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1 Kings vi. 23-30, viii. 6-11.

"Jehovah, thundering out of Sion, throned

Between the cherubim."


The inculcation of truths so deep as the unity, the presence, and the mercy of God would alone have sufficed to give preciousness to the national sanctuary, and to justify the lavish expenditure with which it was carried to completion. But as in the Tabernacle, so in the Temple, which was only a more rich and permanent structure, the numbers, the colours, and many details had a real significance. The unity of the Temple shadowed forth the unity of the Godhead; while the concrete and perfect unity, resulting from the reconciliation of unity with difference and opposition (1 + 2), is "the signature of the Deity." Hence, as in our English cathedrals, three was the predominant number. There were three divisions,—Porch, Holy Place, Oracle. Each main division contained three expiatory objects. Three times its width (which was 3 × 10) was the measure of its length. The number ten is also prominent in the measurements. It includes all the cardinal numbers, and, as the completion of multiplicity, is used to indicate a perfect whole. The178 seven pillars which supported the house, and the seven branches of the candlestick, recalled the sacredness of the seventh day hallowed by the Sabbath, by circumcision, and by the Passover. The number of the cakes of shewbread was twelve, "the signature of the people of Israel, a whole in the midst of which God resides, a body which moves after Divine laws." Of the colours predominant in the Temple, blue, the colour of heaven, symbolises revelation; white is the colour of light and innocence; purple, of majesty and royal power; crimson, of life, being the colour of fire and blood. Every gem on the high priest's pectoral had its mystic significance, and the bells and pomegranates which fringed the edge of his ephod were emblems of devotion and good works.

Two instances will suffice to indicate how deep and rich was the significance of the truths which Moses had endeavoured to engraft in the minds of his people, and to which Solomon, whether with full consciousness or not, gave permanence in the Temple.

1. Consider, first, the Ark.

Every step towards the Holiest was a step of deepening reverence. The Holy Land was sacred, but Jerusalem was more sacred than all the rest. The Temple was the most sacred part of the city; the Oracle was the most sacred part of the Temple; the Ark was the most sacred thing in the Oracle; yet the Ark was only sacred because of that which it contained.

And what did it contain? What was it which enshrined in itself this quintessence of all sanctitude? When we pierce to the inmost recesses of a pyramid, we find there only the ashes of a dead man, or even of an animal. Within the adytum of an Egyptian temple we might have found "an ox wallowing on purple tapestry." The Egyptians, too, had their arks,179 as the Greeks had the cyst of Cybele, and the vannus of Iacchus. What did they contain? At the best phallic emblems, the emblems of prolific nature. But the Ark of Jehovah contained nothing but the stone tablets on which were carved the Ten Words of the Covenant, the briefest possible form of the moral law of God. In the inmost heart of the Temple was its most inestimable treasure,—a protest against all idolatry; a protest against all polytheism, or ditheism, or atheism; a protest, too, against the formalism which the Temple itself and its services might tend to produce in its least spiritually minded worshippers. Thus the entire Temple was a glorification of the truth that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom," and that the one end to be produced by the fear of the Lord is obedience to His commandments. The Ark and its unseen treasure taught that no religion can be of the least value which does not result in conformity with the plain moral laws:—Be obedient; be kind; be pure; be honest; be truthful; be contented; and that this obedience can only spring from faith in the one God whom all real worshippers must worship in spirit and truth.

Obvious as this lesson might seem to be, it was entirely missed by the Jews in general. The Ark, too, was degraded into a fetish, and Jeremiah says (iii. 16) of the exiles, "They shall say no more, The ark of the covenant of the Lord: neither shall it come to mind: neither shall they miss it: neither shall it be made any more" (Heb.). When a symbol has been perverted into a source of materialism and superstition, it becomes not only useless but positively dangerous. No religions have fallen so absolutely dead as those which have sunk into petty formalism. The Ark, for180 all its quintessential sacredness, had been suffered to fall into the hands of uncircumcised Philistines, and to be placed in their Dagon temple, to show that it was no mere idolatrous amulet. Ultimately it was carried away to Babylon, to adorn the palace of a heathen tyrant, and probably to perish by fire in his captured city. In the second Temple there was no ark. Nothing remained but the rock of Araunah's threshing-floor, on which it once had stood.

2. Consider, next, the meaning of the Cherubim.

(1) The infinite sanctity given to the conception of the moral law was enhanced by the introduction of these overshadowing figures. We are never told in the entire books of Scripture what was the form of these cherubim; nor is their function anywhere specially defined; nor, again, can we be at all certain of the derivation of the name. That the cherubim over the Ark were not identical with the fourfold-visaged four of Ezekiel's cherub-chariot we know, because they certainly had but one face. But we now know that among the Assyrians, Persians, Egyptians, and other nations nothing was more common than these cherubic emblems, which were introduced into their palaces and temples under the forms of winged lions, oxen, men, and eagle-headed human figures. We see also that in the Tabernacle,300300   Kuenen's notion that the cherubim had come to the Jews through the Phœnicians from the Assyrians is quite improbable. The symbol was common throughout the East, whatever be the derivation of the word. and to a still greater extent in the Temple, a tacit exception to the stringency of the Second Commandment seems to have been made in favour of the component parts of these cherubic figures. If Solomon was aware (as he surely must have been)181 of the existence of the law, "Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image," he must either have laid stress on the words "to thyself," and have excused the brazen oxen which supported his great laver on the ground that they could not be turned into objects of worship, or he must have held, as Ezekiel apparently did, that the ox was the predominant form in the cherubic emblem.301301   Compare Ezek. i. 10 with x. 14, where "the face of an ox" is identical with "the face of a cherub." Perhaps this gave rise to the pagan calumnies that the Jews worshipped an ass. Josephus says (insincerely) that no man could tell or even conjecture the shape of the cherubim. From the Vision of Ezekiel we see that the cherubim—like the "Immortalities" (ζῶα) of the Apocalypse, which had faces of the ox, the eagle, the lion, and the man—were conceived of as "living creatures" upholding the sapphire Throne of God. They had wings, and the similitude of hands under their wings. They flashed to and fro like lightning in the midst of a great cloud, and an enfolding fire, and a rolling mass of amber-coloured flame. Of the form of this "changeable hieroglyphic" we need say no more. Perhaps originally suggested by the wreathing fires and rolling stormclouds, which were regarded as immediate signs of the Divine proximity, the cherubim came to be regarded as the genius of the created universe in its richest perfection and energy, at once revealing and shrouding the Presence of God.302302   Bähr, whose profound studies on symbolism command respect, says that "as standing on the highest step of created life, and uniting in themselves the most perfect created life, they are the most perfect revelation of God and the Divine" (Symbolik, i. 340). Their eyes represent His omniscience, for "the eyes of the Lord are in every place"; their wings and straight feet represent the speed and fiery gliding of His182 omnipresence;303303   Compare the Homeric epithet νέποδες, and Milton's "smooth-gliding, without step." each element of their fourfold shape indicates His love, His patience, His power, His sublimity. Their wheels imply that "the dread magnificence of the unintelligent creation" is under His entire control; and, as a whole, they symbolise the dazzling beauty of the universe, alike conscious and material. They were the ideal anima animantium—the perfection of existence emanating from and subject to the Divine Creator whose tender mercy is over all His works. Their function, when they are first introduced in the Book of Genesis, is at once vengeful and protective; vengeful of the violated law, protective of the treasure of life.304304   One of the Scriptural functions of the cherubim was to guard treasure (Ezek. xxviii. 13-15). This conception, too, was widely diffused throughout the East:— "As when a Gryphon through the wilderness Pursues the Arimaspian, who, by stealth, Has from his watchful custody purloined The guarded gold." Milton. They are here the Erinnyes of the Dawn, revealing and avenging the works of darkness. Their "dreadful faces and fiery arms" at the gate of Eden typify guilty awakenment, realised retribution, conscious alienation from God, the universe siding with His awakened anger.

(2) But when next they are mentioned, God says to Moses, "Thou shalt make a mercy-seat of pure gold, and thou shalt make two cherubim of gold at the two ends of the mercy-seat." But for their presence on the mercy-seat how terrible would have been the symbolism of the Holy of Holies—God's darkness, man's crime, a broken law! It would have represented Him who hath clouds and darkness round about Him,183 and dwelleth in darkness which no man can approach unto; and the Ark would only have treasured up, as a witness against man's apostasy, the shattered slabs of the words of Sinai.305305   I follow the Rabbis in saying that the first broken slabs were in the Ark. But over that Ark, and its saddening because dishallowed treasure, bent once more these mystic figures, these "cherubim of glory." They bent down as though at once to protect with outspread wings, and to regard with awful contemplation, that mystic gift of a law promulgated to all nations as their moral heritage and as the revealed will of God. These are no longer cherubim of vengeance or awakened wrath, for they stand on the Capporeth, the "covering," or "propitiatory" of the Ark.306306   Like the Greek images of the gods, they were made of olive, the least corruptible kind of wood, and overlaid with the purest gold. They gleamed out in the red light of the high priest's golden brazier on the one day when human foot entered the darkness in which they were shrouded; and even by him they were but dimly discerned through the ascending wreaths of fragrant incense. But he stood before them, where, on their spreading wings, the light of the Divine presence was deemed to dwell; and with the blood of expiation he sprinkled seven times the mercy-seat over which these adoring figures leaned. The wrathful cherubim of the lost Eden had driven man from a treasure which he had forfeited; but these, though they guard the ten words of a law which man had broken, were cherubim of mercy and reconciliation. Those of Eden were armed with swords of flame; those of the Temple were reddened with the blood of forgiveness. Those typified a covenant destroyed and ended; these a covenant broken yet renewed. Those184 spoke of awakened wrath; these of covenanted mercy. Those kept men back from the Tree of Life; these guarded that which is a Tree of Life to them that love it.

Could the whole covenant of the law and the gospel have been symbolised more simply, yet with Diviner force? The Temple itself, with all its sacrifices, with all its service and ceremonial and all the gorgeous vestments of Aaron's vestry, served but to teach the infinite worth of simple righteousness. The heart of the Mosaic legislation was nothing so poor, so paltry, so material as the promotion of liturgical Levitism, and the pomp of ritual, and the organisation of priestly functions—as though these in themselves had any value in the sight of God. It lay in the lesson that "Obedience is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams." The law of Moses—the ten words which constituted the inmost preciousness of his legislation—was, alas! a violated law. For the disobedient it had no message but the wrathful menace of death. But to show that God has not abandoned His disobedient children, but would still enable them to keep that law, and to repent for its transgression, the cherubim are there. Their presence on the propitiatory was meant to reveal the glory of the gospel. The high priest, who alone saw them on the Great Day of Israel, was a type of Him who, not with the blood of bulls and goats, but in His own blood (i.e., in the glory of the life outpoured for man), entered into God's presence within the veil.

(3) In the dazzling living creatures before the throne in the Revelation of St. John, we see once more these cherubim of Eden, who, having indicated at the Fall an awful warning, and represented in the Tabernacle185 a blessed hope, symbolise, in the last book of the Bible, a Divine fulfilment. They are there no longer with fiery swords, in wrathful aspect, in repellent silence; but, gracious and beautiful, they join in the new song of the redeemed multitude under the shadow of the Tree of Life, to which all have free access in that recovered Eden. In the Temple—glimmering through the rising fumes of incense, which were the type of accepted prayer, their golden plumage sprinkled with the blood of the atoning sacrifice—they became a type both of all creation, up to its most celestial beings, gazing in adoration on the will of God, and of all creation, in its groaning and travailing, restored through the precious blood that speaketh better things than the blood of Abel. Not all, of course, of these deep meanings were present to the souls of Israel's worshippers; but the best of them might with joy see something of the things which we see when we say that in these glorious figures are summed up the three chief images of all Scripture: first, the Primæval Dispensation, "In the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die"; next, in the wilderness, "This do, and thou shalt live"; last of all, in the Gospel Dispensation, "Thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by Thy blood out of every kindred and tongue and people and nation, and hast made us unto our God kings and priests."

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