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Ezekiel wasn’t the first man to see Yahweh’s glory cloud. The Lord had descended on Sinai in a storm cloud (Ex. 24:16). When Moses finished the tabernacle, the cloud moved from the mountain to the Most Holy Place, resting above the wings of the cherubim on the ark (Ex. 40:34–35). Later, the same glory filled Solomon’s temple, consecrating the Lord’s house (1 Kings 8:11). The priests and elders on Sinai peered up through a sapphire pavement to see the God of Israel and Moses got to enter the cloud.
Mostly, Israel saw Yahweh’s glory from a distance and from the outside; Moses didn’t record a description of the interior.
Ezekiel is different. He gets an up-close, interior view, and he shares it with us.
Biblical Theology of Direction
From a distance, Ezekiel sees what Israel saw, a storm wind and a great cloud flashing with lightning and fire. Even from a distance, he sees something “like glowing metal in the midst of the fire” (Ezek. 1:4). As the cloud approaches, he sees what’s inside—living beings, later identified as “cherubim” (Ezek. 10:1). They have a human form (Ezek. 1:5), but with bronze legs and hooved feet (Ezek. 1:6) and four wings (Ezek. 1:6). Each cherub has four faces—the face of a bull, a lion, an eagle, and a man (Ezek. 1:10).
These faces always face the same direction (Ezek. 1:12), and we know which direction. The cloud comes from the north (Ezek. 1:4), and the face at the front is the face of a man; that means the man face faces south. To the right of the man face is the lion face, facing west, and to the left is the bull face, turned east. That means the eagle face must be facing back to the north, toward the Lord’s throne at the pole of the sphere of heaven (cf. Ps. 48:2).
Ezekiel’s directional indications may seem extraneous, but they hint at connections with other four-corner arrangements in the Bible. When Israel camped in the wilderness, the 12 tribes were divided into four groups, with three turned toward each of the four cardinal directions (Num. 2). The tabernacle was at the center of the camp, with furnishings at each point of the compass: the bronze altar in the courtyard to the east, the ark in the far west, the table of showbread on the north wall of the Holy Place, and the lampstand on the south wall. We may be tempted to think that David-plus-three-mighty-men form a human replica of the glory, and then we might recall that Jesus, the son of David, also has his three: Peter, James, and John.
Ezekiel’s directional indications may seem extraneous, but they hint at connections with other four-corner arrangements in the Bible.
The parallels among these different structures are suggestive. Yahweh’s original glory includes four four-faced cherubim, each face turned in a unique direction. But Yahweh’s glory also appears as a four-cornered sanctuary, as the four-faced nation of Israel, as a four-man royal entourage. We might conclude that Israel is a cherubic nation, called to stand watch at the house of God, just as cherubim were stationed at the gate of Eden (Gen. 3:24). We might surmise that David and his men are glory in human form.
Yahweh’s Glory and Chariot
Beside each of the living creatures is a wheel of sparkling beryl, wheels that move at the direction of the living creatures, since “the spirit of the living beings was in the wheels” (Ezek. 1:21). The famous phrase “wheels within wheels” is tantalizingly vague. Perhaps it means that the wheels were spheres that could change direction without being turned. The key point, though, is the wheels themselves, which indicate that this cloud is also a chariot—Yahweh’s chariot that was usually “parked” in the Most Holy Place of the temple (cf. 1 Chron. 28:18). Together, the creatures and the wheels form Yahweh’s mobile palanquin.
We might conclude that Israel is a cherubic nation, called to stand watch at the house of God, just as cherubim were stationed at the gate of Eden.
Above the heads of the cherubim is an expanse, a firmament gleaming like ice (Ezek. 1:22), and above the expanse, Ezekiel sees a lapis lazuli throne, occupied by a figure like a man made of fire and metal (Ezek. 1:26–27). This is the heart of the vision. The cherubim and wheels and the expanse are only mechanisms to move the enthroned one from place to place. At the center of the vision is Yahweh himself, appearing as a glorified man to the prophet by the river Chebar.
Altogether, the glory is a microcosm. Below, toward earth, are four living creatures that represent the main categories of land and sky creatures: wild animals, domesticated cattle, birds, and men. Above these is a firmament, like the expanse of the sky, and above the sky is Yahweh’s throne. The chariot is the original glory of God, and the world itself is modeled after the pattern of this glory.
There is a thread of Jewish mysticism based on Ezekiel’s chariot or “Merkabah.” It’s thought that Ezekiel describes a path of ascent into heavenly places to the throne of God. In Ezekiel, though, the movement is the opposite. Instead of an ascent, he sees a descent, the original living throne of Yahweh moving from heaven to earth. The chariot can rise from the earth (Ezek. 1:19), but the wheels are on the earth (Ezek. 1:15). The chariot isn’t in the first instance a means of mystical ascent; it’s medium for divine descent. It doesn’t take Ezekiel up to heaven; it brings heaven to earth.
We can get so caught up in the strange details of Ezekiel’s vision that we miss the concrete setting. Ezekiel sees the glory Moses and Solomon saw, but Ezekiel doesn’t sees it on Sinai, at Shiloh, or in Jerusalem. When Ezekiel sees the vision, in the fifth year of Jehoiachin’s exile (Ezek. 1:2), the temple is still standing in Jerusalem (cf. Ezek. 33:21–22). Yet the glory isn’t in the temple. It’s with the exiles in Babylon, who gather by the river Chebar. Something like this has happened before. When the Philistines destroyed the tabernacle at Shiloh, they took Yahweh’s ark back home as a war trophy, where Yahweh made war on Israel’s enemies (1 Sam. 4–6). It happens again in Ezekiel’s time. Yahweh’s departure from the temple is a judgment on Judah, but it’s also an act of compassion. When Yahweh sends Israel into exile, he packs up and heads into exile with them. He enters Babylonian territory riding on his war chariot, on the wings of the cherubim.
True Prophet’s Prophetic Commission
To get the full effect of the vision, we need to see that Ezekiel 1 is only the first of a three-chapter sequence, during which Ezekiel is commissioned as a prophet. When Ezekiel sees the vision, he falls like a dead man (Ezek. 1:28). A voice from the throne revives him (Ezek. 2:1), the Spirit enters him, he eats a book, and then he’s sent out to speak the words of Yahweh and stand as a watchman over the house of Israel (Ezek. 3:16–21). Like Isaiah’s vision of glory (Isa. 6), Ezekiel’s is part of his ordination as prophet. It’s a fitting prelude to a prophetic commission. A prophet is someone with access to Yahweh’s judgment hall and his divine council (Jer. 23:18–22). Ezekiel glimpses the interior of the throne room because Yahweh is about to invite him to take his place among the living creatures.
Yahweh’s departure from the temple is a judgment on Judah but it’s also an act of compassion. When Yahweh sends Israel into exile, he packs up and heads into exile with them.
“The heavens opened,” Ezekiel tells us (Ezek. 1:1). It’s a remarkable rare occurrence in Scripture. In the Old Testament, the heavens typically open so Yahweh can rain his blessings on Israel (Deut. 28:12; Ps. 78:23; Mal. 3:10). But the heavens open to welcome Ezekiel, the “son of man” (Ezek. 2:1, 3, 8; 3:1, 3, 4, 10; etc.). And centuries later, the heavens split open again as another prophet, another “Son of Man,” is commissioned at the age of 30 to see visions of God (Luke 3:21-24; cf. Ezek. 1:1). Jesus is the Prophet (Luke 4:24; 7:16; 24:19), but he’s more than a prophet. He’s both commissioned prophet and commissioning glory, both Son of Man and the fiery One who sits on Yahweh’s throne in the midst of the living creatures. He’s the living chariot of God, come from heaven to live among exiles, his face shining with the light of God’s glory.