Mysterious Biblical Creatures - What to learn from the Cherubim
Not a chubby kid!
Cherubim is the plural of cherub, most often associated with innocent looking angelic kids in modern parlance. I'm not sure where that notion came from but certainly not from the Bible.Here's a biblical description of the cherubim.
"And this was their appearance: they 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. Each one of them went straight forward, without turning as they went. 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. And each went straight forward. Wherever the spirit would go, they went, without turning as they went. 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)
Later in Ezekiel we learn that the cherubim and the living creatures are one and the same. (Ezekiel 10:20). So when we come across living creatures in Revelation it's reasonable to conclude that both John and Ezekiel speak of the same beings. But John adds a few features.
"And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say,
'Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,who was and is and is to come!'” (Rev.4:6-8)
Isaiah encountered heavenly beings called seraphim.
"Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said:
'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!'” Isaiah 6:2,3)
As the graphic clearly shows, trying to portray these creatures produces a rather bizzaar image. It's hard to envision such beings populating heaven. But that is only if you take an overly literal and physical view of these descriptions.
Remember that until Jesus ascended to the Father with his glorified human body, heaven had been populated by spiritual beings. God, himself is a Spirit. His angels are spirits and so are these creatures. When believers die their souls (spirits) go to heaven. Their bodies remain in the grave until the resurrection. A spirit by definition has no physical shape. You can't hug or shake hands with a spirit. I can think of only three exceptions to this. I've already mentioned Jesus. But there are two Old Testament characters who entered heaven without suffering death, Enoch and Elijah. Presumably their bodies experienced a transformatoin like that of Jesus' resurrected body.
All this is to say that when heavenly spirits appear to us mere mortals they must take on some visible form. That physical appearance will be suitable to the occasion. The heavenly messengers that appeared to Abraham looked like three travelers (Genesis 18:2). The heavenly being that appeared to Joshua looked like a warrior with a drawn sword (Joshua 5:13). Angels who announced the birth of Jesus appeared as magnificent beings who struck terror in the shepherds (Luke 2:8-14). Here are just three examples out of hundreds of heavenly spirits who appeared in visible form but had no physical existance.
Why did heavenly beings called "cherubim" or "living creatures" take the form of such complex creatures?
The prophet Ezekiel lived during Israel's bitter seventy year captivity in Babylon. They had become all but exctinct. Consider this. When the Israelites crossed the Jordan River into the promised land they numbered over 600,000 (Numbers 26:51). A thousand years later Ezra led a mere 42,000 back to Jerusalem (Ezra 2:64) Neither number includes women and children.
It was a decimated and discouraged group of Jews who viewed the ruins of Jerusalem in 536 BC. Even after some progress was made in rebuilding the temple some rejoiced but others wept because it didn't match the glory of former times (Ezra 3:10-13).
These people needed a new appreciation of the glory of God. So God appeared to his prophet Ezekiel as a manificent chariot throne on which rode one who looked like a man (Ezekiel 1). No doubt this was none other than the 2nd Person of the Trinity prior to when He was born of Mary in permanent human form. Each feature of the chariot represented God's character traits or prerogatives.
I'll mention just a few. Fire speaks of God's consuming holiness. Just as fire consumes all that is combustible, God destroys all that is unholy. Wings offer swiftness, mobility. They represent God being present everywhere and at all times. Each creature has four faces (lion, ox, eagle and man) which speak of the whole animal universe offering worship and service to God. The eyes in front and behind speak of God's all-knowing, all-observing capacity.
The intended intellectual and emotional impact of this vision was to stiffen Israelite backbones and to encourage them to trust the true God and do his bidding. I suppose it's fair to ask whether or not God's ancient people understood the significance of the cherubim. They didn't have the advantage of a completed cannon of Scripture as do we. So, no, I doubt that they understood them with the detail available to us today. But they had sufficient knowledge to grasp that theirs is an awesome God, worth worshiping, worth following wherever He led them.
Our God is an awesome God indeed!
A quick concordance study will reveal that the Cherubim appear predominently at three stages of Israel's history. Cherubim adorn the tabernacle erected by Moses in the wilderness and the temple bult 500 years later by Solomon. Then, as mentioned above, they appear another 500 years later in the days of Ezekiel. Clearly they are associated with the holiness, majesty and sovereignty of God.
That explains why when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden it was cherubim who were stationed to guard access to the tree of life, lest in their fallen condition, our first parents were to eat of the tree of life and live for ever (Genesis 3:22-24). That would have sealed humankind's sinful and corrupt fate out of which there could be no escape.
But God had devised a plan by which penitent sinners could be restored to fellowship with Himself and, eventually, to a holy state more precious than the one originally enjoyed. It took a while, but the gospel plan became more and more obvious to those who longed to know the true God. Consider that God chose to meet his people in the Holy of Holies, the innermost chamber of the taberncle and, later, the temple. That chamber contained one piece of furniture, the ark of the covenant. Inside the ark were placed the two tablets containing the ten commandments. Those commandments declared to humankind, "You are guilty and deserving of eternal damnation." The cover of the ark contained the mercy seat on which the priest sprinkled the blood of the sacrifice indicating that God accepts a substitute to bear our condemnation. And overshaddowing the mercy seat were two golden cherubim. Thus the holiness of God met the mercy of God allowing believing sinners to be restored to friendship with their Maker (Exodus 25:10-22).
Twenty five hundred years later the Apostle John was exiled on the island of Patmos. There he received amazing visions of spiritual realities. Early on he's allowed a peek into the throne room of God. He spots the Amighty his throne surrounded by twenty four elders dressed in white. White garments in Scripture signify the righteousness of Christ with which believing sinners are robed. Thus these twenty four elders stand for all God's people in both Old and New Testament times who are reconciled to God by the blood of Jesus. And there celebrating the occasion are four living creatures, cherubim.
"And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying,
'Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.'” (Revelation 4:9-11)