Seraphim

SERAPHS, SERAPHIM (sĕr'a-fĭm, Heb. serāphîm). Called seraphs (jb, niv), seraphim (mlb, nasb, neb, rsv, -im being the Hebrew plural ending), and seraphims (kjv). They were celestial beings whom Isaiah, when he was called to the prophetic ministry, saw standing before the enthroned Lord (Isa.6.2-Isa.6.3, Isa.6.6-Isa.6.7). This is the only mention of these creatures in the Bible.

The word seraphim means “burning ones.” The same word is used to describe the snakes in the wilderness (Num.21.6, Num.21.8; cf. Deut.8.15; Isa.14.29; Isa.30.6); some commentators think that the seraphim of Isaiah’s vision were serpentine in form. This cannot be correct, because it conflicts with the evidence given in Isa.6.1-Isa.6.13. Like the cherubim and the living creatures, they belong to an order of unearthly beings attending the throne of God. Isaiah saw that they were standing upright with three pairs of wings and human hands, faces, and voices. The designation “burning ones” matches the context. Its focus on God’s holiness makes the emphasis on fire a suitable one, as does also the fact that a seraph performed a burning ministry toward Isaiah himself (Isa.6.6-Isa.6.7). The seraphim are in a particular sense, therefore, the guardians of the holiness of the Lord and the ministers of his holy purposes by means of a just, substitutionary salvation. See also Fire.


SERAPHIM sĕr’ ə fĭm (שְׂרָפִ֨ים ; pl. prob. of שָׂרָף, H8597; LXX σεραφιν, meaning questioned; possibly burning ones or nobles, KJV [superfluous] seraphims). Rank of angelic beings.

The Biblical data concerning the quantity, appearance, and function of the seraphim is limited primarily to Isaiah’s vision in Isaiah 6. There are only two references in the Bible to the seraphim (Isa 6:2, 6). The number of these creatures is not given. The pl. noun prob. implies three or more.

Each seraph is said to have six wings, a face, hands, and feet (6:2). The latter many scholars regard as a euphemism for sexual organs. Two wings covered the face, two covered the feet, displaying humility before God, and with two they flew (6:2). They expressed themselves in words which human ears comprehended (6:3, 7). The description seems to suggest a six-winged, humanoid figure (cf. ANEP, plate 655).


Seraphim were prob. an order of supernatural or angelic beings similar to the cherubim (q.v.) possibly related to the living creatures of Revelation 4:6-8. They stood beside or hovered above the heavenly throne of God as functionaries and attendants. They acted as agents and spokesmen for God (Isa 6:6, 7). A chief duty was that of praising God (6:3). It has been suggested that this act was accomplished antiphonally with the seraphim on one side of the throne responding to those on the opposite side. Seraphim prob. were not threshold guardians as some believe that Isaiah 6:4 implies. See Angel.

Bibliography

G. B. Gray, Isaiah I, ICC (1912), 104-109; P. Heinisch, Theology of the Old Testament (1955), 137; T. H. Gaster, “Angel,” IDB, I (1962), 131, 132; E. J. Young, The Book of Isaiah, I (1965), 234-253; J. L. McKenzie, Dictionary of the Bible (1965), 789; J. de Savignac, “Les Seraphim,” VT, XXII, No. 3 (July, 1972), 320-325.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

A plural word occurring only in Isa 6:2 ff--Isaiah’s vision of Yahweh. The origin of the term in Hebrew is uncertain. Saraph in Nu 21:6; Isa 14:29, etc., signifies a fiery serpent. A Babylonian name for the fire-god, Nergal, was Sharrapu. In Egypt there have been found eagle-lion-shaped figures guarding a grave, to which is applied the name seref. The equivalent English term is "griffin."

It is probable enough that popular mythology connected fire with the attendants of the deity in various ways among different peoples, and that burning lies at the base of the idea in all these suggested etymologies. It remains, however, that in Isaiah’s use there is nothing of the popular legend or superstition. These seraphim are august beings whose forms are not at all fully described. They had faces, feet, hands and wings. The six wings, in three pairs, covered their faces and feet in humility and reverence, and were used for sustaining them in their positions about the throne of Yahweh. One of them is the agent for burning (with a coal off the altar, not with his own power or person) the sin from the lips of the prophet.

Seraphim are in Jewish theology connected with cherubim and ophanim as the three highest orders of attendants on Yahweh, and are superior to the angels who are messengers sent on various errands. As the cherubim in popular fancy were represented by the storm-clouds, so the seraphim were by the serpentine flashes of the lightning; but none of this appears in Isaiah’s vision.

In the New Testament the only possible equivalent is in "the living ones" ("beasts" of the King James Version) in Re 4; 5, etc. Here, as in Isaiah, they appear nearest Yahweh’s throne, supreme in praise of His holiness.