Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New TestamentI. PART I, PROPHECIES OF DOOM PRIOR TO THE FALL OF JERUSALEM (Ezek. 1--24)
EZEKIEL'S VISION OF THE GLORY OF GOD
The great significance of this call of Ezekiel and its remarkable vision of God's glory lies in the fact that it came in Babylon, the land of Israel's captivity, far from the honored precincts of the Holy Land, and at a time when the fortunes of the Chosen People were at a low ebb indeed.
Ezekiel himself was a captive, having been removed to Babylon in the second wave of captives about eight years following the group of captives that included Daniel and his companions. Daniel's captivity had begun about 606 B.C., and Ezekiel's began in 597 B.C.
The final destruction of Jerusalem was destined to occur soon, as Jeremiah had foretold; and even the holy temple would be destroyed. In the eventuality of such events, it must have appeared to the great mass of the Babylonian captives that Israel was indeed finished and forever terminated. This wonderful prophet brought hope to the fallen people, convincing them that God was indeed not through with them, and that wonderful things were yet planned for Israel, even their restoration to Palestine!
This great vision of God's glory dramatically demonstrated that God was in no manner whatever limited to Palestine, that he was the God, not merely of the so-called "Holy Land," but of all the world; and that his presence was just as real in Babylon as it had ever been, even in the Holy Temple itself. The great meaning of the marvelous vision was that God was just as much the God of the captives as he had been in the days of their glory, and that God was just as able to bless or punish Israel in Babylon, as he was in Judea.
Now it came to pass in the thirtieth year, in the fourth [month], in the fifth [day] of the month, as I was among the captives by the river Chebar, that the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. In the fifth [day] of the month, which was the fifth year of king Jehoiachin's captivity, the word of Jehovah came expressly unto Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar; and the hand of Jehovah was there upon him.
In the thirtieth year
(Ezekiel 1:1). It is not known what this means. We agree with McFadyen that it is the same as the fifth year of Jehoiachin's captivity. The sacred writers often gave several points of reference for the dates cited. For example, the evangelist Luke dated the emergence of John the Baptist as occurring in the fifteenth year of Tiberius, at the time when Pontius Pilate was Procurator of Judea, and when Herod was the tetrarch of Galilee, etc. (Luke 3:1).
The obscurity of what is meant by this "thirtieth year" poses exactly the kind of problem that many commentators love to"solve" with all kinds of speculations, none of the "solutions" having any merit at all! Pearson has provided a list of alleged "meanings." "It applies to the thirtieth year following the reforms of Josiah; it is a reference to the thirtieth year of the current jubilee period; it points to the thirtieth year of the neo-Babylonian empire; it was the thirtieth year of Manasseh's evil reign; it is the thirtieth year of Artaxerxes III."F1
By far the most acceptable understanding of what is meant by this "thirtieth year" goes back to the times of Origen (185-254 A.D.) who considered it a reference to the thirtieth year of Ezekiel's life, that being the age when Jewish priests began their ministry (Numbers 4:3-4).F2
I was among the captives by the river Chebar
(Ezekiel 1:1). The Chebar was the name given to the great irrigation canal which formed a loop southeast along the Euphrates river, making a loop around Babylon via Nippur and back into the main river near Uruk.F3 Tel Abib was on this canal and is thought to be the place where the vision came to Ezekiel.
The heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God
(Ezekiel 1:1). Of all the Old Testament prophets, only to Ezekiel were the heavens said to have opened.F4 The heavens were opened unto Jesus (Matthew 3:16), to Stephen (Acts 7:56), and to John the Apostle (Revelation 4:1).
The fifth year of king Jehoiachin's captivity
(Ezekiel 1:2) This is without doubt the same as the thirtieth year already mentioned; and this one is easily identified as July, 592 B.C. or 593 B.C.,F5 or 594 B.C. The student should be aware that a great deal of uncertainty exists regarding the exactness of any assigned dates during this entire period of ancient history. Able scholars may be cited as receiving any of the three dates given above.
The word of Jehovah came expressly unto Ezekiel the priest
(Ezekiel 1:3). Note the change of persons from the first to the third. We believe that Eichrodt was wrong in finding in this change evidence of a change of writers. Throughout all of the Biblical books which we have studied, a change of persons usually means nothing at all. Jonah used both the first and third persons in two lines of his prayer from the fish's belly; and the use of the third person is so frequent as to arouse suspicion when it is not used. The same goes for the frequent changes from feminine to masculine suffixes (as in Ezek. 1:10).
As noted in the Introduction, above, "We may approach Ezekiel in the confidence that it is what it purports to be: the record of Ezekiel's 27-year ministry in Babylon to his fellow exiles."F6
And the hand of Jehovah was upon him
(Ezekiel 1:3) Note how many expressions there are in this passage stressing the fact of God's speaking through Ezekiel: (1) the heavens were opened unto him; (2) the hand of God was upon him; (3) he saw visions of God; and (4) the word of Jehovah came expressly unto Ezekiel. The meaning of these expressions is that the words of Ezekiel are expressly the words of God Himself. They are not the hallucinations of Ezekiel, the subjective feelings or impressions of the prophet, nor the projections of his subconscious mind, nor any kind of deductions that the prophet might have himself derived from his own information or observations. They are the words of God.
And I looked, and, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, a great cloud, with a fire infolding itself, and a brightness round about it, and out of the midst thereof as it were glowing metal, out of the midst of the fire. And 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 of them had four wings. And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf's foot; and they sparkled like burnished brass. And they had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides; and they four had their faces and their wings [thus]: their wings were joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward. As for the likeness of their faces, they had the face of a man; and they four had the face of a lion on the right side; and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four had also the face of an eagle. And their faces and their wings were separate above; 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; they turned not when they went. As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, like the appearance of torches: [the fire] 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.
This, of course, is the first part of the great vision of the glory of God. We fully agree with Howie that, "A detailed discussion of the vision is not necessary or vital to the understanding of its meaning."F7 We are certain that Ezekiel reported to us what he saw; but, even so, there is no way that any fully accurate picture of this remarkable vision is conceivable on the part of any person whomsoever.
The omnipotence, ubiquitousness, omniscience, and all of the other attributes of Deity are suggested and symbolized by this vision. The infinite energy, speed, intelligence, and abilities of the Almighty God appear here as in a flash of lightning, instantly, overwhelmingly, unfathomable, and awe-inspiring.
Feinberg reports that the Jewish rabbis gave this comment on the four living creatures:
"Man is exalted among creatures; the eagle is exalted among birds; the ox is exalted among domestic animals; and the lion is exalted among wild beasts. All of these have received dominion, and greatness has been given to them; yet they are stationed below the chariot of the Holy One."F8
Another interpretation of the four living creatures is that, "They are representative of the four corners of the earth,"F9 and of the sovereignty of God over all things. Also, the four living creatures have been likened unto the four gospels in Christian theology. The apostle John's Apocalypse also has this element of the four living creatures associated with God's throne.
Such things as the burning coals of fire, glorying metal as in the furnace, and the fire running up and down among the living creatures suggests the utter purity of God and the necessity of his punishing sin.
Three times in this chapter it is stated that "they turned not when they went." With four faces each, any direction in which they moved would have been straight ahead! The ability of this mobile bearer of the throne of God to move in any direction instantly is suggested by the expression "flash of lightning" in Ezek. 1:14.
Some scholars have tried to find the origin of some of Ezekiel's terminology here in the things he might have seen in Babylon, such as the storm cloud; but we like what Eichrodt said of this:
"Ezekiel's description is not the result of a calculated piece of construction, such as is attributed to him in many commentaries. Such a pedestrian type of criticism is utterly blind to the freedom with which this picture (of Ezekiel's) makes use of traditional ideas, and how tremendously impressive spiritual content is provided with the form that best suits it."F10
Each of the four living creatures facing in all directions suggests that, "All parts of the universe alike are open to the gaze of God."F11
All of the first part of this remarkably complicated vision reveals nothing of the Divine Person whose glory is being symbolized; and only when we come to Ezek. 1:26 is the likeness of the Holy One mentioned.
We cannot but be conscious here that Ezekiel is describing the indescribable, hence the continual use of such expressions as "likeness of" and "as it were," a usage that continues to the very end of the description. Human language is simply inadequate for the conveyance of the intriguing mystery revealed to Ezekiel in this vision of the glory of God.
Now as I beheld the living creatures, behold, one wheel upon the earth beside the living creatures, for each of the four faces thereof. The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto a beryl: and they four had one likeness; and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel within a wheel. When they went, they went in their four directions: they turned not when they went. As for their rims, they were high and dreadful; and they four had their rims full of eyes round about. And when the living creatures went, the wheels went beside 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 the spirit to go: and the wheels were lifted up beside 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 beside them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.
A wheel within a wheel
(Ezekiel 1:16). The most common explanation of this is that each wheel looked like two wheels intersecting each other at right angles to make a compound wheel that could move in all directions without changing front.F12 The KJV rendition, Wheel in the middle of a wheel, would appear to favor the notion that wheels were concentric.
The wheels with their dreadful rims full of eyes, "Symbolize God's all-seeing power in the world."F13
It should be noted that the vision of the living creatures indicates that man, in one sense, appears as coordinate with animals and birds, suggesting that, as far as the eminence and power of the Eternal are concerned, only God is supreme. The man, the lion, the ox and the eagle stand, all of them, beneath that glorious platform supporting the throne of Deity himself.
And over the head of the living creature there was the likeness of a firmament, like the terrible crystal to look upon, stretched forth over their heads above. And under the firmament were their wings straight, the one toward the other: every one had two which covered on this side, and every one had two which covered on that side, their bodies. And when they went, I heard the noise of their wings like the noise of great waters, like the voice of the Almighty, a noise of tumult like the noise of a host: when they stood, they let down their wings. And there was a voice above the firmament that was over their heads: when they stood, they let down their wings.
It would appear from this paragraph that the wings were held out straight when this incredibly strange contraption moved, and that the wings were "let down" when it stopped. Thus the noise of the wings was apparently manifested without any movement of the wings, but independently of them. The movement from one place to another was effected solely by the will of Him that sat on the Sapphire throne, who, of course, needed neither wings nor wheels to move from one place to another. The great noise would then symbolize the great importance and significance of God's attention and presence being devoted to any particular place or occasion.
And above the firmament that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone; and upon the likeness of the throne was a likeness as the appearance of a man upon it above. And I saw as it were glowing metal, as the appearance of fire within it round about, from the appearance of his loins and upward; and from the appearance of his loins and downward I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and there was brightness round about him. 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. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of Jehovah. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face, and I heard a voice of one that spake.
This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of Jehovah
(Ezekiel 1:28). Right here is the full explanation of this entire vision. It is the likeness of the glory of God; and, quite frankly, this is about all that any one actually knows about this astounding vision. The likeness of the appearance of a man upon the throne ... (Ezekiel 1:26). Just as in Exo. 24:10, the Godhead appears in the likeness of an enthroned man.F14 God made man in his own image, and the ultimate glorification of redeemed and regenerated mankind is suggested by this vision. There are also overtones of the Incarnation itself in this vision. The various visions of God's throne, as revealed in Revelation (Rev. 4; Rev. 5; Rev. 19, etc) are fully consistent with all that appears here. Even the rainbow appears in both places (Revelation 4:3).
Concerning the rainbow, Jamieson observed that, "This appearance of the rainbow in the vision was like hanging out a flag of peace upon the throne of the Eternal, assuring all mankind that the grand purpose of Heaven is to preserve rather than to destroy."F15
I fell upon my face
(Ezekiel 1:28). This was always the proper response from any messenger of God thus entrusted with such a vision. Such indeed is the proper attitude for any mortal entrusted with the responsibility of conveying divine messages to his fellow-mortals.
Footnotes for Ezekiel 1
1: Anton T. Pearson in Wycliffe Bible Commentary, p. 707.
3: J. B. Thompson in Ezekiel, (Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press), pp. 21, 22.
4: Charles Lee Feinberg in Ezekiel (Moody Press), p. 17.
5: Walther Eichrodt in Ezekiel (Westminster), p. 52.
6: G. R. Beasley-Murray in the New Bible Commentary Revised, p. 665.
7: Carl G. Howie in Layman's Bible Commentary, p. 22.
8: Charles Lee Feinberg in Ezekiel (Moody Press), p. 19.
9: Walther Eichrodt in Ezekiel (Westminster), p. 58.
10: Ibid., p. 56.
11: Peake's Commentary on the Bible, p. 502.
12: Anton T. Pearson in Wycliffe Bible Commentary, p. 709.
13: Carl G. Howie in Layman's Bible Commentary, p. 22.
14: Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown's Commentary, p. 569.