimed to Joshua: ‘Yahweh Sabaoth says this, “If you walk in my ways and keep my ordinances, you shall govern my house, you shall watch over my courts, and I will give you free access among those who stand here.’ ”  And then, prophetically: “ ‘For this is the stone which I am placing before Joshua; on this single stone there are seven eyes, and I myself intend to cut the inscription on it—it is Yahweh Sabaoth who speaks.’ ”  It is important to note that this passage is immediately followed by the messianic prophecy of the coming of the “Branch”, in Greek the “rising Sun”. What are these seven eyes?  They are explained by the angel in 4:10: “These seen are the eyes of Yahweh; they cover the whole world.”  The notes read, “This stone presumably stands for the Temple.  The seven eyes are symbolic of the watchful presence of Yahweh.”

Angels are an essential part of the scriptural record by the sheer volume of their references (283!).  Without providing a complete “angelophany” which would make this a book instead of a post, here are some selected clues to their nature, role, and function:

  • Angels which strengthen and provide sustenance
  • Angels which destroy, persecute, or “smite”
  • Angels who praise, bless, serve, and worship God
  • Angels who warn, announce, and proclaim, serving as spokespersons of God
  • Angels which in Genesis 28:12 are seen in Jacob’s dream to be ascending and descending a ladder from heaven, repeated by Jesus in John 1:51 “I tell you solemnly, you will see heaven laid open and, above the Son of Man, the angels of God ascending and descending.”
  • In Exodus 3:2 the angel connected with God’s appearance in the burning bush
  •  In Numbers 22:22-27 the angel which blocks the way of Balaam and his donkey (who, unlike Balaam, is able to perceive the angel)
  • In 1 Chronicles 21:16, the angel of Yahweh standing between earth and heaven
  • In Psalm 34:7, the angel of Yahweh who encamps around those who fear him, keeping them safe
  • In Psalm 35:5, the angel who chases enemies “as chaff before the wind”
  • In Psalm 91:11, God “will put you in his angels’ charge, to guard you wherever you go”
  • In Psalm 104:4, God ”maketh his angels spirits” (KJV), “and fiery flames as servants”
  • In Daniel 3:28, the angel which delivered Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the fiery furnace.  Here we are intrigued as to whom exactly this angel may be.  He is standing in the fire; Daniel 3:25 reads “the fourth looks like a son of the gods [the protecting angel]”; The KJV goes even further to state “the fourth is like the Son of God.”  Angel or pre-incarnate appearance of Christ?  You decide.
  • In Matthew 13:39, angels as reapers of the harvest at the end of the world
  • In Matthew 16:27 the Son coming in the glory of his Father with his angels, and in 2 Thessalonians 1:17 Jesus revealed with the angels
  • In Matthew 22:30 men and women at the resurrection “who do not marry; no, they are like the angels in heaven”; in Luke 20:36 “because they do not die, they are the same as the angels, being children of the resurrection” (parallel in Mark 12:25)
  • In Matthew 28:2 the angel who rolled away the stone from the tomb
  • In Luke 16:22 the angels who carry the dead Lazarus to Abraham’s bosom
  • In Acts 5:19 the angel who opened the prison doors
  • In Hebrews 2:7 man made for a short while “a little lower than the angels”
  • In Hebrews 2:16 Jesus taking upon himself not the nature of angels, but “descent from Abraham” (KJV “the seed of Abraham”)
  • In Hebrews 13:2, the instruction to welcome strangers, “for by doing this some have entertained angels”
  • In Revelation 10:1 a powerful angel “coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs were pillars of fire”; and in 18:1 an angel “with great authority given to him: the earth was lit up with his glory”
  • In Revelation 12:9 Satan, too, “who had deceived all the world, was hurled down to the earth and his angels were hurled down with him”.
  • In Revelation 15:1 angels bring the seven last plagues

This brings us to appearances in the New Testament narrative.   Gabriel is here again, speaking first to Zechariah the priest and then to Mary of the child she is about to bear.  Zechariah asks the angel a pertinent question, “How can I be sure of this?” to which the angel replies, “I am Gabriel who stand in God’s presence and I have been sent to you to bring you this good news.” (Luke 1:18-19) Later, verses 26-38 read that Gabriel was sent by God to Nazareth to confirm her role: “Rejoice, so highly favored!  The Lord is with you….Mary, do not be afraid; you have won God’s favor.  Listen!  You are to conceive and bear a son, and you must name him Jesus.”  Even the specifics of the chosen name are given to the angel to reveal, which is significant here, because Jesus=Yehoshua=Yahweh saves, among other messianic titles.

In Matthew 4:1-11 (with parallels in Mark and Luke) Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness where he fasts for forty days and is tempted.  During his temptation, Satan (who is able to quote scripture) suggests that Jesus throw himself down from the parapet of the Temple, for God “will put his angels in charge of you, to guard you”. (Psalm 91:11)  At the end of the ordeal, “the devil left him, and angels appeared and looked after him.”  An angelic presence is prepared to envelope Jesus when care is needed.  These guardian angels are again mentioned by Jesus in 18:10 when he says, speaking of children, “See that you never despise any of these little ones, for I tell you that their angels in heaven are continually in the presence of my Father in heaven.”  “Little ones” are mentioned in 18:12-14 (where the Good Shepherd  leaves the ninety-nine sheep on the hillside to find the one who is lost).  Jesus says, “it is never the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”

In the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus submits himself to his fate, the angels are evidently standing by, but Jesus chooses not to invoke them.  After Peter cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant, Jesus tells him, “Put your sword back, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.  Or do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, who would promptly send more than twelve legions of angels to my defense?  But then, how would the scriptures been fulfilled that say this is the way it must be?”

The Book of Hebrews provides the relationship of Jesus to the angels, along with their more general role.  The Jerusalem Bible heading for this passage reads “The Son is greater than the angels”.  Hebrews 1:13-14 reads “God has never said to any angel: Sit at my right hand and I will make your enemies a footstool for you.  The truth is they are all spirits whose work is service, sent to help those who will be the heirs of salvation.”  Notes to this passage state “Compared to the Son, angels are only servants employed to save human beings.”  That is enough for me—any help I can be given on the path of life will be gratefully received.

Angels have their role and so does he who is greater than the angels.  As the scriptures conclude, Revelation 1:12-17 has John hearing “a voice behind me, like the voice of a trumpet”.  It is none other than Jesus himself, whose appearance was “like the sun shining with all its force”.  This causes John to fall in a dead faint at his feet, but then Jesus touches him and says, “Do not be afraid, it is I, the First and the Last; I am the Living One [in the notes “the one who has life in himself”, confirming earlier passages in the Book of John that the Son gives life to anyone he chooses and that the Father has made the Son the source of life].  I was dead and now I am to live for ever and ever, and I hold the keys of death and of the underworld.”  In this fantastic affirmation, Christ has the power to release souls even from the grip of death and Sheol/Hades, referring to his “descent to the dead” in 1 Peter 3:19 where “in the spirit he was raised to life, and, in the spirit, he went to preach to the spirits in prison.”

Are these accounts full of literary elements?  Of course.  Does that negate the reality of their substance, their spiritual message?  Indeed not.  Underlying them all is the overwhelming sense that we are not alone in our journey, and that there is wonder and power and glory to perceive.  The scriptural record makes this abundantly clear.  More important, accounts such as these have been written and rewritten in the corroborating  visions of many who have, in their own way, testified to this reality.  Their essential message is an affirmation of a Presence, Divine Personhood at work in the order of the universe.  

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