A Close Encounter with God
Scripture: Ezekiel 1:4–28
4 As I looked, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, and a great cloud, with brightness around it, and fire flashing forth continually, and in the midst of the fire, as it were gleaming metal. 5 And from the midst of it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had a human likeness, 6 but each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. 7 Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot. And they sparkled like burnished bronze. 8 Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. And the four had their faces and their wings thus: 9 their wings touched one another. Each one of them went straight forward, without turning as they went. 10 As for the likeness of their faces, each had a human face. The four had the face of a lion on the right side, the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and the four had the face of an eagle. 11 Such were their faces. And their wings were spread out above. Each creature had two wings, each of which touched the wing of another, while two covered their bodies. 12 And each went straight forward. Wherever the spirit would go, they went, without turning as they went. 13 As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, like the appearance of torches moving to and fro among the living creatures. And the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning. 14 And the living creatures darted to and fro, like the appearance of a flash of lightning.
26 And above the expanse over their heads there was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness with a human appearance. 27 And upward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were gleaming metal, like the appearance of fire enclosed all around. And downward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and there was brightness around him. 28 Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness all around.
Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking.
It doesn’t take long in reading Ezekiel before noticing that this is not going to be an easy book to understand. The opening vision of chapter 1 is filled with images it’s hard to visualize, and even more challenging to interpret. If you feel lost already, or are having trouble being as excited about studying Ezekiel as you were about studying Romans, take heart. We’ve got some tools at our disposal to make some real progress.
I don’t imagine that many of us are going to be able to spend hours upon hours digging deep into Ezekiel’s enigmas. I, of course, have that privilege and honor, and I invite you to go as deep with me as you can. There are plenty of good resources and commentaries available to us—again I say it is a blessing to be this far into Christian history (2000 plus years!) and be able to build on the studies of others.
At the same time, there needs to be a caution stated here. The enigmatic nature of a book like Ezekiel is a breeding ground for even more bizarre interpretations. We’re going to have to be careful with settling on firm convictions on what an image means without good support for that view. This is good practice for Christians because interpreting Ezekiel is much like interpreting Revelation, a New Testament book which has spawned all sorts of wild ideas and theologies, some of which have dominated the minds of Christians for generations, making it seem heretical to suggest a different—even if more historical interpretation. Many have just assumed there is some secret rapture of Christians away from the earth before a great tribulation comes and have therefore found some way to find this rapture in Revelation. Surprise: it’s not there. And we really shouldn’t be convinced that the mysterious locusts in Revelation 9 are Apache helicopters, either. In the same way, let’s not entertain the idea that Ezekiel’s experience in this first chapter was him seeing some alien spaceship. We can do better than that.
And we need to do better, because the imagery in Revelation depends quite a bit on the experience of Ezekiel. John’s vision of the heavenly throne in Revelation 4 uses no less than a dozen descriptions taken from Ezekiel 1. This suggests that the dawning of the Christian era did not leave Ezekiel locked up in the dusty archives but saw it as the foundation for understanding Jesus and his achievement and the worldview that his followers must now hold and out of which they should operate.
So, we had best pay attention and try to understand Ezekiel, and we begin with his inaugural vision in chapter 1. Let’s see what happened to him, what he saw, and how he responded.
What Happened to Ezekiel
First, what was this life-changing experience that Ezekiel had? He tells us that “in the thirtieth year [of his life], in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as [he] was among the exiles by the Chebar canal”—a resettlement site in Babylonia for some of the Jewish exiles—“the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.” Thanks to Ezekiel’s precision, we can be pretty sure of the exact date: July 31, 593 B.C. But what was this experience he had on that day?
The Heavens Were Opened
Ezekiel says that “the heavens were opened.” The only other place in the Old Testament where we find this expression is in the narrative of Noah’s Flood where it basically means it began to rain (Gen 7:11). But, of course, that was not just any kind of rain; it was rain that signaled the beginning of God’s judgment on the world.
In the New Testament, we find the expression a few times. After Jesus was baptized, “the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him" (Matt 3:16). Just before he died, Stephen, the first Christian martyr, saw “the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56).
The meaning of the phrase is clear. The opening of the heavens means that one is enabled to see “behind the scenes,” getting a glimpse of what is happening in the spiritual realm. But this is not just some esoteric experience disconnected from the realities of life on earth. Ezekiel is not having a psychedelic experience. He was not smoking weed here. When the king of Syria surround Elisha with a massive army, Elisha’s servant cried out, “What are we going to do?” Elisha asked the Lord to “open his eyes that he may see.” And God did, and the servant saw “the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.” It wasn’t an hallucination, because the army of Syria was subsequently defeated (2 Kings 6:14-23). Ezekiel’s experience here was one in which he was enabled to see something real, something meaningful for real life as an exile in Babylon.
Visions of God
Ezekiel tells us that when “the heavens were opened,” he saw visions of God. The phrase alone is ambiguous. It could mean Ezekiel saw God, but that’s not how Ezekiel uses the expression elsewhere (Ezek 8:3; 40:2). He uses this phrase to mean that he saw something which mortals could normally not see.
Now, at the end of the chapter, Ezekiel does tell us that his experience was an encounter with God, or, at least, a very close encounter with God. The word translated visions is not the typical word used for a prophetic experience. Where we find this word, it seems to communicate a more direct experience. In fact, the only other person in the Old Testament who makes the claim that Ezekiel makes here is Moses. Ezekiel’s experience is comparable only to Moses and his encounter with God at the burning bush.
In other words, we should think of Ezekiel’s experience here not so much as a vision of God in some sort of dream-like state. This is an actual encounter, happening in time and space. If we had been with him, we would have seen what he saw, just like if we had been with Moses, we would have seen a bush on fire but, mysteriously, not consumed.
What Ezekiel Saw
So what did Ezekiel see? In verse 4, he begins to describe it to us.
The Wind and the Cloud
Ezekiel’s encounter begins with “a stormy wind” coming from the north. He observes “a great cloud” that cannot be missed because it was glowing: there was “brightness around it, and fire flashing forth continually, and in the midst of the fire, as it were gleaming metal.”
Notice the words “as it were.” One of the difficulties with understanding this encounter is that it seems Ezekiel himself did not understand it much. What he describes throughout the first chapters is largely done by comparison: it looked like this, it was sort of like that. But the wind and the cloud resembles quite a bit the description of Yahweh in Psalm 18 and elsewhere throughout the Old Testament, where an encounter with Yahweh is often described as an encounter with a thunderstorm. This imagery is used because, for an agricultural people, the thunderstorm was the best metaphor to describe absolute power which could sustain life or just as easily destroy it.
So, Ezekiel knows right away he is encountering the God of Israel, complete with his absolute power, but he sees more.
The Four Living Creatures
In verses 5-14, Ezekiel describes “the likeness of four living creatures” which came out of the midst of the cloud. Again, it is hard to imagine the scene. These creatures had a human likeness, but they also had four faces each—the face of a human as well as the face of a lion, an ox, and an eagle. They also had four wings each, but human hands. They were glowing and they also moved rapidly, darting like a flash of lightning.
Imagination, run wild! There exist several portraits in church history attempting to represent the vision. Ezekiel himself tells us in chapter 10 that these living creatures were Cherubim; if so, they certainly don’t look like the fat-faced angelic infants in so much western art. Don’t let your imagination get too far out of hand!
The cherubim are commonly understood as angels, but our category “angels” is far too broad. We usually use it to define all spirit beings except the one true God. But “angel” simply describes the lower-level responsibility of a divine messenger. In the spirit realm, the Bible suggests a more defined hierarchy, with some spirit-beings as messengers but others as having higher-level responsibilities. The cherubim apparently have the responsibility of bearing the divine throne; they signify the resting place of God’s invisible presence.
This fits, of course, with the appearance of the cherubim here in Ezekiel 1. Their appearance here means Ezekiel has come into the holy of holies, into the very presence of Yahweh. As a priest-in-training, Ezekiel would have been preparing for such encounters; as an exile to Babylon his hopes for ever having one were diminishing. But now he was experiencing it. Right here. In Babylon! And since we’ve seen that this was not a mere vision, but a face-to-face encounter, we can, with Ezekiel, begin to understand some implications that come from this encounter.
The presence of God was not confined to the temple in Jerusalem. The wings of the cherubim suggest that as bearers of God’s throne, his throne is in motion. Ezekiel notices in verses 9 and 12 that these throne bearers moved to and fro, like a flash of lightning, though always without turning. As for their four faces, the lion, ox, and eagle are not arbitrary; they were representative in Israel’s own history and in other ancient near-eastern cultures as the epitome of strength (lion), vitality (ox), and mobility (eagle). The human was understood as the epitome of creaturely wisdom. The point being communicated is that as bearers of the divine throne, the one who sits above the four living creatures possesses in himself the combination of all prowess. He possesses an abundance of power.
But as creatures, these four cherubim tell us something else. They tell us that the spirit realm is not altogether distinct from the natural realm. In our terms, “heaven” and “earth” are connected, and Yahweh rules them both. When he takes the throne of one, he takes the throne of both, like King Charles who, having become king of England, also becomes the head of the countries that are part of the British commonwealth.
And the number four suggests the four points of the compass, over which God reigns with omnipotence and omnipresence. God’s power and might are not seen in supernatural or miraculous events, but, more pervasively, in the ordinary occurrences that happen every day and every moment.
The next specific feature of Ezekiel’s encounter with God are the four wheels, one for each of the creatures. Notice that the wheels were “on the earth” and “beside the living creatures,” again showing us the connection between heaven and earth. That we are still gazing with Ezekiel at a divine reality is indicated by the “gleaming of beryl.” Verse 18 says that the rims of the wheels were “full of eyes all around,” the word “eye” here probably refers to the shape of the objects in the rims, eye-shaped jewels which add to the brilliance of the entire image.
Ezekiel says that these wheels were more like a wheel within a wheel, a 3-dimensional sphere, perhaps something like a caster. The shape just means again that this object, like the four creatures, can freely move in any direction (v. 17). And move they do! Verses 19-21 say that the wheels moved in harmony with the four creatures, both on earth as well as in heaven, moving freely between the two. They moved in harmony because the same spirit was in the wheels as in the four creatures.
But what are these wheels? We get the divine power represented here, wheels in motion, going somewhere, led by the indwelling Spirit of God. And we get the connection hinted at by the association of the wheels working in harmony with the living creatures. The divine power is not to be found somewhere else outside of the events happening in every corner of the globe. And, once more, we see that the events on earth are connected to the motion of heaven, represented by the “tall and awesome” rims that touch the earth but also go up into the heavens.
But what are these wheels?! Most interpreters agree that they represent the divine throne as something like a wheeled chariot. God’s throne not only flies through the sky on the wings of the cherubim but also roams the earth on the wheels of the chariot. And the meaning of God’s omnipresent movement is the enforcement of God’s perfect justice. This is what, I believe, the wheels signify. When Ezekiel gets a glimpse of the universe from God’s perspective, in God’s presence, he sees that God is alive and well and on the move. “The Lion of Judah is restless.”
For Ezekiel and the exiles in Babylon, this is an important revelation, because the circumstances they’ve endured have brought into question the justice of God, just like you’ve perhaps begun to question in your own trying circumstances.
The next element that Ezekiel points out to us is “the likeness of an expanse, shining like awe-inspiring crystal, spread out above” the heads of the four living creatures (v. 22). This “expanse” is the word occurring in Genesis 1, that thing that God created to separate the water above it from the water below it. God called this expanse Heaven (Gen 1:6-8), and he put lights there to light the earth (Gen 1:14-17), and filled it with birds to fly there (Gen 1:20). It is here, in the ”sky above,” the psalmist says, that God’s handiwork is proclaimed to humans below (Psa 19:1).
The expanse, in other words, signifies the creative power of God, the power to bring order out of chaos by the process of separation. Wherever we see chaos we may well be tempted to believe that God has lost control. But we ought to think the opposite: chaos is precisely where we should expect to find a God of absolute power and resolute justice, ready to go to work.
Chaos is what Ezekiel hears, the sound of the wings of the living creatures representing the sound of creation in chaotic disorder (v. 24). But then he hears a voice coming from above the expanse of separation which silences the chaos.
That’s when Ezekiel tells us, he saw “above the expanse . . . the likeness of a throne . . . and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness with a human appearance” (v. 26). Commentaries point out that Ezekiel is describing the experience of walking into an Assyrian throne room. When you walk into the throne room, you would face a long wall, but the king would be seated to your left or right, and slightly behind you. On the wall you face when you walk in, there would be a representation of the king, which is what Ezekiel says he encountered in verse 26. This is Ezekiel’s encounter with God, or perhaps we should say, a close encounter.
How Ezekiel Responded
But then again, notice, lastly, how he responded. He doesn’t actually claim to see this one on the throne but only his representation. And yet, just seeing the representation, was enough to drop him on his face.
Who or what is this representation of the God of Israel that garners the same response that ought to be reserved for God alone? We Christians know the answer, of course. This is the pre-incarnate Christ. John makes this explicit when he sees the same scene in Revelation 4-5.
The one who has taken his throne possesses absolute power, and he uses it to bring justice—restorative, creative justice—on earth. His power is experienced on earth, on every point on earth. And if you encounter God like this, the only way to survive the encounter is on your face, in absolute submission to the absolute power of God.
Let me close today by taking us to the words of the twenty-ninth psalm, where we read of God’s absolute power.
Ascribe to the LORD, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name;
worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness.
The voice of the LORD is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the LORD, over many waters.
The voice of the LORD is powerful;
the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.
The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars;
the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon to skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness;
the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the LORD makes the deer give birth
and strips the forests bare,
and in his temple all cry, “Glory!”
The LORD sits enthroned over the flood;
the LORD sits enthroned as king forever (Psa 29:1-10).
So, Christian, whatever chaos is in your life, causing you to ask, “Where is the God of justice?” rest assured, he is about to go to work. But total surrender to Jesus means not only total submission in worship; it also means total submission in obedience to what Jesus commands.
Psalm 29 ends like this, after the awesome display of God’s power. Here is the response, the benediction:
May the LORD give strength to his people!
May the LORD bless his people with peace! (Psa 29:11).
You know why the psalmist ends like this? Because what comes after the inaugural vision is the divine call, the divine command. Submission to God is not just worship but obedience. God is about to go to work, but he’s about to go to work through his restored people, strengthened with his power.
God wants to do something about the chaos in his world, so he sent his Son, so that now, having taken his throne, having ascended to the Father, having poured out his Spirit on all flesh, he can send us out with a commission, with a calling. What does God want to do? What does he want us to do? Are we ready to obey?
Ponder anew what the Almighty could do,
If with his love he befriend thee.
What if God cares so much about his world that he has redeemed and restored you with awesome power so that now he can say, “Stand to your feet. I’ve got work for you to do”?
 E. von Däniken, Chariots of the Gods (New York: Putnam, 1970), pp. 55–57; J. F. Blumrich, The Spaceships of Ezekiel (New York: Bantam, 1974).
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