In the OT the phrase “the angel of the Lord” occurs some sixty times. The angel of the Lord appears frequently in Genesis and in the Book of Judges but rarely in the literature dealing with later periods. He is also referred to as the “Angel of his presence” in Isa. 63:9. The word translated as angel is Malak which means “messenger” and is glossed as “messenger” or its equivalent when sent by a human king from a court on earth but as “angel” when referring to a divine messenger from a heavenly court. In the biblical world, the malak who bears a message is fully equated with the sender (Judg. 11:13; 2 Sam. 3:12-13; 1 Kings 20:2-6). In today’s time, this is the equivalent of the press secretary speaking on behalf of the leader who sits in the oval office. There is a problem for those who read their text closely. Who or what is this being? Like most other angelic beings, the angel of the Lord speaks many times on behalf of God (Ex 14:19; Judg. 2:1; 1 Kings 19:7; Psa 34:7). He like others is a special servant of Yahweh who helps accomplish God’s will among his people. But occasionally we run into an interesting anomaly in the Old Testament. The angel of the Lord speaks many times as God himself (Gen. 16:7-14; 21:17-19; 22:11-12; Exo. 3:2; Judg. 6:11-23). We know this because many people are afraid they are about to die after they realize whose presence they have been in. After having a conversation with the being, Gideon cried out “Alas, O Lord GOD! For now I have seen the angel of the LORD face to face.” But the LORD said to him, “Peace be to you. Do not fear; you shall not die.”
What is going on? I think the appearance of the angel of the LORD is an appearance of God himself. A theophany. What is a theophany? It is an encounter with divine presence accompanied by extraordinary manifestation or display mediating that presence. All throughout the Old Testament, God appears to various people in various ways: thunderstorm theophanies (Exo. 19; Psa. 18:7-15; Zech 9:14-15; Psa. 68:7-8(8-9); 144:5-6; 29:3-11; 50:3; 97:2-5; Isa. 64:1-3; Zeph. 1:15-16.), chariot theophanies (Isa. 66:15; Hab. 3:8; Dan. 7:9- 10; 2 Kings 2:11-12; 6:17), court theophanies (1 Kings 22:19-22; Isa. 6:1-5; Job 1:6; 2:1; Dan. 7:9-10; Psa. 82; 89:5-14), individual man theophanies (Judg. 13:6-22; Gen. 18; Dan. 10:5; Acts 9:3-7), warrior theophanies (Zech. 9:14-15; 14:3-5; Hab. 3:3-15; Isa. 63:1-6; 59:17-19; Zeph. 3:17; Josh. 5:13-15), glory theophanies (Isa. 60:1-2; Mal. 4:2; Ps. 80:1, 3, 7, 19; 94:1), fire theophanies (Exo. 3:1-6; Gen. 15:17; Exod. 13:21; 14:19, 24; Num. 9:15-23; Acts 2:1-3), and temple cloud theophanies (Exo. 40:34-38; Num. 9:15-23; Deut. 4:32-36; 1 Kings 8:10-11; Ezek. 8:4; 10:3-4, 18-19; 43:2-7; 44:4). Christians have long sought echoes of the trinity within the Old Testament. The angel of the LORD seems to be a bonafide manifestation of the triune being himself.
Which person of the trinity is it: the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit? The problem with the theophany being a physical manifestation of the Father is that the Father is a spiritual being who lacks spatial dimensions, parts, or matter (John 4:24; Psa. 139:7-10). The same thing could be said of the Holy Spirit. The only option left would be a preincarnate Christ. Arguments made for this position are 1) Judges 13:8 says the name of the angel of the LORD is wonderful (Judg. 13:8) much like the Messiah of Isaiah (9:6), 2) the angel of the LORD appearances cease in the NT, 3) who else could it be because of the spirituality of the Father and the Holy Spirit? There are problems with this view as well. The New Testament teaches that all the fullness of deity dwells bodily in Jesus (Col. 1:19; 2:9; Phil. 2:5-11; Heb. 1:1-3; John 1:1,14; Gal. 4:4). Why would a preincarnate revelation be anything less? But if that were the case, would this not cheapen the incarnation? Another problem is the NT never lowers the identity of the Son to an angel (Heb. 1:4-14). In fact, he is given a name that is greater than them. This point is further complicated by the fact that the LXX (the Greek translation of the OT) renders malak YHWH by angelos kuriou, “angel of the Lord.” This is the same phrase used by the Gospel writers to describe Gabriel (Luke 1:11; 2:9-12; Matt. 1:20, 24; 28:2) announcing the birth of Christ. Surely Jesus would not be announcing his own coming.
How could one respond to these problems? Are they so weighty that they sink the ship? Maybe not. The NT refers to “an angel of the Lord” and not “the angel of the Lord.” Furthermore, Gabriel (the angel who announces the birth of Jesus) is not called God. The construction in the NT corresponding with the LXX could just be an insignificant point of grammar. If that is true, the angel of the LORD appearances do cease in a sense at the coming of Christ. Concerning the incarnation, maybe the “fullness” of time refers to a permanent incarnation. So it is possible that the glory of the incarnation is wrapped up in its permanence. Jesus currently has a physical body located in heaven and it will be so for eternity. From these rejoinders, it seems reasonable to assume that the angel of the Lord appearances in the OT are in fact echoes of the second person of the trinity.