The Nine Choirs of Angels

Stan-William Ede

“The existence of the spiritual, non-corporeal beings that Sacred Scripture usually calls ‘angels’ is a truth of faith, and the witness of Scripture is as clear as the unanimity of Tradition” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 328).

The word “angel” is from the Latin word angelus and the Greek word aggelos, translated from the Hebrew word malʼach, meaning “messenger” or “one who is deputed”. Angels are messengers of God (1 Kgs 19:5-7; Matt 1:20-25; 2:13, 19; 28:2-7 ; Lk 1:11-20, 26-38; Act 27:23-26), created in accordance with His divine plan and commissioned with a special purpose for the praise and service of God and to preside over the ordering of creation (cf. Lk 2:13; 1 Pet 1:12; Jde 1:6; Rev 7:11). They are purely spiritual creatures who are of a higher order than man (Ps 8:4-5; Lk 20:36) but inferior to Christ (Heb 1:4-5), and gifted with intelligence, knowledge (2 Sam 14:20) and will. They are innumerable (Heb 12:22), hence they are called the “heavenly hosts” (1 Sam 17:45) and vested with enormous power to defend and protect God’s people (Ex 14:19; 2 Kgs 19:35; Ps 34:7; 35:5-6; Isa 37:36; Dan 12:1; Act 5:9). Angels are called “holy ones” (Ps 89:5, 7) because of their pure state and distinguished moral character.

Beside the copious amount of biblical passages and references which clearly show how angels have been present since creation and throughout the history of salvation, theologians through the course of the centuries have sought to describe the identity of the angels via a taxonomy of nine choirs, each group charged with its own specific roles and duties.

Following the biblical references to these heavenly beings, arriving at this number of choirs is not far-fetched. As we have seen above, “angels” are mentioned everywhere in the Bible. The term “archangels” occur in 1 Thess 4:15 and Jude 1:9, and they are said also to be the mystic seven who stand before God and present the prayer of the saints (cf. Tob 12:15; Lk 1:19). References to “Cherubim” are found in Gen 3:24; Ez 10:1-22, etc., while “Seraphim” appear especially in Isa 6:1-7. Then we have the two lists of names presented by St. Paul. He tells us in Eph 1:21 that Christ was raised up “above all Principality, and Power, and Virtue, and Dominion”. Then he says again in Col 1:16 that in Christ, “all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether Thrones or Dominions, or Principalities or Powers.” When we combine the two Pauline lists along with those earlier mentioned, we get nine as the total number of choirs. It is worthy of note that when St. Paul also uses two of these names, principalities and powers in Col 2:15 to refer to some evil forces or power of darkness, he means the fallen angels (cf. Rev. 12:7-9), who may have originally belonged to the either of these groups of the holy ones before they were cast out of heaven.

The most popular grouping of angels is based on the schema of three tripartite hierarchies (i.e. three orders/categories with three choirs each) drawn up by St. Denis the Areopagite (cf. De Caelesti Hierarchia) in the 4th-5th Century and St. Thomas Aquinas (cf. Summa Theologica) in the 13th Century. Drawn upon the Bible, especially the New Testament, the classification by these authors comes up to the following:

(A.) First Order: Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones.

(B.) Second Order: Dominions, Virtues and Powers.

(C.) Third Order: Principalities, Archangels and Angels.

The ranking into first, second or third order is more or less a matter of conjecture than revelation. It must be said that the Bible itself didn’t specify any hierarchy or rank among the angels. Likewise, the Church herself has never made any definitive pronouncement about a triangular structure of hierarchy or any other ranking structure among the heavenly hosts. Individual theologians and biblical commentators who do so may have based their hierarchical structures on certain descriptive inferences from the various scriptural references, such as, proximity to God or to the Divine throne. So, without any emphasis on rank or hierarchy, we rely on the Scripture to identify the nine choirs of angels, which will be expatiated on hereunder.

(1.) SERAPHIM: Their name is derived from the Hebrew word, seraph, plural seraphim, meaning “Burning Ones”. There is the saying that the charity of the Seraphim burns like white heat in a flame. In the call narrative of Prophet Isaiah (cf. Isa 6:1-7), the Seraphim are revealed as attendants and guardians or caretakers of God’s throne, whose lips are ever filled with chants of adoration and worship, “Holy Holy Holy is the Lord of Hosts” (Isa 6:3). Isaiah who was unworthy at the time was cleansed from his sins when one of the Seraphim took a live coal from the altar and with it touched his lips (cf. Isa 6:6-7). The Seraphim have six wings, covering their faces with two, their feet with two, while with the remaining two they fly (cf. Rev 4:6-8). The imagery presented by both scenes in the books of Isaiah and Revelation reveals the Seraphim as the closest to the throne of God. Their perception of God is of utmost intensity, the richest most possible for any created being, and they are endowed with the excellence of love, unmatched intellect and will.

(2.) CHERUBIM: There is quite a vast amount of biblical references to the Cherubim. When God drove the disobedient Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, he set Cherubim to guard the way to the tree of life (Gen 3:24). Like the Seraphim, they also surround the throne of God, and continuously praise God. They are closely linked with God’s glory and they symbolize the strength and vigour of the Divine Majesty. A comprehensive description of the Cherubim is found in Ezek 10:1-22. Following some aspects of Ezekiel’s description, to which allusion is made in Rev. 4:6-8, Cherubim have a man-like appearance and four conjoined wings. Along with this appearance, they have four faces, one each of a man, an ox, a lion and an eagle in flight (cf. (cf. Ezek 10:14, 21). This imagery was later adopted as the symbols of the four evangelists. Other references to Cherubim include 1 Kgs 6:23-28; 2 Chron 3:7-14; Ezek 10:12-14; 25:17-22; 28:14-16.

(3.) THRONES: Allusion to this group of angels called “Thrones” may be drawn from Ezek 10:17; Dan 7-9; Rev 11:16. But the most direct and clear reference is found in the list given by St. Paul in Col 1:16. The word itself is from the Greek word thronos, for they have the “throne” as one of their symbols of authority. They are also living symbols of God’s justice and authority, and are also known as the angels of pure Humility, Peace and Submission.

(4.) DOMINIONS: These are also known as “Lordships” taken from the Greek term Kyriotites which translates into Latin as Dominatio, plural Dominationes. The Dominions (also known as Dominations), are referred to as the “Angels of Leadership”, for they regulate the duties of some of the other groups of angels, and preside over nations. They make known the commands of God. Christian arts show them to look very much like beautiful humans with feathered wings.

(5.) VIRTUES: These are also known as “Strongholds”, and sometimes referred to as “the Shining Ones” for they are charged with the power to accomplish the ordering of nature (Eph 1:21). They function primarily to oversee the movement of the heavenly bodies and ensure that the cosmos maintains its order. Thus they have control over seasons, stars, moon; even the sun is subject to their command. In addition, they provide courage, grace and valour to humankind, and are in charge of miracles.

(6.) POWERS: The members of this choir are warrior angels who have the role of guarding the conscience and watching over history. Being bearers of conscience and keepers of history, they have the special duty to preside over the distribution of power among humankind. For this, they are called Potestas (pl. potestates) in Latin, which means “Power”. They fight against evil spirits who attempt to wreck havoc in the realm of humanity. By virtue of their role and power also, they are charged with the function of overseeing the execution of what has been divinely commanded. They also collaborate with some other choirs of angels in the aspect of ordering creation.

(7.) PRINCIPALITIES: These are also called “Rulers” (Eph 3:10), and they are shown in Christian art to wearing a crown and carrying a scepter. They collaborate effectively with the Dominions, and they impart blessings to the material world. They also collaborate in power and authority with the “Powers”, and function as guardians and educators of the realm of the earth. They oversee groups of people and direct their activities. Principalities are said to inspire living beings in the development of ideas and lead them to breakthroughs in the arts and sciences.

(8). ARCHANGELS: Earlier, we saw the meaning of angel as “messenger”. The prefix “arch” is from the Greek archē meaning “beginning”, “first”, “ruling power”, “first in order or power”. Simply put, an Archangel is a “chief messenger”. The word itself is used twice in the New Testament (cf. 1 Thess 4:16; Jde 1:9). In the mainstream of the biblical narratives and writings, three of the Archangels, Michael (Dan 10:13ff; 12:1), Gabriel (Dan 8:16; 9:21-27) and Raphael (Tob 5:4; 12:15) are mentioned by name in the Old Testament, while Michael (Jde 1:9; Rev. 12:7-9) and Gabriel (Lk 1:19, 26) are mentioned in the New Testament, although Raphael is generally identified as the angel who moved the waters of the healing pool in Jerusalem (Jn 5:1-4). It is therefore evident that Archangels have a unique role as God’s messengers to the people at critical times in history and salvation. They are the guardians of nations and countries (cf. Dan 12:1). Archangels may be of this or other choirs. For example, St. Michael is known as the supreme prince and leader of all the Angels, and who has been invoked as patron and protector of the Church from the time of the Apostles till the present.

(9.) ANGELS: These are the closest to the material world and to human beings, for they are the most recognized and most concerned with the affairs of living things. They are messengers to mankind. Also, they deliver the prayer of humans to God, and God answers them and sends them with other messages to humankind. They are also guardians to individuals and groups of people, and they ever ready to assist those who ask for help.

As we noted earlier, whatever taxomomical or functional category theologians and commentators impute to the existential state of angels, there remain some inscrutable strides in the entire string of human efforts to penetrate or wholly understand the fullness of God’s purpose and ordering of creation. Much of what we have is influenced by the hermeneutics of various biblical passages such as in Daniel 10:12-21 where various angels are termed “Princes” and having various districts allotted to every group of them.

However, it is pertinent to repeat that with regard to this matter of classification or hierarchical ordering amongst these heavenly beings, the Church has not made any definitive declaration. In other words, based upon the great influence of the works of the Scholastic theologians, the teaching regarding the classification of angels many have been received in the Church with an overwhelming unanimity, no proposition regarding a hierarchical structure or alternating roles is binding on our faith. However, Pope St. Gregory the Great gives us a clear idea of the view of the Church’s doctors when he drew upon the authority of Scripture to assert that: “There are Angels and Archangels as nearly every page of the Bible tells us; and the books of the Prophets talk about Cherubim and Seraphim. St. Paul too, writing to the Ephesians enumerates four orders when he says: ‘above all Principality, and Power, and Virtue, and Dominion’; and again, writing to the Colossians he says: ’whether Thrones, or Dominions, or Principalities, or Powers’. If we now join these two lists together we have five Orders, and adding Angels and Archangels, Cherubim and Seraphim, we fine Nine Orders of Angels.” (cf. Hom. 34, in Evang.). This view, just as we noted earlier, comes down to identification and not hierarchization. In order words, the great Pope and theologian identified the grouping of angels into choirs, but didn’t state any hierarchical or functional priority among them. All that discussion and knowledge is submitted to the Divine Will.

On the matter of angels from an overall perspective, the teaching of the Church is clearly laid out in sections 328 through 336 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Therein, the Church emphasizes that angels are God’s servants and messengers, reminding us of the “blessed company” we are intended to share with them.