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by Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg
The Author’s Preface
THERE are two kinds of commentaries on Holy Scripture—those that are more adapted for perusal, and those that are more suitable for reference. Both are necessary, and it would not be desirable that either should exclude the other. The present work belongs to the former class. The progress in it is rapid, and the whole is designed to give the reader a clear view of the reality of Ezekiel, and in this grand prophetical figure to bring before his mind at the same time the nature of prophecy in general.
The time is no longer distant when every pastor worthy of his calling will make it a rule of life to read his chapter daily, as in the original text of the New Testament, so also in that of the Old Testament. The exposition of Scripture must meet such a laudable custom, which is formed even in education. There is a want of such expositions of the books of the Old Testament, as truly correspond with the requirements of the clerical office. The author has here earnestly aimed at this object. How far he has succeeded it is not for him to judge, but for those for whom he has written. It will depend very much on this, whether he has succeeded in edifying without going out of his proper sphere by the introduction of ascetic considerations.
The present work, however, is not designed solely for the clergy. It will also meet the desire awakening among the educated laity to penetrate more deeply into Scripture. There are many who would rather take from the first than the second hand, whom the annotated Bibles do not satisfy, the authors of which cannot do otherwise than repeat in a convenient form what others have said before them. The text is here so arranged throughout, that it presents no difficulties or hindrances to those who are not acquainted with the original language of Scripture. Everything verbal is referred to the notes, and even in these is treated only so far as the Lexicon and Grammar do not suffice.
The author has throughout compared Luther’s version with his own. Though the time has not come for an improvement of this imperishable work, yet it appears not unsuitable even now to gather stones for a building fitted for better times, for which much more may certainly be done by individual labour than by commissions.
Ezekiel prophesied in a time of great decision, in a time of the “iniquity of the end,” in which sin was ripe, and with it punishment. He is exactly the prophet for our times. Whosoever penetrates into him will be deeply stirred by his earnestness, and will feel himself impelled to exert all his powers, that the crisis on which we have entered may be brought to a prosperous issue. At the same time, however. if it should please God to bring great sifting judgments upon us, to pull down what He has built up, and to root out what He has planted, we may gain from Him an immoveable confidence in the final victory of the kingdom of God, who kills and makes alive, wounds and heals, and who, after He has sent the darkest cloud, at length remembers His covenant, and displays His shining bow.
[It is only necessary to add to the Author’s Preface, that mere citations from Luther’s version are omitted, as not necessary for the English reader, and that the two parts of the original work are here combined, so that the reader has the whole Commentary on Ezekiel, with the Appendix, in one volume. The theologian may not agree with every opinion advanced in this volume; but he will find it one of the freshest and most edifying productions of the esteemed author.—TR.]
EZEKIEL, carried into exile in the captivity of Jehoiachin, seven years after the beginning of the Chaldean bondage, eleven years before the destruction of the city, appeared there as prophet in the fifth year after his captivity, in the thirtieth year of his life (ch. Ezekiel 1:1). The latest date which we find in the superscriptions of his prophecies is the twenty-seventh year of the captivity of Jehoiachin (ch. Ezekiel 29:17), so that the historically ascertained period of the prophet’s activity embraced twenty-two years. It was shown that the prophet had precisely in that period a definite occasion for the collection of his prophecies.
The prophecies contained in the present collection, like those of the contemporary Daniel, are all provided with chronological superscriptions. These are in all twelve, of which six belong to native prophecies, and six to prophecies against foreign nations,—[ Ezekiel 16:1, Ezekiel 29:1, Ezekiel 29:17, Ezekiel 31:1, Ezekiel 32:1, Ezekiel 32:17. The collection falls into two main parts,—prophecies before and prophecies after the destruction of Jerusalem. That we may not, with some, make the prophecies against foreign nations in ch. Ezekiel 15:1 to Ezekiel 32:32 a special main part, that they are rather to be considered an appendix to the prophecies before the destruction, is manifest: 1. Because the beginning of these predictions in Ezekiel 25 is connected with the last native prophecy before the destruction in one chronologically determined section; 2. Because the section ch. Ezekiel 33:1-20 forms the literary close to ch. Ezekiel 1:1 to Ezekiel 32:32; and with special reference to the main portion, ch. Ezekiel 1:1 to Ezekiel 24:27, gives some nota benes concerning the whole previous literary activity of Ezekiel.
The essential character of the first part is threatening; that of the second, promise.
The starting-point of the first main part is a great anti-Chaldaic coalition, and the danger connected with it of the people failing to discern the signs of the times.
The first main part contains four groups of native prophecies— ch. Ezekiel 1:1 to Ezekiel 7:27, Ezekiel 8:1 to Ezekiel 19:14, Ezekiel 20:1 to Ezekiel 23:49, and Ezekiel 24—in regular chronological sequence. The first dates from the fifth year of Jehoiachin, a time when the formation of the coalition began to fill men’s minds with joyful hopes; the last from the tenth day of the tenth month in the ninth year of Jehoiachin,—the fatal day of the opening of the siege of Jerusalem, which put an end to the hopes founded on the coalition.
The mission of the prophet in these four groups is to make clear to the people the import of the great Chaldean catastrophe, and to bring them to understand the day of their visitation, and escape the miserable fate of those who are severely afflicted, without gaining the peaceable fruit of righteousness. To the book of the works no less than to the book of the words of God we may apply the saying, “Understandest thou what thou readest?” It was the great privilege of the people of God, that such an interpretation always went along with the doings of God. The prophet leads the people to discover in the coming event a long reckoning of God,—the visitation of a guilt that goes back to the very origin of the people. He makes every effort to bring the people to acknowledge the depth of their corruption, which alone could account for their sufferings, and thus not send them far from their God, but connect them closely with Him. The destined event, thus recognised in its necessity, had to be represented as inevitable. The prophet is inexhaustible in the denunciation of the foolish hopes of the people, before whose eyes he portrays the future calamity as if it were already present, as indeed the roots of it in reality were; inexhaustible also in the destruction of the false views concerning the source of the approaching suffering, and the beating down of the craftiness of the natural man, who in the deep indwelling antipathy to repentance makes every effort to cast the blame on God. He deals annihilating blows to those who led the people away from the way of repentance, and flattered them with foolish hopes. The radiant point in these discourses is the grand survey of the whole past development of Israel in ch. Ezekiel 23, which places before our eyes the figure of a people such as they ought not to be, and the result of which is, that the judgment is inevitable. Few sections of Scripture call so powerfully as these for earnest self-examination.
At the close of ch. Ezekiel 24 the prophet announces that native predictions will now be silent, until with the execution of the judgment a new beginning for the prophetic activity be given. The servant is silent in the beginning of the practical discourse of the Master Himself, for the understanding of which sufficient provision has been made. But with the previous ending of native prophecy is connected the beginning of the prophet’s activity in regard to foreign nations. This connection is shown by this, that the beginning of this activity is included in the same section with the closing prophecy conceirning Judah. The prophecies against foreign nations have the special aim to shed a fuller light on the judgment on Judah announced in the native prophecies, and already beginning its course. They give the answer to the natural question, Lord, but what of these? ( John 21:21.) They are all directed against the nations of the anti-Chaldaic coalition, and the executors of the judgments are in them all the Chaldean monarchy. Judah was first to drink the cup (ch. Ezekiel 21:18 f.). God sanctified Himself first on those who were near Him ( Leviticus 10:3); the judgment began at the house of God. It appeared as if the people of the covenant must alone suffer among all the members of the coalition. The scorn of these confederates themselves was poured out on the people of Jehovah (ch. Ezekiel 25:3, Ezekiel 25:6, Ezekiel 26:2); indeed, they made common cause in part with the Chaldeans, and sought to derive advantage from the misfortune of Judah (ch. Ezekiel 35:10). The prophet portrays before the eyes the judgment which in his time will fall upon them. He turns the heart of the people to their God when he points out that for the heathen the judgment has an annihilating character; whereas Israel rises from it to a more glorious state. Thus these predictions against foreign nations appear as the transition from the first part to the second—the comforting and promising part.
Of the foreign nations there are seven, divided into four and three—four neighbouring nations and three world-powers, the last Egypt, which had formed the centre of the coalition; so that there is thus a progress from the less to the greater.
On this side and on that side of the prophecies against foreign nations the arrangement is strictly chronological. There occurs no prophecy which is not chronologically determined; and all prophecies so determined stand in regular order. In the external predictions also the chronological prevails. But a certain deviation must be allowed, otherwise things intimately connected must have been separated. The prophecies are here arranged according to the nations, so that, for ex., all those referring to Egypt come together. Among the prophecies referring to Egypt, that in ch. Ezekiel 29:17 goes before the one in ch. Ezekiel 31:1, which belongs to an earlier period, because it stands in a close relation with the foregoing (ch. Ezekiel 29:1), and resumes it at a time when its fulfilment was close at hand. Although the main body of the external prophecies belong to the time before the term, given in ch. Ezekiel 33:21, of the recommencement of the home prophecies, yet the date of some external prophecies precedes that in ch. Ezekiel 33:21 (ch. Ezekiel 32:1, Ezekiel 32:17), because the external prophecies forming a connected cycle should not be separated from one another, and because the following cycle of home prophecies also should meet with no interruption.
The first part contains in all a decade of prophecies—four native and six foreign. At the close of the first part in ch. Ezekiel 33:1-20 follows, in vers. Ezekiel 33:21-22, the historical introduction to the discourses of the second period; in vers. Ezekiel 33:23-33, the warning and admonishing preparation for the new message,—the mediation, as it were, between it and the first part. With ch. Ezekiel 34 begins the communication of the comforting message. From this forward the prophet is as inexhaustible in comforting as he was before in threatening. The dangerous foe was now despair, as it was before false confidence. Common to the comforting and to the threatening discourses is the pictorial character; the viewing of that which is not as if it were, a result of dependence on God, in whose nature salvation as well as judgment is founded. The comfort is in this first group unfolded in seven paragraphs. In the first discourse (ch. Ezekiel 24) the prophet meets in a soothing manner the grief for the loss of civil government, and places before the eyes of his hearers and readers the bright form of the glorified David, in whom the civil government of the future will culminate. In the second (ch. Ezekiel 25) he portrays the desolation of Seir. The light of Israel is relieved by the shade of Edom, who here represents the nations, who, in their hatred of the kingdom of God, are not fit for it, but are ripe for destruction. The third discourse (ch. Ezekiel 36:1-15) relieves the pain occasioned by the desolation of the holy land. The fourth (ch. Ezekiel 36:16-38) lays down the name of God as the pledge of salvation. The fifth announces the restoration of Israel as a covenant people ch. ( Ezekiel 37:1-14); the sixth, as a brotherly people (vers. Ezekiel 37:15-28). The seventh (ch. Ezekiel 38, Ezekiel 39) represents the renovated people as victorious in every conflict.
The second principal part has only two dates (ch. Ezekiel 33:21 and ch. Ezekiel 40:1), and thus presents only two sections, which increase the ten of the first part to twelve. In the great closing picture in ch. Ezekiel 40:1 to Ezekiel 48:35, the prophet portrays in detail the recovery of all that was lost, in fulfilment of the words of the psalmist, “He keepeth all his bones: not one of them is broken;” and points in the midst of it, in ch. Ezekiel 47:1-12, to the great progress of the kingdom of God in the future.
In the picture of the future drawn by the prophet, the following are the principal traits. Vain is every attempt of the people to avert the threatening misfortune. They must drain to the bottom the cup of the divine wrath (ch. Ezekiel 21:26). Egypt, the power on which their hopes chiefly rest, proves a broken reed: the time of its political importance is for ever gone. But what earth denies, heaven will grant in its own time. After the people have attained to repentance, wrath is followed by grace; all that is lost—the temple, with its priests and worship, the city, the land—is restored. Yet not this alone: the future brings an enhancement of salvation. The people receive a rich treasure of forgiveness of sins (ch. Ezekiel 36:25, Ezekiel 37:23); the Lord takes away the heart of stone, and gives them a heart of flesh ( Ezekiel 11:19); He awakens them by His quickening breath from spiritual death (ch. Ezekiel 37). The centre of all graces is an exalted descendant of David, who will spring from His family when reduced and wholly deprived of the sovereignty, and connect the high-priestly with the kingly office (ch. Ezekiel 21:27, Ezekiel 34:11-31). The blessing is so potent that it extends also to the heathen, who will join themselves to Israel in the time of salvation. According to ch. Ezekiel 34:26, “the environs of his hill” will be partakers of it with Israel; according to ch. Ezekiel 17:22-24, the descendant of David, at first small and inconsiderable, is raised to the sovereignty of the world; according to ch. Ezekiel 47:1-12, the waters of the Dead Sea of the world are healed by the stream from the sanctuary. This great revolution of things, however, will give the old covenant people no cause for self-exaltation; it will rather tend to their deep humiliation. They find salvation only through the redeeming mercy of God in common with the heathen world, sunk deep in sin, to whom they are become like, as in sin, so in punishment (ch. Ezekiel 16:53-63). And then in the future, along with grace, which is only for the willing, comes also judgment. The prophet announces in ch. Ezekiel 5:4 a second annihilating judgment, which after the Chaldean will come upon the people restored by the grace of God,—a fire which will devour the people as such, and leave only an election of them which participates in the blessings of salvation.
The name of the prophet denotes one in relation to whom God is strong (p. 5), who speaks not out of his own heart, but is moved and determined by a supernatural power. The verification of this name we have in the prophecies before us. That which the Lord said to Peter applies to him, “Flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but the Father in heaven.” None of His words have fallen to the ground. The whole course of history has verified His word in ch. Ezekiel 33:33: “They shall know that a prophet was in the midst of them.”
Appendix—The Cherubim 
WHAT Christian should not feel a desire to know the nature of the cherubim? When we sing the Ambrosian anthem, we dwell with special emotion of heart on the words: “The cherubim and seraphim, and all angels, serve Him.” As long as the nature of the cherubim is concealed from us, a whole series of scriptural passages is inaccessible to us. The cherubim occur in the Old Testament no less than eighty-five times. They meet us in the very first pages of revelation: the cherubim and the flame of the blazing sword repel the parents of our race from the tree of life. In the tabernacle and in the temple of Solomon the cherubim receive an important place. The grand visions of Ezekiel in ch. Ezekiel 1 and Ezekiel 10, even on a superficial examination, awakening the anticipation of a glorious meaning, and presenting a fulness of earnest warning and comfort, are sealed to us, if we have not learned the nature of the cherubim. In the Psalms God appears enthroned on the cherubim, as the firm ground for the confidence of His people; and whosoever will be a partaker of this confidence, must before all know what the cherubim are to signify. Even in the New Testament the holy enigma of the cherubim meets us. John, in the Revelation, sees in the midst of the throne, and about the throne, four beasts full of eyes before and behind, that had no rest day and night, saying. Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty.
The right knowledge of the cherubim, however, has a special interest for our own times. The opposition therein existing has its last root in the proper foundations of this knowledge. All questions that now move the heart most deeply go back to the one, whether the first article in our Confession of Faith be true or not. Whosoever is at home in this article, into which he has entered in heart and life, to him the other two give no trouble; and whosoever shrinks from these, thereby shows that he has not yet truly received the first article into his heart, even though he may have confessed it with his mouth. Janet, in his work On the Materialism of our Time in Germany  says: “Two fundamentally different views of the world and of nature prevail at present. According to the one, the world is only a descending series of causes and effects; something exists from all eternity with certain original properties. From these properties spring phenomena; from the combination of these phenomena arise new phenomena, which on their part give existence to others, and so on without end. There are undesigned and unforeseen wild movements and leaps, which, thanks to the co-operation of a boundless term, have carried on the world as we now see it to-day. According to the other, the world is an organic and living being that developes itself according to an idea, and raises itself gradually to the completion of a nature eternally inaccessible in its infinite perfection. Each of these steps is conditioned not only by that which precedes it, but also by that which follows it. Each step is designed for progress by the effect which it must introduce. Thus we see nature ascend from dead matter to life, and from life to feeling and thought. According to this view, nature is no longer a kind of play, in which all things are due to accident, whereby an effect is brought out somewhere: it has a plan, a reason, an idea. It is not a kind of improvisation, where each speaks, and thence arises an apparent discourse: it is a real poem, a drama directed by wisdom, where all the threads of the action, however intricate they may be, unite to a definite end. It is an ascending series of means and ends. A first thought has selected and directed. Among the endlessly varied tendencies in which the world was involved by the unconscious and irregular impulse of mechanical causes, one tendency has prevailed over all. As a horse turned from his path, and urged by a blind rage into a bold course, may strike into a thousand different ways, but when held back and guided by a strong and wary hand, takes only the one which leads to the end; so blind nature, held fast from her origin under the yoke of an incomprehensible will, and guided by a concealed master, ever advances, step by step, with a movement full of grandeur and dignity, to the ideal whose influence rules and animates it. The idea guides the all: it is in the beginning, in the middle, at the end; and nothing arises that is devoid of the idea.” In the chief conflict of our times, which, recognised in its significance, makes the oppositions of churches and confessions, important though they may be, ever appear as subordinate, the cherubim, understood in their true nature, give not only a firm hold for the thoughts, but at the same time fill the imagination with a holy image, which, once gained, ever enlightens anew, and precludes the opposite destructive views from all access to the mind.
The time of mere assertion in the exposition of holy Scripture is past, although many are unwilling to observe this. It is necessary, therefore, in regard to the cherubim, to prove that they are the ideal concentration of the animal kingdom; and on this proof we will now enter.
In regard to the name cherubim, men have given way to manifold “conjectures; and the end has been, that they have despaired of any interpretation. The cause of this despaired of lies in the incorrect definition of the nature of the cherubim. As soon as we recognise in the cherub the ideal unity of the animal creation, the interpretation follows of itself. It means, “as a multitude”—the concentration of all multiplicity on earth into a unity. We have the commentary in Ezekiel 1:24: “And I heard the noise of their wings, like the noise of many waters, as the voice of the Almighty in their going, the voice of a roaring like the voice of a host. Here is developed before us the “like many.” 
We turn our eye first to the properly fundamental passage, Genesis 3:24, “And He drove out the man, and placed at the east of the garden of Eden the cherubim and the flame of the flashing sword, to keep the way to the tree of life.”
The thought that most obviously meets us here, in accordance with the original state of the human race, that is pictured as it were before our eyes, is, that by the wrathful omnipotence of God men found themselves wholly excluded from the life which should have been the reward of their true obedience.
The wrath of God is figured by the flashing sword. We may not assign the sword to the cherubs. For it is not said, with the flame (Luther has freely translated, the cherubim with a naked hewing sword), but, and the flame. The sword appears as a second power along with the cherubim. A sword would not indeed suit the many cherubim. And then the cherubim have never and nowhere anything to do with the sword. They are in themselves quite unconcerned with the divine wrath, which is represented by the sword. Under other circumstances, if man were not fallen, they would appear themselves friendly in a friendly circle, as the cherubim on the ark of the covenant already show. As bearer of the sword we have, according to all parallel passages, much more to think of God or His angel, who carries on all His relations with the human race. In the books of Moses himself, it is God who says ( Deuteronomy 32:41), “If I whet the flash of my sword, and my hand take hold on judgment, I will take vengeance on my adversaries, and requite them that hate me.” With drawn sword the angel of the Lord appears to Balaam, and also to David when he sinned in numbering the people ( 1 Chronicles 21:16). Also in Joshua 5:13, Isaiah 34:5, the sword belongs to God and His angel. If, then, the sword is to be placed in the closest relation with God, the same holds good in regard to the cherubim. According to the analogy of all other passages, we shall have to think of God as sitting upon them, as appearing above them; and so much the more, because the cherubim are never employed on any mission like the angels. The seeming independence of the cherubim, as of the sword, is only put forward, in order that these points in the whole phenomenon might engage the attention of the first men—namely, the wrath of God and His omnipotence, which are sufficient to show that every attempt to reach that which is prohibited is foolish and vain. “He placed the cherubim and the sword,” then, is as much as to say. He that sitteth on the cherubim, and beareth the sword, shut him out. “To place” occurs elsewhere in the sense of setting up ( Joshua 18:1), and is of abiding significance. He set up, not without or beside Himself, but Himself appearing over them. In point of fact, the setting up of the cherubim still takes place after every sin. The conscience calls to the sinner, that he is wholly excluded by the wrath of God from access to salvation. A whole swarm of false views meets us in this passage. The cherubim are not “guardians of paradise” nor “executors of judgment:” they do not serve to exhibit “the majestic presence of God in the attitude of wrath,” with which the cherubim have nothing whatever to do, and which is represented here by the sword alone. Much less still may we say that the garden is given to the cherubs for a dwelling-place: in that case the same must also hold good of the sword. We have here no “mythic being” before us, no “griffin,” but the presentation of an eternally true thought in pictorial form, in the spirit of the olden time, in which the thought of itself took flesh and blood. This is the truth in one of the many unfortunate hypotheses concerning the second and third chapters of Genesis, which regarded the contents of this chapter as an attempt to translate a hieroglyphic picture into words.
Turn we now to the cherubim over the ark of the covenant in the tabernacle. The state of things as it is represented in Exodus 26:16 f. is this. In the ark of the covenant is laid the “testimony,” externally represented by the two tables of the law. Over the testimony is the “mercy-seat,” externally represented by the lid of the ark. Over the mercy-seat rise two cherubim, in close connection with it, externally represented by this, that they are formed of the same mass of gold of which the mercy-seat is made, and, as it were, grow out of it. The cherubs stand on the two ends of the mercy-seat. The faces of the two are directed towards one another. They look down on the mercy-seat. The mercy-seat is covered by their outstretched wings. Over the cherubim sits the Lord, and thence communicates to Moses all His orders to the people.
The following is the exposition of these facts. The foundation of the covenant of God with Israel is the testimony, the revelation of the will of God to Israel. This is a great grace which the Lord has bestowed on His people, and in them on the church of all times, that they should possess in His word a light on their paths, as the Psalmist sings: “He showeth His word unto Jacob, His statutes and His judgments unto Israel. He hath not dealt so with any nation, and His judgments they have not known. Hallelujah.” And as Moses himself says ( Deuteronomy 4:8): “And what nation is so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?” If with this boon they are true—if they endeavour with all their heart to fulfil His commands, they have in the mercy-seat the pledge of the forgiveness of their sins of infirmity, or as Philo expresses himself, of the “gracious power of God.” This is the second great benefit. From the second arises a third: from the propitiation comes forth the protection of the cherubim, who with their faces cast a friendly look on the mercy-seat and the ransomed people, and cover it with their protecting wings. To those who love God, and are loved of Him, must all things work for the best: the creatures go with their Creator. If the people of God only have Him on their side, the whole creation stands in a friendly relation to them.
We have still some points to discuss more fully.
In reference to the form of the cherub, Züllig remarks: “According to Exodus 25:20, the faces of the two cherubs were directed to the lid of the ark of the covenant. Had they been the cherubs of Ezekiel, they could only have had one of their four faces in this direction, while the three other faces must have looked towards the three other opposite points. Hence each of these must have had only one face, while those had four.” The cherubs of the ark of the covenant had human forms and faces; and the three other classes of living things must have been contented with the representation by the wings taken from the birds, which in the history of the creation form the beginning of the animal world, as man forms the close. These wings had the double purpose,—above, to form the throne of God; beneath, to overshadow the mercy-seat.
Why do the cherubim appear over the ark of the covenant? In general they belonged to it, because it was of the deepest moment to indicate that the God of Israel was at the same time God absolutely, which is so emphatically and designedly held forth in the books of Moses from the very first chapter, that the temple is dedicated to the God of the spirits of all flesh, who is almighty to save those who keep His commandments, and to destroy those who transgress them. For the same purpose, cherubim were to be woven in the inner curtains or hangings of the tabernacle, according to Exodus 26:1. What special significance the cherubim had here in connection with the whole of the ark, we have already pointed out. This significance is in the first place comforting. In the background, however, stands along with this a warning and deterring one. If the church be not in earnest regarding the foundation of the whole—the testimony, the revelation of the divine will; if she turns the great grace, that she knows the will of her Lord, into lasciviousness; if she has in her mouth only the commandments, which are to be kept and obeyed, in order to boast of them, and judge others by them (Romans 2),—the mercy-seat forthwith loses its significance; the protective power of the cherubim, which is inseparably connected with it, at the same time comes to an end; their friendly face turns into a terrible one; the majesty of the offended God sitting above them arms them for the punishment of His unfaithful people.
The further question. Why are the cherubim of one piece with the mercy-seat? is answered by that which has been already remarked. The fact points to this, that the protection which the cherubim secure comes from the propitiation.
That the faces of the cherubim are directed to one another, is indicative of the mutual harmony of the creatures, which rests on their common relation to the Lord, whose spirit rules in them.
That the face of the cherubim is directed to the mercy-seat, points to this, that grace is the most adorable secret. The passage in 1 Peter 1:12, which refers to the angels who have nothing to do with the cherubim, has been without reason connected with this; but the face turned inwards is a sign of the friendly disposition which the creature entertains towards the community reconciled to God ( Psalms 34:16), as the averted or concealed face is so often the sign of a hostile disposition. As the cherubs, and in them the Lord who sits above them, here look to the mercy-seat, so in Psalms 74:20, in a time of heavy oppression to the commonwealth, the Lord is entreated by it to “look unto the covenant.” Thus regarded, the direction of the faces of the cherubim to the mercy-seat is in harmony with the fact that they cover it with their wings, and both facts come under the same point of view.
It cannot be doubted that this covering of the mercy-seat is a symbol of the protection which the cherubim secure to the redeemed community. The covering is often used of a protecting covert; for example, Psalms 140:8, “Thou coverest my head in the day of battle;” and the wings are often the figure of protection, as in Psalms 36:8, “How excellent is Thy goodness, O God! and the children of men trust in the shadow of Thy wings;” and Psalms 61:5, “I will abide in Thy tents for ever; I will trust in the covert of Thy wings.” But it is quite decisive, that in Ezekiel 28:14, according to the connection, “the covering “must necessarily be the protecting cherub. Hence, so much the more light falls on the covering of the cherubs in the sanctuary, as the prophet has borrowed the figure from this, and expressly alludes to it. The thought which lies at the root of the symbolic representation, that the creature goes along with the Creator, that the community reconciled to its God enjoys the protection of the creature, we find often expressed in the Old Testament. Thus it is said, Leviticus 26:3 f., “If ye walk in my statutes (the right relation to the testimony, as the condition of sharing in the propitiation), ... I will rid evil beasts out of the land, and the sword (of man, the apex of the animal world) shall not pass through your land.” In contrast with this, it is said in vers. Leviticus 26:22, Leviticus 26:25, of those who violate the testimony, and thereby exclude themselves from a part in the propitiation: “And I will send against you the beast of the field; and it will rob you, and destroy your cattle, and diminish you; and your ways shall lie waste. And I will bring upon you a sword, avenging the quarrel of my covenant” (the propitiation, which can never be idle, acquires now a destructive import); “and ye shall be given into the hand of the enemy.” In Hosea 2:20 it is said of the people when awakened to repentance: “And in that day I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, and with the fowls of heaven, and with the creeping thing of the ground; and bow, sword, and battle I will break out of the land.” Here we have a fourfold array of the “living” creature, which the Lord makes friendly to His renewed people: from the irrational the prophet rises to man. Also in Ezekiel 34:25 f. peace with the creatures follows peace with God: “And I will make with them a covenant of peace; and I will rid the evil beasts out of the land, and they shall dwell safely in the wilderness, and sleep in the woods. And they shall be no more a prey to the heathen, and the beasts of the land shall not devour them, and none shall make them afraid.” The “beasts of the land” appear not seldom also in human form. By the lions, one of the faces of the cherubs in Ezekiel, are often designated the wickedness and tyranny of the heathen; for ex., in Isaiah 35:9. In Nebuchadnezzar, man, lion, and eagle are presented at the same time. The four world-powers appear in Daniel not without design in the form of four beasts. And in Isaiah 56:9 the beasts of the field are the heathen, whom the Lord sends over His degenerate people. Schiller also sings, “The women became hyenas.” The limits which the original order of creation has placed between man and beast may be destroyed by the degeneracy of man.
The cherubs in the temple of Solomon demand, on the whole, no special treatment. The same applies to them as to the cherubs in the tabernacle. Solomon’s formative activity was here confined within narrow limits. What was communicated to Moses by revelation, he was obliged in the main only to repeat. Only a few single points here claim our attention.
To the smaller cherubic figures immediately over the ark Solomon added ( 1 Kings 6:23 f.) “in his temple two others ten cubits high, of olive tree, carved and overlaid with gold, which stood near the ark with outstretched wings. Their outstretched wings formed a second higher covering over the ark” (Züllig). That the wings of these cherubim extended from one wall of the most holy place to the other, signified the completeness of the protection which God secures to His people by means of His creatures.
According to 1 Chronicles 28:18, David gives to Solomon the gold “for the pattern of the chariot, the cherubim, that spread out their wings, and cover the ark of the covenant of the Lord.” The cherubim do not here draw a chariot, but they are themselves the chariot; as also in Jesus Sirach, in ch. Sir_49:8 , the cherubim-chariot is the chariot that consists of the cherubim themselves; and in Psalms 18:11 God rides on the cherub. The relation of God to His living creatures resembles that of the driver to his chariot, which takes its direction absolutely from him. God is the absolutely guiding principle in His creatures and for His creatures: this is the thought which lies at the root of the designation of the cherubim by the chariot.
When once the figure of the chariot used by David in Psalms 18 was naturalized, it was easy to add to the chariot also wheels. We have seen before, that these wheels, at the same time under and near or beside the cherubim, not absolutely subordinate to them, but co-ordinate with them, represent in Ezekiel the powers of nature, which are directed by the Lord of creation no less than the living; creatures in harmony with them. The proper source of this sensible representation is not, however, to be sought in Ezekiel. Vitringa has clearly shown that it goes back to Solomon; and those who will now deny this are either ignorant of his argument, or have not duly appreciated it. In the place of the single laver for cleansing the sacrificial flesh, which Moses ( Exodus 30:28) placed before the tabernacle, between it and the altar of burnt-offering, entered in the temple of Solomon, along with the brazen seas, ten lavers, which Hiram the artisan constructed by command of Solomon. The description of these lavers is extremely brief; it occupies only a single verse. On the other hand, no vessel of the temple has the author of the book of Kings described so fully as the bases of these lavers: he devotes to them no less than twelve verses ( 1 Kings 7:28-39). This at once indicates to us, that these bases must have a deeper positive import; and it will not disturb us that these bases, together with the lavers resting on them, externally considered, had only a very subordinate position: for what was represented in the part belonged to the whole; and to represent it precisely here was natural, as only here, in these newly introduced vessels, was freer scope given for holy art, whereas in the more important vessels it was necessary to copy the patterns of Moses. Now on these bases were figured lions, oxen, cherubim, and palm trees. This indicates that the temple was dedicated to the Lord of the whole organic creation. “The figure,” says Velthusen, “announced the presence of the only true supreme Lord of all nature, and thereby distinguished this building consecrated to Him, where He was worshipped, and had promised graciously to receive offering and prayer, from all idolatrous temples.” Under the bases are four wheels. That these must have a symbolic meaning is clear, not only from the analogy of the significant figures on the bases, and from the comparison of Ezekiel, where even as here the wheels connected with the cherubim, and taking the lower place in relation to them, on clear and certain grounds, denote the powers of nature; but it lies in the nature of the thing, as there is here no practical end which the wheels might serve. It has been supposed that the wheels were to make the bases with the lavers easily moveable. But they occupied a fixed place, as is expressly said in 1 Kings 7:39; and motion is not to be thought of.
We will conclude with the discussion of the grand vision of the cherubim in Ezekiel. But first, we will take a glance at the passing mention of the cherub in Ezekiel 28:14. The prophet, in the prediction against the king of Tyre, here says to him, “Thou art an anointed cherub, that covereth.” As the cherub comprehends the multiplicity of the creatures in a unity, so the king the multiplicity of his people. The nature of the kingly office can scarcely be more aptly designated than by the name cherub. Jeremiah, in Lamentations 4:20, calls the king of Israel the life-breath of his people, so that they live and die with him. Further, the king, like the cherub, is a concentration of productive nature. Bähr rightly says: “The accompanying description of the wisdom, beauty, perfection, might, grandeur, and glory of this king, shows clearly that the designation of cherub was applied to him, because he was on the highest stage of created life. All that this creation has of grandeur and glory was united in him, as in the cherub.” The king calls himself God. The prophet accords to Him a position similar to that of an anointed cherub; but because he went beyond this position which was granted him by God, who had anointed him and endowed him with gifts by His Spirit, it is wrested from him by God, and he sinks into absolute nullity. The cherub is more exactly described as “the covering.” The article points to the well-known covering cherub in the sanctuary, and specially to Exodus 25:20. As the cherub in the sanctuary covers the ark, and in particular the mercy-seat, in token of the protection which, in consequence of the operation of God who rules over him, he secures to the covenant people, so is the king of Tyre the protector of his state, with all the nations that are subject to him. But as in the cherub the protective power only comes directly from him, but ultimately from the power of God that animates him, so also the king of Tyre has only by the grace of God the power to cover; and as he has made himself unworthy of this grace, the power has been lost. Much confusion is introduced by extending further the comparison with the cherub, which is limited singly and alone to the words quoted: thus, for example, B. Bähr remarks, “Here the king of Tyre is figuratively called a covering cherub; and it is said of him, In Eden, in the garden of God, thou didst dwell;” and Riehm, “The king of Tyre is compared with the cherub that dwells on the mount of God, and walks in the midst of the stones of fire.” The expression, “In Eden, the garden of God, wast thou,” in ver. Ezekiel 28:13—in a situation glorious like that of the first man in paradise—and also the following one on the comparison with the cherub, in ver. Ezekiel 28:14, “On the mount of God wast thou in the midst of the stones of fire,” that formed around thee a protecting wall, so that thou, under the mighty protection of God, mightest protect thy subjects, stand in no near relation to the cherub, but depict the glory of the king of Tyre under another figure. He resembles in this his glory, (1) the first man in paradise, (2) the cherub, and (3) one who on a high hill is surrounded by walls of fire.
We now turn to the sublime vision of the cherubim, which opens the prophecies of Ezekiel.
The historical starting-point of this vision lies in the false hopes which had at that time seized the minds of those who remained in Jerusalem with Zedekiah at their head. A spirit of infatuation had fallen on the people. They cast the prophecies of Jeremiah to the wind, which announced the approaching completion of the judgment by the Chaldeans. Confiding in the confederacy with the Egyptian power, which must at that time have taken a lofty flight, they hoped soon to be able to free themselves altogether from the Chaldean supremacy. These hopes also were spread among the exiles, as the letter addressed to them by Jeremiah (ch. Jeremiah 29) shows. He therein warns them, “Let not the prophets that are among you deceive you, and hearken not to your dreams, for they prophesy falsely to you in my name.” Soon, it was thought, will a return to their country be opened up; and to this thought was joined the other—namely, to work together for it. These illusions and excitements, which prevented the people from entering with sincerity on the path of repentance pointed out by God, Ezekiel was to oppose. This opposition was made first by the vision of the cherubim, the real import of which Grotius thus briefly and well defines: “After the long-suffering of God, all tended towards vengeance.” The following discourses of the prophet are related to this opening vision as the commentary to the text.
Parallel with the vision of the cherubim in Ezekiel is the seething-pot coming from the north, which, according to Jeremiah 1:13, is shown to his senior colleague in office on his call, with the added elucidation, “Out of the north the evil will be opened upon all the inhabitants of the land. For, lo, I will call all the families of the kingdoms towards the north; and they shall come, and set every one his throne before the gates of Jerusalem, and against all the walls thereof round about, and against all the cities of Judah.” The vision of Ezekiel serves to uphold and confirm that older vision against the assaults of the time. It opposes the wrath of the Almighty to all hopes of salvation. We have here at the same time the counterpart of that first appearance of the cherubim in paradise. As there, God appearing above the cherubim with the flaming sword excludes from the tree of life; so here, God appearing above the cherubim interposes between the people and salvation, and cuts off all access of the people to it.
The picture begins in ch. Ezekiel 1:4 with the words, “And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and enfolded fire, and a brightness about it, and out of the midst of it as the look of chasmal, out of the midst of the fire.” That the appearance has a threatening character, appears from the connection of the three chief figures for wrath, judgment, and punishment,—the storm, the cloud, and the fire, the more precise description of which as enfolded, fire gathered into a ball, borrowed from Exodus 9:24, indicates that the same energy of the punitive righteousness of God which was once in ancient times displayed on the Egyptians, will now once more direct itself against the chosen people of God, who have turned the grace of God into lasciviousness, of that God who in earnest warning has said to them, “The Lord thy God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.” Out of the midst of the fire appears to the prophet, as the look of chasmal, the figure of God. Chasmal denotes here the essence of the personality of God, the holiness, that is, the infinite glory, the absolute pre-eminence above all creation, His incomparableness, His perfection. The “splendour” parallel to it in ch. Ezekiel 8:2 leaves no doubt that it denotes something of the clearest brightness. “Out of the midst of the fire:” this makes the soul shake in its inmost depth. It is dreadful to have for a foe the fountain of all salvation. All hope is thereby cast down. There is no one in heaven or on earth who can deliver from His hand. And yet the matter has also a cheering side. It is better to fall into the hands of God than into those of man—better to have to do with God than with the terrible Chaldeans. If He is angry, and indeed with an anger “which burns unto the lowest hell, and consumes the land with its increase, and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains” ( Deuteronomy 32:22), yet is there ever in Him a background of compassion, and indeed of a compassion that is as great as Himself, the infinity of which is an emanation of His holiness; and salvation will follow on repentance.
The further description of the vision, as it is given from ver. Ezekiel 1:5, presents the following points. First, under the high throne on which God sits in human form like a glorious king, appears the cloud, the type of the heavens, the incorporation of the name Zebaoth, with which the Lord is so often designated as the Almighty Ruler of heaven. The description of the cloud is very brief, because the powers of heaven are not immediately concerned in the present matter. So much the more full is the description of those points in the vision, which present God as the Lord of the works and powers of nature. For the Lord wished to summon these for the punishment of His unfaithful people. The Chaldeans, the representatives of the living creatures, composed of man, lion, ox, and eagle ( Daniel 7:4), were to take Jerusalem, and it was to be burned with fire. The living creatures are represented by the cherubim, which in this connection admit of only the one explanation—God sends the creature against His backsliding people. The powers of nature are denoted by the wheels. It is quite an irrelevant question, in what way the wheels were connected with the cherubim. It suffices for the figure of the chariot that the cherubim took the upper place, and the wheels, under which figure the powers of nature are represented, on account of their weight and energy, the lower. All is easy and obvious to thought. We have before us an inspired ideal form, much too ethereal for either painting or sculpture to master. “The appearance of the wheels and their work was as the look of the chrysolite:” this points to the glory of the powers of nature. “A wheel was in the middle of a wheel:” in every wheel a wheel was inserted. “To their four sides they went in going:” this indicates that the powers of nature are absolutely at the disposal of God—that He can use them where He will, and send them whither He will. That the felloes of the wheels are full of eyes, is a sign that the powers of nature do not work blindly, but are directed by Providence. That the spirit of the living creature is in the wheels, shows that one and the same divine power is active in the living creatures and in the powers of nature, so that they work harmoniously for the end appointed of God. In the repetition of the vision of the cherubim in Ezekiel 10, the cherub stretches forth its hand, takes the fire, with which Jerusalem is to be burned, out of the midst of the wheels, and hands it over to Him that is clothed in linen, the angel of the Lord, who has received from Him that sits on the throne the command to burn Jerusalem. By this it is indicated that the activity of the Chaldeans in the burning of the city, figured by the action of the cherub, is altogether subordinate; that the burning of Jerusalem in the main is to be no otherwise regarded than that of Sodom and Gomorrah, in which there was no human cooperation. The fire is found under the throne of God, is an element created by Him; and the cherub hands it only at the command of God to the angel from whom the proper action proceeds. In Ezekiel 11:22 it is said, “The cherubim flapped their wings, and the wheels moved beside them; and the glory of the God of Israel was over them.” Kliefoth rightly observes that it is merely said “the wheels,” whereas it is said “their wings.” This proves that the wheels, although they followed the movement of the cherubim, do not belong to the cherubim. Those who do not wish in the cherubim to distinguish between the idea and its dress, are brought into a dilemma by the wheels. Velthusen rightly maintains, that “the wheels are so connected with the cherubim, and make with them so much one figure, that they stand, go, and rise with these animals, without being able to separate the one from the other; so that he who holds the cherubim to be not a mere figurative appearance, must regard the wheels and throne at the same time as things actually existing in nature, of which the Most High makes use in His advent. The Jews perceived this, and therefore regarded the wheels as a peculiar kind of angels.”
It will be necessary to distinguish, in the grand representation of the universe in Ezekiel, between that which belongs to the constantly identical being, and that which specially refers to the present circumstances—to the work of wrath, which is now to be executed on the degenerate covenant people. This distinction makes itself known even in Him who sits upon the throne. According to ch. Ezekiel 1:27, the appearance of God below the loins was as the look of fire, which is enclosed around, a concentrated fire, and above as shining brass. The shining brass denotes the “wrathful glow of His judicial and vindictive function,” which is now significant, though in general it has only subordinate importance. But the same distinction meets us also in the cherubim. Here there is special reference to present circumstances in “the feet sparkling as the look of glowing brass,” in ch. Ezekiel 1:7, with which they will destroy everything that resists. Vers. Ezekiel 1:13-14 likewise refer to the present mission, “And the likeness of the living creatures was as coals of fire: they burn like torches. The fire goes in between the living creatures, and the fire is bright, and out of the fire goes lightning. And the living creatures ran hither and thither, as the appearance of a flash.” The animals can scarcely await the time when they are to fulfil their mission as the ministers of the divine vengeance. This is the temporary element in the delineation of the cherubim in Ezekiel; as in the first appearance of the cherubim in paradise, the connection with the flashing sword was only a temporary and separable one. In other circumstances all would bear a more serene and friendly aspect. In the repetition of the delineation of the cherubim in Revelation, where God appearing above the cherubim comes forward on behalf of His church, all that points to anger, punishment, and destruction is removed.
But though the appearance is so severe and threatening, yet the friendly element is not wanting here. According to ch. Ezekiel 1:27-28, the whole of the appearance is surrounded with a brightness: “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.” Grotius has rightly perceived the real import of the figure: “The divine judgments, however severe, shall not obliterate the memory of the covenant made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” The rainbow since Genesis 9 is unchangeably consecrated to be the symbol of mercy returning after wrath. Although in us there is much sin, in God there is much more grace: thus the lovely form of the rainbow exclaims to the church affrighted by the terrible cloud (ver. Ezekiel 1:4), and trembling on account of her sins. To her alone belong the sayings, “I kill, and I make alive;” and, “He woundeth and bindeth up; He smiteth, and His hands heal;” whereas the clouds are common to her with the world. The vision of the rainbow has been gloriously fulfilled, since after the Chaldean destruction, first the joyful return took place, and then the tidings were heard, “Behold, I announce to you great joy, for to you is born this day a Saviour.” And it will be fulfilled even to the end of the days. “If it come to pass that I bring a cloud over the earth, my bow shall be seen in the cloud:” this is the perpetual privilege which is conferred on the church of God on the earth. If we lay this to heart, the clouds will not make us afraid, but fill us with joyful hope. The denser they are, the more gloriously will the rainbow shine.
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20