A Spectacular Vision

Ezekiel 1

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
July 2017

Last week, we began our study of the book of Ezekiel.  We looked at the background of the book.  Today, we begin looking at Ezekiel 1, which is perhaps the most important chapter in the book. The book begins with an incredible vision.  It is a vision of God.

Ezekiel did not ask for this vision.  He did not pray for this vision, like Moses did.  Moses, you remember, asked to see the glory of God.  Ezekiel does not fast and pray.  He does not do anything special that we know and God shows up. He shows up suddenly and unexpectedly.

He does not show up in Jerusalem or in the Temple.  He shows up in the  of Babylon.  He shows up in a pagan idolatrous land.  That is like the glory of God showing up in some God forsaken place like North Korea.

This revelation had a big impact on Ezekiel.  You cannot see God and not be changed. Anyone who has a genuine encounter with the living God will be radically transformed.  Ezekiel had religion.  He had been trained to be a priest and work in the Temple.  Now, he sees God and falls on his face, completely prostrate before God.  This vision affected Ezekiel for the rest of his life.

Ezekiel and John

Ezekiel’s vision was very similar to a vision that the author of the Book of Revelation had.  There are so many similarities between the two. Both men were captives.  Neither of these men were free.  Both were in foreign countries. John was in prison for his faith on the Island of Patmos.  Ezekiel was exiled to Babylon.

Both saw the heavens opened (Revelation 4;1; Ezekiel 1:1).  Both saw visions of God sitting on a throne (Revelation 4; Ezekiel 1).

Both saw Jesus.  John saw the resurrected and glorified Christ.  Ezekiel also saw Jesus.  He saw the pre-incarnate Christ six hundred years before he was born.  He saw Jesus sitting on His throne in his glory supported by powerful angels.

Both were told to prophesy (Revelation 10:11; Ezekiel 13:1-2; 21:1-3; 25:1; 34:1; 37:4-10).  Both were told to eat a book (Revelation 10; Ezekiel 2).  Both mention Gog and Magog (Revelation 20; Ezekiel 38-39).

Both have a lament over cities (Ezekiel 27, 30; Revelation 18).  Both saw the lion, ox, eagle and man (Revelation 4; Ezekiel 1).  Both saw four living creatures and both creatures are full of eyes (Revelation 4:6; Ezekiel 10:12).

Both heard the sound of many waters (Revelation 1:15; Ezekiel 1:24). Both call cities prostitutes.  Ezekiel called Jerusalem a prostitute (Ezekiel 16, 23).  John called Babylon a whore (Revelation 17-18).

Both were teleported by the Spirit to different places supernaturally (Revelation 4:1; Ezekiel 8:3; 11:1; 40:1-3). Both had a similar reaction to their initial vision of God. They both fell down flat on their face (Revelation 1:17; Ezekiel 1:28).

The Setting of the Vision

God appeared to the Apostle John in his 90s.  He appeared to Moses in his 80s at the Burning Bush.  He appeared to Ezekiel when he was only 30.  He did not appear to him in a dream but in a vision.  Dreams take place while you are asleep. Ezekiel was awake when this happened.  He was outside by a river. 

This vision took place outdoors in the summer of July 593 BC.  It took place in the country of Babylon (modern-day Iraq).  It took place five years after Ezekiel was deported to the country.  Ezekiel was outside walking around the river bank.  He looked up and saw the most spectacular sight he had ever seen in his life.

The heavens right now are closed  They are locked but God opened them and Ezekiel was given a chance to see into another world and that world is completely different from our world.  This did not happen every day. This is the only time in the OT that we are told that the heavens were opened and Ezekiel saw an incredible sight.

What we have in Ezekiel 1 is the most detailed description of God in the OT.  There are a lot of theophanies in the OT but many do not describe what they see.  Moses asked God to see His glory.  God walked by but covered Moses’ eyes.  He does not describe what God’s glory looked like.

God invited seventy of the leaders to come up Mount Sinai and they got an appearance of God.  The only thing mentioned in that vision was a pavement of sapphire that was under his feet (Exodus 24:10).  Ezekiel gets a vision of God.  He saw God’s throne.  He saw the one who was sitting on that throne and described Him.

Before we look at the chapter, a little warning is necessary. Many have never heard some of the things that are in this chapter. You can go to the average church in America for forty or fifty years and never hear a single sermon on this chapter.

This is a hard chapter. A scholar who lived in the 16th century said, “In the whole OT, nothing is more obscure than the beginning and end of the book of Ezekiel.”[1]  Many of the things that we will read in this chapter may seem foreign.

They may seem far-fetched or hard to imagine.  Parts of it are even hard to visualize and we do not have any pictures or videos of this vision. I want to begin with three common errors that people make when reading this chapter.

Three Common Errors

1) The first error is to focus on all of the details

Some preachers focus on all the details and miss the big picture.  Beware in getting lost in all the details.  Many have described the first chapter as the vision of the four living creatures or Ezekiel’s famous wheel vision and they miss the whole point of the chapter.  This was not just a vision of wheels or of four fantastic beasts.  It was a vision of God on His throne.

2) The second error is to take everything literally

Most of us believing in interpreting the Bible literally but this is apocalyptic.  There is a lot of symbolism in apocalyptic literature. There are four creatures, four faces, four wings, and four wheels. The lion, ox, eagle and man mentioned are all symbolic.  The eyes on the wheels and wings are symbolic.

Why does Ezekiel use symbolic language?  This vision of God was so incredible that he had difficulty explaining exactly what he saw in human language.  He saw spinning things, burning things, flashing things, and sparkling things and he is at a loss for words.

How do you describe the indescribable?  Ezekiel cannot tell us what it is, just what it looks like.  A member of the Ezekiel class gave a good example of this.  Someone who lived a thousand yeas ago and saw a computer would not know how to describe it.  Figurative language would have to be used to describe it.  We see this all throughout the chapter.  Notice, for example Ezekiel 1:26-28.

26 And above the expanse over their heads there was the LIKENESS of a throne, in APPEARANCE LIKE sapphire; and seated above the LIKENESS of a throne was a LIKENESS with a human appearance. 27 And upward from what had the APPEARANCE of his waist I saw as it were gleaming metal, LIKE the appearance of fire enclosed all around. And downward from what had the APPEARANCE of his waist I saw as it were the APPEARANCE of fire, and there was brightness around him. 28 LIKE the APPEARANCE of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the APPEARANCE of the brightness all around. (ESV)

3) The third error is to read things into the text

Christians do this all the time today.  They are not interpreting the Bible.  They are proof-texting.  They are not looking to see what the Bible actually says.  They are looking for a verse that supports what they believe.  Preachers are guilty of this all the time.

Some read all kinds of things into Ezekiel 1 that are not there.  They read the chapter and see aliens.  They think this chapter describes a vision of extraterrestrials.   It doesn’t.  Ezekiel makes clear what this is a vision of.  We find that out from the first and last verse of the chapter.

The first verse of the chapter says that this is a VISION OF GOD (1:1).  The last verse of the chapter says that it is a VISION OF THE GLORY OF GOD (1:28).  There is a vehicle mentioned in the chapter, as we will see, but it is not a flying saucer from another planet.

Six Elements of Ezekiel’s Vision

Let’s take a quick look at this amazing theophany.  God appears to Ezekiel in an amazing vision.  What did he see?  He saw six things.

1) Ezekiel saw a WINDSTORM (1:4)

It all begins with a storm.  Ezekiel sees a dark storm cloud coming from the north.  God appeared to Moses in a burning bush.  He appeared to Ezekiel in a storm (cf. Job 38:1).  God showed up IN the storm, like He does to believers today.

As I looked, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, and a great cloud, with brightness around it, and fire flashing forth continually, and in the midst of the fire, as it were gleaming metal. And from the midst of it came the likeness of four living creatures (1:4-5 ESV)

2) Ezekiel saw a GREAT CLOUD (1:4)

Wind storms or dust storms are natural, especially if you live close to the desert but then Ezekiel saw a cloud.  This cloud was not natural.  It was not a rain cloud.  It was supernatural cloud.  It had bright light and fire flashing from it.  It was a glory cloud. This cloud looked like it was on fire.

3) Ezekiel saw FOUR LIVING CREATURES (1:5-14)

Then, something amazing happens.  Four supernatural beings emerge from the center of this cloud.  What are these beings?  They have four faces and four wings. They are not aliens. They are angels. We know that from Ezekiel 10:20.

These were the living creatures that I saw underneath the God of Israel by the Chebar canal; and I knew that they were cherubim. 21 Each had four faces, and each four wings, and underneath their wings the likeness of human hands.

God created angels in ranks.  There are all kinds of different angels.   The Bible mentions regular angels.  It mentions archangels.  It mentions seraphim.  It mentions cherubim.  It mentions guardian angels.  It mentions ministering angels.  These four living creatures are cherubs.  They do not look anything like modern pictures of fat little baby cherubs.

These are real cherubs. Apparently, the cherubim are the highest order of angels.  They are the highest order of created beings. Satan used to be one of them before he fell.  We know that from Ezekiel 28.  They are guardians of the throne.  They are God’s heavenly bodyguard.

They are instruments of God’s justice and judgment on the earth.  When Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden, God put some cherubim there with “a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Genesis 3:24 ESV)

There were four cherubim in the Tabernacle but they were artistic renderings of the cherubim (two on the curtains and two on top of the Ark of the Covenant).  Ezekiel saw four real cherubim and they are very different from us. They glow like fire (1:13).

They are much more powerful that we are.  They are stronger.  They are faster.  They not only have legs; they have wings.  They can move with incredible speed like a flash of lightening (1:14). They are smarter than we are.

They have eyes all over their bodies and they have four faces which means that they can see in all directions without having to turn their head.  We only have one face, although some people have two faces.

These four living creatures work together.  There is unity among them.  Their wings touch (1:9, 11) just like in the on the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies.  They work in perfect unity and harmony.  They all move in the same direction.

Wherever the Spirit goes, they go (1:12, 20).  Wouldn’t it be great if Christians acted that way today?  The Holy Spirit is never grieved with these creatures.  They do exactly what the Spirit wants them to do.  They do it perfectly.  They do it quickly.

4) Ezekiel saw a WHEELED VEHICLE (1:15-21)

This is interesting.  Ezekiel not only saw four living creatures, he saw a wheel beside each one.  He saw four total wheels and these wheels were big.  Most commentators believe these wheels are chariot wheels.  This is a four wheeled chariot.

Ezekiel does not use that word here but Jewish tradition associates this with God’s heavenly throne chariot.[2] They call it the merkabah.  It is pronounced mare-kah-vah.  It is the Hebrew word for “chariot”.  This throne was mobile.  It was portable chariot car.  The Holy of Holies was an earthly picture of the heavenly portable temple. This was a heavenly wheeled Holy of Holies.

Many get hung up on the wheels.  What exactly did they look like?  Did it look like a gyroscope?  No one knows.  The point of the wheels is that it could go anywhere in any direction but this chariot was not limited to wheels.  It also flew.  Ezekiel saw it in the sky. These wheels had eyes.  It knew where it was going and it only went where the Spirit took them.

5) Ezekiel saw a FIRMAMENT (1:22-25)

Ezekiel saw wheels at the bottom of the four living creatures and above them he saw a firmament.  The Hebrew word is raqia.  It is the same word used in Genesis of the firmament God created.  It was shiny.  This firmament is the platform on which the heavenly throne sits.  It almost looks like the cherubim hold this firmament up over their heads.

6) Ezekiel saw a blue THRONE (1:26-28)

Ezekiel finally looks above the platform and sees God’s throne and it was blue.  It looked like sapphire or lapis lazuli, as some translate it.  We have seen that before.  When the leaders of Israel went up to Mount Sinai and had a vision of God they also saw a pavement of sapphire stone under his feet (24:9-10).

Blue is my favorite color.  It may be God’s favorite color.  He made the sky blue and the water in the ocean looks blue and that is seventy percent of the planet and now we learn that His throne is bright blue.

After seeing a throne, he sees the God of Israel sitting on this throne. What did He look like?  He looked like a man but it was no ordinary man.  This man was on fire.  He was a fire man.  He was on fire from his waist down.

Lessons from a Theophany

What was the point of this theophany?  What did Ezekiel learn from it and what should we take away as well?  What are three lessons from Ezekiel’s fresh encounter with God?

1) This theophany tells us something about GOD

This chapter gives us a biblical vision of God, which is very much needed today.

God is HOLY. He is a consuming fire. He is MAJESTIC. He is above everything. He is high and lifted up.  He is SOVEREIGN. He sits on his throne.  God is the supreme ruler of the universe.  He rules it from his throne.  He is not dead.  He is alive and active, even when he does not seem to be and even when you do not see Him at work. God is not stationary.

The ancients thought that gods were limited to a certain geographic location.  The God of the Jews was limited to Israel.  He cannot be restricted.  God can go anywhere He wants.  He can cross into the border of Babylon.

He does not need a passport.  He does not have to ask permission.  His throne has wheels and the four living creatures have wings.  God is not limited to Jerusalem or to the Holy of Holies.  He is not limited to sacred sites.

He is OMNISCIENT. His wheels have eyes. He knows all things.  He is OMNIPOTENT. His voice thunders from His throne. He is surrounded by mighty angels.  The gods of Babylon were not more powerful than the God of Israel.

That was the prevailing wisdom at the time.  If Babylon defeated Jerusalem, their gods must be greater. He is PERSONAL. He spoke directly to Ezekiel. He is MERCIFUL. There is a rainbow of mercy around his royal seat.

2) This theophany tells us something about TRIALS

A fresh view of God will change you whole perspective on life and on problems.  Our problem is that too often we do not focus on God.  We focus on our problems. In the midst of the storms of life, God is still sitting on His throne.  He was sitting on his throne, even though some Jews were deported to Babylon.

God is on his throne no matter how bad things are on earth.  He is on His throne no matter how bad things are in your life.  He is with us IN the storms.  He did not take them out of the storm.  They would be in captivity for about another sixty years but he could be with them in that trial.

The Jews were in Babylon because of sin.  They were experiencing divine discipline but, despite this fact, God demonstrated His presence with his people in a pagan land in their darkest hour.  They were not forgotten.  When we are in a bad trial, we sometimes think that God does not know what is going on.  He knows everything.  He sees it all and he cares for us.

3) This theophany tells us something about MINISTRY

Before you have a ministry with people, you have to have a fresh encounter with God.  An important part of ministry is being facedown in the dust before God (1:28).  Before you have any type of successful ministry, you have to spend time with God.

Before you have any type of successful ministry, you have to have a word from God.  God has to speak to you.  He spoke to Ezekiel (1:3).  Before you have any type of successful ministry, God’s hand has to be on you.  It was on Ezekiel (1:3) and can be on you as well.  We will talk more about Ezekiel’s call to ministry next week.

[1] The quote comes from Isaac Casaubon, as cited in John Peter Lange, Commentary on the Holy Scriptures VII, 36.

[2] Sirach 49:8 calls it “the chariot of the cherubim.”

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