With the world in a mess, and even our own lives sometimes in a mess, we might well wonder; “where is God?” If God is truly in our world, shouldn’t things be better by now? Is God weak? Or perhaps the powers of darkness are stronger? In Ezekiel’s day the people of God could wonder the very same thing for they were in a mess. Ezekiel was among a group of 10,000 people or so who were taken into captivity from Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Things were not looking good back in Jerusalem and in another five years the city would be completely destroyed along with the Temple. Was God weak? Were the gods of the Babylonians stronger? If God’s house is destroyed is He gone? Ezekiel is called to bring some clarity to the situation. His summary of the first vision is given in verse 28 of the first chapter:
Like the bow in a cloud on a rainy day, such was the appearance of the splendour all around. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. When I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of someone speaking. . . (Ezekiel 1:28 italics mine)
So what clarity does Ezekiel bring?
In reading Ezekiel chapter one we learn that the glory of God is indescribable and incomparable. God’s people in captivity would have been reminded by Ezekiel’s first vision of the religions around them. The Babylonians, like most nations of the day, but unlike God’s people of Israel, had statues and idols representing their gods. As Bible scholars point out, through the vision the Lord is drawing a contrast between Himself and the gods of the Babylonians. The statues of the Babylonians were lifeless, in contrast to the “living creatures” (verses 5,13,14,15,19,20,21,22) of Ezekiel’s vision which point to the living God. The statues could not see, in contrast to the many eyes, representing the all seeing nature of God. The statues could be destroyed, in contrast to the fire in Ezekiel’s vision, showing that God is the one who has the capacity to destroy and is not Himself consumed. The statues were stuck wherever humans put them whereas in Ezekiel’s vision there are many wheels and free movement. God is not stuck and will go where He wants to go! That God is alive, all seeing, the indestructible destroyer, and has the capacity of presence anywhere and everywhere is all part of the glory of God in direct contrast to the gods of Babylon.
So what is being clarified here? We could sum it up with “O people of God. God is alive, all-seeing, powerful, and present. You are not in a mess because God is weak, or because the gods of Babylon are strong.” This is a good reminder for us when our world is in a mess, or when our lives are in a mess. It is not because God is weak, or because the powers of this world have any power over God.
In reading Ezekiel chapter one we also learn that the glory of God is terrifying. While the smallest of animals and the weirdest of bugs can scatter a room of humans, four creatures are seen which must have struck terror. Notice also the noise:
24 When they moved, I heard the sound of their wings like the sound of mighty waters, like the thunder of the Almighty, a sound of tumult like the sound of an army; when they stopped, they let down their wings. (Ezekiel 1:24)
The noise is part of the terror for anyone who has lived through a tornado, or stood next to a railway crossing for a fast moving train with horns at full blast. This was not just a vision, but an experience for Ezekiel, a frightening one. The people of God in Babylon have good reason for fear; God is a God of judgement. They are not in captivity because God is weak or the gods of Babylon are stronger. They are there because they are reaping what they have sown. The glory of God is terrifying because the justice of God is perfect.
So what is being clarified here? We could sum it up with “People of God, examine yourselves and see why you are in a mess. Not because God is weak, or because the Babylonian gods are stronger, but because you have been in rebellion against God.” This will be a theme of the prophecy of Ezekiel. And this is a good reminder to us also; every mess has sin behind it somewhere, even if indirectly.
In reading Ezekiel chapter one we also learn that the glory of God is comforting. Think of Genesis chapter 3 where Adam and Eve experienced the consequence of their sin in being bansihed from the Garden of Eden. It is an amazing fact the Bible does not end there, indeed that is only the beginning. Adam and Eve go on to experience the presence of God. In addition to experiencing the consequence of their sin, they go on to experience the consequence of God’s love. Life in the presence of God goes on! Likewise, in Ezekiel the people of God experience the consequence of the sin of the nation, yet God is present with them in captivity! That the Temple might be destroyed is not of great consequence to God. He can be anywhere and there is nowhere He would rather be than with His people. That was the point of the Temple in the fist place. His presence is an expression of His love, whether at the Temple in Jerusalem, or in captivity in Babylon.
After seeing and experiencing the creatures, the wheels, and the fiery figure on the throne Ezekiel mentions a rainbow as part of his summary in verse 28. This was a reminder of God’s covenant promises. Yes, God’s people would suffer the consequences of not keeping their covenant promises, but yes, God was still faithful and would continue to keep His covenant promises.
So what is being clarified here? We could summarize it with “O people of God, despite the fact you are reaping what you have sown, there will be a future.” This is a good reminder for us, that when our lives get in a mess, even when it is a mess of our own making, God will love us through the mess. He remains faithful.
One last thought on Ezekiel chapter 1. There is a similar vision in Revelation chapters 4 and 5 where the glory of God is seen again. The themes of justice and mercy running through Ezekiel’s prophecy point forward to God’s perfect justice and perfect love coming together in Christ Jesus, “the Lamb that was slain”. At the end of his vision Ezekiel fell flat on his face. At the sight of Jesus in the vision from Revelation the elders fall down to worship. Falling on our faces is still the appropriate response to the glory of God. As the writer of Hebrews says about Jesus:
He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. (Hebrews 1:3)
Yes the world can get messy. But God is not weak. Neither is His love.
(Scripture references are taken from the NRSV)