The book of Ezekiel begins with an extended recounting of his calling to ministry. He was already a priest (1:3), but is now commissioned as a prophet, or to use the wording of chapter 3, a watchman.
As Dan Block notes, Ezekiel often gives precise timing for his encounters with God—year, month and day. His calling comes “in the thirtieth year” (his age?), on the fifth day of the fourth month. Verses 2-3 (added later by someone else who writes of Ezekiel in the third person), tell us that this was in the fifth year of exile of King Jehoiachin, presumably the year Ezekiel was also taken from Judah to Babylon. The event happens by the Chebar canal (1:3).
The calling comes at God’s initiative. Ezekiel watches the heavens open and he sees “visions of God” (1:1). The ESV has a marginal note indicating the phrase could be translated “visions from God.” Both are certainly true, but the emphasis in chapter 1 is rightly placed on the visions of God; Ezekiel sees a vision of the overwhelming grandeur and awesome (correct usage of the term) glory of God.
While he is not alone (“I was among the exiles by the Chebar canal), it seems that he alone sees this vision (“the hand of the Lord was upon him” – 1:3). Surprisingly, the vision is initially focused, not on God, but on four angelic creatures who come out of a “great cloud.” In his book, God’s Glory Alone, David Vandrunen, explains how, in the Old Testament, God’s glory is showcased in the cloud that led the Israelites through the Sinai desert. Like the cloud in the desert, this cloud gleams with brightness and flashes with lightning (1:4).
From it come four strange creatures—angels with human and animal qualities: each has four faces (human, lion, ox, eagle; 1:10), four wings (two used for flight and two for covering), two hands (or perhaps 4 hands?) and a wheel (or a wheel within a wheel) that moves in harmony underneath them. These angelic creatures (like those seen by Isaiah; Isaiah 6) were “like burning coals of fire” and burning “torches”, emitting flashes of lightning. In short, they are like the cloud! Perhaps the text is clueing us into the fact that the cloud (both in the desert of Sinai and by the canal of Chebar) was a manifestation of God’s heavenly court and His glory. Angels surround God’s throne, radiating some of that glory in dazzling brilliance. (This could tie into what the Judean shepherds saw on the hills of Bethlehem).
Vandrunen makes a correlation between the cloud in the desert and the Spirit of God (see God’s Glory Alone). Perhaps, in the way the “angel of the Lord” sometimes seems to be identified with Christ, so the cloud is a visible expression of the invisible Spirit of God in the Old Testament. Or as Vandrunen says, the cloud represents the “heavenly court” (angels and the throne of God); it’s like heaven coming to earth.
This may help explain why the living creatures are given so much biblical real estate in chapter 1. In Ezekiel’s vision, (1:1) the cloud, living creatures, heavenly expanse and throne all point to the presence of God. Ezekiel is given a glimpse into heaven, or at least into heaven coming to earth. God is in the midst of it all. The living creatures, like the heavenly court and attendants precede Him, announcing and preparing His way. Or perhaps the living creatures are like a small, colour guard that ceremonially marches in front of the King. They move “wherever the spirit/Spirit would go” (1:12). They dart from side to side (1:14) and move up and down (1:19). They have a companion set of wheels that move in sync with their movements, sharing the same spirit/Spirit (1:19-21). No wonder Psalm 104:4 and Hebrews 1:7 speak of God’s ministers (angelic beings) as flames of fire. These creatures go before God, are moved by His Spirit to do His bidding.
It’s still hard for me to get a mental picture of what Ezekiel describes. The vision is fantastical and yet rooted in space/time. The whole scene, though strange to us, is regal and imposing at the same time. Daniel Block, in his excellent commentary on Ezekiel, makes the connection between Ezekiel’s language and that found in Psalm 18 and Psalm 103. Ezekiel employs biblical terminology from these texts to help him find words for what he sees. Block also says Ezekiel describes God in a way that has similarities to some depictions in current Ancient Near Eastern imagery (i.e., creatures with heads of lions, ox or eagles). However, there are no parallels in ANE literature of what Ezekiel sees. In fact, this vision of God is polemical in some ways—for example, where ANE gods/images need to be polished, the Almighty emits his own brightness and brilliance. YHWH is above all gods and lords.
The cloud is above the living creatures but is also an awe-inspiring expanse (1:22). Dan Block translates the ESV “expanse” as “form” (i.e. platform). He sees it as the platform bearing the throne of God (mentioned next in the passage). So we are seeing a chariot/throne, propelled by angels and wheels. The “likeness of a sapphire throne” (actually lapis luli – a brilliant, blue stone) is positioned above the expanse (or platform). On the likeness of a throne is “a likeness with a human appearance” (1:26). The one on the throne is like “gleaming metal” from the waist up and “fire” from the waist down (1:27); this is certainly not the normal appearance of a human. Ezekiel keeps using the word “likeness” to indicate that words fail to adequately describe what he is seeing.
Ezekiel begins the chapter by saying he saw “visions of God” (1:1) and wraps up the chapter by saying, “Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD” (1:28). All of this is somehow a vision of the blazing, brilliant glory of God on display. Awesome and overwhelming, the vision leads Ezekiel to fall on his face to the ground (1:28). At that point, he hears a voice speaking to him (up until this point there have been no words spoken).
Visions of God:
The Lord is high and lifted up—glorious and grand. The vision in chapter 1 highlights the fact that God is both awesome and out of this world. Our words and mental categories can’t describe or contain him except in an impressionistic way. When He reveals His glory, we are undone (just as Isaiah; Isaiah 6) and leveled.
The Lord’s revelation of Himself prepares us for the revelation of His Word. The book of Ezekiel is primarily a revelation of the glory of God. While there will be much about Israel’s present judgment and future hope, the larger story is about the God who is above all. Who God is gives weight and glory to what God says.
Words to Watchman:
Watchmen are prepared for their calling by seeing the glory of God. Ezekiel is not spoken to until the final verse of chapter 1. But he is prepared for what he will hear by the vision he sees. He’s stunned, humbled and leveled. He’s brought to a staggering awareness of the grandeur and glory of the God who will address him. A vision of the greatness and glory of God prepares him for His calling. Ezekiel will face a rebellious people who remain largely unresponsive to his ministry. His vision of the awesome majesty of God, inspiring in him a holy fear, keeps him faithful to his calling when his calling becomes difficult and disappointing.
As we, through Scripture, creation, and redemption, see the glory of God, we too will be enabled to remain faithful to our calling. We will fear God more than we fear people or failure. We will speak, live, and act for our Lord’s approval. In the challenging days in which we live, we need to keep a glorious vision of God in view. Our journey through the book of Ezekiel will help us do this!