Hear us, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock; you who sit enthroned between the cherubim, shine forth before Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh. Awaken your might; come and save us. Restore us, O God; make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved. Psalm 80.1-3.
There are two pictures of God here. The first is the familiar picture of him as Shepherd which reaches its height in Psalm 23 in the Old Testament and John 10 in the New Testament. But it is the second picture that catches my attention this morning — the picture of God as the one who sits enthroned between the cherubim.
It is an image that is found again in Psalm 99.1 — “The LORD reigns, let the nations tremble; he sits enthroned between the cherubim, let the earth shake”; and the image is derived from the ark of the covenant (or more accurately “the ark of the testimony” because it contained the “testimony” — the stone tablets on which were inscribed the ten commandments).
The ark was a rectangular chest made of acacia wood which measured about 1.22 m x 76 cm x 76 cm. It was overlaid with gold and was carried on poles that were slotted through rings at the four lower corners; but what is of relevance this morning is its lid or covering. These were the instructions given to Moses concerning it: “Make an atonement cover of pure gold — two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. And make two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover. Make one cherub on one end and the second cherub on the other; make the cherubim of one piece with the cover, at the two ends. The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim are to face each other, looking toward the cover. Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the Testimony, which I will give you. There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the Testimony, I will meet with you …” (Exodus 25.17-22).
The Hebrew for “atonement cover” is kapporeth which Tyndale was the first to translate as “mercy seat” — a lovely expression, and in a way much better than “atonement cover” because, though it still carries the idea of God meeting his people in forgiveness, it also carries the idea of a throne which (as both Psalm 80.1 and Psalm 99.1 make clear) was very much in the mind of the Israelites when they thought of the ark.
It was the counterpart on earth of the throne of God in heaven. Ezekiel describes a vision where he sees that reality: “Then the glory of the LORD departed from over the threshold of the temple and stopped above the cherubim. While I watched, the cherubim spread their wings and rose from the ground, and as they went, the wheels went with them. They stopped at the entrance to the east gate of the LORD’s house, and the glory of the God of Israel was above them” (Ezekiel 10.18-19).
Cherubim are not, of course, the chubby little babies with wings beloved of cartoonists, but mighty celestial beings who, with the seraphim, surround and serve Almighty God. Here, we see them as such immense beings that they can bear God himself aloft and carry him in all his glory through the heavens. And the psalmist’s plea in this morning’s reading is that God would again visit Israel in that between-the-cherubim way and that his glory would again “shine” out upon them from his face.
How does this speak to me this morning? It reminds me that, although God is mighty beyond all imagining and rules on high from between the cherubim, his throne is a mercy seat. That I can meet him at the cross. That at the throne of Calvary, between two thieves(!), “the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4.6) shines out on me.