Problem: God clearly commanded in Exodus 20:4: “You shall not make for yourself any carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath.” Yet here Moses is instructed by God to “make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work” (v. 18). If making images of any heavenly object is wrong, then why did God command Moses to make some on the ark of the covenant?
Solution: The prohibition against making graven images was distinctly set in the context of worshiping idols. There are, then, several reasons why making the cherubim does not conflict with this command not to bow down to graven images. First, there was no chance that the people of Israel would fall down before the cherubim in the most holy place, since they were forbidden to go in the holy place at any time. Even the high priest went only once a year on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16).
Further, the prohibition is not against making any carved image for decorative purposes, but of those used in religious worship. In other words, they were not to worship any other God or any image of any god. These cherubim were not given to Israel as images of God; they were angels. Nor were they given to be worshiped. Hence, there is no way in which the command to make them violated the commandment in Exodus 20.
Finally, the prohibition in Exodus 20 is not against religious art as such, which includes things in heaven (angels) and on earth (humans or animals). Rather, it was against using any image as an idol. That idolatry envisioned is evident from the fact they were instructed not to “bow down to them nor serve them” (Ex. 20:5). The distinction between non-religious use of images and a religious use is important:
THE USE OF IMAGES OR REPRESENTATIONS OF GOD
Even language about God in the Bible contains images. God is both a shepherd and a father. But each of these is appropriately qualified. God is not just any father. He is our Heavenly Father. Likewise, Jesus is not just any shepherd, but the Good Shepherd who gave His life for His sheep (John 10:11). No finite image can be appropriately applied to the infinite God without qualification. To do so is idolatry. And idols are idols whether they are mental or metal.