Commentary on Ezek 1:2-5, 24-28
We begin today readings from the prophet Ezekiel. The language is often very apocalyptic in style and full of symbolism. His special contribution to the prophetic tradition was through his interest in the temple and liturgy. He also had a great influence on the period after the Exile, when the refugee Jews returned to Jerusalem. He has been called the “father of Judaism”.
He became a prophet in Babylon, as a member of the first group of exiles deported by King Nebuchadnezzar in 597 BC. He was the first to receive the prophetic call outside of Israel. His first task was to prepare his fellow countrymen in Babylon for the final destruction of Jerusalem, which they believed God would not allow to happen. But Ezekiel reproached Israel for his sinful and idolatrous behaviour and foretold more destruction and a second and more complete deportation into exile for the people of Jerusalem. All of which, of course, happened in 587 BC.
But, after this event, just as Jeremiah had believed, Ezekiel thought that the exiles were the hope of Israel’s restoration, once God’s allotted time for the exile had been accomplished and they could return to Jerusalem.
Today’s reading begins by introducing Ezekiel in the third person. The time of this first vision is dated as the fifth year of King Jehoiachin’s exile in Babylon, 593-92 BC. The name Ezekiel means “God is strong”, or “God strengthens”, or “God makes hard” in different contexts of the book. The prophet, like Jeremiah, belonged to a priestly family. (‘El’ in a name indicates ‘God’ – hence, for example, the archangels – Micha-el, Gabri-el and Rapha-el.)
Ezekiel then proceeds to speak in the first person, “The hand of the Lord came on me”. This phrase is repeated six times in the book and indicates a powerful experience of God revealing himself in a vision.
The experience described here in part is called the “Chariot of Yahweh”. Its central message is that God transcends any specific place. He is not, as the tradition held, tied to the Temple in Jerusalem but can be with his people in their exile (as he was with them in their journey through the desert during the Exodus). This is a breakthrough which will be picked up by the people of the New Testament and emphasised by Paul.
The vision begins with the words, “I looked”. The symbols at the opening of the vision all speak of the presence and power of God: the stormy wind, the great cloud surrounded by light, the fire with flashes of lightning and the “sheen like bronze at the heart of the fire”.
In the centre appear what seem to be four animals in human form. ‘Four’ represents completeness as also represented elsewhere in the Old Testament by the image of four directions and four quarters of the earth. The idea appears several times in this chapter and over 40 times in the whole book.
The four creatures which are later referred to as “cherubim” attend on God’s throne. Here they represent God’s creation. In our reading their detailed description has been omitted but the four separately symbolise:
“humanity”, God’s appointed ruler of creation (see the creation story in Genesis);
the “lion”, the strongest of wild animals;
the “ox”, the most powerful of domestic animals;
and the “eagle”, the greatest of the birds.
They will appear again in the Book of Revelation and are commonly depicted in medieval art where they represent the four evangelists (Matthew the man; Mark the lion; Luke the ox; and John the eagle).
Above the vault over the heads of the cherubim was a sapphire shaped like a throne on which sat “a being that looked like a man”. This is the prophet’s way of describing God but he is careful not to say that he saw God directly. No one could see God and live.
Again from his loins upward and downward the figure like a man was surrounded by fire and the colour of bronze. A bright light like a rainbow penetrating the clouds on a rainy day shone all around.
To the prophet it all spoke of the glory and presence of the Lord and he fell to the ground in adoration. The glory of Yahweh is often described in the Bible as a bright cloud (the pillar of cloud with the Exodus people; Jesus covered by a cloud during the Transfiguration; Jesus, after his resurrection, ascends into a cloud, that is, into the presence of his Father [Acts 1:9]).
What is significant here is that for so many centuries God’s glory and presence had been linked to the Temple in Jerusalem. But now the Temple is far away and God is with his people in their Babylonian exile. This is a major theme in the first half of Ezekiel’s message. This is a foretaste of the presence of God through Jesus and, through the Spirit, in the Church where God’s people become his temple.
Spirituality in later times will also constantly find the glory of God in all of creation. As the poet said, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” God is always with us revealing his truth, goodness and beauty to us. It is for us to open our eyes and learn to see. We may not have apocalyptic visions like Ezekiel but we are surrounded by dazzling beauty if only we would look.