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If a man were to say this today we should regard him as a fool. It is better that we should acknowledge this frankly. We keep our superstition locked up in the Bible; we boast ourselves of our practical common sense. Were any of our friends to say the heavens were opened and he saw visions of God, we should hide our faces behind our morning journals and wonder what he would say next. We have no objection to men who saw visions two thousand years ago; but today we deal in reality. Such is our proud talk, such our philosophical nonsense. What is reality? Which of the two is real the man who saw the vision, or the man who saw nothing, and who sees nothing, and who never can see anything, for he is one of those dogs that nine days cannot open their eyes? What is reality? Which is your real self the self visible, or the self invisible; the self that thinks, or the self that talks? We have in the Church no objection to reality: the only thing we call for and insist upon is proper definition of the term.
Some men never had any religious experience even of the lowest type; some men never prayed: are we to go and ask such men what they think of prophets, inspired souls, minds that burn with enthusiasm? We shall go to them for religious judgment when we go to the blind for an opinion of colour, and to the deaf for an opinion of sound. There are some men whose opinion we do not take upon any subject. The one thing they are never asked for is an opinion. Yet they do not feel the subtle contempt. We talk to them of the weather, the market, the price of cattle; but consult them! never. It would be strange if we went to them for an opinion of religious thinking, religious philosophy, religious hope; we should startle them out of their decorum, for it would be the first time in their lives they had ever been asked to give an opinion upon anything. To challenge them all at once to pronounce upon God and Eternity is too much. Be reasonable: "A righteous man is merciful to his beast." On the other hand, when a man says he has seen heaven opened, and has seen a divine vision, and has felt in his heart the calm of infinite peace, we are entitled to question him, to study his spirit, to estimate his quality of strength and tenderness, and to subject his testimony to practical trial. If the man himself is true, he will be better than his certificate; and if the man himself is false, no certificate can save him from exposure and destruction.
There is an advantage in not seeing heaven opened. It is the advantage of being let alone, and of being allowed to drop into obscurity and nothingness, and to fill a large space in the land of oblivion. There is torture for any mind that sees visions. That mind never can be understood. The kindest of its friends will always be conscious of a little touch of the spirit of forbearance; signals will be exchanged which masonic observers can understand, the full meaning of which is that in certain astronomical conditions an allowance must be made for certain types of mind.
If we do not get back to visions, peeps into heaven, consciousness of the higher glory and the larger land, we shall lose our religion; our altar will be a bare stone, unblessed by visitant from heaven. Yet we lock up our visions in the Bible; we have no objection to them there. There is an old-time flavour about them, and men love their beauty, mentally and sacrificially, when it is embalmed in antiquity. We want modernness of insight, immediateness of vision, present-day apprehension of larger realities; otherwise we are living upon our capital, and we shall soon be in the workhouse. Many persons are religiously eating up their capital. We do not live upon what the capital produces. If we wrap up our talent, be it one or a thousand in number, we shall find at the end that we have not a friend in the universe. Use what you have; sow your seed, scatter your best thoughts with a prodigal hand wherever a man will listen to you, and you will find that you are not pursuing a process of exhaustion, but a process of reduplication, and that true giving is true getting.
Let us attend to this man awhile. He comes amongst us with unique pretensions. At the very opening of his mouth he is religious. He does not by long preamble or courteous exordium beseech our attention: he claims it. A trumpet cannot utter an apology; it blows a battle-blast. Where was he when he saw the heavens opened and visions of God gleaming upon his eyes? He says he was "among the captives by the river of Chebar." Then was Ezekiel a captive? The historical answer is, Yes; the religious answer is, No. Can both answers be true? Perfectly. If you have not realised your double self, you have not seen visions of God. Ezekiel was with the captives; he declares himself to have been among them. He does not accept the personal humiliation of being one of them, yet in a sense he was certainly a captive, or he would not have been there. Yet Ezekiel was the freest man in all the multitude, probably, indeed, the only free man. He was a prisoner, and yet he was enjoying the liberty granted to him by enlarging heavens and descending visions. Have we not had experience of this kind? May we not so far claim the companionship of the prophet? You do not live in the prison. Plato said that when Socrates was taken to prison the prison ceased; it was the prison that gave way. A right mind can never be in prison. In a plain and technical sense, the man can be incarcerated and chained, yea, loaded with iron; but his soul is at liberty, his soul is marching on. We need heroic men of this kind to tell us some of the possibilities of life. Ezekiel does not say, I was in prison, and therefore I could take no note of anything that was going on. Bunyan could only have had his dream in gaol. The poor man may have but a small table in every sense, and yet he may be banqueting with royalty. Do not suppose he is dining at the table you see; he is not dining there, he is eating bread with the sons of God. You are not bounded by the four walls of your house; no matter how palatial the habitation may be, you want all heaven to swing in. Why? Because you burn with the eternity of God. The more you want in that sense, the sense of perception, sympathy, appreciation, education, the more you prove yourself to be in the image and likeness of God. They could not take Ezekiel into captivity, except in the poorest sense. Already Ezekiel heard the great Christ's speech: Fear not them that kill the body, imprison the body, insult the body; after that they have no more that they can do. "Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven," therefore let them do what they will with the physical man; it is the spiritual man that roams throughout the liberties of heaven. You may mope in your small house if you please, and be discontented and otherwise pettish and foolish; that course is always open to impiety and ignorance: or you can make it a perch on which with temporarily folded wings you can sing psalms of truth, and love, and hope, Your house-making is in your own hands.
What did Ezekiel see? "visions of God." By this term we are not to understand simply great visions. We have become familiar with the fact that in the Hebrew language there is no superlative degree, and, therefore, the divine name was always used to indicate superlativeness of excellence, as "gardens of God," "trees of God," "mountains of God." These are but grammatical, not religious terms, indicating superlativeness, language becoming religious that it may become expressive. That is not the grammar of this passage. The word "God" is not here used in any grammatical sense to eke out the insufficiency of grammar. Ezekiel saw God, hints of God, gleams of the divine presence, indications and proofs of God's nearness; verily, they were sights of God. "The word of the Lord," he continues, "came expressly" unto him. By "expressly" understand directly, certainly, without mistake. There are some voices we cannot confuse with others. The great trouble with most men is that one tune is very much like another. The tune is not altogether so execrable as it might have been, but it is so very much like a thousand other tunes that we lose all interest in it. The voice of God cannot be mistaken: it startles men; then it soothes men; then it creates in them an attentive disposition; then it inspires men; and then it says, Evermore, till the work is done, shall this music resound in your souls. Then there is a "word of the Lord," actually a "word." There is some word the Lord has chosen, taken up, selected, held up, stamped with his image? Yes. Where is it? Every man knows where it is. We cannot have any pretence of wanting to know where the Lord is. That is a hypocrisy which even we must not tolerate. There is an inquiry we must look down upon with rebukeful contempt, as who should say: Where is the Lord? where is the word of the Lord? If I could discover him or his word, I should do homage to him. Avaunt! The word of God is nigh thee, in thee, is in a sense thyself. To want God is to have him; to demand the word of the living God is to know it. What may come of expansion, enlargement, higher and higher illumination, only eternity can disclose; but the beginning is in the very cry that expresses necessity or desire.
Then conies the vision itself. Who may enter upon it? Personally, I simply accept it. We are not all poets, prophets. Some of us have but one set of eyes; the best thing for us to do is to listen, and wonder, and believe. "Behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire enfolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire. Also out of the midst thereof 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 had four wings. And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a call's foot: and they sparkled like the colour of burnished brass." Is that how it is behind the veil? Yes. "Their wings were joined one to another," literally, their wings kissed one another, "they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward." Is that what they are doing behind the film which hides the glory from me? Yes; why not? Thou fool, why not? This is the larger life, the grander reality, the fuller development. "As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle. Thus were their faces: and their wings were stretched upward; two wings of every one were joined one to another, and two covered their bodies. And they went every one straight forward: whither the spirit was to go, they went; and they turned not when they went. As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, and like the appearance of lamps: 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 as the appearance of a flash of lightning." Tell me, O thou man of God, is it so they live? "I saw it," is the prophet's reply; "it occurred; it is the one fact now of my recollection, and the one glory of my hope." Ezekiel continues: Thou, O man, dost not see anything until thou dost shut thine eyes; thine eyes deceive thee: thou must kill the body to have the soul; thou must get rid of the body to know what manhood is, what life, soul, spirit is. Blessed be God for these revelations from beyond, hints and peeps and gleams of things that are just outside the screen we call life.
We are rebuked by these revelations. We think we see everything when we see nothing. What have we seen? Trees? No: only the wood in which trees grow. Flowers? Not one; but things that want to be flowers, aspirations, struggles towards beauteous expression and fragrance. We have not yet seen one another. We have seen nothing as it really is. When a man, therefore, has seen aught of God or spirituality, we should listen to him with entranced attention. "Now as beheld the living creatures, behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures, with his four faces. The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto the colour of a beryl: and they four had one likeness: and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel. When they went, they went upon their four sides: and they turned not when they went. As for their rings, they were so high that they were dreadful; and their rings were full of eyes round about them four. And when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them: and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up. Whithersoever the spirit was to go, they went, thither was their spirit to go; and the wheels were lifted up over against 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 over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels." We are glad it is so; it makes the universe so much larger. The talk is to us lunacy, the words are madness, until we are touched with a kindred spirit, sublimed by a kindred faith; then all things are known to be possible with God.
The need of every age is a spiritual ministry. Spirituality and superstition are not the same thing. We want men who will give us ideal visions of life, high conceptions of morality, sublime forecasts of destiny, and a deepening sense of the sinfulness of sin. We need men who can create, not moral commandments and stipulations, but a moral atmosphere, which a bad man cannot breathe. We are in danger of falling under the contracting and benumbing influence of men who rigorously bind us down to the study of what is called matter, and what are called phenomena. Such men fail to remember, in fact: if not in words, that any quantity or degree of matter accessible to our inquiry is infinitesimal, and therefore is too small a base on which to found any argument. This they are coming to admit more and more frankly. The earth itself in any mile of it is flat, but as a totality it is round. When will men, therefore, learn that the whole may alter the part? Is there anything more incoherent than an alphabet? There is not an idea in it; it. is dry, unmeaning, pointless, utterly without the power of giving enjoyment. Who can find an organic unity between the letters of the alphabet, as they stand in their separateness and their symbolism? They might all be upside down, and it would make no matter; they might be of different shape, and no appalling consequence would ensue. The letters of any alphabet are incoherent and useless in their separateness. Yet there, in that incoherent alphabet, is the beginning of logic, and music, and eloquence. You do not know what the alphabet is until it has undergone manipulation; after the magician has shapened it you shall see "visions of God." When will men come to learn that the part may be absolutely altered, changed in every aspect, by the whole? At his birth the infant is but an animal, without discrimination or judgment or moral sense. He does not know one being from another; you cannot appeal to him; you cannot reason with him; you cannot discourse to him about heaven or hell; all your discourse is useless sound: yet in that same infant there may be a judge, a hero, a genius, an Ezekiel. When will men come to learn that the part may be utterly changed and transformed by the whole? St. Paul, who learned everything first, our largest, truest scholar, said: "We know in part, we teach in part; when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away." There are some people who have got further on than Paul; where they have got to I do not know. What do we know about matter? Where is it? and is that all of it? What if a man should bring the letter "X" to me, and say: "It is out of that kind of thing they say poems come." Who can believe such a ridiculous suggestion? There it is; look at it for yourself; handle it; examine it; hold it up to the light; do what you please with it; and then tell me, as a rational man, that out of that sort of thing can come the infinities of expressed human thought. What do we know about matter? What is the measure of it in feet and inches, in miles? We see but a speck of matter; it is as if we saw but one letter in an alphabet. The solar system itself is but a speck of sand on the shore of infinity. How dangerous it is to build" any theory upon the frail basis of a fraction! We hear but echoes, not voices. Sounds do come to us: what are they? whence come they? These sounds are but the subsidence of thunders that rolled in infinite music through the universe in the faraway eternities. We are proud to know this in astronomy: why not in theology, and morals, and the higher philosophy? We are told that the light which left a certain star thirty thousand years ago has just arrived within human vision. Does that announcement make infidels and sceptics and heterodox persons? Not at all. It is accepted as a sign of the vastness and grandeur of astronomical spaces and figures. But when we are told that what we know of God, man, truth, eternity, has come down to us from infinite reaches of space and time, from incalculable fountains of origin, we become heretics, sceptics, infidels, unbelievers, and doubters, taking to ourselves very critical names to distinguish us from the vile herd of men who will believe anything. It is not for our poor ignorance to dogmatise God out of a creation the very threshold of which we have hardly begun to recognise. Notwithstanding our investigation, there may be some chamber in so vast a universe in which is seated an everlasting Father. It is better to pray than to doubt; it is mentally stronger to believe than to deny. "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God"; the prophet hath said in his faith, "The heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God." I would rather listen to the second man than to the first. The probabilities, at least, are on his side. Already there are intimations that the universe is larger than any fool has discovered it to be. Let us hear the prophet.
You cannot object to this claim, for you have prophets of your own. The poet sees what the prosaic mind never apprehends or supposes to exist; the painter sees pictures where the inartistic observer finds nothing; the sculptor looks upon a block of marble and sees in it image, aspect, heroism, grandeur, beauty, and his fingers long to get hold of the tools that he may evolve the marvellous secret. Even a comedian sees things which the man who is humourless never suspects. The comedian will spend a day in the market-place, and come back with a portfolio full of pictures that delight even the man who went with him, and who saw nothing of all the scene. The dramatist gathers up all the elements, lines, colours, suggestions of human action, and makes a picture of them, and men pay to look at it. Why did not they see it and make it? Because they were captives only. They have not lived the spirit's mighty life; and whilst, therefore, you who are outside, so to say, have your poets, painters, dramatists, comedians, men of the inner visions, do not wonder if the Church of Christ says there is a height beyond this, a glory infinitely transcending all that you have seen of light, and if you would know what God is, hear what his prophets have to say with respect to him. No other man but one who is spiritually qualified is entitled to expound divine mysteries. The scholar cannot expound the Bible. The poorest creature that ever undertakes to deliver a discourse is the grammarian. He is a weary creature from end to end of him. He is so great in parsing, that he never can preach. There is indeed a wonderful difference between reading and parsing. Undertake to parse the opening lines of the "Paradise Lost," and you may parse every word correctly, and give every rule of syntax without a blunder, and yet you have not begun to read "Paradise Lost." If you were to parse your little girl's letter that comes by post tomorrow morning, you would think she was out of her head. You do not parse it, you read it; you devour it; you know the soul that wrote it. Let the grammarian have it, and wear his spectacles out in trying to parse it.
In all ages spiritually minded men are needed. There are men who, in undergoing preparation for the ministry, would undergo destruction. They are not to be touched. Even a grammarian's well-shapen paw is not to be laid upon them. They know the kingdom, they know the truth, they know the music, they know the Cross, the blood, the priesthood, the atonement; let them declare, each in his own way, and God will see to the result. May the day hasten when much that is called ministerial preparation shall be cast out with disapprobation, perhaps with some degree of disgust. The preparation for this great expositional work is in the sanctuary, in the secret place, in solitude with God. Pray ye the Lord of the harvest that he will send out Ezekiels and Johns and Pauls to this great work. A man thus qualified carries a spiritual and indisputable authority: his authority is not in his papers, it is in himself; we do not ask for his certificates, we say, Stand up and speak. Said a Welsh farmer to some wandering ministerial tourists who besought a night's accommodation, "If you are ministers you can pray; now kneel down, and let me hear you." They knelt down, they prayed, and he said, "You are my guests." He knew the voice of the Spirit, the tone of sincerity. That tone cannot be successfully simulated in the presence of men who are schooled in real spiritual criticism. This is the authority of the ministry, that it can touch human life with a mighty hand, with a tender pity, with a sympathetic helpfulness. Such a ministry will always create its own sphere, and compel its proper degree of attention. Without men thus gifted, society would lose an element essential to completeness and illumination. God forbid that we should be delivered over to materialists, literalists, mere gropers after so-called phenomena. We want men who will uphold the spiritual ministry, defend the spiritual position, welcome the soul into spiritual liberties, and tell men in the market-place and everywhere that they are to do business as if not doing it, to hold the world as it not holding it, to be obedient to a heavenly vision. The Lord will see that such a ministry is never wanting in his Church.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Ezekiel 1". Parker's The People's Bible. https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26