Issue No. 46 22 - 28 Nov 2010

The Curious Case of the Windy Angels (or is it Angelic Winds)? 

By Mr Quek Tze-Ming

Many BGST friends know that I have a long-standing interest in the use of the Old Testament in the New. A while ago, I came across an interesting case – the citation of Ps 104.4 in Heb 1.7. Let’s lay out the relevant verses as they appear in two popular English translations:  


NIV 1984


Heb 1.7

In speaking of the angels (God) says,
“He makes his angels winds,
his servants flames of fire.”

Of the angels (God) says,
“He makes his angels winds,
and his ministers a flame of fire.”

Ps 104.4

He makes winds his messengers,
flames of fire his servants.

he makes his messengers winds,
his ministers a flaming fire.

The Hebrew Original
That the NIV 1984 renders Ps 104.4 correctly can be seen from the context of the psalm. Psalm 104 refers to the glory and power of God, the Almighty Creator who manipulates his creation for his own purposes. He “stretches out the heavens like a tent” (v. 2) and “lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters. He makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind” (v. 3). Therefore, the “winds” and the “flames of fire” in Ps 104.4 are best understood as the elements of a thunderstorm (winds and lightning), personified as God’s agents to fulfil his purposes. The image is that of God riding out to war against the waters (of chaos), using the thunderstorm as his weapon. Clearly then, NIV 1984 renders Ps 104.4 correctly. ESV, on the other hand, has made nonsense out of Ps 104.4 (sorry John Piper!).

The Problem: Flipped?
But if that’s what Ps 104.4 means to say, how did we end up with Heb 1.7 (or, at least, most English versions of it)?  The problem is not so much the difference between “messengers” and “angels,” for the respective words in both Hebrew and Greek can mean either. Rather, the problem is this: In most English versions of Heb 1.7, the meaning has been flipped from that of Ps 104.4. In Ps 104.4, winds “are made” God’s messengers/angels, and flames of fire “are made” God’s servants. In Heb 1.7, it is God’s angels that “are made” winds, and God’s servants “are made” flames of fire. To use the technical language of grammar, we say that the object-predicate order has been reversed. Has the author of Hebrews completely misread or ignored the meaning and the context of the Hebrew Ps 104.4?

The Greek Translation of the Psalm
At this point, interpreters go to the Septuagint (“LXX”) for answers. This is the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT. The author of Hebrews has quoted almost word-for-word from LXX Ps 103.4 (The change in number is due to Pss 9-10 being counted as one psalm in the Greek translation). The only difference between Heb 1.7 and LXX Ps 103.4 lies in the last two words. The former has “flame of fire” and the latter has “flaming fire.” This is an inconsequential variation.

Well, if you know your Greek, you’ll find that LXX Ps 103.4 says literally (following the Greek word order):

The one who makes and the messengers of his winds,
and the servants of his a flaming fire.

Now, Greek has a flexible word order, so you cannot be sure just from word order which noun is the object and which is the predicate. The noun occuring first in the sentence (“the messengers of his”) is normally the object, and the noun occuring second (“winds”) is normally the predicate, but that is not an inevitable conclusion. Neither can you be sure from the case of the nouns, since both object and predicate would be in the accusative case. Therefore, both the following options are theoretically possible:

Option 1: The one who makes his messengers winds, and his servants a flaming fire.
Option 2: The one who makes winds his messengers, and a flaming fire his servants.

Option 2 has a similar meaning to the Hebrew Ps 104.4. Option 1 does not. Now, in the absence of any other factors, the noun with the article (“the messengers of his,” “the servants of his”) usually functions as the object, and the noun without the article (“winds,” “flaming fire”) usually functions as the predicate. Therefore, common Greek usage and normal word order favour Option 1. This is probably the main reason why many English versions of Heb 1.7 go for this option, since the author of Hebrews is clearly quoting from the LXX here.

But I don’t think Option 1 is the best way to understand LXX Ps 103.4. Yes, common Greek usage favours it. But only in the absence of other factors. We must remember that LXX Ps 103.4 is not a stand-alone text. It is translation Greek, deriving from a Hebrew original. And as a translation, the Greek Psalter has been found to be very wooden, emphasizing the formal elements of the Hebrew original, often at the expense of elegance or coherence in the Greek. LXX Ps 103.4 reflects the word order of the Hebrew version exactly. The addition of the article in the Greek “the messengers of his” and “the servants of his” is not because the translator wished to make them objects rather than predicates (as in the Hebrew text). Rather, the article is almost inevitable in Greek whenever a possessive pronoun (autou, “of his”) is attached to the noun (“messengers”). This means that LXX Ps 103.4 looks the way it not because the translator has decided to change the meaning of the Hebrew original, but because he is slavishly trying to mimic it. There are no indications that he is doing otherwise. Therefore, Option 2 is a better translation of LXX Ps 103.4.

The Author of Hebrews: Quoting “Out of Context”?
If Option 2 is the correct translation of LXX Ps 103.4, what then of the author of Hebrews? Did the author of Hebrews quote LXX Ps 103.4 “wrongly”? That is to say, did he think the Greek version meant Option 1 rather than Option 2? Or, if he knew the Greek version really meant Option 2, did he himself mean Option 1? NIV 1984 and most English translations of Heb 1.7 appear to suggest this. Commentators would then have to say that the author of Hebrews has chosen to quote from a translation that he himself understood in a different (opposite!) sense from its Hebrew source, because it better suits his own arguments at this point of the book of Hebrews. Those with a high view of Scripture would probably say that the author of Hebrews is allowed to do this (namely, quote the OT out of context) because of sensus plenoir (“fuller meaning” available under inspiration of the Holy Spirit). But is this the best solution? 

The Argument in Hebrews
Let’s take a closer look at the argument in the book of Hebrews to see if we can get any help. The author, at this part of Hebrews, is concerned with demonstrating the superiority of the Son over the angels. According to him, God has never said to the angels the words of the Davidic covenant “You are my Son ...” (Heb 1.5; quoting from Ps 2.7 and 2 Sam 7.14). Indeed God’s angels are to worship the Son (Heb 1.6; quoting from the Greek of Ps 97.7). Concerning the angels, God says ... (Heb 1.7; this is the part where our quotation from Ps 104.4 comes in); but concerning the Son, it is said, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever ...” (Heb 1.8, quoting of Ps 45.6-7). Clearly, some kind of comparison is being made between what is said in Scripture of the angels and of the Son. But what? The quotation of Ps 45.6-7 tells us that the point being made is the everlasting rule of the Son, who is addressed as “God” (“Your throne, O God, is forever ...”). So the function of the preceding Ps 104.4 quotation is to demonstrate the inferiority of the angels, because unlike the Son they are identified with creation and hence transient, subject to change and decay.

At this point, it may seem that NIV 1984, ESV, and most English bibles have translated Heb 1.7 correctly: Concerning the angels, it is said that God makes his angels winds ... In other words, God may transform these members of the created order into the transient elemental forces of wind and fire. The point is that there is nothing great or permanent about angels (since they can be transformed to winds) as compared to the Son. But, that begs the question, “when has God ever done that?” I cannot think of any tradition, biblical or otherwise, where angels have been transformed in this way. 

Let’s see if a sense truer to the Hebrew original, a sense closer to Option 2, fits in the argument in Hebrews: Concerning the angels, it is said that God makes winds his angels ... The point would then be that God can make even transient elemental forces (such as winds and lightning) function as his messengers/angels. Again, the point is that there is nothing great about angels (since the elements can be made to be “angels”) as compared to the Son.

It seems to me that Option 2 can work in the argument of Hebrews to make a very similar point, and has the advantage of being truer to the original meaning of the Hebrew Ps 104.4 and (arguably) LXX Ps 103.4. I suppose you could also say that we have “saved” the author of Hebrews from quoting “out of context.” I would therefore prefer a translation of Heb 1.7 along the lines of Option 2. If the translation is dynamic, it may look something like this:

In speaking of the angels (God) says, 
“He uses even winds as his angels,  
even flames of fire as his servants.”

What do you think? If you have been intrigued by this essay, do consider signing up for our courses which will help you think through some of the issues raised: Biblical Hebrew and Exegesis, New Testament Greek and Exegesis, Biblical Hermeneutics, Theological Foundations, Old and New Testament Foundations. Some of these will be offered in the coming semester starting Jan 2011.  Any thoughts or comments are welcome. Please send them to bgst@pacific.net.sg.

Chapel News - 1 December 2010

Ms Quek Hoon Khim will be our Chapel Speaker and Ms Lee May San will lead worship. Both Ms Quek and Ms Lee are our students. Chapel begins at 12 pm. You are welcome to join us.


The Council, Faculty & Staff at BGST send our heartfelt condolences to Dr Ng Peh Cheng and her family on the demise of her father who went home to be with the Lord on 21 Nov 2010. May His peace comfort the family during this time of grief.

The wake is held at the parlour at The Church of Our Lady of Lourdes located at 50 Ophir Road. There will be a service on Wednesday (24 Nov) night at 8pm and the funeral will be on Thursday (25 Nov).

37 Jalan Pemimpin, #06-05 Block B, Union Industrial Building S(577177).
Tel: 6227-6815 Fax: 6255-3686 Email: bgst@pacific.net.sg
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