Take a moment to pray. Ask God to speak to you through his word—for his Spirit to convict you of sin, teach you the truth, and lead you in walking by faith.
Setting the Scene
In times of sorrow, people in every culture throughout time have asked the question, “Where are you, God?” We ask when we are facing tragedies and trials, when we are enduring unspeakable hurt, and when we’ve lost hope. Contrary to what we often feel, God has answered this question. The prophet Ezekiel’s first vision provides a direct response to people struggling with this very issue. In fact, God designed this vision to give the hope they, and we, so desperately need.
Ezekiel was part of the first group of Israelite exiles that were forcibly removed from Judah by the Babylonians in 597 BC. At that time in history Babylon was the major power in the world of the Ancient Near East. Israel had long been divided into a northern and southern kingdom, and the southern kingdom (Judah) was all that was left. Neighboring nations had pestered them in recent years, and finally the Babylonians asserted their dominance and carried off the treasures of the temple in Jerusalem and a chunk of the population (check out 2 Kings 24:1-14). Ezekiel was one of those displaced Israelites.
Think about that for just a moment. How would you feel after being taken from your home to a land a thousand miles away, complete with a different religion, language, diet, and so on? Add to that the fact that God had promised to give your homeland to your family/nation. What about that promise? The term “disenfranchisement” might apply- they were deprived of their opportunity to live in their home.
Yet, as always, there was more going on than just geopolitical power shifts. God was working in his people, disciplining them for their sin, and calling them to repentance (2 Kings 24:2). God had a purpose in sending Israel into exile, but that is hard to remember when you’re a refugee in a foreign land.
During this time, just five years after they had been relocated to Babylon, God gave Ezekiel his first apocalyptic vision (592 BC). Suffice it to say that these Israelites were wondering about God’s plan. Was God still reigning over Israel? Over the universe? Were his promises to Abraham still valid? Was he faithful? Did he even exist?
We often struggle with the same kinds of doubt when we face significant trials. Maybe you’re facing a serious health problem. Maybe you lost a job you’d had for decades. Maybe a boyfriend broke up with you and you thought he was marriage material. Whatever the circumstances, wondering if God is on his throne is not just a theological question; it’s a relational question. We are asking, “God, where are you in my world?”
Right in the midst of this challenging moment for Israel, God gave Ezekiel his first vision—a majestic view of his glory as he sits on his throne. As we get into the specifics, we will see that God designed this vision to reveal to Israelite exiles, and to us, the real yet unseen reality of his active reign over the earth. He wanted to stoke the fire of their imaginations and help them envision him seated on his throne. This vision is meant to bring comfort to a people struggling with doubt over God’s purposes. Let’s take a look.
Ezek. 1:1 In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, while I was among the exiles by the Chebar Canal, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God. 2 On the fifth day of the month—it was the fifth year of King Jehoiachin’s exile 3 the word of the LORD came directly to the priest Ezekiel son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the Chebar Canal. The LORD’s hand was on him there.
Ezekiel is very specific about the timing of the vision and the location. The Chebar canal was a major irrigation artery near the city Nippur in Babylon that channeled water from the Euphrates river for agricultural purposes and perhaps even transportation. To risk stating the obvious, this is a long way from Judah—around 600 miles as the crow flies, or 725 miles by the most direct roads. This was likely the location of an initial resettlement of Israelite exiles.
As for the timing, it was the “fifth year of King’s Jehoiachin’s exile” (roughly 592 BC). Jehoiachin was the “king” of Judah five years earlier when Bablyon carried the first wave of exiles from Judah to Babylon. He was only king for 3 months when Babylon first besieged Jerusalem in 597 BC.
This means that these first exiles from Judah had been in Babylon for five years—long enough to realize there wasn’t an easy fix to their status as captives in a foreign land. We can easily imagine them struggling with despair, frustration, anger, bitterness, and hopelessness.
Have you ever been there? Stuck in a place where you didn’t want to be? Have you ever been powerless to change a frustrating circumstance? That’s how these Israelite exiles felt, and that’s why God sent Ezekiel his first vision.
Ezek. 1:1 In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, while I was among the exiles by the Chebar Canal, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.
Ezekiel describes what happened in 1:1 by saying “the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.” This is crucial to this first vision and his entire ministry. Those first exiles were discouraged, so what did God do? He gave them a glorious vision of himself. While they might be tempted to focus on their circumstances, God called them to look up, to look to him.
So often when we doubt God’s presence or reign we desperately want him to change our circumstances. We think, or sometimes even pray, “God, please show yourself and heal this cancer.” “God, please provide me a better job.” “God, please make them like me (or make me likable).” These aren’t necessarily wrong desires, but there’s something to be done first—we need a vision of God enthroned in heaven.
Think about it- Israel was so far from home, and yet God didn’t start by fixing their problem. Instead, he gave Ezekiel a glimpse of his greatness. As we will see, he will actually see God enthroned. The starting point for this vision is simple: God is still there, and he is still reigning. Perhaps that’s just what we need to hear in our trial. Maybe we think we deserve better. Maybe we just want the pain to go away. Whatever our circumstances, God says to us, “Look up, I am still here.”
Ezek. 1:2 On the fifth day of the month—it was the fifth year of King Jehoiachin’s exile 3 the word of the LORD came directly to the priest Ezekiel son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the Chebar Canal. The LORD’s hand was on him there.
Ezekiel and Israel needed to hear from God, more than they needed tell God what to do. The statement “the LORD’s hand was on him” occurs six times in Ezekiel (1:3, 3:14, 3:22, 33:22, 37:1, 40:1). In each case it describes a time when the Spirit of the Lord gave Ezekiel a prophetic word or vision, or when that prophetic activity emotionally impacted him (3:14).
The difference between speaking and listening is huge. In the midst of the greatest trial these Israelites would ever face, God spoke to them. We may be tempted to do a lot of talking (read: complaining) during times of suffering. Yet often God sends us trials to get us to place where we are ready to listen to him.
The Big Picture
When we zoom out and consider the rest of the Bible, we realize that God didn’t just send Israel into exile, he also went into exile to rescue them. When Jesus became flesh for us, he was light entering a dark world. Our exile isn’t physical, it’s spiritual. We are exiles because of sin. In John 1:14 and 1:18 the Apostle John tells us that Jesus reveals God’s glory to us,
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We observed his glory, the glory as the one and only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth… 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.
God does change circumstances, but first he gave us a clear vision of his glory in the Son. Once we catch the vision of the glory of God in the face of Jesus, we are ready to grow spiritually while in exile. Wherever you are, wherever you are struggling, God is not only there, he has acted on your behalf in Jesus.
Consider the depth of the love of God who would perform such a dramatic rescue. God loves you that much. Enough to walk in your shoes, to bear your burdens, and ultimately to pay the penalty for your sins by dying in your place. God loves us, no matter what our circumstances may be or what our emotions tell us.
Taking It Home
When we think about applying Ezekiel 1:1-3 we need to address our attitude and approach to times of trial. Five years of significant suffering can leave us angry, confused, bitter, doubting, and hopeless. We need to honestly appraise the state of our hearts as we struggle with various kinds of exile.
What circumstances tempt you to feel disenfranchised? What do you desperately wish God would change in your life? The things we want most reveal potential idols in our lives. What does that show about what your heart desires most?
Are you ready to listen to God? This requires us to humbly set aside our agenda, and to quiet our hearts before the Lord. Perhaps the Lord has you in some kind of exile to prepare you to hear from him. What are practical steps you can take to listen more carefully to God? Consider your Bible reading habits. How do you pray before and after you have read God’s word? Look to Jesus for the clearest vision of who God is. Consider his purposes for your life, including the trials you are facing right now.
So what’s it going to be? Will we chase a change in circumstances or a vision of God? Get ready, because the vision God gave Ezekiel reveals his transcendent majesty, a grand vista few have ever seen.
- Ask God to help you desire him more than a change in your circumstances.
- Ask him to captivate you with his greatness today as you run your race.
- Praise him for revealing himself in the Bible and working even in the midst of trials and suffering.