Author: Ron Graham
Cherubim and Seraphim Explained
—Cherubs and Seraphs in the Bible
These notes explain the Cherubim (Cherubs) and Seraphim (Seraphs) that we encounter in the Bible. We will stay within the Bible. We won't go aside into popular speculations and assertions that have no Biblical support. My reasons for this are covered in the first section of our lesson, as follows...
1 A Comment on Angelology
From ancient times the topic of Angels has been popular and a great mythology about angels has developed. It has come to be called “Angelology” which means the knowledge of angels. However Paul’s warning to Timothy is appropriate here. "O Timothy! Guard what was committed to your trust. Avoid the profane and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge. By professing it some have gone astray from the faith" (1Timothy 6:20-21).
Apparently people were inventing their own truth and mixing it with God’s truth. This could happen in teaching on any Bible subject. Teaching about angels is no exception.
The Bible certainly speaks of angels. But most of what is said today about angels is not what the Bible says.
The Angelic Hierarchy
For example, take the angelic hierarchy (ranks of authority) that are recited as though the list had Bible authority behind it. In case you don't know the ranking, it is said to be, from the top, Cherubim; Seraphim; Thrones; Dominions or Lordships; Virtues or Strongholds; Powers or Authorities; Principalities or Rulers; 1Archangels; and Angels. This list did not come from scripture but from human thought.
I'm aware of course that scripture uses most of these words. However, when we look up the places where those words are used, there is no indication that various ranks of angels are referred to —except of course for “angels” and “archangels”1.
For example, Paul says that Christ created "all things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones and dominions, or principalities, or powers..." (Colossians 1:16). However there is absolutely no reason to see this as a ranking of angels.
Paul certainly includes angels in what Christ created, since they are among "all things in heaven and on earth". However the idea that “thrones” (for instance) is a class of angels is an idea quite unfounded. “Thrones” cannot properly be made to mean anything more than seats of authority in earthly and heavenly realms —other than the throne of God.
Of course “Thrones” by metonymy, includes the kings and queens crowned to possess the authority and occupy the thrones.
1Note:— Angels and Archangels. It seems odd, by the way, that archangels and angels, whom we do encounter in scripture, are relegated to the bottom of the hierarchy. The human mind places its own inventions and speculations above what God’s word reveals.
2 What are Cherubim?
Now let's think about Cherubim (or alternatively you can say Cherubs). The big surprise here is that cherubim, in the Bible, are not said to be angels. People assume that cherubs are angels, but when we look for proof, none can be found. I would not think this is a mistake of much importance, but if I'm going to explain cherubim, I need to point it out.
I. The Cherubim Guarding the Way to the Tree of Life
After God drove Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden, "He stationed cherubs at the east of the garden of Eden, and a fiery sword which turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life" (Genesis 3:24).
A few translations make these cherubs angels. But in the Hebrew being translated, it just says "cherubs". Nothing is said about them being angels. So at this point, where they are first mentioned in the Bible, we do not have any information about what cherubs are.
We don't know what the cherubs were made of; how big they were; or what form they took. We don't know how many there were; whether they were alive; or what powers they had. To find this sort of information, we have to move forward in the Bible to our next encounter with cherubim
II. The Cherubim Over the Ark of the Covenant
The next Bible mention of Cherubim is found in God’s instructions for making the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:8-22) This provides us with some good information about Cherubim...
¶“17You shall make a mercy seat of pure gold. It shall be two and a half cubits long, one and a half cubits wide. 18And you shall make two cherubim of hammered gold. You shall make the cherubim at the two ends of the mercy seat, 19one cherub at one end and the other cherub at the other end. Of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends.” (Exodus 25:17-19).
¶“20The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, to overshadow the mercy seat with their wings. The cherubim shall face each other and their faces shall be toward the mercy seat. 21And you shall place the mercy seat on the top of the ark, and inside the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you.” (Exodus 25:20-21).
Note:— The Making of the Cherubs. When the craft‑person Bezalel made the ark, mercy seat, and cherubim, he followed the above instructions exactly (Exodus 37:6-9)
When Solomon built a house for God in Jerusalem, it was much more elaborate and grand than the tabernacle. So were the cherubim that Solomon caused to be made for the inner sanctum (1Kings 6:23-30, Repeated in 2Chronicles).
¶“23In the inner sanctuary Solomon made two cherubim of olivewood. Each was ten cubits high. 24Five cubits was the length of one wing of the cherub, and five cubits the length of the other wing. From the tip of one wing to the tip of the other was ten cubits. 25The other cherub also measured ten cubits —both cherubim had the same measurement and the same form. 26The height of one cherub was ten cubits, and the same for the other cherub.” (1Kings 6:23-26).
¶“27Solomon placed 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. 28And he overlaid the cherubim with gold.” (1Kings 6:27-28).
¶“29Around all the walls of the house he carved engraved figures of cherubim and palm trees and open flowers. He did this in the inner and outer rooms. 30The floor of the house he overlaid with gold in the inner and outer rooms”. (1Kings 6:29-30).
Now here, in the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle and later the temple, we have the second instance where cherubim are encountered in the Bible. In this instance we gain some helpful information.
When we looked at the cherubim that God placed at the east of the garden of Eden, I complained that we weren't told what the cherubs were made of; how big they were; what form they took, whether they were alive; or what powers they had. Now we have those questions largely answered.
If we stopped here, and did not move forward to the third instance of cherubim in the Bible, we would say that cherubim are carved images in the form of winged creatures. They have a special significance in that where God has appointed them to be, his glory and power dwell. The place occupied by the carved cherubim is most sacred, and mortals are forbidden to enter.
However there is a third instance of cherubim that we need to visit before we leave the matter. I refer to the cherubim that Ezekiel saw in his visions.
III. The Cherubim in Ezekiel’s Visions
In chapters 1 and 10, Ezekiel describes the visions in vivid detail. The visions begin "by the river Chebar" (Ezekiel 1:1).
¶“4As I looked, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, and a great cloud, bright all around. Fire kept flashing from it. In the midst of the fire, there seemed to be gleaming metal. 5From within the cloud, there came the likeness of four living creatures. In appearance they were like humans, 6but each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. 7Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like that of a calf’s foot. Their feet shone like burnished bronze. 8Under all four wings they had human hands (Ezekiel 1:4-8).
¶“9I observed the faces and wings of the four creatures. Their wings touched one another. The creatures went straight forward and did not turn. 10Each of the four creatures had a human face [at the front], the face of a lion on the right, the face of an ox on the left, and the face of an eagle [behind]. 11Such were their faces. Two wings of each creature spread out above, touching, and two wings covered its body. 12And each creature went straight forward. Wherever the Spirit wished, so they went, yet without turning.” (Ezekiel 1:9-12).
¶“13The appearance of the living creatures was like burning coals of fire, like the appearance of torches moving to and fro among the living creatures. The fire was bright, and out of the fire flashed lightning, 14and the living creatures moved back and forth, like flashes of lightning.” (Ezekiel 1:13-14).
The vision continues as strange moving wheels appear beside the living creatures. Also, in the shining expanse above, Ezekiel sees a vision of the LORD as a man enthroned in glory. In chapters 2 and 3, Ezekiel is commissioned to watch over the apostate children of Israel and zealously warn them with messages given him from God. Amid the noise of the wings of the living creatures, Ezekiel was lifted up by the Spirit and transported from the river to the plain.
In chapter 4 to 7 Ezekiel is required to perform symbolic acts signifying how Jerusalem will suffer. He is given an oracle and a lament for Jerusalem.
In chapters 8 and 9, Ezekiel has a vision of abominations in the temple at Jerusalem. Then in chapter 10, Ezekiel has a vision involving the same living creatures and their wheels as in chapter 1.
¶“1Then I beheld, in the expanse above the heads of the cherubim, what looked like a throne made of sapphire. 2It was said to the man clothed in linen, "Go in among the whirling wheels underneath the cherubim. Fill your hands with burning coals from between the cherubim, and scatter them over the city." And so he did while I watched.” (Ezekiel 10:1-2).
¶“3Now when the man went in, the cherubim were standing on the south side of the temple. A cloud filled the inner court. 4The glory of the LORD ascended from the cherub to the threshold of the house. The house was filled with the cloud, and the court with the brightness of the glory of the LORD. 5And the sound of the wings of the cherubim was heard as far as the outer court, like the voice of God Almighty when he speaks. ” (Ezekiel 10:3-5).
¶“6And he commanded the man clothed in linen, "Take fire from among the whirling wheels and the cherubim,". So he went in and stood beside the wheels. 7Then, from among the cherubim, a cherub stretched out his hand to the fire among them. The cherub took some fire and put it into the hands of the man clothed in linen. He took the fire and went out. 8I observed that the cherubim appeared to have the form of a human hand under their wings.” (Ezekiel 10:6-8).
¶“9I beheld four wheels, one beside each cherub. The wheels looked like sparkling beryl. 10Each of the four wheels alike seemed to be a wheel within a wheel. 11When the cherubim proceeded, in any of their four directions, they did not turn. In whatever direction the leader faced, the others followed without turning. 12Their whole body, their back, hands, wings, and the wheels of the four, were full of eyes all around” (Ezekiel 10:9-12).
¶“13I observed the wheels which were called wheels in my hearing. 14Each wheel had four faces. First was the face of the cherub, second a human face, third a lion’s face, and fourth the face of an eagle.” (Ezekiel 10:13-14).
¶“15The cherubim rose up. (These were the living creatures that I saw by the river Chebar). 16As the cherubim went, so the wheels went beside them. And when the cherubim lifted up their wings to rise up from the earth, the wheels did not leave their side. 17When the cherubim stood still, the wheels stood still. When the cherubim lifted up, the wheels arose with them. This happened because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.” (Ezekiel 10:15-17).
¶“18Then the glory of the LORD went out from the threshold of the temple, and stood over the cherubim. 19And the cherubim lifted up their wings and rose up from the earth before my eyes, As they went out, with the wheels went beside them. And they stood at the entrance of the east gate of the house of the LORD, and the glory of the God of Israel was over them.” (Ezekiel 10:18-19).
¶“20These were the living creatures that I saw beneath the God of Israel when I was by the river Chebar. I knew that they were cherubim 21because each had the four faces, and each the four wings, and underneath their wings the likeness of human hands. 22Their faces were the same faces I had seen when I was by the river Chebar. Also each cherub went straight forward [without turning]” (Ezekiel 10:20-22).
In this account we see that the cherubim were living moving beings, not carved images such as were in Solomon’s temple. Does this mean that cherubim are real living creatures such as Ezekiel describes? I think not, and my reasons are given below.
Are Cherubim Living Beings Like Ezekiel Describes?
Ezekiel was seeing a vision which showed him signs. A sign does not signify itself, but something else. For example the sapphire throne (Ezekiel 1:26, 10:1) was in the vision to represent the sovereignty of God which the children of Israel had scorned and rebelled against. That was the reality. The sapphire throne was the sign.
Ezekiel understood that he was seeing the “likeness” of things, not the reality. For instance, Ezekiel did not, and could not, see the glory of God as it really is. Rather Ezekiel beheld "the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD" (Ezekiel 1:28).
In Solomon’s temple, the cherubim were beautiful carved images of olive wood overlaid with gold. They were, however, symbols. They portrayed the presence and mercy of God who can lift up the sinner. They did not portray any living being, except God himself. Otherwise, wouldn't they be the very graven images forbidden in the ten commandments (Exodus 20:4)?
The cherubim that Ezekiel saw in visions were also symbols. Yes, they appear as living and moving creatures, but they don't portray any living beings other than God and his attributes. For example the creatures and wheels were full of eyes. It's not hard to understand that this represents God as all‑wise, all‑knowing, all‑seeing. And the proceeding straight forward without turning symbolises God’s absolute righteousness and truth from which he never turns aside.
The Bible records angels making appearances to human beings. For example, "the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth" The angel visited Mary the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:26-38). This happened in the real world. It was not a symbolic vision. The angel was a real live angel. You read nowhere in the Bible of a real live cherub visiting and speaking to anyone. That's because there are no real live cherubs.
Cherubs are images that represent God’s presence and attributes, his "goodness and severity" (Romans 11:22).
3 What are Seraphim?
The Bible has little to say about seraphim. The main passage is Isaiah’s vision in Isaiah chapter 6. The first part of the vision is as follows...
¶“1In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up. His robe filled the temple. 2Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings. Each covered his face with two wings; with two he covered his feet; and with two he flew. 3And one seraph called to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!" ” (Isaiah 6:1-3).
¶“4”Then the door posts shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 2And I said: "Woe is me! For I am undone! I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among people of unclean lips. I am lost because my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!" (Isaiah 6:4-5).
¶“6Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7And he touched my mouth and said: "Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin is atoned for."” (Isaiah 6:6-7).
Elsewhere in Isaiah we read, "Rejoice not, O Philistia, all of you, that the rod that struck you is broken, for from the serpent’s root will come forth an adder, and its fruit will be a flying seraph1." (Isaiah 14:29 compare Isaiah 30:6).
We also find seraphim back in the time of Moses. Among the dangers for the wanderers in the wilderness were "seraphim1 and scorpions" (Deuteronomy 8:15). And God used seraphim1 to punish the Israelites in the wilderness, then he told Moses to make an image of a seraph1 and set it on a pole. God promised that anyone who was bitten could look at the bronze seraph1 and they would not die (Numbers 21:4-9)
1Note:— Fiery Serpents. In the account of events in the wilderness (Numbers 21:4-9, Deuteronomy 8:15), the Hebrew word “saraph” is normally translated “fiery serpent” or “poisonous serpent”. Likewise in the two instances in the latter poems of Isaiah (Isaiah 14:29, Isaiah 30:6). However, in the account of Isaiah’s vision (Isaiah 6:1-7), the word is normally not translated, but rather transliterated as “seraph” (plural seraphim). Why the translation “fiery serpent” is thought unsuitable for Isaiah’s vision, I don't know.
There is no support in scripture for teaching that seraphim are a class of angels. There is support for teaching they are a class of poisonous serpents. Out of the the real world, and in the symbolic realm of visions, seraphim are fiery, flying, talking serpents who have faces and feet they cover with their spare wings —make of that what you will.
The passages we have studied in these notes are not about angelology. They do not inform us about angels, but about the wisdom, power, glory, mercy, righteousness, and grace of God. He wants his children to believe and obey his word so that he can grant them eternal blessings from his presence. He will punish rebellion, but it is his wish to provide atonement and have his children come welcome into his house.