Introduction to Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1) August 12-13
Recall from 2 Kings 24:10-16 that the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar invaded Judah and took away 10,000 captives, including the Jewish king Jehoiachin (or Jeconiah). This was the second Babylonian deportation of the Jews, which took place in 597 B.C. The prophet Ezekiel was among a group of these captives, as the Jewish historian Josephus also relates (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 10, chap. 6, sec. 3). Ezekiel's group was resettled "by the River Chebar" (1:1), southeast of Babylon. "Ezekiel 1:1-3 and 3:15 clearly define the place of origin of Ezekiel's ministry as Babylonia, specifically at the site of Tel Aviv located near the Kebar River and the ancient site of Nippur. This 'River' has been identified by many with the naru kabari [or 'grand canal'] (mentioned in two cuneiform texts from Nippur), a canal making a southeasterly loop, connecting at both ends with the Euphrates River" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, introduction to Ezekiel). During this period the Jews were allowed to live in communities in whatever area of the empire to which they were transported. They seem to have been viewed more as colonists than slaves. Ezekiel himself was married until his wife suddenly died, and he had a house (24:15-18; 3:24; 8:1). Elders of Judah frequently consulted him (8:1; 11:25; 14:1; 20:1; etc.).
The book of Ezekiel begins with an account of the prophet's calling, which occurred "in the thirtieth year, on the fifth day of the fourth month" (1:1). This date is equated in verse 2 with "the fifth day of the month...in the fifth year of King Jehoiachin's captivity." Since the captivity began in 597 B.C., the fifth year would have been 593. Some understand the 30th year to be counted from Josiah's renewal of the covenant between God and Judah in the 18th year of his reign, 623-622 B.C. (see 2 Chronicles 34:8, 29-33). However, there is nothing to hint at such a connection, and the covenant had long since been trampled upon in the 16 years since Josiah's death. A more reasonable conclusion is that the 30th year refers to Ezekiel's age, especially when we consider that he was a priest (Ezekiel 1:3). Since a man entered into priestly service at the age of 30 (Numbers 4:3, 23, 30, 39, 43; 1 Chronicles 23:3), God may have elected to start using him as a prophet at this critical age, perhaps highlighting the priestly aspect of Ezekiel's commission. It is interesting to note that if he were 30 years old at this point, Ezekiel would have been born at the time of Josiah's covenant renewal.
There is a strong emphasis on chronology throughout the book of Ezekiel. It contains 13 prophecies dated from the time Jeconiah was taken into exile—the first in 593, the last in 571 (thus spanning 22 years). Four periods are specified: the first five years, 593-588 B.C. (1:1-25:17); the next two years, 587-585 B.C., surrounding the fall of Jerusalem in 586 (26:1-29:16; 30:20-39:29); 12 years later, 573 B.C. (40:1-48:35); and a final message against Egypt two years after that, 571 B.C. (29:17-30:19).
Ezekiel's commission was to serve as a "watchman" for God's people—a sentry who warned of impending danger (see Ezekiel 3; 33). As we will see, his messages were meant in large part for the "house of Israel," even though the northern 10 tribes had been taken into captivity about 130 years earlier (3:1, 4, 3, 7, 17; 33:7, 10, 11, 20). In fact, the phrase "house of Israel" occurs 78 times (plus "house of Jacob" one time) in this book while "house of Judah" occurs only 5 times. In some cases, the name Israel is used to designate Judah—but there are numerous instances where it is clear that the northern tribes are meant. Since God would never be a century late in delivering a warning message, it seems clear that He must have inspired significant portions of the book primarily for the end-time descendants of Israel. However, some of the specific prophecies were meant for Ezekiel's time, and some others are dual—meant for Ezekiel's day and the end time. The spiritually deteriorating conditions in Judah were a type of the end-time decline of modern Israelite nations, and the approaching destruction and captivity of Judah was a type of what would happen to the nations of Israel—especially the descendants of Joseph—just prior to Christ's return.
In the setting in which Ezekiel found himself, he taught, comforted and encouraged the Jews who were with him in exile. As part of his watchman responsibility, he was also to relay to them God's warnings of Jerusalem's coming destruction due to the sins of the Jewish people. And he proved faithful in delivering these important messages, even acting out various judgments or prophecies at God's direction to make the point clear. At the same time, as we've seen, the prophet Jeremiah was giving a similar warning 600 miles away in Jerusalem to the Jews who were living there. Interestingly, both Ezekiel and Jeremiah were priests called to a prophetic office. A comparative study of their messages provides a clear picture of how much God warned the Jews to repent before their nation was destroyed in 586 B.C. Indeed, we've seen that Jeremiah sent messages to the exiles in Babylon (see Jeremiah 29-30). Perhaps some of Ezekiel's prophecies were likewise proclaimed to the Jews of Judah—by letter or just through the reporting of others. Of course, as with those of Jeremiah, many of Ezekiel's prophecies were, as already noted, recorded principally for posterity's sake—with many having dual or even exclusive application to events far in the future.
One of the recurrent themes in Ezekiel's prophecies is that God is sovereign and people will ultimately learn that lesson. The phrase "Then they will know that I am the LORD" occurs no less than 65 times in the book. Jerusalem is the focal point of Ezekiel's prophecies. He begins with what was to occur to Jerusalem in his day and then moves on to the events prophesied for the end of the age. (He closes the book with a wonderful vision of conditions that will exist after the return of Christ.) Yet throughout the first 34 chapters, Ezekiel moves back and forth between prophecies for his own day and the end time—many of the historical events foretold serving as types of what is to come in the end time.
Ezekiel's name means "God Is Strong" (compare Ezekiel 3:14), "God Strengthens" (compare Ezekiel 30:25; 34:16) or "May God Strengthen." As the book opens, we see how God strengthened him with powerful visions so he could perform the job he was called to do.
"The Appearance of the Likeness of the Glory of the LORD" (Ezekiel 1)
The first chapter of Ezekiel is one of the most revealing and exciting in the entire Bible! Ezekiel tells us that the heavens opened and he saw "visions of God"—i.e., not God in reality, but rather in a mental picture, which no one else who might have been with Ezekiel could actually see. Of all the men whom God inspired to write the Scriptures only three—Isaiah, Ezekiel and the apostle John—recorded visions of God's throne. Isaiah's description, which we earlier read, is very short (Isaiah 6:1-6). Ezekiel gives us much more detail.
The "hand of the LORD" on Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:3) represented the strength God was imparting to him. In addition to verification that God was the author of the message, Ezekiel needed encouragement and strength from God in order to do the work God was commissioning him to do (which we will read about in chapters 2-3, a continuation of the same passage).
Ezekiel sees a great windstorm coming—an immense cloud with flashing lightning, surrounded by brilliant light. The center of the fire looked like glowing, sparkling gold (1:4). This is perhaps reminiscent of the pillar of cloud and fire that led Israel out of Egypt. Recall that the preincarnate Jesus Christ dwelt in that cloud, which was illuminated with divine "glory," the shining radiance of God. Indeed, "the glory of the LORD" is specifically mentioned here in Ezekiel (1:28; 3:12). The word for glory "suggests 'weight' or 'significance,' indicating the wonder, majesty, and worthiness of the living God" (The Nelson Study Bible, note on 3:12-13). This visible glory was referred to by later Jewish commentators as the shekinah, or "indwelling," as it was the evidence of God's presence among His people. The shekinah glory not only led Israel out of Egypt (Exodus 16:10), it also appeared in the tabernacle (40:34), in the temple of Solomon (2 Chronicles 5:14), to the shepherds at Christ's birth (Luke 2:9), and as surrounding God's throne in John's vision (Revelation 15:8).
The throne imagery here is somewhat different from that of God the Father's heavenly throne room in Revelation. That's because this image is of a transportable throne moving about the earth—and the "LORD" who sits on this particular throne is, again, the preincarnate Jesus Christ. Still, there are some clear similarities, as we will see.
The whirlwind comes from the north—perhaps because the north seems to indicate the general area of the sky where the heaven of God's throne is located (Lucifer is pictured attempting to assault God's throne on the farthest sides of the north—Isaiah 14:13). Whirlwinds from God are recorded several times in the Scriptures. The Ten Commandments were given in a great tempest of thunder and fire (Exodus 19-20). Elijah was taken up in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:1, 11) and the Lord answered Job out of a whirlwind (Job 38:1; 40:6). Jesus Christ will return to the earth in a whirlwind (Isaiah 66:15; Zechariah 9:14). Interestingly, this passage of Ezekiel was in Christ's day read in synagogues at the time of Pentecost, and it was on Pentecost that a sound of rushing wind and tongues of fire accompanied the coming of God's Holy Spirit to empower members of His Church (see Acts 2; compare Ezekiel 2:2).
As the whirlwind approached, Ezekiel was able to make out the likenesses of four living creatures—angelic beings. These are referred to in Ezekiel 10 as cherubs or cherubim. Their function here is to uphold and transport the throne of God. "And this was their appearance: they had the likeness of a man" (1:5). The word likeness is translated from the Hebrew dmuwth, which means resemblance. They had the general appearance of human beings at first glance—meaning they apparently stood upright on two legs. However, there were marked differences. Ezekiel notices that each one had four faces, four wings and feet like calves that sparkled like bronze (seeming to indicate hooves).
Concerning the faces, Ezekiel tells us that each had the face of a man, of a lion on the right side, of an ox on the left side, and of an eagle. The human face was evidently facing Ezekiel and the eagle face was behind. This does not mean the human face was the primary one. For when the four faces are listed in Ezekiel 10, "the face of a cherub" is substituted for the ox face and called the "first face" (10:14). So why did the human faces look toward Ezekiel, while the ox or cherub faces looked to the left? The directions here are significant. Bear in mind that the throne and creatures were coming from the north. Ezekiel therefore viewed them from the south. So the south face of each was human. The west face of each was that of the ox or cherub, the north face of each was that of the eagle and the east face of each was that of the lion. Considering the traveling throne and cherubim together as a unit, the main face looking to the south from it was the south face of the south-positioned cherub—the human face. The main face looking to the west was the west face of the west-positioned cherub—the ox face. The main faces looking out from the vehicle on the north and east were the eagle and lion respectively.
As was mentioned in the Bible Reading Program comments on Numbers 2, this was the exact configuration of the Israelite camp in the wilderness, wherein the four primary tribal standards of Israel (the lion of Judah, the eagle of Dan, the bull of Ephraim, and the man representing Reuben) were positioned around the ancient tabernacle containing the Ark of the Covenant, itself a representation of God's throne. A similar vision of four living creatures surrounding God's throne was given to the apostle John in Revelation. However, the creatures there are not described as humanoid in appearance or as each having multiple faces. "And in the midst of the throne, and around the throne, were four living creatures... The first living creature was like a lion, the second living creature like a calf, the third living creature had a face like a man, and the fourth living creature was like a flying eagle" (Revelation 4:6-7). The creatures could be the same—or the same in type. Perhaps these extra-dimensional beings look quite different when viewed from different angles. Or, as noted in the Bible Reading Program comments on Isaiah 6, perhaps they are capable of changing shape or manifesting themselves in different forms to human beings.
The creatures in the visions of Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4 had six wings. These in Ezekiel's vision are described as having only four. But again, that could be due to shape shifting or viewing from a different angle or because the wings were engaged in different activities. Consider that Ezekiel saw a wheel over the ground beside each creature (Ezekiel 1:15). Each appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel or a wheel spinning inside a wheel—or, rather, "their workings" gave this appearance (verse 16). Perhaps the wheel beside each creature is the "missing" two wings in motion—similar to the effect produced by a hummingbird's wings. Note that Ezekiel describes the sound of the cherub wings not as the whooshing of slow flapping but as "the noise of many waters...a tumult like the noise of an army" (verse 24)—possibly like a modern helicopter. Ezekiel later says the wheels are called "whirling" (see Jamieson, Fausset & Brown Commentary, note on 10:13). Perhaps the wings whirled, creating the wheel effect. Isaiah 6:2 says that only two of the six seraphim wings were used for flying.
However, Ezekiel describes the wheels as having very high "rims" or "rings" that were full of eyes (Ezekiel 1:18). Perhaps these were indeed actual chariot wheels—the "eyes" being jewels. Or again, the "rims" could have been an effect produced by the fluttering wings. John too saw a multitude of eyes: "four living creatures full of eyes in front and in back...And the four living creatures, each having six wings, were full of eyes around and within" (Revelation 4:6, 8). If the eyes are associated with the wings, perhaps this is similar to peacock plumage—where what appear to be eyes can be seen from either side (the wings of some butterflies and moth wings are also decorated with what appear to be eyes).
Ezekiel says that the entire throne-carrying system of these four creatures was guided by a "spirit" (verse 20). Wherever this spirit would go, they would go, and the wheels would rise along with them. He observes that "the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels." The Hebrew word for spirit is ruach, also translated "wind." The source of the windstorm's power was evidently the wind created by the wheels. Interestingly, Zechariah 5:9 describes wind as being in the wings of flying creatures. This gives us more reason to believe the wheels of Ezekiel's vision to be wings. (Of course, as these are spirit beings, we should not conclude that wings and wind in the physical medium of air are an actual necessity for their ability to fly.)
Next, Ezekiel describes a "firmament" or platform of crystal stretched out over the heads of the cherubim, on which sat the sapphire-blue throne of God (Ezekiel 1:22, 26). Such a crystalline expanse is also described by John: "Also before the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal" (Revelation 4:6). It was also seen by Moses and the elders of Israel, when they "saw the God of Israel. Under His feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself" (Exodus 24:10). Perhaps the sapphire throne was being reflected in the crystal floor beneath it.
In the crowning moment of the vision Ezekiel heard a voice from above the expanse over the heads of the cherubim as they stood with lowered wings. Above the great crystalline platform was the sapphire throne, and high above on the throne was a figure like that of a man—"a likeness with the appearance of a man" (verse 26). The Hebrew for "likeness" is, again, dmuwth. Man was made in the likeness of God (Genesis 1:26; 5:1)—to look like Him. (For further proof that God, though eternal spirit, has a body with a form and shape resembling that of human beings, send for or download our free booklet Who Is God?)
Ezekiel saw that from the waist up God's appearance was like radiant gold and that from the waist down it was like fire; and brilliant light surrounded Him. Ezekiel later sees the same glorious form in vision in chapter 8. John described the glorified Jesus Christ similarly in Revelation 1:14-16: "His eyes like a flame of fire; His feet were like fine brass, as if refined in a furnace...His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength."
The magnificent brilliance surrounding God and His throne was His awesome, radiating glory, which appeared like a rainbow. John also saw the rainbow but pointed out that its predominant color was emerald green (Revelation 4:3). Ezekiel makes no such note. Perhaps it pulsed with various hues. In any event, the scene was spectacular—and humbling. Ezekiel fell facedown in reverence and awe, and the great God of the universe began to address him. God, as our next reading reveals, was here to call and commission Ezekiel the priest as His prophet.