THE cherubim of the Hebrew Scriptures and the animals or living creatures (called "beasts" in the common version), which support the throne of the Divine Majesty in the apocalyptic visions, are identical. The cherubim are called animals or "living creatures" by the prophet Ezekiel. He does not call them cherubim in his first vision, but in the tenth chapter, where he speaks again and again of the cherubim, he tells us: "This is the living creature that I saw under the God of Israel by the river Chebar, and I knew that they were the cherubim" (Ezek.10:15,20). This identity makes it possible for us to trace the cherubim from Genesis to Revelation, and, by noting all that is said, gain some conception of the part they play in God's universe.
Of one point we may be positive: they are closely connected with life. Their very name ZWA, zõa, means living ones and is used by us today in such combinations as zoology, the science of animal life, and zoological, pertaining to animals. In fact, they are animals. Our prejudices are very stubborn. We do not object to their being called beasts in the Authorized Version. But to call the "living creatures" animals grates harshly on our ears. In all the other occurrences of this word, this term is most appropriate. Why, then, refuse to use it here?
Besides the passages in the Unveiling, it occurs but three times. In Heb.13:11 we read that those animals whose blood is carried into the holy places by the chief priest for sin, these bodies are burned up outside the camp (Lev.6:30). The animals, in this case, were a bullock, and a goat (Lev.16:14,15,27). In 2 Peter 2:12 and Jude 10, men are compared to irrational animals (rather than "brute beasts"). We may not conclude from this that the animals of the Unveiling are confined to the irrational, but that they include them. Man is an animal and must be included in the term, for one of the faces is that of a human being.
Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures the usual word which represents the word "beast" in our version, is this word living [creature] which is much better rendered animal. The word which Ezekiel applies to the cherubim is used scores of times of animals. Indeed, Ezekiel himself does so often (14:15,21; 29:5; 31:6,13, etc.).
When first we meet the cherubim they are associated with the divine judgment on Adam (Gen.3:24). Along with the flaming sword they camp at the east of the garden of Eden to keep, or preserve, the way of the tree of life. The mere mention of the name gives us no clue to their number or appearance. The most we may be able to infer is that, as they are always found in the booth, or camp, of the Divine Presence, here the Lord Himself probably camped eastward of the garden and here He was still accessible to mankind. They brought their offerings to Him there. The curse of Cain was pronounced there. This was the "presence of the Lord" from which Cain was banished.
The position of the animals in this Unveiling is in perfect accord with the references to the cherubim in the Hebrew Scriptures. They are incorporated into the throne of the Divine Majesty. When Moses was instructed how to make the cover or propitiatory of the ark he was told to make two cherubim, one at each end, not on but of the same substance as the cover itself (Ex.25:17-20). They were beaten out of one piece of gold (Ex.37:7). They were extensions of the cover itself, while their wings were stretched out over it and their faces were intent upon it.
Not only in the propitiatory were the cherubim seen, but also in the curtains (Ex.26:1) and the veil (Ex.26:31), wrought into their very texture, so that nothing was so prominent or so striking to one in the holy of holies, where the Shekinah dwelt, as the pervading presence of the cherubim. They were to be seen above on the ceiling, all around on the walls and the veil, and in the center, a part of the golden throne.
Here it was that Moses met Yahweh. God spoke to him from between the two cherubim (Num.7:89). When the Philistines defeated Israel they brought the ark into the camp because Yahweh of Hosts was between the cherubim. And the Philistines were afraid and said, "God is come into the camp" (1 Sam.4:4-7)! David changed Yahweh's order and carried the ark on a new cart instead of on the shoulders of the priests. Once again the cherubim are associated with judgment, for Uzzah touched it to keep it from falling, and was struck dead for his error (2 Sam.6:2-7).
Not only are they evident everywhere in the house, but the ten lavers in the court were supported by lions, oxen, and cherubim, and the same figures were graven on it (1 Kings 7: 29,36).
In Solomon's temple, the cherubim are even more conspicuous than in the tabernacle. Two large carvings of cherubim with outstretched wings reached clear across the holy of holies, so that they touched each other's wings in the center. They touched the two walls as well. They were overlaid with pure gold (1 Kings 6:23-28). All the walls and doors of the house were also carved with cherubic figures, covered with gold. The veil, like that of the tabernacle, was wrought with cherubim (2 Chron.3:14).
Hezekiah, in many ways the best of the line of the kings, and a marvelous type of the suffering Messiah, addresses his petition to the One Who dwells between the cherubim (2 Kings 19:15). The result was that Sennacherib was defeated by Yahweh's messenger.
Ezekiel, in his opening vision, gives us a detailed description of the cherubim as they appeared to him, though--he does not call them by this name. He, like John in his apocalyptic vision, calls them living ones or animals. They had the appearance of a man. each one had four faces and four (or possibly, six) wings. These correspond exactly with the four animals of John's vision: the man, the lion, the ox, and the vulture. They were beneath the throne.
In the tenth chapter, the ox is replaced by the face of a cherub (10:1-5), yet this statement is omitted in the LXX (10:14). Ezekiel identifies them as the cherubim or animals which he had seen before, hence it is likely that the last list in Ezekiel is an interpolation. The faces correspond with the animals of the Unveiling.
As usual, the appearance of the cherubim is the signal for judgment. They reach out and take fire from between them, which is scattered over the city in token of the judgment to follow.
The glory of the Lord's presence left the cherubim for the threshold of the house (9:3; 10:4). Then it returns to its place above the cherubim and removes to the entrance of the east gate (10:18,19). Then it stands upon the mountain to the east of the city (11:23).
Ezekiel's temple, which will stand in the millennial kingdom, is not so lavish of cherubic ornamentation as Solomon's house. There seem to be no cherubim in the holy of holies except those on the ark. The walls and folding doors were ornamented with alternate palm trees and cherubim. The face of a man faced one way and the face of a young lion faced in the opposite direction. The ox and the vulture do not appear in Ezekiel's temple.
The covenant recalled by the encircling rainbow was made with the fowl, the cattle, and the beasts of the earth as well as with mankind (Gen.9:8-17). In the beginning, the animal kingdom, which is, with more than "scientific" accuracy, called "the moving soul which has life"(Gen.1:20), is divided into seven groups. Besides those enumerated in the covenant with Noah, there are the "great whales, and every living soul that moveth" in the waters (Gen.1:21) as well as the "creeping things" of the earth (1:25).
Before pressing the connection of the creatures contained in the ark with the cherubim, we will seek to define the distinctive characteristics of the whole animal creation of which these form the major portion.
After the cataclysm of the second verse of Genesis, the order of the restoration of the earth and of the creation upon it was progressive. The first day saw the division between light and darkness. The second spread out the expanse between the waters above and beneath. The third day saw the separation of the dry land from the seas. It also witnessed the first forms of life, the grass, yielding seed, and the trees, yielding fruit with seed within it. Here is life, but no motion and no soul. The fourth day was devoted to the celestial luminaries. On the fifth day, we have the creation of life again, as on the third day, but it is especially qualified as the moving soul. The sea and the air are filled with life which, unlike the grass and trees, which would die if their roots were detached from the soil in which they grow, are detached and capable of motion and of sensation. These were brought forth by the waters.
As usual, the sevenfold division is segregated into two groups of four and three. Two of these are ignored in the covenant with Noah for the reason, doubtless, that they could not be destroyed by a deluge, hence needed no assurance that it would not be repeated. We have no reason to believe that the fish perished in the flood or that they were preserved in the ark. The same is true of the water mammals. While the covenant seems to include every living soul with Noah in the ark, the "creeping things" are omitted from the special list in the covenant.
On the sixth day, the land brings forth souls, cattle and creeping things and beasts, and man, who is made master of all the moving souls which have been created.
Animate creation, then, is divided into flora and fauna, plant and animal. Both have life, but only the latter have life detached from the earth, are capable of independent motion, and are endowed with Consciousness, or soul.
With these facts before us, we perceive that the cherubim are not haphazard specimens of life but are confined to the animals of the land and air. "Creeping things" are excluded. The reason does not seem far to find when we remember that the dragon, that old serpent, is figured by the head of the creeping creation. The lion is the king of wild beasts, the bullock is the head of the herds, the vulture is the autocrat of the air, and man is the master of them all.
Thus the faces of the animals or cherubim establish a definite connection with the living moving souls which live on the land. Though seen in the heavens, they suggest the earth. Herein they differ greatly from the elders. In character at least, one is entirely celestial, the other purely terrestrial. The elders do not appear in the Scriptures at all except when the powers of heaven are in view in the latest letters of Paul and Peter. The cherubim, on the contrary, appear at the very threshold of earth's story and were the constant center of Israel's worship.
From the various symbols of animal life in this prophecy, we are prepared to deduce certain facts which will clear our way in understanding the symbol of the four animals. In the throne scene in which they first appear we also have the symbol of the Lambkin. We are sure that this is not literal. Christ never was and never will be metamorphosed into an actual lambkin. So we may be sure that we have here, not actual members of the fauna of heaven, of species quite different from any known on earth, but symbolic representations of the heads of earthly dominion.
This view of the cherubim is confirmed by the various forms which they assume. Were they creatures of blood and flesh their appearance would be the same or similar each time that they appear. Let us consider their wings. In the tabernacle and temple, they probably were furnished with two wings (Ex.25:20; 37:9; 1 Kings 6:24,27). In Ezekiel's vision, however, they appear with four wings, two of which were spread out above, and two covered their bodies (Ezek.1:11,23). In the Unveiling they have six wings (4:8). In each case they assume a shape in accord with their surroundings. This flexibility of form is sufficient evidence for assuming that they are not zoological monstrosities, but figurative representations of spiritual realities.
It is always a delicate matter to decide the meaning of a symbol, and the fact that this one has been so variously interpreted should deter us from being too dogmatic. One of the most popular explanations was that they represented the four evangelists. From this came the association of the lion with Mark, and the "eagle" with John. They have been taken as representative of various epochs: the vulture denoting the millennial era; the man, the so-called Christian; the bullock, the Mosaic; and the lion, the patriarchal. Then again they have been associated with the twelve tribes of Israel. It was said that the standard of Judah was a lion, of Ephraim, a bullock, of Reuben, a man, and of Dan a vulture. Under these representative tribes, all the rest were marshalled.
The one point on which most modern interpreters seem to agree is that they are symbols of the redeemed. But they, as well as the elders, do not sing of their redemption, but that they have been bought. As the blood of Christ is a sufficient price for all creation all has been bought, but all has not been redeemed. The fact that they appear in the first section of this vision dealing with creation, ought to have been a bar to this interpretation.
There ought to be some kind of congruity between this symbol and that which it purports to represent. If it is limited to mankind, why is only one of the animals given a human face? It would be more suggestive if none were thus endowed. But as one is human and the rest animals of a lower order of creation, we cannot help deducing that the reality has to do with that in which man is associated with the sentient creatures which share with him the domain of earth.
No one who has read Ephesians and has reveled in the grace which is ours in Christ Jesus, and is in sympathy with God's purpose to display the transcendent riches of His grace in us, in the coming eons, can entertain the thought that these animals represent the church which is Christ's body. They deal out judgment, not grace. They call on the destroying horsemen (6:1). One of them gives the seven messengers the seven golden bowls brimming with the fury of God (15:7). Could we do such a thing? We should be profoundly thankful that such work is not for us.
By a process of elimination, we may arrive at the correct interpretation of this symbol. This august judgment session is the crisis of the eons. The triumphant march of the powers of evil is about to be checked. All creation is vitally interested in the proceedings, and we may be sure that all creation is represented. We have already seen that heaven has its delegates in the twenty-four elders and in the myriads of messengers. But the special scene of judgment is the earth. Are its denizens without representation in this session of high heaven at the very crisis of its history? Far from it. In the four animals, we see the symbol of the only part of creation still without representation of the living souls that move upon the earth. The animals are living souls as well as man, and have a much greater right to blessing than humankind, for their thralldom is the result of man's sin. In the judgments which flow from this fiery throne, there are promises of relief and liberation. Through them, they, too, shall be freed from the slavery of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God (Rom.8:21). Man shares the creatures' groan and the creatures shall share his release.
Our traditional training would lead us to look for the animals somewhere on the far fringes of the throne-encircling throng. Surely the elders and the angels are nearer to the seat of Majesty than the souls of earth! Is not divine government fixed firmly in the hands of these celestial dignitaries? Not so! Not to messengers does He subject the future inhabited earth (Heb.2:5). That is in the hands of a Man. And even the heavenly realms shall be ruled by earth souls such as we, who become members of Christ's body. Through humiliated humankind, God will reveal the deepest lessons of His heart to the highest creatures in the universe. And so we find the cherubim where they belong--centering in the throne and around the throne--like the golden figures on the mercy seat, a part of the very throne of God.
Only One is nearer if that may be. The Lambkin is in the center of the throne and of the four animals. Yet He, too, was one with them--a living soul. So that in this symbolic scene is pre-figured the outcome of the impending judgment day.
The four animals, then, are the heads of animal creation on the earth and represent man and his fellow creatures of the land and air, who, like him, are living souls. Weak and worthless as they seem, compared with the heavenly hosts, they are the center of the divine administration to which this vision is the prelude.
It is the groaning creation which invokes judgment to right its wrongs. It is the suffering of conscious souls which calls the four horsemen to their awful task. And it is those who endure the burdens of great Babylon who hand the bowls of vengeance to the messengers. Apostate Israel has bought her blessings at the cost of untold misery and weariness and woe on the part of the souls who served her foul purpose. In His just retribution, a living soul, the symbol of their victims, brings on the bowls of vengeance.
Just as the blood of Abel cried to God from the ground, for it was Abel's soul, or suffering, so the souls under the altar cry for vengeance, because they figure the fearful fate of the martyrs, so the heads of sentient soul life on earth call for the judgment which rights their wrongs and answers to their sufferings.
Let us not miss the marvelous message taught in the position of the cherubim. The angels are near the throne. The elders are nearer. But the animals are nearest. Indeed they are a component of the throne itself. The earth may be small and insignificant compared with the heavens, but it has become, by association with the sufferings of God's Son, the center of His administration of the universe.
It will greatly enrich our lives if we view the birds and beasts of the earth in the light of this astounding revelation. Notwithstanding man's humiliating history and the fact that he has dragged down the creatures under him into the servitude of vanity, God will get Him glory and honor and thanks through these slaves of corruption, and not only so, but they lead in the worship of the Creator. The heavenly hosts follow them. Though polluted by sin, it is through them that God's holiness is revealed. Hence their constant cry is "Holy! holy! holy!" Just as the same tree in Eden brought the knowledge of good to mankind through the experience of evil, so the universe will discern the high holiness of the Creator through the vile creatures of the soil. It is through them and their disobedience that His glories as Lord and as Almighty, or All-Sufficient, are revealed. Their stubbornness shows Him to be a Master, their lack displays His sufficiency. The earth and its living souls play the principal part in God's government of the universe. They are incorporated into His very throne, nearer to Him than the dignitaries of the heavens, and much closer than the "angelic" host.
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