“of a man in front.” It seems that the way Ezekiel was looking, the face he was looking at was a human face. The four living creatures formed a hollow square, and the platform with God’s throne was somehow supported above them, but how it was supported is not given in the text. As the living creatures were assembled and moved, all their faces aligned the same: the human faces one way, the lion faces to the right, the ox faces to the left, and the eagle faces to the back. When the cherubim-throne moved, whichever way it moved all the same faces would be looking that direction.
The four specific faces of the cherubim are no accident. The lion, eagle, and ox are often portrayed in the art and architecture of the ancient Near East, and all three animals were known for their respective strength: the lion in the fight, the eagle as the most powerful of birds, and the ox in plowing and hauling. Their strength made them formidable guards. Beyond pure strength, the lion was also known for courage and ferocity, as well as serving as a royal symbol (note the lions on each side of Solomon’s throne: 1 Kings 10:19-20). The eagle was thought to be the fastest and most noble bird; and the ox was also a symbol of fertility and divinity (note Jeroboam’s golden calves: 1 Kings 12:28; 2 Chron. 13:8). Mankind is the pinnacle of God’s creation and the wisest of all the creatures, so the human face was fitting as well.
The function of the cherubim is not specifically described, but it is at least in part to guard and protect God and the things of God, and perhaps to worship as well. The derivation of the word “cherub” is not known, although it could have a meaning related to “strength, mighty” and to “bless, praise” (cp. Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew English Lexicon). Smith’s Bible Dictionary says that a good possible derivation is from the Aramaic for “great, strong,” and it references Philo and Gesenius. God placed cherubim with flaming swords to guard the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:24). The Book of Enoch, widely read and believed among the Jews, says the cherubim do not sleep, and guard God’s throne and glory (Enoch; LXXI:7). Ezekiel’s cherubim are closely related to the “living creatures” in Revelation 4:6-8, and we can see in Revelation that the living creatures stand in a guarding position between God and the spirit beings who are around Him.
That the cherubim were involved in guarding God and the things of God has been widely recognized. Smith’s Bible Dictionary mentions them being guardians of the covenant and avengers of its breach (Baker Book House, 1981, Vol. 1, p. 420). Hasting’s Bible Dictionary also sees a connection between cherubim and guardianship of the divine. The fact that there were cherubim above the ark of the covenant, and also cherubim on the curtains of Moses’ Tent of Meeting (Exod. 26:1), including the curtains that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies (Exod. 26:31-35), and also on the walls of the Temple (1 Kings 6:29) reinforces the connection between cherubim and guarding God and His holy place.
Although it may seem strange to us that God would have guards, it makes perfect sense when we see how God works hard to be close to His creation. God spent time with Adam and Eve in the Garden (cp. Gen. 3:8) and He will live among His people in the everlasting future (Rev. 21:3-4). Between the Fall and Revelation 21, God sometimes appears to people in human form (see commentary on Gen. 18:1). Similarly, God sits among his spirit beings and deals personally with them (see commentary on Gen. 1:26). But there is a potential problem that is created when God works closely to His creation: evil spirits such as Satan may try to directly intervene and overthrow Him. While we know that would be impossible due to God’s great power, it is a scene that God no doubt wants to avoid, and the way to avoid it is to have a contingent of powerful and ever vigilant guards around Him, and the “living beings” known as cherubim serve that purpose and guard Him as well as worship Him.
The Second Commandment says not to make an image of anything in heaven or on earth. Yet there were sculptured cherubim in the Tent of Meeting and the Temple, and also woven and carved base-relief cherubim in those holy places. This shows that the cherub motif was not borrowed from the mythology or experience of any other eastern culture, but they were actual creatures of God and their presence in the Tent of Meeting and Temple was not just for decoration, but communicated a deep truth: they were representing the spirit creatures that guarded God and the things of God.
Furthermore, the fact that many eastern cultures, including the Egyptian, Phoenician, Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian, have powerful winged creatures, for example, the winged bulls that guard Assyrian palaces, testifies to the reality of the cherubim. The Devil is a copycat and deceiver, and no doubt his demons appeared to ancient people in forms that in some ways mimicked the creatures of God and confused people. Of course, the most egregious misrepresentation of cherubs is the transformation of these powerful guardian creatures into chubby babies with tiny wings, as has been done in Western art and religion. The Devil cannot defeat God’s powerful cherub bodyguards, so he mocks them.