Posts Tagged ‘1 Kings’

A Study in Cherubim

What is a cherub? If have even heard of the word, the first thing that comes to mind when you hear it is most likely chubby babies with wings. That’s because Raphael painted them that way in his “Sistine Madonna”:

And now they are everywhere looking all cute. You just want to pinch those fat little cheeks, don’t you? Except, that isn’t what a cherub is. So what really is a cherub? Ezekiel saw some and here’s part of how he described them:

[T]hey had a human likeness, but each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot. And they sparkled like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. And the four had their faces and their wings thus: their wings touched one another…As for the likeness of their faces, each had a human face. The four had the face of a lion on the right side, the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and the four had the face of an eagle. Such were their faces. And their wings were spread out above. Each creature had two wings, each of which touched the wing of another, while two covered their bodies…As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, like the appearance of torches moving to and fro among the living creatures. And the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning. And the living creatures darted to and fro, like the appearance of a flash of lightning. (Ezekiel 1:5-14)

The reason you know these are cherubim is because Ezekiel says so in 10:20, “These were the living creatures that I saw underneath the God of Israel by the Chebar canal; and I knew that they were cherubim.”

They’re not supposed to be cute, they are fearsome. God put one at the entrance to the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve were evicted (Genesis 3:24). There were two cherubim on the top of the mercy seat (Exodus 7:89) and just like in Ezekiel’s vision, the continuing reference to the cherubim is that the Lord is seated above them.

So about all Raphael got right was the wings, just not enough of them. Perhaps. The way Ezekiel saw them, they had six wings, but consider how they’re described in 1 Kings:

In the inner sanctuary he made two cherubim of olivewood, each ten cubits high. Five cubits was the length of one wing of the cherub, and five cubits the length of the other wing of the cherub; it was ten cubits from the tip of one wing to the tip of the other…And the wings of the cherubim were spread out so that a wing of one touched the one wall, and a wing of the other cherub touched the other wall; their other wings touched each other in the middle of the house. (1 Kings 6:23-24, 27)

These cherubim have two wings. Now lest you get the impression that these were uninspired, artistic representations, don’t forget that Bezalel and Oholiab were inspired to construct the tabernacle including the ark (Exodus 31:1-11). They didn’t make up what the cherubim looked like and when Solomon had the temple constructed, they had the ark with the cherubim. No reason they would make the look different if they had a model right there.

So what do we gain from this study of cherubim? I think there are a handful of things.

Ezekiel saw a vision. When prophets see visions, things mean something but not necessarily that cherubim are covered with eyes and have four wings. As we’ve seen elsewhere cherubim only have two wings. What Ezekiel’s vision is trying to communicate is that God is all-seeing and that’s why where his throne touches the earth that structure is covered in eyes. God sees. Cherubim are real creatures but the vision Ezekiel got of them was communicating more than their outward appearance. They’re spiritual beings and so their outward appearance is not something physical like ours.

The temple and tabernacle were earthly images of heavenly reality (Hebrews 8) and the same is true of what Ezekiel saw. He saw something true and real in heaven and tried to explain it in earthly terms. That’s what the temple did too. There is something real in heaven and the earthly things show a picture of what that is really like without duplicating it. It can’t be duplicated on earth.

And what is kind of cool is where these two things come together. In Genesis 3 God places a cherubim at the entrance to the garden of Eden to guard the way to the tree of life. But if the cherubim are associated with God’s presence, then God didn’t post a guard and take off. Everywhere else in the scriptures, God’s glory shone above the cherubim. In Genesis 3, the cherubim guarded the way to the Tree of Life but also into God’s presence. In Revelation 21 and 22 the Tree of Life is back and, as you’d expect, it is associated with God’s presence. In Revelation 21:22, John notices that the city that he was shown has no temple, “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” The point is that God dwells with man in this city. In chapter 22 he says that there is a river that flows out of the throne of God through the middle of the street of the city and on either side of it is the Tree of Life. There is no cherubim this time. Everything that is evil has been thrown into the lake of fire and in this city “nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false” (Revelation 21:27). There is no need of a guard now.

Endnote: This is not license to spiritualize everything in scripture which is usually the accusation as soon as you say anything like this. No, you have to pay attention to what the author is doing. Visions are not like watching TV where you get live coverage of the event. However, history is history and so when Moses says that Noah built an ark, an ark was built. Ezekiel tells you that he’s seeing a vision, Moses clues you in that he’s recalling historic events. Best to keep them straight. Notice that Moses never described the cherubim in Genesis, he only said that they were there; probably indescribable.