The divine charioteer (Part 2)

We pick up this post where Part 1 left off.

All that we’ve seen in Ezekiel’s vision begs the question: Is this theophany actually a Christophany – an appearance of the preincarnate Christ? It seems so, based on several observations. First, the Bible teaches that no human may see God and live (Exod. 33:20; John 1:18). So the LORD must reveal himself to us in a limited way: a voice, a pillar of cloud and fire, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch, or even a man. Ezekiel sees the likeness of a man in his vision, and this is one of the more common ways the angel of the LORD appears. 

Even more significant, the apostle John tells us Jesus is the revealer of the true nature of Yahweh: “No one has ever seen God. The one and only Son, who is himself God and is at the Father’s side — he has revealed him.” (John 1:18). Jesus himself tells Philip, “The one who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). The transfiguration of Jesus in Matthew 17:1-13 and Mark 9:2-13 declares that Jesus is God in human flesh, which veils the glory of God.

Second, the voice of the LORD in Ezekiel’s vision is described in the same way the voice of Jesus is recorded in Revelation 1:15: “his voice [was] like the sound of cascading waters.” Ezekiel hears the deafening flutter of cherubim’s wings and likens them to the voice of the LORD Almighty (1:24; 10:5; cf. 43:2).

Third, consider that Ezekiel describes the LORD as a human-like figure. We never see the Father or the Holy Spirit depicted in this way in Scripture, and yet the prophet clearly sees the glory of the LORD. This suggests we are catching a rare view of the second person of the Trinity prior to the Incarnation. Harry Ironside confidently notes, “It was the preincarnate Christ that the prophet beheld, ‘the likeness of a Man.’ Now, since redemption is accomplished, the Man Christ Jesus sits in His glorified human body on that throne of the Eternal.”

Even so, we want to avoid being too dogmatic in this interpretation. Mark Rooker shares a more balanced perspective:

It is possible that this representation of God in human form would be particularly appropriate to Jesus Christ, as he alone of the Trinity was manifest in the flesh (Phil. 2:7; 1 Tim. 3:16). Moreover, when Isaiah in his vision saw God sitting on the throne (Isa. 6), John records that what Isaiah saw was the glory of Christ (John 12:40-41). On the other hand, when no distinctions are made with the other members of the Trinity, it may be that all the Godhead is represented in the vision. At the same time, the vision is at least a prelude to the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

Mark Rooker

Verse 28 summarizes three important truths about God captured in Ezekiel’s vision. First, the vision reaffirms the nature of God as holy, powerful, and majestic. Second, the rainbow serves as a reminder of God’s covenant-keeping character. And third, the appearance of Yahweh to Ezekiel in exile is an assurance that nothing, including geographic location, separates us from the love of God (cf. Rom. 8:38-39).

Later visions

Ezekiel sees the glory of the LORD again in an extended visionary journey to Jerusalem (Ezek. 8-11). In the opening verses of chapter 8, the same human-like figure Ezekiel encountered in chapter 1 returns:

… the hand of the Lord GOD came down on me. I looked, and there was someone who looked like a man. From what seemed to be his waist down was fire, and from his waist up was something that looked bright, like the gleam of amber. He stretched out what appeared to be a hand and took me by the hair of my head. Then the Spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven and carried me in visions of God to Jerusalem … I saw the glory of the God of Israel there, like the vision I had seen in the plain (Ezek. 8:1-4).

Ezekiel sees the citizens of Judah engage in various pagan practices on the temple grounds, from offering incense to idols to bowing in worship of the sun. The LORD asks:

Do you see this, son of man? Is it not enough for the house of Judah to commit the detestable acts they are doing here, that they must also fill the land with violence and repeatedly anger me …? Therefore I will respond with wrath. I will not show pity or spare them. Though they call loudly in my hearing, I will not listen to them (Ezek. 8:17-18).

The LORD previews the coming slaughter in Jerusalem in chapter 9. It is a judgment so severe, Ezekiel falls facedown and cries out, “Oh, Lord GOD! Are you going to destroy the entire remnant of Israel when you pour out your wrath on Jerusalem?” (Ezek. 9:8).

In chapters 10 and 11, the LORD’s glory first leaves the temple, and then Jerusalem. Ezekiel sees the same living creatures, chariot-throne, and divine glory he witnessed in chapter 1, but this time he identifies the living creatures as cherubim: 

These were the living creatures I had seen beneath the God of Israel by the Chebar Canal, and I recognized that they were cherubim. Each had four faces and each had four wings, with what looked something like human hands under their wings. Their faces looked like the same faces I had seen by the Chebar Canal.

Ezekiel 10:20-22

The glory of the LORD completes his departure in Ezekiel 11, but not before God promises Ezekiel a future return to the land and a new spirit within the people (11:17-20). Then, the chariot-throne moves from the temple to the east side of Jerusalem. This seems to indicate that while Yahweh vacates the city where he has chosen to place his name, he follows his people east into exile (see 11:16). 

There is even better news. Yahweh appears in a new temple yet to come. He gives Ezekiel a vision of this temple in chapters 40-48. Nebuchadnezzar may have destroyed the temple in Jerusalem, but a new one is on the horizon, and the glory of God comes to it:

… and I saw the glory of the God of Israel coming from the east. His voice sounded like the roar of a huge torrent, and the earth shone with his glory.  The vision I saw was like the one I had seen when he came to destroy the city, and like the ones I had seen by the Chebar Canal. I fell facedown. The glory of the LORD entered the temple by way of the gate that faced east. Then the Spirit lifted me up and brought me to the inner court, and the glory of the LORD filled the temple. 

Ezekiel 43:2-5

Commentators differ in their views about this new temple. Some see it as Herod’s temple, or a rebuilt temple in the days just prior to Christ’s return. Others see it as a vision of the New Jerusalem, coming down from heaven with Jesus in his glorious return. Whatever one’s views about this temple, we should focus on the centrality of Christ in Ezekiel’s vision. 

Though the Shekinah glory does not return to Herod’s temple as in the days of Solomon’s temple, the very presence of God in the incarnate Christ rides into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey on Palm Sunday and proceeds to enter the temple complex. In essence, the very presence of God has returned to the temple, but the Israelites neither recognize nor receive him. Even so, God’s ultimate purpose is to reside in the Holy of Holies of the human spirit, and this happens in dramatic fashion on the Day of Pentecost, when the Spirit is manifested as tongues of fire that descend on Jesus’ followers. Paul makes it clear that the bodies of Christians are God’s temple; he resides in us (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19).

At the end of Ezekiel’s visions, we see a clearer picture of God’s purpose: “and the name of the city from that day on will be, The LORD Is There”  (Ezek. 48:35). One day, in the New Jerusalem, we enjoy unbreakable fellowship with the triune God, whose name – whose very presence – is there.

When we get to Revelation 1:12-16, the appearance of Christ ties back to Ezekiel 1:27, Daniel 7:9, and Daniel 10:5-6, as one author notes:

We may therefore infer that the human form in an Old Testament appearance points forward to the permanent appearance of God in the human nature of Christ. So God the Son appears in the Old Testament. At the same time, when the Son appears, the Father also appears in the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit. All three persons are present, because all three persons indwell one another. The appearances in the Old Testament remain mysterious, however, because the incarnation has not yet taken place.

Next: One like a son of the gods

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.