When the Bible mentions angels, it sometimes specifies types of angels, such as archangels, cherubs, and seraphs. The Bible does not refer to these categories of angels often, though they seem to hold exalted offices that may indicate a hierarchy among angels. The Apocrypha provides much more insight into angels in writings like the Book of Enoch. This book details another type of angel not mentioned in the Bible, the Watchers. So, the question that begs asking is, what is the hierarchy of angels?
Top in the Hierarchy of Angels: The Archangels
Archangel is a composite word where the Greek “archon” (chief) and “angelos” (messenger/angel) are combined to create a word that refers to a chief angel. The word appears twice in the Bible, and only in the New Testament (1 Thessalonians 4:16; Jude 9). In the first instance, it refers to the sound accompanying Jesus‘ return. In the second, it mentions that Michael, who engaged Satan about the body of Moses, is an Archangel. So, in the Bible, only one angel is identified as an archangel.
The apocryphal sources present more information on the archangels. The Apocryphal book 2 Esdras also identifies only one archangel, but he is not Michael. 2 Esdras 4:36 identifies Jeremiel as an archangel. The Apocalypse of Moses lists five archangels: Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, Raphael, and Joel. These are examples of extra-biblical sources that frustrate and contradict the biblical claim of Michael as the one archangel (Revelation 12:7) who heads the heavenly host of angels as their chief.
Cherubim & Seraphim
Cherubim are angels that serve in the presence of God (Ezekiel 10). The addition of two cherubs with outstretched wings on the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant depicts their function in God’s presence. The temple that Solomon erected also featured two large cherubim.
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This is an exalted position that Satan had before his fall (Ezekiel 28:14,16). Satan was not content with his position as a cherub in this hierarchy of angels and desired to ascend higher than the other angels, contextually referred to as stars (Isaiah 14:13), and rise to the throne instead of ministering before it.
There are attributes associated with cherubim that may assist in identifying them when they are not named. They have four wings and four faces (Ezekiel 10:21), and a cherub presided at each wheel of the throne, therefore, the cherubim serving in the presence of God are four.
Another type of angel that is part of the hierarchy of angels is the seraphim. According to Ezekiel, these beings have exalted positions because they also minister in the presence of God. They are not the same as the cherubim because the Bible says they have six wings, and not four. Seraphs are mentioned in Scripture twice, both times in Isaiah chapter 6.
Seraphs are associated with the Trisagion, a term that is a compounding of the Greek words “tris” (three) and “hagios” (holy). It refers to the “Holy, holy, holy” uttered in adoration of God. Seraphs hold exalted positions, and they realize the honor of serving in God’s presence; This is evident from the covering of their faces and feet with four wings (they fly with the remaining two).
Thrones, Principality, Power, Might, and Dominion
In the early Christian church, some scholars like Thomas Aquinas and Pseudo-Dionysius became convinced that the terms: thrones, principality, power, might, and dominion, as interpreted in Ephesians 1:21 and Colossians 1:16, also referred to angels. This added several other types of angels to the fray.
The three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, have all developed a hierarchy of angels. Neither of these three religions presents a consensus view on the hierarchy of angels, and neither does any of the hierarchies in one of these religions align with that of another.
The Hierarchy of Angels in Judaism
In Judaism, the Talmud identifies Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael as the four angels ministering around the throne. They are later referred to as archangels. Yet, the hierarchy of angels radically differs according to the various rabbinic literature.
Seraphim, for instance, is ranked 5th out of ten in the Mishneh Torah, first out of ten according to the Maseket Atzilut, but last out of ten according to the Berit Menuchah. Similarly, according to various Jewish authorities, cherubim are ranked between third and ninth in the hierarchy of angels, depending on the scholar. The nearest they get to consensus is generally identifying ten levels in the hierarchy.
The Hierarchy of Angels in Islam
In Islam, scholars divide angels into categories according to their function. Some remain in heaven, others function as messengers between God and man, and a third group are bearers of the laws of nature. Fakhr al-Din al-Razi proposed a list of eight levels of angelic beings on which the first three in the hierarchy of angels are seraphim, cherubim, and archangels.
The Hierarchy of Angels in Christianity
In Christianity, there is no consensus view on the hierarchy of angels. The Roman Catholic tradition sees a hierarchy where angels divide into “choirs” or spheres. There are three orders of angels, and each order consists of three types of angels.
The highest order consists of seraphim, cherubim, and thrones. These three choirs of angels in the highest order are those who serve in the presence of God. As such, they are privy to the knowledge of God and have the most profound understanding of God. They are dedicated to the contemplation and adoration of God. The seraphim uttering the Trisagion are involved in perpetual praise of God, while the cherubim specialize in knowledge, wisdom, and truth of God. The thrones represent steadfastness in the love of God.
The middle order consists of dominions, virtues, and powers. Generally, the middle order uses the light received from the higher hierarchy to rule the lower. Dominions represent the authority of the middle order. Virtues are responsible for the operations of nature, like cycles, seasons, and movement of heavenly bodies. Powers are associated with enforcing and protecting God’s system against evil and are considered warriors.
The lower order consists of principalities, archangels, and angels. This order of angels implements the instructions from the higher orders of the hierarchy to humanity. The principalities are the princes of this order and are involved with the shift of power among men. The archangels’ task is to communicate the will of the principalities to the angels, though they sometimes deliver messages directly. The last choir is the angels, with guardian angels who protect everyone among them, who are generally messengers. In Protestant circles, the discussion of the hierarchy of angels is much less prominent. Their focus tends to be on matters that can be deduced much more easily from Scripture.
Considering the Hierarchy of Angels
Neither the Old Testament, the New Testament, nor the Quran provide a hierarchy of angels. Rather, the information these books provide on types of angels is little — not enough to establish the hierarchy of angels definitively.
It would be easy to challenge existing hierarchies because the categories that delineate them seem to be blurred by biblical evidence. The various views in each of the Abrahamic religions seem to indicate that the proposed hierarchies are based on personal conviction and conjecture rather than on evidence. One example of evidence contradicting the hierarchy would be the archangel Michael.
Designated as an archangel in Jude, he would be from the lower order in the Catholic hierarchy of angels. Satan, on the other hand, is identified as a cherub. Yet, when in battle in Revelation 12, Michael, an angel from the lowest order, leads “his” angels against Satan, an angel from the highest order. Why would an angel of the second lowest rank in the lowest order lead an army of angels in such an important battle when the commander of the opposing army hails from the highest order? According to the hierarchy, Powers are a classification of angels associated with warriors and waging war against evil.
With the evidence at hand, it is hard, if not impossible, to definitively establish a hierarchy of angels. What is clear is that not all angels have the same function or status. Seraphim and cherubim both have high ranks for ministering in God’s presence and around the throne, but determining status between them presents a challenge. Whether principalities, thrones, virtues, power, might, and dominion are categories of angels is also highly debatable and seems to be opinion more than anything else. Maybe the safest course would be to ask an angel the next time you encounter one…