In Ephesians Paul speaks of “principalities and powers” (KJV), or “rulers and authorities” (NRSV).
In Ephesians 3:10 Paul writes that God’s plan is that “through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenlies.” Again in Ephesians 6:12 we read that our warfare is “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenlies.”
These and other New Testament passages reveal the existence of a vast but real unseen world of powers, beings, and spirits with which we are daily engaged. In the Western world normally we (even most Christians) don’t think much about this. Or in some circles, over-emphasize it.
In light of this often unconsidered reality, we might ponder the common Old Testament phrase, “Lord God of Hosts.” This phrase, or title for God, is a reminder of the vast unseen world with which we have to do.
Various interpretations have been given to “principalities and powers” in the New Testament. Without dealing now with those, we can at least affirm that in most cases biblical references to “principalities and powers” indicate real created spirits which operate in and influence the world of people and culture. These include the heavenly spirits or angels that are in the service of Almighty God, his “heavenly hosts,” which may be organized in various hierarchies or divisions. We don’t have much revelation about this, but we get hints or glimpses in Old Testament books such as Ezekiel and Daniel. (This however does not rule out the demonic nature or power of social institutions. Quite the opposite.)
More than 200 times the Old Testament refers to God as “Lord of hosts” or “Lord of armies.” The Hebrew word for host (literally, army), occurs 487 times in the Old Testament. Its primary meaning is “that which goes forth, army, war, warfare, host.” In Scripture the term can be used of angels, of the sun, moon, and stars, and even of the whole creation.
Clearly YHWH commands many multitudes of spiritual beings which are mostly invisible to us but which appear at strategic times in the economy of God. A dramatic and in a sense paradigmatic instance is found in 2 Kings 6:17. “Then Elisha prayed: ‘O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.’ So the Lord opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.”
These powers also include “Satan and his angels,” all spiritual beings of whatever sort that are in rebellion against God and in the service of Satan and evil. Again, we don’t have extensive biblical revelation about these. But we have enough to make it clear that they do really exist and are part of our current reality.
This seems to be the primary and most basic meaning of “principalities and powers.” These spiritual beings are active in the world of human experience and culture—not in some mystical or magical or superstitious sense, as in paganism, but more directly, as forces which influence human behavior. The Bible speaks of Satan as implanting evil suggestions which produce ungodly behavior (Jn 13:27; Acts 5:3; 1 Cor 7:5; cf. Mk 1:13; 2 Cor 11:14). In Ephesians Paul mentions Satan several times (2:2, 4:27, 6:11, 16) and refers to him as “the ruler [or prince] of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient” (2:2).
It is clear from Scripture that Satan commands a host or army of fallen angels (demons, devils, unclean spirits), and that these are responsible for or at least implicated in many human and social problems and sins. These spiritual beings include Paul’s “messenger of Satan” (2 Cor 12:7), the evil one who takes away the good seed of the Gospel (Lk 8:12), and of course the many forms of demon possession (as it is often called).
In light of these unseen realities and personalities, we might well ponder how demons responded to Jesus. For example one cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (Mk 1:24). Sometimes Jesus “would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him” (Mk 1:34).
Lord of Armies
Perhaps for obvious reasons, Christians tend to focus more on the many evil spiritual forces and beings than on the righteous ones—on God’s “hosts.” In the West at least we often focus on God’s power, the power of Jesus, of the Holy Spirit, but may forget that God has vast arrays of unseen real spiritual beings—known to us mainly by the term angels, which essentially means messengers of God. “Thousands at his bidding speed and post o’er land and ocean without rest” (Milton).
Jesus said to his disciples ready to use violence rather than face the cross: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Mt 26:53).
Then there is the Book of Revelation . . . .
We serve the Lord God of Hosts.
Ultimately, so does all creation.
Our God (as we often think of him) is too small.