To The Hebrews

The Epistle to the Hebrews

Cecil N. Wright

Angels - His Ministers
Chapter 1:7
(From Psalm 104:4)


  Psalm 104:4 "Who maketh his angels spirits, His ministers a flame of fire" -- with "servants" as an alternate reading for "angels" (New King James Version).

  "Who maketh winds his messengers; Flames of fire his minister" -- with "his angels winds" as a alternate reading for "winds his messengers" (American Standard Version).

  Hebrews 1:7: "And of the angels He says: ‘Who makes his angels spirits And His ministers a flame of fire" (New King James Version).

  "And of the angels he saith, Who maketh his angels winds, And his minister a flame of fire" (American Standard Version).

 Paraphrases and/or Commentaries:

  James Macknight, The Apostolical Epistles: "Who made His angels spiritual substances, and his ministers a flame of fire; -- that is, the greatest thing said of angels is, that they are beings not clogged with flesh, who serve God with utmost activity."

  Neil R. Lightfoot, Jesus Christ Today: "But another rendering of the Hebrew [of Psalm 1:4:4 in the American Standard Version] is possible which, instead of making winds His messengers makes His messengers (or angles) winds. This is the translation of the Septuagint, which is followed by the author [of Hebrews], showing that God is able to do with angels whatever he desires. He can change them into winds or into flames of fire. Angels, at their highest, are mere servants. They have no will or rule of their own.* They do not give orders, they obey them."

* They have no will of their own except either to obey or disobey God, as is true of Christians. But they can sin, and some have (2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6). -- C.N.W.

Cambridge Bible Commentary: "Quotation: Psa.104:4. Originally a statement about God: ‘He who makes winds his angels [i.e. messengers], and the fiery flames his servants [ministers]' (C.T.). Our writer inverts the meaning -- perhaps following the writer of 2 Esdras 8:22, who does the same -- so that it means that the angels do God's tasks in the world of nature. They are God's servants."

Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: "The translation of the Hebrew [of Psalm 104:4] could be ‘God makes winds His messengers, and flames of fire His servants.' The LXX, which is followed by the author has ‘He makes His angels winds, and His servants a flame of fire.' . . . Some have suggested that God often clothes the angels ‘with the changing garment of phenomena,' transforming them, as it were, into winds and flames. It is better to take angels as God's messengers clothed with God's powers to accomplish His will in the realm of nature. To achieve this they are allowed to cooperate with the storm winds and flames of fire as they did on Mt. Sinai. But, however important their service, and however perfect its performance, they are still the messengers and servants of God. The Son, on the contrary, is addressed by the Father not as a messenger but as God, who occupies and eternal throne, and as Sovereign, who rules his kingdom with righteousness."

A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament: "Luneman holds that the Hebrew here is wrongly rendered and means that God makes the winds his messengers (not angels) and flaming fire his servants. That is all true [that he does such], but that is not the point of this passage. Preachers also are sometimes like a wind storm or a fire."

NOTE: In the figure of speech called metaphor, the comparison is not stated by "as" or "like," but as reality, as in the poet's statement, "My love is a red, red rose," or in Hebrews 12:29, "Our God is a consuming fire." In effect, Robertson is representing Hebrews 1:7 as a metaphorical statement.

Preacher's Homiletic Commentary: "The force of the passage lies in the vividness with which it presents the thought of the Most High served by angels who ‘at his bidding speed,' untiring as the wind, subtle as the fire." (In effect, another representation of the passage as metaphorical.)

Expositor's Greek Testament: "The writer [of Hebrews] accepts the LXX translation [of Psalm 104:4] and it serves his purpose of exhibiting that the characteristic function of angels is service, and that their form and appearance depend on the will of God. This was the current Jewish view."

R. Milligan, Epistle to the Hebrews: "But what is the meaning of the word pneumata in the first clause? Does it mean spirits, as in our Common Version [King James Version], or does it mean winds, as some have alleged? This must be determined by the scope of the passage, which evidently is, not to degrade, but to exalt the angels as far as possible, with the view of exalting the Son still higher by comparison."

"To say, then, that God makes his angels as strong as the irresistible winds and tempests, would harmonize very well with the Apostle's design; and also with the scope and construction of the next clause in which God's ministers are compared, not merely with fire, but with a flame of fire. [This would be to understand the passage metaphorically. – C.N.W.] But in this case, though the word ruach might have been used in the Hebrew [and was], it most likely would have been rendered by the Greek anemos, as in Ex.x.13,19;xiv.21, etc., and not by pneuma, the current meaning of which in both classic and sacred literature, is breath or spirit. Seldom, if ever, does it denote a violent wind or tempest, unless when used figuratively, as in Ex.15.8,10, for the breath of Jehovah.

"Much more, then, in harmony with the context and general usage is the word spirit as given in our English Version. Throughout the entire Bible, the word spirit often stands in antithesis with the word flesh; the latter being used symbolically for whatever is weak, frail, depraved, and corruptible; and the former, in like manner, for what is strong, pure, and incorruptible. . . . . In no other, way, therefore, could our author effectually exalt the angels in the estimation of his Hebrew brethren than by calling them spirits; that is, beings ‘who excel in strength,' and who are wholly removed from all the weaknesses, impurities, and imperfections of the flesh."

"This, too, corresponds well with the history of these pure celestial intelligences, so far as it is given in the Holy Scriptures. They have always served as God's ministers (leitourgoi), before whom the enemies of Jehovah have often melted away as wax or stubble before a flame of fire. This is abundantly proved and illustrated by the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. Xix.1-26); the destruction of the firstborn of the Egyptians (Ex.xii,29,30); the punishment of the Israelites under David (2 Sam.xxiv.15-17); the discomfiture of the hosts of Benhadad King of Syria (2 Kings vi.8-23); and the overthrow of the army of Sennacherib (2 Kings xix.35)."

Concluding Remarks:

The reader can see that Hebrews 1:7 presents a problem of translation. It is represented in the differences between the texts of the New King James Version (as well as the old KJV) and the American Standard Version, and by alternate readings in their margins. It chiefly has to do, however, with whether pneumata is to be translated "spirits" or "winds".

If translated "winds," then both "winds" and "fire" are most likely to be understood metaphorically, as per a goodly number of commentators. If translated "spirits," as by the King James Versions, "fire" is still most likely to be understood metaphorically.

Macknight and Milligan are in agreement, and both are in harmony with the King James and New King James textual rendering. But Milligan takes pains to argue at length in support of that rendition, and makes what to this writer is a convincing case.

That accounts for the wording of II, I, (c) in his outline of Hebrews as follows: "God makes his angels spirits (not flesh), and his ministers (the angels) a flame of fire (possibly in a sense that God is a consuming fire, 12:29)" -- that is, metaphorically.