Lectionary Calendar
Friday, April 12th, 2024
the Second Week after Easter
We are taking food to Ukrainians still living near the front lines. You can help by getting your church involved.
Click to donate today!

Bible Commentaries
Ezekiel 1

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-28


Ezekiel 1:1-28

IT might be hazardous to attempt, from the general considerations advanced in the last two chapters, to form a conception of Ezekiel’s state of mind during the first few years of his captivity. If, as we have found reason to believe, he had already come under the influence of Jeremiah, he must have been in some measure prepared for the blow which had descended on him. Torn from the duties of the office which he loved, and driven in upon himself, Ezekiel must no doubt have meditated deeply on the sin and the prospects of his people. From the first he must have stood aloof from his fellow exiles, who, led by their false prophets, began to dream of the fall of Babylon and a speedy return to their own land. He knew that the calamity which had befallen them was but the first installment of a sweeping judgment before which the old Israel must utterly perish. Those who remained in Jerusalem were reserved for a worse fate than those who had been carried away; but so long as the latter remained impenitent there was no hope even for them of an alleviation of the bitterness of their lot. Such thoughts, working in a mind naturally severe in its judgments, may have already produced that attitude of alienation from the whole life of his companions in misfortune which dominates the first period of his prophetic career. But these convictions did not make Ezekiel a prophet. He had as yet no independent message from God, no sure perception of the issue of events, or the path which Israel must follow in order to reach the blessedness of the future. It was not till the fifth year of his captivity that the inward change took place which brought him into Jehovah’s counsel, and disclosed to him the outlines of all his future work, and endowed him with the courage to stand forth amongst his people as the spokesman of Jehovah.

Like other great prophets whose personal experience is recorded, Ezekiel became conscious of his prophetic vocation through a vision of God. The form in which Jehovah first appeared to him is described with great minuteness of detail in the first chapter of his book. It would seem that in some hour of solitary meditation by the river Kebar his attention was attracted to a storm-cloud forming in the north and advancing toward him across the plain. The cloud may have been an actual phenomenon, the natural basis of the theophany which follows. Falling into a state of ecstasy, the prophet sees the cloud grow luminous with an unearthly splendour. From the midst of it there shines a brightness which he compares to the lustre of electron. Looking more closely, he discerns four living creatures, of strange composite form, -human in general appearance, but winged; and each having four heads combining the highest types of animal life-man, lion, ox, and eagle. These are afterwards identified with the cherubim of the Temple symbolism: {Ezekiel 10:20} but some features of the conception may have been suggested by the composite animal figures of Babylonian art, with which the prophet must have been already familiar. The interior space is occupied by a hearth of glowing coals, from which lightning-flashes constantly dart to and fro between the cherubim. Beside each cherub is a wheel, formed apparently of two wheels intersecting each other at right angles. The appearance of the wheels is like "chrysolite," and their rims are filled with eyes, denoting the intelligence by which their motions are directed. The wheels and the cherubim together embody the spontaneous energy by which the throne of God is transported whither He wills; although there is no mechanical connection between them, they are represented as animated by a common spirit, directing all their motions in perfect harmony. Over the heads and outstretched wings of the cherubim is a rigid pavement or "firmament" like crystal; and above this a sapphire stone supporting the throne of Jehovah. The divine Being is seen in the likeness of a man; and around Him, as if to temper the fierceness of the light in which He dwells, is a radiance like that of the rainbow. It will be noticed that while Ezekiel’s imagination dwells on what we must consider the accessories of the vision-the fire, the cherubim, the wheels-he hardly dares to lift his eyes to the person of Jehovah Himself. The full meaning of what he is passing through only dawns on him when he realises that he is in the presence of the Almighty. Then he falls on his face, overpowered by the sense of his own insignificance.

There is no reason to doubt that what is thus described represents an actual experience on the part of the prophet. It is not to be regarded merely as a conscious clothing of spiritual truths in symbolic imagery. The description of a vision is of course a conscious exercise of literary faculty; and in all such cases it must be difficult to distinguish what a prophet actually saw and heard in the moment of inspiration from the details which he was compelled to add in order to convey an intelligible picture to the minds of his readers. It is probable that in the case of Ezekiel the element of free invention has a larger range than in the less elaborate descriptions which other prophets give in their visions. But this does not detract from the force of the prophet’s own assertion that what be relates was based on a real and definite experience when in a state of prophetic ecstasy. This is expressed by the words "the hand of Jehovah was upon him" (Ezekiel 1:3)-a phrase which is invariably used throughout the book to denote the prophet’s peculiar mental condition when the communication of divine truth was accompanied by experiences of a visionary order. Moreover, the account given of the state in which this vision left him shows that his natural consciousness had been overpowered by the pressure of supersensible realities on his spirit. He tells us that he went "in bitterness, in the heat of his spirit, the hand of the Lord being heavy upon him; and came to the exiles at Tel-abib, and sat there seven days stupefied in their midst". {Ezekiel 3:14-15}

Now whatever be the ultimate nature of the prophetic vision, its significance for us would appear to lie in the untrammelled working of the prophet’s imagination under the influence of spiritual perceptions which are too profound to be expressed as abstract ideas. The prophet’s consciousness is not suspended, for he remembers his vision and reflects on its meaning afterwards; but his intercourse with the outer world through the senses is interrupted, so that his mind moves freely amongst images stored in his memory, and new combinations are formed which embody a truth not previously apprehended. The tableau of the vision is therefore always capable to some extent of a psychological explanation. The elements of which it is composed must have been already present in the mind of the prophet, and in so far as these can be traced to their sources we are enabled to understand their symbolic import in the novel combination in which they appear. But the real significance of the vision lies in the immediate impression left on the mind of the prophet by the divine realities which govern his life, and this is especially true of the vision of God Himself which accompanies the call to the prophetic office. Although no vision can express the whole of a prophet’s conception of God, yet it represents to the imagination certain fundamental aspects of the divine nature and of God’s relation to the world and to men; and through all his subsequent career the prophet will be influenced by the form in which he once beheld the great Being whose words come to him from time to time. To his later reflection the vision becomes a symbol of certain truths about God, although in the first instance the symbol was created for him by a mysterious operation of the divine Spirit in a process over which he had no control. In one respect Ezekiel’s inaugural vision seems to possess a greater importance for his theology than is the case with any other prophet. With the other prophets the vision is a momentary experience, of which the spiritual meaning passes into the thinking of the prophet, but which does not recur again in the visionary form. With Ezekiel, on the other hand, the vision becomes a fixed and permanent symbol of Jehovah, appearing again and again in precisely the same form as often as the reality of God’s presence is impressed on his mind.

The essential question, then, with regard to Ezekiel’s vision is, What revelation of God or what ideas respecting God did it serve to impress on the mind of the prophet? It may help us to answer that question if we begin by considering certain affinities which it presents to the great vision which opened the ministry of Isaiah. It must be admitted that Ezekiel’s experience is much less intelligible as well as less impressive than Isaiah’s. In Isaiah’s delineation we recognise the presence of qualities which belong to genius of the highest order. The perfect balance of form and idea, the reticence which suggests without exhausting the significance of what is seen, the fine artistic sense which makes every touch in the picture contribute to the rendering of the emotion which fills the prophet’s soul, combine to make the sixth chapter of Isaiah one of the most sublime passages in literature. No sympathetic reader can fail to catch the impression which the passage is intended to convey of the awful majesty of the God of Israel, and the effect produced on a frail and sinful mortal ushered into that holy Presence. We are made to feel how inevitably such a vision gives birth to the prophetic impulse, and how both vision and impulse inform the mind of the seer with the clear and definite purpose which rules all his subsequent work.

The point in which Ezekiel’s vision differs most strikingly from Isaiah’s is the almost entire suppression of his subjectivity. This is so complete that it becomes difficult to apprehend the meaning of the vision in relation to his thought and activity. Spiritual realities are so overlaid with symbolism that the narrative almost fails to reflect the mental state in which he was consecrated for the work of his life. Isaiah’s vision is a drama, Ezekiel’s is a spectacle; in the one religious truth is expressed in a series of significant actions and words, in the other it is embodied in forms and splendours that appeal only to the eye. One fact may be noted in illustration of the diversity between the two representations. The scenery of Isaiah’s vision is interpreted and spiritualised by the medium of language. The seraphs’ hymn of adoration strikes the note which is the central thought of the vision, and the exclamation which breaks from the prophet’s lips reveals the impact of that great truth on a human spirit. The whole scene is thus lifted out of the region of mere symbolism into that of pure religious ideas. Ezekiel’s, on the other hand, is like a song without words. His cherubim are speechless. While the rustling of their wings and the thunder of the revolving wheels break on his ear like the sound of mighty waters, no articulate voice bears home to the mind the inner meaning of what he beholds. Probably he himself felt no need of it. The pictorial character of his thinking appears in many features of his work: and it is not surprising to find that the import of the revelation is expressed mainly in visual images.

Now these differences are in their own place very instructive, because they show how intimately the vision is related to the individuality of him who receives it, and how even in the most exalted moments of inspiration the mind displays the same tendencies which characterise its ordinary operations. Yet Ezekiel’s vision represents a spiritual experience not less real than Isaiah’s. His mental endowments are of a different order, of a lower order if you will, than those of Isaiah; but the essential fact that he too saw the glory of God and in that vision obtained the insight of the true prophet is not to be explained away by analysis of his literary talent or of the sources from which his images are derived. It is allowable to write worse Greek than Plato; and it is no disqualification for a Hebrew prophet to lack the grandeur of imagination and the mastery of style which are the notes of Isaiah’s genius.

In spite of their obvious dissimilarities the two visions have enough in common to show that Ezekiel’s thoughts concerning God had been largely influenced by the study of Isaiah. Truths that had perhaps long been latent in his mind now emerge into clear consciousness, clothed in forms which bear the impress of the mind in which they were first conceived. The fundamental idea is the same in each vision: the absolute and universal sovereignty of God. "Mine eyes have seen the King, Jehovah of hosts." Jehovah appears in human form, seated on a throne and attended by ministering creatures which serve to show forth some part of His glory. In the one case they are seraphim, in the other cherubim: and the functions imposed on them by the structure of the vision are very diverse in the two cases. But the points in which they agree are more significant than those in which they differ. They are the agents through whom Jehovah exercises His sovereign authority, beings full of life and intelligence and moving in swift response to His will. Although free from earthly imperfection they cover themselves with their wings before His majesty, in token of the reverence which is due from the creature in presence of the Creator. For the rest they are symbolic figures embodying in themselves certain attributes of the Deity, or certain aspects of His kingship. Nor can Ezekiel any more than Isaiah think of Jehovah as the King apart from the emblems associated with the worship of His earthly sanctuary. The cherubim themselves are borrowed from the imagery of the Temple, although their forms are different from those which stood in the Holy of Holies. So again the altar, which was naturally suggested to Isaiah by the scene of his vision being laid in the Temple, appears in Ezekiel’s vision in the form of the hearth of glowing coals which is under the divine throne. It is true that the fire symbolises destructive might rather than purifying energy, {see Ezekiel 10:2} but it can hardly be doubted that the origin of the symbol is the altar-hearth of the sanctuary and of Isaiah’s vision. It is as if the essence of the Temple and its worship were transferred to the sphere of heavenly realities where Jehovah’s glory is fully manifested. All this, therefore, is nothing more than the embodiment of the fundamental truth of the Old Testament religion-that Jehovah is the almighty King of heaven and earth, that He executes His sovereign purposes with irresistible power, and that it is the highest privilege of men on earth to render to Him the homage and adoration which the sight of His glory draws forth from heavenly beings.

The idea of Jehovah’s kingship, however, is presented in the Old Testament under two aspects. On the one hand, it denotes the moral sovereignty of God over the people whom He had chosen as His own and to whom His will was continuously revealed as the guide of their national and social life. On the other hand, it denotes God’s absolute dominion over the forces of nature and the events of history, in virtue of which all things are the unconscious instruments of His purposes. These two truths can never be separated, although the emphasis is laid sometimes on the one and sometimes on the other. Thus in Isaiah’s vision the emphasis lies perhaps more on the doctrine of Jehovah’s kingship over Israel. It is true that He is at the same time represented as One whose glory is the "fulness of the whole earth," and who therefore manifests His power and presence in every part of His world-wide dominions. But the fact that Jehovah’s palace is the idealised Temple of Jerusalem suggests at once, what all the teaching of the prophet confirms, that the nation of Israel is the special sphere within which His kingly authority is to obtain practical recognition. While no man had a firmer grasp of the truth that God wields all natural forces and overrules the actions of men in carrying out His providential designs, yet the leading ideas of His ministry are those which spring from the thought of Jehovah’s presence in the midst of His people and the obligation that lies on Israel to recognise His sovereignty. He is, to use Isaiah’s own expression, the "Holy One of Israel."

This aspect of the divine kingship is undoubtedly represented in the vision of Ezekiel. We have remarked that the imagery of the vision is to some extent moulded on the idea of the sanctuary as the seat of Jehovah’s government, and we shall find later on that the final resting-place of this emblem of His presence is a restored sanctuary in the land of Canaan. But the circumstances under which Ezekiel was called to be a prophet required that prominence should be given to the complementary truth that the kingship of Jehovah was independent of His special relation to Israel. For the present the tie between Jehovah and His land was dissolved. Israel had disowned her divine King, and was left to suffer the consequences of her disloyalty. Hence it is that the vision appears, not from the direction of Jerusalem, but "out of the north," in token that God has departed from His Temple and abandoned it to its enemies. In this way the vision granted to the exiled prophet on the plain of Babylonia embodied a truth opposed to the religious prejudices of his time, but reassuring to himself that the fall of Israel leaves the essential sovereignty of Jehovah untouched; that He still-lives and reigns, although His people are trodden underfoot by worshippers of other gods. But more than this, we can see that on the whole the tendency of Ezekiel’s vision, as distinguished from that of Isaiah, is to emphasise the universality of Jehovah’s relations to the world of nature and of mankind. His throne rests here on a sapphire stone, the symbol of heavenly purity, to signify that His true dwelling-place is above the firmament, in the heavens, which are equally near to every region of the earth. Moreover, it is mounted on a chariot, by which it is moved from place to place with a velocity which suggests ubiquity, and the chariot is borne by "living creatures" whose forms unite all that is symbolical of power and dignity in the living world. Further, the shape of the chariot, which is foursquare, and the disposition of the wheels and cherubim. which is such that there is no before or behind, but the same front presented to each of the four quarters of the globe, indicate that all parts of the universe are alike accessible to the presence of God. Finally, the wheels and the cherubim are covered with eyes, to denote that all things are open to the view of Him who sits on the throne. The attributes of God here symbolised are those which express His relations to created existence as a whole-omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience. These ideas are obviously incapable of adequate representation by any sensuous image-they can only be suggested to the mind: and it is just the effort to suggest such transcendental attributes that imparts to the vision the character of obscurity which attaches to so many of its details.

Another point of comparison between Isaiah and Ezekiel is suggested by the name which the latter constantly uses for the appearance which he sees, or rather perhaps for that part of it which represents the personal appearance of God. He calls it the "glory of Jehovah," or "glory of the God of Israel." The word for glory (kabod) is used in a variety of senses in the Old Testament. Etymologically it comes from a root expressing the idea of heaviness. When used, as here, concretely, it signifies that which is the outward manifestation of power or worth or dignity. In human affairs it may be used of a man’s wealth, or the pomp and circumstance of military array, or the splendour and pageantry of a royal court-those things which oppress the minds of common men with a sense of magnificence. In like manner, when applied to God, it denotes some reflection in the outer world of His majesty, something that at once reveals and conceals His essential Godhead. Now we remember that the second line of the seraphs’ hymn conveyed to Isaiah’s mind this thought, that "that which fills the whole earth is His glory." What is this "filling of the whole earth" in which the prophet sees the effulgence of the divine glory? Is his feeling akin to Wordsworth’s

"sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean, and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man"?

At least the words must surely mean that all through nature Isaiah recognised that which declares the glory of God, and therefore in some sense reveals Him. Although they do not teach a doctrine of the divine immanence, they contain all that is religiously valuable in that doctrine. In Ezekiel, however, we find nothing that looks in this direction. It is characteristic of his thoughts about God that the very word "glory" which Isaiah uses of something diffused through the earth is here employed to express the concentration of all divine qualities in a single image of dazzling splendour, but belonging to heaven rather than to earth. Glory is here equivalent to brightness, as in the ancient conception of the bright cloud which led the people through the desert and that which filled the Temple with overpowering light when Jehovah took possession of it. {2 Chronicles 7:1-3} In a striking passage of his last vision Ezekiel describes how this scene will be repeated when Jehovah returns to take up His abode amongst His people and the earth will be lighted up with His glory. {Ezekiel 43:2} But meanwhile it may seem to us that earth is left poorer by the loss of that aspect of nature in which Isaiah discovered a revelation of the divine.

Ezekiel is conscious that what he has seen is after all but an imperfect semblance of the essential glory of God on which no mortal eye can gaze. All that he describes is expressly said to be an "appearance" and a "likeness." When he comes to speak of the divine form in which the whole revelation culminates he can say no more than that it is the "appearance of the likeness of the glory of Jehovah." The prophet appears to realise his inability to penetrate behind the appearance to the reality which it shadows forth. The clearest vision of God which the mind of man can receive is an after-look like that which was vouchsafed to Moses when the divine presence had passed by. {Exodus 33:23} So it was with Ezekiel. The true revelation that came to him was not in what he saw with his eyes in the moment of his initiation, but in the intuitive knowledge of God which from that hour he possessed, and which enabled him to interpret more fully than he could have done at the time the significance of his first memorable meeting with the God of Israel. What he retained in his waking hours was first of all a vivid sense of the reality of God’s being, and then a mental picture suggesting those attributes which lay at the foundation of his prophetic ministry.

It is easy to see how this vision dominates all Ezekiel’s thinking about the divine nature. The God whom he saw was in the form of a man, and so the God of his conscience is a moral person to whom he fearlessly ascribes the parts and even the passions of humanity. He speaks through the prophet in the language of royal authority, as a king who will brook no rival in the affections of his people. As King of Israel He asserts His determination to reign over them with a mighty hand, and by mingled goodness and severity to break their stubborn heart and bend them to His purpose. There are perhaps other and more subtle affinities between the symbol of the vision and the prophet’s inner consciousness of God. Just as the vision gathers up all in nature that suggests divinity into one resplendent image, so it is also with the moral action of God as conceived by Ezekiel. His government of the world is self-centred; all the ends which He pursues in His providence lie within Himself. His dealings with the nations, and with Israel in particular, are dictated by regard for His own glory, or, as Ezekiel expresses it, by pity for His great name. "Not for your sake do I act, O house of Israel, but for My holy name, which ye have profaned among the heathen whither ye went". {Ezekiel 36:22} The relations into which He enters with men are all subordinate to the supreme purpose of "sanctifying" Himself in the eyes of the world or manifesting Himself as He truly is. It is no doubt possible to exaggerate this feature of Ezekiel’s theology in a way that would be unjust to the prophet. After all, Jehovah’s desire to be known as He is implies a regard for His creatures which includes the ultimate intention to bless them. It is but an extreme expression in the form necessary for that time of the truth to which all the prophets bear witness, that the knowledge of God is the indispensable condition of true blessedness to men. Still, the difference is marked between the "not for your sake" of Ezekiel and the "human bands, the cords of love" of which Hosea speaks, the yearning and compassionate affection that binds Jehovah to His erring people.

In another respect the symbolism of the vision may be taken as an emblem of the Hebrew conception of the universe. The Bible has no scientific theory of God’s relation to the world; but it is full of the practical conviction that all nature responds to His behests, that all occurrences are indications of His mind, the whole realm of nature and history being governed by one Will which works for moral ends. That conviction is as deeply rooted in the thinking of Ezekiel as in that of any other prophet, and, consciously or unconsciously, it is reflected in the structure of the merkaba, or heavenly chariot, which has no mechanical connection between its different parts, and yet is animated by one spirit and moves altogether at the impulse of Jehovah’s will.

It will be seen that the general tendency of Ezekiel’s conception of God is what might be described in modern language as "transcendental." In this, however, the prophet does not stand alone, and the difference between him and earlier prophets is not so great as is sometimes represented. Indeed, the contrast between transcendent and immanent is hardly applicable in the Old Testament religion. If by transcendence it is meant that God is a being distinct from the world, not losing Himself in the life of nature, but ruling over it and controlling it as His instrument, then all the inspired writers of the Old Testament are transcendentalists. But this does not mean that God is separated from the human spirit by a dead, mechanical universe which owes nothing to its Creator but its initial impulse and its governing laws. The idea that a world could come between man and God is one that would never have occurred to a prophet. Just because God is above the world He can reveal Himself directly to the spirit of man, speaking to His servants face to face as a man speaketh to his friend.

But frequently in the prophets the thought is expressed that Jehovah is "far off" or "comes from far" in the crises of His people’s history. "Am I a God at hand, saith Jehovah, and not a God afar off?" is Jeremiah’s question to the false prophets of his day; and the answer is, "Do not I fill heaven and earth? saith Jehovah." On this subject we may quote the suggestive remarks of a recent commentator on Isaiah: "The local deities, the gods of the tribal religions, are near; Jehovah is far, but at the same time everywhere present. The remoteness of Jehovah in space represented to the prophets better than our transcendental abstractions Jehovah’s absolute ascendency. This ‘far off’ is spoken with enthusiasm. Everywhere and nowhere, Jehovah comes when His hour is come." That is the idea of Ezekiel’s vision. God comes to him "from far," but He comes very near. Our difficulty may be to realise the nearness of God. Scientific discovery has so enlarged our view of the material universe that we feel the need of every consideration that can bring home to us a sense of the divine condescension and interest in man’s earthly history and his spiritual welfare. But the difficulty which beset the ordinary Israelite even so late as the Exile was as nearly as possible the opposite of ours. His temptation was to think of God as only a God "at hand," a local deity, whose range of influence was limited to a particular spot, and whose power was measured by the fortunes of His own people. Above all things he needed to learn that God was "afar off," filling heaven and earth, that His power was exerted everywhere, and that there was no place where either a man could hide himself from God or God was hidden from man. When we bear in mind these circumstances we can see how needful was the revelation of the divine omnipresence as a step towards the perfect knowledge of God which comes to us through Jesus Christ.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Ezekiel 1". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/ezekiel-1.html.
adsFree icon
Ads FreeProfile