In my previous article I presented what may be collected from the scripture on the above-cited subject—arranging my remarks under the following divisions:
1. The description of the structure of these creatures.
2. The names applied to them.
3. The position assigned to them.
4. Their function.
The first three of these divisions have been adequately dealt with. Thus we now pass on to division 4. The function or agency of the cherubim is set forth in the following statement: As the constant attendants of Jehovah, their task is to champion, vindicate and guard His holiness. Hence, when the Lord is in His holy temple, they are there, saying day and night, Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, which was and is and is to come. And when He cometh forth out of His place—the most holy place of His sanctuary—to tread in His anger upon the high places of the earth on account of the transgressions of His people, the cherubim come with Him and exercise instrumentally His sovereign authority in judgment.
Let us now show how that the truth of these statements is born out by all that is known of the cherubim from Ezekiel’s visions and from other portions of Holy Writ. We turn first to these visions. In the year 597 B.C., a Babylonian army, with Nebuchadnezzar at its head, stood before the gates of Jerusalem. The siege ended in capitulation. A large portion of the people of Judah—the king and his mother, the army and the nobility, a section of the priests and the prophets, and all the skilled artisans—were transported to Babylonia. So was the nation broken up into two part, the one in Judah and the other in Babylon. Between the two sections of the people, there was not much to choose, in point of religious belief and practice. In both places the majority were steeped in idolatry. Many were conformed to the heathen around, and only a small minority were steadfast in their allegiance to Jehovah. False prophets appeared in Babylon to assure the exiles that Jeremiah had taken too gloomy a view of matters, spoken with exaggeration of seventy years’ bondage under Babylon. They prophesied of a speedy restoration to their place among the people of God in Judea. Those who remained behind boasted of the enjoyment of the holy land, of the possession of the temple at Jerusalem; they boasted of being the faithful worshippers of Jehovah; while upon the captives, who had given ear to Jeremiah there might fall the suspicion of being traitors, or at least persons who had been unconsciously misled. The foolish imaginings of the captives were thoroughly welcome to those still dwelling in Palestine; they dreamt like dreams, the power of Egypt to bring deliverance had currency with them too, and false prophets and soothsayers found acceptance also in their midst. Thus the Israelites would not understand the meaning of God’s judgments by which they already had been overtaken, nor take to heart the lessons which the prophecy of nearly two centuries had striven to inculcate. Even after this first deportation in 597 B.C., the Israelites in Palestine persisted in defiling God’s sanctuary with all their detestable things, and with all their abominations (Ezek. 5:11), and in filling the land with violence (8:17). ‘‘Son of man,” said the Lord to Ezekiel, “I send thee to the children of Israel, to a rebellious nation. . . . they and their fathers have transgressed against me, even unto this very day. For they are impudent children and stiff-hearted. I do send thee unto them; and thus shalt say unto them, Thus saith the Lord. . . . And thou, son of man, be not afraid of them, neither be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns be with thee, and thou dost dwell among scorpions: be not afraid of their words, nor be dismayed at their looks, though they be a rebellious house. And thou shalt speak my words unto them, whether they will hear or whether they will forbear: for they are most rebellious.” chap. 2). Therefore shall Jerusalem be destroyed. Woe to the bloody city! The Lord will make the pile for fire great (24:9). He will set the point of a sharp and bright sword against her, the sword of the king of Babylon (chap. 21). Her inhabitants and the inhabitants of the land of Israel “shall eat their bread with carefulness, and drink their wafer with astonishment, that her land may be desolate from all that is therein, because of the violence of all them that dwell therein. And the cities that are inhabited shall be laid waste, and the land shall be desolate; and ye shall know that I am the Lord” (12:19, 20).
Only eleven years after the first deportation these prophecies began to go into fulfillment. In 586 B.C., the final capture of Jerusalem took place. Then the community of the exile was greatly increased by means of the still more extensive deportation which was decreed for Judah by Ezekiel and the other prophets. What during the preceding eleven years had upheld the sinful pride of the nation, now came to the ground. Stern reality blasted the hope of which they had dreamed. Their trust in human help received a deadly blow.
Ezekiel was one of the priests who went into captivity in the year 597, and the whole of his prophetic career falls after that event and was followed in exile. He was thus a prophet of the exile. But it was not till the fifth year of his captivity that the Lord by vision and by word of mouth communicated to him an independent message. The prophet tells us that he was among the captives by the river Chebar, when the heavens were opened and he saw visions of God. It was a terrifying picture that presented itself to him. He saw approaching a storm that brought together great clouds, the interior of which was formed of a strong brisk fire, which spread its brightness round about. The storm-cloud coming as it did from the north was an allusion to the Chaldeans coming from the north against Jerusalem. It thus served, did this cloud, as a visible symbol of the impending judgments of God. It was out of the intensive fire of this cloud—this herald of divine judgment and token of the holiness of God in its reaction against sin—that the four “living creatures” were formed. And as in the holy of holies of the tabernacle and of the temple, the vision culminates in the enthronement of Jehovah in His glory. A thrice-repeated advance makes itself known. The first time the fire-cloud (vs. 4). The second time the fire-picture of the cherubim (vss. 18-17). The third: The likeness of the firmament upon the heads of the living creatures (vs. 22) and the throne above the firmament (vs. 26) and the fire-bright appearance of the Glorious One thereon, the description of which terminates in: “As the appearance of the bow. . .
If in the tabernacle God’s throne—the mercy-seat—was bounded on either side by the cherubim and covered with their wings, in the vision of Ezekiel the position given to the throne is above the cherubim, and high above the heavens, the reason for this being that the latter manifestation was for betokening the sovereignty and universality of the dignity and the power of God in judgment and the cherubim as God’s submissive and willing agents in the exercise of this power. So the cherubim appear again in the 10th chapter of Ezekiel, namely, as the co-workers of God in the revelation of His wrath over all ungodliness of the carnal Israel that still dwelt in Palestine after the first deportation. What is presented in this chapter is to be regarded as the second act in the prophet’s vision, the first act of which (chap. 9) was a massacre of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, without distinction of age or rank or sex. But the judgment discriminates carefully between the righteous and the wicked. The Lord called to the “man clothed with linen, which had the writer’s inkhorn by his side to go through the midst of Jerusalem and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof.” The man is followed by the six destroyers whom the Lord had summoned to His side to execute His purpose. They smite, do these destroyers. Their eyes do not spare, neither have they pity. But they come not near any man upon whom was the mark.
The second act of judgment consists in the destruction of Jerusalem by fire (chap. 10). The prophet looked and, behold, in the firmament that was above the head of the cherubim there appeared over them as it were a sapphire stone, as the appearance of the likeness of a throne. And he—the Lord—spake unto the man clothed with linen and said, Go in between the wheels, even under the cherub, and fill thine hand with coals of fire from between the cherubims and scatter them over, the city. . . .and it came to pass, that when he had commanded the man clothed with linen, saying, Take fire from between the wheels, from between the cherubims; then he went in, and stood between the wheels. And one cherubim stretched forth his hand from between the cherubim unto the fire that was between the cherubims, and took thereof, and put it into the hands of him that was clothed with linen: who took it, and went out.”
It is to be noticed that the wrath of God, symbolized by the fire, and by which Jerusalem is destroyed, is between the cherubim, and further that it is one of the cherubim who takes thereof and puts it into the hands of the priestly man, who goes out and scatters it over the city. Needless to say, what in the vision is accomplished through the agency of the destroying angels—the massacre of the Jews and the destruction of Jerusalem—is brought to pass in history through the agency of the Chaldeans.
In chapter 15 of Revelation the action with which the cherubim are connected is entirely similar to that ascribed to them in the vision of Ezekiel. John saw another sign in heaven “great and marvelous, seven angels having the seven last plagues; . . . . And one of the four beasts (cherubim) gave to the seven angels seven golden vials full of the wrath of God. . . .” Nor is the action attributed to the cherubim in the 6th chapter of Revelation—the action connected with the seven-sealed book—essentially different. The book is the word of Him who is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last. Its contents, which we learn from the contents of the seven seals as they are successively disclosed in the following chapters, shows that it represents the coming and triumph of Christ’s kingdom over all the opposing forces of darkness. The first seal, when opened, presents the Divine King coming forth conquering and to conquer—the victorious march knows no interruption—and the last exhibits every foe vanquished. As they successively open, each of the cherubim on its turn calls aloud not, as in the Authorized version, “Come and see,” but simply, as in the Revised Version “Come!”
The call is directed to the symbolic agencies in the vision and is expressive of the desire that they go forth on their destructive course, that the enemies of the kingdom of righteousness may be subdued and the kingdom established among men. The same zeal characterizes the cherubim in the further use made of them in the Revelation. They ceaselessly proclaim, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come”, and thus show it to be their calling to declare the holiness of God, that virtue of His according to which He is infinitely removed from moral corruption and wholly consecrated to Himself. They give honor and glory and thanks to Him that sitteth on the throne and join in with the elders in the new song (that was sung to the Lamb for the benefits of His salvation.
Finally, all this varied action thus far ascribed to the cherubim is in full harmony with the use made of them also in the book of Genesis in connection with the tree of life. As the fallen man was separated from the beholding of God, and from the possession of the essential life, that is, the righteousness that avails with God, the “Lord placed at the east of the garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword which turned every way to keep the way of the tree of life,” i.e. to guard paradise, with the tree of life that was therein, and protect them from the approach of sinners. Though the meaning is not the cherubim with the flaming sword in hand (though this is not at all improbable, as there are places in which the Hebrew uses the connective Vau (and) where one would expect the preposition with), yet certainly the thought set forth is clearly that the cherubim as well as the sword were for the purpose of rendering the garden and in particular the tree of life inaccessible to fallen man. For only one action—to keep—is predicated of both instruments (the sword and the cherubim). If therefore it is quite arbitrary to say that the cherubim alone had to do the keeping, it is just as arbitrary to say, and this in order to supply with a foundation the view that the cherubim were symbols of hope and mercy, that their office was to occupy the garden—that portion of it that formed the pathway to the tree of life—and that the defense against intrusion was exclusively connected with the flaming sword.
4. No such creatures as the cherubim exist in the actual world. Whom do they then represent? The question has occasioned many different interpretations. There is the traditional interpretation of the ancient school, viz. angels, in which mention is made of the four classes of heavenly hosts, as leaders of which Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, Raphael. The historical interpretation, viz. of the four world-monarchies, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome, which are said to be represented by the wheels, while the cherubim are the heavenly spirits of these kingdoms. According to the interpretation of the ancient church, the cherubim are the four evangelists. According to Luther, the vision of Ezekiel is nothing else than the revelation of the kingdom of Christ here upon earth in all the four quarters of the whole world. Some have even found the four ensigns of the camp of Israel in the cherubim, others Nebuchadnezzar himself; the king as man flew like an eagle, imposed the yoke of an ox, and became cruel like the lion. Then there is the interpretation according; to which the cherubim are “emblematical of the ever blessed Trinity in covenant to redeem mail.” According to another opinion the cherubim represent not the Godhead personally, but the attributes and perfections of God. Then there is the view according to which the three animal forms, as grafted on that of man as the trunk, symbolize the raised and ennobled nature of redeemed humanity in the state of glory. Finally, some conceive of the cherubim simply as the images of redeemed humanity.
It ought not to be at all difficult to learn from the Scriptures just what the cherubim represent. For Holy Writ speaks plainly enough. The cherubims were not angels; for in the Revelation they are expressly distinguished from the angels. Nor do they represent the church of the redeemed, the redeemed humanity. For in the vision of John the church is represented by the four and twenty elders, and the cherubim are distinguished also from the latter. Yet the cherubim have an interest in the redemptive work of God, for they join with the elders in singing that new song that was sung to the Lamb for the benefits of His salvation. “And when he—the Lamb—had taken the book, the four living creatures (cherubim) and four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb. . . . And they sang a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book. . . . for thou wert slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred and tongue and people and nation. . . .” Hence it cannot be otherwise than that the cherubim represent the inanimate and the irrational creature of which the apostle says in his epistle to the Romans, that it travaileth in pain until now (8:19-22). The cherubim represent this creature—the creation exclusive of men and the angels, thus the earth and its fullness—the earth with sea, mountain and valley, with all its treasure of gold and silver, with all its powers both hidden and revealed, with all its products of grain and fruit and herbs, with trees and flowers and plants; with sun, moon and stars; the world with its day and night, light and darkness, spring, summer, fall and winter; the earth with all its irrational creatures, the animals of the field and the beasts of the forests; birds and creeping things and the fishes;—all these thousands together, in connection with one another, as the perpetually active whole of the inanimate and irrational creation. This creature, says the apostle (vs. 10) earnestly expects and waits for the manifestation of the sons of God in glory in the appearing of Christ. For then, too, it will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the sons of God. And in the Revelation, in the vision of John, the creature, as represented by the cherubim, praises the Lamb. This must not be taken to mean that animals and stones, in reality sing praises to God. Yet in the vision of John the ox, the eagle and the lion, as well as the fourth creature with the face of man, do praise. But this takes place only in the vision not in reality. The truth conveyed is that also the creature is related to salvation, that from the redemption of the church it, too, profits. Therefore in this vision it is presented as joining with the elders in eulogizing the Lamb. Go it is also plain that the creature is incapable of rational expectation. The truth conveyed here is that the creature, now in bondage, will be delivered.
The creature was made subject to vanity by God and on account of man, and this unwillingly, that is, not by its own choice. It was man who chose vanity. Further the creature is in bondage to corruption, lies in the service of death, because if lies in the service of fallen man. Hence, it sighs and groans and suffers, and travaileth in pain until now, waiting for the manifestation of the sons of God.
In the visions of Ezekiel and of John the creature is represented as cooperating with Jehovah in the revelation of His wrath over the enemies of the true seed. This is in perfect agreement with its earnest expectation. And the truth set forth is that the inanimate and irrational creature—thus that all things;—are now in Christ’s hands and are used by him for promotion of the ends of His kingdom and are all made to work together for good to them that love God. Hence, the psalmist declares, speaking of this creature in relation to Jehovah, “O Lord, my God, thou art very great. Thou clothest thyself with splendour and glory, wrapping thyself round with light as a garment,—who maketh clouds his chariots, walketh upon the wings of the wind, maketh His messengers wind, His servants flaming fire (Ps. 104).” “Fire devoureth before him, and round about him it is very tempestuous; He calleth the heaven from above and the earth, to judge his people,—and the heavens declare his righteousness (Ps. 100).” “He bowed the heavens and came down, and cloudy darkness was under his feet, and He rode upon the cherub and did fly, and was poised upon the wings of the wind” (Ps. 18). The cherub is the concentrated creaturehood of all the distinct creatures made mention of in these Psalms.
And the Lord, so the psalmist declares, rides upon the cherub. This is but another way of saying that all creatures—the inanimate and irrational creature—are his ministers. The human appearance of the cherubim must signify the animal intelligence of this creature. Next to man this creature attains to the apex of its glory in the ox, the lion and the eagle.