The Nature and Purpose of the Cherubim



Even in the first pages of the book of Genesis, we find that beautiful combination of justice and mercy which makes the Bible a perfect revelation. There is threatening here, but there is promise also,— not far from every curse you will find the announcement of a blessing. By the dim light of these early records, we can see that the picture of God's character drawn for the childhood of the race was symmetrical and true,— the main features were there, and all later revelations have only more perfectly displayed and unfolded them.

He is very far from the truth who supposes that the religion of mankind had its origin only in human fears,— even the preparatory dispensations were full of comfort and promise. Man's sin had opened a Pandora's box of ills, and had sent them forth to desolate the world, but hope was still suffered to remain. On the one hand, the curse was alleviated by being made the occasion of incidental blessing. The necessity of labor, which seemed so hard at first, was made the means of developing human resources and ensuring human progress, while it restrained in no small degree the growth of human sin. The supreme sorrow of woman was made her honor, — she who had brought sin into the world and all our woe, was permitted to bring into the world its Savior and to transmit to all generations the blessings of his salvation. Even the gloom of death was lighted up when it became to the righteous the gateway of escape from the toils and sorrows of life, and of entrance upon a happier and holier state of being.

But besides these incidental blessings which were made by divine mercy to alleviate the terrors of the sentence against sin, a still greater blessing was bestowed in the assurance that sin itself should be finally done away. This assurance was given in direct promise. The serpent should be crushed, bruised, trampled in the dust by the woman's seed,— all subjection to him should cease,— complete victory over all his arts and powers should be achieved. It was given, too, in symbol. The skins of animals offered in sacrifice, with which it is more than probable that our first parents were clothed by God, afforded a beautiful type of that divine righteousness, secured only by the death of another, with which God would clothe their guilty souls. And yet another symbolic lesson of hope and comfort was given in the Cherubim, which were stationed at the entrance of Eden, after man was banished from the garden.

With regard to the meaning of these mysterious forms, there has been

* A sormon upon the text. Genesis 3 : 34 —" So he drove out the man, and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden cherubim, and a naming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life."

the greatest diversity of opinion. Yet, amid the multitude of explanations, I am satisfied that there is one which not only harmonizes the Scriptural accounts, but furnishes important practical instruction. In considering this difficult subject — the nature and purpose of the cherubim — let us first free ourselves from certain common misconceptions of the narrative in Genesis. .You remember that man, having disobeyed his Creator, and having set himself in opposition to the will of God, came to know good only by the loss of it, and to know evil by sad and bitter experience. Since he had forsaken God, the source of life, he was driven forth from "the tree of life," and "the land of life." "And God 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."

The common impression with regard to this passage is that the cherubim are executors of the divine vengeance, and that they stand at the gates of Eden brandishing the sword of flame, and barring all return. This is nearly the view which Milton takes in the closing lines of Paradise Lost; there the sinning pair,

"Hand in baud, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden take their solitary way,"

"And looking back, ail the eastern side behold
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat.
Waved over by that flaming brand; the gate
With dreadful faces thronged, and flery arms."

But a slight examination of the text suffices to show that the sword and the cherubim are not necessarily connected, as both of them and equally manifestations of divine wrath,— they are rather placed side by side as distinct and separate symbols,—while the word which describes their office is a word capable of double meaning, and admits the supposition that the purpose of the cherubim, and the purpose of the sword, were radically different.

There is nothing in this text of Genesis to forbid our believing that in these symbolic forms of sword and cherubim, stationed at the entrance of Eden, we have an example of that constant juxtaposition of the emblems of justice and mercy which meets us throughout the Bible. The establishment of this view will occupy us further on. It is sufficient here to say, that I find in the flaming sword the emblem of God's avenging justice,— and in this its whole meaning is exhausted. The cherubim, on the other hand, were meant, as I believe, not to terrify, but to inspire with hope. The sword meant judgment only,— the cherub-forms meant mercy. Even in driving forth his creatures from Paradise, God did not manifest himself in unmitigated wrath, nor send them forth into a rayless gloom of toil and suffering and death. As our first parents turned sorrowfully to take one last passionate look at the home of their innocence, never more to be theirs on earth, they saw the flaming sword indeed,— that told them of injured holiness forbidding all approach,— but side by side with that flame-like sword, were the glorious figures of the cherubim, teaching them that the Paradise they had lost should be reserved for them, until they should return to it again, fitted for more exalted enjoyments aud possessed of a more perfect nature than they had before the fall. The cherubim were not vague images of terror, but symbols of mercy and restoration, inspiring the exiled pair with hope and courage. The sword was the image of justice, keeping the way of the tree of life from unholy man. The cherubim were the image of mercy, keeping the way of the tree of life for man, when once he should be redeemed and perfected by God's discipline of grace,— and holding out to him, amidst his woe, the promise of a Paradise Regained.

This passage in Genesis, taken by itself, throws but little light upon the form of the cherubim. There is no description of them,— it is taken for granted, indeed, that the figures are already known. The etymology of the word "cherub" is involved in hopeless obscurity. We are left to the intimations of other parts of Scripture, therefore, for almost all our knowledge respecting them. There are, fortunately, three other places in the sacred record where these symbolic forms appear. In the 25th chapter of Exodus, Moses is directed to make two golden cherubim, one at each end of the mercy-seat in the holy of holies. The two are to look toward each other and toward the mercy-seat, where the divine glory was manifested and the Almighty made his throne. But even in the narrative of the book of Exodus, so full of detailed description of the tabernacle and all its furniture, there is almost complete silence respecting the object or appearance of these figures of gold. Nothing is told us of their structure, except that they had wings stretched forth on high which covered the mercy-seat, and faces bent downwards, it may be, in the attitude of adoration.

Pass on, then, from book to book of the Old Testament, and you find no other description, until you reach Ezekiel's visions of what he calls "the living creatures," in the first and tenth chapters of his prophecy. He beholds four glorious forms, each having four faces and four wings. Only one of these faces is the face of man,— the three others are the faces respectively of an ox, a lion, and an eagle. Each one of these living creatures has the hands of a man. Immense revolving wheels are underneath each one, carrying them, with the speed of a meteor-flash, wherever they will go. These four bear aloft a sapphire pavement upon which rests a throne,—and upon the throne sits God himself. This description of the living creatures of Ezekiel's vision is connected with the earlier part of our investigation by a single sentence of the prophet, which reads: "And I knew that they were the cherubim,"—those sacred figures, namely, with which he had been familiar when performing his duties as priest in the temple. The living creatures and the cherubim, therefore, are one and the same.

From this point we must take a long leap before we find another reference to them, and when we find it, it is the last of all, and in the last book of the Bible. In the Revelation of John, we read of the "four beasts," that worship and adore in the innermost circle of heaven. Consult the original, and you find that this word "beasts" is an utter mistranslation. The word is the same as that translated "living creatures " in Ezekiel. Not only is the same name applied to them, but there is a remarkable similarity of description. The sumo composite forms appear in the Revelation that meet us in Ezekiel's prophecy, but each has not four faces as there. Yet each has a face after one of the four types,— there is one face of an ox, one of an eagle, one of a lion, and one of a man. Here too, the number of wings is not four but six. In Ezekiel's vision, the wheels are full of eyes,— here there are no wheels, but the living creatures themselves, around and within, are full of eyes. There can be little question, then, that the cherubim of the tabernacle and temple, the living creatures of Ezekiel, and the hymning "beasts" of the Revelation, are one and the same symbol.

From these Biblical descriptions certain deductions may be drawn, which may gradually open to us the design and nature of the cherubim. First, then, the cherubim are artificial, temporary, symbolic figures,— not actual, personal, eternal existences. They are not personal beings, of a higher order than man, ranging with archangels and the principalities of heaven,— but they are rather types and representations of spiritual existence. This we may infer from the fact that they assume different shapes and appearances, according to the ends to be attained by their appearances, each having variously four faces or one fuce, six wings or four wings, a multitude of eyes, or none at all. They appear, too, only at times when God is speaking in the language of symbol, as in the visions of John and Ezekiel, over the mercyseat, or at the gates of Eden. They never speak to men nor hold communication with men. Their whole aim seems accomplished, when they have once set forth the idea of an existence near to God, and subservient to his will.

Secondly, while they are not themselves personal existences, they are symbols of personal existence — symbols not of divine nor angelic perfections, but of human nature. Two main facts make it clear that they are emblems of human nature. On the one hand the predominating appearance of them, as Ezekiel tells us, is that of a man. Their upright posture and gestures indicate that the body is human. There are the hands of a man under their wings. In Revelation, though only one of them had the face of a man, all four had a human body. In truth, all the descriptions agree with the prophet's words: "And this was their appearance — they had the likeness of a man." Another fact, and one which furnishes the key to the whole mystery, is given us by John. We read that the four living creatures with the four and twenty elders, fall down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps and golden bowls full of odors,— aud thus prostrate before the throne, they sing this new song: "Thou art worthy to take the book and to open the seals thereof, for thou wast slain and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood, and hast made us unto our God kings and priests,- and we shall reign on the earth." This is the song of the redeemed. Can it be the song of angels or archangels? Has Christ been slain for the redemption of angels? Let the author of the epistle to the Hebrews answer: "Verily, he took not on him the nature of angels, but he took on him the seed of Abraham." Moreover we have only to look a few verses further in the Revelation, and we find that the song of the angels is a totally distinct and separate one — a song in which there is no note of praise like this: "Thou hast redeemed us to God by thy blood, and hast made us kings and priests unto God, and we shall reign on the earth." This is tho new song of redeemed humanity, which "none can learn except those who have been redeemed from the earth."

In this reference to the book of Revelation, I have followed the Authorized Version, in spite of the fact that the Revised Version omits the word "us," and substitutes in italics the word "men"—a change which might intimate that the cherubim do not identify themselves with redeemed humanity. The reading of the Authorized Version has better textual support, and has the advantage of assigning an object to the verb "redeemed," while the text followed by the Revised Version gives the verb no expressed object, but is obliged, in a somewhat unnatural way, to supply one. I regard the view I have propounded as the most probable one, apart from the testimony of this particular passage,— with this passage, it appears to me to have the force of demonstration. Over against the view we adopt, however,— the view that the cherubim are symbols of redeemed humanity — there stands another view which I must mention, this, namely, that the cherubim are symbols of nature, as pervaded by the divine energy and as subordinated to the divine purpose. Those who hold this view would say that in the cherubim the world of nature, including both the material and the brute creation, is represented as praising God. I am persuaded that this view may be combined with the one I have been advocating, and only by so enlarging it can it be made consistent or intelligible. For how can nature ever find a voice, except in redeemed humanity? Man, as having a physical organism, is a part of nature; as having a soul, he emerges from nature, and can speak, as nature of herself never could. Only through man, is nature, otherwise blind and dumb and dead, able to appreciate and express the Creator's glory. The cherubim then are symbols of redeemed man, in his two-fold capacity of image of God and as priest of nature. Not in soul only, but in body also, does he speak forth God's praise, and only as redeemed humanity thus praises God does the material universe give glory to him who made it.

But, thirdly, the cherubim are emblems of human nature, not in its present stage of development, but possessed of all its original perfections. For this reason the most perfect animal forms are combined with that of man. The Jewish proverb ran: "There are four highest in the world — the lion among the beasts, the ox among cattle, the eagle among birds, man among all creatures,— but God is supreme over all." These cherubic forms combine the excellencies of these four chiefs of God's terrestrial creation. Before the fall, it may be, man possessed those excellencies in a far higher degree, and so was lord of the animal creation, himself being the climax of -creaturely perfection. But his sin deprived him of this high place. The animal world emancipated itself from his dominion, and now the ox, the lion, the eagle, all have powers which man has not in the same perfection. We see then that though the essential nature of man is highest of all, yet it might be greatly elevated and ennobled by superadding to it the qualities typified in these animal forms. To symbolize perfected human nature every creature perfection on earth must be comprehended and combined with his own. To superadd to his own perfections those of the animal kingdom is not to degrade but to exalt him — to picture him indeed in that original supremacy in which "all things are put under his feet, all sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field, the fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas."

Add then to human nature all the lionlike qualities — kinglike majesty and peerless strength, undaunted courage and glowing zeal, innate magnanimity and nobleness of spirit, royal superiority to the petty and the mean, secure and trinmphant carelessness of every foe. Take your weak and timid Christian and endow him with these qualities, and lo! a Knox or a Luther. The liou is the king among beasts. Engraved on the throne of Solomon, it has been the emblem of royalty ever since. What does" it mean here among these cherubic forms, but an intimation of the kingly dignity and courage and strength that belong to the unfallen sons of God.—What now are the qualities of the ox? We at once count among them, patient labor, productive energy, meek submission to the yoke, unwearied and useful service. Hence the ox was placed higher than the horse, and in Egypt the home and mother-land of symbols, was even made an object of worship. Take now your vacillating, inconstant, labor-hating, self-willed, useless Christian,— add to him the ox-like qualities,—lo ! you have a Howard or a Harlan Page. And what is the meaning of this symbol here, if not that our human nature, as one of its proper perfections, must possess the spirit of humble yet restless service which they display who rest not night or day in their heavenly service of ministration and of worship ? — Then, too, the eagle, marvelous for vision and for flight,— able, according to the ancient notions, to see fish in the sea from the greatest heights, and to gaze undazzled on the sun. The epithet eagle-eyed is too graphic to need an explanation, even to the commonest mind. In the Revelation, the fourth face was that of a "flying eagle," bringing to our thoughts the ancient declaration that no bird can fly so far or so high. How vivid an image of an active, vigilant, fervent, soaring spirit, prompting the readiest and swiftest execution of the divine behests, and lifting the soul up from the low concerns of sense to the insight and contemplation of divine and spiritual glories. Take now your earthlyminded, short-sighted, narrow-hearted Christian, and add to him these qualities of spiritual flight and vision,—and lo! a St. John or a FtSnelon stands before you. What does the eagle symbolize, but the fact that to human nature, in its truest, noblest development, belong an insight into divine realities and a soaring of the spirit into the regions of divine communion, of which we get here only the rare and rapturous foretastes. Take man — even redeemed man in his present state — and give him the qualities typified by all these animal forms,— then add reason, conscience, will, affection, raised each to their highest powers attainable, — and how magnificent is the sum!

But, fourthly, these cherubic forms represent not merely material or earthly perfections, but are emblems of human nature spiritualized and sanctified. It is important to observe that the term "living creatures" is used more than thirty times in Ezekiel and Revelation to describe them. We cannot fail to see that life in its highest state of power and activity is indicated as their essential characteristic. And the descriptions of the prophetic visions bear out this inference. They are creatures instinct with life. The wheels in Ezekiel, and their whole bodies in Revelation, are full of eyes — the symbol of intelligent life. "The spirit of the living creature," we read, "was in the wheels,"—they communicated life to things else inanimate. We see in them a quick and restless activity,— they run and return with lightning speed,— their wings, ever outstretched, indicate incessant motion. They represent that humanity in which Christ's purpose is accomplished, that it might have life and have it more abundantly. Yet this life is not physical alone or chiefly — but spiritual. It is holy life as opposed to sin, the death of the soul. They made no crooked paths for their feet, but every one, as the prophet tells us, went straight forward. And they had no need to turn, in order to move in the path of rectitude, for there were wheels beneath each one which crossed one another transversely, so that, in whichever direction the cherub would move, in that direction the swiftly revolving wheels were ready to carry him. They move too on God's errands, obeying instantly the voice from above the throned firmament of snpphire blue. If they represent human nature, it must be a human nature perfectly subject to the divine will, and executing the divine commands. We cannot bring before our imagination the scene in the Apocalypse and the unceasing worship of the divine perfections, nor the scene in the prophet's vision, whore the reflection from them of the divine glory is intolerable to mortal eyes, without seeing in them the symbols of a human nature not only restored to its original purity, but possessed at length of a holiness and beauty far surpassing that which was lost by the fall.

Fifthly, these figures set forth, in type and shadow, a human nature exalted to be the dwelling place of God. For the cherubim dwell in the immediate presence of God. Not only was the tabernacle God's habitation and their habitation, and so the whole of the curtains forming the interior of the tent were interwoven with cherubic figures, but they dwelt close to the very throne of God, on the mercy-seat. There, between the cherubim, was the seat of the commonwealth of Israel. There God manifested his glory. There was the place of the "Shekinah." And there, in the very blaze of the divine glory, and with faces turned towards it as witnesses of the divine glory, were the cherubim. Aye, they not only dwell with God and are eye witnesses of his majesty, but God dwells in them. The living creatures in Ezekiel are pervaded, not with a self-fed and self-originated life, but it is God's life that flows through them and manifests itself in them. And the cherubim of the Revelation are not of any outer circle of worshipers, but appear in the midst of the throne. What is this, but the glorious prophecy of a humau nature perfectly restored and transcendently exalted,— made one again with God and made the dwelling place of God,— rescued forever from the curse and stain of sin, filled once more with the divine life, seated on the throne with Christ, clothed with a glory and beauty that reflect the glory and beauty of God, and so, endowed with privileges and elevated to dignities infinitely greater than those over whose loss the race of man has shed so many and so bitter tears!

Apply these conclusions now to the passage before us. What was the special meaning of the cherubim at the gates of Edeu, when man was driven out for his sin? I answer, they taught our first parents, and they teach us, that Paradise, though lost, is still reserved for man. The cherubim were stationed there to occupy, until man should be ready to return. Just that imagery was employed which would waken in him a just and true view of God. Terror and repulsion were not the emotions which God desired in this child just banished from his Father's house. The sword was needed there, to vindicate God's holiness and show the guilt of sin, but an image of mercy and hope was needed also. When Adain looked back towards the entrance of his lost Eden, the sword indeed awed him, but these living forms, made in his own mould, yet endowed with exalted beauties and capabilities, these indicated to him that Paradise was not blotted out of existence, nor given to beings of another order and sphere, but was still reserved for him in God's mercy. Earthly forms like his own still held it. The region of life was not lost to man forever. Human nature was yet destined to regain the lost Paradise.

Again, these figures taught Adam, and the early races of mankind, that Paradise could only be regained by man's return to holiness and divine communion. Hence the forms were not common forms of humanity, but ideal forms, exalted representations of human nature, fit to dwell in closest intimacy with God, pervaded by his life and reflecting his glory. The great lesson was taught, that holiness must come before blessedness, and that man shall regain his lost estate when he has nothing to fear from the divine justice. The promise of restoration shall be fulfilled, not by the surrender of the divine righteousness, but by providing for its exercise while the creature is notwithstanding saved. In other words, salvation is from God, yet salvation shall not obscure, but glorify and honor, the divine justice.

With this symbolic promise, too, of a rightly restored and sanctified human nature, was combined the promise that the Paradise Regained should be more glorious than the Paradise Lost. Not only should there bo life instead of death, fellowship instead of estrangement, love instead of hostility, purity in place of pollution, but all these blessings should be large and abundant beyond all human experience or comprehension. The recovery should not be partial, but complete and more than complete,— nay, the powers of sin should be so vanquished, and the plans of the adversary so outwitted, that God's grace should get greater glory and the human race greater blessedness, than could have been without the fall. So not man's efforts or deserts, but God's almighty and conquering grace, shall be magnified in the admission of the creature to a closer relation to God, and a participation in grander sights and ministrations than were ever known under the original constitution of things. How much of all this symbolism was understood by our first parents, we cannot know; but this we may believe, that in the light of the promise, and under the scrutiny of keener intuitions than ours, both they and the earliest members of a believing seed found in it a hope and comfort which mere words could never have given. Aye, I love to fancy, that under the inward teachings of God's spirit, the first Adam amid his sorrow and weariness had some glimpses, at least, of the land of rest which only the second Adam fully revealed to the world, and that in spirit, if not in words, he sang:

"There happier bowers than Eden's bloom,
Nor sin nor sorrow know;
Blest seats,— through rude and stormy seas,
I onward press to you!"

Yet doubtless much was left to be unfolded in the progress of God's revelation. As man comes nearer and nearer to occupying the high position typified by the cherubim, his knowledge of divine mysteries grows also. And this growing nearness to the divine, and consequent nearness to the Paradisaic state, seems to be symbolized in the varying relations of man to these cherubic forms. At the expulsion from Eden, the region of holy life was shut to men of flesh and blood, and none could approach the cherubim. But in the tabernacle, the human and earthly won a greater nearness to the divine, and in the person of the high priest, men could approach to the very feet of the cherubim of glory. In Ezekiel, the favorite of God is admitted to a still grander and more open view of God's glory. In the early visions of the Apocalypse, man has reached the very place of the cherubim,— the type and the antitype meet and mingle, — the elders who are the select ones of the church, and the cherubim which only symbolize the church, are together in the midst of the throne. But now, when man once fallen has been led by the Lamb to the very height and pinnacle of created being, the cherubim, having served their purpose as foreshadowings of that exalted state, disappear and vanish away. In the last visions of Revelation, amid the most glowing descriptions of the heavenly glories and the heavenly inhabitants, these symbolic forms are seen no longer. Since man has at length reentered the long lost Eden, and now eats of the tree of life which yields twelve manner of fruits and whose leaves are for the healing of the nations, the cherubim keep the way of the tree of life no longer, for Paradise is regained, and the promise is fulfilled.

These mysterious forms were indeed but symbols — symbols that were lower and less than the realities they symbolized. It would be childish to imagine, then, that they illustrate to us what our future bodies will be. We are not to have forms like those of the cherubim, but we are to have all the glorious qualities of heart and mind and soul which they typified, and these very figures may assure us that whatever may be lacking to us hero will be supplied there. How grand an object of contemplation is the glory that yet waits to be revealed! That heavenly knowledge, power, holiness,— that fullness of spiritual life of which the kingly energy of the lion, the unwearied service of the ox, the soaring flight of the eagle, are but poor symbols,— that nearness to God and that sight of his glory which John and Ezekiel faintly pictured, are not these the only fit objects of ambition? Do they not dwarf our highest conceptions of human destiny? Yea, it was for this imperial greatness that man was made, and if we forget it, we forget it to our sorrow. Earthly glories fade, but the glory of a human soul that has grown up in all things into Christ fades never. Who of us shall be kings and priests unto God? Who of us shall shine as the brightness of the sun forever and ever? Who shall cry, like the burning ones before the throne: "Holy! holy! holy!" Ah, it shall not be the great, the rich, the proud, the wise, of the earth, unless they can sing before the Lamb, "Thou hast redeemed us to God by thy blood." Those only shall reach the summit of heavenly glory and felicity, who have bowed here in humility and penitence at the foot of the Savior's cross. Who of us shall dwell forever with God,—and who of us shall dwell in everlasting burnings? Both dwelling-places are offered to us,— God offers one,— the devil offers the other. Choose ye this day!