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.

Ezekiel 1

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.

We know what it means to be two-faced. But the creatures in the passage before us are four-faced beings, unlike anything we've seen on earth. This shouldn't be surprising for Paul tells us God has prepared things that eyes have never seen (1 Corinthians 2:9). We are unable to comprehend even the little tidbits we know of heaven. In this, we're like unborn babies. You see, if it wasn't for the contractions and the birthing process, a baby would just as soon stay inside his mommy forever where it's comfortable and safe. But once a baby is born, his eyes open to a whole new world of sights and sounds he had no idea even existed. That's exactly what's going to happen when we die. Death is simply a new birth—shooting us through the canal on into heaven.

Eight hundred years after Ezekiel described them, John saw the same living creatures (Revelation 4; 5). What do these beings speak of? The rabbis said they are a representation of all of God's creation. The greatest creation, man, is represented by the face of a man. The greatest wild animal is represented by the face of a lion. The greatest domesticated creature is represented by the face of an ox. The greatest flying creature is represented by the face of an eagle. Thus, all of creation, represented in these four living creatures, bows down, submitted to their Creator.

The rabbis also tell us that these four images were important in the travels of Israel through the wilderness. You see, the people of Israel were divided into four groups—three tribes in each group. When they set up camp, they would camp to the north, south, east, and west of the tabernacle in groups of three. The group that led the eastern side was Judah. The emblem of Judah was a lion. To the south was Ephraim. The emblem of Ephraim was the face of a man. To the north was Dan, represented by an eagle. To the west was Ruben, represented by an ox.

But these creatures serve a much more practical purpose for us, for in them we see how we should serve and worship God on earth even as they do in heaven.

The Lion

The lion speaks of authority. If we are to be effective in life, there comes a time when, like the lion, we need to roar with authority. I think of Joshua. "As for me and my house," he roared, "we will serve the Lord" (Joshua 24:15). I like that! He took a stand, made a statement, and went on record. Husband, father, wife, mother, there comes a time for you to make a statement of authority, saying, "As a family, we will serve the Lord."

As the enemies of Judah surrounded Jerusalem, King Joash went to Elisha for counsel. "Open the window," Elisha said. "Take your bow and this arrow and shoot it out the window." Joash obeyed Elisha's instruction and the arrow shot through the air. Elisha identified it as a picture of the Lord's deliverance over Syria. Then Elisha instructed Joash to take the remaining arrows in his hand and strike them against the floor. Again, Joash obeyed, but apparently it was reluctantly for Elisha said that because he only struck the arrows half-heartedly, his victory over the enemy would be incomplete (2 Kings 14).

In prayer, in devotion, in service we need to move with boldness—not just tapping the arrows lightly, but with effectiveness, fervency, and lion-like authority as we approach our Father in the name of Jesus for the kingdom and causes of our Lord. Don't half-heartedly praise or worship. Rather, hear the word of Elisha. Strike the arrows with authority, enthusiasm, and commitment in your praise, prayer, worship, and devotion.

The Ox

The ox speaks of humility. In the days of Jesus, a Roman coin depicted an ox surrounded by the inscription, "For service or sacrifice." There come times in our service to the Lord when we have to say, "Regardless of whether I am rewarded, applauded, or even acknowledged, I'm going to serve You day by day."

"It is required of servants," Paul would write, "that they be found faithful" (1 Corinthians 4:2). Even more than being men and women of faith, may God help us to be faithful men and women.

You'll always know if you're becoming ox-like, if you're becoming a true servant, by how you react when people treat you like one. When you're plowing away day after day, pouring out your heart, giving your best without thanks acknowledgement or appreciation, how do you react? Servants are not honored or acknowledged. They serve anonymously, behind the scenes, out of sight. We need to have the kind of mentality that says, "When others don't acknowledge me or even misunderstand me, Lord, help me to truly be an ox and continue on."

The Eagle

Eagles soar higher than any living creature. The secret of their soaring is they know how to catch the thermal wind currents. Hang gliders employ these currents, as well. Neither hang gliders nor eagles can control the thermal winds—but they can take advantage of them. Spiritually, we're to do the same. When the Lord wakes us at three in the morning and asks us to spend time looking into His Word or at three in the afternoon when He asks us to go for a walk with Him, we have a choice to make. We can say, "Lord, I hear Your voice. I feel the movement, the wind, the breeze of Your Spirit and I'm going to spread my wings and catch it," or we can say, "Lord, I hear You calling me. But the game's on right now. I'll be there as soon as it's over." If we choose the latter, we miss the moment.

In John 3, Jesus said the Holy Spirit is like the wind. No man knows from whence it comes or where it goes. We can't control the wind. When it comes, we can only take advantage of it or miss out on it. Too often I'm not like the eagle, but rather like the hummingbird, flapping my wings thousands of times per minute, trying to make something happen in my own energy. Hummingbird-like activity is often indicative of a failure to understand the principle of the thermal—just quietly but immediately obeying when the Lord calls you to get away with Him, be it for a ten-minute break or a ten-day retreat.

The Man

I must not only be one who roars with authority, serves with humility, and soars with spirituality, but I must always remember my humanity. We are people. We have frailties. The Lord does not expect you to stand at attention at all times. A soldier who is constantly at attention, never relaxing, never resting, will be too fatigued to be very effective in the combat he's called to do. If a Christian is always uptight, never realizing his own humanity, he will find himself burning out. We've all been around people with whom we must speak very carefully because they're always on the edge of exploding. So often this is because they have not recognized their humanity and their need to slow down.

How freeing it is to recognize the need for rest, refreshment, and recreation. How freeing it is to realize we're not the answer to everyone's problems. Rather, we are simply to point people to Jesus.

How can we do these things practically? There is only one way: Jesus. The early church fathers taught that these four faces represent the four Gospels. The lion speaks of Matthew, who portrays Jesus as King of the Jews. The ox speaks of Mark, who shows Jesus as a servant. Luke speaks of Jesus in His humanity as He is repeatedly referred to as the Son of Man. John speaks of Jesus in His divinity, where He is referred to as the Son of God.

To be sure, Jesus moved with authority. He overturned the tables and drove out a host of moneychangers from the temple. But He also served with humility as He washed the feet of His disciples. We see Him in His humanity as He would repeatedly call His disciples to a quiet place for rest. And we see His deity, for, just as the eagle can look at the glory of the sun and not be burned, Jesus could not only look at God, but was Himself God.

Authority, humility, humanity, spirituality—the only way we can incorporate these essential traits is through Christ in us, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27). You can take all the self-help courses you want, go to all the seminars you can afford, but the goals they present will only frustrate you until you realize you must turn your life over to the One who is perfect and let Him do His work in and through you.

Daily, immediately obey the Lord as He lives His life through you and you'll be blown away by how balanced and beautiful your life will be because of Christ Jesus in you.