The cherubim are mentioned more frequently in Holy Writ than any other of the celestial choirs, with the exception perhaps of the angels, which, after all, is a generic term. The cherubim are, besides, the first of the holy angels to be named in the sacred pages. For, at the end of the third chapter of Genesis we are told that after casting Adam forth from the Garden of Eden, the Lord “placed before the paradise of pleasure cherubim, and a flaming sword, turning every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.”
It is true that some commentators think that here the name is used in a broad sense, and that the angels deputed to guard the earthly paradise were of the choir of the principalities, whose place it is to watch over kingdoms or provinces; or of the powers, as having special authority to curb the evil spirits. The reason they are here called cherubim would then be the fullness of knowledge which the name signifies, and which, in an inferior sense, belongs to all the angels. On the other hand, it would be most appropriate that they who had sinned, as our first parents did, through an inordinate desire of knowledge, should be restrained and deterred by those possessed of true and surpassing knowledge.
This explanation may not satisfy, but to take the name cherubim in a broad sense is still less satisfactory, where it is used by the Prophet Ezechiel, in setting before us the details of his wonderful vision. (Ezechiel 10) If we do so, with some writers, we leave ourselves without certain scriptural warrant for asserting the existence of a distinct choir of cherubim. The name does also occur, it is true, in an earlier passage, in the description of the temple (3 Kings 6). The form under which the cherubim are there described, corresponds substantially with the description given by Ezechiel and so, these writers argue, if the anme need not be taken strictly in the latter place, there appears to be no good reason why it should be taken strictly in the former.
It is a familiar image, often met with in the inspired writers, under which God is portrayed as sitting upon the cherubim. It takes us back to the days when the Israelites were still wandering in the wilderness under the guidance of the great law-giver, Moses. In the directions which God gave to him for the construction of the Ark of the Covenant, a chief feature was the propitiatory, or mercy-seat, which was to cover the ark. Over it Moses was commanded to set two cherubim of beaten gold, spreading their wings and looking one toward the other, and at the same time toward the mercy-seat. It was from the midst of the cherubim thus, as it were, protecting the propitiatory, that God promised to speak to Moses and to deliver to him His commands for the children of Israel; and that is why the propitiatory was also called the oracle.
In later times it fell to Solomon’s lot to build to the Lord a permanent dwelling, the Temple of Jerusalem, and he built it with a munificence worthy of himself and of the high purpose to which it was dedicated. Instead of a propitiatory such as Moses constructed, two cubits and a half in length, and one cubit and a half in breadth, which merely coverated the ark from end to end, Solomon erected in the inner part of the Temple, the House of the Oracle, twenty cubits in length, twenty cubits in breadth, and twenty cubits in height, and overlaid it with the purest gold.
Then he caused two cherubim of heroic size to be made of olive wood and he set them above the oracle, one on either side. As they stood there, with outstretched wings, like sentinels guarding the propitiatory, they measured each ten cubits in height and ten cubits in from the extremity of one wing to the extremity of the other, and were so placed that the inner wings touched one another. And when all was ready, “the priests brought in the ark of the covenant of the Lord into its place, into the oracle of the temple, and into the holy of holies, under the wings of the cherubim.” (3 Kings 8:6)
What, then, is the meaning of this symbolism? Why does God choose, when addressing His people, to speak to them from out of the midst of the cherubim “overshadowing the propitiatory” (Hebrews 9:5)? Why, in like manner, does He show His glory to Ezechiel “upon the chariot of cherubim” (Ecclesiasticus 49:10)
The name cherubim is usually explained as signifying the fullness of knowledge and hence in Ezechiel’s vision, the strange forms which appeared to hiim and which he calls cherubim, were full of eyes. But God’s knowledge is infinitely above that of the highest of His creatures, and He it is who with wise providence rules all things, directing them by the ministry of the angels. They are under the God of Israel; “His glory went forth…and stood over the cherubim.” (Ezechiel 10:18)
And because His providence is so swift, and extends ot the farthest parts of the world, it is said of Him that “He ascended upon the cherubim and he flew; he flew upon the wings of the winds.” (Psalm 17:11) And so in the vision of Ezechiel, there are wheels and a chariot moving in all directions, and the cherubim are they who bear or guide the chariot of the Lord, which is equivalent to saying that God dwells in all heavenly minds, as upon the throne of His Majesty, and as supreme Monarch reigns over them, and through them governs all things with resistless energy. The answers which He gave to Moses from the mercy-seat, called also the oracle on that account, were only a particular revelation of the wisdom of God, as displayed in His general providence over His creatures.
The word cherub (of which cherubim is the Hebrew plural) occurs in yet another striking passage of Holy Scripture, where the Prophet Ezechiel thus addresses Lucifer (for in the person of the King of Tyre, Lucifer is certainly intended): “Thou are a cherub stretched out, and protecting….”
The allusion is to the appearance of the cherubim as designed for the mercy-seat, with outstretched wings protecting it, and the implication is that Lucifer was, by nature, of surpassing excellence as, as it were, a guardian to the rest. He is called, however, not a seraph, although it seems more likely that he was one of the highest of the seraphim; but a cherub, because while he retained the perfection of his natural knowledge, he had fallen away from love. Not, of course, as though the cherubim are lacking in divine love, which results from their transcendent knowledge of God, but because the latter is the characteristic which gives them their distinctive rank among the blessed spirits.