The opening chapter of the book of Ezekiel contains one of the most vivid and awe-inspiring visions in all of Scripture. In Ezekiel’s magnificent inaugural vision, the prophet sees images of God’s divine presence and glory that are both fascinating and mysterious. This vision provides the theological foundation for the messages and prophecies that follow in the rest of the book.
In this commentary, we will walk through Ezekiel’s vision verse-by-verse, drawing out key insights and themes. My goal is to help bring this extraordinary passage to life for modern readers and highlight its relevance for our lives today. Whether you are new to studying Ezekiel or a veteran, I pray this article provides fresh perspective and stirs your heart to worship the glorious God that Ezekiel encountered.
Key Takeaways from Ezekiel Chapter 1
Before diving into the full commentary, here are some key takeaways from this important chapter:
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- The vision originated while Ezekiel was among the exiles in Babylon, affirming that God was with His people even in exile.
- Ezekiel saw images of four living creatures with bizarre, awe-inspiring appearances, representing aspects of God’s divine nature.
- The four living creatures were accompanied by bright, radiant wheels, emphasizing God’s majesty and mobility.
- Above the creatures was an expanse gleaming like crystal, symbolizing God’s transcendence over creation.
- Above the expanse was a throne with a figure of a man surrounded by radiance and splendor, representing God’s glory and presence.
- The vision as a whole affirms God’s sovereignty, holiness, and transcendence, bringing a message of divine glory to a people in need of hope.
With these key ideas in mind, let’s now turn to the full commentary on this magnificent vision.
When and Where the Vision Occurred (v. 1-3)
In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the Chebar canal, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. On the fifth day of the month (it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin), the word of the Lord came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the Chebar canal, and the hand of the Lord was upon him there. (Ezekiel 1:1-3)
Ezekiel opens by providing crucial background information for understanding his vision. He notes specifically that it occurred while he was among the exiles living in Babylon near the Chebar Canal. This detail is significant, as it grounds Ezekiel’s vision in a specific historical context.
Ezekiel and thousands of others from Judah were deported to Babylon after Jerusalem was destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar in 597 BC. Exiled from their homeland, they felt abandoned and estranged from God. It was in the midst of this hopeless situation, when the temptation to despair was strong, that God gave Ezekiel this powerful vision (Rydelnik & Vanlaningham 2014, 58-59).
The affirmation that God’s hand was on Ezekiel even in exile proclaims an important message of comfort: God has not forgotten or forsaken His people. Though they are displaced in a foreign land, Yahweh is still their God and He desires to make His presence known to them. This sets the stage for Ezekiel’s vision, which will vividly depict God’s glory and majesty. Even in exile, the people can take hope because their powerful, sovereign God is still with them.
The Appearance of Four Living Creatures (v. 4-14)
And I looked, and behold, a whirlwind was coming out of the north, a great cloud, with brightness around it, and fire flashing forth continually, and in the midst of the fire, as it were gleaming metal. And from the midst of it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had a human likeness, but each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. 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. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. And the four had their faces and their wings thus: their wings touched one another. Each one of them went straight forward, without turning as they went. 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. 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. And each went straight forward. Wherever the spirit wanted to go, they went, without turning as they went. (Ezekiel 1:4-12)
As Ezekiel gazes toward the heavens, an immense whirlwind cloud appears blazing with fire and flashing light. This signals that something extraordinary is about to transpire. From the midst of this dazzling phenomenon, four mysterious living creatures emerge. Ezekiel describes their appearance in striking detail:
- They had a human likeness but each had four faces – human, lion, ox, and eagle.
- They had four wings and legs like calves’ hooves that sparkled like burnished bronze.
- Under their wings they had human-like hands.
- Their wings touched each other as they moved in unison without turning.
What did these bizarre four-faced creatures represent? Ancient Near Eastern mythological texts attest to supernatural beings called cherubim that guarded temples and palaces. They were composite in appearance, having features of a human, lion, ox, and eagle (Block 1998, 78-79). Ezekiel’s vision draws on this ancient motif but transforms it to serve a theological purpose.
Each creature’s four faces communicate something about God’s divine nature. The human face represents God’s image-bearers, the lion signifies divine majesty and power, the ox symbolizes strength and provision, and the eagle speaks of sovereignty and swift action (Duguid 1999, 75). Together, they portray God’s attributes and character. Their unified movement in any direction exemplifies God’s omnipresence and complete freedom.
And the living creatures darted to and fro, like the appearance of a flash of lightning. (Ezekiel 1:14)
The imagery here conveys the creatures’ swift mobility, like lightning flashing through the sky. This symbolizes how God’s presence and action cannot be hindered – He moves speedily wherever He desires. The overall depiction of the living creatures underscores God’s glory, wisdom, power, and transcendence over the limits of nature.
Accompanying Wheels Full of Eyes (v. 15-21)
Now as I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the earth beside the living creatures, one for each of the four of them. As for the appearance of the wheels and their construction: their appearance was like the gleaming of beryl. And the four had the same likeness, their appearance and construction being as it were a wheel within a wheel. When they went, they went in any of their four directions without turning as they went. And their rims were tall and awesome, and the rims of all four were full of eyes all around. And when the living creatures went, the wheels went beside them; and when the living creatures rose from the earth, the wheels rose. Wherever the spirit wanted to go, they went, and the wheels rose along with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. (Ezekiel 1:15-21)
Along with the four living creatures, Ezekiel sees an additional piece of the vision – a wheel on the ground beside each creature. These wheels glisten like beryl, an expensive yellow-green gemstone, and have a wheel-within-a-wheel construction. As the creatures move, the wheels stay in sync with them, going wherever the spirit directs without turning. Like the creatures, the rims of the wheels are covered all around with eyes.
In the ancient world, kings were sometimes depicted riding on thrones with wheels to symbolize mobility and conquest (Rydelnik & Vanlaningham 2014, 66). Here, the mobility of the wheels reinforces the unhindered movement of the living creatures representing God’s unlimited access and complete sovereignty. The eyes conveying divine wisdom and oversight, seeing and knowing all. Together, the wheels enhance the depiction of God’s magnificence.
An Expanse Gleaming like Crystal (v. 22-25)
And over the heads of the living creatures there was the likeness of an expanse, shining like awe-inspiring crystal, spread out above their heads. And under the expanse their wings were stretched out straight, one toward another. And each creature had two wings covering its body. And when they went, I heard the sound of their wings like the sound of many waters, like the sound of the Almighty, a sound of tumult like the sound of an army. When they stood still, they let down their wings. And there came a voice from above the expanse over their heads. When they stood still, they let down their wings. (Ezekiel 1:22-25)
Above the living creatures appears a spectacular sky-like surface spreading out over their heads. It shimmers brilliantly like crystal and ice, creating a platform of transcendence above the creatures below. The great noise made by the creatures’ wings as they move sounds like roaring floodwaters or a mighty army, highlighting the thunderous commotion in Ezekiel’s vision.
When the creatures halt their movement, they lower their wings in reverence to the voice sounding out from above the expanse. This crystalline platform represents the boundary between heaven and earth, God’s transcendent realm high above creation (Block 1998, 92). The expanse affirms that the God Ezekiel encounters infinitely surpasses all He has made.
A Throne and Figure of a Man (v. 26-28a)
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. 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. 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. (Ezekiel 1:26-28a)
The vision reaches its climax as Ezekiel’s gaze ascends further above the expanse. Here he beholds an immense sapphire throne with a figure resembling a human seated on it. From the waist up, the figure appears to glow like fiery, radiant metal. From the waist down he is enveloped in brilliant light, like a rainbow on a rainy day.
This magnificent throne and human likeness represent the culmination of Ezekiel’s vision – a direct encounter with the glory of God. In the Old Testament, God’s glory was associated with His dazzling presence (Ex. 24:15-18). Ezekiel uses evocative imagery to depict the radiance, splendor, and light that belongs to Yahweh. Though no human can look on the unveiled glory of God and live (Ex. 33:20), Ezekiel is given a symbolic vision of His matchless majesty and beauty.
Ezekiel’s Response: Falling Face Down (v. 28b)
And when I saw it, I fell on my face…(Ezekiel 1:28b)
Ezekiel’s immediate reaction to this overpowering vision is to fall prostrate in reverence and awe. Overcome by God’s surpassing glory and holiness, Ezekiel can only hide his face and bow before the One whose divine splendor eclipses all else. This posture of humility and worship provides a model for how we should respond when we encounter God’s greatness.
Summary of Key Themes
Ezekiel’s magnificent vision serves several key theological purposes:
- It affirms that Israel’s displaced God is still present with them, wanting to make known His glory despite the nation’s dire predicament.
- It conveys divine attributes like God’s sovereignty, wisdom, power, transcendence, and freedom through symbolic imagery.
- It culminates with a revelation of God’s radiant, incomparable glory which demands an awestruck, worshipful response.
- It provides legitimacy for Ezekiel’s prophetic calling and message which follows.
For an exiled people feeling abandoned and hopeless, this vision anchors their trust in God’s unwavering presence and character. Even in the bleakest circumstances, Yahweh remains their covenant God whose glory far surpasses any earthly crisis. This glimpse of eternity pierces their despair with divine purpose and hope. Ultimately, Ezekiel’s vision points ahead to an even greater revelation of God’s glory through the incarnation of Christ (John 1:14).
Application for Today
While we may not have visions of God’s glory like Ezekiel’s, several applications emerge from this passage:
- God’s presence still abides with His people, even in the most difficult trials of life. When we feel abandoned or hopeless, we can anchor our trust in His unchanging character.
- True encounters with God’s glory should inspire awe, humility, and worship as we glimpse His greatness and splendor.
- God wants to make known His comfort and majesty to us in unexpected ways, piercing despair with eternal hope.
- No earthly hardship or exile can separate us from God’s love and transcendent glory revealed through Christ.
May this vision ignite a fresh longing in our hearts to see and savor the beauty of God’s presence amidst life’s harshest storms. Though crisis threatens to eclipse the divine, God shines through with magnificent splendor declaring, “I am still here with you. Behold my glory.”
Block, Daniel I. The Book of Ezekiel: Chapters 1-24. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997.
Duguid, Iain M. Ezekiel. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999.
Rydelnik, Michael and Vanlaningham, Michael G. The Moody Bible Commentary. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2014.
The New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982.