Notes on the Bible, by Albert Barnes, , at sacred-texts.com
The first three chapters of Ezekiel contain the account of Ezekiel's call.
A mighty whirlwind issues from the north, and a dark cloud appears in that quarter of the heavens. In the midst of the cloud is an area of dazzling brightness surrounded by encircling flames. Therein are seen four beings of strange and mysterious shape standing so as to form a square, below their feet are four wheels, and over their heads a throne on which is seated the likeness of a man dimly seen, while a voice issuing from the throne summons the prophet to his office.
The thirtieth year - being closely connected with as I, is rather in favor of considering this a personal date. It is not improbable that Ezekiel was called to his office at the age prescribed in the Law for Levites Num 4:23, Num 4:30, at which age both John the Baptist and our Lord began their ministry. His call is probably to be connected with the letter sent by Jeremiah to the captives Jer. 29 written a few months previously. Some reckon this date from the accession of Nabopolassar, father of Nebuchadnezzar, 625 b.c., and suppose that Ezekiel here gives a Babylonian, as in Eze 1:2 a Jewish, date; but it is not certain that this accession formed an era in Babylon and Ezekiel does not elsewhere give a double date, or even a Babylonian date. Others date from the 18th year of Josiah, when Hilkiah discovered the Book of the Law (supposed to be a jubilee year): this would give 594 b.c. as the 30th year, but there is no other instance in Ezekiel of reckoning from this year.
The captives - Not in confinement, but restricted to the place of their settlement.
The fourth month - "Month" is not expressed in the original. This is the common method. Before the captivity the months were described not by proper names but by their order, "the first, the second," etc.; the first month corresponding nearly with our "April." After the captivity, the Jews brought back with them the proper names of the months, "Nisan" etc. (probably those used in Chaldaea).
Chebar - The modern "Khabour" rises near Nisibis and flows into the Euphrates near "Kerkesiah," 200 miles north of Babylon.
Visions of God - The exposition of the fundamental principles of the existence and nature of a Supreme God, and of the created angels, was called by the rabbis "the Matter of the Chariot" (compare Ch1 28:18) in reference to the form of Ezekiel's vision of the Almighty; and the subject was deemed so mysterious as to call for special caution in its study. The vision must be compared with other manifestations of the divine glory Exo. 3; Exo 24:10; Isa 6:1; Dan 7:9; Rev 4:2. Each of these visions has some of the outward signs or symbols here recorded. If we examine these symbols we shall find them to fall readily into two classes,
(1) Those which we employ in common with the writers of all ages and countries. "Gold, sapphire, burnished brass," the "terrible crystal" are familiar images of majestic glory, "thunders, lightnings" and "the rushing storm" of awful power. But
(2) We come to images to our minds strange and almost grotesque. That the "Four Living Creatures" had their groundwork in the cherubim there can be no doubt. And yet their shapes were very different. Because they were symbols not likenesses, they could yet be the same though their appearance was varied.
Of what are they symbolic? They may, according to the Talmudists, have symbolized orders of Angels and not persons; according to others they were figures of the Four Gospels actuated by one spirit spread over the four quarters of the globe, upon which, as on pillars, the Church is borne up, and over whom the Word of God sits enthroned. The general scope of the vision gives the best interpretation of the meaning.
Ezekiel saw "the likeness of the glory of God." Here His glory is manifested in the works of creation; and as light and fire, lightning and cloud, are the usual marks which in inanimate creation betoken the presence of God Psa 18:6-14 - so the four living ones symbolize animate creation. The forms are typical, "the lion" and "the ox" of the beasts of the field (wild and tame), "the eagle" of the birds of the air, while "man" is the rational being supreme upon the earth. And the human type predominates over all, and gives character and unity to the four, who thus form one creation. Further, these four represent the constitutive parts of man's nature: "the ox" (the animal of sacrifice), his faculty of suffering; "the lion" (the king of beasts), his faculty of ruling; "the eagle" (of keen eye and soaring wing), his faculty of imagination; "the man," his spiritual faculty, which actuates all the rest.
Christ is the Perfect Man, so these four in their perfect harmony typify Him who came to earth to do His Father's will; and as man is lord in the kingdom of nature, so is Christ Lord in the kingdom of grace. The "wings" represent the power by which all creation rises and falls at God's will; the "one spirit," the unity and harmony of His works; the free motion in all directions, the universality of His Providence. The number "four" is the symbol of the world with its "four quarters;" the "veiled" bodies, the inability of all creatures to stand in the presence of God; the "noise of the wings," the testimony borne by creation to God Psa 19:1-3; the "wheels" connect the vision with the earth, the wings with heaven, while above them is the throne of God in heaven. Since the eye of the seer is turned upward, the lines of the vision become less distinct. It is as if he were struggling against the impossibility of expressing in words the object of his vision: yet on the summit of the throne is He who can only be described as, in some sort, the form of a man. That Yahweh, the eternal God, is spoken of, we cannot doubt; and such passages as Col 1:15; Heb 1:3; Joh 1:14; Joh 12:41, justify us in maintaining that the revelation of the divine glory here made to Ezekiel has its consummation or fulfillment in the person of Christ, the only-begotten of God (compare Rev 1:17-18).
The vision in the opening chapter of Ezekiel is in the most general form - the manifestation of the glory of the living God. It is repeated more than once in the course of the book (compare Eze 8:2, Eze 8:4; Eze 9:3; 10; Eze 11:22; Eze 40:3). The person manifested is always the same, but the form of the vision is modified according to special circumstances of time and place.
The Jewish date. This verse and Eze 1:3, which seem rather to interrupt the course of the narrative, may have been added by the prophet when he revised and put together the whole book. The word "captivity" (as in Eze 1:1) refers to the "transportation" of the king and others from their native to foreign soil. This policy of settling a conquered people in lands distant from their home, begun by the Assyrians, was continued by the Persians and by Alexander the Great. The Jews were specially selected for such settlements, and this was no doubt a Providential preparation for the Gospel, the dispersed Jews carrying with them the knowledge of the true God and the sacred Scriptures, and thus paving the way for the messengers of the kingdom of Christ.
Came expressly - The phrase marks that it was in truth a heaven-sent vision.
The hand of the Lord - A phrase in all prophecy implying a "constraining" power, because the spirit "constrains" the prophet independently of his own will.
Out of the north - From this quarter the Assyrian conquerors came upon the holy land. The vision, though seen in Chaldaea, had reference to Jerusalem, and the seer is to contemplate judgment as it is coming upon the holy land. Others consider the words expressive of the special seat of the power of Yahweh. The high mountain range of Lebanon that closed in the holy land on the north naturally connected to the inhabitants of that country the northern region with the idea of height reaching to heaven, from which such a vision as this might be supposed to come.
Infolding itself - Forming a circle of light - flames moving round and round and following each other in rapid succession, to be as it were the framework of the glorious scene.
Amber - The original word occurs only in Ezekiel. The Septuagint and the Vulgate have "electrum," a substance composed by a mixture of silver and gold, which corresponds very well to the Hebrew word. The brightness, therefore, is that of shining metal, not of a transparent gum. Render it: "out of the midst thereof," like Eze 1:7 burnished gold out of the midst of fire.
Living creatures - The Hebrew word answers very nearly to the English "beings," and denotes those who live, whether angels, men (in whom is the breath of life), or inferior creatures.
In the Revelation of John each "beast" has its own distinctive character, here each unites in itself the four characters; there each has six wings, like the Seraphim Isa 6:2, here only four.
The "foot" seems here to mean the lower part of the leg, including the knee, and this was "straight," i. e. upright like a man's. The "sole" is the "foot" as distinguished from the "leg," the leg terminated in a solid calf's hoof. This was suitable for a being which was to present a front on each of its four sides. Ezekiel was living in a country on the walls of whose temples and palaces were those strange mixed figures, human heads with the bodies of lions and the feet of calves, and the like, which we see in the Babylonian and Assyrian monuments. These combinations were of course symbolic, and the symbolism must have been familiar to Ezekiel. But the prophet is not constructing his cherubim in imitation of these figures, the Spirit of God is revealing forms corresponding to the general rules of eastern symbolism.
Or, "They had the hands of a man under their wings on all four sides, just as they had wings and faces on all four sides."
Two of the wings were in the act of flying, so stretched out that the extremity of each touched a wing of a neighboring living creature, similarly stretched out. This was only when they were in motion. See Eze 1:24.
They went every one straight forward - The four together formed a square, and never altered their relative position. From each side two faces looked straight out, one at each corner - and so all moved together toward any of the four quarters, toward which each one had one of its four faces directed; in whatsoever direction the whole moved the four might be said all to go "straight forward."
Each living creature had four faces, in front the face of a man, that of a lion on the right side, that of an ox on the left side, and that of an eagle behind, and the "chariot" would present to the beholder two faces of a man, of a lion, of an eagle, and of an ox, according to the quarter from which he looked upon it.
Thus ... - Rather, And their faces and their wings were separated above. All four formed a whole, yet the upper parts of each, the heads and the wings (though touching), rose distinct from one another. Two wings of each, as in the case of Isaiah's Seraphim, were folded down over the body: and two were in their flight Eze 1:9 "stretched upward" parted) so as to meet, each a wing of the neighboring living creature, just as the wings of the cherubim touched one another over the mercy-seat of the ark.
The "chariot," though composed of distinct parts, was to be considered as a whole. There was one spirit expressive of one conscious life pervading the whole, and guiding the motions of the whole in perfect harmony.
Lamps - "like the appearance of" flames. Omit the "and" before "like." The "bright flames" resembled "coals of fire."
It went up - i. e. "fire went up."
Translate it: "one wheel upon the earth by" each of "the liviing creatures" on his four sides (i. e. on the four sides of each of the living creatures). There was a wheel to "each" of the living creatures: it was set "by," i. e. immediately "beneath" the feet of the living creature, and was constructed for direct motion in any of the four lines in which the creatures themselves moved. Their "work" or make, i. e. their construction, was "a wheel in the middle of a wheel;" the wheel was composed of two circumferences set at right angles to each other, like the equator and meridian upon a globe. A wheel so placed and constructed did its part alike on each side of the living creature beneath which it stood. The "ten bases" of the temple Kg1 7:27-36 were constructed with lions, oxen, and cherubim, between the ledges and wheels at the four corners attached beneath so as to move like the wheels of a chariot.
Upon their four sides - i. e. straight in the direction toward which their faces looked. Since the four quarters express all directions, the construction of the living creatures was such that they could move in each direction alike.
Rings - The felloes (circumference) of the wheels: they were both high and terrible. The "eyes" may have been no more than dazzling spots adding to their brilliancy. But it seems more likely that they had a symbolic meaning expressing either the universal fulfillment of God's will through His creation (Ch2 16:9; compare Eze 10:12), or the constant and unceasing praise which His works are ever rendering to Him Rev 4:8. The power of nature is no blind force. it is employed in the service of God's Providence, and the stamp of reason is impressed all over it. It is this very thing that makes the power of nature terrible to him who is at enmity with God.
Whithersoever the spirit of the four living creatures was to go, the wheels went - there was the spirit of the wheels to go. All four creatures together with their wheels are here called "the living creature," because they formed a whole, one in motion, and in will, for one spirit was in them.
"The color" (Hebrew, "eye") "of the terrible crystal" refers to the dazzling brightness of the "firmament," a clear bright expanse between the "throne" and the "living creatures," separating heaven from earth.
Every one had two, which covered ... - Or, each one had two wings covering his body on either side.
The voice of the Almighty - Thunder.
The voice of speech - Rendered in Jer 11:16 "a great tumult." Some take it to describe the rushing of a storm.
A voice from the firmament - Compare Eze 3:12; in the midst of the tumult, are heard articulate sounds declaring the glory of God.
Sapphire - Clear heavenly blue.
The appearance of a man - Deeply significant is the form of this manifestation. Here is no angel conveying God's message to man, but the glory of the Lord Himself. We recognize in this vision the prophetic annunciation of the Holy Incarnation. We are told little of the extent to which the human form was made evident to the prophet. For the vision was rather to the mind than to the bodily eye, and even inspired language was inadequate to convey to the hearer the glory which eye hath not seen or ear heard, and which only by special revelation it hath entered into the heart of man to conceive.
The rainbow is not simply a token of glory and splendor. The "cloud" and the "day of rain" point to its original message of forgiveness and mercy, and this is especially suited to Ezekiel's commission, which was first to denounce judgment, and then promise restoration.