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Bible Commentaries
Ezekiel 1

Fairbairn's Commentary on Ezekiel, Jonah and Pastoral EpistlesFairbairn's Commentaries

Verses 1-3



Ezekiel 1:1 . And it came to pass in the thirtieth year, on the fifth of the fourth month, while I was among the captives by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.

Ezekiel 1:2 . On the fifth of the month; it was the fifth year of king Jehoiachin’s (Heb. Jojakhin’s) captivity.

Ezekiel 1:3 . The word of Jehovah did verily come (“We have here, at the outset, a striking example of our prophet’s love of emphasis. He does not say simply, after the usual manner, the word of Jehovah was or came הָיָה to him; but הָיֹה הָיָה using the infinitive absol. along with the verb, according to a common Hebrew usage, to strengthen the meaning. The Authorized Version employs the adverb expressly to bring out the force of this peculiar construction; but it is rather the felt assurance with which the revelation came, than its expressness, which is indicated.) to Ezekiel (Ezekiel, composed of אל יְחֶזְקֵ , God will strengthen.) the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans, by the river Chebar; and the hand of Jehovah was upon him.

THE information contained in these introductory verses, respecting the person of Ezekiel, and the time at which he entered on his prophetical calling, is very explicit upon some points, but indefinite or doubtful upon others. It tells us that he was of the priestly order, and that his father’s name was Buzi; but it does not indicate with what particular family of the priesthood he was connected; nor does it state that he had ever personally discharged the duties of the priestly office in the temple. The more special part of the description has respect to his position and calling as a prophet to his exiled countrymen on the banks of the Chebar. He was, indeed, the only individual raised up among them to fulfil there the prophetical office. Daniel, it is true, flourished during the same period in exile, and was also richly furnished with prophetical gifts; but Daniel might more fitly be called a seer than a prophet, since the spirit of prophecy imparted to him was not given to fit him for the discharge of a spiritual office, but for the purpose of enabling him to disclose beforehand coming events in the providence of God. Chosen by the king of Babylon from that portion of his countrymen who were distinguished by their superior rank and accomplishments, the sphere which Divine Providence marked out for him in the land of exile was one that required his application to the affairs of worldly business, not to the employments of a sacred ministry. His lot was to dwell in king’s palaces; and in giving counsel to princes and directing the movements of empire, he found his proper vocation. Hence the revelations vouchsafed to him had respect chiefly to the outward relations of God’s kingdom, its connection with the kingdoms of this world, and their ever-shifting dynasties. It is on this account, and not for the fanciful reasons sometimes alleged, that the later Jews place the book of Daniel not among the prophetical scriptures, the writings of strictly prophetical men, but among those of a more general character, the Hagiographa, or sacred writings.

The sphere which Ezekiel was called to occupy was entirely different. His was the distinctive work and calling of a prophet. Himself of priestly origin, and hence devoted from his birth to the peculiar service of God, he had to do more especially with the inward concerns of the Divine kingdom; and it was in connection with this essentially spiritual vocation that the high calling and supernatural gifts of a prophet were conferred on him. When sent into exile, his duty of service was but transferred from the visible temple in Jerusalem to the spiritual temple in Chaldea, as it was also withdrawn from ministrations of a more common and formal, to those of a more select and elevated kind. Therefore, as it was Daniel’s part to guide the machinery of government, and transact with affairs of state, it was Ezekiel’s to deal in God’s behalf with the hearts and consciences of men. And as the one was called to raise the standard of truth and righteousness in the high places of the world’s pomp and corruption, so the other had to battle with the forms of evil that were nestling in the bosom of the Jewish community, and contend against the abominations which were laying waste the heritage of God.

The place where Ezekiel was called to discharge the functions of this high ministry is said to have been “in the land of the Chaldeans, by the river Chebar” (Ezekiel 1:3), which Chebar is universally agreed to have been the river that is more commonly known by the name of Chaboras, a river in Upper Mesopotamia, flowing into the Euphrates near the ancient Carchemish, or Circesium, at the distance of about two hundred miles above Babylon. It was among the captive Jews settled there that Ezekiel’s lot was cast, and for them more immediately that he had to do the work of a prophet. But whence came those captive brethren? and when had they settled there? They consisted, mainly at least, of that portion of the captivity which was carried away with Jehoiachin, on the second occasion that the Babylonian army made reprisals upon the land and people of Judah. The first occasion was about eight years earlier, in the third or fourth year of the reign of Jehoiakim, the father of Jehoiachin; of which there is no particular account in the historical books of Scripture, though, from being the occasion on which Daniel was carried into exile, it has found an explicit record at the commencement of his book. (Daniel 1:1. In 2 Kings 24:1 it is merely said that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came up and besieged Jerusalem, and Jehoiakim became his servant. Daniel places his deportation by Nebuchadnezzar in the third year of Jehoiakim, while Jeremiah (Jeremiah 25:1) says that the fourth year of Jehoiakim was coincident with the first of Nebuchadnezzar, in which same year, he also states, Nebuchadnezzar gained a victory over the Egyptians at Carchemish. The probability is, that it was shortly before this battle, in the end of the third year of Jehoiakim, that Nebuchadnezzar came against Jerusalem and took away some captives (among others Daniel). If his assault on Jerusalem was after the battle, the Jews at Jerusalem and those in Chaldea must have dated the commencement of his reign differently.) The captives, however, of this first successful expedition of the Chaldeans against Judea, appear to have been few compared with those who suffered in the second expedition, when, having first quelled Jehoiakim’s rebellion, and put him to death, the army proceeded to carry off his successor, Jehoiachin, with all the flower of the people. The kingdom was then left in a feeble and dependent state, and so continued for about eleven years longer, when the infatuated revolt of Zedekiah provoked a third incursion of the Chaldeans, who now reduced Jerusalem to a heap of ruins the remaining inhabitants being partly killed, partly taken captive to Babylon, and partly, also, dispersed to other regions.

It is not expressly said that the whole of the captives who had been carried away with Jehoiachin were settled near Carchemish, on the banks of the Chebar, though the probability is that the great body of them had been located there. Ezekiel’s call was to labour among “the captivity,” or, as we prefer rendering it, the captives, and he constantly represents these captives as having their local habitation on the banks of the Chebar. If there was any considerable number of captives taken from Judea on the first incursion of Nebuchadnezzar, it is probable that the most of them were settled there after the battle of Carchemish; these would form the older portion of the Jewish settlers on the banks of the Chebar. And as the leading object of those deportations was evidently to consolidate the Chaldean empire, by what seemed a wise allocation of its subjects, it could scarcely fail to be regarded as a politic arrangement, to attach the succeeding and much larger companies of captive Jews to those already settled there, as they would thus more readily feel at home in their new habitations, and with less difficulty become reconciled to the change that had passed over their condition. So that when we hear of the Jews, time after time, being carried to Babylon, or again delivered from it, we are not to understand by this the city of Babylon itself, in which, apparently, a mere fraction of their number was appointed to dwell, but the Chaldean region at large, and especially this particular district of it on the banks of the Chebar. The place of exile was identified with Babylon merely because the centre of power and influence was there, and the fortunes of the whole region were necessarily bound up with those of the capital.

In a moral point of view, the situation of the exiles on the Chebar was peculiarly trying and perilous, and never more so than during the eleven years reign of Zedekiah, the period that elapsed between the captivity of the chief part of them and the utter prostration of their country. Encompassed, as they now were, by the atmosphere of a triumphant heathenism, the more degenerate portion were in imminent danger of burying themselves in the world’s darkness and corruption; while those who had attained to more correct views both of Divine truth and of their own position, were exposed to a variety of influences, which tended to nourish false expectations in their bosom, and to take off their minds from what should have been their grand concern, the work of personal reformation. The kingdom seemed now to have become in some degree consolidated in the hands of Zedekiah; and why might they not hope, after a few years more had elapsed, to get permission from the king of Babylon to return and dwell peaceably in their native land? Even without any express leave on his part, the matter did not seem entirely hopeless relief might still possibly come through the intervention of Egypt; for though that power had sustained a severe blow by its defeat at Carchemish, it was not so far broken as altogether to exclude the prospect of its again taking the field against the king of Babylon. It was precisely this expectation which misled Zedekiah to his ruin; for it induced him to enter into a treacherous alliance with Egypt, which proved the fore runner of his utter discomfiture and final overthrow. Nor were persons wanting, as we learn from Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who sought to inspire the exiles at Chebar with the same delusive hopes. And it is more than probable, though we have no explicit information on the subject, that some of the earlier predictions, especially those of Isaiah and Habakkuk, which so clearly foretold the downfall of Babylon, were employed to countenance and support them in the false prospects they entertained. Then, for the small remnant of sound believers who existed there, like a few grains of wheat among heaps of chaff, how much was there, if not to betray them into those vain confidences, at least to fill their souls with depression and gloom? Cut off, as by an impassable gulf, from the temple of the Lord, while their more favoured brethren in Judea were still allowed to frequent its courts, how apt must they have been to feel that they were cast out of God’s sight, and to mourn, in the plaintive strains of the Psalmist, “Woe is me that I sojourn in Mesech, that I dwell in the tents of Kedar.”

We find that Jeremiah, amid the severe and painful struggles which beset his course in Judea, was not unmindful of these endangered and forlorn exiles in the land of the enemy. On the occasion of an embassy going from King Zedekiah to Babylon, he despatched communications to them by the hand of Seraiah, such as their circumstances required. One of these the prophecy contained in Jeremiah 51:0 announced the certain downfall of Babylon, but was probably committed to Seraiah in confidence, that he might impart its tidings only to such as were likely to profit by them. The other was a letter addressed to the captives generally, in which he warned them not to believe the false prophets, who held out flattering hopes of their speedy and certain return to the land of their fathers; assured them that there should be no return till the period of seventy years had been accomplished in their captivity; and exhorted them to submit themselves to the hand of God, and to seek him with all their hearts (Ezekiel 29:0.). So far were the views expressed in this letter from coinciding with those prevalent on the banks of the Chebar, that one of the captives, we are informed, wrote back to the high priest at Jerusalem, and even complained of his allowing Jeremiah to go at large, since he was acting more like a madman than a prophet (Ezekiel 24-28). And it was in immediate connection with these transactions, and for the purpose of giving a full utterance and a pointed application to the truths and lessons which had been expressed in the communications of Jeremiah, that one was raised up among the captives themselves to do the work of a prophet, the fervent and energetic Ezekiel. For as it was in the fourth year of Zedekiah’s reign that those communications went from Jeremiah to the captives (Jeremiah 51:59), so it was very shortly after, namely, in the fifth year and fourth month of the same reign, or, which is all one, of Jehoiachin’s captivity (Ezekiel 1:2), that Ezekiel was called to the prophetical office; whence he begins with the usual historical formula, “And it came to pass,” as if what was going to be recorded was merely the resumption of a thread that had somehow been broken or suspended, a continuation in a new form of the testimony that had been delivered by other servants of God. In him the truth found a most important witness, both as regards the nature and variety of the communications with which he was charged. By his very name and call to the prophetical office, he was a witness of the Lord’s faithfulness to his people, as, by the tone and character of his ministrations, he gave strong expression to the high and holy principles of God’s government over them; for, as has been justly said, “He was one who raised his voice like a trumpet, and showed to Israel his misdeeds; whose word, like a threshing machine, passed over all their sweet hopes and purposes, and ground them to the dust; whose whole manifestations furnished the strongest proof that the Lord was still among his people; who was himself a temple of the Lord, before whom the apparent temple, which still stood for a short time at Jerusalem, sunk back into its own nothingness; a spiritual Samson, who with a strong arm seized the pillars of the temple of idols, and dashed it to the ground; an energetic, gigantic nature, who was thereby suited effectually to counteract the Babylonish spirit of the times, which loved to manifest itself in violent, gigantic, grotesque forms; one who stood alone, but was yet equal to a hundred scholars of the prophets.” (Hengstenberg’s Christol. vol. iii. p. 450, Eng. Trans.)

We have referred as yet only to the more explicit date assigned by Ezekiel for his entrance on the prophetical office, viz. the fifth day of the fourth month of the fifth year of Jehoiachin’s captivity. Before this, however, he mentions another, which he simply designates “the thirtieth year” a date which has been very variously understood. Some, in the first instance, Jewish authorities, in particular Kimchi and Jarchi; recently, in this country, the Duke of Manchester, in his “Times of Daniel,” p. 35; and on the Continent, Hitzig regard the prophet as reckoning from the last jubilee. By some misapprehension, the Duke of Manchester represents Jerome and Theodoret as being of this opinion; both, on the contrary, reject it. Jerome’s words are: “Tricesimus annus, non ut plerique æstimant, ætatis prophetæ dicitur, nec Jubilæi, qui est annus remissionis, sed a duo decimo anno Josiæ,” etc. The chief objection to this view is, that it rests entirely on hypothesis, there being no historical notice of a jubilee about the time referred to, nor any other instance of such an occurrence being taken by a prophet as an era from which to date either his own entrance on the prophetical office, or any other event of importance to the Church. It seems the more unlikely that Ezekiel should fix upon an era of that description, since it already lay so far in the distance; and so many painful and humiliating events had occurred in the interval, that no one almost would naturally think of it, or feel as if, in existing circumstances, anything had depended on it. Of what moment was it to Ezekiel or his countrymen that thirty years ago there had been a jubilee in the land of Judah, when now the whole nation was in bondage, and the best of its people were miserable captives in a foreign land? The more common opinions are, that the thirty years date either from the eighteenth year of Josiah’s reign, when, with the finding of the book of the Law in the temple, a notable reformation began so the Chaldee, Jerome, Theodoret, Grotius, Calov, Piscator, Ideler, Hävernick (some also of the Rabbinical writers combine their idea of the jubilee with this period) or from the Nabopolassarian era, at the commencement of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar’s father, and of the Chaldean dynasty so Pradus, Scaliger, Perizonius, Michaelis, Rosenmüller, Ewald. Of these two epochs, it is quite certain that the eighteenth of Josiah’s reign did stand at the distance of thirty years from the fifth year of Jehoiachin’s captivity (14 of Josiah’s reign, 11 of Jehoiakim’s, and 5 of the captivity); and recent chronological investigations have rendered it probable that the Nabopolassarian era must also have nearly, if not altogether, coincided with it. But it unquestionably seems strange that either of these epochs should have been indicated by giving only the number of years that had elapsed, with no explicit mention of the point from which they commenced to run. Neither of them could then possess so marked and settled a character in history that, without being expressly named, the one or the other might have been expected at once to present itself to the mind. The very circumstance that two seem almost with equal right to claim the distinction, implies that neither of them stood so prominently forward as to render the specific mention of them unnecessary. If it were established, however (though it cannot possibly be so), that the Chaldean era had then come into general use, the opinion which would date the thirty years from it would be the most probable, as the era would, in that case, have formed a definite note of time, which it had been quite natural for a prophet in Chaldea to point to; while no period of internal reformation, like that in Josiah’s reign, is ever taken by the prophets as a chronological starting-point. In this uncertainty as to any reference to a public historical epoch, we cannot but think more weight is due than has latterly been given to an ancient opinion, that the prophet had respect to himself in this number, and meant simply to denote by it the thirtieth year of his own life. It was customary for the Levites, and, we may infer, also for the priests, to enter on their duty of service at the temple in their thirtieth year; and though the prophets were not wont to connect the period when they received their predictions with their own age at the time of their receiving them, yet the case of Ezekiel was somewhat peculiar. As the Lord, by his special presence and supernatural revelations, was going to become a sanctuary to the exiles on the banks of the Chebar (see especially Ezekiel 11:16), so Ezekiel, to whom these revelations were in the first instance made, was to be to the people residing there in the room of the ministering priesthood. By waiting upon his instructions they were to learn the mind of God, and to have what, situated as matters now were in Jerusalem, would prove more than a compensation for the loss of the outward temple service. It seems, therefore, to have been the intention of the prophet, by designating himself so expressly a priest, and a priest that had reached his thirtieth year, to represent his prophetic agency among his exiled countrymen as a kind of priestly service, to which he was divinely called at the usual period of life. And then the opening vision which revealed a present God, enthroned above the cherubim, came as the formal institution of that ideal temple, in connection with which he was to minister in things pertaining to the kingdom of God. Such appears to me, on full and careful consideration, by much the most natural view of the subject; and it seems chiefly from overlooking the distinctive character and design of Ezekiel’s agency as a prophet, that the difficulty respecting the thirtieth year has been experienced. The prophet wished to mark at the outset, by what he said of his own position and calling, the priestly relation in which he stood both to God and to the people. And thus also the end fitly corresponds with the beginning; for it is as a priest delineating the rise of a new and more glorious temple that he chiefly unfolds the prospect of a revived and flourishing condition to the remnant of spiritual worshippers among whom he laboured.

In regard to the revelation itself, which formed at once the call of Ezekiel to the prophetical office, and the commencement of his mission, there are altogether four expressions employed, the three first having respect to what was objectively presented to the prophet, and the other to his internal fitness for apprehending what was presented. “The heavens were opened” “he saw visions of God” and (in connection with these Divine visions, as the aim and object of them), “the word of Jehovah did verily come to him,” all indicating, and that in the first instance, the reality of the supernatural manifestation, both in action and speech, that was made to him. Without such actual appearances and communications on the part of God, nothing in the state of the prophet himself would have been of any avail as to the certain revelation of God’s mind and will. At the same time, a corresponding state of spiritual excitation was needed on his part, to fit him for perceiving what was exhibited in the Divine sphere, and for being the organ of the Holy Spirit in making known the truth of God to the Church. Hence the prophet adds in respect to this, “And the hand of Jehovah was upon him;” as in the case of St. John (Revelation 1:17, “And he laid his right hand upon me saying, Fear not”), and of Daniel (Daniel 10:10, Daniel 10:18), the Lord now, by a Divine touch, invigorated his frame and endowed him with strength of eye and elevation of soul for the lofty sphere he was to occupy. And thus raised on high by the immediate agency of God, he was in a condition for witnessing and reporting aright what passed in the region of his inner man.

Verses 4-27

Ezekiel 1:4 . And I looked, and behold a whirlwind coming from the north, a great cloud, and a fire kindling itself, and a brightness round about it (the cloud), and from out of it (the fire) like the bright glitter of Chashmal in the midst of the fire. (This fourth verse is peculiar in almost every one of the expressions contained in it. The אֵשׁ מִתְלַקַּחַת is literally, fire catching itself; but the only definite meaning we can attach to this is, that of fire kindling itself self-communicating from one part to another. The expression occurs only in another passage (Exodus 9:24), where it is plainly used to denote, as here, the awful intensity and living force of the fire. The two its, being of different genders in the original, plainly refer, the one to the cloud, the other to the fire; and I have marked this by inserting the words for the two objects respectively. The כְּעֵין הַחַשְׁמַל rendered by our translators, “as the colour of amber.” Bu עֵין is not properly colour; it is the eye, the look, the glance, such as the eye itself or anything brilliant gives forth. Amber also is not the right word here for Chashmal. The derivation of the word is uncertain, but it is generally understood to denote a sort of mixed metal, a composition of gold and silver, which is expressed by the ἠλέκτρου of the LXX. Gesenius, however, takes it as equivalent to the Nehosheth Kâlâl, furbished or glittering brass, of Ezekiel 1:7. The glance of this glittering metal in the midst of so intense a fire suggests the highest possible splendour. And as it is this quality of it that the prophet here has in view, it is, for us, better to give prominence to the shining than the mixed character of the metal. The appearance of this fiery cloud is said to have been from the north, we believe simply on natural grounds; it was of the nature of a storm, hence it seemed to come from the hilly Caucasian region to the north the natural region of clouds and tempests. We regard it as quite fanciful in Häv. to suppose that the prophet conceives himself in the temple, and points to the north as the quarter from which the instruments of God’s displeasure, the Chaldeans, were to come. Besides, there is mercy as well as judgment indicated in the vision.)

Ezekiel 1:5 . And out of the midst of it the likeness of four living creatures; and this was their appearance they had the likeness of a man.

Ezekiel 1:6 . And four faces were to each, also four wings to each of them.

Ezekiel 1:7 . And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet like the sole of a calf’s foot; and they sparkled like the glitter of polished brass. (Hitzig would translate this last expression, molten brass or metal, deriving קָלָל from קָלָה , to roast or burn in the fire. But the transition from roast to melt does not appear at all easier, in respect to such an article as brass, than from to be light to make light (the common meaning of קָלַל ), to furbish or brighten. For nothing is more usual than to say of any piece of metal, it is heavy or light in appearance, according as it is well or ill polished. I therefore retain the common meaning, which was quite correctly given by Stephanus in his Thes. as “refulgens, a consequenti tamen, cum proprie politum ac tersum declaret.”)

Ezekiel 1:8 . The hand of each (literally, his hand) was that of a man underneath their wings on their four sides; and they four had their faces and their wings.

Ezekiel 1:9 . Their wings were joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went each straight forward.

Ezekiel 1:10 . And for the likeness of their faces, there was the likeness of a man and the likeness of a lion on the right side to the four of them; and the likeness of an ox to the left side to the four, and the likeness of an eagle to the four.

Ezekiel 1:11 . And their faces and their wings were separated from above; two of each joined one another, and two covering their bodies. (The import of what is said in this 11th verse regarding their faces and wings is, that they were each separate or distinct both in regard to their heads and wings, but that the tips of the two outstretched wings reached to one another, while the other two wings, in token of humble and reverential awe, formed a sort of veil or covering for the middle or lower parts of their bodies. Very commonly the first clause is rendered,” and their faces and their wings were expanded from above,” or spread forth upwards. But one does not see how that could properly be said of the faces, as well as the wings, and the verb בָּרַר is never used but in the sense of separating, dispersing, or scattering. The Septuagint leave out the faces altogether, in order, apparently, to make the sense of expanding ( ἐκτεταμέναι) more suitable.)

Ezekiel 1:12 . And they went every one of them straight forward; whither the spirit was to go they went; they turned not when they went.

Ezekiel 1:13 . And for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, as the appearance of torches; it went up and down between the living creatures; and there was brightness in the fire, and from the fire went forth lightning.

Ezekiel 1:14 . And the living creatures ran and returned like the appearance of the meteor-flash. (The בָזָק here, which I render by the meteor-flash, is not found in Heb. as a verb, but has in Arabic and Syriac the sense of to scatter, spread; hence Häv. prefers the meaning of spark-fire. But this hardly conies up to what seems to be required here; and something of the same nature as lightning, only more diffuse and sporadic in its appearance, must be understood. Such is meteor or sheet-lightning; and such is at least one of the meanings ascribed to the word by Ephraim: either a flash of lightning, or a meteor, falling-star. Many in ancient and modern times prefer the first; but we should then have expected בָרָק , which occurs in the verse immediately before. The leading features of the description so far are, first, the portentous cloud, radiant round about, and within glowing with the fervour and brightness of a living self-fed flame. Then, in the midst of this awful heat and lightning-splendour, the four living creatures, in whom the general form and appearance was that of a man, though conjoined with this were also the likenesses of a lion, an ox, and an eagle each looking to its own quarter a face each way, so that wherever the living creatures moved, they did not need to turn; there was a face in that direction. Each were separate in respect to the others, yet by the two wings that were expanded for flying, they were in immediate juxtaposition above; and were all moved and animated by one living spirit, by whose mighty impulse they shot like meteors from place to place, and in all their movements and appearance reflected the bright, burning splendour of the fiery element in which they were seen to exist. At Ezekiel 10:1 they are expressly called cherubim.)

Ezekiel 1:15 . And as I was looking at the living creatures, behold one wheel upon the earth beside the living creatures for its four faces (or, according to its four sides, i.e. as there was a side or direction for each of the four creatures, so a wheel for each of the sides).

Ezekiel 1:16 . The appearance of the wheels and their work was like the glance of the tartessus-stone; (Our translators have given beryl as the stone here meant; but it is now more commonly regarded as the chrysolite of the ancients, though this also is not quite certain.) and there was one likeness for the four; and their appearance and their work was as if there were a wheel in the midst of a wheel.

Ezekiel 1:17 . When they went, they went by their four sides (or directions), they turned not when they went.

Ezekiel 1:18 . As for their rings (felloes), they were both high and dreadful; and their rings were full of eyes round about them four.

Ezekiel 1:19 . And when the living creatures went, the wheels went beside them; and when the living creatures were lifted up from off the earth, the wheels were lifted up.

Ezekiel 1:20 . Whithersoever the spirit was for going, thither they went the spirit was for going; and the wheels were lifted up beside them; for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. (Both Häv. And Hitzig here render רוּחַ הַחַיָח the spirit or breath of life, the living principle, holding that if the living creatures had been meant, the usual term חַיווֹת would have been used. But in the very next verse except one, we have the same word as here for what must mean the living creatures “the heads of the living creatures;” and there Hitzig, as usual, is obliged to suppose a corruption in the text, and correct from the LXX. But in both places the word is most naturally taken collectively, just as in Genesis 7:14; Genesis 8:1, for living creatures: that which has life, the living creature-hood, for the living creatures. So here the prophet has spoken of the creatures separately; he now views them collectively, as being together the aggregate creaturely forms in which the spirit resided and manifested itself. The clause in the middle of the verse, “the spirit was for going,” seems to have been thrown in for greater explicitness, to indicate expressly that it was not the wheels themselves, but the spirit working in them, that was the source of motion. I see no need, therefore, for rejecting the clause. The description in this second part of the vision is to the following effect: By the side of each cherub (that is, apparently, on the same side and exterior to the cherub) there was a gigantic wheel, or more properly a double wheel one within another, going through each other transversely; for the wheels, like the cherubim with their four faces, did not need to turn when they moved from one direction to another; and this could only be effected by a sort of double wheel to every cherub, each running transversely through the other, so that to whichever quarter the movement might point, there could be a motion of the wheel towards it. The felloes or outer rings of these wheels were set round with eyes, and were each also instinct with the same spirit of life and power that wrought in the cherubim, so that the motions of all were simultaneous.)

Ezekiel 1:21 . When those went, they went; and when those stood, they stood; and when those were lifted up from off the earth, the wheels were lifted up beside them; for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.

Ezekiel 1:22 . And above the heads of the living creatures was the likeness of the firmament, as the glitter of crystal, terrible, stretched over their heads above.

Ezekiel 1:23 . And under the firmament their wings erect, one toward another; each one had two covering on this side, and each one two covering on that side their bodies. (This looks somewhat like a contradiction to what was said in Ezekiel 1:11, where simply four wings were assigned to each cherub, two for flying and two for covering their bodies. Here it seems as if each had four for covering their bodies. But, possibly, what is meant is, not that four wings existed specially for this purpose, but that the use of the four wings altogether was such as to act like a covering for the body: the whole body was overshadowed by them, and kept out of sight.)

Ezekiel 1:24 . And I heard the sound of their wings as the noise of many waters, as the voice of the Almighty; when they went there was a tumultuous noise, like the noise of a camp; (A tumultuous noise, קוֹל הֲמֻלָּה , so the expression is now commonly understood. Our translators have given to the phrase the meaning of “the voice of speech.” But this hardly makes sense, and is also against the pointing. The only other passage where the word occurs is in Jeremiah 11:16, and there our translators have rendered tumult, and the connection here evidently requires something of that description. The LXX. omits the clause, as it does various others in this chapter, but the Vulgate translates: “sonus multitudinis.” The expression here, therefore, may be regarded as equivalent lent in meaning to the very similar one קוּל המיֹך , which is more frequently employed. (Daniel 10:6; Isaiah 13:4. See Ges. Lex.) The description in this third and last part, which is that of manifested Godhead in the likeness of enthroned humanity, closely resembles the description given in Exodus 24:10, only more extended and particular. Here, as there, we have the sky-blue sapphire-stone, and the heavens’ crystal clearness, emblem of Divine splendour, only here the splendour is of a more dreadful aspect; and there is seen not merely a pavement, but a throne also as of sapphire, while the glorious being that sat on it was radiant with the bright lustre of celestial fire. From that throned firmament also were heard voices of terrific majesty and power, at the utterance of which the cherubic forms continually let down their wings, as in the attitude of reverent and listening silence.) when they stood, they let down their wings.

Ezekiel 1:25 . And there came a voice from above the firmament that was over their heads when they stood, and they let down their wings.

Ezekiel 1:26 . And above the firmament that was over their heads, as of the appearance of a sapphire-stone, was the likeness of a throne; and upon the likeness of the throne, the likeness after the appearance of a man upon it aloft.

Ezekiel 1:27 . And I saw like the glitter of Chashmal, as the appearance of fire within it round about, from the appearance of his loins and upwards, and from the appearance of his loins and downwards, I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and it was bright all around. 28. 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. It was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of Jehovah. And I was looking, and I fell upon my face, and I heard a voice speaking.

To gather up now the leading features and symbolic purport of this wonderful vision, we can easily perceive that the ground work of it was derived from the patterns of Divine things in the most holy place in the temple; yet very considerably modified and changed, to adapt it to the present occasion. Here also there is the throne of the Divine Majesty, but not wearing the humble and attractive form of the mercy-seat; more like Sinai, with its electric clouds and pealing sounds, and bursting effusions of living flame. Here, too, are the composite forms about the throne the cherubim with outstretched wings touching each other; but instead of the two cherubic figures of the temple, four, each with four hands, four wings, four faces, looking in so many directions doubtless with respect to the four quarters of the earth, toward which the Divine power and glory was going to manifest itself. These four are here further represented as peculiarly living creatures, full of life and motion, and not only with wings for flight, but wheels also of gigantic size beside them, revolving with lightning speed, and all resplendent with the most intense brightness. The general correspondence between what Ezekiel thus saw in the visions of God, and what was to be found in the temple, indicated that it was the same God who dwelt between the cherubim in the temple and who now appeared to his servant on the banks of the Chebar; while the differences bespoke certain manifestations of the Divine character to be now at hand, such as required to be less prominently displayed in his ordinary procedure.

1. That he appeared specially and peculiarly as the God of holiness; this, first of all, was intimated by the presence of the cherubim. For here, as in the temple, the employment of these composite forms pointed back to their original destination in the garden of Eden, to keep the way to the tree of life, from which man had been debarred on account of sin; ideal creatures, as the region of pure and blessed life they occupied, had now become to men an ideal territory. Yet still they were creatures, not of angelic, but of human mould; they bore the predominant likeness of man, with the likenesses superadded of the three highest orders of the inferior creation (the lion, the ox, the eagle). “It is an ideal combination; no such composite creature as the cherub exists in the actual world; and we can think of no reason why the singular combination it presents of animal forms should have been set upon that of man as the trunk or centre of the whole, unless it were to exhibit the higher elements of humanity in some kind of organic connection with certain distinctive properties of the inferior creation. The nature of man is immensely the highest upon earth, and towers loftily above all the rest by powers peculiar to itself. And yet we can easily conceive how this very nature of man might be greatly raised and ennobled by having superadded to its own inherent qualities those of which the other animal forms here mentioned stand as the appropriate types.” “These composite forms are here called חַיוֹת for which the Septuagint, and John in the Apocalypse, use the synonymous term ζῶα living ones. The frequency with which this name is used of the cherubim is remarkable. In Ezekiel and the Apocalypse together it occurs nearly thirty times, and may consequently be regarded as peculiarly expressive of the symbolical meaning of the cherubim. It presents them to our view as exhibiting the property of life in its highest state of power and activity, as forms of creaturely existence, altogether instinct with life. And the idea thus conveyed by the name is further substantiated by one or two traits associated with them in Ezekiel and the Apocalypse. Such, especially, is the very singular multiplicity of eyes attached to them, appearing primarily in the mystic wheels that regulated their movements, and at a later stage (Ezekiel 10:12) in the cherubic forms themselves. For the eye is the symbol of intelligent life, the living spirit’s most peculiar organ and index. And to represent the cherubim as so strangely replenished with eyes could only be intended to make them known as wholly in spirited. Hence, in Ezekiel 1:20, “the spirit of the living creatures” is said to have been in the wheels; where the eye was, there also was the intelligent, thinking, directive spirit of life. Another and quite similar trait is the quick and restless activity ascribed to them by Ezekiel, who represents them as “running and returning” with lightning speed; and then by John, when he describes them as “resting not day and night.” Incessant motion is one of the most obvious symptoms of a plenitude of life. We instinctively associate the property of life even with the inanimate things that exhibit motion such as fountains and running streams, which are called living, in contradistinction to stagnant pools, that seem comparatively dead. So that creatures which appeared to be all eyes, all motion, are, in plain terms, those in which the powers and properties of life are quite peculiarly displayed. But life, it must be remembered, most nearly and essentially connected with God, life as it is, or shall be held by those who dwell in his immediate presence, and form in a manner the very enclosure and covering of his throne, preeminently, therefore, holy and spiritual life.” (The Typology of Scripture, 3d ed. vol. i. pp. 229-248, where the whole subject of the cherubim is fully investigated.)

2. But this idea of holy and spiritual life, as connected with the presence and glory of God, was greatly strengthened in the vision by the fervid appearance, as of metallic brightness and flashes of liquid flame, which shone from and around all the parts and figures of the vision. It denoted the intense and holy severity in God’s working, which was either to accomplish in the objects of it the highest good, or to produce the greatest evil. Precisely similar in meaning, though somewhat differing in form, was the representation in Isaiah’s vision (Ezekiel 6:0.), where instead of the usual name cherubim, that of seraphim is applied to the symbolical attendants of God, the burning ones, as the word properly signifies, burning forms of holy fire, the emblems of God’s purifying and destroying righteousness. Hence their cry one to another was, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of Hosts.” And in token of the twofold working of this holiness, it was by the application of a burning coal to his lips that the prophet, as the representative of the elect portion of the people, was hallowed for God’s service, while in the message that follows, the ungodly mass are declared to be for burning (as the word literally is in Ezekiel 1:13). The same element that refined and purified the one for God’s service was to manifest itself in the destruction of the other. And it is this also that is symbolically taught here by the dazzling light, the glowing embers, and fiery coruscations, with which all was enveloped and emblazoned. It made known God’s purpose to put forth the severer attributes of his character, and to purify his Church by “the spirit of judgment and by the spirit of burning.”

3. Even these fiery appearances, however, in the cherubim and the other objects of the vision did not sufficiently express what was here meant to be conveyed; and therefore, to make out the idea more completely, wheels of vast proportions were added to the cherubim. The prophet would thus render palpable to our view the gigantic and terrible energy which was going to characterize the manifestations of the God of Israel. A spirit of awful and resistless might was now to appear in his dealings; not proceeding, however, by a blind impulse, but in all its movements guided by a clear-sighted and unerring saga city. How striking a representation did such a spirit find for itself in the resolute agency and stern utterances of Ezekiel! In this respect he comes nearest of all the later prophets to Elijah.

4. Finally, above the cherubim of glory and their wonderful wheel-work was seen, first, the crystal firmament, and then, above the firmament, the throne of God, on which he himself sat in human form, a form, as here displayed, beaming with the splendour of heavenly fire, but at the same time bearing the engaging aspect of a man, and surrounded with the attractive and pleasing halo of the rainbow. In this shone forth the mingled majesty and kindness of God, the overawing authority on the one hand, and the gracious sympathy and regard on the other, which were to distinguish his agency, as now to be put forth for the reproof of sin among the covenant-people, and the establishment of truth and righteousness. The terror which the manifestation was fitted to inspire was terror only to the guilty; while, for the penitent and believing, there was to be the brightest display of covenant love and faithfulness. Especially was this indicated by the crowning appearance of the rainbow; which, from being the token of God’s covenant with Noah, in respect to the future preservation of the earth, was like the hanging out from the throne of the Eternal of a flag of peace, giving assurance to all that the purpose of Heaven was to preserve rather than to destroy, and to fulfil that which was promised in the covenant. Even if the Divine work now to be carried forward in the spiritual world should require, as in the natural world of old, a deluge of wrath for its successful accomplishment, still the faithfulness and love of God would be sure to the children of promise, and would only shine forth the more brightly at last, in consequence of the tribulations which might be needed to prepare the way for the ultimate good.

Such, then, was the form and import of this remarkable vision. There was nothing about it accidental or capricious; all was wisely adjusted and arranged, so as to convey beforehand suitable impressions of that work of God to which Ezekiel was now called to devote himself. It was substantially an exhibition by means of emblematical appearances and actions of the same views of the Divine character and government which were to be unfolded in the successive communications made by Ezekiel to the covenant-people. By a significant representation, the Lord gathered into one magnificent vision the substance of what was to occupy the prophetic agency of his servant; as in later times was done by our Lord to the Evangelist John in the opening vision of the Apocalypse.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Ezekiel 1". "Fairbairn's Commentary on Ezekiel, Jonah and Pastoral Epistles". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/fbn/ezekiel-1.html.
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