Beyond the Lectionary Text: Ezekiel 1
by Kory Plockmeyer
Do you ever start telling a story but then get so bogged down in the details that you end up far astray from the actual point of the story you were trying to tell? Sometimes I find that I’ll tell a story for a particular reason but other people keep asking me questions about the details, such that by the time I get to the point of what I was trying to say the whole of the story is long gone.
The challenge of a passage like Ezekiel 1 is that the details are so rich and so lavish that we can spend so much time in the first 24 verses and miss what it has all been leading to: the presence of the glory of the Lord. The fantastic details of the four living creatures, the manner in which they move, and the setting in which they appear are all intriguing and likely where a congregations mind has settled – yet these details serve primarily to enrich the picture of the majesty and glory of the one enthroned on high.
But, ah! The details!
Questions immediately begin to swirl in our minds, raging like the windstorm coming out of the north. What are the four creatures? What do they represent? Why the different faces? What does it matter that they have straight legs? What are the wheels for? What is the significance of the creatures having two wings? Why is the throne like lapis lazuli and not another precious gem? The list of questions goes on and on.
As if the fantastic details were not enough to engage our attention on their own, we immediately jump ahead to John’s description of the throne in heaven in Revelation 4, where so many details are the same and yet there is significant difference. Why the differences in a passage so clearly meant to recall this opening chapter of Ezekiel?
The exquisite details lend themselves to a vivid imagination of the glory and majesty of God. Ultimately, if we lose this grand picture in light of fine-tuning the details, we have missed the forest for the trees. While we can rightly appreciate the details of the trees, we should always do so in service of this greater, more glorious picture.
The identity of the four living creatures is a matter of particular interest. Historically, their interpretation has varied widely. Some have offered philosophical suggestions, suggesting that the four creatures are the four virtues (justice, prudence, fortitude, endurance), celebrating the type of life toward which we should strive; some have suggested more physical descriptions, such as the four seasons, indicating God’s governance over all of creation. Still others have suggested the four passions (fear, hope, sorrow, joy) or even the four Gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). Calvin suggests that the living creatures are the Cherubim.
However one understands the four living creatures, they should point us to the glory of the one on the throne. One could also understand the possibility that the four living creatures are spiritual beings and their description in Ezekiel is an accommodation to the world in which Ezekiel lived. Ezekiel is given a glimpse of the world beyond our understanding and he attempts to put words to an indescribable experience. We should not, perhaps, expect that the description of the living creatures is a literal description of what these heavenly creatures actually look like, but instead a description drawn from the animals that would most capture the mind of the ancient world.
Such hybrid animals are not unique to Biblical literature. Classical mythology is full of such creatures, including Centaurs (horse/human), the Minotaur (bull/human), the Griffin (lion/eagle), and the Sphinx (lion/human). These creatures serve several functions in classical literature, but typically they are either quasi-divine beings deserving of worship in their own right or emblematic of the wild and untamed parts of creation. By contrast, the four living creatures of Ezekiel’s vision exist in order to serve the Living God. They are not to be worshipped in their own right, nor are they wild beasts who need to be tamed. Their glory points to the greater glory of the one on the throne.
When Ezekiel’s vision arrives to the one on the throne, the language becomes even less definite than it was previously. There is “what looked like” a throne, above it the “figure like that of a man.” Again, in verse 28, “This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.” All descriptions are indefinite and vague. Ezekiel is given a glimpse of the glory of the Lord and yet even then he cannot see directly but can only see the appearance of the likeness.
The description is in marked contrast to the religious systems of the Ancient Near East. Gods were regularly depicted on their thrones. While their appearance was believed to be greater than that of their images, their earthly images were meant to capture a physical description of their physical reality elsewhere. That is, the gods were real, physical, tangible, beings who existed off somewhere else.
By contrast, the one who sits enthroned in Ezekiel 1 defies description, such that the best Ezekiel can give us is three steps removed. The geographical description in verses 25-26 bears further notice: there is a vault above the heads of the four living creatures and above the vault is the throne. The vault here is the firmament, reminding us of the creation account of Genesis 1. The world described in Ezekiel 1 is our world, but more real – our world as majestic and glorious as it should be, our world seen through the glass a bit less dimly. In contrast to the gods of the Ancient Near East who were corporeal and removed from reality, Ezekiel envisions the spirit who rules over all of heaven and earth, who is present throughout heaven and earth and yet distinct from it. Here Christian theology walks the line between the polytheism of the ancient world and the New Age pantheism (all things are divine) and panentheism (all things are infused with the divine) of today’s world. God’s existence is distinct from the created world and yet there is nowhere we can go and be away from the presence of God.
This message of hope was particularly poignant for the captives in Babylon. Ezekiel’s vision comes to him on the shore of the Kebar River in the land of the Babylonians (v. 3). The opulence and wealth of Babylon outstrip any other cities in the world at the time. Babylon figures throughout Scripture as the Great Whore for a reason – she is the place where the known world comes together for licentious luxury. Babylon’s rule extends far and wide. Everywhere Ezekiel looks is apparent evidence that Babylon has won the victory. Babylon’s gods reign supreme, or so it would seem.
The vision of Ezekiel 1 stands in marked contrast to the world of Babylon he currently inhabits. Ezekiel 1 is a message of hope to a people in exile – a promise that “though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet” (“This is My Father’s World”). Ezekiel 1 promises that God is stronger and greater than the might of Babylon. Ezekiel 1 unseats the gods of Babylon and puts the true God on the throne.
When we turn on the news and hear of the slaughter of innocents, we need the reminder that God is in charge. When we learn more of systemic injustice and deeply entrenched racism, we need the reminder that God is enthroned in heaven. When disaster strikes closer to home and we face the unexpected and tragic loss of a loved one, Ezekiel reminds us that heaven is above and beyond description, the hope to which we hold in the midst of the darkness of this life.
C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle ends with the entry of the Narnians and the Pevensie children into Aslan’s New Creation. Much of this final chapter is well-suited to a sermon on Ezekiel 1. The children enter a garden only to find that it is not a garden at all but “a whole world, with its own rivers and woods and sea and mountains.” To their surprise, the world they have entered it strangely familiar: “This is still Narnia, and, more real and more beautiful than the other Narnia below, just as it was more real and more beautiful than the Narnia outside the Stable door!” This imagery of heaven as more real than our experience captures well the experience of Ezekiel putting to words an experience that is far more than he could describe.
The closing lines of The Last Battle paint a similar picture: “For us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which ever chapter is better than the one before.” This description reorients our experience of the world around the reality of heaven, telling our story in light of the grand, eternal story.
Rev. Kory Plockmeyer is the pastor of Westend Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, MI.