ASK Commentary
December 31, 2003 

Cherubim on Wheels

Commentary for December 31, 2003 — Reading Verses Differently

Some time ago I read 1 Chronicles 28:18 in a way I never understood before,

“Then David gave to Solomon his son the pattern of the porch, ...

And for the altar of incense refined gold by weight; and gold for the pattern of the chariot [Hebrew, merkabah] of the cherubims, that spread out their wings, and covered the ark of the covenant of the Lord.”

1 Chronicles 28:11, 18

The occasion was that King David publicly announced to all the leaders and governors of Israel the instructions he gave to Solomon. He told Solomon what must go inside the Temple and how it was to be constructed. One of the important elements, the centerpiece of the entire Temple structure, was the Ark of the Covenant inside the Holy of Holies.

What I noticed in verse 18 was the phrase “the chariot of the cherubims.” Did this indicate that the Ark of the Covenant rested on or in a carriage over which the Cherubim spread their wings, which was the throne of God? Yes, that is the case.

“Chariot” in Hebrew

Unfortunately most translations render two different Hebrew words with the same English term “chariot.” This is somewhat confusing, although it can be easily understood. The Hebrew term merkabah (Strongs #04818, 44 times) has the sense of a general term for any wheeled carriage, vehicle, or wagon, irrespective of the number of wheels. The primary characteristic of a chariot is that it has wheels. It also may indicate the wheel and axle portion of the vehicle. After all, a wagon is merely a box on wheels. A chariot is a platform on wheels from our modern way of looking at such contraptions.

The more frequent Hebrew term rekeb is used some 100 times and denotes what we commonly think of as a chariot, the two-wheeled variety, an implement of war.

(In Mesopotamia they had 4-wheeled war chariots, but the biblical war chariot [rekeb] refers to the lighter 2-wheeled variety used in Egypt, Israel and familiar to most of us from the movie Ben Hur.) In several passages the two Hebrew words occur close by or in the same verse.

The Hebrew rekeb is used several times in Exodus 14 through verse 23. Then in verse 25 the other Hebrew word merkabah is also translated “chariot.” Later in the same chapter rekeb is used again. Obviously the Hebrew reader understood these terms as having precise and distinct meanings. English used one term.

“And [God] took off [turned aside] their chariot [Hebrew, merkabah] wheels, that they drove them heavily: so that the Egyptians said, ‘Let us flee from the face of Israel; for the Lord fights for them against the Egyptians.’ And the Lord said unto Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the waters may come again upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots [rekeb], and upon their horsemen. ’ ... And the waters returned, and covered the chariots [rekeb], and the horsemen, and all the host of Pharaoh that came into the sea after them; there remained not so much as one of them.”

Exodus 14:25–26, 28

What occurred in Exodus 14:25–26, 28 was that the wagon wheels of the chariot became stuck and the Egyptians were afraid and attempted to flee. They failed. In the book of Judges the two Hebrew terms for chariot are again used in the same verse,

“And Sisera gathered together all his chariots [Hebrew, rekeb], even nine hundred chariots [rekeb] of iron, and all the people that were with him, ... the Lord discomfited Sisera, and all his chariots [rekeb], and all his host, with the edge of the sword before Barak; so that Sisera lighted down off his chariot [Hebrew, merkabah], and fled away on his feet. But Barak pursued after the chariots [rekeb], and after the host, ... and all the host of Sisera fell upon the edge of the sword; and there was not a man left.”

Judges 4:13, 15–16

Later, after the heroine Jael put a spike into the head of the Sisera, the Bible relates Sisera’s mother as asking,

“Why is his chariot [rekeb] so long in coming? why tarry the wheels of his chariots [merkabah]?”

Judges 5:28

Samuel spoke to Israel about how things would change when they took a human king instead of YHWH as their King,

“And he said, This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots [merkabah], and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots [merkabah]. And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to ear his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots [rekeb].”

1 Samuel 8:11–12

Later in 1 Chronicles 9:25, which discusses Solomon’s chariots, and 1 Kings 22:35, which discusses King Ahab’s death, the first use of “chariot” is merkabah and the second use is rekeb.

Ark on a Cart

There is another word used in Hebrew to denote a wheeled vehicle: cart or wagon (Hebrew, agalah). This appears to indicate a more rugged and slower kind of vehicle. It was not used for war. When Joseph told his brothers to take wagons (agalah) out of Egypt and get their families and their father Jacob (Genesis 45:19, 21, 27, and 46:5). Joseph took a wagon to meet his father Jacob (Genesis 46:29). Later the offerings were brought before the Tabernacle by wagons pulled by oxen (Numbers 7:3, 6–8). When the Philistines captured the Ark, they moved it using a cart (agalah, 1 Samuel 6:7–14).

In David’s first attempt to bring the Ark into Jerusalem it was set upon a cart (agalah) pulled by oxen (2 Samuel 6:3). What resulted was the death of Uzzah who was apparently not a Levite. Uzzah was the son of Abinadab (who was possibly one of David’s elder brothers, compare 2 Samuel 6:3 and 1 Samuel 16:8) and possibly David’s nephew. Apparently the movement of the oxen caused a problem that led Uzzah to touch the Ark, causing his death.

“And they set the ark of God upon a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab that was in Gibeah: and Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, drove the new cart. ... And when they came to Nachon's threshingfloor, Uzzah put forth his hand to the ark of God, and took hold of it; for the oxen shook it. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there for his error; and there he died by the ark of God.”

2 Samuel 6:3, 6–7 (1 Chronicles 13:7–10)

When disaster happened to Uzzah, then David later transported the Ark the correct manner and no further problems were encountered (1 Chronicles 15:1–15). David knew that only Levites could carry the Ark (1 Chronicles 15:24).

God’s Portable Throne Has Wheels

The portable throne seen by Ezekiel in his vision of Ezekiel chapter 1 had wheels, mentioned nine times in six verses:

“The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto the color of a beryl: and they four had one likeness: and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel. When they went, they went upon their four sides: and they turned not when they went. As for their rings, they were so high that they were dreadful; and their rings were full of eyes round about them four. And when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them: and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up. Whithersoever the spirit was to go, they went, thither was their spirit to go; and the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels. When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood; and when those were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.”

Ezekiel 1:16–21

The presence of wheels in God’s throne in Ezekiel above the head of the four creatures (Ezekiel 1:26) and in the throne of God in the Temple of Solomon (1 Chronicles 28:18) have a similar meaning in both instances: creatures, wheels, a throne, a footstone, and God’s presence. There are similar elements but distinct as to their earthly and heavenly manifestations. The wheels denoted the ability of God to travel and to be conveyed in a vehicle. The vehicle Ezekiel saw arrived and departed several times.

Read Ezekiel chapter 10 where the wheels of the cherubim figure prominently. The word “wheels” occurs 17 times in that chapter. Again as in Ezekiel chapter 1 the throne is pictured as being above the cherubim and their wheels. Ezekiel saw “a man clothed with linen” who was instructed to reach beneath the cherubim and take coals and fire from within the wheels. A cherub gave him the fire from beneath.

Moving the Ark

The Ark of God built by Moses was transported by staves lifted by the Levites. Each time the Ark was moved, the Tabernacle was erected, the cherubim were set up and the Ark was placed inside the cherubim under the mercy seat. Read Exodus 25:13–22. This is clearly what the text says. This is also what is described when Solomon had the Ark brought up from the Gihon Spring to be placed into the Holy of Holies within the covering wings of the cherubim under the mercy seat.

The Ark of God built by Moses was not on wheels. Neither were the cherubim of the Tabernacle on wheels. However, clearly Solomon was instructed by God (through David) to make a chariot for the cherubim in the Holy of Holies in the Temple. The cherubim were constructed in the Temple — on wheels — and at the dedication of the Temple the Ark was placed inside the cherubim:

“And they brought up the ark of the Lord, and the tabernacle of the congregation, and all the holy vessels that were in the tabernacle, even those did the priests and the Levites bring up. ...

And the priests brought in the ark of the covenant of the Lord unto his place, into the oracle of the house, to the most holy place, even under the wings of the cherubims. For the cherubims spread forth their two wings over the place of the ark, and the cherubims covered the ark and the staves thereof above. And they drew out the staves, that the ends of the staves were seen out in the holy place before the oracle, and they were not seen without: and there they are unto this day. There was nothing in the ark save the two tables of stone, which Moses put there at Horeb, when the Lord made a covenant with the children of Israel, when they came out of the land of Egypt.”

1 Kings 8:4, 6–9

While this is no great discovery on my part (any good commentary will make note of it), it is interesting that most translations do not attempt to distinguish between the two Hebrew words for chariot and the significance can get lost.

Another description of God’s throne is briefly told in Aramaic in Daniel 7:9. There too, wheels are associated with God’s throne.

The details are important in God’s Word. God’s Holy Scriptures are precise. Read them carefully and there are great and fascinating treasures to be found.

David Sielaff

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