Samuel Smiles (1812-1904)
1 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.
2 On the fifth of the month—it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin— 3 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.
4 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, 5 and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures. In appearance their form was human, 6 but each of them had four faces and four wings. 7 Their legs were straight; their feet were like those of a calf and gleamed like burnished bronze. 8 Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. All four of them had faces and wings, 9 and the wings of one touched the wings of another. Each one went straight ahead; they did not turn as they moved.
10 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. 11 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. 12 Each one went straight ahead. Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, without turning as they went. 13 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. 14 The creatures sped back and forth like flashes of lightning.
15 As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the ground beside each creature with its four faces. 16 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. 17 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. 18 Their rims were high and awesome, and all four rims were full of eyes all around.
19 When the living creatures moved, the wheels beside them moved; and when the living creatures rose from the ground, the wheels also rose. 20 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. 21 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.
22 Spread out above the heads of the living creatures was what looked something like a vault, sparkling like crystal, and awesome. 23 Under the vault their wings were stretched out one toward the other, and each had two wings covering its body. 24 When the creatures moved, I heard the sound of their wings, like the roar of rushing waters, like the voice of the Almighty,[b] like the tumult of an army. When they stood still, they lowered their wings.
25 Then there came a voice from above the vault over their heads as they stood with lowered wings. 26 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. 27 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. 28 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.
I know…I know…you are thinking to yourself, “This kids, is why you should not do drugs.” This is how Ezekiel 1 begins. So if you are like me and think, A) How did this book survive over the past 2500 years and B) It is 2010 and what is there in this book for me as a “sophisticated modern”?
Before I get started on what I want to write about, I would like to point out to you the creature Ezekiel is describing a Cherubim, or what is known as an Angel. When we picture angels, do you picture them like 4 winged creatures with 4 faces of different animals or do you imagine a pretty woman with 2 wings and a halo? I just want to say that the image you hold of an angel is nowhere in the Bible. Your Christmas card is wrong as is all those paintings from renowned artists of the Renaissance. If you crack open your Bible a little more, you too might wonder where all these false images are created. Cherubs aren’t cute, fat little naked babies with tiny wings. Cool? Ok…I am done, just a small pet peeve of mine.
We read of a man named Ezekiel whose father is Buzi by a river somewhere who has this “sci-fi vision in 3D” and his response is he falls face down. Then there are all these fantastic over the top elements. There is a wind, a really ferocious wind, and there is lightning. It is bright and powerful. It involves the elements. It involves nature. Then there are these creatures. These creatures have 4 faces. One of them is a human face and it also has a face of an eagle. And one like an ox and one of a lion. You can try to track this in your mind with all sorts of images but it becomes really hard to see. Then my personal favorite verse in all the Bible is verse 18- “Their rims were high and awesome.” If you are like me, I know exactly what you thought of.
We know what rims are. This is how the book of Ezekiel opens. I don’t know if that is exactly what Ezekiel had in mind but for us we may see it that way. So in the middle of all this is a throne that is amazing with an unimaginably rare stone on it whose appearance flashes blinding light. All of this causes Ezekiel to fall face down and worship God. How does that work? Why did he?
As we have learned before…there is generally a story behind a story. This is why the Bible too often gets confusing to readers, or misinterpreted. The question you have to ask yourself is, “Is there some other thing going on?”
First off, in order to get at that we discover in verse 3, the word of the Lord came to Ezekiel The priest. A priest in the Hebrew Scriptures worked in the Temple which was in Jerusalem. There are many artist renderings of what the Temple would have looked like. Just Google it and you can see for yourself. First, understand that in the Jewish consciousness, spirituality was oriented around geography. For you and I as Christians, the question of where is God would have been answered very differently than a priest in Ezekiel. The Jewish consciousness in this time was that God had a geographical place where God was essentially more present. God resided in a particular place, namely the Temple. Their sense of spirituality had a sense of geography. Where is God, oh…He is in the Temple there in Jerusalem. When Ezekiel is identified as a priest, Ezekiel’s job is to run and organize and facilitate the work of the Temple which was to create a place where people could come from all over the world and make sacrifices to make peace with and be connected to God. The priest had a code, a law, and a set of rules that they were to follow.
Like the book of Leviticus that describes the regulations and commands for the burnt offering. Leviticus 1:14 14 “‘If the offering to the LORD is a burnt offering of birds, you are to offer a dove or a young pigeon. 15 The priest shall bring it to the altar, wring off the head and burn it on the altar; its blood shall be drained out on the side of the altar. 16 He is to remove the crop and the feathers and throw them down east of the altar where the ashes are. 17 He shall tear it open by the wings, not dividing it completely, and then the priest shall burn it on the wood that is burning on the altar. It is a burnt offering, a food offering, an aroma pleasing to the LORD.
This is just one, but there are tons of them in there just like this. Read them for yourself one day. So when you hear Ezekiel is a priest, you should immediately understand the regulations that he follows are strict and precise. This is how he is commanded to run the Temple. Now if you went to the Temple one year and came back the next and wondered if it was ran the same way…you would not hear the priest say, “Well, we just thought we would spice it up a bit. We added a horn section to the band.” No! What does the priest do? The regulations. Year after year after year. To be a priest is to be about order, repetition, and symmetry. A priest is the ultimate company man. The priest has some TPS reports to fill out. The priest will do the paperwork on that one. As we get into the psychology of Ezekiel and we learn that he is a priest, we learn that a priest is somebody that did the same thing, year after year, creating a place where people could come to worship God. The world was chaotic. The world can be very dark. The world can be disorienting, and profoundly unsafe, but if you come to the Temple, there is order, stability, consistency, and this is what God is like.
In another part of Ezekiel we learn that Buzi, his father, was a priest as well. So this man is second generation Temple man. This man is a company man. Then in Ezekiel 8:1 you read 1 In the sixth year, in the sixth month on the fifth day, while I was sitting in my house and the elders of Judah were sitting before me, why do the elders sit before him? That is because he is respected and has earned a reputation. It points out that this is a man who functions well within a set system that has been established for the worship for God and even others that have the same role come to him for advice. But then, what happens to Jerusalem? A foreign empire conquers Jerusalem. Notice what happens in 2 Chronicles verse 17 17 He brought up against them the king of the Babylonians,who killed their young men with the sword in the sanctuary, and did not spare young men or young women, the elderly or the infirm. God gave them all into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. 18 He carried to Babylon (700 miles across a desert) all the articles from the Temple of God, both large and small, and the treasures of the LORD’s Temple and the treasures of the king and his officials. 19 They set fire to God’s Temple and broke down the wall of Jerusalem; they burned all the palaces and destroyed everything of value there.
When the book opens Ezekiel is by the river Kebar, the river Kebar is in Babylon. There is no Temple left. And he, along with those who survived have been enslaved and been hauled 700 miles across a desert to a foreign land. That is why the story begins by a river. Oh! And we also discover in Ezekiel Chapter 24 18 So I spoke to the people in the morning, and in the evening my wife died. So not only has he lost his job, possessions, freedom, he also loses his wife.
When the book of Ezekiel opens, it jumps around a bit in time. This is a man who has lost everything. He is extracted from the world that he knows and is considered an authority. He has established this presence where people can come to him for wisdom, but that seems to be lost now. He has lost his family, and his Temple, his vocation, his homeland and he is now enslaved so he has also lost his freedom. This man has lost everything. It is not that he is distracted from everything that is familiar around him, it is because he is in Babylon.
The main god that is in Babylon is a goddess known as Ishtar. There was a massive Ishtar gate that when you were hauled into the city as someone who was conquered, you would be brought in through the Ishtar gate as a sort of way to say you are no longer home. You are in our house now. You are in Ishtar’s house now.
In the early 1900’s they dug up a portion of the Ishtar gates. These foreign slaves would have been dragged through it. This is a picture of the gates, it is now located in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.
They would have brought them through these gates and said symbolically, “You are not in Kansas anymore. You are in Babylon. You are in the goddess Ishtar’s house.” This man Ezekiel, the company man, knows one God, his God. The God of his people in Israel. His temple has been destroyed. Where is his God now that the place his God resides no longer exists? It is not just that though, he is now in another god’s place.
A little background on Ishtar real quick. She was the divine personification of Venus, the goddess of fertility, love, war, and sex. This is a quote from the Epic of Gilgamesh (which is one of the great classics) “If you refuse to give me the Bull of Heaven [then] I will break in the doors of hell and smash the bolts”. This is like the heavy metal goddess. She is ready to rip it up. This is not a kind loving god. This is Ishtar, and this is where he finds himself. And it is here by the river where this broken man receives this unbelievably fantastic, pulsating, vibrant, creative, imaginative, sci-fi, over the top vision in which he realizes God is present. It is here where he falls face down and worships not in the Temple in Jerusalem, but 700 miles away in Babylon. Do you now see why this book has survived? It is one of the first realizations that God is no longer locked inside this Temple but is amongst us everywhere.
Now, here are a couple of insights. Sometimes, God goes around the mind and goes directly to the heart and imagination. Some pain is too hard for our minds to comprehend and so God sometimes has to go around our mind and speak directly to our hearts. What you find in this vision is Ezekiel experiences something that blows his mind but it speaks to his heart. One scholar, John Taylor, says it this way, “This is how God revealed himself to Ezekiel, not by propositions regarding his character, but in personal encounter.” He says God does not show up by the river and say is a soft sweet voice, “Do you not recall that I am A) omniscient, B) omnipotent, C) good, D) nice?” God shows up in power and explosive creativity that says, “I am here!” Sometimes God has to go directly to your heart.
There is this great moment where Jesus is interacting with his disciples and they ask Him, “Why do you speak in parables?” Ya, why does Jesus speak in parables? Because a parable has a way of going around your mind and sneaking in and grabbing hold of your heart. All of a sudden you don’t really understand what is happening but you somehow identify with others at that moment. You are at that very moment seized with this idea that I am the Pharisee with all that judgment. You see yourself as others see you because the parable allows you to relate and see things in a different perspective. Do you know what I am saying? You don’t have a cognitive thought, but at some deeper level you can relate to a character flaw you see in yourself that is told in the parable. How about some song that you hear that captures you in your heart?
Think about the things that we say when we suffer. Think about the things we say to our friends. “But it doesn’t make sense. Someone please explain to me. I just don’t understand.” How many of you heard this? IN THE FACE OF GREAT SUFFERING YOU OFTEN HEAR PEOPLE SAY, “I JUST NEED TO UNDERSTAND. I NEED MY MIND TO GET THIS” But this pain is too great. Our mind is never going to get it. God does this because He understands how we are wired, and understands that for many of us, our mind is our God. With God realizing this He knows that if He just tried to reason with you, it won’t work. He then goes around your mind and gets into your heart. He uses the parable to get into your heart to give you peace, to give you calm, to give you hope, to give you a vision of the future, and go right into your heart and give it to you there. Because if He gave it to you in your mind, you are just going to try and figure it out and you are going to screw it up. Are you following what I am writing? Do you see why this genre of literature in Ezekiel we read and think this is crazy? This is absurd. What the hell is he smoking? That is unless, you really really suffered, and then you totally get it. What happens to us is when we get spoken to; in some profound way we find there is life there. We meet somebody who is going through something that is horrible and you hear them say, “I can’t even begin to explain why it happened but all I know is there is I was given this picture of a calm body of water, and it somehow is sustaining me.” Why is that? Because, sometimes, God has to go to our imagination or go to a picture, or go to a vision, because that is where we really live from.
For Ezekiel, what easily happens by the river when you are 700 miles from home after everything has fallen apart is you make decisions about how things are going to go. It is never going to get better. It is never going to improve. It is always going to be bad and I am going to be here for the rest of my life. It is over. There is no God. Jerusalem will never be rebuilt. The God of Israel is a hoax and it is in those moments we have figured everything out and we have decided how it is going to go. But God says, “Really? I don’t think so because I am here now.”
Secondly, I would say this about Ezekiel. What you see here in chapter 1 is that some things can only be learned in exile. Before this happened, Ezekiel was at the top his game in the Temple with the elders asking him for wisdom, doing his tasks with great skill and expertise. If you would have said to Ezekiel, “You know what? The God of Israel is just as present in the Temple as He is in Babylon.” Ezekiel would respond, “What? Oh that’s BS. Come on. God is in Jerusalem. Our God dwells with us here. That is how it works.” I would assume Ezekiel would argue with you to the end. But he ends up in exile and it is there by the river he discovers the truth. To me it is as if God says to Ishtar, “I am in your house now.” God shows up in Babylon. Would Ezekiel have ever understood that until it happened? Some things you can only learn when everything falls apart.
In John 4, there is this fascinating discussion between this woman that Jesus runs into and Jesus. Our ancestors, she says, worshipped on this mountain but you Jews claim that the place that we must worship is in Jerusalem. Jesus begins to talk about her personal life and her choices in regards to this whole series of men she has slept with. Then SHE changes the subject. That is because women were totally different back then. They don’t do this anymore right? Not really…but that’s another topic. Moving along… She essentially says we worship on this mountain and you Jews worship on that mountain. Meaning, we think God is on our mountain and you think God is on your mountain. This is a huge difference, and how are you going to reconcile that? Jesus responds, “Woman, believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.” She is like; you say God is there, we say God is here so let’s argue about it. Jesus says there is going to come a time when you’ll worship God on neither mountain. Now here is why this is so important and profound and why I would argue this has incredible implications for 2010.
There is a tendency among religious people to localize their God. “Our God resides here.” Too often people territorialize God. Too often people tame their God and fit Him into their place. This God is my God. We are terribly advanced but there are also baffling ways in which we are terribly primitive. We localize our God. What happens in the exile is God shows up in Ishtar’s house in a blazing, radiant, luminous, explosive way. Ezekiel realizes, yes I have spent my whole life in the Temple, but God apparently is just as much by the river as He is in the Temple. This God cannot be localized. Wherever you go there this God is.
This is the fear. This is the haunting fear that the action of God is somewhere else. Take whatever it is that you do each day, that haunting fear that God is somewhere else…He is not in this cubicle, or in the back room of the warehouse where we put things in boxes to send them around the country. God is not here in this bathroom cleaning the toilets with me. God is not in this classroom. He is not in this task. He is not in this apartment complex. I have been doing this job for 17 years and I will tell you, trust me, the divine action is somewhere else. There is no divine presence in this factory. There is no divine presence in the hallways of this school. No, you have got to understand, this is a dark secular place. God is over there or on Sunday morning, or in that school, or in that building, or…if I was just over there in that hospital I would be able to be closer to Him. If I was just at another base, or in another job. Sometimes we localize God in places that we aren’t. That fear that haunts us that the action is somewhere else. If anybody ever believed that, it should have been Ezekiel who is ripped from the Temple that is then destroyed and He finds himself by the river where God shows up with rims that are high and awesome. This is blowing his entire consciousness into pieces. “Ezekiel, I can show up wherever I want, whenever I want.” Can you imagine for a good company man whose company has just been burnt to the ground, a man who has done the repetition and followed the regulations every day of his life, can you imagine how this would have affected him? I would say this, for Ezekiel, God is that which comes after the Temple, after Jerusalem, after the alter, and after religion. That is what happens in Ezekiel 1. Ezekiel meets the God hanging around after Ezekiel’s “religion” has been blown into a thousand pieces. GOD IS THAT WHICH CAN SURVIVE EVEN YOUR RELIGION BEING BURNED TO THE GROUND! He had his construct, his paradigm of spiritual and religious beliefs about his God and it gets blown into a million smithereens. Who does he meet on the other end of all that but the God whose radiance shines with such beauty that he falls face down.
How does chapter 1 end? It ends with a priest falling facedown by a river in Babylon. Wow! This is not just about Ezekiel. God is that which is after our words, God is that after our theology, after our doctrine, after your view of the Bible, after Christianity as you understand that. God can survive even that. Because what will happen, and I have seen this happen hundreds of times, is that somebody was born, raised or taught, or picked up along the way a particular conception of God, Jesus, Bible, Salvation etc. and they encounter experiences and relationships in which that no longer works the way it used to. And so what immediately happens is, well maybe there is no God, maybe there is no hope, maybe there is no truth, maybe there is no grounding or center of my being. Maybe this is all just a man made lie. No…no…no…whatever it is you are taking apart, whatever doesn’t work like it used to and you are poking holes in it and you are realizing that pieces of it don’t work any longer. Whatever that process is and you find yourself on the other side; the one’s whose rims are high and awesome will be waiting for you.
There is nothing to fear. There is nothing to be concerned about. There is nothing to tremble over. The divine is just that. It is left over after everything else has failed you. We take great passion with our words. We love theology and uphold doctrines. We obviously open the Bible all at the same time and must say the scripture together out loud. For what? Knowing that if all we thought were true burns to the ground what would that mean to you? Because that is what happened to Ezekiel. He still found God on the other side holding him in His embrace. Leading us in our hearts and speaking to us with wild imagination is what we need to hear.
One last thought. The invitation in exile, this God that Ezekiel encountered doesn’t need a religion, doesn’t need an alter, doesn’t need a theological system or a statement of beliefs to show up in order for Him to have His power, glory and beauty. Our invitation is to let the pain be our teacher. Ezekiel is in great pain. He is miles from home. His whole world view has been shattered. His wife died. He is 700 miles across the desert from anything familiar. He is in Ishtar’s house. And there, in extraordinary pain he meets a God that is free from geography. That God assured him you are going to be ok. The pain of his exile becomes his teacher. The pain opens him up to all new realities about God. Is there any pain or exile you are feeling? Has anything been turned upside down? Has anything been lost or burned to the ground? Often when this happens, our temptation is to figure out how to avoid it, get around it, ignore it, or how to just get through it. But the pain can be our teacher. What we see with Ezekiel is a man that goes from deep despair to worship. Meet God by the river, in the disorientation, dislocation in the foreign land, after what you had clung so tightly to is lost. When there is no hope for you, open your eyes because God meets you there.