The vision of Yaweh in chapter one is indeed a bizarre and confusing picture to be sure. There are two important points to keep in mind when reading this passage.
- This is not an attempt to literally describe what God actually looks like. This vision is a metaphor designed to describe certain aspects of God’s nature to Ezekiel in ways that Ezekiel could understand. God is an infinite Spirit that has no concrete boundaries, therefore any ‘picture’ of God in the Bible is metaphor, simile, and anthropomorphism intended to relate a theological truth more than a physical reality.
- The imagery in the vision is bizzarre to us because we are 21st century Americans. To a 6th century B.C. Palestinian who had lived his entire life under the oppressive forces of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires, this imagery was commonplace. We will explain this in what follows.
There are four major parts of the vision that need explaining.
- The Beasts.
- The Wheels
- The Throne
- The Spirit
The Beasts. In ancient Mesopotamian religion it was believed that there were large creatures, called cherubim, that stood on the earth and held up the heavens – the place where the gods live. These creatures served and protected the gods. Creatures like this would have been carved in the temples and the throne rooms all over Babylon. By seeing these creatures, Ezekiel was clued into the fact that he was coming into the presence of diety. The creatures were set in a square configuration, each in a corner, facing away from each other. This configuration represented the four corners of the earth. With this, the vision was telling Ezekiel that the deity above the cherubim was the God who reigned over every living creature on earth.
The Wheels. The wheels are what make this theophany (vision of God) unique. There are four sets of wheels, each set being two wheels that intersect at 90 degree angles. The point of this vision is that the four creatures (and ultimately God Himself) is not stationary, but has the freedom to move in any and every direction, at any time. The beasts can see in all directions (remember, they have four faces, one on each side) and the wheels face in all four directions. This is a radical concept for the ancient world because the common pagan belief was that the beasts were stationary and that gods were fixed to a locality. Each city had its local diety and they were limited in scope. This vision of Yaweh demonstrated to Ezekiel that God was not limited to Jerusalem but was able to go anywhere on Earth that He desired. This would take on special significance when, in chapter 10, the glory of the Lord departs from the Temple.
The Throne. Above the four beasts there was a throne that was seated on a crystal platform.
“Being crystal, this great platform had a transparent quality, so that Ezekiel could see through it to what was higher still – what looked like a throne. In contrast to the gleaming whiteness of the platform, the throne was a brilliant, rich blue, as though constructed from one of the most precious stones of the ancient world, lapis lazuli. And on the throne, with all the added brilliance of contrasting fiery amber in the centre and all the colours of the rainbow around the radiant edges, was a figure like that of a man. Eziekiel is careful to qualify all his descriptions here with repeated use of ‘appearance of’, ‘something like’….Here, in anthropomorphic reversal, God appears in the likeness of a human being, albeit in glowing, fiery splendour that anticipates the transfiguration of the incarnate Son of God himself and certainly provided the imagery for John’s great vision of the heavenly throne in Revelation 4.
Only now, it seems, does Ezekiel almost blindingly realize what he is looking at. This is no Babylonian diety attended by its guardian sphinxes. This is none other than Yahweh himself, very much alive and well and still on the throne. Yehweh is here in Babylon! The shock of the realization drains the last dregs of adrenalin from Ezekiel’s trembling body and he collapses face down, unable to look any longer….nothing will ever be more significant for Ezekiel than this encounter with the living God; his whole life and message will be more uncompromisingly God-centred than any other prophet’s. Yet all he can bring himself to say at this point is: This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.”(Wright, Christopher. Ezekiel. The Bible Speaks Today. P. 51)
The Spirit. The final piece of the vision is that the beasts – wings and all — as well as the wheels are covered with eyes. This symbolizes the all-seeing presence of God as well as the Spirit of God. Ezekiel recognized that it was the Spirit of God that moved the entire vision. It is important for the understanding of the continuity of the entire Bible to be aware of how important Ezekiel understood the place of the Spirit of God in His theology. The Spirit is that which gives life, which motivates, which animates, which directs, fills, and empowers. This is the same Spirit that came upon all the great leaders of Israel, the Spirit that descended upon Jesus at His baptism, the Spirit that was poured out on the disciples at Pentecost, and the Spirit that fills us when we put our faith in Jesus. The Holy Spirit is the thread that binds it all together.
What about Satan?
Read Ezekiel 28:11-19. This will be a short statement, but one that should be stated for clarification. Many people have quoted this passage as a reference to the history of Satan. It is important to note that nowhere in the context of Ezekiel was this passage ever intended to have anything to do with Satan. Ezekiel was speaking to the king of Tyre and was using a culturally common expression of comparing his greatness to that of Adam and Eve. In the same way Adam and Eve fell because of pride, so did the king of Tyre fall.
Remember, always, always, always, read scripture in it’s context. Even if you’ve heard great messages about a particular passage that seem to make a lot of sense, always make sure to check them against the context. Hopefully, through the reading of Ezekiel, you can see that chapter 28 is dealing with nothing more than a human being who got too big for his britches.