Early in Isaiah, the prophet sees the extraordinary worship scene inside heaven:
In the year King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, with the train of his garment filling the temple. Seraphim were stationed above; each of them had six wings: with two they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they hovered.
One cried out to the other:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!
All the earth is filled with his glory!”
At the sound of that cry, the frame of the door shook and the house was filled with smoke.
Then I said, “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then one of the seraphim flew to me, holding an ember which he had taken with tongs from the altar.
He touched my mouth with it. “See,” he said, “now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged” (Isaiah 6:1-7).
Notice how Isaiah describes what he sees. He first notices the Lord enthroned on high. But it is not here that his gaze lingers. Instead, it is on the seraphim stationed around the throne. Isaiah dwells at length on what the seraphim do with their wings, what they sing, and their service at the altar.
What are the seraphim and why do they matter?
Seraphim, which is a plural, is derived from the Hebrew verb to burn. Elsewhere in the Old Testament the word refers to poisoning serpents—the connection with burning being that poison burns. In one place in Isaiah, seraphim also could be interpreted to mean flying serpents. Only in the above passage does the word apply to heavenly angels.
The seraphim belong to a special class of angels that are devoted to the heavenly worship of God. The other, more common type of angelic worshippers, are the cherubim—the angels that guard Eden from sinful mankind in Genesis and that are depicted in the ark of the covenant. In Ezekiel 10, the prophet has a vision akin to Isaiah’s involving the cherubim:
The glory of the Lord had moved off the cherubim to the threshold of the temple; the temple was filled with the cloud, the whole court brilliant with the glory of the Lord.
The sound of the wings of the cherubim could be heard as far as the outer court; it was like the voice of God Almighty speaking.
He commanded the man dressed in linen: Take fire from within the wheelwork among the cherubim. The man entered and stood by one of the wheels.
Thereupon a cherub stretched out a hand from among the cherubim toward the fire in the midst of the cherubim, took some, and put it in the hands of the one dressed in linen. He took it and came out. Something like a human hand was visible under the wings of the cherubim (Ezekiel 10:4-8).
Ezekiel goes on to identify these cherubim with the four living creatures he mentioned earlier. While winged like the seraphim, they were otherwise different: eyes covered their whole bodies and each one had four faces—of an ox, a human, a lion, and an eagle. Perhaps fittingly so, the origins of the word cherubim is unclear.
It’s significant that in these two heavenly worship scenes that the seraphim and cherubim take center stage. So what is their purpose? More to the point, when we contemplate God, as these passages certainly invite us to do, what role do these mysterious angels play?
In his treatise on the angels, The Celestial Hierarchy, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, a Church Father, suggests that these heavenly beings aid us in our contemplation of God:[A]s far as we may let us contemplate the Hierarchies of the Celestial Intelligences revealed to us by them in symbols for our upliftment: and admitting through the spiritual and unwavering eyes of the mind the original and super-original gift of Light of the Father who is the Source of Divinity, which shows to us images of the all-blessed Hierarchies of the Angels in figurative symbols, let us through them again strive upwards toward Its primal ray (Chapter 1).
Each type of angel, Pseudo-Dionysius later writes in the book, reflects a particular divine attribute.
In the case of the cherubim, Pseudo-Dionysius associates them with divine knowledge. Many sources claim this is because the word cherubim, which is directly transliterated from the Hebrew, means fullness of knowledge. But, in fact, the origins of the word are obscure.
However, there still may be a strong biblical warrant for this association. One explanation points to their ubiquitous eyes, which symbolize the illumination of the mind by divine knowledge. And, remember that it was the cherubim that guarded the Garden of Eden and that one of the express purposes for this was to exclude man from access to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (See Genesis 3:22.)
We do know the origins of the word seraphim: as mentioned above, it comes from the Hebrew verb for burn. This prompts St. Thomas Aquinas to link the seraphim with charity in the Summa Theologica (Part 1, Question 108, Articles 4 and 5). Building on this association and on the work of Pseudo-Dionysius, Aquinas further discerns several qualities to the seraphim. For example, as fire continuously wafts upwards, so also are the seraphim inexorably drawn to God. And, also like fire, the seraphim are distinguished by their brightness and clarity.
Both Pseudo-Dionysius and Aquinas rank the seraphim as slighter higher than the cherubim in the angelic hierarchy. In this way they pattern for us the life of the Christian, who moves from the knowledge of God through faith to the burning love of Him.
These angels both mirror God’s attributes and show us the way to Him. In fact, we could say they serve as models for us in how we are to contemplate, worship, and serve God. This is best illustrated through the seraphim. (Recall that they involve Isaiah in the drama of divine worship by extending one of the burning coals of the altar to his lips.) Pseudo-Dionysius says the seraphim guided Isaiah to the knowledge of the divine by impressing him with,
…their holy awe which they have in a supermundane manner in the bold and persistent and unending search into higher and deeper Mysteries, and the perfect harmony of their ceaseless activity in imitation of God, and their perpetual upward soaring to the heights (Chapter 13).
Reverence, unending seeking, harmonious imitation of God, and constant striving towards him—these are vital aspects to the life of faith that are modeled in the seraphim.
One nineteenth century commentator, a Scottish Baptist minister named Alexander MacLauren, sees symbolic significance in the action of their wings. Their hovering wings, according to MacLauren, signify service towards God: (“That is the emblem of joyous, buoyant, unhindered motion,” he notes in a sermon.) They veiled their feet out of a sense of humility, as their feet represent the lowliest part of their nature.
Finally, they cover their eyes, out of awe and reverence, MacLauren says:
As a man brought suddenly into the sunlight, especially if out of a darkened chamber, by an instinctive action shades his eyes with his hand, so these burning creatures, confronted with the still more fervid and fiery light of the divine nature, fold one pair of their great white pinions over their shining faces.
If the seraphim, whose whole existence seems to have been consumed with adoration and contemplation of God, must shield their eyes from the divine brilliance, how much more should we approach that throne with awe and humility! Perhaps we ought to pray that one of these beings may extend to us, as they did with Isaiah, a burning coal from the altar that we too may become inflamed with divine charity.