Exodus 25:10-22; 26:1, 31,
One type of angel that everyone has heard of are the cherubim. Cherubim is a Hebrew word that is the plural of cherub, but it’s important to remember that the Biblical cherubim have nothing to do with the cute little baby angels that we see in paintings and on greeting cards.
I was a little surprised that cherubim primarily occur in two contexts in the Bible: in sacred art and in visions. The sacred art comes in two flavors, physical images and song. The first time we hear about cherubim in art, a couple of them are being modeled to put on top of the ark of the covenant, and others are being woven or embroidered into the various hangings of the tabernacle. As a rule, the instructions that God gave to Moses for the tabernacle and the ark were extremely detailed, but all God says about the cherubim is to put them in. Apparently the Hebrew people knew exactly what they looked like; all we know for sure now is that they had faces and wings.
During their time in the desert, the Israelites conducted their worship and religious observances in the tabernacle. Both the ark of the covenant and the tabernacle were decorated with cherubim, as we saw yesterday. Eventually King David moved the ark to Jerusalem. When David’s son Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem to house the ark, he used cherubim throughout the construction. As a permanent structure, the Temple could house two massive free-standing cherubim – fifteen feet tall and with similar wingspans – as well as others that were carved and gilded on the walls and doors. The cherubim seem to have served only as symbols of God’s presence in the temple, as they did in the tabernacle.
Cherubim occur not only in the sacred art of the tabernacle and temple, but also in sacred music. A lot happens in this psalm written by David, but the cherub only appears in direct association with God, in vs. 11. Now, we don’t think that God actually needs help to get around – this is a figure of speech in a song – but it’s interesting that when God is pictured as using help to get around, he rides on a cherub.
We learned earlier that God directed Moses to mold two images of cherubim and put them on the lid of the ark of the covenant. The area between the cherubim was called the “mercy seat,” and the voice of God spoke to Moses from a point above the mercy seat, as shown in the book of Numbers. The Israelites, logically enough, concluded that the LORD God “sits above the cherubim,” as we see in 1 Samuel. Today we read part of the lyrics to three more sacred songs. In Psalm 18, David says again that the LORD rode upon a cherub and flew, using words very similar to what we read yesterday. Psalm 80, written by Asaph, and Psalm 99, by an unknown writer, both refer even more directly to the ark of the covenant when they speak of God as “sitting above” or being “enthroned on” the cherubim.
The main thing I’ve noticed about cherubim is that they always seem to be in the immediate presence of God (unlike, say Gabriel or Michael, who go out from God’s presence to do God’s bidding). The second thing I’ve noticed is that their appearance seems to be difficult to describe. Here in Ezekiel’s vision, they have wings, or maybe one or two sets of wheels, or maybe wings and wheels. They have faces – four faces, and eyes all over. One of the faces is the face of the cherub. Okay – you mean that the other four faces of the cherub do not look like a cherub? They also have hands under their wings. We saw that Gabriel, although formidable, appeared to Daniel, Zacharias, and Mary in the form of a human being. No one would ever confuse a cherub with a human being!
When some animals sting or bite you, it burns like fire. Seraphim means fiery ones, and we see today that seraphim can be a kind of poisonous serpent, whose bite stings like fire, or a kind of angel, seen only the in the vision of Isaiah.
Serpent seraphim are fairly ordinary serpents (or insects, since some of them fly), except for the deadly bite. When seraphim means fiery serpent, you will always see it called a “serpent” or something similar in English.
When it refers to an angel, seraphim is another plural Hebrew word taken directly into English, just like cherubim. Also like cherubim, seraphim are only seen (as far as we know) in the immediate presence of God. Presumably angelic seraphim look like flames, since they are called fiery ones. Today we see that they also have hands and six wings.