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
The thing about kingdoms is they have borders. Wars often break out over lines drawn on a map indicating where one “king’s” authority ends and another’s begins. In Ancient Near Eastern cultures this thinking extended to gods as well. People groups had a pantheon of certain gods, and their chief god had jurisdiction over their land. In fact, when nations went to war they believed their gods to be fighting as well.
The majority of us probably think very differently. We may think that the true God’s authority has no limit, and we would be right. The problem is what we see going on in God’s territory. We reflect on natural disasters and disease and war and terrorism and wonder why God would allow such tragedies to plague his world. We also reflect on difficulties closer to home like car accidents and theft and divorce and untimely deaths and wonder who is actually king over this kingdom.
Israel, while in exile in Babylon, may have wondered if God had been defeated by Marduk, the chief god of the Babylonians. They may have wondered if God was even on his throne at all. After all, Judah had been defeated. Perhaps it was their personal circumstances that hit hardest. They had lost homes, gardens, and businesses. Many had lost family members to war and seen families separated by exile. They needed to see God, and see him as he truly is.
In this context, God gave Ezekiel a vision of his throne room. Before we get into specifics, we need to remember that a vision is not like a security camera recording. Visions portray literal truths using symbols and signs. It is somewhat difficult for us to imagine what Ezekiel describes, but we can get the clear point. Once we get our bearings, this vision will captivate us with the glory of God on his throne. Let’s get into the details.
Ezek. 1:4 I looked, and there was 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.
Ezekiel’s first vision comes in the form of a lightning storm. Recall from 1:1-3 that he was alongside the Chebar canal. While there he saw a massive lightning storm. Imagine the sights and sounds—thunder and lightning captivating his eyes and ears. I remember one storm when we lived in Dallas, Texas where the thunder was so loud it literally knocked me out of bed. The point is any storm like this would get your attention. As he focused on the shining center of the storm, he saw some unusual creatures.
Ezek. 1:5 The likeness of four living creatures came from it, and this was their appearance: They looked something like a human, 6 but each of them had four faces and four wings. 7 Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the hooves of a calf, sparkling like the gleam of polished bronze. 8 They had human hands under their wings on their four sides. All four of them had faces and wings. 9 Their wings were touching. The creatures did not turn as they moved; each one went straight ahead. 10 Their faces looked something like the face of a human, and each of the four had the face of a lion on the right, the face of an ox on the left, and the face of an eagle. 11 That is what their faces were like. Their wings were spread upward; each had two wings touching that of another and two wings covering its body. 12 Each creature went straight ahead. Wherever the Spirit wanted to go, they went without turning as they moved.
In the center of the storm Ezekiel saw four living creatures. It’s difficult for us to envision the four living creatures, but it would not have been for those living in the 6th century BC. Later Ezekiel will identify them as “cherubim” – winged throne bearers (10:15). These beings would not have been unusual for Israelites to picture, as many Ancient Near Eastern cultures depicted them in their worship art (statues in temples, etc.).
The most important background for cherubim in the Bible comes from Exodus 25:18-20 where Israel was instructed by God to make two cherubim of gold to sit atop the sacred box that would hold the tablets of the Ten Commandments and would rest in the Holiest Place in the temple. Israel understood that God was enthroned above the cherubim (not in the box). So when Ezekiel begins to describe the cherubim, Israelite readers/hearers would have immediately started to anticipate a vision of who was above the cherubim.
Why the four faces? These four faces reflect the pinnacle of created beings on earth- humanity, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. These animals were used in Ancient Near Eastern temples to depict gods or divine power. Here, they are seen as faces of the beings who serve in the throne-room of the God of Israel. We will soon see that they are holding the throne of God himself. The key observation is that all power in the universe is subservient to God.
Unlike those static golden cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant, these cherubim are moving. In 2 Samuel 22:11 David describes God as a flying warrior, “He rode on a cherub and flew, soaring on the wings of the wind.” The cherubim were not only winged throne bearers, but they flew wherever the Spirit of the Lord directed them. God’s throne isn’t static, stuck in one place. His attendants are on the move, ready to go wherever he wills.
The movement of the cherubim is a major focus of this part of the vision. As we envision what Ezekiel describes, we should picture these winged servants of the Lord carrying a mobile throne. Ezekiel was fascinated by the mobility of these creatures and of God’s throne. After all, a throne that is mobile means a kingdom without borders and a king without parallel.
What parts of your life do feel are outside of God’s borders? These might be areas where you don’t see or understand what God is doing, or areas where you don’t want God interfering. Either way, God wants us to understand that there is no limit to his sovereignty. His attendants are on the move.
Ezek. 1:13 The likeness of the living creatures was like the appearance of blazing coals of fire or like torches. Fire was moving back and forth between the living creatures; it was bright, with lightning coming out of it. 14 The creatures were darting back and forth like flashes of lightning. Ezek. 1:15 When I looked at the living creatures, there was one wheel on the ground beside each of the four-faced creatures. 16 The appearance of the wheels and their craftsmanship was like the gleam of beryl, and all four had the same likeness. Their appearance and craftsmanship was like a wheel within a wheel. 17 When they moved, they went in any of the four directions, without turning as they moved. 18 Their rims were tall and awe-inspiring. Each of their four rims were full of eyes all around. 19 When the living creatures moved, the wheels moved beside them, and when the creatures rose from the earth, the wheels also rose. 20 *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. 21 When the creatures moved, the wheels moved; when the creatures stopped, the wheels stopped; and when the creatures rose from the earth, the wheels rose alongside them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.
In the midst of the lightning storm, the cherubim were seen darting back and forth like flashes of lightning. Fully mobile, these servants of the Lord were ready to dart wherever needed. Why should Israel care that God’s throne is mobile? Don’t forget that they are in exile in Babylon. If they were asking “Where is God?” the answer was, “Not as far away as you think.”
God was not only still enthroned, but Israel needed to know that he wasn’t limited by geography. The truth that God is presiding over all of creation is often clouded by the trials we face. Just because we can’t conceive of God being sovereign over Babylon (read: Washington, bankruptcy, work, school, Wall Street, etc.) doesn’t mean he isn’t. Have you ever wondered if God has abandoned his post? How does it comfort you to know that God’s throne is mobile?
Ezek. 1:22 Over the heads of the living creatures the likeness of an expanse was spread out. It gleamed like awe-inspiring crystal, 23 and under the expanse their wings extended one toward another. They each also had two wings covering their bodies. 24 When they moved, I heard the sound of their wings like the roar of a huge torrent, like the voice of the Almighty, and a sound of tumult like the noise of an army. When they stopped, they lowered their wings.
Ancient Near Eastern religions commonly pictured their chief god enthroned above the sky. The God of Israel, however, was not one chief god in a pantheon. He sits unrivaled as God over all creation, which included Babylon.
Ezekiel compares the sound of the wings of the cherubim to the sound of the voice of the Almighty— thunder (check out Psalm 29:3). Given the vision was expressed in a lightning storm, this is not surprising. As if the sight weren’t majestic enough, Ezekiel draws his readers in to hear the heavenly attendants with him.
What does thunder evoke in us when we hear it? Shock. Awe. Majesty. Fear. All of these apply when we consider the glory of God enthroned. Rather than being consumed with the sight of our struggles, we have the opportunity to be consumed with the sight of God’s awesome power. Even his throne-bearers are majestic!
Note also that their wings sounds like an army. No doubt Israel longed to hear the sound of a massive army coming to rescue them. In their experience, the only army that massive was the one that had taken them into exile. Yet here a mere four creatures attending God’s throne sound like an army. This description gives us hope. It reminds us that God’s resources are unlimited, and his arm is long.
Ezek. 1:25 A voice came from above the expanse over their heads; when they stopped, they lowered their wings. 26 Something like a throne with the appearance of lapis lazuli was above the expanse over their heads. On the throne, high above, was someone who looked like a human. 27 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. 28 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. When I saw it, I fell facedown and heard a voice speaking.
Finally, at the center of this storm, the center of the vision, Ezekiel sees God sitting on his throne. The throne shone like a blue or violet precious stone (lapis lazuli). Ezekiel now explains the “amber” shining he saw from a distance in 1:4—it is the glory of God. Clothed in fire and seated on his throne, God appeared to Ezekiel like a human. Colored light that looked like a rainbow surrounded him. Ezekiel tells us, point blank, “This was the appearance of the likeness of the LORD’s glory.”
Let’s pause right here. Stuck in Babylon, with no hope on the horizon, God gives Ezekiel a vision of his glory. Here the word “glory” refers to the visible manifestation of the greatness of God. He could see God’s worth. Ezekiel must have struggled for the words to describe the shining glory of God. Fire, light, a rainbow… all of it captivated Ezekiel.
So what effect did it have on him? He says, “When I saw it, I fell facedown…” He was overcome with worship- true worship, the valuing of God above anything else. At that moment Babylon wasn’t the main thing. Ezekiel’s health or family or career wasn’t the main thing. The latest developments of the empire or the latest headlines weren’t the main thing. At that moment, the glory of God was the main thing.
Note that Ezekiel assumes the posture of worship: he fell down before the Lord. In the Bible this is always the right response when we see even a glimpse of God’s glory. For example, the Apostle John in Revelation describes himself falling down at the feet of Jesus (1:17). God is not revealing himself to condemn Ezekiel, but it is still appropriate for Ezekiel to throw himself on the mercy of God.
Now he was ready to hear from God.
The Big Picture
When we consider the story of the Bible, we realize that the glory of God is the dominant theme. God displays his greatness through his acts revealed in the Scriptures. He wants us to be overwhelmed by his greatness. He wants us to be in awe of his character. He wants us to captivated by his beauty. His glory is the sum total of his greatness, and it is best seen in Jesus Christ.
The pinnacle of the revelation of the glory of God is Jesus Christ. In Colossians 1:19 the Apostle Paul says, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him…” In 2 Corinthians 4:6 he says that God shines in our hearts so that we would see “the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ.” To see Jesus is to see the glory of God.
Jesus shows us the truth of who God is and offers God’s grace to us. He made this possible through his death on our behalf and his resurrection. He sent his Spirit to work in the church, and he has promised to return to fulfill his kingdom work. Jesus literally fleshes out for us the glimpse of glory Ezekiel saw.
We need to be enthralled with a vision of Jesus just like Ezekiel was enthralled with a vision of God enthroned. But often all we can see are the trials we are facing. Our challenge is to look to Jesus and see his glory. His greatness must be our main thing. Only then will we be ready to hear from God. Only then will we be able to change our attitude in the midst of exile.
Taking It Home
God’s sovereign reign has no limit. There is no border to his authority. This includes our hearts. As we consider the practical impact of seeing the glory of God in Ezekiel 1:4-28, we have to be honest about the “lesser glories” that capture our attention. These are the shiny things that distract us from finding our greatest satisfaction in God- material possessions, financial resources, the latest fashions, social status, peer approval, etc. We must know where we struggle so we can address the sinful passions of heart.
What is your main thing? What fills your field of vision? What distracts you from seeing the glory of God in Jesus Christ? What consumes your thinking during the day or keeps you up at night? Be specific as you probe your heart. Fighting sin by faith means being thorough in our self-appraisal.
God wants us to love him more than anything. Some object that this seems selfish of God. But that objection mistakenly views God as being too much like us. His glory is not counterfeit. To value God above all else is the only right response to seeing him for who he is.
Sometimes good things, like love for spouses and kids and friends can actually distract from us loving God most. Of course we should love our families and friends, but when God is our first love, we are better equipped to love them. Love for God sets all of our loves in the right frame.
Love for God also clarifies which of our other loves might be sinful. Struggles like drug addiction, sexual sin, and drunkenness are shown to be what they are—lesser glories. Pursuits like the perfect house, career success, a tidy home, and well-behaved kids can easily turn into household idols. Apart from a primary love for God, these too become lesser glories.
How can you practically set aside time to reflect on the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ? What times during your week can you set aside for prayer and Scripture reading? As you do so, what are ways you can respond in worship? What does it look like for you to value God above anyone or anything else?
Once we have caught the vision of God’s glory, we are ready to hear his voice. When God spoke to Ezekiel from the throne, he gave him clear instruction on where Israel was struggling. But would Israel be ready to hear it? Are we?
- Praise God for revealing his glory to us. Focus specifically on Jesus. Praise him for revealing the glory of God to us in grace and truth.
- Confess any idolatry lurking in your heart. Be specific about whatever you are tempted to love more than God.
- Praise Jesus for dying for our sins so that we can be forgiven for our failures.
“…not only the creature’s seeing and knowing God’s excellence, but also supremely esteeming and loving him, belongs to the communication of God’s fulness.”
-Jonathan Edwards, The End for Which God Created the World