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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Ezekiel 1

 

 


Introduction

Chapter 1. The Vision Glorious.

In this chapter Yahweh is revealed as the God Who is over all creation, enthroned in divine splendour over the Universe, Who can work His will wherever and whenever He wishes. And yet at the same time He is the One Who is present with His people even in their exile, and His Spirit is there to act among them.


Verse 1

‘Now it happened in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, in the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives (literally ‘the captivity’) by the River Chebar, that the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.’

Ezekiel regularly dates his visions, but usually in terms of the date of the captivity (Ezekiel 1:2). Thus Ezekiel 1:1 is a bit of an enigma. To what does the ‘thirtieth year’ refer? The probable answer is that it refers to his coming of age as a levitical priest (compare Numbers 4). Although he would never fulfil priestly functions he recognised that God had given him a different ministry among the exiles as a priest-prophet, and that he had now come of age in God’s purposes.

(Other suggestions have included thirty years since the last jubile year, thirty years since the finding of the Law, the thirtieth year of Nabopolassar, the father of Nebuchadnezzar, and so on, but all fail on the basis that this would surely have been mentioned.)

These captives had settled at Tel Abib by the River Chebar (Ezekiel 3:15). The Chebar may possibly be identified with the ‘nari kabari’ (the Great Canal), the name used in a Babylonian text from Nippur for the Shatt-en-Nil canal running east of that city, although it is not certain. There is a poignant note in his words, ‘among the captivity’. They were very much aware of their unhappy position. Jerusalem, their holy city, was far away and they were not free to return. Nebuchadnezzar’s purpose in bringing them there was so that they may settle there and make it a permanent home. They were never intended to return. Their hearts were very heavy.

‘That the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.’ This is an introductory comment on the many things that followed. The phrase ‘the heavens were opened’ is simply an indication that he knew that what he saw came from God. Its source was heavenly. But it was very important. It indicated that God was there and had not forgotten them or totally rejected them.

‘I saw visions of God.’ These words gave hope. It meant that God still had a message for them, and had much to say to them. The first vision of God will now be described. It would be futile to try to analyse what was meant by ‘visions’. We only know that Ezekiel saw the unseeable. We cannot really go further than that. (See Ezekiel 1:26-28; Ezekiel 8:4; Ezekiel 40:2 and compare 2 Kings 6:17).


Verse 2-3

‘In the fifth day of the month, which was the fifth year of king Jehoiachin’s captivity, the word of Yahweh came expressly to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the River Chebar, and the hand of Yahweh was on him there.’

The captivity of Jehoiachin can be precisely dated on the basis of the Babylonian Chronicle tablets to March 597 BC, thus this would be in 592 BC.

The change to the third person does not necessarily indicate different authorship. Having commenced on a personal note, Ezekiel may well now be incorporating an official introduction in the third person to authenticate the book and reveal its authorship. This is especially so as the dating here does not stand by itself but requires Ezekiel 1:1 to tell us that it was the fourth month. (It is quite possible, however, that he may have used a scribe).

The introduction affirms the work to be that of Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi (see also Ezekiel 24:24). But what was more significant was that ‘the word of Yahweh’ came to him ‘in the land of the Chaldeans’ (that is Babylonia). God was not limited by boundaries or location. Note here that central to the visions was the coming of ‘the word of Yahweh’. God had given the visions so as to speak and act among His people.

‘And the hand of Yahweh was on him there.’ Nor was there a limit on His actions. For Ezekiel was not only aware of the word of Yahweh, but he experienced the hand of Yahweh. Indeed wherever His word comes His hand acts, to protect, to strengthen, to guide and to restore. Compare Elijah in 1 Kings 18:46 and Isaiah in Isaiah 8:11. See also Isaiah 25:10; Isaiah 41:10; Isaiah 41:20). But in Ezekiel the working of ‘the hand of Yahweh’ is seen in vivid ways (Ezekiel 3:14; Ezekiel 3:22; Ezekiel 8:1; Ezekiel 33:22; Ezekiel 37:1; Ezekiel 40:1).


Verse 4

The Juggernaut of God (Ezekiel 1:4-28).

‘And I looked, and behold a stormy wind came out of the north, a great cloud, with a fire enfolding itself (or ‘flashing continually’), and a brightness round about it, and out of the midst of it as the colour of amber out of the midst of the fire.’

He describes the scene in terms of a great storm, with the stormy wind, the great cloud and the constantly flashing lightning. But there was an added extra for there was something in the midst of this storm that was like the colour of brightly shining metal (amber), which later he describes as being part of the vision of God (see Ezekiel 1:27). Storm terminology is regularly used to depict theophanies elsewhere (Job 38:1; Job 40:6; Psalms 18:9-15; Psalms 18:29; Zechariah 9:14 and compare Acts 2:1-4).

‘Behold a stormy wind came out of the north.’ The idea of winds associated with the living creatures (Ezekiel 1:5) reminds us of 2 Samuel 22:11; Psalms 18:10, ‘He rode upon a cherub and did fly, yes, He flew swiftly on the wings of the wind’, and this, in context, amidst fire and clouds and darkness. The thought includes speed of movement around the world with no restriction, and active, invisible power. The fact that it came ‘from the north’ indicates that Ezekiel was not so lost in the vision that he was not aware of his whereabouts, although Isaiah 14:13 suggests that ‘the far north’ was seen as the direction in which lay the gathering of the heavenly hosts of Yahweh in ‘the mount of the congregation’, in the heavens, above the stars of God.

‘A great cloud.’ Manifestations of God to His people were regularly described as accompanied by cloud associated with fire (Exodus 19:9; Exodus 19:16; Exodus 24:15-18; Exodus 40:34-38). The idea behind it is that God cannot be seen in His full glory by man. Man cannot see God and live. Therefore God in His mercy approaches in veiled form.

‘A fire enfolding itself, and brightness round about it.’ This reminds us of the flame of a sword (lightning?) that prevented access to the tree of life (Genesis 3:24), and the many times God is revealed in fire (e.g. Genesis 15:17; Exodus 3:2; Exodus 19:16; Exodus 19:18; Exodus 24:17). It revealed that God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29 compare Deuteronomy 4:24), dwelling in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen nor can see (1 Timothy 6:16).

‘And out of the midst of it as the colour of amber out of the midst of the fire.’ By ‘amber’ is indicated the appearance of some kind of brilliantly shining metal. It is used in Ezekiel 1:27 to indicate the appearance of the likeness of the glory of Yahweh.


Verses 5-11

‘And out of the midst of it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance. They had the likeness of a man. And every one had four faces, and every one of them had four wings. And their feet were straight feet, and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf’s foot, and they sparkled like the colour of burnished brass. And they had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides, and they four had their faces and their wings thus. Their wings were joined one to another. They turned not when they went. They went every one straight forward. As for the likeness of their faces, they had the face of a man, and they four had the face of a lion on the right side, and they four had the face of an ox on their left side. They four also had the face of an eagle. And their faces and their wings were separate above. Two (wings) of every one were joined one to another, and two covered their bodies.’

Out of the glory and power of the storm Ezekiel saw four living creatures. In chapter 10 we learn that they were cherubim. These were the bearers and protectors of God’s throne, and guarded the uniqueness of God (compare Genesis 3:24 where they prevented sinful man from living on beyond his span). They were the representatives before God of the whole living creation, for man, lion, ox and eagle represent all living creatures, man, wild beast, domestic animal and bird. As God comes He comes as Lord of creation, accompanied by the watchers over creation.

Excursus on the Cherubim.

The general ‘likeness’ of cherubim was clearly well known to the children of Israel. They represented celestial beings, and unlike angels were seen as having wings, probably eagles’ wings. Yahweh is described as ‘dwelling between (or on) the cherubim’ (1 Samuel 4:4; 2 Samuel 6:2; 2 Kings 19:15; Psalms 80:1; Psalms 99:1 etc.), no doubt with the Ark of the Covenant in mind, sometimes explicitly. In Ezekiel 10 they appear again as bearers of the throne of Yahweh.

They were also clearly connected with the animal world. Thus here and in Ezekiel 10:14 each had the faces of man, lion, ox and eagle, and they had the hands of a man (Ezekiel 1:8; Ezekiel 10:8) and feet like calves’ feet (Ezekiel 1:7). In the Temple they were represented on curtains along with lions (1 Kings 7:36), lions and oxen (1 Kings 7:29), and palm trees and open flowers (1 Kings 6:29; 1 Kings 6:37; 1 Kings 7:36). In the temple they appear to have been two-winged (1 Kings 6:27), but here they have four wings so that they may cover their bodies with two. Compare Isaiah 6:1-6 where the seraphim (‘burning ones’) have six wings, of which four are to cover themselves before God. If we see the wings in 1 Kings 6:27 as the wings of an eagle we have there a parallel combination to that in Ezekiel 1, 10 of lion, ox and eagle. In Ezekiel 41:18-20 they were connected with palm trees and had the faces of a man and a lion.

On the Ark they would seemingly have one face each (unless they have four faces facing in the same direction, which seems unlikely). Thus it is quite likely that their shape was somewhat similar to those found in excavations at Samaria and in Phoenicia with human face, lion body, four legs and two conspicuous and elaborate wings. At Byblos such beings are found supporting the throne of the king. The idea behind the presence of the cherubim is that Yahweh is attended by those who represent the whole of creation, man, wild beast, domestic beast and bird. The palm trees and open flowers on the curtains represent the inanimate creation. They are not quite so closely connected with Yahweh.

Thus they can be represented in various ways and we are not to take the descriptions as referring specifically to literal beings. In Revelation 4:7-8 each living creature represents a different earth creature, lion, calf, man and flying eagle, and they are full of eyes. They are symbolic, rather than literal, representations. Revelation 4 seems to borrow features of both seraphim and cherubim.

Their purpose would seem to be as guardians of eternal life (Genesis 3:24) and of the holiness of God, and as His closest servants and bearers of His throne. An intercessory function has been suggested but this is nowhere explicit in Scripture where they rather concentrate on the worship of Yahweh, confirm the worship of creation, and give the command for the carrying out of God’s judgments (Revelation 4:6-9; Revelation 5:14; Revelation 6:1-8; Revelation 8:13). In 1 Chronicles 28:18 they are spoken of as ‘the chariot’, and thus act as God’s chariot (2 Samuel 22:11; Psalms 18:10).

End of excursus.

‘They had the likeness of a man. And every one had four faces, and every one of them had four wings. And their feet (or ‘legs’) were straight feet (or ‘legs’), and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf’s foot, and they sparkled like the colour of burnished brass. And they had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides.’ The general appearance was that of a man, but with essential differences. Their four faces represented all living creatures, their wings represented birds, their feet represented domestic animals, and possibly indicate sprightliness and nimbleness (Psalms 29:6; Malachi 4:2), their hands (probably four of them on their four sides, but it could be translated ‘and the hands of a man were on the sides of the four of them’) and legs represented man. Furthermore four is the number of earth. One significance of all this is that Yahweh was seen as continually enthroned above creation, and as served by creation.

It may also be that in the man, lion, ox and eagle we are to see rationality (man), fierceness and strength (lion - Proverbs 30:30), service and strength (ox - Psalms 144:14), and swiftness (eagle - Deuteronomy 28:49; 2 Samuel 1:23; Job 9:26; Jeremiah 4:13).

‘And they four had their faces and their wings thus. Their wings were joined one to another. They turned not when they went. They went every one straight forward.’ We can compare this with the cherubim in the temple whose wings were joined (1 Kings 6:27). The idea would seem to be of the unity of creation, all serving God as one, and with one purpose in mind, to please and obey God.

It is difficult to assess whether all were facing the same way, two to the front of the ‘platform’ (Ezekiel 1:22), and two to the back, or whether they all faced outwards forming a square, which might be seen as indicating perfect symmetry.

‘And two covered their bodies.’ Even in their supreme status the cherubim had to cover their bodies in the presence of Yahweh, for they were but creatures. Compare Isaiah 6:2 where the seraphim covered face and feet. None are worthy of His presence. All, even these majestic heavenly creatures, must cover themselves before Him.


Verse 12

‘And they went every one straight forward. Where the Spirit was to go they went. They turned not when they went.’

The idea behind this is total obedience. Their one purpose was to do what God wanted. Nothing could divert them. They obeyed the prompting of the Spirit of God, as God prompted them from His throne.

Alternative interpretations have been, 1). That ‘where the wind was to go they went’. But the idea is then similar for the wind was the wind of God. 2). That they followed the promptings of their own spirits (Ezekiel 1:21). But the impression there is that their spirits follow the Spirit (Ezekiel 1:20). They were not there to do their own will, but the will of Him whose throne they bore.


Verse 13-14

‘As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, like the appearance of torches. It went up and down among the living creatures, and the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning. And the living creatures ran and returned (RSV ‘darted to and fro) as the appearance of a flash of lightning.’

The writer calls on all the resources known to man as sources for the splendour of light, apart from the heavenly bodies (which he would not wish to associate with the scene due to their significance in Babylonian worship). ‘Burning coals of fire’, ‘torches’ and ‘lightning’. The thought is of splendour and glory, and swiftness, and holiness and possibly resulting judgment. The idea is not to analyse but to wonder at the glory and splendour of the sight.


Verses 15-17

‘Now as I beheld the living creatures, behold one wheel upon earth beside the living creatures, for each of their four faces. The appearance of the wheels and their work was like the colour of topaz, and they four had one likeness, and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel within a wheel. When they went they went to their four sides. They did not turn when they went.’

By each living creature was a wheel, each similar to the other, yet not like an earthly wheel, although it rode upon the earth, for seemingly the wheels went all ways. We cannot be fully sure what the description meant, but the principle is clear. They were splendid, like gleaming yellow topaz or chrysolite, they rolled over the earth bearing the platform on which was God’s throne, they could go all ways, and they went forward without turning to one side or the other. It was the divine chariot of God. There may be some connection with whirlwinds for in chapter 10 they are called ‘the whirlers’, possibly likening them to whirlwinds.

Note the continued emphasis on the fact that its path never deviated. As Ezekiel watched, it came inevitably and inexorably on. Nothing could stop it.


Verse 18

‘As for their rims (‘rings’) they were high and frightening, and they four had their rims full of eyes round about.’

This may suggest the huge size of the wheels as it sped on, ‘high and frightening’. No wonder the whole thing could be described as terrifying, for it raced towards him like a great juggernaut, a giant chariot-throne of God. Adding to the effect was the fact that the rims were full of eyes. The idea would seem to be that the chariot itself saw where it was going, and espied everything, communicating it to the living creatures, for the wheels were closely associated with the living creatures. We can compare the seven eyes on the stone set before Joshua, the High Priest (Zechariah 3:9), which indicated ‘the eyes of Yahweh, they run to and fro over the whole earth’ (Zechariah 4:10; compare also 2 Chronicles 16:9; Proverbs 15:3; Revelation 4:6).


Verses 19-21

‘And when the living creatures went, the wheels went beside them, and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up. Wherever the Spirit was to go, they went. There was the spirit to go. And the wheels were lifted up beside them, for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels. When those went, these went, and when those stood, these stood. And when those were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up beside them, for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.’

The close connection of the wheels with the living creatures is stressed. They were as one, the wheels following the movements of the living creatures. And the chariot was not earthbound. When the living creatures rose into the air, the chariot and the wheels rose with them, for the wheels contained the spirit of the living creatures. And the movement of the living creatures was dependent on the will of the Spirit of God (compare Ezekiel 1:12). Wherever he would go, they went.


Verse 22-23

‘And over the head of the living creature there was the likeness of a firm level surface, like the colour of awesome ice stretched out over above their heads. And under the firm level surface were their wings, straight, the one towards the other. Every one had two which covered on this side, and every one had two which covered on that side, their bodies.’

Above the cherubim was the platform on which the throne of God was set (Ezekiel 1:26) and it was held up by their wings. But note the emphasis again on the fact that they had two wings with which to cover their bodies. Their task was a sacred task, and they must not presume or come ‘naked’ before the Holy One. The platform was like the colour of ‘awesome ice’, another attempt to stress the otherworldliness and divine splendour of the chariot.


Verse 24

‘And when they went I heard the noise of their wings, like the noise of great waters, like the voice of the Almighty (El Shaddai), a noise of tumult like the noise of a host. When they stood they let down their wings.’

As the chariot moved onwards Ezekiel heard the sound of the wings of the living creatures as they propelled it forwards. It was a powerful sound, like the sound of great waters, of a mountain torrent, or like the mighty breakers of the sea (compare Psalms 93:4. See also Revelation 1:15). It was like the voice of the Almighty. It was like the sound of tumult at the movement of a great army. He is fighting for ideas to describe the powerfulness and awesomeness of the noise. And then when the chariot stopped, the noise of their wings ceased, for they let down their wings, and there was a great calm.

We can understand why it had such a great effect on him, this mighty heavenly chariot speeding towards him like a great juggernaut, sometimes rolling over the ground, sometimes flying like an eagle, with the splendour and the glory and the flashing of lightning, and the terrible, terrible noise of their wings, punctuated by silence when the chariot paused. And yet there was more to it than that, for there was also the rider of the chariot, as yet undescribed.


Verses 25-28

‘And there was a voice above the levelled out plate that was over their heads. When they stood they let down their wings. And above the levelled out plate that was over their heads, was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone. And on the likeness of the throne was a likeness as the appearance of a man on it above. And I saw as the colour of brightly shining metal (amber), 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 there was brightness round about him. As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of Yahweh.’

The word ‘appearance’ occurs in the passage nine times. Again he was fighting for words to describe what he saw and could not describe it exactly. First there was the voice. What it said is revealed in chapter 2. Then there was ‘the likeness of a throne’, and ‘the likeness as of the appearance of a man’. Both indefinite and yet telling. This was Yahweh’s movable throne, similar to the mercy seat above the Ark, but with the cherubim accompanying it and bearing it along. And the appearance of a man was Yahweh revealed in human form as in Genesis 18:1; compare Exodus 33:18-23; Daniel 7:9; Revelation 4:2-3. In the midst of the living creatures, who represented all living creatures,Hissole concern here was with man. But His appearance was ‘as a man’, yet not a man.

The throne shone like the deep blue, with ‘golden’ flecks, of the sapphire (sappir) or lapis lazuli, a highly valued semi-precious stone (compare Ezekiel 10:1; Exodus 24:10). The ‘man’ shone like ‘amber’ (compare Ezekiel 8:2), which was some kind of brilliantly shining metal with the appearance of fire within it, upwards from the loins, and he was like the appearance of fire from the loins downwards (compare Revelation 10:1), signifying that He was a heavenly Being. Fire is both awesome and destructive, especially for those who go too near. Then he adds, ‘and there was brightness round about Him’. The picture is intended to be one of total glory. In all this we must remember that the amber shone through the cloud (Ezekiel 1:4). He did not see the full glory of God.

For the throne of God compare Exodus 19:20; Isaiah 6:1-3; Daniel 7:9; Revelation 4:2-3).

The ‘brightness round about Him’ is now described. It was the multicoloured brightness of the rainbow (compare Revelation 4:2-3). The throne and the cherubim have been a reminder of the covenant with Israel, for in the Tabernacle they were above Ark of the covenant of Yahweh, the rainbow is a reminder of the covenant with Noah (Genesis 9:12-15). This was the God of covenant, the covenant with Israel and the covenant with all men.

‘This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of Yahweh.’ It is this with which he finishes his vision. The likeness of the glory of Yahweh. This is what will sustain him through his ministry ahead. He does not claim to have seen God in His fullness, but he has seen something of the appearance of His likeness. This does not mean that God essentially looks like a man. It was what was different about Him that was the appearance of His likeness. But in representing Himself in physical form He chose the highest of His creations. We need to remember that when angels appeared to men, they also appeared as ‘a man’.


Verse 28

‘And when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard a voice of one who spoke.’

Having seen God, even though veiled, was something that stirred Ezekiel to the depths of his being, and was something he would never forget. It put the past and the future in a new light. He had seen God as the omnipotent One on His throne, as the omniscient One whose eyes saw everywhere, and as the omnipresent One in constant movement about the world. He was there with them in Babylon, and He was there on His throne. The effect of the experience appears constantly throughout the book (Ezekiel 3:12; Ezekiel 3:23; Ezekiel 8:4; Ezekiel 9:3; Ezekiel 10:4; Ezekiel 10:18; Ezekiel 11:22; Ezekiel 43:2-5; Ezekiel 44:4).

‘I fell on my face.’ An indication of total submission and worship.

‘And I heard a voice of one who spoke.’ Compare Ezekiel 1:25. In the end this was the purpose of the revelation he had received, that he might receive God’s word to pass on to God’s people.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Ezekiel 1:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/ezekiel-1.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, November 28th, 2020
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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