Vol.VIII, November 2002


"He Ascended Upon the Cherubim, and He Flew" (Ps 17:10)

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

In Psalm 17 we find the universal and Christocentric dimensions of the Psalm. Man is crying out in his suffering, because he is persecuted by the devils, the infernal enemies: "The sorrows of death surrounded me: and the torrents of iniquity [or, ‘Belial’s torrents’] troubled me. The sorrows of hell encompassed me…I cried to my God: And he heard my voice from his holy temple" (v. 3-6). God heard his prayer and answered it through the intervention of the angels, concretely, through the Cherubim.

1. The Psalm starts with the beautiful confession of the greatness of God: "I will love thee, O Lord, my strength: The Lord is my firmament, my refuge, and my deliverer. My God is my helper, and in him will I put my trust. My protector and the horn of my salvation, and my support" (v. 1). The way man reacts is very familiar to us: "Praising I will call upon the Lord: and I shall be saved from my enemies" (v. 3). It is the praise of the Lord, which cleanses and opens our soul, and frees us from every form of oppression (cf. Circular, Feb 2001).

The Psalmist speaks of spiritual suffering, fear and despair, "sorrows of death...and the torrents of iniquity [which] troubled me". It is not just a matter of feeling bad because of a headache or the pains caused by a broken leg. Here the powers of hell are active: "The snares of death prevented me." Whereas some have the proclivity of seeing a devil behind every evil, here in the case of the Psalmist, we need to see God at work inspiring. Here we can see how the story of paradise continues in the present, how it is repeated daily. This gives the Psalm a perennial actuality. How many can identify themselves with it, can find consolation and hope through it, thanks to the prayer to God, our Saviour: "I cried to my God: And he heard my voice from his holy temple…He delivered me from my strongest enemies...He saved me" (vv. 4, 17-19)?

2. Here, the Psalmist is not content with this general statement, like in other Psalms.

a) First we are given–rather surprisingly–a detailed description of the way in which God helps man:

The earth shook and trembled: the foundations of the mountains were troubled and were moved, because he was angry with them. There went up a smoke in his wrath: and a fire flamed from his face: coals were kindled by it...And he made darkness his covert, his pavilion round about him: dark waters in the clouds of the air. At the brightness that was before him the clouds passed, hail and coals of fire. And the Lord thundered from heaven, and the Highest gave his voice: hail and coals of fire. And he sent forth his arrows, and he scattered them: he multiplied lightnings, and troubled them. (vv. 7-8, 11-14)

We know the material world was involved in the fall of man and suffers as a consequence down to the present hour. God judged the sin of Adam and Eve in this way: "cursed is the ground because of you" (Gen 3:17). St. Paul affirms this: "The creation was subjected to futility...creation will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God" (Rom 8:19-22). Evidently, there exists certain links among the different creatures such that the one is influenced by the other.

b) Having this in mind, the question arises, how does God work in such a dramatic way? How does he involve all the material creation and move all the elements? The Psalmist observed, God "bowed the heavens, and came down: and darkness was under his feet. And he ascended upon the Cherubim, and he flew; he flew upon the wings of the winds" (vv. 9-10).

This statement primarily asserts that it is God himself who manifests his coming to mankind; his presence is made manifest through a special formation of material phenomena in creation. The most famous manifestation of this kind is probably that on Mount Sinai: "All the people perceived the thunderings and the lightnings…and the mountain smoking" (Ex 20:18; cf. Heb 12:18-24). St. Peter also described the second coming of Christ with similar signs: "The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth...will be burned up" (2 Pet 3:10, cf. 7; cf. 1 Thess 4:16). At a certain moment in the life of Jesus we observe a manifestation which leads us to a deeper understanding of this phenomena. Shortly before his passion, Jesus, standing among the people, prayed to the Father: "‘Father, glorify thy name.’ Then, a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ The crowd standing by heard it and said that it had thundered. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’" (Jn 12:28-30).

Thus we see that God acts and manifests his presence in a sensible form through material creatures. Our Psalm also clearly expresses this action of God: "The earth shook and trembled: the foundations of the mountains were troubled and were moved." Then, "He bowed the heavens, and came down: and darkness was under his feet. And he ascended upon the Cherubim, and he flew."

3. But the Psalmist observed that he "bowed the heavens, and ascended upon the Cherubim." As the people suspected, an angel was present when Jesus prayed.

a) St. Thomas comments on this Psalm. He first states that the Jews falsely think: "As a king has a car, so also God has a car, which is a Cherub." Still, he says, the image is a sign of a spiritual truth: God moves all things through his wisdom; and, what he causes in the inferior, he causes through the service of spiritual creatures. In this regard St. Augustine states, "God moves the material creature through the spiritual" (cf. St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae I,110,1). Now, among the spiritual creatures ready for this service are the Cherubim, for the name means "the plenitude of science." They share in the highest way in divine wisdom, which is, in a way, the beginning of divine activity in creation. Having attributed the government of the entire physical creation to the ministry of the angels, St. Augustine and St. Thomas go on to conclude that all the physical manifestations of God’s presence in creation are caused by the angels, to whom he entrusted the entire material world.

b) St. Thomas further asks how God "bowed the heavens, and came down...and he ascended upon the Cherubim". "Mystically" he sees herein a reference to the Incarnation and its lesson of humility, and also a reference to Christ’s ascension above the Cherubim, because "the science of God exceeds the science of the angels." In fact, he "bowed" all "the heavens" as all the angels are created through the Son and are so centered in Christ. All the faithful angels followed the Son of God, when he became man. St. Paul taught us: "When he brings the Firstborn into the world, he says, ‘let all God’s angels worship him.’ [And] of the angels he says, ‘Who makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire.’" And again, "Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation?" (Heb 1:6-7,14; cf. CCC 333).

Further, we should not overlook in this text of divine inspiration that at the beginning the Psalmist praises God nine times: God is his strength, firmament, refuge, deliverer, helper, trust, protector, salvation, and support! If it is true that there are nine choirs of angels, and if all these movements in the material world are caused by angels, could we then not see the finger of God also in these nine titles? In other words, could it be that God wants all the nine choirs to somehow shine through the manifold manifestations, and not just the Cherubim? Perhaps these nine attributes could be appropriated to the nine choirs. Thus, as we could see behind the "lightnings" (cf. v. 7ff.), the Cherubim, who are able to enlighten the universe through their plenitude of knowledge, so we could see behind the "heaven" from where He thundered, the "Thrones" (cf. CCC 326). Behind "His arrows" we might see the choir of the Seraphim, the zealous choir of angels, ardent with fiery love. Similarly we might ask, who made sound "his voice", or who caused the "hail" and "coals of fire" and the other different forms (cf. ST I,108)?

c) While we might be able to work our way through to a clear distribution of these titles to the various choirs, it might not be wholly wrong to reflect upon the attributes of those spiritual creatures, who help us so much, and who together with us praise the Lord for his infinite goodness. Love sees the beloved, or at least signs and traces of him, everywhere! What the Psalm surely shows is that God is in the company of the angels, of the Cherubim. In a former Circular Letter, we already reflected upon "God riding above the Cherubim" (cf. Circular, Dec 1998). In considering the Lord who "ascended upon the Cherubim, and flew", we might meditate and admire this from a larger point of view. The good angels in their trial decided in favor of the Kingdom of God and are now anxious to share this plan of love and mercy. In this text we get a glimpse of the marvelous collaboration and union of God with the angels in favor of man.

4. Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

This Psalm offers us a beautiful vision of the entire history of salvation and of all those involved–whether positively or negatively–in the economy of salvation. First of all, we see God and his eternal Son who became man to save us. Then we see the angels, the fallen spirits as our tempters and tormenters, and the faithful angels as servants of God working on our behalf. And finally, we behold man is his frailty, caught in the midst of these afflictions and divine helps, in the midst of temptations, pains and suffering whereby we are tried and about which we shall one day be judged. The solemn confession and praise of the greatness of God and the constant and powerful presence of God in and through the ministry of his angels should inspire us with confidence.

Therefore, let us sing with the psalmist: "With the holy, thou wilt be holy; and with the innocent man, thou wilt be innocent. And with the elect, thou wilt be elect: and with the perverse thou wilt be perverted. For thou wilt save the humble people; but wilt bring down the eyes of the proud" (vv. 25-27).

Fr. Titus Kieninger ORC