The divine charioteer (Part 1)
A Rider from the North
If Isaiah sees the LORD of Armies seated on a heavenly throne, Ezekiel witnesses the same LORD blazing across the skies in a chariot of fire. Chapter 1 of Ezekiel records the most elaborate theophany in the Old Testament, combining clouds, fire, flashes of lightning, and a human-like figure in the company of cherubim. In this otherworldly scene, Yahweh prepares a Judean priest for prophetic ministry and authenticates his message. Above all, this thundering charioteer displays his divine glory, while proclaiming imminent judgment and future deliverance.
Three visions form the backbone for the Book of Ezekiel. In the first vision (chapters 1-3), the LORD appears to Ezekiel and commissions him as a prophet to his fellow exiles. In the second vision (chapters 8-11), the LORDabandons Jerusalem and withdraws his protection in judgment for the people’s idolatry and wickedness. In fact, Ezekiel witnesses the glory of the LORD departing the temple. In the third vision (chapters 40-48), the glory of the LORD returns in connection with the restoration of Israel in the last days. Yahweh’s judgment falls hard, but it succeeds in curing the Israelites of idolatry.
Ezekiel is in exile as part of the second Babylonian deportation in 597 BC. Taken captive with King Jehoiachin and other citizens of Judah (2 Kings 24:10-16), he receives God’s prophetic commission four years later while living at Tel Abib in southern Mesopotamia. His ministry extends perhaps twenty-two or twenty-three years. And while he remains faithful to the LORD, Ezekiel experiences personal setbacks. He suffers a speech impediment that allows him to speak only when the LORD wishes to speak through him (3:26-27; 24:27; 33:22), and his wife dies as an omen of the impending fall of Jerusalem.
The story of Ezekiel contrasts the sovereign power of Yahweh and the frailty of human beings. Ezekiel is called “son of man” ninety-three times in the book, a term that punctuates the prophet’s humanity. In fact, the phrase may be rendered “member of humanity” or “descendant of Adam.”
We should be careful to distinguish Ezekiel as a son of man from the messianic son of man who approaches the Ancient of Days in heaven and receives an everlasting kingdom (Dan. 7:9, 13-14). Jesus specifically applies son of man to himself more than eighty times in the Gospels – not to identify with Ezekiel but to subtly communicate his deity to those willing to listen.
As it turns out, the first-century religious elite get the message. Caiaphas, the high priest, asks Jesus, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus replies, “I am … and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:61-62). The high priest tears his robes and says, “Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy” (vv. 63-64). This affirms Caiaphas’ understanding of the “son of man” in Daniel 7:13 as a divine person.
For Ezekiel, the LORD appears as a mighty warrior swooping out of the northern skies in a chariot armed for battle. Harsh days lie ahead for God’s people; they must face the lash of divine discipline personified in the Babylonians. But there is hope. The LORD is with his people in captivity. He will help them persevere. He will restore their national identity, their land, and their temple. And he will replace their hearts of stone with hearts of flesh. There is reason to believe the exalted LORD on his fiery chariot is the same LORD who humbles himself centuries later as the incarnate Son of Man.
Ezekiel lives in what one commentator calls “the greatest crisis in Israel’s history – the final destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and the exile of the leading citizens to Babylon.” Ezekiel may be wondering how he, a young priest in exile, can minister to his people while living in an unclean foreign land where Yahweh cannot be properly worshiped (Amos 7:17; Ezek. 4:13). But then he receives a rare and glorious vision of God, who thunders across the sky to visit Ezekiel in hostile pagan territory. But which person of the Godhead holds the reins of this heavenly chariot? To begin addressing the question, we may examine the vision in four acts.
First, the heavens open (Ezek. 1:1-3). Ezekiel is with his fellow exiles on the banks of the Chebar Canal near the Babylonian city of Nippur. The prophet recalls “the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God” (v. 1). The only other Old Testament reference to the heavens opening is Genesis 7:11, when God causes rain to fall for forty days upon the earth in the great flood. This time, however, the heavens open in a spectacular demonstration of divine presence. It’s not unlike previous times when the LORD reveals himself in special ways to his chosen servants – for example, in the burning bush to Moses (Exod. 3-4) and at the temple to Isaiah (Isa. 6).
In the New Testament, the heavens open for Jesus at his baptism. He sees the Spirit descending and hears his Father’s voice from heaven (Matt. 3:16-17). Just before his death, Stephen sees “the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). The apostle John notes an open door in heaven, through which he is transported and given a glimpse of God’s throne (Rev. 4:1). Finally, John sees heaven opened as Christ stages his glorious return (Rev. 19:11). It is rare indeed for the heavens to open, but when they do, we see God either coming in judgment, commissioning his servants, or welcoming his saints. And in Ezekiel’s case, the prophet reports seeing “visions of God” (Ezek. 1:1).
We’re also told “the word of the LORD came directly to the priest Ezekiel” and “the LORD’s hand was on him” (1:3). Ezekiel, whose name means “may God strengthen or toughen,” encounters the LORD in such unforgettable drama that he becomes, in a sense, the very voice of God to the exiles.
The phrase hand of the LORD or the LORD’s hand occurs seven times in the Book of Ezekiel, expressing an overwhelming experience of divine revelation (see Ezek. 1:3; 3:14, 22; 8:1; 33:22; 37:1; 40:1). In Scripture, the hand often is associated with power (Deut. 2:15; Isa. 41:10). Mark Rooker writes, “The idea is that God had a hold on Ezekiel in a spiritual sense and exhibited a control and influence over him as he did with other prophets who spoke ‘the very words of God’ (1 Pet. 4:11; Deut. 18:18).”
Second, the living creatures emerge (Ezek. 1:4-14). In verse 4, Ezekiel describes what he first sees: “a whirlwind coming from the north, a huge cloud with fire flashing back and forth and brilliant light all around it. In the center of the fire, there was a gleam like amber.” Storms and clouds often accompany the appearance of Yahweh (Job 38:1; Ps. 18:7-15; 29:3-9; 104:3; Isa. 29:6). The LORD’s presence in the pillar of cloud and fire leads the Israelites across the desert (Exod. 13:17-22). Lightning, smoke, and fire accompany the LORD on Mount Sinai (Exod. 19:16-18). And God is depicted elsewhere as a consuming fire (Deut. 4:24; Heb. 12:28-29).
Four living creatures emerge from this blazing image. Ezekiel later identifies these creatures as cherubim (10:5, 20), to whom we were introduced in Chapter 1. Cherubim play a vital role in God’s relationship with humans. They are stationed east of Eden to prevent Adam and Eve from returning after the Fall (Gen. 3:24). They adorn the cover of the Ark of the Covenant (Exod. 25:18-22). And their likeness is embroidered on the curtain of the tabernacle separating the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies (Exod. 26:31).
In Ezekiel 1, the prophet gives us stunning details about the living creatures that help us better understand their appearance and ministry. Ezekiel seems at a loss to describe the cherubim, so he resorts to comparing their features with more familiar concepts. That’s why he often uses the word like in sharing his vision with us. Note the cherubim’s features:
First, they look “something like a human” (v. 5). This probably means they stand erect and perhaps have two legs.
Second, each cherub has four faces and four wings (v. 6). The number four is significant, occurring twelve times in Ezekiel 1 and more than forty times throughout the book. The significance of the number four lies partly in the fact that the world in Ezekiel’s day was considered divided into four parts, corresponding to the four points of a compass; this was sometimes referred to as “the four corners of the earth” (Isa. 11:12). As such, the cherubim represent the sovereignty of God, who rules over the entire earth.
Each cherub has the face of a man (facing forward), a lion (right), an ox (left), and an eagle (back) (v. 10). These may represent the highest form of animal life in a general category, or “four kinds of proud beings” in creation, according to a rabbinic commentary on Exodus. The lion is the fiercest of the wild beasts (Judg. 14:18; 2 Sam. 17:10). The ox is the most valued domestic animal (Exod. 21:35). The eagle is the most powerful and magnificent of God’s winged creatures (Deut. 28:49; Job 39:27; Lam. 4:19). And humans are the pinnacle of God’s handiwork, the only creatures made in his image and assigned as creation’s stewards (Gen. 1:26, 28).
Two of their four wings extend upward and touch the wings of other cherubim. Evidently, this is to support the chariot-throne, although it also could be in praise. The other two wings cover their bodies in humility as they stand beneath the throne of God (vv. 9, 11). That their wings touch suggests unity in purpose and collaboration in service.
Harry Ironside, who pastored Moody Church for twenty years, notes:
The wings connect the cherubim with the heavens, and by these they are covered in the presence of the Throne Occupant. Under their wings are hands as of a man – hands ready to succor and help when needed, or to strike in judgment, if necessary. Nothing here is arbitrary; all is under the control of Him whose heart is concerned about all his creatures.Harry Ironside
Third, the legs of the cherubim are straight, likely meaning unjointed, and the soles of their feet are like calves’ hooves, sparkling like polished bronze (v.7). This suggests their stability and sure-footedness for divinely appointed tasks.
Fourth, each cherub has human-like hands under his wings (v. 8). This enables the cherubim to grasp objects, such as blazing coals, at the LORD’s command (10:7-8).
Fifth, the creatures move straight ahead without turning, as the Spirit directs them (vv. 9, 12). This offers a unique Old Testament glimpse into the diversity and unity of the Godhead. The Holy Spirit is directing and empowering these living creatures to carry out Yahweh’s commands (v. 20), just as the indwelling Spirit today enables followers of Jesus to perform his will (e.g., John 14:15-25; 16:7-15; Rom. 8:1-17; Eph. 1:13-14).
Sixth, their appearance is like “blazing coals of fire or like torches.” Fire moves back and forth between the creatures, with lightning coming out of the fire (v. 13). This suggests their close proximity to Yahweh, as the cherubim are both guardians of God’s holiness and reflectors of it. We may recall the radiance of Moses’ skin after his close encounter with the LORD (Exod. 34:29-35).
Finally, the cherubim dart back and forth “like flashes of lightning” (v. 14). The living creatures display an ability to move quickly from one place to another, always ready to carry out the commands of God. Their swift movement provides a transition to Ezekiel’s description of wheels.
Third, the wheels propel (Ezek. 1:15-21). This bears some resemblance to Daniel’s vision of the Ancient of Days, who sits on a throne of blazing fire, with wheels of blazing fire – a heavenly chariot-throne (Dan. 7:9). But Ezekiel provides additional details. He sees one wheel on the ground beside each of the four cherubim. Each wheel appears to have a wheel intersecting it at right angles so there is no need for the wheels to be turned in order to change direction.
The Spirit is in the wheels, propelling the cherubim to move the chariot-throne in any direction horizontally or vertically. Ezekiel notes, “Wherever the Spirit wanted to go, the creatures went in the direction the Spirit was moving. The wheels rose alongside them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels” (v. 20).
The wheels and the living creatures go together, transporting the throne of God swiftly and effortlessly anywhere he wants to go. This includes Yahweh’s decision to depart the temple – the last visitation of his glory in Jerusalem until he comes in human flesh six hundred years later and enters the temple grounds as the revealed Messiah (Ezek. 10:18-19; 11:22-23; Luke 19:37-44).
We also should note in Ezekiel’s vision that the wheels sparkle like beryl, or chrysolite (v. 16). The importance of this term (tarshish in Hebrew) may be tied to one of the stones in Aaron’s breastplate (Exod. 28:20). Further, the rims of the wheels are “tall and awe-inspiring … full of eyes all around” (Ezek. 1:18). This suggests the LORD’s omniscience and providence. He sees all things and knows all things, including everything his creatures need (cf. 2 Chron. 16:9; Ps. 34:15; Prov. 15:3; Matt. 6:5-8, 25-34).
In short, the wheels illustrate Yahweh’s unique attributes. Their mobility suggests his omnipresence; nothing in the universe escapes his attention. Their inlaid eyes remind us of his omniscience; he knows all things, including human responses to his divine actions. Finally, the wheels’ support of the elevated throne bear testimony to his omnipotence; all things are possible with God (Luke 1:37).
Fourth, the LORD appears in glory (Ezek. 1:22-28). Ezekiel saves the best for last. Magnificent as the living creatures are, flashing across the sky under the Spirit-propelled power of their eye-covered wheels, they pale in brilliance to the one seated on the chariot-throne. The cherubim’s glory is but a mere reflection of the divine radiance above. Ezekiel cannot do justice to Yahweh in describing him, but he does his best to share with us his glimpse of God’s glory.
First, Ezekiel describes “the likeness of an expanse” over the heads of the living creatures, gleaming “like awe-inspiring crystal” (v. 22). The NIV describes the expanse as “sparkling like ice.” The same Hebrew term for expanse (raqi’a) is used in Genesis 1:7 to depict the atmosphere separating the waters above from the waters below. Here, Ezekiel tells us there is a vaulted separation between God and the heavenly creatures who bear his throne. The expanse sparkles like crystal – a view the apostle John shares in his vision of heaven, including four living creatures on each side of the throne (Rev. 4:6).
Then, Ezekiel records hearing his first sound. As the cherubim fly, their wings create “the roar of a huge torrent, like the voice of the Almighty, and a sound of tumult like the noise of an army” (v. 24). It’s reminiscent of sounds related to other appearances of God, such as thunder and trumpet blasts on Mount Sinai (Exod. 19:16) and the LORD’s voice like cascading waters in heaven (Rev. 1:15). Then, we hear a voice above the expanse, which seems to lead the cherubim to stop and lower their wings in silence (v. 25).
At last, the climax of Ezekiel’s vision comes into view. He sees “something like a throne with the appearance of lapis lazuli” above the vaulted expanse (v. 26). Moses uses lapis lazuli (or sapphire) to describe the pavement beneath Yahweh’s feet when he, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy of Israel’s elders see God on Mount Sinai (Exod. 24:9-10). And now Ezekiel encounters the LORD as well, describing him in these words:
On the throne, high above, was someone who looked like a human. From what seemed to be his waist up, I saw a gleam like amber, with what looked like fire enclosing it all around. From what seemed to be his waist down, I also saw what looked like fire. There was a brilliant light all around him. The appearance of the brilliant light all around was like that of a rainbow in a cloud on a rainy day. This was the appearance of the likeness of the LORD’s glory (Ezek. 1:26-28).
This same fiery radiance is associated with the appearance of the angel of the LORD in Exodus 3 and Jesus in Revelation 4, which lends credence to the idea that Ezekiel sees a manifestation of the Son of God. Consider, for example, how the apostle John describes his vision of Jesus:
The hair of his head was white as wool — white as snow — and his eyes like a fiery flame. His feet were like fine bronze as it is fired in a furnace, and his voice like the sound of cascading waters. He had seven stars in his right hand; a sharp double-edged sword came from his mouth, and his face was shining like the sun at full strength (Rev. 1:14-16).
Ezekiel goes on to describe a brilliant light around the throne like that of a rainbow on a rainy day. The rainbow recalls the visible sign of God’s covenant promise to Noah never again to flood the earth (Gen. 9:12-17). After God uses a global deluge to judge humans for their pervasive wickedness, he offers a new beginning to those who trust in him.
Note a similar contrast in Ezekiel’s vision. At the beginning, the LORD rides on the storm clouds, coming in judgment, but the prophet’s vision ends with the rainbow, a sign to Israel that God keeps his covenant promises. He will return the exiles to their land and turn their hearts of stone to hearts of flesh.
Similarly, the apostle John sees a rainbow around the throne in heaven (Rev. 4:3). This, too, is a reminder to all believers that after the storm clouds of Christ’s return in judgment, we may look for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness dwells (2 Pet. 3:13).
Ezekiel summarizes: “This was the appearance of the likeness of the LORD’s glory. When I saw it, I fell facedown …” (v. 28). The Hebrew word for glory (kabod) means to “be weighty” or “of substance” and is used to describe many other visible manifestations of God (e.g., Exod. 16:7; 33:18, 22). His glory resides in the temple and is an expression of his divine presence among his people. And now, his glory appears in a foreign land, a reminder to Ezekiel that God is sovereign over the entire world.
The prophet’s response to Yahweh’s appearance is to fall facedown. This posture expresses the deepest reverence and is common in the presence of mighty kings. In this case, however, Ezekiel acknowledges he has come into the presence of the King of kings, and his prostrate position is one of true worship. The prophet Daniel and the apostle John respond in similar ways in the presence of the LORD (Dan. 10:8-9; Rev. 1:17-18).
Next: The divine charioteer (Part 2)
This post is excerpted from Jesus Before Bethlehem: What Every Christian Should Know About the Angel of the Lord, available from Amazon and other retailers.