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  • Writer's pictureReader Paul Fowler

The Angelic Hierarchy

The Old Testament Book of Tobit is the account of a man called Tobias who sets out on a journey to reclaim money lent to an acquaintance. On the way there, Tobias has two companions, one is a dog and the other is, or so Tobias thinks, a man. In fact the man is the Archangel Raphael travelling incognito with Tobias. One understanding of this book is that it is a parable of our journey through life. From this understanding, we see that we are accompanied by the natural world (represented by the dog) and the spiritual world (represented by the archangel). Not only are we accompanied by natural and supernatural companions but it seems that we humans are creatures who inhabit both the natural and supernatural (or spiritual) realms. Within the New Testament we see recorded many instances of the interaction between disciples and to what might best be described as “celestial beings”. The Gospels, the Book of Acts and Revelation (which is where most of these events are recorded) seem to refer mainly to angels. However in his writings, St Paul also hints at other forms of celestial beings who seem to make up a hierarchy of angelic creatures (Ephesian 1 v 21 and Colossians 1 v 16 are the two main verses here). Over the centuries, various commentators have looked at these verses to try and ascertain the structure of the heavenly hosts. Only one has really taken hold in people's minds and even then it was not plain sailing. This writer is known to us as Dionysius the Aeropagite. Or, for reasons which will be explained “Pseudo-Dionysius the Aeropagite. As we are aware, in the Book of Acts chapter seventeen, the Apostle Paul reached the city of Athens and as was his custom he found a place to preach. This place was called the Aeropagus and was the place where people came to talk about about religious ideas. It was if you like The Speaker's Corner of Athens. At the Aeropagus, someone (tradition says it was a man called Dionysius) had put up an altar which was inscribed “To the Unknown God”. Paul had used this as a cue and proclaimed to the crowd that he had come to tell them who the Unknown God was. It was not Paul's greatest hour. Some people were interested and asked him to return to sometime, some even thought that he was talking about two gods: Jesus and Anastasia! However, his words struck home with two people, one of whom was the previously mentioned Dionysius. Due to the fact that he spent time at the Aeropagus, he was known as Dionysius the Aeropagite. Tradition makes him the first bishop of Athens. Five centuries later a mysterious document out in an appearance. It claimed to be written by Dionysius and gave what has become the accepted standard description of the Angelic Hierarchy. It should be noted that Dionysius is not the author of this document, the problem is that no one has been identified as its author so it is what we call “pseudographic” that is it is an an anonymous document whose authorship is assigned to some one famous. It was a common practice in the first millennium but of course with today's copyright laws, nothing like this could happen. What did it say? One of his works is called “The Celestial Hierarchy” and this describes the Hierarchy of Angels. Dionysius drew on passages from the New Testament, specifically Ephesians 1:21 and Colossians 1:16, to develop a scheme of three Hierarchies, Spheres or Triads of angels, with each Hierarchy containing three Orders or Choirs. These orders are: • Highest order Seraphim Cherubim Thrones • Middle order Dominions Virtues Powers • Lowest order Principalities Archangels Angels The Highest Order Tradition places seraphim in the highest rank in Christian Angelology. In the Book of Isaiah, the Prophet uses the term to describe the six-winged beings that fly around the Throne of God, each crying "Holy Holy Holy". (Hence the exprression “Trisagion” whch in Greek means “Thrice Holy”). This throne scene, with its triple invocation of holiness, profoundly influenced subsequent theology, literature and art. Its influence is frequently seen in works depicting angels, heaven and deification. Seraphim are also mentioned as celestial beings in the Book of Reveation. . But before we get there, it is important to understand that Isaiah 6 seems to show an an idealised form of Solomon's Temple. In this chapter we see one of the seraphim bring the burning coal to the Prophet's lips in an image of ritual purification, this of course looks forward to the institution of Holy Communion, when we are purified by taking the Body and Blood of Christ. Seraphim are portrayed as created beings with a passion for doing God's will. Returning to the Book of Revelation, in chapter 4:4–8 we see celestial beings who are described as being permanently in God's presence and praising him: "[A]nd they rest not day and night, saying, 'Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come." This account adds to that of Isaiah's: in the eighth verse, it describes the Seraphim thus: "And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within". Isaiah does not mention the many eyes. Cherubim The Cherubim are regarded as the second highest rank of celestial beings after the Seraphim. They are also the most frequently occurring heavenly creature in the, Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew word appears 91 times. The first occurrence is in Genesis 3:24. However despite these many references, the role of the cherubim is never clearly defined. Whilst the Jewish tradition seems to have understood the cherubim as the Guardians of the Entrance to Eden-Genesis 3 v 24, they are often depicted as performing other roles; for example in Ezekiel they transport The Throne of God. The cherubim who appear in the "Song of David", a poem which occurs twice in the Old Testament, in 2 Kingdoms 22 and Psalm 17 (LXX), take part in the great vision that God grants to David. In this vision they are seen to be the vehicle on which God descends to earth from heaven to rescue David (see 2 Kingdoms 22:11, Psalm 17:10).

Interestingly in Exodus 25:18–22, God tells Moses to make multiple images of cherubim at specific points around the Ark of the Covenant. Many times the words cherub and cherubim in the Bible refer to the gold cherubim images on the mercy seat of the Ark, as well as images on the curtains of the Tabernacle and in Solomon's Temple including two measuring ten cubits high-which is around fifteen feet.

In Isaiah 37 v 16 Hezekiah says, addressing God as "the one who sits between the cherubim" (referring to the mercy seat). The description of Solomon's Temple in 1 Kings, uses the same phrase.

Cherubim also feature at some length in Ezekiel. When they first appear in chapter one they are transporting the throne of God by the river Chebar, but, starngely, they are not called cherubim until chapter 10. In Ezekiel 1:5–11 they are described as having the likeness of a man, and having four faces: that of a man, a lion (on the right side), and ox (on the left side), and an eagle. The four faces represent the four domains of God's rule: the man represents humanity; the lion, wild animals; the ox, domestic animals; and the eagle, birds. These faces peer out from the center of an array of four wings; these wings are joined to each other, two of these are stretched upward, and the other two cover their bodies. Under their wings are human hands; their legs are described as straight, and their feet like those of a calf, shining like polished brass. Between the creatures can be seen glowing coals that move between them, their fire "went up and down", and lightning burst forth from it. The cherubim also move like flashes of lightning.

In Ezekiel chapter 10, another full description of the cherubim appears with slight differences in details. Three of the four faces are the same – man, lion and eagle – but where chapter one has the face of an ox, Ezekiel 10:14 says "face of a cherub". Ezekiel equates the cherubim of chapter ten with the living creatures of chapter one: "They were the same creatures I had seen by the river Chebar" (Ezekiel 10:15) and "These were the living creatures I had seen under the God of Israel on the banks of the river Chebar" (Ezekiel 10:20). In Ezekiel 41:18–20, they are portrayed as having two faces, although this is probably because they are depicted in profile.


Thrones (Greek:: θρόνος, pl. θρόνοι) are the next type of celestial beings. This comes from firstly Colossians 1:16 and I Peter 3:21-22. According to 1 Peter 3:21-22, Christ has gone to Heaven and "angels and authorities and powers" have been made subject to him. “Thrones” are equated with “authoritiessss”. Nevertheless, Thrones are also sometimes equated with ophanim (which is from the Hebrew Bible but is translated as θρόνος in the Septuagint), that is the throne of God which is usually depicted as being moved by wheels, for instance in the vision of Daniel 7 v 9 Rosemary Ellen Guiley states that: the 'thrones'; also known as 'ophanim' (offanim) and 'galgallin', are creatures that function as the actual chariots of God driven by the cherubs. They are characterized by peace and submission; God rests upon them. Thrones are depicted as great wheels containing many eyes, and reside in the area of the cosmos where material form begins to take shape. They chant glorias to God and remain forever in his presence. They mete out divine justice and maintain the cosmic harmony of all universal laws.[

The prophet Ezekiel also refers to “Ophanim” (θρόνος in the Septuagint, “Thrones “ in English) as the wheels of God. The Middle Order Dominions The "Dominations" (Eph. 1:21; Col. 1:16) (Greek κυριότητος, pl. of κυριότης "Lordships") or "Dominions" are presented as the hierarchy of celestial beings "Lordships" in some English translations of the The Celestial Hierarchy. The Dominations regulate the duties of lower angels. It is only with extreme rarity that the angelic lords make themselves physically known to humans. The Dominions are believed to look like divinely beautiful humans with a pair of feathered wings, much like the common representation of angels, but they may be distinguished from other groups by wielding orbs of light fastened to the heads of their scepters or on the pommel of their swords.

Virtues These celestial beings are those through which signs and miracles are made in the world. The term appears to be linked to the attribute "might", (Greek δυνάμις) in Ephesians 1:21, which is also translated as "Virtue" or "Power". From The Celestial Hierarchy: "The name of the holy Virtues signifies a certain powerful and unshakable virility welling forth into all their Godlike energies; not being weak and feeble for any reception of the divine Illuminations granted to it; mounting upwards in fullness of power to an assimilation with God; never falling away from the Divine Life through its own weakness, but ascending unwaveringly to the superessential Virtue which is the Source of virtue: fashioning itself, as far as it may, in virtue; perfectly turned towards the Source of virtue, and flowing forth providentially to those below it, abundantly filling them with virtue."

Powers or Authorities The "Powers" or "Authorities"( from the Greek ἐξουσιαι, the plural of ἐξουσια. In Ephesians 3 v 10, St Paul makes it clear that Powers are forces to be reckoned with in the Heavens. The primary duty of the "Powers" is to supervise the movements of the heavenly bodies to ensure that the cosmos remains in order. Being warrior angels, they also oppose evil spirits, especially those that make use of the matter in the universe, and often cast evil spirits to places of detention. These angels are usually represented as soldiers wearing full armor and helmet, and also having defensive and offensive weapons such as shields and spears or chains respectively. The Lowest Order Principalities or Rulers

The "Principalities" also translated as "Princedoms" and "Rulers", from the Greek ἀρχαι, pl. of ἀρχη (used by Paul in Eph 3 v10) are angels that guide and protect nations, or groups of peoples, and institutions such as the Church. The Principalities preside over the bands of angels and charge them with fulfilling the divine ministry. There are some who administer and some who assist. The Principalities are shown wearing a crown and carrying a sceptre. Their duty also is said to be to carry out the orders given to them by the upper sphere angels and bequeath blessings to the material world. Their task is to oversee groups of people. They are the educators and guardians of the realm of earth. Like beings related to the world of the germinal ideas, they are said to inspire living things to many things such as art or science. Note that Paul used the term rule and authority in Ephesians 1:21 and rulers and authorities in Ephesians 3:10.


The word "archangel" comes from the Greek ἀρχάγγελος (archangelos), meaning chief angel derives from the Greek ἀρχειν meaninng chief or great-that is first in rank or power; and ἂγγελος which means messenger or envoy. The word is only used twice in the New Testament: 1 Thessalonians 4: 16 and Jude verse 9 Only Micahel is mentioned by name in the NewTestament In most Christian traditions Gabriel is also considered an archangel, but there is no direct literary support for this assumption. It is also worth noting that the term "archangel" appears only in the singular, never plural, and only in specific reference to Michael. The name of the archangel Raphael appears only in the Book of Tobit. Raphael said to Tobias that he was "one of the seven who stand before the Lord" (Tobit 12 v 15), and it is generally believed that Michael and Gabriel are two of the other six. A fourth Archangel is Uriel. Uriel, whose name literally means "Light of God" plays a prominent role in The second Book of Esdras (4 Ezra) chpater 4 verse 1. In the book, he unveils seven prophecies to the prophet Ezra, after whom the book is named. He also plays a role in the Book of Enoch, which is considered canonical by the , Ethiopoian and Ertrean Orthodox Churches. It is also thought that another possible interpretation of the seven archangels is that these seven are the seven spirits of God that stand before the throne described in the Book of Enoch, and in the Book of Revelation(1 v 5). The Seven Archangels are also said to be the guardian angels of nations and countries, and are concerned with the issues and events surrounding these, including politics, military matters, commerce and trade: e.g. The Archangel Michael is traditionally seen as the protector of 'Israel' and of the Church -which is the New Israel.


The "angels" or malakhim (Heb.: מַלְאָכִים), i.e. the "plain" angels (Gr.: ἄγγελοι, pl. of Gr.: ἄγγελος, angelos, i.e. messenger or envoy), are the lowest order of celestial beings, and the most recognized. They are the ones most concerned with the affairs of men. Within the category of the angels, there are many different kinds, with different functions. The angels are sent as messengers to humanity. Personal guardian angels come from this class. Although many consider Gabriel to be an Archangel, in reality, when he is mentioned in Scripture he is always described as an Angel.

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