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The first three chapters, describing the circumstances and character of Ezekiel’s call to the prophetic office, form the introduction to the whole book, and the three first verses, giving the time, the person, and the place, are the introduction to this introduction. (Comp. the similar arrangement of Revelation 1:0, which forms the introduction to that book, and of Ezekiel 1:1-26.1.3, which are the introduction to that chapter.)
(1) The thirtieth year.—On this date see Introduction, § 4. It may be added here that the concurrence of the “fifth day of the month” in connection with this epoch, and with that of Jehoiachin’s captivity in Ezekiel 1:2, shows that the years of the two epochs began at the same time.
Among the captives.—i.e., in the midst of the region where they were settled. The vision which follows was seen by Ezekiel only, and was probably vouchsafed to him in solitudes” The captives,” or rather, the captivity, as it is in the original, is the same word as is used of Jehoiachin in the next verse, and yet must be somewhat differently understood in the two cases. Jehoiachin was actually in prison for many years; his people, within certain limits, were free. They were more than exiles, but less than prisoners. (On “the heavens were opened,” comp. Matthew 3:16; Acts 7:56.)
Visions of God.—Not merely great visions, as the Divine name is often added in Scripture to express greatness or intensity (see Genesis 10:9; Psalms 36:6, marg., Psalms 80:10, marg.; Jonah 3:3, marg.; Acts 7:20, marg.), but Divine visions, visions sent from God, as in Ezekiel 8:3; Ezekiel 40:2.
(3) Came expressly.—Or, came certainly, with the fullest proof of reality. In the original there is simply the ordinary form of the repetition of the verb for the sake of emphasis. The prophet mentions his own name only here and in Ezekiel 24:24.
The hand of the Lord was there upon him.—A form of expression to indicate that special power and influence which the Spirit exercised over the prophets at times when they were called to become the means of the Divine communications. (Comp. 1 Kings 18:46, and Ezekiel 3:22; Ezekiel 37:1; see also Daniel 8:18; Daniel 10:10; Revelation 1:17.) It is noticeable that Ezekiel here speaks of himself in the third person, while in Ezekiel 1:1, and always after this, he uses the first person. It had been suggested that this, together with the mention of his own name, may indicate the insertion of these two verses on a revision of his work by the prophet.
In entering upon the vision of the glory of the Lord, which fills the rest of this chapter, it is to be remembered that Ezekiel is struggling to portray that which necessarily exceeds the power of human language; it is not therefore surprising that there should be something of repetition and of obscurity in the detail. All similar descriptions of Divine manifestations are marked more or less strongly by the same characteristics. (See Exodus 24:9-2.24.10; Isaiah 6:1-23.6.4; Daniel 7:9-27.7.10; Revelation 1:12-66.1.20; Revelation 4:2-66.4.6, &c.) It is also to be borne in mind that what the prophet saw was not the eternal Father in His own absolute essence, who dwells in unapproachable light, and whom “no man hath seen, nor can see” (1 Timothy 6:16); and had it been possible that Ezekiel should have been so transported out of the body as to behold this, it would then have been impossible for him to describe it. But what he saw in vision was such manifestation as man could bear, in which God hides His face, and allows to be seen only His uttermost parts (Exodus 33:22-2.33.23). In the description that follows may be recognised a mingling of the symbols of the Divine manifestation at Sinai with the “patterns of heavenly things” in the most holy place of the Temple, the whole modified to suit the present occasion, and possibly somewhat coloured by the now familiar symbolic art of Babylonia.
(4) A whirlwind came out of the north.—The north is seen as the quarter from which the vision proceeded, not because the Babylonians conceived that there was the seat of Divine power (Isaiah 14:13-23.14.14), but because it was common with the prophets to represent the Divine judgments upon Judæa as coming from the north (see Jeremiah 1:14-24.1.15; Jeremiah 4:6; Jeremiah 6:1), and it was from that direction that the Assyrian and the Chaldæan conquerors were accustomed to descend upon the Holy Land. The vision is actually seen in Chaldæa, but it has reference to Jerusalem, and is described as if viewed from that standpoint.
A great cloud.—As in the Divine manifestation on Sinai (Exodus 19:9-2.19.16). The cloud serves at once as the groundwork for all the other details of the manifestation—a place in, and by means of which, all are located, and also as a hiding-place of the Divine majesty, so that all may be seen which human eye can bear, and that which it cannot bear may yet be known to be there, shrouded in the cloud. The transposition of a single letter from the end of one word in the Hebrew to the beginning of the next will change the reading to “a whirlwind out of the north brought on a great cloud.”
A fire infolding itself.—More literally translated in the margin, catching itself. The idea intended to be conveyed is that of flames round and round the cloud, the flashes succeeding one another so rapidly that each seemed to lay hold on the one that had gone before; there were tongues of flame, where each one reached to another. The same word occurs in Exodus 9:24, in connection with “fire,” and is there translated mingled. The vision thus far seems moulded on the natural appearance of a terrific thunderstorm seen at a distance, in which the great black cloud appears illuminated by the unceasing and coalescing flashes of lightning. So, with all its impressive darkness, “there was a brightness about it.”
As the colour of amber.—Colour is, literally, eye. The word rendered “amber” (chasmal) occurs only in this book (here, and Ezekiel 1:27 and Ezekiel 8:2), and is now generally recognised as meaning some form of bright metal, either glowing in its molten state, or as the “fine brass” of Ezekiel 1:7 and Revelation 1:15, burnished and glowing in the light of the “infolding flame.” There is therefore now superadded to the first appearance of the natural phenomenon, a glowing eye or centre to the cloud, shining out even from the midst of the fire.
(5) The likeness of four living creatures next appeared from this centre of the fiery cloud. The word “likeness” is not without significance. The prophet would make it plain that this was a vision, that these were symbolic, not actually existing creatures. Their prominent characteristic is that they were “living.” This word is used over and over again in connection with them (see Ezekiel 1:13-26.1.15; Ezekiel 1:19; Ezekiel 1:21, &c.); and in fact, in Ezekiel and Revelation (Ezekiel 4:6, &c., where it is mis-translated beasts) it occurs nearly thirty times. The same characteristic is further emphasized in Ezekiel 1:14 by the speed, “as of a flash of lightning,” with which they “ran and returned,” by the multiplicity of eyes in the wheels connected with them (Ezekiel 1:18), and by their going instantly “whithersoever the spirit was to go” (Ezekiel 1:20); while in Revelation 4:8 it is said that “they rest not day and night.” Their life is represented as most closely connected with the source of all life, the “living God,” whose throne is seen in the vision (Ezekiel 1:26) as above the heads of these “living creatures,”
Ezekiel does not here say what these living creatures were, but in a subsequent vision, when he saw them again in connection with the Temple, he recognised them as the cherubim (Ezekiel 10:15; Ezekiel 10:20). Cherubim, whether here, or in the Temple overshadowing the mercy-seat, or in the garden of Eden keeping the way of the tree of life, always indicate the immediate presence of the God of holiness. The prophet again mentions these composite symbolic figures in connection with the vision of the Temple in Ezekiel 41:18-26.41.20. The origin of such ideal figures has been variously ascribed to the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Phœnicians, and the Arabs; but this symbolism was, in fact, almost universal throughout the East. Dr. Currey (Speaker’s Com., note on Ezekiel 1:0) points out the striking difference between this symbolism and that of the Greeks. They tried to delineate the Divine attributes with the utmost beauty of form and harmony of detail under some human figure in which those attributes were conspicuous. In consequence, the mind of the worshipper lost sight of the ideal, and became absorbed in the sensuous imagery by which it was represented; while here, by the very strangeness, and sometimes grotesqueness, of the imagery, its purely symbolic character was kept constantly in view. Cherubim are associated in the Old Testament with that tree of life of which man might not partake save through Him who is “the life,” and with that typical holy of holies which man might not enter until the true Holy of Holies was entered once for all by Christ through His own blood (Hebrews 9:8; Hebrews 9:12).
They had the likeness of a man.—With all the strange variety of details to be described immediately, they had yet a general human form, and are to be understood as like man in whatever is not specified.
(6) Four faces.—The cherubim, being merely symbolical figures, are variously represented. Those placed in the Tabernacle and in the Temple of Solomon appear to have had only a single face; those described in Ezekiel’s vision of the Temple (Ezekiel 41:18-26.41.19) had two; the four living creatures of Revelation 4:7 were each different from the other: one like a man, one like a lion, one like an ox, and one like an eagle, and these four are combined here in each one of the cherubim (Ezekiel 1:10). Man is the head of the whole animal creation, the lion of wild beasts, the ox of the domestic animals, and the eagle of the birds.
Four wings.—In Revelation 4:8, six wings are mentioned, as also with the seraphim of Isaiah 6:2. The cherubim in Solomon’s Temple had two (1 Kings 6:27). In Ezekiel 10:21, as here, they have four. The number is plainly not important, though doubtless assigned to them with reference to the number of creatures, and of their faces, and of the wheels; but that they should have more than the normal number of two is here appropriate, partly to concur with the other indications of the fulness of their life and activity, and partly because (Ezekiel 1:11) two of them were used to express their reverence, as were four of those of the seraphim in Isaiah.
(7) Their feet were straight feet.—Rather, each of their legs was a straight leg, i.e., without any bend in it, as at the knee, but was equally fitted for motion in any direction. So also “the sole of their feet,” the part which rested on the ground, was not, like the human foot, formed to move forward only, but was round and solid, something “like the sole of a calf’s foot.”
They sparkled.—This refers only to “the sole of the feet,” the hoof. The “burnished brass” is a different word from that used in Ezekiel 1:4, and gives another feature to the general brilliancy and magnificence of the vision.
(8) The hands of a man.—Implying, of course, also human arms. This particular adds to the generally human appearance of the cherubim, yet we must understand (see Ezekiel 1:11) that there were four hands corresponding to the wings for each cherub. These hands were “under their wings on their four sides.” Hence the wings must have been attached at the shoulder. The repetition, “they four had their faces and their wings,” is for the sake of emphasis and distinctness.
(9) Their wings were joined one to another.—i.e., the outstretched right wing of one cherub was joined at its tip to the left wing of another, so that although four, they yet constituted in some sense but one creature, all moving in harmony and by a common impulse. This applies to the cherubim only when in motion; when they stood, the wings were let down (Ezekiel 1:24). The joining of the extremities of the outstretched wings of the cherubim recalls the arrangement in Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 6:27), in which the wings of the larger cherubim touched one another above the mercy-seat.
They turned not when they went.—Whichever way they wished to go, they could still go “straight forward,” i.e., in the direction towards which they looked, since they looked in all directions, and their round feet made it equally easy to move in any way. It would at first seem that as two of the wings of each cherub were used to cover their bodies (Ezekiel 1:11), the wings would have required their turning when they changed their course; but if we conceive of the four cherubim as arranged to form a square, and with their wings moving as one creature, this difficulty disappears.
(10) On the right side . . . on the left side.—The apparent obscurity of this description is due only to the punctuation in the English Bible. “They four had the face of a man” (viz., in front, as Ezekiel viewed them), “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” (viz., on the back, or side opposite to Ezekiel). These faces are the same as those given to the living creatures in Revelation 4:7, except that there each creature had but one of them.
(11) Thus were their faces: and their wings were stretched upward.—Rather, and their wings and their faces were separated above. The word never has the sense of stretched, but always that of separated or divided, as given in the margin. Each cherub was essentially one creature, and yet (not Janus-like, with four faces upon one head) their heads and their wings were separated above, and when they were in flight the two lifted wings touched on either side the wing of the next cherub, while two were used to veil their bodies. There is much of emphatic repetition throughout the description.
(12) Whither the spirit was to go.—The one informing spirit which animated all the living creatures alike, and in accordance with which all their movements were ordered.
(13) Like the appearance of lamps.—The word “and” before this phrase is not in the original, and should be omitted. The words are merely a further explanation. The cherubim were like burning coals of fire, like torches or lightnings. The word “lamps” does not refer to the material, but to the light, and whether in the Hebrew or in its Greek equivalent, is translated by torches (Nahum 2:4; John 18:3),firebrands (Judges 15:4), or lightnings (Exodus 20:18). Ezekiel could find no single word to express his meaning, and has therefore given two, that between them the idea of the fiery brilliancy may be better conveyed.
It went up and down.—“ It” refers to the fire. This indescribable fiery appearance went up and down among the living creatures, “bright” in itself, and throwing out coruscations of “lightning.”
(14) A flash of lightning.—Not only was the appearance of the cherubim thus glittering, but also their speed as they “ran and returned” was that of the lightning.
The vision up to this point, so far as we may venture to interpret its object, seems designed to show forth the power and activity, the irresistible energy of the agencies employed for the fulfilment of the Divine purposes, and at the same time their perfectly harmonious action, controlled by one supreme will. We now enter upon a fresh phase of the vision, in which the same things are represented still further by an additional and peculiar symbolism.
(15) Behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures.—The prophet sees this while still looking intently upon the cherubim—“ as I beheld the living creatures “—showing that it was still a part of one and the same vision. The wheel was one in the same sense in which the living creatures were one, yet actually four, as appears from the following verse and the whole subsequent description. In the corresponding vision (Ezekiel 10:9), they are at once described as four. The cherubim had been seen in the cloud (Ezekiel 1:4-26.1.5); now they need to be connected below with the earth, and presently (Ezekiel 1:26) above, with the throne of God. Therefore the wheel is “upon the earth,” but of a great height (Ezekiel 1:18). There was a wheel in front of each of the cherubim, again forming a square, yet so that, as already said, they might in a sense be all considered as one wheel. Reference has been made for the origin of this imagery to the wheels under the ten bases of Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 7:32-11.7.33); but there seems to be nothing either in size or form to correspond, and, so far as we know, the imagery here is purely original.
(16) Their work was like unto the colour of a beryl.—“Work” is used in the sense of workmanship or construction; and “beryl” here, and in Ezekiel 10:9, is not the precious stone of a green colour which we know by that name, but the “chrysolite” of the ancients, the modern topaz, having the lustre of gold, and in harmony with the frequent mention throughout the vision of fire and brilliant light.
A wheel in the middle of a wheel.—We are to conceive of the wheels as double, and one part at right angles to the other, like the equator and a meridian circle upon the globe, so that they could go, without being turned, equally well in any direction. Of course, such a wheel would be impossible of mechanical construction; it is only seen in vision and as a symbol; it was never intended to be actually made.
(17) Upon their four sides—i.e., forwards or backwards upon the one wheel, and to the right or the left upon the other. Four directions are considered throughout the vision as representing all directions, just as elsewhere the four winds represent all winds, and the four corners of the earth the whole earth.
(18) Their rings.—The same word is used twice in this verse, and means what we call the felloes. “They were both high and terrible,” i.e., they had both these characteristics, but not, as seems to be implied in our translation, that one was the cause of the other. The height might be inferred from the fact that the wheel was “upon the earth,” and yet was “by the living creatures” (Ezekiel 1:15) who were seen in the cloud (Ezekiel 1:5). The terribleness was in keeping with all other parts of the vision, and its reason is explained in the circumstances which follow.
Full of eyes.—In Ezekiel 10:12 it is said of the living creatures, “their whole body, and their backs, and their hands, and their wings, and the wheels were full of eyes round about.” It was the same vision in either case (Ezekiel 10:20-26.10.22), only in the effort to describe it, which the prophet evidently feels it impossible to do adequately, he mentions now one particular and now another. In the corresponding vision in the Apocalypse the four living creatures are represented as “full of eyes within” (Revelation 4:8). In both places alike the symbolism sets forth God’s perfect knowledge of all His works: here as showing the absolute wisdom of all His doings (comp. 2 Chronicles 16:9), there as resulting in perfect and harmonious praise from all His works. The Hebrew seers ever looked through all secondary causes directly to the ultimate force which originates and controls all nature, and which they represent as intelligent and self-conscious. To do this the more effectively, they often use in their visions such concrete imagery as this before us.
(20, 21) The spirit of the living creature—Not, as in the margin, “the spirit of life.” The object of Ezekiel 1:19-26.1.21 is by every repetition and variety of expression to represent “the living creatures” and “the wheels” as one, animated by one spirit, and moved by one impulse. The word is the same throughout, and there was no “spirit of life” in the wheels independent of that of the living creatures. All formed together one strange, symbolic whole.
The mention in Ezekiel 1:19-26.1.21 of the wheels being “lifted up from the earth” simultaneously with the living creatures is not in opposition to the symbolism already explained, of the wheels resting upon the earth. That was to show that God’s purposes are carried out as He wills in this world. This brings out, in addition, the perfect harmony of these purposes, whether relating to earth or to heaven.
(22) The likeness of the firmament.—The word rendered “firmament” has undoubtedly originated, etymologically, from a verb originally signifying to beat out, as in the case of metals; but the derivative word, in its use in connection with the heavens, had wholly lost this reference, and had come to mean simply an expanse. The Hebrews do not appear to have ever entertained the classical idea of the sky as a metallic vault, the only passage seeming to indicate such a notion (Job 37:18) being capable of quite a different explanation. We are here to conceive, therefore, of that which was “stretched forth over their heads above” as a simple expanse, like the sky, as if he had said, “And above their heads was stretched forth the sky.” This expanse is not represented as supported by the cherubim, or resting upon them, and it remained undisturbed when they let down their wings (Ezekiel 1:25). It was simply “stretched forth over their heads,” at once separating them from, and yet uniting them with, the throne above. It fulfils, therefore, the complementary part to the wheels. They connected the vision with the earth; this connects it with God.
The colour of the terrible crystal—The expression “crystal” is doubtless derived from Exodus 24:10, as in turn it became the foundation for Revelation 4:6. Yet it is not here any particular crystal; the word is Merely used to convey some idea of the appearance of the expanse beneath the throne, clear as crystal, terrible in its dazzling brightness.
(23) Two, which covered on this side.—The excessive literalness of this translation obscures the sense, for it seems to imply that each cherub used four wings to cover his body; whereas the true meaning is that “each had two wings covering his body on either side.” The other two wings of each cherub were “straight,” extended when they were in motion, but let down when at rest (Ezekiel 1:25).
(24) The noise of their wings.—The same word translated “noise” three times in this verse is also translated “voice” twice here, and once in the next verse. It is better to keep voice throughout. “I heard the voice of their wings, like the voice of many waters.” The same comparison is used to describe the voice of God in Ezekiel 43:2; Revelation 1:15. Further attempts to convey an impression of the effect are :—“ As the voice of the Almighty,” by which thunder is often described in Scripture (Job 37:4-18.37.5; Psalms 29:3-19.29.4); “the voice of speech,” by which is not to be understood articulate language. The word occurs elsewhere only in Jeremiah 11:16, and is there translated a tumult. The idea conveyed by the word is probably that of the confused sound from a great multitude, and, finally, “as the voice of an host.” All these comparisons concur in representing a vast and terrible sound, but inarticulate.
(25) A voice from the firmament.—Rather, from above the firmament, not as proceeding from the firmament itself. This is a new feature in the vision: the voice is quite different from the sounds mentioned before, and although not here expressly said to have been articulate, yet it is probably to be identified with the Divine voice spoken of in Ezekiel 1:28, Ezekiel 3:12, and elsewhere. The latter part of the verse, literally translated, is simply, In, or at, their standing they let down their wings, and may be simply a repetition of the last clause of the preceding verse. In its connection, however, it seems rather to convey the idea of a fresh act of reverence towards the majesty above. When the voice was heard the cherubim stood still, the mighty sounds of their going were hushed, and their wings fell motionless, all in the attitude of reverential attention.
The vision now advances to another and final stage. We have had the whirlwind from the north, with its great cloud and infolding fire, as the background on which the whole is portrayed; then the cherubim, with all their marvellous symbolism; the wondrous and terrible wheels, connecting them with the earth below, the glowing firmament, connecting them with the throne above; and now we come to the throne itself, and to Him that sat upon it.
(26) As the appearance of a sapphire stone.—Comp. Exodus 24:10, where the same description is applied to “the pavement under His feet” as here and in Ezekiel 10:1 to his throne, in either case indicating the intense clearness of the heavenly blue. The constant repetition of the words “likeness” and “appearance” is very striking throughout this vision. They occur five times in this verse, and four times in each of the two following. The prophet thus labours to make it plain that what he saw was not the realities of existing things, but certain symbolic representations given for the purpose of producing their fitting impression upon the mind. It is especially important to remember this in connection with “the likeness as the appearance of a man” “upon the likeness of the throne.” It was not the Divine Being Himself whom Ezekiel saw, but certain appearances to impress upon him the character and attributes of Him whom “no man hath seen, nor can see.”
The appearance of a man—As in the case of the cherubim the form of a man, as the highest known in nature, was made the groundwork to which all their peculiarities were attached, so here, in rising to something still higher, the same basis must be retained in the impossibility of anything better; only that which is added is more vague, as being incapable of any definite description, Yet possibly there may be even her a hint at the great truth of the incarnation. (Comp. Daniel 7:13; Revelation 1:13.)
(27) As the colour of amber.—See on the same expression Ezekiel 1:4. Literally, as an eye of bright metal. The rest of the verse is simply an attempt, by various repetitions, to convey an idea of the exceeding brightness and glory of the vision, yet also with the notions of purity and holiness, of power and activity always associated with fire. (Comp. Exodus 24:17; Daniel 7:9; Revelation 1:14-66.1.15; Revelation 4:5.)
(28) As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud.—Comp. Revelation 4:3; Revelation 10:1. The addition, “in the day of rain,” is not merely a reference to the ordinary natural phenomenon, but distinctly connects this vision with the gracious promise in Genesis, and shows that God, who has in this vision presented His attributes of terrible majesty, will add to them also those of mercy and loving-kindness. It was in both alike that He was to be made known to His people through the prophet who is now receiving his commission. This was the merciful “appearance of the brightness round about.”
I fell upon my face.—The immediate manifestation of the Divine has always proved overpowering to man. (Comp. Ezekiel 3:23; lea. 6:5; Daniel 8:17; Acts 9:4; Revelation 1:17. Comp. also Luke 5:8; Luke 8:37.)
In considering the general significance of this vision, it is to be remembered that it was seen four times by Ezekiel in various connections in his life-work. First, at this time, when he is called to the exercise of the prophetic office; a second time when, shortly afterwards, he is sent to denounce judgments upon the sinful people, and to foretell the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (Ezekiel 3:23, &c.); again, a year and a half later (Ezekiel 8:4; Ezekiel 10:15), he sees the same vision, while he is made to understand the evils and abominations wrought in the Temple (which is still standing), until the “glory of the Lord” forsakes His house and departs from the city (Ezekiel 11:23), in token that God had given them over to punishment; finally, in the prophecy of future restoration and blessing, he again sees the presence of the Lord, by means of the same vision, re-enter and fill the house (Ezekiel 43:3-26.43.5). Its meaning, therefore, clearly relates to the whole prophecies of Ezekiel, whether of judgment or mercy; and, without attempting an explanation of the symbolism in detail, we cannot be wrong in assuming that it represents the resistless Divine activity, controlling alike the agencies of judgment and of mercy, directed to every corner of the earth, and requiring of all profoundest homage and veneration. The perfect unity of purpose in all God’s doings is made especially prominent, and the consistency of His wrath with His love, of His judgments with His mercy; while over all seems to be written, as on the plate of the mitre which He had of old commanded the high priest to wear in His temple, “Holiness unto the Lord.”
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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Ezekiel 1". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/
Second Sunday after Epiphany