In my thirtieth year, in the fourth month on the fifth day, while I was among the exiles by the Kebar River, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.

On the fifth 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, by the Kebar River in the land of the Babylonians. There the hand of the Lord was on him.

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. In appearance their form was human, but each of them had four faces and four wings. Their legs were straight; their feet were like those of a calf and gleamed like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. All four of them had faces and wings, and the wings of one touched the wings of another. Each one went straight ahead; they did not turn as they moved.

Their faces looked like this: Each of the four had the face of a human being, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle. Such were their faces. They each had two wings spreading out upward, each wing touching that of the creature on either side; and each had two other wings covering its body. Each one went straight ahead. Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, without turning as they went. The appearance of the living creatures was like burning coals of fire or like torches. Fire moved back and forth among the creatures; it was bright, and lightning flashed out of it. The creatures sped back and forth like flashes of lightning.

As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the ground beside each creature with its four faces. This was the appearance and structure of the wheels: They sparkled like topaz, and all four looked alike. Each appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel. As they moved, they would go in any one of the four directions the creatures faced; the wheels did not change direction as the creatures went. Their rims were high and awesome, and all four rims were full of eyes all around.

When the living creatures moved, the wheels beside them moved; and when the living creatures rose from the ground, the wheels also rose. Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, and the wheels would rise along with them, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. When the creatures moved, they also moved; when the creatures stood still, they also stood still; and when the creatures rose from the ground, the wheels rose along with them, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.

Spread out above the heads of the living creatures was what looked something like a vault, sparkling like crystal, and awesome. Under the vault their wings were stretched out one toward the other, and each had two wings covering its body. When the creatures moved, I heard the sound of their wings, like the roar of rushing waters, like the voice of the Almighty, like the tumult of an army. When they stood still, they lowered their wings.

Then there came a voice from above the vault over their heads as they stood with lowered wings. Above the vault over their heads was what looked like a throne of lapis lazuli, and high above on the throne was a figure like that of a man. I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him. Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him.

This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. When I saw it, I fell facedown, and I heard the voice of one speaking.

Now, I am going to explain in detail what each of these symbols means.

Well, no, I am not.

This week I have read a number of commentaries on this passage from a variety of perspectives. All of them have their own explanations for the four living creatures with four faces, the wheels within wheels, the eyes, the great wings with human hands and the throne with the figure of a man. Some say the four faces represent Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Some say that the four-headed cherubim declare that God has the strength and majesty of the lion, the swiftness and mobility of the eagle, the procreative power of the bull, and the wisdom and reason of humankind. The construction of the wheels is about their ability to move everywhere at will over the earth. The eyes are their ability to see everything as they move. I’ve even read a couple of explanations by Freudian analysts whose conclusion is that Ezekiel was a schizophrenic experiencing a psychotic episode. Some claim he was the victim of PTSD resulting from the trauma of the fall of Jerusalem and being taken captive to Babylon. You can find whatever you are looking for if you have an interest in analyzing this first chapter.

Maybe Flannery O’Connor was right when she wrote: “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”

But, I have chosen to say what Ezekiel had to say about the symbolism of the vision. That would be nothing. He doesn’t explain it at all. He does not spend time on his vision but that is too often where we have spent our time. Ask a person what they first associate with the book of Ezekiel and it will almost always be the vision of the first chapter but nothing of the following 47 chapters. I cannot believe that is what God intended.

I love catching a tour in an art museum with a docent who truly understands the detail of what we are seeing – the personal history of the artist, the materials used, the technique, the symbolism and most of all the secret imagery hidden in the painting if there is any. I don’t want to just see the painting. I want to understand it if I can. I want them to take it apart for me. As you know, I was an English teacher for years and part of that meant teaching students how to analyze a poem or a piece of literature. We would take a poem like Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” and dissect it trying to understand all that went into the writing of the poem. In each case, the museum and the classroom, the final goal was to put the poem and the picture back together again and the appreciation for each would be greater than before we started. Sometimes that happened but many times we were left with disconnected pieces – like Humpty Dumpty – while the beauty and wonder had been lost. We can do that with passages like this. We are so intent on understanding the mystery and the secret knowledge of it that we lose the beauty and the power. We lose the strangeness of God.

Do you remember what E. B. White said about explaining a joke? “Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process.”

There are times we become so intent on analyzing the parts that the vision dies in the process. The vision was for Ezekiel. It was to make such a strong impression of the holiness of God that he would never forget it. It’s true that Jesus had to explain some of his parables to the disciples and sometimes a prophet will explain the meaning of a vision but often we are left with no explanation – only the fact that there was a vision. Jacob never explains the vision of the angels ascending and descending but history is full of our explanations. Paul was instructed not to share his vision of the Third Paradise where he heard inexpressible things that a man is not permitted to tell. That is why I’ve chosen not to find the best explanation for what all the strange parts symbolize or mean. I want to focus instead on what was spoken to Ezekiel and what his calling would be. Ezekiel’s life would be forever shaped by having seen the glory of the Lord – and that is what had been lost. The glory had become glitter  Guides had become grifters

I think of Ezekiel as a whistle blower. Through his father’s being a priest he’s an insider who is commanded to expose the sins of the other insiders. If you read about whistleblowers you will learn they are rarely people who have only grievances or want to do harm to the organization. They are typically people who want to make the organization better because they believe in it and want to clean up the mess of those who are corrupt. But, what you also learn about them is they are faced with enormous peer pressure and accusations of disloyalty and threats of bodily harm. It is easier to be Jonah sent with a message for strangers than it is to be sent to your own who will pull out all the stops. He is not being sent to a people of obscure speech but to his own. You need to be made “unyielding and hardened as they are with your forehead like the hardest stone, harder than flint.” That is what God will do with this young man.

The investor Peter Thiel said,

Whenever I interview someone for a job, I like to ask this question: “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” This question sounds easy because it’s straightforward. Actually, it’s very hard to answer. 

It’s intellectually difficult because the knowledge that everyone is taught in school is by definition agreed upon. And it’s psychologically difficult because anyone trying to answer must say something she knows to be unpopular. Brilliant thinking is rare, but courage is in even shorter supply than genius. 

Ezekiel is not sent to blow the whistle on everyone alike. In that way, he is unlike Jeremiah and other prophets who take on the whole community. Ezekiel’s primary target is his father’s peers and the men who have been his role models – the priests of the Temple. Why do I say that? Because time after time his anger is directed against the detestable things that have been done in the Temple. Yes, the people have erected idols on the mountains and high places but the priests have allowed them to do that. Yes, the people will be judged for their sins in worshiping those idols but the priests have defiled the sanctuary with vile images and detestable practices. The priests have desecrated the Temple and have not spoken for God. People without leadership from their priests will always begin to follow idols. They will fall into the sins of greed and corruption but it is even worse when the religious leaders join and encourage them in their idolatry. They have not only abandoned their calling but as we’ll see in later chapters they have become shepherds who prey on the sheep.  They have used the sheep for their own purposes. They have lost their sense of calling and in their accommodations and compromise have lost their sense of the holiness of God. Perhaps that is why God chooses someone who is not yet a priest to bring the message. Ezekiel has not been corrupted. He still has the vision of what the priest should be. He is not a cynic. I like what Reinhold Niebuhr said: “The danger of being a professional exposer of the bogus is that, encountering it so often, one may come in time to cease to believe in the reality it counterfeits.” Ezekiel had seen the reality and never stopped believing in it.

Here is what a genuine priest should know.

First, he is held accountable for his people. He cannot beg off and distance himself from their choices. He must warn the wicked and confront them with their evil ways. “When I say to a wicked man, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn him or speak out to dissuade him from his evil ways in order to save his life, that wicked man will die for his sin and I will hold you accountable for his blood.” The responsibility of the priest is to warn and whenever he does not he is accountable to God.

Second, the true priest bears the sins of his people. He is not simply pointing his finger or complaining about their sin. He bears the sins of the people. We see that here in Ezekiel’s lying on his side to illustrate the coming siege of Jerusalem. The Lord says it three times. The watchman does not just warn the city but bears the sins of the people himself. No one thinking of the priesthood as a career can do that but the true priest understands that assignment. Maybe that should be explained to first year seminary students. This is not a career. This is being prepared for bearing the sin of your people. But where else do we see this phrase? All through Scripture as the work of the Messiah.  First in Leviticus where the goat bears away the sins of the people into the wilderness. Then in Isaiah 53 where the Messiah takes up our infirmities and carries our sorrows and the Lord lays on him the iniquity of us all. Again, in the New Testament we read in John’s recognizing Jesus as the one who will take away the sins of the world, in Peter’s letter to the church that Jesus bore our sins in his body on the cross to that we might die to sin and live to righteousness, and in Hebrews where it says Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many. That is why God’s anger is directed at the priests who have failed to bear the sins of the people and instead have used the people to bear the burdens of the religious enterprise.

Ezekiel’s message in these chapters is not one of hope and return to Jerusalem. There are false prophets in Jerusalem and Babylon telling the people that things are going to get better and there will be peace and a quick return home. Not Ezekiel or Jeremiah. It is God’s harsh judgement on the priests and the people. Nothing will now turn him away from what he is about to do – and it is terrible. There is no time for repentance as that time has passed. Instead, he says “I will cut off the supply of food in Jerusalem. The people will eat rationed food in anxiety and drink rationed water in despair, for food and water will be scarce. They will be appalled at the sight of each other and will waste away because of their sin.”

“I will do to you what I have never done before and will never do again. Therefore in your midst fathers will eat their children, and children will eat their fathers…“I will make you a ruin and a reproach among the nations around you, in the sight of all who pass by. You will be a reproach and a taunt, a warning and an object of horror to the nations around you when I inflict punishment on you in anger and in wrath and with stinging rebuke. I the Lord have spoken. When I shoot at you with my deadly and destructive arrows of famine, I will shoot to destroy you. I will bring more and more famine upon you and cut off your supply of food. I will send famine and wild beasts against you, and they will leave you childless. Plague and bloodshed will sweep through you, and I will bring the sword against you. I the Lord have spoken.”

But why? What’s the purpose of all this other than punishing their sin?Again and again the Lord says, “Then they will know that I am the Lord.” What ultimately matters is that God’s name should be universally acknowledged as the only God. Whatever it takes to make people realize God’s glory is what God will do – both in mercy and in destruction. Anything less than that is unacceptable. Anything that becomes an obstacle to God’s honor and majesty and glory will eventually be destroyed.

We live in a time of cheap grace and a partial understanding of the love of God. Seminaries have too often become graduate schools for people looking for a career or more Bible study. Teachers have lost the sense of our being accountable to God for our people. We have stopped warning and become comforters and enablers. Ezekiel’s message for us is we are to always be on our guard for the idols that we bring into the temple that we then worship as if they were part of our worship of God. It may be patriotism or free markets or political positions or idols opposed to those – globalism, social justice and a controlled economy. It doesn’t matter. When we desecrate God’s place of worship we are going to be held accountable for misleading people and creating false beliefs that seem right but lead to wickedness and judgement eventually.

“And they will know that I am God.”