Welcome to Ezekiel. It’s a book that doesn’t get a lot of screen time in our contemporary church. A few reasons for this are (a) there are many confusing things in the book that require time to consider, (b) the first 24 and even 33 chapters contain the message of doom and gloom – that’s a lot of reading before the grace of God is spoken clearly, (c) it is just a long book!
When time is given to Ezekiel it is often chapter 36 or 37 that is quoted or referenced or sung about. But, all scripture is God breathed and useful. The early church only had the Old Testament and the stories of Jesus to learn from. Ezekiel was part of their learning. The study on the Temple and true restoration are strong in this book.
To make sense of the book, we really need to understand the context – the history that this is placed in. We cannot make sense of the book without it!
We start at the beginning. God created everything. I mean everything! He is God and there is nothing or no-one greater than him. This was not enough for humanity. Our race rebelled against God and gave ear to the idea that God is not really for us. He lies. He tricks us. He is too controlling. He doesn’t care about us like he says. So, the God who created all things by His Spirit and by His Word dealt with rebellion by ejecting Adam and Eve from the beautiful garden of Eden. They were exiled from the garden, from access to the tree of life and from God’s presence.
But that was not the end of the story for God. In about 2200BC (I may need to double check that but, ball-park), God made promises to Abram (renamed to Abraham). He gave his word to Abraham that his offspring would form a great nation, that they would live and enjoy a great land where God himself dwelt (made clearer through Moses) , and that the whole world would be blessed through Abraham’s offspring. God’s people, in God’s place, receiving God’s blessing and rule (Genesis 12:1-3; 15:5-7; 17:1-8).
In Joshua’s time, the first two promises were somewhat fulfilled (Joshua 21:43-45). David was eventually established as a king of Israel after God’s heart and under his son, Solomon, the Temple of the Lord was built. The Temple was, as the tabernacle had been, the place known as the dwelling place of God. Israel were God’s people, living in God’s place, with the rule and blessing of God with them. Wow!
But, like Adam and Eve, Israel took their eyes off their great Sovereign King and chased after the things of this world. They preferred to be like the other nations than to be distinct and trusting in God alone. For generations, king after king showed how rebellious Israel could be. The obvious sin was their worship of foreign gods.
In 586BC, 1,600 years after Abraham and about 500 years after David, God sent Israel into exile for their rebellion. This meant that they were physically removed from the land, crippled as a nation and under the rule of a foreign king (Nebuchadneser). God gave them blessings and he, like he promised Moses (Deuteronomy 28-30), gave them curses.
This is the scene of Ezekiel. Chapter 1 verse 1, our prophet said”…while I was among the exiles by the Kebar River, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.” Ezekiel was not in Israel but in Babylon, by the Kebar River, with the other exiles. While the exile meant judgement for Israel, it was not the end of the story because God has more to say to Israel. He’ll be talking to Ezekiel and asking him to communicate with the exiles. Do you hear the story of Adam and Eve all over again?!? What will God do this time? If God chooses to bless Israel, won’t they just make the same mistakes again? What on earth can God do to take away the sin and rebellion from Israel and his world? Anyone?
Try and draw what Ezekiel saw in his vision! It’s hard! Does it even make sense? The key to unlocking this type of scripture (actually any of the scriptures) is not to get bogged down with what is hard to understand but to highlight what is clear. Taking note of what is easy to understand can lead to clarity on what is hard.
What is easy to understand?
1) Ezekiel was physically by a river in the year 593BC – ie, 5 years after King Jehoiachin went into exile.
2) While in the company of, or living amongst the exiles, Ezekiel saw visions of God. 1:1 and 1:28 bookend the chapter with this clear message – Ezekiel saw the likeness of the glory of the LORD. So, the content of this chapter is about Ezekiel seeing something that showed or displays the glory of God. They were visions and a likeness.
3) Verse 1 and then verse 4 onward in this chapter are the words of Ezekiel. Verses 2-3 appear to be a comment from a later editor to clarify the time and person of Ezekiel. This does not make verses 2-3 less the word of God. This is how the bible is constructed – not God’s words dictated to us but the acts of God testified to us.
4) Ezekiel saw a lot of lights and movement and wheels and animal heads and wings and it was coming from the north!
What is harder to understand?
1) “I saw a windstorm coming out of the north” (v4). The description continues with a lot of movement and flashing and hot metal and so on. This is not a quiet breeze but an unmissable and turbulent event travelling (coming) from the north. This is the direction of judgement (Jeremiah 1:14). This is where Israel’s enemies came to conquer them. This time, however, it is not a human army coming, it is God.
2) “What looked like four living creatures” (v5). We may have a mental image of what cherubim look like (fat babies with small wings, curly blonde hair and a bow) but this is what we are meant to understand Ezekiel seeing here. They are described to have wings (vv6-9) and carrying a vessel (v22). This may remind you of the ark of the covenant which seated two cherubim on top – wings stretched across it to cover or guard the box/vessel/vault. The vision that Ezekiel is seeing is on the move (see previous point) and is describing something holy.
3) “Their faces looked like this…” (v10). The face like a human, a lion, an ox and an eagle. This is the sort of detail that we can get lost up in. But keep this in mind, if the bible doesn’t give us the answer, then it may very well just be an impression that we are to be satisfied with. The point? They were living creatures (v5 and 13). The human is the height of God’s creation. The lion is the head of the wild animals. The ox is the head of the domestic animal. The eagle is the head of the winged animals. That’s one thought. What the passage says at least twice is that these were living creatures.
4) “Wherever the Spirit would go, they would go.” (v12 and 20). The passage mentions a couple of times that the creatures didn’t turn as they moved (v9, 12, 17) and that the creatures and the wheels would go wherever the Spirit went. The message is that this thing is being driven by the Spirit of God. It’s not the wheels or the creatures or the vault or the throne moving mechanically but being transported by the Spirit of the living God. We will see later in the book of Ezekiel that the prophet himself will be picked up and transported by the Spirit. God is on the move. God is working. God is active.
5) “The creatures sped back and forth.” (v14) The movement that is in the passage is fast. Lights flashing and creatures speeding back and forth. There are different directions that God is travelling in. It is not just from the north and landing in Babylon. God is travelling this way and that. What is he looking for? What is he seeing? Why is he going back and forth? It perhaps underscores one message of Ezekiel and that is that God is not bound by the Temple but is free to roam where he pleases. He’s God after all!
6) “This was the appearance and structure of the wheels…” (v16). They were awesome looking – impressive in size. They were eight wheels all counted? Four on the ground in front of each creature (v15) and each wheel appeared to have a wheel intersecting it. You could count four wheels or eight – depending how you read Ezekiel’s description. The idea though, seems to be the ability to go in any direction. Also the image is of power like the chariots of war.
7) “A throne of lapis lazuli” (v26). Exodus 24:10 describes Moses and Aaron and 72 other elders of Israel seeing God who was standing on a pavement made of lapis lazuli. This is a deep-blue stone that looks really impressive. The Exodus passage describes it as “bright blue as the sky.” (see also Job 28:16; Isaiah 54:11). The throne is described and the reference leads us to conclude that this is a throne for God. On the throne, however, is a “figure like that of a man.”
8) “Like the appearance of a rainbow.” (v28) It doesn’t say there was a rainbow there but the appearance of a rainbow. Visions like these give us pointers of what to think about as we read them. The pointer here is obvious: the rainbow of Noah. This was a covenant promise from God that he would not forget to save the world from universal flood again – not to repeat the kind of judgement that wipes away humanity forever. The rainbow is a reminder of God’s grace and mercy. So, is this coming of God to be judgement or grace? Could it be both? The rainbow gives us a glimpse toward the end of Ezekiel, from chapter 34 onwards.
9) “And I heard the voice of one speaking” (v28). This vision of chapter one is about God approaching Ezekiel to give him His words. It is like the vision of Isaiah in Isaiah 6. The literal visions are different and worth the time comparing if you have it, but they compare in that both prophets saw a vision of the glory of the LORD before the LORD commissioned the prophets to speak.
New Testament Perspective
Hearing of a throne with a figure of a man seated on it reminds us of Jesus. Stephen, in Acts 7, “looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ [Stephen] said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.'” (Acts 7:55-56). Jesus is in the place of authority. We know that he is loving and kind, gentle and meek, but we cannot escape the reality that he is also God, creator and judge.
God is going to speak to the people in exile. Although they have been cast out from the presence of the Temple, God will come to them. It is a vision of God coming to declare his Word to a rebellious people who were too stubborn and hard hearted to listen before.
- It is a reminder of the continued mercy of God to persevere with his people who are rebellious.
- It is a vision of God’s holiness and glory and sovereignty. He is not little Jesus meek and mild and lying in a manger. He is a mighty warrior King, seated on his throne and awesome in power.
- Ezekiel’s response to seeing this vision was to fall facedown (v28). How do we convey that in our life? Is this a category shift for us with regards to God and Christ? Holding only this view of God is unhealthy since we understand grace and love but excluding this reality of God is to deny who he is.
- The Spirit is the mover in this vision. The Spirit of God is always active in the work of God. While our focus is on the one on the throne, rightly so, we give thanks for the work of the Spirit who elevates Christ and brings his glory to us.
Prayer of the week
Heavenly King, you are far beyond our imagination. You are our God, our King, our ruler and our judge. Have mercy on us, we pray. By the power of the Spirit and the work of your Son who is now seated on the throne, rescue us from sin. Save us from the captivity of sin and rebellion. Help us to listen to you when you speak and to respond immediately in trust. Amen.