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The word cherub (cherubim is the Hebrew masculine plural) is a word borrowed from the Assyrian kirubu, from karâbu, "to be near", hence it means near ones, familiars, personal servants, bodyguards, courtiers. It was commonly used of those heavenly spirits, who closely surrounded the Majesty of God and paid Him intimate service. Hence it came to mean as much as "Angelic Spirit". (The change from K of Karâbu, to K of Kirub is nothing unusual in Assyrian. The word has been brought into connection with the Egyptian Xefer by metathesis from Xeref=K-r-bh.) A similar metathesis and play upon sound undoubtedly exists between Kerub and Rakab, "to ride", and Merkeba, "chariot". The late Jewish explanation by analogy between Kerub and Rekûb, "a youth", seems worthless. The word ought to be pronounced in English qerub and querubim, and not with a soft ch.
In Egyptian art, figures with a human face and two outstretched wings attached to the arms are exceedingly common. In Assyrian art, also, winged human figures on either side of a palm tree are very often used in decoration. They are sometimes hawk-headed, but more usually possess men's faces. However, even the Jews at the time of Christ had completely forgotten the appearance of the Temple cherubim. Josephus (Antiq., VIII, 3) says that no one knows or even can guess what form they had. The very fact, however, that the Bible nowhere gives a word of explanation, but always presupposes them well-known, makes us believe that they were among the most common figures of contemporary art.
As Jehovah was surrounded by figures of cherubim in His Sanctuary on earth, so He is, according to Scripture, surrounded in reality by cherubim in His Court above. The function ascribed to these heavenly servants of God's Majesty is that of throne-bearers, or "carriers", of His Divine Majesty. In Psalm 17 the psalmist describes the sudden descent of Jehovah to rescue a soul in distress in the following words: "He bowed the heavens and came down, and darkness was under His feet. He rode upon a cherub and flew upon the wings of the wind." The idea of cherubim as the chariot of God seems indicated in 1 Chronicles 18, where David gives gold for the Temple cherubim, who are described as "the Chariot", not, probably, because they had the outward shape of a vehicle, but because the Temple cherubim symbolized the swift-winged living thrones upon which the Almighty journeys through the heavens.
The Prophet Ezechiel mentions the cherubim in a two-fold connection:
Ezechiel's vision of the Cherubim, which is practically the same in the tenth chapter as in the first, is one of the most difficult in Scripture, and has given rise to a multitude of explanations. The prophet first saw a luminous cloud coming from the north; from a distance it seemed a heavy cloud fringed with light and some intense brilliancy in the centre thereof, bright as gold, yet in perpetual motion as the flames of a fire. Within that heavenly fire he began gradually to distinguish four living beings with bodies as men, yet with four faces each: a human face in front, but an eagles face behind; a lion's face to the left and an ox's face to the right. Though approaching, yet their knees did not bend in their march, straight and stiff they remained; and for feet they had the hoofs of oxen, shod as it were with shining brass. They had four arms, two to each shoulder, and attached along each arm a wing. Of these four winged arms two were outstretched above, and two were let down and covered their bodies. These four living beings stood together, facing in four opposite directions, and between them were four great wheels, each wheel being double, so that it could roll forward or sideways. Thus this angelic chariot, in whatever of the four directions it moved, always presented the same aspect. And both angels and wheels were all studded with eyes. And over the heads of the cherubim, so that they touched it with the points of their outstretched wings, was an expanse of crystal, and on this crystal a sapphire throne, and on the throne one resembling a man, the likeness of the glory of Jehovah.
The mystical meaning of each detail of this vision will probably remain a matter of speculation, but the meaning of the four faces seems not difficult to grasp: man is the king of creation, the lion the king of beasts of the forest, the ox the king of the kine in the field, the eagle the king of the birds of the air. On this account the cherubim have of recent years been explained as mere symbols of the fulness of earthly life, which, like the earth itself, is the footstool of God. But these faces are more naturally understood to signify that these angelic beings possessed the intelligent wisdom of man, the lithe strength of the lion, the ponderous weight of the ox, the soaring sublimity of the eagle. Early Christianity transferred this Old Testament vision to a New Testament sphere and gradually used these cherubic figures to designate the four Evangelists — a thought of rare grandeur and singular felicity, yet only a sensus accommodatus.
Ezechiel's Prophecy against the Prince of Tyre contains a description of the almost more than earthly glory of that ancient city. Tyre is spoken of as an angel fallen from glory. Of the King of Tyre it is said:
Thou, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. In Eden, the garden of God wert thou, all precious stones were thy covering. Thou wert a cherub with wings outstretched in protection, thou wert on the holy mountain of God, thou didst walk amongst fiery stones. Thou wert innocent in thy ways form the day on which thou wert created until iniquity was found in thee...thou didst sin, therefore I will cast thee out from the mountain of God and destroy thee, O protecting cherub away from the fiery stones.
Indirectly we can gather from this passage that Cherubim were conceived to be in a state of perfection, wisdom, sinlessness, nearness to God on His Holy Mountain and of preternatural glory and happiness. Unfortunately, the words paraphrased as "with wings outstretched in protection" are difficult to translate: the Hebrew term may mean "cherub of anointing, who covers", therefore a royal, anointed being, overshadowing others with its wings to shelter them. If this be so, we must add royalty and beneficence to the characteristics of cherubim.
Notwithstanding the present common opinion of advanced Protestant scholars, that cherubim are only symbolic representations of abstract ideas, the Catholic Church undoubtedly holds that there are actually existing spiritual beings corresponding to the name. That Old Testament writers used the word cherubim to designate angels, not merely to express ideas, can be best gathered from Genesis 3:24, where God sets cherubim at the entrance of Paradise. This sentence would bear no sense at all if cherubim did not stand for ministerial beings, differing from man, carrying out the behest of God. Likewise, it is difficult to read Ezechiel and to persuade oneself that the Prophet does not presuppose the actual existence of real personal beings under the name of Cherubim; in chaps. i and x he speaks again and again of "living beings", and he says the spirit of life was within them, and repeatedly points out that the bodily forms he sees are but appearances of the living beings thus mentioned. The living beings (zoa) so often mentioned in St. John's Apocalypse can only be taken as parallel to those in Ezechiel, and their personal existence in St. John's mind cannot be doubted. The frequent sentence also: "who sittest upon the Cherubim" (1 Samuel 4:4; 2 Samuel 6:2; 2 Kings 19; Isaiah 37:37, 16; Psalms 79:2 and 98:1), though no doubt referring to Jehovah's actual dwelling in the Holy of Holies, yet is better understood as referring to the heavenly throne-bearers of God. There can be no doubt that the later Jews that is, from 200 B.C. onwards looked upon the cherubim as real angelic beings; the angelology of the Book of Enoch and the apocryphal Books of Esdras give us an undeniable testimony on this point.
So the Christian Church from the first accepted the personality of the cherubim and early adopted Philo's interpretation of the name. Clem. Alex.: "The name Cherubim intends to show much understanding (aisthesin pollen)." (Stromata, V, 240.) Though counted amongst the angels during the first centuries of Christianity, the cherubim and seraphim were not mentioned in the lists of the angelic hierarchy. At first but seven choirs of angels were reckoned, i.e. those enumerated (Ephesians 1:21 and Colossians 1:16), with the addition of angeli et archangeli. Thus St. Irenæus, Haer. II, xxx, and Origen, Peri archon, I, v. But soon it was realized that the Apostle's list was not intended to be a complete one, and the Old Testament angelic beings mentioned by Ezechiel and Isaias, the cherubim and seraphim, and others were added, so that we have eight, nine, or ten, or even eleven ranks in the hierarchy. The cherubim and seraphim were sometimes thought to be but other names for thrones and virtues (Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius I; Augustine in Ps., xcviii, 3). Since Pseudo-Dionysius, De Caelesti Hier. (written about A.D. 500), the ninefold division of the angelic order has been practically universal; and the cherubim and seraphim take the highest place in the hierarchy, a rank which was ascribed to them already by St. Cyril of Jerusalem (370) and by St. Chrysostom (about 400), and which Pope Gregory the Great, once aprocrisarius or nuncio at Constantinople, made familiar to the West. Pope Gregory divided the nine angelic orders into three choirs, the highest choir being: thrones, cherubim, and seraphim. Of the cherubim he says (Hom. in Ev., xxxiv, 10), that cherubim means "the fulness of knowledge, and these most sublime hosts are thus called, because they are filled with a knowledge which is the more perfect as they are allowed to behold the glory of God more closely". This explanation of St. Gregory is ultimately derived from Philo's similar statement, and was already combined with the Old Testament function of the cherubim by St. Augustine in his sublime comment on Ps., lxxix, 2, "Who sitteth upon the Cherubim":
Cherubim means the Seat of the Glory of God and is interpreted: Fullness of Knowledge. Though we realize that cherubim are exalted heavenly powers and virtues; yet if thou wilt, thou too shalt be one of the cherubim. For if cherubim means, Seat of God, remember what the Scripture says: The soul of the just is the Seat of Wisdom.
KEIL, Commentary on Ezechiel, I, 20-46, in Clark's Foreign Lib. (Edinburgh, 1876), IV; KNABENBAUER, Commentarius in Ezechielem (Paris, 1890), 21-41; ZSCHOKKE, Theologie der Propheten (Freiburg im Br., 1877), 250 sqq.; BAREILLE in Dict. de theol. cath., s.v. Anges, 1206-11; WULFF, Cherubim, Throne und Seraphim (Altenburg, 1894); PERROT and CHIPIEZ, Le temple de Jerusalem (Paris, 1889); VIGOUROUX, La Bible et les decouvertes modernes, IV, 358-409; RYLE in HASTINGS, Bible Dict., s.v.
APA citation. (1908). Cherubim. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03646c.htm
MLA citation. "Cherubim." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03646c.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Michael T. Barrett. Dedicated to all the angels of God.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
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