The view of some strict Protestants that no images are permitted in church whatsoever (even the cross), stems from their reading of Exodus 20:4, one of the Ten Commandments.
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
The verse before it provides context, and many understand the two verses as forming a single unit, verse 4 listing practices associated with verse 3.
Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
Verse 3 is very important for understanding the covenant community in the Bible (Israel and the Church), and for understanding salvation. Salvation comes from Yahweh, the God of Israel, and Yahweh alone. He achieved it on the Cross in the Person of the Son, Jesus the Messiah, which is why Peter declared of Jesus in Acts 4:12:
Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.
To obtain salvation, we must ask it of Yahweh, who freely gives to us. In coming to Yahweh, we give our loyalty to him. Loyalty, or faithfulness, is often how the Greek word πιστις (which is usually translated “faith”) should be translated, both in the New Testament and in the Septuagint. When Yahweh commands that we should have no Gods before Him, He is asking us not to enter into alliance with the gods of the nations, and He is asking us to enter into a trusting relationship with Him.
An overview of Exodus, let alone the whole Tanakh, reveals that the Israelites were commanded to use images in their worship and spiritual life. The Ark of the Covenant had cherubim (sphinxes) on its lid; the Menorah was a model of the almond tree. Going beyond Exodus, we find that the Israelites were told by Moses to create a bronze serpent and look upon it to have their snake bites cured. Ezekiel’s vision of the restored Temple has cherubim and palm trees on its walls, while Solomon’s temple had bronze pillars fashioned like trees flanking the vestibule of the heykal, and a bronze “sea” rested upon twelve oxen in the court.
The Bible is often polemical in nature: it takes practices found among the nations and subverts them to deliver the message that Yahweh is the God of gods, God most high (El ha Elohim, El Elyon). Where else is the name El found? El is the father of the gods in the Canaanite pantheon, whose vice-regent is Baal, just as Marduk is the vice-regent of Anu in Babylon. A cursory glance at the literature and the religious iconography of the Near East will reveal that on a superficial level, Yahweh shares many attributes and features of other gods – but the writers of the Bible were always diligent to show the believing community that these gods were lesser spirits. Yahweh alone is the Creator; glory and worship and honour should be given to Yahweh alone.
Thus the prohibition against images was concerned with: A) the recognition of who Yahweh is and B) Yahweh’s covenant with His people Israel, whom He created and redeemed. They were permitted to use images, but not of other gods, because the presence of other gods would constitute a violation of the covenant. The covenant is likened to a marriage by the prophets in order to emphasize the theme of fidelity: they are to be in relationship with Yahweh alone, so turning to other gods is infidelity – adultery, to use the prophets’ word.
The cherubim were not problematic, because they were not gods like Baal or Asherah or Dagon. Rather, they were throne guardians, a symbol of the kingship of Yahweh. We find them on the Ark, because the Ark is the throne of Yahweh in the midst of Israel, His presence among them. The Holy of holies is His throne room, and the priests are his servants. Similarly, we encounter the cherubim in Ezekiel whenever he sees Yahweh on his throne, which is also a chariot. It takes Yahweh to Babylon in order to comfort the Israelites: although they have been exiled from Yahweh’s land and the Temple, He has not forgotten or abandoned them. He is faithful to them: He is the perfect Husband and Father (cf. Hosea and the Parable of the Prodigal Son). Even the word for the temple building that contains the Holy of holies reflects this kingly metaphor: heykal is a loanword borrowed by Hebrew and means “palace”.
A following post (or couple of posts) will consider what this contextual understanding of salvation and images in worship means in the Church Age.