Only divine artistry can fully craft the unearthly magnificence of an angel. Human words will never be sufficient to describe their beauty and grandeur. All attempts, through imagery, arts, and language, fall short of depicting these glorious beings in all their splendor, although we must try.
There is more to an angel than meets the eye. Human beings who meet an angel in some extraordinary circumstance only perceive the faintest mystical outline of a being whose nature is purely spiritual. They have seen the adopted human form of an angel – his costume – not his spiritual essence.
But as limited as our perceptions of the spiritual world may be, God wants us to know and love the angels. They are our allies in the work of saving our souls, and for that reason, the Bible is filled with stories about them from beginning to end. Let’s look at one of the most intriguing angel stories in the Bible: Ezekiel’s Cherubim.
Who are they?
The Cherubim are the most identifiable class of angels in Scripture. That’s because they make the greatest number of appearances from Genesis to Revelation. A Cherub (singular form of Cherubim) was the first holy angel to appear in the Bible when one of that class was stationed east of Eden with his “fiery revolving sword” (Genesis 3:24) to guard the entrance to the Tree of Life after Adam and Eve were expelled.
The Book of Exodus is filled with Cherubim, precisely as guardians of the Ark of the Covenant. At the command of God, Moses fashioned holy images of them above the Ark and Solomon placed them in the Temple to symbolize their spiritual protection over the holy places of Yahweh.
Cherubim are the security guards of the spiritual world.
Everything we know of the spiritual world has to be communicated to us through symbols. (Words are symbols too.) This is relevant to angels because whenever Cherubim appear in biblical passages, they always come with fire, revolving wheels, thunderous noise, eyes, wings, and hands. These symbols depict their mission of guarding.
These items are a strange combination of things, but there is some logic to this depiction if we see Cherubim as protectors. The symbolism of our law enforcement professionals explains it: they are vigilant (eyes); pro-active (hands), mobile (wheels and wings), and powerful (fire and thunder).
The prophet Ezekiel was given visions of Cherubim while living with the Jews in the Babylonian Exile (586-538 BC). His experiences are surely among the most unusual visions of angels in the Bible. To appreciate his attempt to describe the indescribable, we must be willing to hold numerous conflicting images together in our minds without trying to form a literal picture of a physical being or object.
For example, Ezekiel describes the various “parts” of the Cherubim, one by one, but that is simply a concession to the inadequacy of human words. Angels don’t have parts, but human language has no other way to describe the angel as a unified whole. Reading the prophet’s description carefully, we must allow all the images to meld together and develop into an intuitive understanding of a single celestial being.
It was in such a way that the prophet Ezekiel “saw” in a vision the Cherubim’s holiness one day as he was praying by the River Chebar in Babylon (modern-day Iraq). Like all prophetic experiences, this sudden occurrence took him by surprise. It was “the hand of the Lord”, not an effort on his part that drew him into the vision:
The word of the LORD came to the priest Ezekiel, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar. There the hand of the LORD came upon him. As I watched, a great stormwind came from the North, a large cloud with flashing fire, a bright glow all around it, and something like polished metal gleamed at the center of the fire. From within it figures in the likeness of four living creatures appeared (Ezekiel 1:3-5).
When Ezekiel first sees these frightening beings, he is at a loss as to what to call them because even his cultivated ability to use language was insufficient to describe the experience. He calls them, simply, “living creatures”. We have here an angelic revelation of the first order. The seer can barely describe it.
The four faces
The creatures are full of fire, consistent with other depictions of Cherubim in the bible, and he notes other elements like wings and spiritual power (lightning). Ezekiel describes these glorious angels, amazingly, as having “human form” and “four faces” in addition to the other elements. To the best of his ability, he describes what these look like:
Their faces were like this: each of the four had a human face, and on the right the face of a lion, and on the left, the face of an ox, and each had the face of an eagle. Such were their faces. Their wings were spread out above. On each one, two wings touched one another, and the other two wings covered the body. Each went straight ahead. Wherever the spirit would go, they went; they did not change direction when they moved. And the appearance of the living creatures seemed like burning coals of fire. Something indeed like torches moved back and forth among the living creatures. The fire gleamed intensely, and from it lightning flashed. The creatures darting back and forth flashed like lightning (Ezekiel 1:10-14).
The perceptive reader will recognize in these four faces the classic symbols of the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) whose vocation to communicate God’s Word puts them on a par with His other messengers, the prophets and the angels.
But Ezekiel isn’t finished trying to describe what he saw, however clumsy he may be in painting the picture. The cherubic “wheels” make their appearance in the prophet’s vision but they are now “fearsome”, they “sparkle like topaz” and are full of “eyes”. Imagine seeing a thing like that!
The immense wheels rotate with smaller wheels inside them giving the impression of something like a huge space station rotating inexorably while suspended in a celestial orbit. But this description is not science fiction: it is a vision of a deeper reality that only graced-vision can see.
Ezekiel is trying to communicate the character of beings who brim with eternity and divine wisdom (eyes).
The very center of reality
Only then does he find himself at the very crux of the vision, the very center of reality. He understands that the Cherubim are repositories of God’s glory, for which he can find no better formula than to say, “It was awesome”:
Above the heads of the living creatures was a likeness of the firmament; it was awesome, stretching upwards like shining crystal over their heads. Beneath the firmament their wings stretched out toward one another; each had two wings covering the body. Then I heard the sound of their wings, like the roaring of mighty waters, like the voice of the Almighty. When they moved, the sound of the tumult was like the din of an army. And when they stood still, they lowered their wings.
Ezekiel suddenly realizes that the Cherubim, as glorious as they are in their own natures, uphold One more glorious than they – the Lord Himself on His throne:
While they stood with their wings lowered, a voice came from above the firmament over their heads. Above the firmament over their heads was the likeness of a throne that looked like sapphire; and upon this likeness of a throne was seated, up above, a figure that looked like a human being. And I saw something like polished metal, like the appearance of fire enclosed on all sides, from what looked like the waist up; and from what looked like the waist down, I saw something like the appearance of fire and brilliant light surrounding him. Just like the appearance of the rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day so was the appearance of brilliance that surrounded him. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. (Ezekiel 1:22-28)
Witness Ezekiel’s valiant attempt to describe the unspeakable majesty: the Lord’s voice is as “the din of an army”, His throne room was “sapphire”, “crystal”, and “rainbow”. God’s “appearance” is simply inexpressible. One sympathizes with Ezekiel’s sense of inadequacy as he attempts to define the divine splendor as “polished metal” (other translations use “electrum”), “fire”, and “brilliance”.
So overwhelming was the vision of God’s splendor that Ezekiel could do nothing but fall down and worship: “And when I saw it, I fell on my face….” Let’s give Ezekiel credit: describing such a scene was an impossible task! It is only after this vision of God enthroned upon the Cherubim that Ezekiel is ready to receive his commission as prophet to God’s people.
A glimpse of heavenly glory
Ezekiel’s descriptions of the Cherubim leave us with the impression that they are wholly other. They have no counterparts in the material world.
The prophet’s images are only clunky literary devices, symbolic conduits to convey spiritual realities, and yet, they communicate in vague human terms God’s revelation about the creatures who are among the highest and noblest beings in the created universe.
Cherubim radiate overwhelming power. They are irresistible powers, overflowing with divine wisdom, burning with zeal, immense in their existence, inexorable and perpetual in action. They are the very thrones of the Eternal Father’s glory.
Ezekiel gives us a passing glimpse into the world of these awe-inspiring creatures. Sparks are all we get of their burning splendor while we are still so weighed down by sin and the limits of our mortality.
Do we realize that someday we too shall meet Ezekiel’s Cherubim? It will be a glorious day. Only God can make us ready for that encounter.
All angels are mysterious, but we can develop a familiarity with them. The ability to perceive their presence and their activity begins with knowing them as God has revealed them to us through Scripture and Tradition.
Take a moment today to sit with Ezekiel’s Cherubim. Read the first chapter of Ezekiel and ponder the mystery of those images. One man actually “saw” in a mystical vision that heavenly scenario.
What do the images of the Cherubim say to you about the world and God’s Providence over it? What does their existence do for your faith?
Then, if you have a minute, read the account of “four living creatures” from the Book of Revelation (4:6-11) and contemplate their particular characteristics in the vision that John had several centuries after Ezekiel. Compare and contrast.
Both seers saw the same angels, the holy Cherubim. In my opinion, however, the New Testament Cherubim seem to be fuller in their glory than the Old Testament creatures. Why? The answer is simple. The Apostle John’s vision came in the wake of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
After that event, all the angels reflected the unsurpassed glory of a world redeemed!
Scripture Source: New American Bible (Ezekiel 1; Revelation 4)