We are opening the first large section of Ezekiel, chapters 1-24 that are devoted to prophecies of judgment and divine wrath to befall the Jews still remaining in Judea and Jerusalem. From the chronological notices Ezekiel provides we learn that these prophecies cover the six or seven years immediately preceding the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 586 B.C. The first subsection of this large division of the book, chapters 1 through 3, concerns the prophet’s call. Like Isaiah or Jeremiah there is a narrative of the prophet’s call to his ministry at or near the beginning of his book. As was the case with Isaiah, Ezekiel’s call came in and through a vision of God high and lifted up.
We said last week that it seems best to take “30th year” to refer to Ezekiel’s age at the time of his first vision and his calling to be God’s prophet. This would be the year in which he would have been inducted into his service as a priest, but, of course, he is now far from the temple. But God had not forgotten him. He lived in a community of expatriate Jews on the Kebar River, it appears – so we gather from 3:15 – at Tel Abib. The Kebar River was, in fact, a great irrigation canal that took water from the Euphrates at the city of Nippur and carried it in a large semi-circle through the countryside until it rejoined the Euphrates near Uruk.
Ezekiel saw! No prophet in the Old Testament was given so many visions as Ezekiel. No book of the Old Testament reports so many or has so much of its space devoted to visions. Other prophets had them – though it was by no means the only way God revealed himself and his will to his prophets – but no one, with the possible exception of John in Revelation saw so much. [Stuart, 27-28] Ezekiel, we are going to find – important for people like ourselves who live in a very visually oriented society – is a very visual book.
The date is July 31st, 593 B.C. Jehoiachin was a no-account. He reigned for three months and accomplished nothing. So, at first, it is surprising that Ezekiel should have dated his oracles by the deportation of Jehoiachin. But Jehoiachin was also regarded by the Jews as the last legitimate Davidic king. In him, Jeremiah’s prophecy of the temporary end of the Davidic line came to fulfillment. Those that followed him on the throne in Jerusalem were Babylonian appointees and did not occupy the direct line back to David. Interestingly, this seems to have been acknowledged in Jerusalem as well. Three jar handles from the time of Jehoiachin and Zedekiah, his successor, all bearing the inscription “belonging to Eliakim, the servant of Jehoiachin,” have been found in southern Palestine. Unless they were crafted during the three months of Jehoiachin’s reign, his authority as the true king seems to have been acknowledged even after his exile. Babylonian inscriptions suggest the same thing as they refer to him as “the king of the land of Judah” even in Babylon and after other men occupied the throne by Babylonian appointment. So Ezekiel will date his prophecies from the exile of Jehoiachin. What follows is a vision – something that Ezekiel saw – but it is nevertheless the Word of the Lord, his communication to his people through his prophet.
You’ll notice that while v. 1 was written in the first person, vv. 2-3 are written in the third. It is likely that this was inserted later, perhaps by an editor, to give an objective dating to the call and to make the beginning of the prophecy more like that of other OT prophetic books.
The fact that the divine glory of Yahweh was revealed to Ezekiel in Babylon – a point of emphasis in this verse – confirms the fact that Yahweh is no ancient Near Eastern deity whose influence was limited to the territory over which he was thought to have jurisdiction. [Block, i, 83-84]
That Yahweh’s hand was upon Ezekiel means that the Lord had complete control of this man. More on that next week, Lord willing.
The vision that follows is composed of three parts of virtually equal size: vv. 5-14 describe the living creatures; vv. 15-21, the wheels; and vv. 22-27 the platform and the throne, with v. 28 as a conclusion.
The vision begins with a storm cloud lit by fire and brilliance of unimaginable intensity. The storm is significant because God often appears in a storm in the Bible, as at Mt. Sinai.
We’ll have more to say later about how to read the description of Ezekiel’s vision, but for the moment the main thing is that he saw creatures of a composite nature. We will learn later in chapter 10, in a report of a similar vision, that these creatures were cherubim, a specific rank of angels.
The wings that touched are reminiscent of the wings of the cherubim over the ark in the Most Holy Place, but Ezekiel doesn’t draw out that connection here.
Now we take a closer look at the faces of these creatures. In the ancient world these particular creatures – besides man – were common symbols of strength, swiftness, and fertility. Each was the chief of a class of creatures: the lion of the wild animals; the ox of the domestic animals; the eagle of the birds; and, of course, man, as God’s vice-regent, the chief of them all. Carrying the divine throne as these four-faced creatures did, they indicate that Yahweh had all of these powers to the greatest conceivable degree.
Using one set of wings to cover the body is reminiscent of Isaiah’s vision in Isa. 6. There the seraphim he saw had three sets of wings, two of which they used to cover their faces and their feet before the glory of God.
The point is that they didn’t need to turn because, with four faces, they were already oriented in all directions.
The entire scene was lit by fire! Now it is important to realize that while no figures quite like Ezekiel describes here have been found in the iconography of the ancient Near East, figures like these – with human bodies and animal heads, with more than one head, and with multiple sets of wings – were common. So the description given here would not have seemed nearly so unusual to Ezekiel’s readers as it does to us.
The vision gets still more complicated: each creature also has a wheel.
“[These] wheels were extraordinary. First, like the creatures themselves, they were composite, for there appeared to be one wheel within another. It is difficult to visualize what Ezekiel saw. Are we to think of a gyroscope, or swiveling casters, or concentric wheels rotating in the same direction and giving the appearance of a disk, or inner and outer wheels operating at right angles to one another? Whatever the case, the prophet seems to envision some sort of four-wheeled chariot.” [Block, i, 100] The number four – as with the four faces – indicates that the wheels were able to move in every direction. The wheels were magnificent to behold, gleaming, flashing as everything else in the vision.
You have references both in v. 12 and v. 20 to the spirit moving the creatures and the wheels. In v. 4, the NIV’s windstorm is literally a stormy wind with “wind” being this same word, spirit (חוּר). In both Hebrew and Greek, you know, the word for wind and for spirit is the same and the various possibilities for the meaning of “spirit” are the same. No prophet speaks of the spirit so much as Ezekiel. It will later energize him and carry him from place to place, at least in his visions. We can think of this as the energizing power of God or, knowing what we know of the Triune God, of the Holy Spirit. In any case, the creatures and the chariot go where the Spirit directs them. They have no will of their own but move by his power and at his direction.
The next object he saw was the gem-like firmament, expanse or platform above the creatures, also glorious in its appearance. It will be upon this platform that the throne of God will rest, as we will read shortly. This description resembles that given in Exodus 24 when, during the covenant renewal ceremony at Sinai, Moses and the elders of Israel went up and, as we read, “saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself.” But Ezekiel breaks off his description to tell us what he heard when the creatures moved.
Ezekiel has difficulty describing the sound he heard when the creatures flapped their wings and they and the chariot moved, so he likens it to three different things: the roar of a great torrent, the voice of the Almighty, and the tramp of a great army on the march.
Now his attention is arrested not by the platform above the creatures but by a voice that came from above the expanse and then the sight of a dazzling throne upon which sat a figure like that of a man, but a man overwhelmingly brilliant in his appearance and surrounded by glory.
The figure couldn’t be seen except in his general shape. His most visible feature was his glory, the shining brilliance that emanated from him.
Had we not gathered this, Ezekiel concludes by telling us that what he had seen was nothing other than the glory of Yahweh. The gates of heaven had been opened to him and he had been given to see something of the terrible majesty of the Lord God. And, like Isaiah, who saw something similar when he was called to be the Lord’s prophet, Ezekiel fell facedown before the Lord, shattered by the vision that he had seen.
Ezekiel’s vision is almost impossible for us to visualize. His descriptions help only so much. What you cannot know is that the Hebrew text of chapter 1 even more directly conveys the ineffable experience the prophet had. The English translations smooth out some of the sense conveyed in the Hebrew that something very strange, very unusual, very hard to understand is here being described. The difficulties we face are, in other words, precisely the difficulties the prophet himself faced. He didn’t know how to describe what he saw either! Did you notice how many times we read that something looked like something, someone looked like something, that what Ezekiel heard sounded like something. This is description by analogy. Ezekiel is trying to find a way to describe what he saw. It was beyond him and beyond his powers to relate and so too the apostle John in his vision of heaven in Revelation 21. We cannot visualize John’s description either. How can you have immensely thick walls that are gold but clear as crystal? What does that mean? The vision, as Ezekiel’s before him, overwhelms the imagination.
Very interesting, and important, in chapter 10 we have a similar vision described, one that Ezekiel had some 13 months after this first vision. But there, the text is not so choppy, not so confusing as in chapter 1. Ezekiel was not so stunned the second time; he had a better understanding of what he was seeing. There, in chapter 10, for example, we learn that the creatures he saw were cherubim. The supreme difficulty he faced the first time in attempting to describe what he had seen has been overcome as the images he saw settled in his mind, as he came to understand their meaning, and as he thought about how correctly to describe them. Think how overwhelming the glory of God will be when we first lay eyes on it in heaven; but we will grow more familiar with it majestic and thrilling though it will remain! But this is Ezekiel’s first sight of the glory of the Lord.
Take, for example, the description of the glory of the Lord in David’s Psalm 18:8-13:
“Smoke rose from his nostrils; consuming fire came from his mouth, burning coals blazed out of it. He parted the heavens and came down; dark clouds were under his feet. He mounted the cherubim and flew; he soared on the wings of the wind. … Out of the brightness of his presence clouds advanced, with hailstones and bolts of lightning. The Lord thundered from heaven; the voice of the Most High resounded…”
David, of course, did not see a vision of the glory of Yahweh and is not in that psalm describing such a vision as Ezekiel saw. But you will see that these are familiar images – suitable to ancient Near Eastern culture, for describing the indescribable glory of the Lord, his power in and over the world, his sovereignty, and his majesty as the one living and true God. Cherubim, as throne bearers, are common ANE figures and we have references several times in the OT to Yahweh as enthroned upon or between the cherubim (Ps. 80:1; 99:1), which is the idea here. The cherubim hold up the firmament upon which rests the throne of God. The vision, in other words, comes to Ezekiel with overwhelming power but in figures, shapes, and terms that he can understand. They mean something to him.
Had Ezekiel been written in our day, we might expect in such a vision that the Lord God would descend to earth in an immense airship, perhaps a cross between a space shuttle and a 747, only larger, glowing with fire, or that he would appear within or above an atomic blast, approaching us in a fireball with a radiance so bright that we must turn away or be blinded. [Cf. Stuart, 32]
But here, in short, is what Ezekiel sees: amazing creatures, the cherubim, in their nature and their activity beyond our understanding, bearing an immense and blazing chariot that flies effortlessly through the air, moving at the behest of the King of Kings himself, who sits enthroned above, blinding glory radiating from him, surrounded by unapproachable but supremely beautifully light, and all touching down at the remote town of Tel Abib on the Kebar Canal in Babylon to speak to a Jewish exile, an exiled priest who, disappointed of all his worldly hopes, would never serve at the temple in Jerusalem.
Now there are two implications of this vision that are fundamental to all that follows in the book of Ezekiel. This is the experience, the vision that Ezekiel was given when he was called to be God’s prophet to the Jews, and that will become clear as we move into chapter 2 and the account of what Yahweh said to Ezekiel at this moment. But this vision is also the introduction to the book.
- The first concerns the reality of the divine rule and sovereign “power hidden behind the curtain of earthly reality.” [Eichrodt, 58]
Here is a community of exiles, far from home, powerless, their nation and their citizenship taken from them, uprooted by a foreign power that crushed Judah like a bug. Where is the Lord God, who brought Israel out of bondage in Egypt on eagles’ wings? Where is the Lord who parted the waters of the Reed Sea and then, again, the Jordan; who brought down the walls of Jericho and by whose power Israel went in conquest of her enemies? Well, he is here. He is as surely here in Tel Abib as he was at the Sea or at Sinai, or at Jericho! The power and authority of God are impressively symbolized in this glittering vision of overwhelming brilliance, of servant creatures more powerful than anything man has knowledge of, and of a glory more terrible than men can conceive.
God is still God. His glory has not changed in any way. Yahweh is still the King of Glory. Babylon may not know that, but Babylon did not see what Ezekiel saw!
- The second implication of this impossibly great vision is that God, by revealing himself to Ezekiel in Babylon, is declaring that he is sovereign everywhere and can help and bless his people wherever they are.
As we noticed last week, we learn in Jeremiah’s prophecy that, no matter the teaching of God’s Word, the Jews had a very pagan view of God. They thought of Yahweh very much as other nations thought of their gods, as though they were tied to a particular place, their influence limited to their particular territory, to the environs of the temples where they were worshiped. But here, far away from Jerusalem and Judea, Yahweh reveals himself to his lost and banished people as the sovereign Lord. He can reveal his glory in Jerusalem or in Babylon, it matters not: they both are his and he rules over both. He commands the whole universe. [Eichrodt, 59]
The conquest of Jerusalem and Judea does not mean the end of his dominion but rather a new development in his plan and purpose for his kingdom.
Israel’s understanding of God, of Yahweh, was far too small in both respects. They did not trade with his glory as it actually is, they did not revere him as the one living and true God, the Almighty, who dwells in unapproachable light and who inhabits eternity. They treated God, as long before the Lord himself had accused them of doing, “as if he were altogether like themselves” [Ps. 50:21] or “as if the potter were thought to be like the clay!” [Isa. 29:16] They did not fear the Lord! It was because of this defective view of God, this altogether too human-like view of God, that they found it so easy to dismiss his laws and commandments, to live without fear of his judgment, and, supremely, to take so lightly and make so little of his salvation and the promise of his presence with those who trust in him.
Then, in addition, they imagined that being cut off from home by the Babylonian conquest and their exile, Yahweh was lost to them. They were without God and without hope in the world. Again, they were selling terribly short the God who had revealed himself to them in Egypt, at Sinai, in the conquest, by his law and through his prophets. It is, in a psalm of David after all, that we read:
“Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you
are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.” [139:7-10]
You are perhaps aware that one striking feature of Ezekiel’s prophecy is the number of times the phrase “Then you will know that I am the Lord” or something similar to that phrase appears. We will read such a statement scores of times as we make our way through this book. Israel doesn’t know that Yahweh is the Lord. She ought to, but she doesn’t and this is the source of all her problems: of the present ignominy that Babylon has visited upon her and of the seemingly hopeless situation of the Jews in both Judea and Babylon. She has forgotten the Lord her God. She has forgotten who he is and what he is like. Yahweh is at work to put Israel’s culpable ignorance right and Ezekiel will be one of his instruments.
Now, let us remember, you and I, that in the New Testament we are again and again taught that the glory revealed in the theophanies – the divine appearances – of the ancient epoch was the glory of none other than Jesus Christ. It was the glory of Jesus, John tells us in his Gospel, that Isaiah saw when he was given a vision of the Lord at the time of his prophetic call. It was the glory of Christ that Moses and the elders saw at Sinai and that the people saw to a lesser extent.
This strange and wonderful vision that Ezekiel was given of the mighty cherubim, the chariot wheels, the firmament, the throne, and the figure sitting upon it, all of that is a description in images and analogies of the glory of Jesus Christ. This is how great, how ineffable, how majestic, how awe-inspiring, how fearful, and how wonderful beyond the power of words to describe is the Son of God.
Almost all our failures in life, to one degree or another, come home to roost right here: we do not reckon in our daily lives with the glory of the living God! We do not remember that our lives are lived before this Lord of unsupportable majesty, that all that happens in the world and all that happens to us is his will, that we are always in his hands, and that there is but one thing, only one, that matters in all our life: that we are right with him and honoring him with our lives. You and I – let’s be honest with ourselves – you and I would think differently about everything, we would measure everything differently, we would care about things so differently than now we do, if only we had been shattered as Ezekiel was by a vision of the glory of God. But the vision is here for us to read and the glory of God is here for us to believe!
The New Testament is just as adamant that we remember the glory of the God we trust and serve.
“Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and
glory for ever and ever.” [1 Tim. 1:17]
That text – the text that made Jonathan Edwards a convinced Christian, by the way – in its context is a reminder to us that the Jesus Christ, the loving Savior whom we trust for deliverance from our sins, is at one and the same time, the mighty God before whom all mankind stand as grasshoppers. In Hebrews 10 and 12 we are warned not to forget that our God is a consuming fire and that it is a dreadful thing to fall into his hands. And, of course, in Revelation we are given new visions of Christ in his all-consuming glory as the Judge of the earth. The apostle John, who once laid his head upon the Savior’s chest, is now on his face, like Isaiah and Ezekiel before him, before the Lord Christ in his glory.
And once we remember that we can and will appreciate more than ever we have before, what a stoop down our Savior took to leave that glory, that majesty to come to earth as a mere man, to be unrecognized as the King of Kings and the Creator of the universe, and to suffer ignominy at the hands of his creatures and then the cruelest death. It is in the distance between his throne as Ezekiel saw it – resting on the glittering firmament held up by the cherubim – and the cross of Calvary that you and I find our salvation. It is in that distance that we find the humiliation that was the just punishment for our sins and the price of our forgiveness and eternal life.
You will never understand Calvary unless you have had some sight of the sapphire throne. You will never measure the love of the one who hangs on that cross unless and until you have seen the figure, like that of a man, full of fire and surrounded by brilliant light, like a rainbow larger and more beautiful than you have ever imagined. You and I, of course, will never see Jesus as he was seen in this world during the days of his ministry. We will see the Jesus whose divine glory is not hidden. We will see him, not as John did in the Upper Room, but as he saw him in Revelation 1! But, that always was, that is today the true Son of God.
That he is as Ezekiel saw him to be – high and lifted up – makes it all the more necessary that we revere him and honor him with our lives. It makes it all the more necessary that we love him for the wonder of his willingness to empty himself and come among us as a servant. And it makes it all the more certain that those who trust in the Son of God will never be ashamed!