When we think of the ascension, celebrated last week and remembered whenever we recite the Apostles’ Creed, we are reminded of clouds and weather patterns. Acts 1:9 says Jesus “was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.” This is the last image we have of Jesus on earth. Mark 16:19 says that Jesus then “sat at the right hand of God,” so we imagine the next scene, a joyful homecoming around a throne.
Although Christ’s ascension may be the most well-known account of God and clouds, Scripture is filled with weather-related word pictures. As early as Genesis 3:8 we are told that Adam heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden “in the cool of the day” (ESV) or when the “cool evening breezes were blowing” (NLT). Literally, the Hebrew text reads, “wind of the day.” Some scholars suggest that this phrase could be translated as “wind of the storm,” although there is much debate. Regardless, we know from other texts such as Job 9 and 1 Kings 19 that God can speak through terrifying storms and uncanny stillness. Biblical writers seem comfortable with this wide range of description.
Ezekiel 1 is a fascinating example of storm imagery. In Ezekiel’s vision he saw the heavens open and watched a series of sky anomalies unfold. An ominous wind howled from the north, and four creatures emerged from a gleaming storm cloud crackling with bolts of fire. The creatures themselves seemed to be torches and lightning bolts. Each one had four heads (the face of a human, ox, bird of prey, and lion), four wings (two covering its body and the other two extend to link wings with its comrades), a set of human hands beneath the wings, and feet like calves. Wheels with rims "full of eyes" accompanied the creatures, and the grand finale above the living creatures and wheels was a lapis lazuli throne with the blinding presence of the glory of the Lord in human likeness.
Obviously, this is not a passage most Christian parents read to their children before tucking them in at night, at least not if they want to avoid visions of four-headed creatures lurking under the bed. But what could the purpose of this stormy vision be?
First, remember that Ezekiel's vision arrived at a turbulent time in Israel's history. On July 31, 593 BC, the year that Ezekiel would have been commissioned at age 30 as a priest in the Temple, he found himself instead among the exiles along the Chebar canal, an area of settlements, one of which would come to be called Judahtown or "Jewtown." Not only were the Judean exiles anxious that their reversed fortune meant the Lord had rejected them, they were tempted to believe their pagan conqueror's claims that the gods of Babylon had triumphed over the Lord.
Just as our own dreams often borrow features from our waking hours, Ezekiel's vision was probably influenced by his surroundings. Not too far from the Chebar canal, visitors could enter Babylon's two citadels by way of the Ishtar Gate, a majestic 40-foot high double tower with brickwork depicting 575 musnussu-dragons of Marduk and bulls of Hadad. The Ishtar Gate connected to Procession Way, a sacred city street decorated with 120 flanking lions leading to Marduk's temple, called Esagila. No doubt, Ezekiel was all too aware of the grand architecture celebrating names like Marduk and Ishtar within the city walls. Ezekiel and his community were reeling with theological shock, assuming that because they were cut off from the land of Israel and in a foreign place, they were separated from the Lord's presence and deliverance.
Lo and behold! Who appeared in Ezekiel’s vision but the unexpected deity, the Lord Himself, bursting beyond the familiar borders of Canaan? The heavens parted, and He was accompanied by exotic, living creatures and whirling wheels which could put Nebuchadrezzar's statue-flanked street to shame. Ezekiel wrote in a state of euphoria (including incomplete sentences and poor grammar!) to try and make sense out of what he saw. What words he was able to string together can be understood as a "throne theophany" as well as a "storm theophany," an Ancient Near East literary tradition portraying a storm god or war god in royally poetic, mythological, and windswept terms – often riding on a chariot.
Ezekiel's vision of four living creatures shows us a bridge between the visible and invisible, the world of mankind and a holy, transcendent, Almighty God who is on His throne. The four types of heads represented by each creature had iconic significance: Divinity, nobility, courage, strength, wisdom, reason and vision. (One ancient proverb quoted in the Talmud describes how a bird of prey in Babylon could see a carcass in Palestine. Apparently, a bird of prey’s swiftness and sight were known to transcend national borders. Just like the God of the Israelites!)
Ezekiel was mindblown by the way his vision showed that the presence of the Lord arrived with His holy entourage beyond the borders of Israel to a forlorn ghetto of Judeans. The Lord’s appearance harnessed not just the wind but the symbols of Ezekiel's day and age in a way that expressed His universal power and grace in their midst. He had not abandoned them. Like the bird of prey, His vision transcended borders and His glory and might were stronger than that of Babylon's. What seemed foreign to His people was not foreign to the Lord.
What a jaw-dropping picture of how God meets us where we are. In the ghetto. Downstream from Babylon. Upstream from who knows where next. God has compassion enough to send a soaring vision of hope and a glimpse that He is still on His throne! The Lord’s “otherness” defies every category and every mixed-metaphor falls short of describing His glory. These are words we need to hear. He is above and beyond and in the midst of it all. He is the same Lord of Lords who promised before His ascension, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Written by a member of our church staff
Leslie C. Allen, "Ezekiel 1-19," vol. 28 of Word Biblical Commentary
Izak J. de Hulster, Brent A. Strawn, and Ryan P. Bonfiglio, Iconographic Exegesis of the Hebrew Bible
Daniel Block, "Ezekiel," in New International Commentary on the Old Testament
Lamar Eugene Cooper, "Ezekiel," vol. 17 of An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture
Othmar Keel, The Symbolism of the Biblical World, translated by Timothy J. Hallett
James B. Pritchard, "A Vision of the Nether World," Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament
Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament
D.J. Wiseman, "Nebuchadnezzar," Volume 4 of The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible
Laurie E. Pearce and Cornelia Wunsch, Documents of Judean Exiles and West Semites in Babylonia