Cherubs in Israel’s Worship—Why No Idolatry?
THE Ten Commandments for Israel were introduced against an awesome background of God’s power and glory when God “came down upon [Mount Sinai] in fire; and its smoke kept ascending like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain was trembling very much.” On that occasion God said: “You must not make for yourself a carved image or a form like anything that is in the heavens above or that is on the earth underneath or that is in the waters under the earth. You must not bow down to them nor be induced to serve them, because I Jehovah your God am a God exacting exclusive devotion.” As Moses explained, the true God had come with such magnificence “in order that the fear of him may continue before your faces that you may not sin.”—Ex. 19:18; 20:4, 5, 20.
With this law against idolatry so strongly emphasized to them, some might ask why Israel was also commanded to make two golden cherubs to be mounted on the cover of the ark of the covenant within the Most Holy compartment of the tabernacle. Besides this, the entire framework of the structure was covered with linen cloths, embroidered on the inner side with colorful figures of cherubs.—Ex. 25:18; 26:1.
When this tabernacle was later replaced by Solomon’s temple, “all the walls of [the temple] round about he carved with engraved carvings of cherubs,” and “he made in the innermost room [the Most Holy] two cherubs of oil-tree wood, ten cubits being the height of each one.” Also, the doors of the temple and the sidewalls of the copper carriages for temple use were decorated with cherubs and other figures.—1 Ki. 6:29, 32, 23; 7:27-29.
Did the making of cherubs and other carved images for the temple not constitute idolatry?
Not All Images Are Idols
An idol is an image, a representation of anything or a symbol that is an object of devotion, whether material or imagined. Idolatry with the use of images and symbols is widespread. Even in the 10-tribe kingdom of Israel two golden calves were set up for idolatrous worship, and, during the reign of one of the later kings, Baal worship was established, with an altar and a sacred pole being erected.—1 Ki. 12:28; 16:29, 31-33.
However, God’s law not to form images did not rule out the making of all representations and statues. As noted above, figures of cherubs were used to decorate the tabernacle in the wilderness and Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. According to ancient Jewish tradition, these cherubs had human form. They represented angelic creatures. Those on the cover of the ark of the covenant were described as “glorious cherubs.” (Heb. 9:5) In every detail they were made “according to . . . the pattern” Moses received from Jehovah.—Ex. 25:9.
These cherubs indicated the royal presence of Jehovah, who said: “I will present myself to you there and speak with you from above the cover, from between the two cherubs that are upon the ark of the testimony.” (Ex. 25:22) Hence, in a representative way, Jehovah was said to be “sitting upon [or, “between”] the cherubs.” (1 Sam. 4:4; 2 Ki. 19:15) Thus Jehovah impressed upon the serving high priest of the nation, who alone was allowed to enter the Most Holy once a year, that He as God was the Ruler in Israel.—Heb. 9:7; Isa. 33:22.
The other representations of cherubs, in the tabernacle and temple interior, were seen also by the officiating underpriests. So they, too, were impressed deeply by Jehovah’s holy presence.
As we have seen, these cherubic representations were not inventions of men. Jehovah himself ordered that they be placed in the temple for the purpose of making the priesthood fully aware of his presence. Also, they could not be objects of veneration by the people, because the people in general did not see the cherubs and therefore were not induced to treat them idolatrously. (Num. 4:4-6, 17-20) Instead of encouraging idolatry, these cherubic representations constantly reminded Israel’s priesthood of their relationship to the Most High, the ruling King in Israel, the One who exacted exclusive devotion.—Deut. 6:13-15.
The first encounter of humans with real cherubs was outside the garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve had sinned and Jehovah God had put them out of the garden “and posted at the east of the garden of Eden the cherubs and the flaming blade of a sword that was turning itself continually to guard the way to the tree of life.” Man had defied God’s position as Sovereign Ruler, and the cherubs as the upholders of the throne of Jehovah blocked the way back into an intimate relationship with Jehovah in the earthly paradise.—Gen. 3:23, 24.
However, the cherubs that later overshadowed the propitiatory cover of the Ark showed that Jehovah was again in the midst of his people Israel. God sat between the cherubs, indicating that he had opened the way into a proper relationship with him.
The priests in Israel bore the greatest responsibility, to keep the people in a proper relationship with Jehovah, “for the lips of a priest are the ones that should keep knowledge, and the law is what people should seek from his mouth.” (Mal. 2:7) The “fear of Jehovah,” as the “beginning of knowledge” and “the start of wisdom,” was to be included in their teaching. (Prov. 1:7; 9:10) Their service in the tabernacle, and later in the temple, constantly reminded them of the presence of Jehovah and implanted a proper fear of Jehovah in their own hearts so that they, in turn, could instill this fear in the people.
However, what happened in the prophet Ezekiel’s days? Alas, the people of the land, under the guidance of their older men, turned away from the presence of Jehovah. In a vision, Ezekiel was brought into the inner courtyard of the temple to see 70 men of the elderly ones of the house of Israel committing idolatry in one of the inner rooms of the temple. They said: “Jehovah is not seeing us. Jehovah has left the land.” (Ezek. 8:9-12) This happened right within the temple without interference on the part of the priests. Because of this idolatry, God brought destruction on Jerusalem and its temple, including its cherubic decorations, in the year 607 B.C.E. Destruction came not because of idolatry in connection with cherubic decorations but because Israel forgot the very thing that the cherubs should have made them realize, namely, the presence of Jehovah as the God exacting exclusive devotion.
So, as Christians in this time, let us hold fast our faith, “keeping close in mind the presence of the day of Jehovah.” May we act in faith as seeing the Invisible One, Jehovah.—Heb. 11:27; 2 Pet. 3:12.