“He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.”[Genesis 3:24 – ESV]
The Word of God is unique in that the Holy Spirit inspired human authors as His divine instruments to communicate heavenly concepts to an earthy audience within the limits of human language. One of the greatest challenges for Biblical authors, therefore, was attempting to convey spiritual realities in an earthly context.
Whenever the heavenly realm intersects with the earthly realm, one would expect some things to get lost in translation. No matter how hard we try, there are spiritual realties that simply cannot adequately be described by the human language. As the Apostle Paul says about his translation into the third heaven, “And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” [2 Corinthians 12:3-4].
Even if Paul could express what he heard and saw in the third heaven, he was not permitted to do so.
Fortunately for us, the prophets and Apostles under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit were allowed to describe their own heavenly visions and supernatural encounters. Men like Ezekiel, Isaiah, and the Apostle John all provide interesting perspectives into the spiritual realm, and more specifically into the very throne room of the LORD God Almighty.
In these peculiar visions, we are introduced to a unique class of celestial beings — aka living creatures — called cherubim and seraphim.
Of all the depictions in the Bible, there are perhaps none stranger than these.
Basic Etymology and Introduction
Before discovering what the Bible says about these mysterious creatures, it would be beneficial to consider the original Hebrew meaning behind these words.
The Hebrew root for cherub and its plural form cherubim is “kerub,” which has an unknown Hebrew derivation but universally is understood as an order of angelic beings. The majority of Biblical references to cherubim are found in Exodus and 1 Kings, specifically concerning the imagery in the tabernacle of Moses and Solomon’s temple, as well as in the prophetic visions of Ezekiel.
The Hebrew word for seraph, or seraphim, is “saraph,” which literally means a fiery serpent, or a burning one. This word is used to describe both the poisonous snakes that plagued the Israelites in the wilderness and the bronze serpent that Moses lifted up in Numbers 21. It is also used by Isaiah to describe the spirit beings who surrounded the throne room of the LORD in Isaiah 6.
As we will see, the cherubim and seraphim from the Old Testament undeniably are synonymous with the “living creatures” described by the Apostle John in Revelation 4-5.
Cherubim were Posted as Guardians of Eden
The first Scriptural reference to the cherubim is found after man’s expulsion from the garden in Genesis 3:24, where the LORD “placed the cherubim and a flaming sword” to guard the entrance to Eden and restrict man’s access to the tree of life. Genesis provides little description of the cherubim beyond their function as guardians or sentinels. The flaming sword may also be considered a clue to the manifestation of these spirit beings as being “fiery ones.”
Cherubim Imagery was Included on the Ark of the Covenant and Solomon’s Temple
Once the Israelites are redeemed out of Egypt and brought to Sinai to enter into a covenant with the LORD, Moses is commissioned with the task of constructing the tabernacle — or tent of meeting — as the centerpiece of Israel’s encampment. At the heart of the tabernacle was the Holy of holies, where the ark of the covenant was kept. The ark was considered the mercy seat of God and the footstool of the LORD and was the place where heaven and earth was meant to intersect. Holy God meeting with sinful man.
On the top of the ark of the covenant, the LORD instructed Moses to overlay two cherubim images with gold, facing each other, as a covering for the mercy seat.
“The cherubim spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, with their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat were the faces of the cherubim.”[Exodus 37:9]
This is the first reference we have describing the cherubim as winged creatures. Unfortunately because of the influence of Renaissance art, cherubs became synonymous with plump, angelic babies with wings, which is nothing like the Biblical representation.
Later, when Solomon was commissioned to build the permanent Temple in Jerusalem, the king posted two massive cherubs within the inner sanctuary of the Temple to provide imagery consistent with the presence of the LORD and the holiness of His throne room.
“The height of one cherub was ten cubits, and so was that of the other cherub. He put the cherubim in the innermost part of the house. And the wings of the cherubim were spread out so that a wing of one touched the one wall, and a wing of the other cherub touched the other wall; their other wings touched each other in the middle of the house. And he overlaid the cherubim with gold. Around all the walls of the house he carved engraved figures of cherubim and palm trees and open flowers, in the inner and outer rooms.”[1 Kings 6:26-29]
Cherubim and Seraphim Perpetually Serve the LORD as His Personal Throne Guardians
Near-Eastern archaeologists and historians have discovered mystifying hybrid creatures in the typography and iconography of ancient Mesopotamia and Babylon. These unusual creatures have since been mythologized but they provide a historical context for the Biblical portrayals of cherubim and seraphim.
The enigmatic sphinx of Egypt and Babylon, as well as the majestic griffin of the Assyrians, are just a few exotic examples of these hybrid creatures found in ancient cultures. Almost universally these hybrid creatures were depicted as throne guardians of the ancient kings and their inner court.
We know that the cherubim in Solomon’s Temple were described as kruvim arayot, or “Cherub-Lions” (1 Kings 7:36), which suggests that the Cherubs had a lion-like appearance, just as the Mesopotamian kuribu often had [kuribu in Akkadian, karabu or kirubu in Babylonian and Assyrian].
Most ancient pagan cultures would place large statues at entrances to important venues which served as guardians. They typically had the body of a bull or lion, with wings, and a human head.
At times these unique beings were worshipped as pagan guardian deities, but the Scriptures provide the true nature of these created beings, as always deferring to the LORD God and worshiping Him alone as King and Creator.
Jewish scribes and scholars historically have placed the cherubim and seraphim as preeminent within the hierarchy of angelic beings because of their proximity to the LORD and their role as guardians of His throne. The Scriptures also distinguish the winged cherubs from among the angels and the rest of the heavenly host.
The cherubim and seraphim are tasked with the perpetual responsibility of preserving the sanctity and sacredness of God’s holy space in the third heaven — aka the highest heaven. Whenever these unique creatures are seen in Scripture, it is almost always associated with the majesty of God’s throne and His immense glory and power.
There are three primary texts that attempt to describe these throne-guardians. When the accounts are harmonized, it is clear that Isaiah, Ezekiel, and John all were granted a glimpse into the throne room of heaven. Although these passages are a bit lengthy, it is necessary to read them in context and compare them in order to harmonize them.
First, let us consider how Isaiah describes the seraphim.
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 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. And one called to another and said:[Isaiah 6:1-7]
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
Next, consider Ezekiel’s depiction of the living creatures, which he later calls cherubim in Ezekiel 10.
“As I looked, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, and a great cloud, with brightness around it, and fire flashing forth continually, and in the midst of the fire, as it were gleaming metal. And from the midst of it came the likeness of four living creatures. 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 … 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 … And above the expanse over their heads there was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness with a human appearance. And upward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were gleaming metal, like the appearance of fire enclosed all around. And downward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and there was brightness around him. Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness all around.[Ezekiel 1:4-10, 13-14, 26-28]
Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking.
Finally, John sees a similar vision of the throne room of heaven and shares it in Revelation 4.
“And before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal. 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,[Revelation 4:6-8 – ESV]
“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
who was and is and is to come!”
Although we may not fully understand the nature of these mystical creatures, I believe we will see the day when the Lord Jesus returns to establish His eternal throne in Jerusalem and all of heaven and earth will reunified under the glory of God. On this day, we should expect to see the heavenly host made manifest in the kingdom of God, which undoubtedly will include the cherubim and seraphim guardians of God’s holy throne.
For more insight, you can watch the following video by Dr. Michael Heiser.