Monday, July 26, 2021

Anonymous Asks (155)

“What is the difference between an archangel and a cherub?”

Whether we are talking about Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Protestant Christianity, Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy or even the cults, religious tradition has plenty to say about the more powerful angelic entities, their roles, descriptions, names and history. Most of what is written is conjectural. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all wrong, but even accurate speculation is still just speculation. It has no authority for Christians.

So then, I will try to stick pretty close to the scripture on this one …

1/ Archangels

In the Old and New Testaments

The word “archangel” is a transliteration of the Greek archangelos, meaning “chief messenger”. It occurs only twice in the New Testament: firstly, when Paul refers to “the voice of an archangel” in Thessalonians in connection with the return of the Lord Jesus for the church he has built over the centuries; and secondly, when Jude writes of the archangel Michael, who contended with the devil. Contending with the devil and heralding the gathering of the saints to the Lord would seem to be the sort of tasks which might be appropriate to the angelic elite.

The Hebrew equivalent for archangel is found in the book of Daniel, where he calls this same Michael “one of the chief princes” [ri'šôn śar], a construction which suggests there may be more than one archangel. This is the only reference to “chief prince” in the OT, but another angel, Gabriel, appears in the book of Daniel and reappears in the first chapter of Luke doing the sorts of things we might expect one of God’s chief princes to do, first announcing the birth of John the Baptist and later the incarnation of God himself. Some Christians believe the role Gabriel plays in the annunciation to Mary could only have been assigned to an archangel, while others point out that he is never explicitly given that title in scripture.

In Jewish and Popular Tradition

Beyond this, we get into the aforementioned speculation. Google “archangel” and you will get a lot of pious and impious nonsense. Post-exilic Jews posited several orders of angels (usually in the range of four to seven), atop which were as many as seven archangels, but these conjectures were not based on any revelation still available to us; in fact, it seems more likely this line of thinking originated in Zoroastrianism, a 4,000 year-old Persian religion. The apocryphal Book of Tobit mentions a third archangel, Raphael (as well as the total of seven), but there are excellent reasons Protestants have historically excluded Tobit from the canon. Far from heralding Messiah or revealing solemn truth to a prophet, this “archangel” provides little more than comic relief, offering the protagonist of Tobit a recipe of fish heart, liver and gall to drive away a pesky demon.

What we can say definitively about archangels from the word of God is that they are high-ranking and immensely powerful spirit beings chosen to interact with men and angels in the service of the Most High God.

2/ Cherubim

Not much is said in scripture about archangels, but there are abundant references to cherubim, which is a transliteration of a Hebrew word used repeatedly in the instructions for building the tabernacle. Cherub is singular, cherubim plural, and both words were originally pronounced with a hard “k” sound rather than the soft “ch” sound we traditionally use in English.

Cherubs and Guardianship

Satan was the original guardian cherub, anointed by God and dwelling in his holy mountain. Sure enough, the moment we encounter other cherubim in scripture, they too are serving as guards. After the fall of mankind, God “placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life”.

No clear description of a cherub is given anywhere but Ezekiel, but it is implied that the Israelite artisan Bezalel and his assistant Oholiab were working from a divinely-revealed model when they crafted the cherubim of gold atop the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant, and embroidered cherubim on the curtains and veil of the tabernacle. In Solomon’s temple, the cherub theme was reprised with a few variations: they were carved on the temple doors and the walls of God’s house. The cherubs in the inner sanctuary were much larger than their tabernacle counterparts, about 16 feet high. There was no longer a need for the priests to carry them through the wilderness. The location of these cherubim confirms their function in the heavenly places as guardians rather than heralds or messengers. Unlike human guardians, who must maintain watch at all times, the attitude of the cherubim suggests they do their job with no concern of genuine threat; their backs are turned to the world, and their faces are toward one another and toward the throne of God.

Either there is more than one species of cherub, or perhaps human apprehension of the appearance of individual cherubs varies. The carved cherubim atop the Ark faced one another over the mercy seat. This would only be possible if each cherub had a single face, unlike those described in detail in Ezekiel.

Cherubs and the Throne of God

Long before Ezekiel described the cherubim in more detail for readers of scripture, David wrote that the cherubim essentially function as a chariot for the Most High God: “He rode on a cherub and flew, he was seen on the wings of the wind.” The prophecies of Ezekiel make reference to cherubim 31 times, far more than the other 11 books of the Bible in which such references appear. Ezekiel also refers to them as “four living creatures”.

The throne of God is not the traditional stationary seat of a monarch. This throne is capable of either flight or locomotion, supported by four quadruple-winged cherubs and four whirling wheels within wheels. There are detailed descriptions of the cherubs and the throne mechanism in Ezekiel 1 and 10. Their general shape is human, as are their hands, but other aspects of their appearance seem quite monstrous: four faces (human, lion, eagle and ox), calves’ feet, wings that sound “like the voice of God Almighty when he speaks” and so on. For Christians to speak of babies as “cherubic” is scripturally incoherent.

Variant Descriptions

These chapters in Ezekiel are worthy of meditation. There are spiritual lessons of significance to be derived from every aspect of a cherub’s appearance, though of course interpretations differ. In the New Testament, the cherubim are mentioned only in passing in the book of Hebrews, but their presence and appearance imply a glory which words are inadequate to convey. But the lessons to be derived from the cherubim are surely intended to be primarily spiritual rather than scientific or intellectual. It is not unreasonable to suppose that what the prophets saw of the cherubim were spiritual lessons in visual form rather than precise representations of objective reality, and that the lessons were tailored to the prophet and his audience. There is a certain fluidity to their observations; for example, the appearance of the four living creatures in Revelation (John does not use the word cherubim to describe them) differs in certain ways from Ezekiel’s account. These creatures too are connected with the throne of God, but they have six wings instead of four, and whereas the cherubim of Ezekiel move in concert, these act as individuals.*

As with the descriptions of the tabernacle and temple, the visions seen by Ezekiel are not mere allegories. They undoubtedly correspond to spiritual realities we are currently incapable of fully processing with our senses.

So, What’s the Difference Then?

So then, cherubim and archangels both serve God in the heavenly realm, operating seen and unseen in heaven and on earth. The differences between them are primarily related to:

  • Appearance: while glorious, archangels appear mostly human, while cherubim distinctly don’t;
  • Function: archangels bring messages and contend with other spiritual powers in the heavenlies, while cherubim guard the throne of God and carry him where he wills;
  • Spheres of service: archangels are more connected to earthly happenings, while cherubs are distinctly heavenly creatures engaged in heavenly service; and
  • Constitution: angels are ministering spirits, while cherubs are living creatures [khah'-ee, meaning “living”].

This last may be a distinction without a difference, but I point it out because the scriptures make it consistently.

Both beings display the glory and power of God. It would be distinctly unwise to mess with either.

* It may even be observed that Ezekiel’s chapter 1 description differs very slightly from his description in chapter 10. This is surely not accidental; the man could undoubtedly read back what he wrote as he wrote it. Moreover, in chapter 41 the decorative cherubim in the millennial temple have two faces rather than four.

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