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Whedon's Commentary on the Bible

Ezekiel 1

 

 

Verse 1

INTRODUCTION. — CHAPTERS 1-3.

Ezekiel’s Account of His Call to the Prophetic Office.

1. I — This is personal narration. All critics agree that we have here a genuine account of the spiritual experiences of this ancient prophet written by himself. This book throbs with the intense life of a sensitive and majestic personality. (See Introduction, “IV. Ezekiel’s Personality.”) Literally, 1 And it came to pass in the thirtieth year on the fourth, on the fifth of the month, and I in the midst of the captivity by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. 2 In the fifth of the month; that is, the fifth year of the captivity of king Jehoiachin, 3 Surely came to pass the word of Jehovah unto Ezekiel, son of Buzi the priest, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar. And the hand of Jehovah was upon him there. This is a very difficult passage. It is peculiar that the largest date mentioned by Ezekiel is in the first verse of the book. The other dates given are as follows: Ezekiel 1:2, fifth year; Ezekiel 8:1, sixth year; Ezekiel 20:1, seventh year; Ezekiel 24:1, ninth year; Ezekiel 26:1, eleventh year; Ezekiel 29:1, tenth year; Ezekiel 29:17, twenty-seventh year; Ezekiel 31:1, eleventh year; Ezekiel 32:17, and Ezekiel 33:21, twelfth year; Ezekiel 40:1, twenty-fifth year. Ezekiel 40:1, gives Ezekiel’s ordinary method of reckoning: from the “year of our captivity.” If the text really represents Ezekiel’s introduction to this prophecy, he refers to a thirtieth year which corresponds to “the fifth year of our captivity.” In this case the most natural supposition would be that the thirtieth year would refer to his own age (Kraetzschmar, etc.), although Mr. Wesley, following the Targum, believed the thirtieth year was reckoned from the discovery of the book of the covenant. Some scholars believe, however, that Ezekiel 1:1, and perhaps also Ezekiel 1:2, were originally the introduction to certain prophecies of Ezekiel which are now lost. Josephus seems to have heard that Ezekiel left two books of his prophecies. Ewald supposes Ezekiel 1:2-3 to be a comment added by Ezekiel in his last revision of the book. Cornill regards the first verse as the gloss. But most modern commentators agree that Ezekiel wrote this first verse, and that the “thirtieth year” refers to some Babylonian era, probably that of Nabopolassar, who became king of Babylon 625-624 B.C., just about thirty years previous to this time (594-592 B.C.), while Ezekiel 1:2-3 were comments added by a later editor. Professor John F. Peters (Journal of Biblical Literature, 11:39) offers what seems to be the true explanation of how this gloss arose. The era of the first verse is probably Babylonian, perhaps the era of the independence of Babylon. To use a non-Jewish era was not in accordance with Jewish usage; this peculiarity therefore led some one to write on the margin, between the lines, the date according to the Jewish era, the second verse being merely a comment on the first. This annotation finally crept into the text. The form of these annotations is familiar in the Midrashim, and in Jewish commentaries of all eras, with this very form: היא, that is. Considering Ezekiel 1:2-3, with the exception of the closing phrase, as marginal glosses, we get a very forcible introduction to the book, “The heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God, and the hand of Jehovah was upon me there.” Ezekiel could never forget the day, which was the fifth day of the mouth Tammuz (June-July).

The captives — There were several deportations of Judah and Israel to the east: 1, by Tiglath-pileser to Assyria (2 Kings 15:29), 741 B.C.; 2, by Shalmaneser to “Habor by the rivers of Gozan [Pasture Land], and in the mountains of the Medes” (LXX., 2 Kings 17:6); 3, by Nebuchadnezzar to Babylon (Jeremiah 25:11-12). Nebuchadnezzar seems first to have carried off Daniel and his companions, afterward Jehoiakim and his court (2 Kings 24:1-2; 2 Chronicles 36:6-7; Jeremiah 24:5-6), including Ezekiel (see S. B. A., Ezekiel 15:2). Ezekiel himself tells of later raids upon Palestine and the deportation of its population. No doubt these captives were distributed in various localities. Babylonian records show that there was a “Jewish quarter” in various great cities of Babylonia, and speak also of certain new cities receiving the bulk of their population from foreigners thus transported. These captives were not treated harshly. They could buy, and sell, and build, and have most, if not all, of the privileges of citizens, if they were only willing to forget their native land and be true to the ruling government.

The river of Chebar — Hebrews Kebar, “great.” The Chabor of Mesopotamia (2 Kings 17:6) must not be confounded with the Chebar of Babylonia. The distinction is shown in the Hebrew text, though it has been only recently recognized by expositors. The Chebar was supposed by Pliny (vi, 24) to be a branch of the Euphrates, called the Gabaris. Many ingenious conjectures have been offered by modern cuneiform scholars, the general opinion being that the Chebar must have been the technical name of one of the leading canals of Babylonia; even to this day in Egypt the word for canal being bahr, “river.”

This view has been confirmed by the brilliant discovery of Dr. Hilprecht, in 1897, of an inscription of the fifth century B.C., in which this very name Kabari is used of the large navigable canal near Niffer (Nippur). The inscriptions also reveal a large Jewish element in the population of Niffer itself, as is shown by the scores of Jewish names, like Benjamin, Shimeon, Samson, and Zebediah. Local names of Palestinian towns are also of common occurrence; for example, Ashkelon, Heshbon, etc. It is suggestive that these names and their archaic form correspond with remarkable accuracy to those used in Ezra and Nehemiah. It has become almost certain, therefore, that we have at last discovered the very district in which Ezekiel and his friends resided. The traditional tomb of Ezekiel is still shown not far from that place.

Heavens were opened — This was not a dream, it was a manifestation (Matthew 3:16; Matthew 17:2). Whether these heavenly visions appeared on the Sabbath or not (Wesley), they prove the devout spirit of the seer. It is only to deep contemplative natures that such revelations are given.

I saw — The heavens are always full of glory, but they are not always open to human eyes. The open eye is as necessary to the vision as the open heaven (2 Kings 6:17).

Visions of God — This was better than to see the golden streets and the pearly gates of a New Jerusalem. This was the best vision the open heaven could disclose. The quest of the Holy Grail was worth long travel and sorrow; to see God was worth Ezekiel’s trip to Babylon and exile from his Judean home.


Verse 3

3. Ezekiel God is strong (Kuenen). Because of this all too brief biographical sketch, and because of Ezekiel’s reticence regarding himself, many have supposed that nothing can be known of this great prophet excepting the name of his father, and the fact that he was a priest of the family of Zadok; but such visions only come to the prepared man. Only the pure in heart can see God. (See Introduction, “IV. Ezekiel’s Personality.”)

The priest — This shows his training, education, environment, and natural prejudices. Buzi, Ezekiel’s father, is known to us only through his illustrious son. Did he also dream dreams and see visions? When God wants to make a great man he usually begins with his parents and grandparents.

The hand of the Lord — The hand that is under the throbbing earth is upon him (Ezekiel 8:3; Ezekiel 10:8). The universe feels the touch of Omnipotence; why should not man? This is a strong figure to show that the prophet spoke and acted not of his own will, but because of a controlling divine power. Ezekiel, like Jeremiah and Moses (Jeremiah 1:6; Exodus 3:11), felt that he could not take up the work of a prophet, but God’s hand turned him to his duty.


Verse 4

VISION OF GOD’S CHARIOT.

4. Out of the north — The region of storm, and also of divine mystery. The Hebrews looked to the north as the sacred quarter (Psalms 48:2; Jeremiah 1:13), as did also all other ancient peoples. (See Warren, Paradise Found; Oneil, Night of the Gods.) The oldest dated tomb on the earth, the Pyramid of Medum, opens to the north. Yet it may be that, as the highway from Palestine entered Tel-abib from the north, Ezekiel was praying toward the holy city when the vision came as the answer to his prayer.

Whirlwind… cloud — So God often reveals himself (Exodus 19:16; Psalms 77:18). The first sight of the coming of Jehovah, far in the distance, is like the coming of a tempest. God’s best revelations often follow after the storm. It is peculiarly appropriate that to this discouraged captive the vision of glory with the rainbow around it should come out of the clouds of wrath. This is the cloud of glory which had left the holy of holies and passed out to the Mount of Olives, abandoning Jerusalem and the temple to the hands of their enemies in order to protect the little band of true worshipers in a foreign land (chaps. 10, 11).

The sun and every vassal star,

All space beyond the soar of angel wings,

Wait on His word; and yet He stays His car

For every sigh a contrite suppliant brings. Keble.

A fire infolding itself — Literally, taking hold of itself. As he looked at the coming storm he saw a bright light in the cloud — not a mild radiance, but like incessant lightning flashes. The whole cloud was illumined by these lightnings from its center until it looked like amber (flashing metal, LXX.).


Verses 4-28

THE VISION, Ezekiel 1:4-28.

Here begins what Franz Delitzsch calls “the grandest of all biblical visions.” It came not on a festal day, but on the anniversary of the never-to-be-forgotten humiliation of the royal head of the nation. It came not to one of the priests in Jerusalem, but to a captive in the land of the Chaldeans. It was to the neediest and saddest that Jehovah revealed himself — as glorious on the Chebar as on the Jordan. No painter has ever succeeded in representing these visions of God; even Raphael failed in this. The details were so numerous and the changes so rapid that no human brush nor human pen — not even Ezekiel’s — could fully picture and define the glorious ever-changing image. As Cornill says, a little, shortsighted man might criticise the details of a great cathedral — this window might seem to him too narrow and the support of yonder beam too massive — but when looked at from a distance all the irregularities melt into a wonderful harmony of unity whose grandeur overcomes us, while within the sanctuary may be felt the stillness and power of the breath of God. It is the same with the visions of Ezekiel. The immense and minute details, worked out with such care and patience, may bewilder the beholder, but they are parts of a majestic and perfect whole (Der Prophet Ezechiel, pp. 281-283). Ezekiel struggled to tell that which was “unspeakable and full of glory.” His ears were filled continually with a noise of wings and wheels and spiritual thunders. His eyes were partially blinded by glories which even Moses was not able to bear. He was overpowered with shadows from a throne “formless with infinity.” He could not describe twice alike those ever-changing glories.

The tremor of an inexpressive thought,

Too self-amazed to shape itself aloud,

O’erruns the awful curving of his lips.

One thing, however, stands out clear among these mysteries: the majesty of God and his supremacy over all things. There is a curious correspondence between the latest philosophic poetry and Ezekiel’s thought. The real nearness, the vital immanency, of God to all life was never more vividly expressed even by Emerson, than by this ancient poet and prophet-philosopher. Ezekiel does not, like Emerson, sink the world-soul into the world-all — he never falls into the bottomless pit of pantheism — but the sense of the Infinite fills every verse with its majestic presence.

Being above all beings! Mighty One!

Whom none can comprehend and none explore;

Who fill’st existence with thyself alone;

Embracing all; supporting, ruling o’er,

Being whom we call God, and know no more.


Verse 5

5. Likeness of four living creatures — As the prophet gazes upon this strange storm cloud, and it approaches him, he sees four splendid shapes where but a moment before had been only flashes of light. He does not see these distinctly at first, but one thing he is sure of: they are alive; crowded full of life — the very embodiment of life. (See Ezekiel 1:13-14; Matthew 3:11.)

They had the likeness of a man — This was the first and the abiding impression which Ezekiel again and again emphasizes. Notwithstanding their fourfold aspect they looked human. Humanity was the type favored by this symbolic heavenly creation —

The consummation of this scheme

Of being, the completion of this sphere Of life.

Modern science has strangely illustrated the travailing and groaning of Nature to reach the human — its crown and goal. (See Appendix to chapter.)


Verse 6

6. Four faces — A man’s face in front, an eagle’s behind, the face of an ox on the left, and of a lion on the right. This is the usual explanation, but Hugo Winckler (Altorientalische Forschungen, 1896), from a monument recently discovered at Sendschirli which seems to somewhat resemble this description, would draw the conclusion that each one had a human body and “the appearance of a man,” but also that each creature was four-headed; the four heads facing the cardinal points: the four faces of the man looking toward the east, the four lion faces toward the west, the four bull faces toward the north, the four eagle faces toward the south. The fact seems to be that these were symbolic creatures, never intended for pictorial representation.

Four wings — The winged sun-disk is the oldest known symbol of deity and was reverenced in Arabia, Babylonia, Phoenicia, and Egypt. Even in Christian times this same symbol was used for the divine Christ by the Copts. Wesley says of the use of these wings: “With two they flew, denoting the speed of their obedience; and with two they covered their body, denoting their reverence.”


Verse 7

7. Straight feet — Dr. Davidson thinks this to mean that the limbs were smooth and unjointed; perhaps the idea was that their limbs were not bound in any way, and not drawn up in the effort of flying. They moved without effort. These limbs and feet shone like burnished brass. (Compare Daniel 10:6; Revelation 1:15.)


Verse 8

8. Hands of a man — Each creature had four wings and beneath the wings “the hand of a man” — whether two or four hands is not stated. The thing to be noted is the symbolic expression of humanity. Surely Ezekiel could not have dreamed even then of a divine incarnation — the hands of a man beneath the activities of the universe?


Verse 9

9. They turned not when they went — Swift and full of activity as they were, there was a calmness and dignity in their movements. There was no hesitancy, no waywardness, no division of purpose; all moved as one, and every one “straight forward.” This active and varied life expressed itself in perfect system and order. Is this symbolic of the calm and quiet way in which all powers, natural and supernatural, fulfill Jehovah’s will? He maketh the “wrath of man” and the guardians of death to praise him. The gods of the heathen are his footstool. (See Appendix to chapter.)


Verse 10

10. As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face [“appearance,” Gesenius] of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side, etc. — Here again is the emphasis of the appearance, human appearance, of this creature of four faces. Ewald well points out that the prophet does not attempt to describe this fourfold unity, but only its likeness. His language constantly shows that he felt the difficulty of understanding the deep reality behind this symbol or “likeness.” (See note Ezekiel 1:26.)


Verse 11

11. Their wings were in as perfect repose as their faces. Their two uplifted wings, although being used for flight (Ezekiel 1:24), were quiet as those of a bird sailing without effort through the air. Each pair of wings was uplifted to the same plane, so that the wings, though “spread apart,” or “separated,” as the Hebrew states, yet seemed to be joined to each other and thus to form a sort of platform for the crystal firmament on which rested Jehovah’s throne (Ezekiel 1:22-23). A private note from a well-known English Assyriologist says: “The figures of the Igigi, or ‘spirits of heaven,’ found at Nineveh are always represented with two pairs of wings, one pair up and one pair down, signifying that the spirit was at rest, yet watchful.”


Verse 12

12. The reason of their orderly movements is now given: there was a controlling spirit according to which they moved.

All are but parts of one stupendous whole

Whose body Nature is, and God the soul.

They turned not — They did not need to turn. As each side was alike, each could be front, as willed by the spirit, and they could move “straight forward” to any point of the compass without turning.


Verse 13

13. The Greek text seems to be preferable here: “And in the midst of the living creatures was an appearance as of coals of fire burning, as the appearance of torches turning about in the midst of the living creatures,” etc. (LXX.; see also Ezekiel 10:2). The term “coals of fire” is used, Psalms 18:12, of the “fireballs of the thunderstorm,” and in Exodus 20:18, the lightnings are called “torches.” Has this any reference to Isaiah’s vision (Isaiah 6), with its altar and coals? St. John also (Revelation 4:5; Revelation 8:3-5) saw the lightnings coming from the throne and the altar which was before it, and counted the torches “which are the seven spirits of God.”


Verse 14

14. This verse is probably a marginal gloss (Kautzsch). The Hebrew text is damaged and obscure. This fact did not prevent Mr. Wesley obtaining from it a high spiritual meaning: “They ran into the lower world, to do what was to be done there; and when they had done, returned as a flash of lightning to the upper world, to the vision of God. Thus we should be in the affairs of this world: though we run into them we must not repose in them, but our souls must presently return like lightning to God, their rest and center.”


Verse 15

15. Wheel — A new part of the picture is here introduced. In connection with each living creature is a wheel. The carefulness with which these are described proves their symbolic importance. The wheel is moved by the same spirit as the creature.


Verse 16

16. One wheel was beside each living creature. Each wheel flashed like a precious stone.

A wheel in the middle of a wheel — Each wheel seemed to be composed of two wheels cutting each other at right angles. Thus each wheel was always facing every point of the compass, and in whatever direction the chariot moved four wheels were running. They, like the chariot, could, without turning, revolve in any direction the spirit indicated.

Wesley conceived these wheels as globes or spheres of light, having tires of exceptional brightness. Wheels fitly symbolize “the height, unsearchableness, wisdom, and vigilance of the divine power.”


Verse 17

17. They turned not when they went — Of course they revolved, but as each wheel had a double tire, cutting each other transversely, they never needed to turn around when they wished to go at right angles with their present course. Probably these revolving wheels looked like globes of fire, the tires, however, being distinguished by sparkling eyes.

Upon — Rather, toward.


Verse 18

18. “They were high and dreadful” (R.V.). This verse is so difficult in the Hebrew that the Septuagint, Peshito, and Vulgate all differ in their attempt to translate it so as to make sense. The Revised Version gives perhaps the best guess of any. The emphasis of the height of these blazing circles would suggest that they were not underneath the chariot and “firmament” (Ezekiel 1:22), but surrounded the living creatures with flashing cycles of light. The throne of God was guarded by these orbits of light as the gates of Eden by the circular blazing sword. The lower rim of these orbits was near the feet of the living creatures (Ezekiel 10:2), but according to the prophet, the upper rim was “high and dreadful.”

Full of eyes — The eye, with every ancient people, was the symbol of life, knowledge, and intelligence. (Compare Ezekiel 10:12.) It was one of the most common and sacred symbols used in ancient Egypt and Assyria. Modern science has emphasized, in a way undreamed of by Ezekiel, the wakefulness and activity of the atoms which compose the material universe.


Verse 19

19. There was perfect harmony between the movements of the wheels and the living creatures, because both were directed by the same impulse. They moved as if they were one because the same “spirit of life” was in both, and the same eye of intelligence directed both. The prophet was particularly impressed with this fact, and repeats it. Here was complete harmony with environment. (See also Appendix to chapter.)


Verse 20-21

20, 21. Over against them — That is, beside them.


Verse 22

22. The firmament — Literally, And there was the likeness of a firmament, etc. This is a new feature. It seems to rest just above the pavement made by the outstretched wings of the cherubim. It is always elsewhere used in Scripture for the heavens. It is here the platform of Jehovah’s throne. This is the “paved work of a sapphire stone, and as it were the body of heaven in clearness,” which Moses saw under Jehovah’s feet (Exodus 24:10), and which in St. John’s vision became, as it were, “a sea of glass like unto crystal” (Revelation 4:6). If this crystal firmament seemed ablaze, as if “mingled with fire” (Revelation 15:2), it may explain why it seemed to the onlooker “terrible.”


Verse 23

23. Everyone had two, which covered their… bodies — Repeated from Ezekiel 1:11. The reason for not describing these strange creatures more minutely is that their bodies were completely covered by their wings on every side.


Verse 24

24. The noise of their wings — If it had not been for the noise one could not have known the wings were being used for locomotion. They moved so swiftly and with such perfect regularity that they always appeared outstretched; as if the tips of each pair were joined together (Ezekiel 1:11).

The sound seemed to the hearer like the roar of the surf on the rocky shore of the Mediterranean; like the voice of Jehovah when the “God of glory thundereth” (Psalms 29:3); like a distant tumult (Jeremiah 11:16).

A voice is in the wind I do not know;

A meaning on the face of the high hills

Whose utterance I cannot comprehend;

A something is behind them; this is God.

Macdonald.

They let down their wings — This was their destination. This wondrous chariot of God stopped before the dazzled eyes of the prophet. Had it come to take him away from this heathen country? Was he to be translated like Elijah?


Verse 25

25. “When they stood, they let down their wings” (Hebrews) — This statement is important. It shows that Ezekiel received his commission after the movement of the wings had ceased. The voice which he heard was not the confused “voice of speech,” which the wings imitated. He wished no one to be deceived by any such imagination, and therefore repeated the statement that before the voice spoke to him, the cherubim had let down their wings. The voice came from “above the firmament” and was the voice of One upon a throne, which throne he saw when the cherubim let down their wings.

What but God,

Inspiring God! who, boundless Spirit all

And unremitting Energy, pervades,

Adjusts, sustains, and agitates the whole.


Verse 26

26. The likeness of a throne — It should be again noticed how careful Ezekiel is not to say that this vision represented a literal reality. He only describes what he saw — “the likeness of four living creatures” which had “the likeness of a man” (Ezekiel 1:5), and yet were “like the appearance of torches” (Ezekiel 1:13), and lightning flashes (Ezekiel 1:14); he saw four wheels, which “had one likeness “(Ezekiel 1:16), and upon the heads of the living creatures “the likeness of a firmament” (Ezekiel 1:22), and now he sees “the likeness of a throne,” and upon the likeness of the throne was the likeness as the appearance of a man above upon it, and “the likeness of the glory of the Lord” (Ezekiel 1:28).

The likeness as the appearance of a man — That the human life should be seen to predominate and control all the varied life expressed by the living creatures, the highest ministers of Jehovah, does not seem too strange to believe and repeat; but here the amazement of the prophet passes all bounds, for he sees what looks to be a man on the throne of the unapproachable God! He dare not deny what he has seen, and yet he dare not affirm that he actually saw, even in a vision, a man on Jehovah’s throne.

So through the thunder comes a human voice,

Saying, “O heart I made, a heart beats here!

Face my hands fashioned, see it in myself!”

Browning, Karshish.

What it meant, what it foreshadowed, Ezekiel never tried to tell, but his perplexity and wonder may be discovered in this strange sentence, “And upon the likeness of a throne was the likeness as the appearance of a man.” This is the most sublime prevision of the incarnation to be found in the holy oracles. Ezekiel, as truly as Isaiah, “saw his glory” though in a mirror, darkly (John 12:41; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3). Ezekiel did not know the real meaning of the man upon the throne, but in this vision the race was receiving its answer to its age-long cry.

‘Tis the weakness in strength that I cry

for, my flesh that I seek

In the Godhead! I seek and I find it.

Browning, Saul.


Verse 27

27. The text is difficult to understand; but it probably means that from the loins downward his body shone like fire, while from the loins upward there was a softer glow like that of amber.

And it had brightness — Omit “it had.”


Verse 28

28. The bow that is in the cloud — This, of course, refers to the well-known symbol of God’s covenant made with Noah (Genesis 9:13). The bow was also among the Babylonians considered as the sign of covenant. Ezekiel did not see in this a sign of the “covenant of redemption” any more than he saw a hidden meaning in the man on the throne. No doubt this was one of the instances when a prophet sought to look into the glorious mysteries of the future and was not able (1 Peter 1:10-12). Yet it would be stupidity if we — who have been enlightened by Him who “opened the Scriptures,” and of whom holy men spake as they were moved of the Holy Ghost — did not see a heavenly beauty and significance in the rainbow which surrounded “the appearance of a man” upon the throne of the Almighty. “This brightness was round about Jehovah’s head: a halo of glory, a diadem of transcendent beauty, redemption’s matchless crown. In it are blended all the attributes of divine perfection, from the scarlet hue of righteousness to the soft blue of perfect peace. On the raindrops this heavenly bow of beauty is sketched as if to suggest that in the daily gifts which flow from the divine hand we may discern the everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and sure.” — Pulpit Commentary.

This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord — Once more comes the affirmation from astonished lips that, whatever the reality may be, he has truly described the “vision of God” as it was given to him. No wonder that Ezekiel felt himself compelled to repeat again and again that he only claimed that he had seen “the appearance of a likeness” of God; for no man in all the earth for six centuries to come could understand the vision. It almost seemed a blasphemous thing to see, even in vision, a man or even the likeness of a man upon Jehovah’s throne. All that Ezekiel continues to affirm, realizing how distasteful the fact will still appear to his people, is that he did see “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.”

 


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Bibliography Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Ezekiel 1:4". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/whe/ezekiel-1.html. 1874-1909.

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