Ezekiel is one of those books of scripture that for many years the critics found impregnable to attack. Throughout its 48 chapters it remains entirely consistent in language, person, expression, idiom and focus. Indeed it wasn't until the twentieth century that any ground for doubting Ezekiel's authorship was found and that was based upon the premise that the book is so consistent that it had to have been produced by an editor who was trying to fake a cohesive structure. I shall say no more about so-called higher criticism.
However in our first 3 verses we do find two of the very rare problem questions in Ezekiel. The first is the meaning of thirtieth year in verse one, the second is the switch to the 3rd person in verses 2 & 3 (the vast bulk of Ezekiel being in the first person). We shall approach this by working from what we can know in the passage and moving towards what I believe we can intuit.
V2 In the fifth day of the month, which was the fifth year of king Jehoiachin's captivity. This gives us a fairly tight date for this first vision, somewhere around the 593-595BC mark (dependant on whether you think Ezekiel used inclusive or exclusive numbering). The method of description (King Jehoiachin's captivity) also gives us a pint-sized historic overview of the setting Ezekiel was in. The Kingdom of Judah had been defeated after a 3 month siege of Jerusalem, Jehoiachin and the priests and rules and craftsman of the land had been mass deported to Babylon leaving behind a remnant of the poorer people of the land under the kingship of Zedekiah. It was this latter group to whom Jeremiah ministered.
In fact this verse also gives us a hint to the nature of Ezekiels early messages. King Jehoiachin was almost certainly still alive and still seen as the rightful claimant to the throne. Also Judah had been defeated they were still confidently expecting that Jerusalem would not fall completely and that Jehoaichin would be returned to his throne. Why they thought this and why they were wrong is the subject of later chapters, for now let us return to the thirtieth year.
Back in verse one we get this mysterious dating. It came to pass in the thirtieth year. One way to try to find out ‘the thirtieth year of what' is to go from 595, substract 30 giving 625BC and see what was happening. Two opportunities present themselves.
My preference is for a third interpretation that solves both the thirtieth year problem, and the third person problem, in one swipe. Suppose I were to ask you the year you were saved, I wonder how your mind would work. If it is anything like mine it would go "I was 18, just gone up to college, so it must have been 1985". My proposal is that Ezekiels mind worked a similar way. This chapter is really about Ezekiels call, and he would have remembered that as happening in his thirtieth year. Ezekiel is very much a first person prophet so he records in a first person way. His tidy and detailed mind then fills in an external reference point (the captivity of Jehoichin).
I actually believe we are given a further evidence of this interpretation in verse 3 Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi. We know from Numbers 4:3 that thirty was the age a Levite entered service. The priests were levites and thus it is quite possible that 30 would have been the age Ezekiel would have followed his father into service. It is interesting to note that 30 is the age the Lord entered his official ministry. Thus 30 would have been the point in Ezekiels life that he has worked for until he was 25. Then his hopes were dashed when he was deported. The main focus of his life destroyed, and then the Lord called him, not for a priestly service but for a prophetic one. It is perhaps worth our while remembering, particularly those of us saved some distance into our training that our calling and our direction may not be the same thing. A defeat in life might be God's way of showing us the route he would have us go.
Whilst it is always interesting to pick apart these little knots it would be a shame if it caused us to gloss over what ought to be the most striking features of the first three verses. Firstly in verse 1 The heavens were opened and I saw visions of God. This sounds like one of those stock ‘prophet like' phrases you would expect to find littered all over the Bible. But it isn't. This is the only place in the Old Testament where you will find the heavens opened. There are visions of the heavens and visions of God granted to others. To Ezekiel only where the heavens opened.
There are four other places, all New Testament, where we do get the phrase. Matthew 3v16, when the Lord was baptised (at the age of thirty, incidentally).. Secondly John 1:51 where the Lord speaks of a future time when angels will be seen to minister to him directly. Then Rev 4v1 when John is granted his revelation of heaven. Finally Rev 19:11 when our Lord returns.
The uniqueness of Ezekiels revelation gives us a clue as to the meaning and interpretation of the event. I believe that Ezekiel is not simply being granted a picture to explain an idea to him, he is actually being allowed to see an instance where the heavens and the earth directly interact. This is, of course, very similar to the revelation granted to John in the Revelatation. The Jews were a self-confident bunch that were heading directly into destruction heedless of the warnings being given. Their mistake was an un-awareness of the movement of the divine hand behind the scenes and a presumption that any divine interference would be to their good. Today the majority of mankind are in a similar position.
Secondly in verse 3 and the hand of the Lord was upon him. Whilst verse 1 deals with the vision, verse 3 deals with the word. It is interesting to note the spoken qualities the Holy Spirit sees fit to bring out. It doesn't say Ezekiel stood firm by doctrine (although he did). It didn't say Ezekiel was skilled is visual presentation (although he was). His encyclopaedic knowledge of the law, priestly ordinances and foreign affairs are all used, but not noted. His social and priestly status both helped him gain a hearing, but again the Holy Spirit does not see fit to commend this to us. The commendation is ‘the hand of the Lord was upon him'. If only we could bring ourselves to look for a similar quality in preachers today. We don't need wit or presence, brevity or longevity, winsomeness or severity, intelligence or diligence. We need the anointing of God and the power that brings.
One final note before we soar into the clouds, end of verse one. I was among the captives. The assemblies today are characterised by travelling preachers, hit & run missions and declining numbers. I suspect there's a link. Ezekiel was among the people he was sent to. They knew him and he knew them. Ezekiel ministered to these people for the best part of thirty years. Note too that he was among them. Not near them with an active tracting campaign. He was where they were. Now in case this all smells like rampant liberalism I should add that he wasn't like them. In fact as the chapters unfold you will find Ezekiel stood out like a sore thumb. But if you want to stand out like a sore thumb you have to be with all the other fingers not cowering in an enclave of thumbs.
V4 : The commentators like to debate whether this was an actual storm that cause Ezekiel to think of God or a vision from God that didn't actually happen. I suspect option three, which is that this was a real storm, but a supernatural one. It must have started in a fairly unexciting fashion. Ezekiel was looking and saw a whirlwind coming from the North, fairly common where he was situated. The clouds loomed dark and threatening, the sun illuminated the edges of the cloud enhancing its severity and the lighting bolts started to crack within its' midst.
You know there are two different ways to view thunderstorms. You can view them as revealing the power of God or you can view them as revealing the power of God. Hang on, they're both the same. True, the difference is in the way you look at them. When you see God working do you revel in the power of the almighty regardless of how he is moving or do you sit by in sullen resentment that he is not quite doing things your way? Do you cower at the thought his patience has finally run-out and he is about to correct you, or do you rejoice that his name is about to be honoured.
We are not actually told how Ezekiel would have reacted, but my guess, based upon the vision he was then granted, is that he rejoiced. His life had been radically changed, his future appeared to have gone from him and suddenly here was a sign, any sign, that God was doing something. Do we have that yearning? Do we want to see God move? Really? Even if we don't get to choose how?
V5:Now we get our first glimpse of the creatures, which in chapter 10 are identified as the Cherubim. These are identified as living creature. This is important, they are not statues or images they are creatures. We often tend to gloss over some of the heavenly beings, partially I suspect to avoid the Catholic pre-occupation with certain angels, but their existence is repeatedly attested to throughout the Bible. The other thing I like is the appearance, they had a likeness of a man. We may wonder why that is, does it just show a lack of imagination on the part of the prophet? No, it shows the stamp of God. Remember man was made in God's own image. So if the creatures had a likeness of a man then they have a likeness to the image of God.
V6:But the likeness was not complete, we shall actually see that the Cherubim have four different facets or faces, only one of which is the likeness of a man. They also have four wings, two pairs.
V7:When dealing with verses such as this that appear to provide meaningless detail, it is worth our while trying to put ourselves in the place of the person receiving the vision and try to see what the detail would mean to him. Suppose you were confronted by some unknown, awe inspiring beast, what is the first thing you would want to know? Friend or foe? To Ezekiel that question could be simplified to does this come from God or not?. One way of telling this is ‘is it clean'. The Jews had a system whereby all creatures were classified into those that were wholesome, and those that defiled. How could you tell in the case of a new animal? Deut 14:6 provides the answer. And every beast that parteth the hoof and cleaveth the cleft into two claws, and cheweth the cud among the beasts, that ye shall eat. The feet of the calf, coupled with the ox's head we shall come to presently make it quite clear that this beast is clean, and therefore to be accepted as from God.
I believe we need to apply similar discernment when we encounter new things, or possibly even things we are used to. Are they clean? Not just do they look clean but what do they feed on?
The other note is the burnished brass, bright, noticeable. If God creates a being and makes it holy then it should shine to his glory. So should we.
V8:Just underneath each wing was a mans hand. This shows that the creatures were dextrous. Oxen are powerful but clumsy. A Lion has strength and subtlety but very little precision. Birds have speed and precision but very little delicacy. The creatures were equipped with all of these powers but the ones they were to use in their dealings with others were the human one. Nimbleness, care, precision and delicacy.
V9:Verse nine is the first hint we begin to get that these creatures were not entirely independent entities but for part of a unit. In particular their wings were joined together. At first glance this weakens them. They are deprived of independent movement, they have no freedom of expression. However, it is precisely the rigidity of this structure which provides one of the recurring themes of this chapter. They turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward. Imagine standing with three other people, in a square all facing away from the centre. Now join hands so you are locked in position. If you now think about it that whole square can now move in any direction, there will always be at least one pairs of eyes available to check the way is clear, and no-one has to turn from their natural direction. If you sit down with pencil and paper and draw the shape you will also find that the structure has no blind spot.
This is the way a good assembly should function. Everyone responsible for their own sphere of service yet locked in unity with those around. Of course the problem comes if someone lets go. If only three of the Cherubims had touching wings the structure would have disintegrated. If one had fallen asleep the structure would only have been able to go in a restricted set of directions and it would have had a blind spot. Worse yet, some of the others mights have tried to cover for the lazy creature, started turning around and then the structure would have been week on all sides. But the Cherubims stood foursquare, let us pray that we shall do so to.
V10: This most suggestive of verses now shows us the faces (and therefore I suggest facets) of the four Cherubim. First (and foremost) the face of a Man, on the right the face of a Lion, on the left the face of an Ox, from the behind the face of an eagle. Now, consider the appearance of these creatures from outside of the linked square in which they were standing. Nearest to you would have been the man-like face of the nearest Cherub. To your right you would see the Cherub to the first's left, which would have his right side facing you. In other words to the right of the face of the man you would see the face of a Lion. To the left of the manlike face the face of an ox. And from behind you would see the eagle like fact unless you were head on. For those who like types and pictures these four faces are often used as aspects of the Gospels, and thus of our Lord. Thus Matthew is the Gospel of the King (the Lion). Mark is the Gospel of the Servant (Ox). Luke the Gospel of the (Son of) Man, and John the Gospel of Deity, floating on the spirit of God (eagle).
However, if we follow this line it leads to an interesting conclusion. Look which aspect the Cherubim put foremost, and which bit is left until last. In these days where the Lords deity is openly challenged we are inclined to emphasise his Godhood first and foremost, yet that is not actually the way the Gospels read. The God of heaven was already known of. Our Lord took the step of clothing himself with humanity that he might die for us, but also that the father may be made known through him. In other words it was the Lords humanity which was to build the bridge that the disciples were then to cross. That is not to say, of course, that the Lords deity should be hidden or covered (and certainly not denied), simply that it is the word became flesh that dwelt amongst us. We must be careful that we don't use our own appreciations of some of the Lords glory to erect a barrier between the sinner and Christ.
V11:Partly Ezekiel is just pushing home the picture I have tried to draw for you but he adds one significant new detail. Two of the four wings were linked and joined, two were used to hide the creatures body. I wonder what we would do if we had bodies of burnished brass and two spare wings? And two were used to point? Perhaps? Or And two were used to lead the applause? Or And two were used to elbow each other out of the lime-light.
We are living in a day and age were overt presentation of capability or attribute is the norm. I need hardly mention the scantiness of clothing that is almost expected amongst the womenfolk of the world.
However this forwardness is just as common amongst men, although often in different ways. I have just been interviewing people and looking through CVs. I went through one that named every capability we were looking for and quite a few besides, some I hadn't even heard of. In all of the different categories the candidate had rated himself between excellent and outstanding. I inwardly quaked at the thought of having someone of this calibre working for me. Then I noticed he had scraped through his A levels, missed University and been working in the big wide world for a grand total of 9 months. Bin.
But let us beware unless a similar spirit enters our meetings.
V12:Again Ezekiel is repeating information and yet adding a new thread. The new thread here is that they go whither the spirit was to go. This, couple with the modesty of verse 11 are our first indications that awesome as these beasts may be they are controlled by, and subservient to some greater power. This too should be true of our assemblies. Standing together, applying ourselves to our own service, being directed. These are all worth things but a good industrial company will tell its minions the same thing. The key to an assembly is whether or not the direction is taken from the Spirit of God.
V13:Here we have a new piece of information, they had a fire ‘burning' within. I suspect it looked like a much better version of one of the flame effect fires they try to sell in Homebase. The meaning, and application, I think is more readily available. There was something within these creatures that drove them. Outward conformity; yes. Corporate subservience; yes. Outward glory; yes. Corporate direction; yes. But inside the fire burned, and from that came the shafts of light. Are you burning within? Smouldering perhaps? If you want light to come out in its flashes then inside you need to burn.
V14:The result of this was startling, their movements and the appearance of a bolt of lightning. It is almost certainly true the creatures were not moving at that speed (Ezekiel wouldn't have been able to see them) but they had that appearance. The speed and ferocity of lighting is legendary, so will be the judgement of God.
At the beginning of verse 15 we get a little interlude. As I beheld. Until this point we have been getting the initial (or first) impression of the creatures. First impressions count. They tend to provide the motivation for and context within which the rest of an impression are formed. One question we have to ask ourselves is, are our first impressions sufficiently striking that people go on to look further. Notice I say striking, not pleasant. There is a popular move afoot under the guise of the Alpha course that says people should feel as comfortable at church as they do at home. Nowhere in scripture do you find the notion that the unregenerate sinner can feel comfortable in the presence of the Almighty God. Now of course we do have to ensure that any discomfort they feel in the presence of God is not masked by a discomfort in the presence of us. We should not be dour, or unapproachable or forbidding. But we should have that fire within that shows people we are different.
Now as the living creatures are beheld we notice a new element come into sight, the wheels. An interesting feature of the wheels is that by the time the Cherubim reappear in Revelation the wheels have gone. I also suggest that the interlude we just mentioned is there to signify that the wheel is separate from the essential Cherub.
V16:There were clearly four identical wheels, although there is a question as to how they are structured. Older commentators give the picture of a carriage wheel with a hub within an outer wheel. The Revised Standard even mutilates the Hebrew to say they had wheels and spokes. I believe the older commentators where hampered by their knowledge of engineering which was only just getting hold of some of the possibilities of the standard wheel. Our Avs say a wheel in the middle of a wheel. I believe this is two disks intersecting at right angles. Does it really matter? Well, I think it makes sense of verse 17 for a start they turned not when they went. How many of you have tried to park a car in a space along a road side. You have to go forwards and backwards frantically twisting the wheel this way and that so that you can wriggle into position. Wouldn't it be great if you can just drive up along side the space, turn all four wheels at right angles and glide into position in one swift dignified movement. Well that is what the two intersecting discs give you. The throne of God never has to turn and never has to wriggle and yet it has full mobility.
But what do the wheels really mean? Well I would like to suggest that the wheels are the point of contact between the heavenly nature of the creature and the earthy nature of the work. This is one reason I think the two intersecting wheels are a ball shape, they represent the sphere of activity. If I am right it also explains why they go once heaven is attained.
What are the two intersecting discs? The simple answer is I don't know but I fancy they may be grace & truth. On of those verses that rings around my mind quite frequently is John 1:14 full of grace and truth. I believe these two qualities have only ever met fully in the Lord Jesus Christ. The rest of us have one wheel dominant over the over. Some of us are strong on the truth angle, we can go on in our chosen direction with reasonable pace but if we have to move to left or right to accommodate others we have problems. Some are very capable of accommodating others but slowdown in their pursuit of the truth. If I may put it this way, most of us, when we get into a tight spot, end up having to wriggle.
If you find that depressing then I think verse 18 offers a partial solution. Firstly the wheels of the Cherubim were large, they stretched up towards heaven. Secondly they were full of eyes, they were watchful. These are both valuable lessons. We must be aware and sensitive to things going on around us. But then, as the wheel turns, we must take things up to our heavenly father.
V19:Here we get an invaluable lesson in life management. Look which was it worked. When the living creatures went the wheels went … when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up. Matthew is a keen footballer, but he hasn't actually learnt how to kick a ball straight so I spend many a happy our chasing along the sea-front trying to stop the ball flying over the edge. It is most undignified and often unsuccessful. The problem is I am chasing the ball rather than controlling it. Some of us make the same mistake with our lives. The living creatures can represent our spiritual selves, the ball our sphere of service. Some of us chase our work rather than control it.
So how should we control our work for the Lord. That is verse 21. Our sphere of service must follow where our spirit shows us, and we must allow ourselves to be lifted up to heaven, then the ball will come. Note too sometimes we have to stand still. Be still and know that I am God.
V20:Some of you may have winced when I said we should follow our spirits, surely the should follow the Spirit. Yes, that comes in verse 20 (which incidentally comes before verse 21.). The Holy Spirit leads our Spirit then our Spirit should lead us. As fundamentalist evangelicals we can sometimes be in danger of denying the leading of the Holy Spirit and the role of our own quickened Spirit within. Whilst we are to know our Bibles we should still have a ‘still small voice' within. Of course we need spiritual discernment to ensure that the still small voice is actually the Spirit of God and not the old man making a dying whimper.
Finally in this section for the Spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. This phrase is my main justification for my interpretation of the wheel. For now our Spirits are constrained by these fleshy bodies. Our fleshy bodies are the medium by which we relate to our sphere of service, the world. When we come to Revelation we find the wheels go, as does our sphere of service and our fleshly body. Now some might like to say that this means our heavenly existence is purely spiritual. But if you look at Revelation you will find that although the beasts have lost their wheels, they have gained a set of wings! We may loose our fleshly bodies but were are given heavenly bodies. Not designed for trundling along on the face of the earth but for soaring through the heavens with our Lord.
So far we have viewed the creatures, with their sphere of influence, in isolation. True they are united with each other, and we have noted one or two indications that they are controlled from above but now in verse 22 our eyes begin to move upwards. This shift in sight is, in my opinion, one of the key responsibilities of a ministering brother. Church government is important, our walk on earth must be regulated, and a biblically functioning Church does have a glory and beauty of its own, but more than any of these we must be taught to look up. Up until verse 21 Ezekiel can (though shouldn't!) be read much like Tolkien, a piece of visual vapour.
But now in verse 22 we begin our upward progress. First we get a firmament resting upon the heads of the creatures. Not their wings please note. The throne of God did not hinder their progress, it was their minds that are forced into alignment. Again and again we here today of the need for freedom of thought, and freedom of expression. The Bible is clear on the basis of freedom. Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free. I do not believe scripture gives any scope for freedom of interpretation. Indeed we are told that no scripture is of private interpretation. There is one truth. Of course, the problem is, we are not entirely sure in all cases what that is. Therefore we have to grant each other a certain latitude on some of the secondary issues of doctrine. But on those issues that we most assuredly believe then we must be indeviant, that is not a restriction, it is an empowerment.
V23:Once their heads were aligned the wings could stretch forth one to another in unity. How do you achieve unity when there are secondary differences? That's the second set of wings, covering in humility.
V24:I love this bit. With all the build up, you might expect the throne to inch forward in stately procession. Not so, when the wings flap the noise is thunderous, in is also holy and (I suggest) powerful. Voice of speech, does it mean words. I suggest not, I suggest it means there is a clear discernible order to it. Generally I can tell whether a Spanish child is talking or gibbering. Now I don't speak a word of Spanish but a coherent, thoughtful sentence is discernible by pitch and cadence. Our movement and actions should be the same. Outsiders might not know why we do what we do but they should be able to discern an order and purpose. True organisation and planning gives maximum scope of flexibility, disorganisation tends to show disinterest. But then they stood and they let their wings down. The noise ceased, peace rained. Someone once said "If brethren meetings are Spirit led then why do you have awkward silences?" I said "Well, I know why we have silences, but I don't know why you find them awkard.."
V25: Once the hub-bub stopped the voice came from above. This is one of the key reasons I don't believe charismatic meetings tend to be spirit led, they focus on noise and action, that isn't when God speaks.
V26:Ezekiel now goes from extreme detail to almost vague allusions. Why? Simply, I suggest, because he didn't have the words to use as he had the respect to stick to what he knew. How many of us start our prayers with "we don't have words to express" and then spend the next five minutes showing that indeed we don't have the words to express …
But look now at the throne, a sapphire. Now after all this imagery we are ready for some vision the oddity of which we have never encountered before, and yet we find someone with the appearance of a man. We need to repeat in these days when our children are taught that they are just overgrown monkeys that Man is actually created in the image of God. In the throne-room at the centre of heaven (albeit in Ezekiel it is travelling from heaven) is an appearance of a man.
V27:The over-ridding impression Ezekiel received was one of fire. The loins are seen as the seat of power, coming from there is the fire. Now I haven't spoken much of the actual significance to Ezekiel of this vision but it was almost certainly one of judgement. Out of the north, a chariot with thunder and lighting and a consuming fire. But now look at
V28:Here we see the Glory of the Lord, like the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain. The fire, thunderings, lightenings and precious stones were all there, but the glory was the bow. What does a bow speak of. Well go back to first mention. Noah and the Ark. God had destroyed most of the living world in a terrible judgement, but then he set the bow in the cloud to show his covenant with mankind that he will not destroy by flood again. The real beauty of the rainbow covenant though is that it was unconditional. The Glory of the Lord is that unconditional covenant, the Lord Jesus Christ, readily appropriated by all those that truly believe.
Finally, note Ezekiels action, he fell upon his face and heard a voice of one that spake. If you get out your Strongs concordance, or if you can read Hebrew, which I can't, you will find the word ‘fell' is actually used to translate at least two different Hebrew words. The first is kashal it means to be weak, to stumble or totter. It is what we tend to mean by ‘falling'. But that is not the word employed here. Here we have naphal, meaning to overthrow, cast or lie down, more like felling a tree. In other words, Ezekiel did not pass out, he was not slain in the spirit or any such nonsense, he made a conscious decision to prostrate himself before God. Then he heard the voice.
So as we go our separate ways, I pray that we too might capture some of this vision of Ezekiel. Above all, remember to look up. The beasts are interesting, the wheels are useful but the Glory of God is in the bow, the Lord Jesus Christ.