Main Idea: Even in discipline God does not abandon His people but sustains them for the sake of His glory.
Prior to my being asked to write a commentary on Ezekiel, I honestly had not spent a lot of time in this book. Also prior to Platt, Akin, and Merida’s asking me to write a commentary on Ezekiel, I considered these men my friends. But I digress. As I prepared to lead the people I have the privilege of pastoring through a sermon series on Ezekiel, I found that three of my favorite pastors had neither recorded nor published any sermons on Ezekiel and a fourth pastor has only five sermons from Ezekiel on his church website. I won’t reveal their names so as not to incriminate them for avoiding such a great text. I learned that rabbis had discouraged their students from teaching through Ezekiel before the age of 30, but my suspicion is they were scared God might ask them to do some of the things He asked Ezekiel to do. Imagine if you were Ezekiel’s neighbor! Despite the lack of preaching frequency in Ezekiel, this book has much to say to contemporary audiences about God’s glory, God’s discipline, God’s sovereignty, God’s judgment, God’s mercy, God’s faithfulness, and God’s restoration. The value of preaching through Ezekiel can even be seen from its opening chapter.
Have you ever felt like your ability to sin is greater than God’s ability to save? Have you ever felt like you have overextended your sin limit on God’s daily mercies? Have you ever felt like “I’ve done it now” and your sin is going to cause God to finally say, “I’m done with you! I quit”? Or perhaps you have felt like God has abandoned you in your sin and left you alone to experience the full consequences of your rebellion. If you have ever had any or all of these feelings, then Ezekiel is the word from the Lord you need to hear.
God will not tolerate the sin of His people, but it is also true that He will not abandon them. The gospel reminds us why: God will not leave us because He left His Son; God will not abandon us because He abandoned His Son; God will not forsake us because He forsook His Son; and God will not condemn us because He condemned His Son. Even in the midst of the worst consequences due to our sin, God still offers a word of hope and restoration. The ultimate fulfillment may never occur in this life, but it will occur. The way God chose to remind His people in Ezekiel’s day that He would not forsake them was to give them a magnificent vision of Himself.
The book opens with Ezekiel and other Israelites living as exiles in Babylon. Daniel and those with him were most likely deported to Babylon in 605 BC, while Ezekiel was most likely exiled in 597 BC (House and Mitchell, Survey, 220). We do not know the exact city Ezekiel lived in while in Babylon, but some see Tel-Abib as a possibility. We are informed in the opening verses that Ezekiel and the others have been in exile for five years. On this particular day, Ezekiel is by the Chebar canal.
He begins by letting us know that in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, he was among the exiles by the Chebar canal and the heavens were opened and he saw visions of God. The date appears permanently etched in Ezekiel’s memory. For many of us, it might be similar to asking, “Where were you when the Challenger shuttle exploded?” or “Where were you when the towers fell in New York?” For me August stands out because this is the day my parents separated and a few years later it was the same date on which one of my good friends was drowned. We all have dates and experiences that are seared into our memories. In Ezekiel’s case there is no doubt why he remembered so many details surrounding the vision he was given. God was going to reveal Himself in a way Ezekiel could have never imagined in his wildest dreams.
What about you? Can you remember a day when God spoke to you when you were least expecting it? Perhaps you were not even speaking to Him, but He captured your attention. Ezekiel is a reminder that God can do extraordinary things on what seems to be ordinary days. The day of the first vision had such an impact on Ezekiel that he never forgot it but could pinpoint specifically when it occurred and where he was. Where he was is a good question. Why was he in Babylon?
God’s people were in Babylon because God was disciplining them for their sin. None were innocent and nothing was arbitrary. From 2 Kings 24 we learn that God used Nebuchadnezzar to come against and conquer His people because of the rebellion and all the evil their leaders had done in His sight (2 Kgs 24:9). God is holy. He reigns for His glory and our good. All of our sin is a rejection of His reign and an assertion of our own. The length of the exile would be 70 years. Many of those exiled would die in Babylon, and others would be born there. Imagine a father having to explain to his son why he was born in Babylon instead of Judah. Always remember: it may be my sin, but it is always our consequences. Sin always has a cost. For God’s people exile would be a heavy price to pay.
If you want to know how the Israelites were feeling during this exile, then all you have to do is read Psalm 137. In this psalm we learn that God’s people wept when they remembered Zion and they hung up their musical instruments because they didn’t feel like singing anymore. They were separated from the temple and its sacrificial system. But more importantly, they were cut off from God’s presence—at least, that is what they thought. If God was in the temple and the temple was in Jerusalem, then how could they meet with Him? For Israel it was a period of deep mourning. Whether their mourning was from proper or improper motives remains to be seen. What about us? When God disciplines us, do we mourn because we’ve been caught or because we have grieved Him? All of God’s discipline is grace to us.
Amazingly, God does not abandon the children He disciplines but instead sustains and sanctifies them through it. Jeremiah 24 is a record of God’s purpose for the Babylonian exile. Listen to what He says about those He sent away to the land of the Chaldeans:
I will keep My eyes on them for their good and will return them to this land. I will build them up and not demolish them; I will plant them and not uproot them. I will give them a heart to know Me, that I am Yahweh. They will be My people, and I will be their God because they will return to Me with all their heart. (vv. 6-7)
Did you see it? His aim in the discipline is the heart of His people. He will give them a heart that is wholly His and that knows He is the Lord. The point of Israel’s knowing that God is Yahweh is emphasized more than 60 times in Ezekiel. This will occur through the discipline and not around it.
God disciplines because He loves us and wants to produce righteousness in us and through us (see Heb 12:3-11). God’s discipline is always in the right amount and has as its aim our repentance and not just our remorse. If we were honest, short discipline and minimal repentance would often be our preference. Our focus in discipline is often restoration instead of removing what led to the discipline. We often think to ourselves, “How quickly can I get out of this?” instead of, “How quickly can I deal with what brought me to this place?” As will be revealed through the book of Ezekiel, Israel’s hope of restoration would not be because of any self-merit but because of God’s mercy. All Israel and the rest of us deserved was judgment.
We do not have a lot of details about the one God would choose to be His mouthpiece, but we do know a few facts. Ezekiel was a priest. Some believe he was most likely 30 years old. We also know Ezekiel did not go searching for God but God came to him. Mark Dever points out,
God takes the initiative. He is the one who comes to us. . . . Ezekiel didn’t open the heavens and go to God. . . . Like Moses and the burning bush. Like Isaiah in the temple. Like Paul on the road to Damascus. So with Ezekiel. None of these men were out looking for God or trying to initiate contact with Him. This God takes the initiative. He comes to us. (Dever, Message, 641)
The same initiative is seen in the incarnation. God seeks His lost sheep.
Though Ezekiel was a priest, God had a new occupation for him: prophet. Most likely Ezekiel had been looking forward to serving in the temple and having a long and fruitful ministry as a priest. God, however, had different plans for him. No temple. No priestly service. No problem. God wanted Ezekiel to serve as His mouthpiece to those in exile. What about us? Are our lives wide open to His call? Are we those who say, “Whatever You want, Lord!” If we are not, then our lack of trust and obedience is to our own detriment. Ezekiel the prophet in Babylon is shown a vision of God that Ezekiel the priest may have never seen in Jerusalem.
God didn’t just have something to show Ezekiel, but He had something to say. The word of the Lord came to Ezekiel. As a matter of fact, the word of the Lord would come to Ezekiel a lot—the phrase is recorded over 49 times in the book. In the initial vision Ezekiel hears the voice of the Lord twice (vv. 25,28). Stuart contends,
The purpose was not simply to dazzle Ezekiel, but to point to a message. God is on the move, He is allowing Himself to be seen, He is appearing even in what people thought was a godforsaken place. What an enduring message of hope! How important it is for us to remember that God is never confined, never limited, never distracted, never disinterested in His people. (Stuart, Ezekiel, 28–29)
Ezekiel would never lack God’s message for God’s people. Yahweh knew exactly what His people needed to hear.
As Ezekiel receives the vision, the Lord’s hand was on His prophet. This is not a sign of oppression but of empowerment. In the remainder of the book, Ezekiel will refer to the Lord’s hand as many as four more times. As a matter of fact, his name bears testimony to this thought of empowerment, for Ezekiel means, “God strengthens” (Taylor, Ezekiel, 68). Ezekiel would have God’s sayings and His strength. All of the resources Ezekiel needed for his new ministry, God provided.
Though it does not appear that God spoke to His people during the first five years of their exile, His silence did not mean His absence. The vision given to Ezekiel will confirm not only that God is not limited to the temple in Jerusalem but also that He will in fact be with and sustain His people in exile. So what exactly does Ezekiel see and hear? He sees “an impressive picture of God’s giant, fiery, air chariot driven by the King of kings himself, which had touched down right there at the obscure town of Tel-Abib” (Stuart, Ezekiel, 31).
Ezekiel receives the vision so God’s people will know He is Yahweh. One would think they already knew this, but if they did, they have not been acting like it. In Ezekiel every bit of judgment and every ray of hope have the purpose of reintroducing God to His people (Dever, Message, 649). Seeing God clearly allows us to see everything else rightly, including ourselves. Thomas notes, “God’s aim is not to constrain man’s submission by force, but to ravish our affections with irresistible displays of the treasure of His glory. When God is our treasure, submission is our pleasure” (Thomas, God Strengthens, 30). Obedience driven by delight is far better than obedience driven by duty alone.
What about us? Is our view of God the same as His? Can the people in our worship services see Him rightly in His Word? Are our pulpits declaring His greatness? Tony Evans does not think so. He contends,
The God most of us worship is too small. The God of most Christians seems anemic, weak, and limited. He does not have the capacity to make a difference, to turn things around. The God most of us serve resembles more the flickering of a candle than the burning of the noonday sun. (Evans, Awesome, 93)
In Ezekiel Yahweh will make Himself known so that Israel and the nations will know exactly who He is.
First, from Ezekiel’s vision we can see that God is holy and rightly judges sin. God will not ignore sin forever. He will see that every sin is punished. Those who do not flee to Christ will be forced to bear the punishment for all of their sin. In this vision we can see His holiness in the great cloud. Ezekiel sees a whirlwind coming from the north, a great cloud with fire flashing back and forth and brilliant light all around it. Based on its direction of origin, Ezekiel knows this is not a cloud of rescue but of reckoning. Trouble generally comes from the north, as evidenced by Gog in the distant future (38:15). In Ezekiel 1, however, Gog is not the approaching one Israel needs to fear; God is! He is not coming to deal with the Chaldeans primarily but with His own people.
God’s holiness is also seen in the fire. The cloud Ezekiel is shown has fire flashing back and forth, and in the center of the fire is a gleam like amber. The prophet describes the one sitting on the throne high above having from his waist upward what looked like fire enclosing it all around and from His waist downward what looked like fire. A brilliant light surrounds Him as well. Scripture repeatedly describes God as a consuming fire (Exod 19; Heb 12; Rev 1), which is never considered good news for sinners. Paul informs the Thessalonians that Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire (2 Thess 1:7-9).
God’s holiness is seen by the presence of the four living creatures as well. Ezekiel says the form of the living creatures was like the appearance of burning coals of fire and torches. Fire was moving back and forth between the living creatures; it was bright, with lightning coming out of it. The creatures were darting back and forth like flashes of lightning. The living creatures are cherubim, and every time they are mentioned in Scripture they are guardians of God’s holiness (Gen 3:24; Exod 25:18-20; 26:1; 36:8; Rev 4:6-9) (MacArthur, “Sacrifice”). From the beginning of the vision, Ezekiel is shown God’s holiness, which will be a major emphasis throughout the book.
Second, from Ezekiel’s vision we are informed that God knows everything and is everywhere. The wheels and the wheel within a wheel demonstrate God’s ability to go anywhere. He can even do so without pivoting or turning. With this vision God is invading Babylon and the realm of their god, Marduk. Yahweh needs no one’s permission to do so, particularly not the approval of a man-made god. He is not limited to the temple. God can be anywhere He wants to be but especially wherever His people are. The rims that were full of eyes show He sees and knows everything. God’s people may no longer be in Judah, but He can still see them just as clearly.
Third, from Ezekiel’s vision we are shown that God is sovereign and unique. Above the great fire was an expanse, and above the expanse was the shape of a throne, and there was a form with the appearance of a human on the throne high above. God does not reign over just a little territory in the Middle East but over the entire universe. In this vision
the absolute distinction between Yahweh and all of creation is clearly recognized. . . . Yahweh sits alone on His throne, separated from all inferior creatures. . . . God is alone above the platform, removed from all creatures, and stunning in His radiance. There is none other beside(s) Him. (Block, Ezekiel 1–24, 107–8)
Fourth, from Ezekiel’s vision we see that God is glorious and merciful. Because Ezekiel lacks the vocabulary to describe all he is shown, he uses the terms “like,” “the appearance of,” and “what seemed to be.” He says, “This was the appearance of the form of the Lord’s glory.” Block notes,
Unlike the gods of the nations depicted on ancient seals and carvings, the glory of Yahweh defies human description, verbally or visually. And unlike the images of the heathen, which require constant attention and polishing, Yahweh’s radiance emanates from His very being. (Ezekiel 1–24, 106)
God is indeed glorious, but He is also merciful. The Israelites have not, nor have we, done anything deserving of mercy. But in the final verse of the vision, Ezekiel describes the brilliant light that is around the One on the throne like that of a rainbow in a cloud on a rainy day. Many years later John would see a similar vision of One seated on a throne with the appearance of a rainbow all around (Rev 4:3). In thinking back to the days of Noah, the rainbow was meant to remind us not just that God would no longer cover the earth with water but that even in wrath God is merciful. Despite all the looming clouds of judgment, the beams of the bow allowed for rays of hope.
The least surprising component of the entire vision is Ezekiel’s reaction. Ezekiel says, when I saw it, I fell facedown. No doubt! Isaiah, Peter, James, John, and Paul all had similar reactions when they were allowed to see just a glimmer of the Lord’s glory. The question is not why so many in the Bible fell on the ground in the presence of the Lord but why there seems to be so little of it today. Perhaps people these days are not seeing the Lord’s glory in the sermons they hear or the services they attend. Of all the feelings Ezekiel had in the first chapter, it’s clear one of them is not the “Jesus is my homeboy” mentality. Dever notes Ezekiel’s
new knowledge of God did not make him feel more casual about God at all. He was awed by this vision of God. . . . The casual happiness we often regard as the height of spiritual intimacy with God is never pictured in the Bible. Every vision of God in the Bible is awesome and inspires reverence. (Dever, Message, 640)
David once told God, “So I gaze on You in the sanctuary to see Your strength and Your glory” (Ps 63:2). David’s vision of God would even sustain him in the wilderness. May our people see such a vision as well.
What can we glean from this text? I have a few suggestions. First, if we are scared that God will ultimately abandon us in our sin, Ezekiel 1 should provide a measure of hope. Second, if we are in the middle of God’s discipline, rejoice that He will use it to set us free from our selfishness and to conform us further to the image of Christ. Third, through Ezekiel, God will speak clearly to the exiles, but through Christ, God speaks most clearly to us. Fourth, we may never see God’s fiery chariot roaming the landscape, but in Christ we have seen His glory (John 1:14). Fifth, we are not just to see His glory but to display it (2 Cor 3:7-18). Tim Chester asks two important questions: What impression of God would someone pick up from watching the way we live out our Christian faith? Would that impression be anything like Ezekiel’s vision (Chester, God of Glory, 10)? Sixth, like Israel, we are in exile too (1 Pet 2:11; Heb 13:14), but we are not without a home or hope (Duguid, Ezekiel, 53). Seventh, there is much to be thankful for in Ezekiel 1. We can thank God that He is still the same God that Ezekiel saw in His vision (Chester, God of Glory, 11). We can thank God that despite the rebellion of humanity and the weakness of His people, God has preserved, and always will preserve, His people and His gospel (ibid.). We can thank God that the worst form of discipline for His people was not in Chaldea but at Calvary, and He took it upon Himself.