Background to Ezekiel
If Isaiah was the prophet who declared the salvation of God and Jeremiah was the prophet who declared the judgment of God, Ezekiel was the prophet who declared the mystery and majesty of God. We are given the setting of the book that bears his name in verses 1 and 2, where Ezekiel identifies himself as a captive in Babylon.
In the year 605 b.c., the Babylonians came from the north to besiege Jerusalem. They didn't destroy the city at that time, but they did carry away a number of young men who were considered to be the cream of the crop—including a young man named Daniel, along with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego—back to Babylon. In doing this, Nebuchadnezzar was serving notice to Jerusalem that she had better keep in line.
Jerusalem, however, didn't get the message. In 597 b.c., the Jews showed signs of rebellion. So Nebuchadnezzar came down a second time. This time, he took 10,000 people to Babylon, one of whom was a young priest in training named Ezekiel. The captives were not treated cruelly or brutally because, unlike the Assyrians, the Babylonian style was not to destroy them but to impress them. Babylon was surrounded by walls approximately thirty-five stories tall and eighty-seven feet wide with a hundred towers. Inside the city were numerous temples to the Babylonian god, Marduk. Throughout the city, there were over three hundred hanging gardens considered to be one of the wonders of the ancient world. With flowering plants imported from all over the world, their beauty was unparalleled. In addition, Babylonian garments were highly treasured throughout the known world. So when the Babylonians brought the Jews into the city, they didn't destroy them with brutality. Instead, they seduced them with carnality. And the Jews grew so comfortable in Babylon that, when they were allowed to go home seventy years later, only a handful chose to leave.
Ezekiel ministered to people who were carried into Babylon, who, at that time, still had hard hearts toward the Lord. Meanwhile, Jerusalem still showed signs of rebellion. So in 586 b.c., Nebuchadnezzar came down a third time and this time destroyed the city, burned the temple, and wiped out the populace. We saw that happen in the Book of Jeremiah and felt the heartbeat of the Lord in the Book of Lamentations. Here, in Ezekiel, we'll be with the Jews in captivity for seventy long years, seven hundred miles from Jerusalem, their home.
|1:1-2||Now it came to pass in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, in the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the river of Chebar, that the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. In the fifth day of the month, which was the fifth year of king Jehoiachin's captivity,|
It was as he sat by the river Chebar, a captive away from home, no doubt feeling lonely and isolated, that the heavens opened to Ezekiel. Therefore, if you feel isolated, cut off from family or separated from friends, as though something is going on that is uncomfortable or uncertain, take hope. Ezekiel had this glorious vision of the reality of God when he was in a place of isolation.
The Bible speaks of the opening of the heavens on a number of occasions. In Matthew 3:16, it was when Jesus was baptized—a picture of death, burial, and resurrection—that the heavens were opened. When we get to the place where we say, "Lord, I'm dying to self and living for You," the heavens will be opened. We'll have visions, new insights, new understanding.
The heavens were opened again in Acts 6. There we see Stephen being stoned to death, martyred for his belief in Jesus. As the rocks were flying, he looked up and saw Jesus standing, ready to receive Him. When you go through persecution, heaven becomes more real.
In Acts 10, Peter was on the rooftop, praying, when suddenly the heavens were opened and he had a vision of a sheet descending from heaven bearing food forbidden to Jews. It was then that the Lord began to deal with him, saying, "You're not under the Law any longer. I'm doing something new." When we seek the Lord and pray with intensity, we'll hear the Lord's voice to a greater degree.
Finally, in Malachi 3, we are told that when we give our tithes to the Lord, He opens the heavens and pours out blessing upon us. When you give to the Lord, when you seek the Lord, when you take a stand for the Lord, when you die to self and live for the Lord, the heavens will be opened to you. The problem is, we don't sit by a river, we float down it. We don't go up to the mountain, we ski down it. When we're going through hard times, we think we've got to get away for recreation. But how much better it would be to get away for meditation and contemplation. Ezekiel was doing just that—and what a vision he had.
|1:3||The word of the Lord came expressly unto Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar; and the hand of the Lord was there upon him.|
If Ezekiel was thirty years old when this vision began and it was in the fifth year of the captivity of Jehoiachin, he was carried away when he was twenty-five. Being the son of a priest, he would have been training for the priesthood. Priests began training when they were twenty and began their ministry at the age of thirty, even as Jesus began His ministry at thirty. Instead of an ordination, however, Ezekiel is about to receive incredible revelation.
|1:4-5||And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire. Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man.|
These four living creatures are unlike anything we've ever seen. John saw the same creatures and recorded his vision in Revelation 4 and 5. They had the appearance of a man, and therefore provide a model of ministry. Couldn't God have used something more effective than men to accomplish His work? Indeed! But by using people like you and me, those observing can only say, "Is God ever gracious! Look how kind He is to use people like them!"
|1:6-7a||And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings. And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf's foot...|
"Straight feet" speak of stability. If we are going to be used by the Lord, we can't allow ourselves the "luxury" of impulsive excursions. The Bible doesn't give us excuses to go through emotional ups and downs.
|1:7b||...and they sparkled like the colour of burnished brass.|
This speaks of purity. There's no other way to be purified than through fiery problems and difficulties. Our faith is more precious than gold purified by fire, Peter tells us (1 Peter 1:7). How did the smelter know when the gold was truly pure? When he could look into the molten gold and see the reflection of his own face, he would know the gold was pure. So too, the Lord takes us through hot times and fiery trials. It's a long process but, if we hang in there, we'll begin to see something of Jesus reflected in us.
|1:8a||And they had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides...|
The four creatures had wings, but also hands because hands are necessary to reach out practically.
|1:8b-9a||...and they four had their faces and their wings. Their wings were joined one to another...|
How important it is if we're going to serve God to be linked together because with unity comes accountability. We'd see fewer problems in the church today if we had fewer "Lone Rangers" unaccountable to anyone else.
|1:9b-10||...they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward. As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.|
The head speaks primarily of Jesus Christ.
|1:11a||Thus were their faces: and their wings were stretched upward...|
Here we see the priority of the four creatures—seeking first the kingdom and heavenly matters.
|1:11b||...two wings of every one were joined one to another, and two covered their bodies.|
Here we see the humility of the four creatures. We can't be effective if we're pompous, proud, and self-sufficient. These living creatures covered themselves in humility.
|1:12a||And they went every one straight forward...|
This speaks of integrity. The four creatures moved straight forward—not meandering, not deviating, but straight ahead.
|1:12b||...whither the spirit was to go, they went; and they turned not when they went.|
Here we see availability. The four creatures went wherever the Spirit led. In Acts 8, we read of a great revival that took place in Samaria through the ministry of Philip. Suddenly, however, the Spirit picked Philip up and plopped him in the desert so he could talk to one man. That doesn't make sense according to church growth manuals. You don't leave a revival to go talk to one guy. But the Spirit knew exactly what He was doing, for from that one man, all of northern Africa was reached with the gospel.
|1:13||As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire and like the appearance of lamps: it went up and down among the living creatures; and the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning.|
This speaks of intensity. The living creatures weren't just flickering. They were burning, ignited, on fire. One evangelist of old was asked how he attracted so many people to come and hear him preach. "It's very simple," he answered. "I pray in my closet until I'm ignited. And then I come out and people come to see me burn."
|1:14||And the living creatures ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning.|
Here, we see activity. The living creatures moved like lightning. It has been said that God never uses a lazy man. If you want to be used by the Lord, you must be wholehearted, energetic, and enthusiastic in your service for Him. You must be ready to lay aside anything that slows you down (Hebrews 12:1).
|1:15-17||Now as I beheld the living creatures, behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures, with his four faces. The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto the colour of a beryl: and they four had one likeness: and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel. When they went, they went upon their four sides: and they turned not when they went.|
Ezekiel sees creatures unlike any he's ever seen or heard about. And right next to them are wheels in the middle of a wheel—like gyroscopes. Due to their ability to travel in any direction, they speak of the omnipresence of God.
|1:18a||As for their rings, they were so high that they were dreadful...|
The fact that they were "dreadful or awesome" speaks of the omnipotence of God.
|1:18b||...and their rings were full of eyes round about them four.|
Finally, covered with eyes, the wheels speak of the omniscience of God. Here, Ezekiel is seeing things he can hardly describe. But even though difficult, he is able to convey some aspect of the omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience of God.
|1:19-21||And when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them: and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up. Whithersoever the spirit was to go, they went, thither was their spirit to go; and the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels. When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood; and when those were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.|
The living creatures were linked to, and evidently transported to some degree by the wheels. The same spirit in the living creatures was also in the wheels. This says something glorious to us. That is, if we are servants of the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God, He is committed to and linked with us. Christ in you, Paul says, is the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27).
If we only understood the reality of the presence and power of the Lord in our lives, we would not fear problems, get blown away by Satan, or be paralyzed in inactivity. We would say, "The wheel in the middle of the wheel is with me. And He's awesome."
|1:22||And the likeness of the firmament upon the heads of the living creature was as the colour of the terrible crystal, stretched forth over their heads above.|
There is a firmament above the heads of the four creatures that is "terrible," or indescribably beautiful.
|1:23-24||And under the firmament were their wings straight, the one toward the other: every one had two, which covered on this side, and every one had two, which covered on that side, their bodies. And when they went, I heard the noise of their wings, like the noise of great waters, as the voice of the Almighty, the voice of speech, as the noise of an host: when they stood, they let down their wings.|
When the four creatures took flight, it must have sounded like a 747 jet taking off.
|1:25||And there was a voice from the firmament that was over their heads, when they stood, and had let down their wings.|
It was when the living creatures stopped and let down their wings that they heard a voice from the firmament over them.
Yes, the Lord wants us active and energetic. No, we must not be lazy. But neither must we be so busy flying around that we never hear the voice of heaven. We can get so busy in ministry doing good things and helping people, that we never really hear the voice of the Lord saying, "Come apart into a desert place for awhile" (Mark 6:31).
|1:26||And above the firmament that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone: and upon the likeness of the throne was the likeness as the appearance of a man above upon it.|
A Man is on the throne. He is, of course, the Son of Man, Jesus Christ.
|1:27||And I saw as the colour of amber, as the appearance of fire round about within it, from the appearance of his loins even upward, and from the appearance of his loins even downward, I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and it had brightness round about.|
He who is the Light of the world is as bright as fire (John 8:12).
|1:28a||As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord....|
Ezekiel saw not only the fiery glow of God's glory but also the bow of His grace (Genesis 9:16). Here, the Lord on the throne is as bright as fire but with a gracious bow emanating from Him. The glory of God and the grace of God walk hand in hand.
|1:28b||...And when I saw it, I fell upon my face, and I heard a voice of one that spake.|
Seeing these things, Ezekiel fell on his face. So did the apostle John (Revelation 1:17). When you see the greatness of God, it's inevitable that you fall on your face in brokenness and humility.
This chapter is important for two reasons. First, it guards against a loss of transcendence. That is, it serves as a reminder that God is great and awesome, beyond description and understanding, that He is "other." He's not our Buddy or "the Man upstairs." There is a mystery and majesty concerning the God we serve that should cause us to fall on our face. Failure to acknowledge the transcendence of God results in a lack of worship of God. People who have God all figured out theologically, all boxed in doctrinally will not worship because there's no mystery. That's why visions like this are invaluable to us, even though we don't fully understand them.
Secondly, this chapter guards against a loss of imminence. Yes, God is "other"—but He's also here, among us. Here is this awesome mysterious being revealing something of Himself to Ezekiel, dwelling in the midst of these living creatures, making Himself known by coming as a Man, Jesus from Galilee. Loss of imminence results in cold formality. People might worship, but it will be dead ritualism.
Transcendence and imminence are always necessary in the church corporately and in our lives personally. The first time I went to Candlestick Park, I was in third grade. I saw Willie Mays hit the first pitch of the first inning out of the park. From that day on, he was my hero. Then I had the opportunity to meet him at a dinner through a friend's dad. I sat two rows away from him. He was there, present, but he was totally "other." He was very gracious, but I was aware of his transcendence. That's the way it is with our Lord. He rejoices over us with song. He loves to be in our midst. He calls us friends. And yet He is bigger and more "other" than we can ever imagine. Transcendence and imminence—these two factors are, in essence, the reason for Ezekiel 1.