Until it is possible to find a satisfactory meaning of the Hebrew word keroob (Cherub) it is useless to proceed with an explanation of the nature and purpose of the Cherubim.
The Hebrew Lexicon of John Parkhurst (1778 and 1829) explained the word as derived from Hebrew K, meaning likeness or as, and rub, meaning great or majesty. Actually, rub means much, many, large, multitude. Thus he explained the cherub as being "a similitude, or substitute, of the Majesty on high," or "an emblem or representation of the Majesty."
However, it is impossible to obtain any reasonable sense from such an expression as "like much," "as multitude," or "as many." The Hebrews did not form words in this fashion. Parkhurst's Lexicon expatiates to the extent of thirteen closely printed pages on the word Cherubim, but in his day etymology consisted entirely of wild guesswork, while Bible concordance was something quite unknown. The Hebrew Lexicon of Samuel Lee, D.D. (1840) was much more cautious: "It would be idle to offer anything on the etymology; nothing satisfactory having yet been discovered." Even the Oxford Gesenius Hebrew Lexicon of 1906 says the root of the word is dubious, adding that" the older view, connecting keroob with Greek grups, and deriving from Persian giriften, griffen, lacks evidence and probability."
The discovery of Assyro-Babylonian records has shewn, however, that the Hebrew word keroob was definitely borrowed from the Babylonian word kiribu, which is said to mean something like "spirit," and was understood of one who was always in the presence of God, always near God. This Babylonian word was formed from the verb qarabu, also found in Hebrew, meaning to be near, to approach. This word, in Hebrew, has long been suspected of having a relation to the word keroob. In the Babylonian language, it was easy for the letter Q (qof) to change to K (kaf), although this does not seem to have happened in Hebrew.
The Assyro-Babylonian word kirub originally seems to have meant one who was very intimate with another, a familiar friend, one closely related in spirit. The Assyrians and the Babylonians understood the cherubim to be beneficent spirits or intimate friends who watched over those who were pious.
In a very fine book by Rev. William Russell, M.A., a clear and clever thinker, "Essays on Sacred Subjects" (Edinburgh, 1889), he calls the Cherubim "the highest order of created intelligences—the presence ministers of Jehovah," who stand continually in the presence of Jehovah as His ministers in waiting.
Urquhart, in his New Biblical Guide, says the Cherubim were evidently a higher order than the rest of the angel host, and nearer God. The eyes with which their bodies are covered denote mightier intelligence; and it is they who led the heavenly praises. Their close relation to God's throne indicates a guardianship of the Divine Majesty. They are vindicators of God's broken Law. The symbolic Cherubim over the Mercy-seat in the sanctuary look down towards the Law within the Ark, but their gaze is stopped by the bloodstained Mercy-seat, arresting their gaze, stopping their inquiry into the fulfilment of the Law.
E. M. Smith, in The Zodia (or, The Cherubim in the Bible and in the Sky, 1906) claims that they were identical with the Seraphim, and were instruments of judging.
Alexander Macleod, in The Cherubim of the Apocalypse (1853) says the Cherubim were Jehovah's living temple, and rightly states that He was to dwell in them, or to inhabit them, not to dwell between them.
Easton's Bible Dictionary says the Cherubim were symbolical, and intended to represent spiritual existences in immediate contact with Jehovah. Some say they were symbolical of the chief ruling power by which God carries on His operations in providence (Psalm 18: 10; Deut. 33:26; Psalm 68:4). Others interpret them as referring to the redemption of mankind. Their office was to prevent access to the Tree of Life, and to form the throne and chariot of Jehovah in His manifestation of Himself on earth (1. Sam. 4:4; Psalm 80:1; Ezek. 1:26-28).
Others have stated that the Cherubim are always found close to the Divine Presence, or supporting the Divine Throne. The four living animals represent the inhabitants of the earth, including man and the animals.
A peculiar feature meets us in the Greek Old Testament. In the first case, 1. Sam. 4:4, and there alone, we read of "the ark of Jehovah (Kuriou), (Him) sitting cherubim." It is clear the translators did not know what to say here, so they did their best, but failed to make good sense. The Hebrew verb which they found (yashab) is given the following senses in our common Bibles, inter alia: dwell (434 times); inhabit (76); abide (69); sit, seat, set, settle (46); tarry (20); place (6).
Yet in the six remaining cases, the Septuagint translators took the liberty of inserting the little Greek preposition epi, meaning "on," and thus completely altered the meaning of the Hebrew text. Bagster's Greek O.T. therefore reads in these six cases, "who dwells between the cherubs," "who sits between the cherubim," "that dwellest over the cherubs," "who sittest upon the cherubs." In 1. Sam. 4:4 they read "who dwells between the cherubs."
All these readings in the Greek are erroneous, in inserting either "between," or "upon," or "over."
The translation by Charles Thomson of the Greek (1808) reads in each case "enthroned on the cherubim," like Rotherham and the Revised Standard. But this is rather paraphrase than translation. The Greek word (kathEmai) means to sit or settle, not to be enthroned.
Doubtless confusion was caused by the expression found in Exodus 25:22 and Num. 7:89, where we learn that God would speak "from between the two cherubim." Similarly, in Ezk. 10:2, 6, 7, where live coals of fire were to be taken "from between the cherubim."
Here the views of the Rev. C. J. Ball, M.A., in "Light from the East" are very interesting. Aramean inscriptions shew the Divine name Rekub-El, "God's Chariot," or perhaps "Chariot-God," as though this was the cherubic bearer of the Deity. In Psalm 18:10 (see above) we find both the verb rakab (ride) and the noun kerub (cherub), two words with similar consonants. Psalm 68:17 says "The chariotry of God are two myriads—thousands repeated. Jehovah comes from Sinai into the Sanctuary." The noun rekeb occurs 115 times, and is always a singular, collective term. Ball continues, "The god Rekub-El is called 'Lord of the house,' as guardian of the palace, like the Assyrian cherubim which guarded the king's doors." The thought of a winged bearer of the Deity even extended into India. In fact composite: figures, partly human and partly animal, have been found in many parts of the East, though up till the time when Pinches wrote (1900) no figure had been found shewing a wheel for locomotion.
May I suggest that the indwelling of the Cherubim by the Deity makes Him appear to be more realistic than we have thought. If God indwells or inhabits the Cherubim, it is also true that in due course He will indwell all His creatures. Is not this the meaning of 1. Cor. 15:28, that He will become all things in everybody? The entire fulness or Pleroma dwells in the Lord, and it is His fulness which will reconcile ALL to Him (Col. 1:19-20). Meanwhile, Holy Spirit makes His home in us or indwells us (Rom. 8:11; 2. Tim. 1:14), yet not in that fulness which we shall have in resurrection.
Ezk. 1:5, Out of the midst of the fire, a likeness of four living creatures. Rev. 4:6, In the midst of and round the throne, four living creatures.
Ezk. 10:12, All their flesh, back, hands, wings, and wheels, full of eyes round about. Rev. 4:6, 8, Full of eyes in front and behind, around and inside.
Ezk. 10:21, Each one had four wings, and like a man's hand under their wings. Rev. 4:8, Each had six wings.
Ezk. 1:10, The likeness of their faces—the face of a man, of a lion, of an ox, and of an eagle. Rev. 4:7, Like a lion, like a calf, a face like a human, like a vulture.
Ezk. 1:22, A likeness over the heads of the living creatures, an expanse like awesome crystal. Rev. 4:6, Before the throne as a glassy sea like crystal.
Ezk. 1:26, Above the expanse over their heads as the appearance of a sapphire stone. Rev. 4:2, 3, A throne set in the heaven and One sitting on to the throne, like a stone, jasper and carnelian.
Ezk. 1:28, As the appearance of the bow in a cloud on a day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about; that was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of Jehovah. Rev. 4:3, And a rainbow surrounding the throne is to sight like an emerald.
Ezk. 1:26, And upon the likeness of a throne was a likeness as an appearance of a HUMAN upon it above. Rev. 5:6, Amid the throne and the four living creatures and amid the elders, a LAMB standing, as having been slain.
He who in Old Testament times appeared occasionally as MAN, and whom Ezekiel saw as MAN, is seen by John in Revelation as a LAMB slain. Here is the great secret of God—Christ (Col. 2:2); God in Christ making possible the utter banishment of Sin (Heb. 9:26).
I suggest the possibility that the Cherubim are full of eyes in order that they act as watchers or reporters for God; in other words, that they contain knowledge which God may utilize, seeing that God indwells them. At least the connection between them and God must be extremely close. Indeed, long ago Hengstenberg praised Baehr for his very profound knowledge of the Cherubim, and quoted from him as follows: