The Heavenly Court (Divine Council)

While Satan and other rebellious angels have been hitherto described as having been cast from heaven, their expulsion was not altogether a banishment so that they would never again appear before God. Much to the contrary. They, Satan, at least, appeared to God in heaven’s court to give account, but not to regain any privilege they might have had beforehand. While the  Bible clearly depicts the fallen angels as having been reserved in chains until the judgment (2 Peter 2:4; Jude 1:6), it’s important that I distinguish between fallen angels and their offspring as mentioned in a previous essay. The demons, or evil spirits, so it would seem, stood before God as accountable to Him too as we’ll see in 1 Kings 22 and one particular psalm.

This truth applicable to Satan is witnessed in a couple of passages from Job 1 & 2 and one from Zechariah 3. In these verses we read about Satan, in Job, having the ability to operate on earth while, in Zechariah, he accused Joshua, the High Priest of Israel. While it has been traditionally held that Satan was an adversary of God and that he was and is, he’s also an agent of God as we’ll see.

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Beginning with Job’s passages (1:6–11; 2:1–6), the Hebrew wouldn’t initially lead us to believe that the particular character Satan, the Devil, is under question here. Rather, the Hebrew literally presents “the adversary” as opposed to the character we know as Satan or the Devil. The definite article before the term would indicate a function and not a proper name. The only time Satan appears as a proper name in the Hebrew Bible is in 1 Chronicles 21:1. However, later Jewish and early Christian thinking identified the adversary here in Job as Satan, the Devil. This belief is stated in the pseudepigraphical writing, The Testament of Job, which was written around the turn of the era.

In Job, Satan appears as an agent of God who serves as a divine prosecuting attorney of those on earth. In each of the passages in Job, Satan enters heaven’s court to account to God. Nevertheless, he is still capable of operating on earth too—where he had been cast at the primordial fall of angels. The authority of the world appears to have been well in his hands, as Luke 4:6 records. He is also the “god of this age” who blinds the minds of people to keep them from obeying the gospel (2 Corinthians 4:4; cf. Ephesians 2:2), though such good news was non-existent in Job’s day as we understand it now. However, New Testament writers help us understand how Satan has operated on the earth in these passages.

Satan believed Job was protected by God, and God’s protection enabled Job to live blamelessly. Yet, when Satan issues the challenge to God over Job, he is obliged. Yet, what we also witness is that Satan is only able to operate within God’s sovereignty. We must dispel the notion that a dualistic framework exists. Satan is not equal to God in power and function, but was created by God and, therefore, is subordinate to Him though he is rebellious. In Job 1:12, God permits Satan to inflict Job’s possessions and family, but He restrains Satan from touching Job himself. God restrains Satan once again in their second negotiation in Job 2:6. There, Satan could personally afflict Job, but he couldn’t take his life. This same permissive power that God holds over Satan is witnessed in Luke 22:31 when Jesus told Peter that Satan had requested to sift him as wheat. That Satan might have wanted to take Job’s life but was prohibited from doing so—the same might be suggested as applicable to Peter too—may point to the reality that his very name might have invoked the idea of a divine executioner according to how the Hebrew was understood.[1]

When we fast forward centuries later, Satan appears in Zechariah 3:1–5 to accuse Joshua. The term “oppose” appears in the NKJV, but the Hebrew term translated as “oppose” is Satan. Literally, the text reads that the adversary opposed (“accused”) him. At the time of this writing, the Jews had returned to the Promised Land and begun rebuilding the altar when they were interrupted from northern aggressors. For nearly twenty years, the construction site of the Temple sat dormant until God sent Zechariah and Haggai to urge the people to get on with the work. We might imagine that the Jews were discouraged from doing God’s work, but in this scene, Satan appears before God, akin to Job, aside from the Angel of the LORD. Here he, once more, is a member of the heavenly court and accuses the High Priest. In addition to Israel’s discouragement, the heavenly prosecutor is ready to execute Joshua or call down God’s divine wrath upon him, but God removes Joshua’s sins symbolized by the filthy garments. Satan is no longer able to accuse (“oppose”) Joshua because God gave him garments of salvation (cf. Isaiah 61:10).

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During the reign of King Ahab of Israel, God determined the time had arrived to put Ahab to death. In a scene unlike most in the Bible, the prophet Micaiah reveals a vision of heaven to the king. Micaiah saw God surrounded by the hosts of heaven, and at God’s request, a deceiving spirit came forth when God had asked who would entice Ahab to go up so that he would fall at Ramoth Gilead. This particular spirit would put a lying spirit in the mouths of Ahab’s prophets so that they would entice him to go up and, therefore, fall as God had willed (1 Kings 22:19–23).

Origen believed that the lying spirit mentioned here was one of the demons and that the hosts of heaven included good as well as bad angels, or spirits (cf. Hebrews 1:14). Since the Devil is the father of lies, so contended Origen, these lying spirits did his bidding in heaven’s court, but at God’s behest given the Creator’s sovereignty over all creation (Comm. John 20.257–62). Given the belief we have in God’s sovereignty, even He is able to use what’s bad for His own purpose—a case in point being the messenger of Satan that afflicted Paul (2 Corinthians 12:7–10)—but this raises a moral dilemma for some.

Keeping with this theme, God later promised to answer a person according to their heart’s inclination. Were one to prefer idols, God, when inquired of by them, would answer the petitioner according to the multitude of their idols and heart’s desire (Ezekiel 14:4–5). It isn’t so much that God wants to use liars and is a liar Himself, but that if a person’s heart is set to such, He’ll answer them according to such if they inquire of Him. The Hebrew used in 1 Kings 22 seems rather indicative of this meaning.[2] Therefore, the burden of responsibility lies upon the free will of humanity as to how they inquire of the Lord and where their heart is when they do so. We might conclude that it is for this reason, that of God’s sovereignty, that both good and evil are attributed to Him (cf. 1 Samuel 18:10; 1 Kings 22; et. al.).

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Psalm 82 in the Hebrew Bible also depicts a divine council scene akin to Job and 1 Kings. However, this particular psalm has not been without its interpretive difficulties.[3] Some have suggested this is a council of angels or heavenly beings. Ancient literature from the Near East corroborates a commonly held belief in the notion of a divine assembly or council, albeit in a polytheistic paradigm. Mesopotamian and Ugaritic texts demonstrate this as having been a common belief.

Others hold that this psalm spoke of earthly rulers whose authority was delineated from the divine (cf. Jeremiah 18:7–10). The latter interpretation seems fitting given the physical needs of inhabitants of the earth as mentioned in verses three and four as a form of social justice. Jesus also cited this verse in connection to human rulers when accused of blasphemy (John 10:34–35).

John Hilbur holds a synthesis of both views. In his notes on this psalm, he wrote that God rendered a verdict on heavenly beings who transgressed divine social order. This sounds akin to the sin of the fallen angels from Genesis 6:1–4. Hilbur goes on to state,

An important aspect of the ancient viewpoint here is that human rulers make decisions that mirror the actions of the “gods.” The term “gods” is used both of supernatural beings and human rulers as their agents … Therefore, divine retribution reaches into both the human and the heavenly realms in order to vindicate the victims of injustice and oppression.[4]

Adopting Hilbur’s statement further clarifies interpreting the two Satanic passages from Isaiah and Ezekiel mentioned in a previous essay as regarding Satan’s fall. While in their original context, they spoke of earthly rulers, the greater truth applied to the Devil. As for this psalm, it seemingly speaks of both human and divine agents, and Hilbur’s statement qualifies why it appears to do just that.

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When considering the court of heaven, the Bible uses several terms for celestial beings: seraphim, cherubim, choirs, thrones, dominions, principalities, powers, sons of God, ministers, servants, hosts, watchers, angels and holy ones. Some of these definitions may overlap, and we’ve already mentioned cherubim in the first essay. Peter Kreeft notes the function of each order, or “choir,” of angel according to how Scripture and tradition bear them witness in the Roman Catholic Church.

Seraphim—a term that means “fiery ones”—are believed to be the highest choir who comprehend God with maximum clarity, and given their proximity to God as depicted in Isaiah 6:1–7, this may well be true. Next would be cherubim—a term that means “fullness of wisdom.” Thrones refer to God’s judicial powers, dominions and powers are a part of God’s providential plan, principalities oversee earthly governments, and archangels carry God’s message to humans.[5] While the Bible only mentions Michael as an archangel, extra-biblical literature names several other angels as archangels.

While Satan is (was?) a member of heaven’s court, something reassuring happened once Christ was crucified and resurrected. In John’s Revelation, a loud voice exclaimed,

Now salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren, who accused them before our God day and night, has been cast down. And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to death. Therefore rejoice, O heavens, and you who dwell in them! Woe to the inhabitants of the earth and the sea! For the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, because he knows that he has a short time. (Revelation 12:10–12)

While I wish I had all the wisdom to unpack what these two verses mean, I fear that I do not. What I do believe is that unlike in Zechariah 3:1–5 where Satan accused Joshua, he no longer is able to step before God as a divine accuser because of what Christ accomplished on the cross. Whether or not he still reports in heaven among the divine council is unknown, but this passage would seem to suggest that he no longer has that access since Christ’s resurrection and the kingdom of God is now working on earth.

 It is the sacred assembly where we worship God, so we read, that angels look into (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:101 Timothy 5:21). There the mysteries of the gospel are proclaimed—things into which angels long to look (1 Peter 1:12). By our worship, we not only return to God the obeisance due to Him but proclaim His wisdom to all in the heavenly places (Ephesians 3:10). We often view worship as something we do for God, and that it is, but it’s also something we do for God by our very rituals that declare the wisdom of God to those in the heavenly places.


[1] Ryan E. Stokes, “Satan, YHWH’s Executioner,” JBL 133, no. 2 (2014): 251–70.

[2] See R. W. L. Moberly, “Does God Lie to His Prophets? The Story of Micaiah ben Imlah as a Test Case,” Harvard Theological Review 96, no. 1 (2003): 1–23; Robert B. Chisholm Jr., “Does God Deceive?” Bibliotheca Sacra 155 (Jan–Mar 1998): 11–28.

 [3] See James M. Trotter, “Death of the אלהים in Psalm 82,” JBL 131, no. 2 (2012): 221–39.

[4] John H. Walton, ed., Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, vol. 5 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 389.

[5] Peter Kreeft, Angels (And Demons): What Do We Really Know About Them? (San Francisco: Ignatius Press [Kindle Edition], 1995), loc. 813–27.

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