26. The Seven Before the Throne
The Angel Raphael, in revealing himself to Tobias and his son, said, “I am the Angel Raphael, one of the seven who stand before the throne.” And the Angel Gabriel, when he addressed Zachary, the father of Saint John the Baptist, said, “I am Gabriel, who stand before the Lord,” implying, it would seem, that he too, is one of the same privileged group. For it would appear to be fairly certain that there is not question here of the whole multitude of the angels, and that the number seven is not in this case a mere symbol of universality.
Mention of the seven occurs also in several passages of the Apocalypse. We read,
Grace be unto you and peace from him that is, and that was, and that is to come, and from the seven spirits which are before his throne…. (Apocalypse 1:4)
there were seven lamps burning before the throne, which are the seven spirits of God. (Apocalypse 4:5)
And behold in the midst of the throne…a Lamb standing as it were slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God, sent forth into all the earth. (Apocalypse 5:6)
And finally, the apostle says,
And I saw seven angels standing in the presence of God. (Apocalypse 8:2)
In the verse, however, which immediately follows this last passage, it is added that “another angel came and stood before the altar, having a golden censer.” So that clearly the seven spirits standing before the throne do not comprise all the holy angels, but constitute a group of specially privileged and glorious princes, singled out for highly honourable and important ministry.
There is even mention of another band of seven angels having the seven last plagues. (Apocalypse 15:1) But they are not spoken of as standing before the throne or in the presence of God, and the question arises as to the rank or dignity of the group who are previously mentioned, and to whom there is such frequent reference in Holy Writ.
The words, “the seven who stand before the throne,” are so explicit that the obvious inference would seem to be, that those to whom they refer not only belong to the highest of the angelic choirs, that is, to those who in a particular manner stand in waiting before the majesty of God, but that even among these they hold an especially prominent and exalted place. The solemnity of the context where mention of them is first made by Saint John, and the intimate association with our Divine Lord, whose mighty and ever watchful ministers they are (for that would appear to be the meaning underlying the symbolism of the horns and eyes) would suggest that these seven illustrious spirits are glorious among the angels themselves, and foremost princes of the heavenly court.
There occurs the difficulty that they are described as “sent into the whole world,” and that the Angel Raphael in particular, who is one of them, was even sent of a prolonged mission of a merely private nature.
To this difficulty, taking the latter point first, we might reply with Suarez that there seems to be no convincing reason why one even of the highest angels might not be sent to earth, not as an ordinary thing, but by way of exception, and as a mark of special regard for some saintly personage, even as our Lord himself, and His Blessed Mother have a times descended to earth to console or to honour some favoured servant of God. Cornelius a Lapide too, observes that we read in the lives of some great saints, that they had a seraph deputed by God to act as their guardian angel.
But the words, “sent forth into all the earth,” which are spoken of the seven spirits universally (Apocalypse 5:6) present, perhaps, a more serious difficulty. For they express, as it would seem, no mere exceptional function of the seven, but one which falls to them as their habitual and especial lot. The difficulty, however, might be effectually met, as it is met by some writers, by a simple denial of the distinction between angels who minister, and angels who assist before the throne; and an argument might be drawn in support of this denial from the fact that the Angel Raphael says pointedly of himself, that he is one of the seven who stand before the throne, and further, that the seven who are described as “sent forth into all the earth,” are also said to stand in the presence of God.
Some theologians suggest that these mighty spirits may be the seven highest angels in each of the seven choirs. This Suarez rejects on the ground that one must then be assigned to the choir of thrones and another to that of the dominations, neither of which, however, are sent. Yet the suggestion of Suarez himself is scarcely happier. He supposes that they may all belong ot the lowest choir, and yet have no definite ministry assigned to them, being ever at the beck of the Most High for the execution of any task proportioned to their rank. He adds that we may even suppose that there are seven such in each of the choirs of ministering angels.
This supposition, however, fails to throw any light on the identity of the seven referred to by the Angel Raphael, and by Saint John in the Apocalypse. They surely are a definite group of angels, and apparently of exalted rank; and it affords us no clue to who they are or what they are, to suggest that there may be other groups of like number belonging to various choirs. In a matter, then, which is so obscure, it may be allowed to each to hold what appears to him the more likely or the more attractive view.
Special veneration has long been shown to these blessed spirits in various cities of Italy, and at Palermo in Sicily there was, as far back as the sixteenth century, a church dedicated to the seven with representations of them which were already ancient. It was the pious rector of this church who went to Rome in 1527 to promote devotion to them at the centre of Catholic verity, and it was mainly through the exertions that the site of the Baths of Diocletian was secured for the erection of a temple in their honour. Pope Pius IV gave to the celebrated Michael Angelo the task of drawing up the plans, and when the work was completed, he solemnly dedicated it, in the presence of the College of Cardinals and a great multitude, to Saint Mary of the Angels; that is to say, not directly, but indirectly to “the seven spirits who stand before the throne.”
From these seven spirits, Saint John wishes grace and peace to all the faithful, not as though they were the authors of grace and peace, but as ministers of God, charged with our welfare, and most ready to employ in our behalf the favour they enjoy with the King of kings, of whose court they are such glorious ornaments. It is for us, then, to deserve their special protection by the fervour and frequency with which we invoke them and by the loving confidence with which we have recourse to them, knowing them to be the heavenly appointed patrons and protectors of all Christendom, and our intercessors with God, whom He has set over us to guard and aid us in our life-long struggle for the kingdom of heaven.