Ezekiel’s Vision: Who is on the Throne?
By Dr. Brad Cole
Ezekiel’s vision of the four living creatures and the “wheel within a wheel” contains some of the most complex imagery in the entire bible. Some have even speculated that what Ezekiel actually saw was a UFO! Is this vision a literal depiction of heavenly realities or is it rather symbolic of something? What was the meaning to the people of Ezekiel’s time? What is the meaning for us? What does this vision contribute to our picture of God’s character?
The single most helpful method of biblical interpretation is to allow every story to be filtered through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ revelation of God’s heart, mind, and character is the gold standard that should be used to illuminate every other passage of scripture. For example, many have been rightly troubled about the “eye for an eye” rules in the Old Testament (OT). If we bring this concern to Jesus we discover that this command was far from the ideal. Jesus said that the difficult stories in the OT were “a concession to your hard hearts, but it was not what God had originally intended” (Matthew 19:8). Jesus’ words lead us to take a harder look at the OT and to see that during that time, the system of justice was based on escalating vengeance: You insult me, I punch you, you burn my field down, I hit you with an axe, and on and on. Escalating violence was the rule. “Eye for an eye” was actually a way of limiting violence during that time, but it is light years from the ideal. Jesus tells us to “grow up” and that we should instead love our enemies and pray for them. We should bring every question about the OT and about God (including Ezekiel’s vision) to the life of Jesus.
So what does Jesus have to do with Ezekiel’s vision? First of all, it is somewhat surprising that above all the complex descriptions of the living creatures with four faces and wheels within wheels sits a throne and that the One on the throne “was a figure that looked like a human being” (Ezekiel 1:26). Since the only imagery that could be used to describe what is “under” God’s throne is so bizarre we can hardly wrap our minds around it, I would think that when the “camera” shifts up to the throne the scene would be a thousand times more complex – – something like a gaseous multicolored light with a million dimensions of prisms that rotate in all directions. But instead, what we see on the throne is someone that looks like a man. Is God a man? Is the Almighty God a human being with eyes, ears and toes?
God’s humble condescension throughout the bible to meet our needs is quite remarkable and I think Ezekiel’s vision of the One on the throne portrayed as a human being is a part of that picture. A case can be made that the God of the OT was the Son of God, Jesus – though not known by that name until he became a helpless baby. At the burning bush, God declared that he is the “I Am”, a title that Jesus used of himself: “Before Abraham was born, ‘I Am’” (John 8:58). Jesus’ audience understood what he was saying and were so outraged at this blasphemy that “they picked up stones to throw at him” (John 5:59). As another example of this, when the angry mob came to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus said, “Who is it you are looking for?’ ‘Jesus of Nazareth,’ they answered.’ I am,’ he said…When Jesus said to them, ‘I am,’ they moved back and fell to the ground” (John 18:3-6). Most translations of the bible add the word “I am he” but the “he” is supplied. Jesus literally said to them “I am” and when he declared himself to be God in human form, they collapsed to the ground.
Paul said that the God who traveled with the Israelites through the desert was Christ (1 Corinthians 10:4). It was Jesus who came to Hagar, Jacob, Moses and Gideon as “The Angel of the Lord” and if you read on in those stories, each of these individuals later claimed to have seen the face of God. If we are offended that God would stoop to be referred to as an “Angel” it gets much worse. Jesus called himself the “Son of Man” – a Man of Nazareth, a place of which it was said, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46)
God meets us where we are, and what we have needed is a God that we can identify with. Jacob needed a God who would wrestle with him in the dirt all night and we desperately needed a God who would reveal the true nature of his kingdom not merely with words proclaimed from a distant throne, but in human form. The question for now is, what need was Jesus meeting during the time of Ezekiel?
This was one of the lowest times in the history of Israel. The ten northern tribes were lost in the Assyrian captivity and now the Babylonians were taking the rest captive. A terrible siege of Jerusalem was just a few short years away. Jeremiah warned the people that if they did not surrender to the Babylonians, starvation would reach a point that parents would even eat their own children (Jeremiah 19:9). Life seemed chaotic and God appeared to have completely abandoned his people. The mindset was,
“The LORD doesn’t see us! He has abandoned the country” (Ezekiel 8:12). Even Jeremiah would ask God, “Have you rejected us forever? Is there no limit to your anger?” (Lamentations 5:2).
In order to address this need, God revealed to Ezekiel a vision that was complex, but yet far from chaotic. The four living creatures orderly move in perfect symmetry without having to turn their heads. The wheels within wheels are covered by eyes and are themselves controlled by the creatures. In the midst of the creatures are flaming torches and lightening and all of this was ruled over by God who sits above it all on his throne. In other words, God is not chaotic and weak despite the earthly circumstances that might lead one to that conclusion.
It is also worth noting that Ezekiel had the same vision a second time, but with a significant additional detail. In chapter 10, a man wearing linen clothes is told to “Go between the wheels under the creatures and fill your hands with burning coals. Then scatter the coals over the city” (Ezekiel 10:2). To the concern that God had abandoned his people and was disengaged, this vision reveals a God who is fully involved as the four living creatures with their wheels and even God on his throne descend on the city.
I’d like to think that this vision was an encouragement to the people of that time. “God is not weak and he has not abandoned us.” It’s true that life in that time was chaotic, but that doesn’t mean that God has lost control. God is constantly adapting to our rebellion and working to bring something good out of it.
This interpretation of a powerful God who is in control (even if we can’t appreciate that from our perspective) has meaning for us as well, but if we take the bible as a whole and if we allow Jesus to reinterpret the imagery, this vision has an additional, unfolding reality. About 700 years later, John received essentially the same vision which is recorded in Revelation chapters 4 and 5. John also saw God on his throne and, like the vision of Ezekiel, he “gleamed” and was surrounded by a rainbow. Both visions with the four living creatures with wings, flashes of lightening and burning torches are unmistakably described in parallel.*
If you were Ezekiel or John and had the opportunity to ask questions about the vision and to have some clarification as to the meaning, what would you ask? Would you want to know more about the eyes, the four living creatures or the flaming torches? The most important questions always have to do with God and I like the fact that the camera lens in Revelation has a distinctive focus to clarify something of great importance about the Person on the throne.
In Revelation, the four living beings in God’s presence continually praise God with the words, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty…” Then there are twenty-four elders that fall down and worship God saying, “You are worthy, O Lord our God, to receive glory and honor and power…” But then in the midst of all the brilliant light, color, music and enthusiastic praise a question is asked that quite frankly seems ridiculous!
“Then I saw a scroll in the right hand of the One who was sitting on the throne. There was writing on the inside and the outside of the scroll, and it was sealed with seven seals. And I saw a strong angel, who shouted with a loud voice: ‘Who is worthy to break the seals on this scroll and open it?’” (Revelation 5:1-2)
What is strange about this question is that God is on his throne holding the scroll. Isn’t he worthy to open it? Also, we just heard the enthusiastic praise for God from the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders, “Holy, holy, holy….you are worthy…” and on and on. If God is already declared to be worthy, why would a “strong angel” ask “Who is worthy to break the seals?”
Shouldn’t at least one angel (or perhaps even John himself) have said, “You open it God. If you aren’t worthy to open it then no one is!”
But no one said a word. Instead, as the “Almighty”, “holy” and “worthy” God holds the scroll in his hand,
“No one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll and read it. Then I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll and read it.” (Revelation 5:3-4)
Suddenly a solution presents itself, and this is the additional unfolding meaning that we do not receive in Ezekiel’s vision. A new figure comes onto the stage and stands in the midst of the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders:
“But one of the twenty-four elders said to me, ‘Stop weeping! Look, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the heir to David’s throne, has won the victory. He is worthy to open the scroll and its seven seals.’ Then I saw a Lamb that looked as if it had been slaughtered, but it was now standing between the throne and the four living beings and among the twenty-four elders. He had seven horns and seven eyes, which represent the sevenfold Spirit of God that is sent out into every part of the earth. He stepped forward and took the scroll from the right hand of the One sitting on the throne.” (Revelation 5:5-7)
What is the meaning of all this? First of all, who is the first individual sitting on the throne and receiving all the praise? Although we might assume that this represents the Father, his title is, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was, who is, and who is to come.” (Revelation 4:8). This is the title used for Jesus both in the beginning and end of the Revelation:
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.’” (Revelation 1:8)
“Listen!’ said Jesus…‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” (Revelation 22:12-13)
The meaning of the brilliant “Lord God Almighty” handing the scroll to the slaughtered Lamb is not the Father handing something to his Son. Rather, I think what is being described is a dramatic transition in our understanding of who God is.
In other words, after a description of praise for God from the four living creatures and then the twenty four elders, there is essentially a challenge to God’s worthiness to be enthroned as God. Jesus rose to the challenge and vindicated God’s character and worthiness. The result of Jesus’ life and death is a “new song” and a dramatic amplification of praise for God:
“They sang a new song: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll and to break open its seals. For you were killed, and by your sacrificial death you bought for God people from every tribe, language, nation, and race. You have made them a kingdom of priests to serve our God, and they shall rule on earth.’ Again I looked, and I heard angels, thousands and millions of them! They stood around the throne, the four living creatures, and the elders, and sang in a loud voice: ‘The Lamb who was killed is worthy to receive power, wealth, wisdom, and strength, honor, glory, and praise!’ And I heard every creature in heaven, on earth, in the world below, and in the sea—all living beings in the universe—and they were singing: ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb, be praise and honor, glory and might, forever and ever!’” (Revelation 5:9-13)
The amplification of praise is key to understanding this vision. First four and then twenty four praise the One on the throne. After the Christ event, however, “thousands and millions” of angels and “every creature in heaven, on earth, in the world below, and in the sea—all living beings in the universe…” giving their praise to God because of what Jesus revealed about God!
Instead of focusing primarily on the identity of the four living creatures and the twenty four elders, John’s vision is constructed in a way to reveal this message about God: prior to the life and death of Jesus, God received praise from four and twenty four; after the life and death of Jesus, a “new song” (a new understanding about God) and praise from countless millions both in heaven and on the earth. All of this is possible because of Jesus’ revelation of who God really is.
During Ezekiel’s time, a vision was needed to show that God was still present and powerful. Ezekiel’s vision attempted to address that concern, yet there were still questions about his character. God himself would say during Ezekiel’s time that his character had been grossly misrepresented:
“Wherever they went, they gave me a bad name. People said, ‘These are GOD’s people, but they got kicked off his land.’ I suffered much pain over my holy reputation, which the people of Israel blackened in every country they entered. ‘Therefore, tell Israel…I’m not doing this for you, Israel. I’m doing it for me, to save my character, my holy name, which you’ve blackened in every country where you’ve gone. I’m going to put my great and holy name on display, the name that has been ruined in so many countries, the name that you blackened wherever you went.” (Ezekiel 36:20-23 MSG)
God took a great risk by involving himself with such a rebellious people during the Old Testament. God’s reputation was dragged through the mud time and time again. Even today, critics line up to declare that the God of the OT is a vindictive and angry monster. Is God really worthy? Something had to be done to reveal that God was more than the most powerful being in the universe. And so, onto the universal stage comes Jesus, the violently slaughtered Lamb. Jesus reveals that God is anything but a vindictive monster. Jesus is the clearest revelation of God’s character – a God whose heart cries out for the suffering, the poor, the outcasts, and the mistreated. Jesus reveals that the deepest core of God’s character is self-sacrificial love personified. In Jesus we see that God IS worthy!
This vision would not have played well during the time of Ezekiel. Imagine being held captive in Babylon and you are told of a vision that revealed God to be a slaughtered Lamb? Would that be good news? Surely this would have mystified and discouraged the people of that time. Because of the life of God in human form, however, we are allowed to experience an unfolding reality. Perhaps we are now attracted to living out the kind of self-sacrifical love that Jesus revealed and to follow the Lamb wherever he goes. Our message as Christians is much more important than revealing God to be powerful – we get that message from Ezekiel. The message for Christ-followers today is that God is exactly as Jesus revealed him to be:
“The historic Christian doctrine of the divinity of Christ does not simply mean that Jesus is like God. It is far more radical than that. It means that God is like Jesus.” – D. Elton Trueblood
* There are slight variations in John’s vision. The creatures in Revelation, for example, have 6 wings instead of 4 and this time the wings are covered with eyes instead of the wheels.