Meditations from Ezekiel: 3. The Coming of the Lord
Ezek 1:4,5 I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north–an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light. The center of the fire looked like glowing metal, and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures.
We are about to enter one of the strangest passages of scripture in the Bible, a passage that is detailed, complex and even confusing. It starts out very simply. I don’t know if the makers of the film, ‘Independence Day’ used this passage to get an idea for the coming of the alien space craft but that has been the best I have ever seen of anything like that described in verse 4. Remember this is a vision but in it he sees this immense cloud with flashing lightning and brilliant light.
Clouds? Now of course we know that when Moses approached Mount Sinai with Israel, the presence of the Lord was accompanied by “thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain.” (Ex 19:16) but that was literal and not just a vision, but the Lord had said, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, so that the people will hear me speaking with you and will always put their trust in you.” (v.9) When Moses first erected the completed Tabernacle we read, “Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.” (Ex 40:34) Many years later when Solomon finished building the Temple, as he came to consecrate it we find, “Then the temple of the LORD was filled with a cloud, and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled the temple of God.” (2 Chron 5:13,14)
Later on in Ezekiel we will see this same cloud accompanying the glory of the Lord, but why a cloud? It is almost as if the Lord is reticent to reveal His glory unhindered to the earth and so initially all we see is the cloud and only gradually comes the revelation of the Lord and those with Him. Indeed the point is made in the verses above that it was often a ‘thick’ cloud, or a ‘dense’ cloud.
Similarities but different: Now there are several ‘heavenly passages’ in scripture and we will note them in a moment but there is both unity and disunity in the pictures, i.e. similar beings but different descriptions. Why? I’m going to suggest two reasons. The first one is the human reason, that what is revealed is confusing to the human mind, so unlike anything else we have encountered that for the onlooker it was so ‘other world’ that he struggled to describe. So, for instance, in chapter 1 of Ezekiel the word ‘like’ occurs twenty times when talking about descriptions. In verses 4 & 5 above we read, “The center of the fire looked like glowing metal, and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures.” It wasn’t that but in human descriptive terms it was like that. The second reason for the differences is that different things are being conveyed by the pictures presented.
The Four Living Creatures: So we come to these “four living creatures”. Hold on to the fact that this is a vision and the writer (and God) is trying to convey truths in picture form. We’re going to see more as we move on but let’s jump to chapter 10 where we read, “I looked, and I saw the likeness of a throne of sapphire above the expanse that was over the heads of the cherubim. The LORD said to the man clothed in linen, “Go in among the wheels beneath the cherubim.” (Ezek 10:1,2) There the creatures are called cherubim.
Now when Isaiah had his ‘heavenly vision’ we read of the Lord, “Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.” (Isa 6:2) Fans of the film, ‘Sister Act’ will remember the nuns singing of ‘cherubim and seraphim’. Dictionaries usually simply describe both as ‘orders of angels’ but the picture here in Ezekiel doesn’t convey the cherubic-like figures that many early painters portrayed or even the usual picture of a single human figure. In the two passages we’ve quoted above, the seraphim were over God’s throne but in Ezekiel the cherubim were under the throne. Perhaps this is why my dictionary describes cherubim as “one of the winged heavenly beings that support the throne of God or act as guardian spirits, any of the second order of angels, usually ranked just below the seraphim.”
In John’s heavenly vision in Revelation we have these “four living creatures” again (Rev 4:6) but each one was like a different creature. In Isaiah the seraphim “were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isa 6:3) and in Revelation the four living creatures are shown as, “Day and night they never stop saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come,” (Rev 4:9) but in Ezekiel there is no mention of them saying anything.
And Us? Because of the complexity of the description of these “four living creatures” we will leave it until the next study, but what, initially do these things say to us? First, the description is definitely ‘other-worldly’; this is a heavenly vision and it is completely different from anything we know or experience. Second, there is clearly structure and purpose in the things revealed. These four living creatures that are conveyed to us, that appear in slightly different forms in different passages, seem to have the role of accompanying the throne of God and declaring His greatness. It may not be so much that they have to do this but that they cannot help themselves doing what is obvious to those closest to the throne, declaring His wonder. God is holy, God is almighty, God always has been and always will be, and God’s glory is visible on the earth for those who have eyes to see.
What is strange about the Ezekiel vision is that so much of the chapter is given over to the description of these creatures and the figure on the throne is not mentioned until, and then only briefly, near the end of the chapter. Why? Only a suggestion but is it first because these were the things that came to Ezekiel’s attention first of all, but then that these things which seem to accompany the presence of the Lord highlight the strangeness and the glory of the Lord, and by this we mean His utter difference from us. Part of that, we have already observed, is to emphasise or proclaim His wonder and difference, that is what holiness is really all about.
This vision lifts us out of our usual, humdrum, mundane lives and takes us into another experience altogether. There is more to existence than the little bit we call our material world. When you pray, realise you are touching this other existence, this other experience and be prepared for the Lord to speak different things to you – if you are open for them. As we noted above, the glory of the Lord across the earth is visible to those who have eyes to see, the wonder of HIS Creation. Dare we ask Him to open our eyes to even greater things, things of heaven?