Ezekiel 1
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers




Professor of Divinity, Middletown, Connecticut, U.S.A.




THIS book is placed in the Authorised Version, as well as in the order of the Hebrew canon, third among the writings of the four greater prophets. This is certainly its true chronological place; for although Jeremiah and Daniel were both contemporary with. Ezekiel, yet the former began his prophecies long before, and the latter continued his visions long afterwards. Of its authenticity and canonicity there is no question.

I. The personal history of Ezekiel.—Nothing is known of this beyond what may be gathered from the book itself, and from the circumstances of the times in which the author lived. He is never mentioned in any other book of the Old Testament, and his writings are never directly quoted in the New, although some of the imagery in the Apocalypse is undoubtedly founded upon the visions of Ezekiel. Fortunately, however, everything which it is important to know may be learned from the sources mentioned.

His name, God will strengthen, like the names of so many others of the saints of old, was singularly appropriate to his life and work. In the opening of his book (Ezekiel 1:3) he speaks of himself as a “priest, the son of Buzi.” Of Buzi nothing whatever is known; but the fact that Ezekiel himself was of the Aaronic family is a most important one in the interpretation of his writings; for he was evidently “every inch a churchman,” and his strong ecclesiastical character pervades and gives tone to his prophecies. Whether he actually entered upon the exercise of priestly functions at Jerusalem cannot be known without a previous determination of the uncertain question of the age at which he was carried into captivity; but he was certainly well instructed in what seemed likely to be his future duties. These facts, taken in connection with the disordered condition of the country and the tendency to concentrate the priests in and around the holy city, make it probable that he lived in Jerusalem or its immediate vicinity.

The prophet was carried captive to Babylon with the king Jehoiachin (Ezekiel 1:2; comp. with Ezekiel 33:21) in the eighth year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar (B.C. 596), ten thousand of the more important part of the people being transplanted to Babylonia at the same time (2Kings 24:14), eleven years before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. According to Josephus (Antt. x. 6, 3), he was then a young man. This statement has been called in question, but seems likely to be true, from the fact that one of his prophecies is dated twenty-seven years later (Ezekiel 29:17), and that he apparently exercised his office for some time longer. However this may be, it is certain that he entered on his prophetic activity “by the river Chebar” (Ezekiel 1:3), where the mass of the captives had been planted. This river was formerly supposed to be the Chaboras. or Khabour, a stream emptying itself into the Euphrates about two hundred miles above Babylon; but this cannot be the river intended, since it is said to be “in the land of the Chaldæans,” and the name of Chaldæa was never extended so far north. Recent authorities generally identify it with the Nahr Malcha, or royal canal of Nebuchadnezzar, on the excavation of which it is supposed that the Jewish captives were employed for a time. These were doubtless “the rivers of Babylonby whose side the Jewish exiles wept when they “remembered Zion” (Psalm 137:1). Here Ezekiel lived in his own house (Ezekiel 8:1), to which the elders of Judah resorted to receive his counsels. He was married, and when his wife died suddenly he was forbidden to mourn for her (Ezekiel 24:16-17). This occurred near the close of the ninth year of his captivity (Ezekiel 24:1), and left the exiled prophet to bear in solitude the great trials of his prophetic life.

There is no record of the time of the close of his prophetic activity or of his life, and the few traditions that remain about him are of little value. Of great interest, however, are—

II. His relations with contemporary prophets.—The great prophet of Judæa during Ezekiel’s youth, and for a long time after he was carried into captivity, was Jeremiah. Jeremiah was himself a priest who occupied a large share of public attention, and exercised a powerful influence upon the destinies of the nation during the most susceptible years of Ezekiel’s life. Neither of them ever mentions the other’s name, yet it is scarcely possible that the young priest Ezekiel should not have personally known the older priest and great prophet at Jerusalem. After he had gone into captivity, and in the year before he was called to the prophetic office, Jeremiah sent a prophecy to Babylon, predicting its overthrow (Jeremiah 51:59); and on another occasion, whether earlier or later is unknown, he sent by another messenger to rebuke the false prophets who had risen up among the captives (Jeremiah 29:21-28). These false prophets had undertaken to thwart Jeremiah and to put a stop to his prophesying, and his denunciation of them must have removed a great obstacle from the way of Ezekiel; while, on the other hand, Ezekiel’s own prophecies among the captives must have helped to sustain Jeremiah’s authority among the remnant at Jerusalem.

Meantime, while these relations appear to have existed between the prophet of Judæa and the captive by the river Chebar, the “royal prophet” Daniel had also begun his series of wonderful revelations at the court of Babylon. He makes no mention of Ezekiel, as indeed he scarcely speaks of anything outside the immediate scope of his own prophecies; but Ezekiel speaks of him by name three times: twice for his eminent holiness (Ezekiel 14:14; Ezekiel 14:20), and once for his great wisdom (Ezekiel 28:3); but as Daniel was early raised to high office in the internal administration of the kingdom, and must have been intimately acquainted with the affairs of his own captive people, it is hardly possible that he should not have known personally one so eminent among them as Ezekiel. Daniel was of noble, if not of royal, birth (Daniel 1:3), and hence could not have failed to know Jeremiah before he was himself carried from Jerusalem. Thus there seems to have been a very interesting personal connection between these three great prophets, all engaged in their Divine mission at the same time, but under strikingly different circumstances, and each with his own strongly-marked individuality. God was thus pleased to vouchsafe to His Church in the time of its utmost distress and need a fulness of prophetic counsel such as marked no other period of the old dispensation. The only time at all comparable to it was that other critical period, more than a century before, when the northern kingdom had been carried into captivity—a period which was distinguished by the prophecies of Isaiah, Hosea, Amos, and Micah.

The prophecies of Daniel are of so peculiar a character, and, for the most part, embrace such a far reaching sweep of time, that they throw comparatively little light upon those of Ezekiel. Jeremiah, on the other hand, prophesying at the same time and about the same events, is constantly parallel to Ezekiel, and both his prophecies and his interwoven historical narrative should be read in connection with Ezekiel. The two will be found of great value in mutually illustrating each other.

III. The character of the captivity.—Judæa had been made tributary to Babylon some years before Nebuchadnezzar’s accession to the throne, and while he was still acting as the general of his aged father. Jehoi-akim, in the third year of his reign (2Kings 24:1), had rebelled against him, and had been conquered and carried captive to Babylon (2Chronicles 36:6) eight years before the captivity of Ezekiel. It is not known how many other captives were taken at the same time, the only mention of them being in Daniel 1:3, when certain “of the king’s seed and of the princes” (among whom were Daniel and his three companions) were selected from the general company of “the children of Israel” to be trained in the learning and tongue of the Chaldæans. It is generally supposed that but few of them were kept in the city of Babylon itself, and that the others were placed in the same region with the subsequent captives “by the river Chebar.” They would thus have had time to make homes for themselves, to become familiar with the language and the country, and hence to be of no small service to their brethren when the 10,000 fresh captives arrived. Especially must the learning, the wisdom, the high station of Daniel, together with his familiarity with affairs, have been of great importance to them.’ It was still eleven years later than this great captivity of Nebuchadnezzar’s eighth year (which was also the captivity of Ezekiel) that Zedekiah’s rebellion forced Nebuchadnezzar to a fresh capture of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple (2Kings 25:1-12). The “rest of the people of the city, and the fugitives,” and “the multitude” were carried off at this time, which was “in the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar” (2Ki 25:8). By observing that the first year of Nebuchadnezzar was the fourth of Jehoiakim (Jeremiah 25:1), this and the following dates may be synchronised with those of the Jewish history. Meantime, several minor deportations, amounting in all to 4,600 people, are mentioned by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 52:28-30) as occurring in the seventh and the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar, and a subsequent one in the twenty-third year. These later captives lived in and around Jerusalem under wicked and idolatrous kings, going down from one wickedness to another, while the captives of Ezekiel’s time had been for years under the elevating influences of affliction and of the prophet’s counsels. There was, therefore, a marked difference in the character of the people whom he addressed before and after the destruction of Jerusalem. The following table of the several recorded deportations may be useful :—


Daniel 1:1.

Jehoiakim III[6].

[6] The Roman numerals refer to the years of the reign. Nebuchadnezzar is here spoken of as “king” before the formal beginning of his reign, which occurred in the following year. The third year afterwards is called in Daniel 2:1 the second year of Nebuchadnezzar. (Comp. also Jeremiah 25:1).

Jehoiakim, Daniel, and others.


Jeremiah 52:28.

Nebuchadnezzar VII.



2Kings 24:14

Nebuchadnezzar VIII.

10,000, with Jehoiachin and Ezekiel.


Jeremiah 52:29.

Nebuchadnezzar XVIII.



2Kings 25:11.

Nebuchadnezzar XIX.

“Rest of the city”, and “remnant of the multitude.”


Jeremiah 52:30.

Nebuchadnezzar XXIII.


It thus appears that the progress of the captivity, from first to last, covered twenty-four years, from B.C. 605 to 581, or from thirteen years before to eleven years after the beginning of Ezekiel’s prophecies. It is probable that the comparatively small deportations of the seventh and eighteenth years of Nebuchadnezzar took place in the early part of the same campaigns which terminated with the great deportations of the eighth and nineteenth. The numbers mentioned amount in all to 14,600, but in two instances the number is not given, and the latter of these probably included many more captives than all the others together. There were still left behind “of the poor of the land to be vine-dressers and husbandmen” (2Kings 25:12), which implies a certain degree of sifting of the people, the captives being those in better social position, and hence, on the whole, likely to be more intelligent, and more easily brought under the prophet’s influence in their affliction.

In regard to the condition of the people in their captivity, it is not improbable that they may at first have been treated with some rigour. Nebuchadnezzar was evidently annoyed and irritated by their repeated rebellions, and showed himself capable of no little harshness towards them. (See Jeremiah 52:24-27; 2Kings 25:7.) He was also engaged in the construction of magnificent public works, and on the accession of so large a body of captives, would naturally have employed them for this purpose, and especially for making his royal canal. At the same time, he was a man of too much breadth of view to indulge in national animosity, and from the first he placed Daniel and his Jewish companions in offices of high honour and trust, while the condition of the captives generally appears to have rapidly ameliorated. It has already appeared that in the sixth year of his captivity Ezekiel was living in his own house (Ezekiel 8:1). It was but little more than thirty years from the last date of his prophecy to the decree of Cyrus for their return. At that time only a portion of the exiles cared to exchange the comforts of the land of their exile for the difficulties of removal to the home of their fathers, and they who remained behind were able to help those who went “with vessels of silver, with gold, with goods, and with beasts, and with precious things(Ezra 1:6); and at a little later period the Book of Esther represents them as numerous, with powerful friends at the court, and of sufficient wealth to tempt the cupidity of their enemies. The impression obtained, on the whole, is that they speedily rose, and were encouraged to rise, from a servile condition to one of comfort, and in many cases of opulence.

IV. The date of Ezekiel’s prophecies.—A large part of the prophecies are carefully and minutely dated, the era being always that of the captivity of Jehoiachin, which was also that of Ezekiel himself. One other era is mentioned in the first verse: “it came to pass in the thirtieth year,” and has been the subject of much discussion. The only thing certain about it is that it coincided (Lamentations 5:3) with the fifth year of Jehoiachin’s captivity. Some writers have supposed it to refer to the thirtieth year from the last jubilee, but this is never elsewhere used for the purpose of date, probably because it began at a special and inconvenient time, on the tenth day of the seventh month (Leviticus 25:9), and it would have been particularly unlikely to be used under the existing circumstances. Others consider that it dates from the era of the accession of Nebuchadnezzar’s father and the commencement of the Chaldean dynasty (Michaelis, Rosenmüller, Ewald, and others); but there is no evidence that this era had then come into use, and the most recent investigations tend to show a discrepancy between this and the date here given. A very common ancient view—(Chaldee, Jerome, Theodoret) also adopted by some moderns (Hävernick and others)—is that the era was that of the finding of the Book of the Law and of the beginning of a great reformation in the eighteenth year of Josiah’s reign. This would certainly exactly accord with the time indicated; but if this had been meant we should expect that it would have been indicated. The most probable supposition is that of Origen, that it refers to Ezekiel’s own age, particularly impressive to him, because it was the age at which the Levites by the law (Numbers 4:23; Numbers 4:30; Numbers 4:39; Numbers 4:43) entered upon their duties.

Although, as already said, a large part of Ezekiel’s prophecies are carefully dated, many also are without date. Are these to be considered as belonging to the time between the preceding and the succeeding dates? If the dates given were all arranged in chronological order this would be the natural and highly probable supposition; and as a matter of fact, they are thus arranged, with the exception of a few prophecies, where the change of order admits of easy explanation. These prophecies are the two parts of Ezekiel 29, the first part of which is dated nearly three months before the prophecy in Ezekiel 26, and the last part is sixteen years later than the prophecy following it; the remaining instances are the two parts of Ezekiel 32, dated nearly two months after the prophecy of Ezekiel 33:21. The reason of these anomalies is that Ezekiel 25-32 form a special section of the book, relating to various heathen nations, and including nearly all the prophecies of this character. The general arrangement in this section also is chronological, but gives way to the extent of placing together all prophecies against the same nation whenever uttered. There being thus an obvious reason for the arrangement of this special section, and the dates of the rest of the book being strictly consecutive, the whole may be considered, with a high degree of probability, as arranged in chronological order, the internal character of the undated prophecies for the most part assimilating them closely to those just before them. This probability is increased by the fact that there remain two other undated prophecies against the heathen (Ezekiel 35, 38, 39), which are so much of the nature of promises to Israel through the destruction of their enemies that they are allowed to stand in connection with those promises, and doubtless in their proper chronological position.

V. The reception of the prophecies by the captives.—During the period of the captivity the Jews were greatly changed. Notwithstanding various sins which lingered among them, they learned generally to repudiate the idolatry which had been hitherto their characteristic sin, and they showed also a disposition to observe the law of Moses more closely than they had ever done before, and with so much zeal that this remained ever after their distinguishing national characteristic. The chief human instrument of this change was the teaching of the prophet Ezekiel. He was, indeed, often called upon to rebuke them (Ezekiel 14:1; Ezekiel 14:3; Ezekiel 14:18, &c.), and was made to understand that while they seemed to listen, they still refused to take his words to heart (Ezekiel 33:30-33); yet they regarded him as a true prophet, and resorted to him for counsel, and to ask through him the mind of God (Ezekiel 8:1; Ezekiel 14:1, &c.). Doubtless, as time went on, the people became more and more purified. Jeremiah 24 shows distinctly the great moral difference at that time between the people who had gone into captivity and those who still remained behind. Various allusions in the book (see Ezekiel 3:9, &c.) show that Ezekiel’s life, especially in the earlier part of his work, was one of much trial, and that he had to contend against great difficulties in the midst of abounding evil. He himself passed away, as is usually the lot of man, before he was able to see the full result of his labours. Hengstenberg, in his Christology, describes him as “a spiritual Samson, who, with a strong arm, seized the pillars of the temple of the idols, and dashed it to the ground: an energetic, gigantic nature, who was thereby suited effectually to counteract the Babylonish spirit of the times, which loved to manifest itself in violent, gigantic, grotesque forms: one who stood alone, but was yet equal to a hundred scholars of the prophets.”[7]

[7] Christology of the Old Testament. By E. W. Hengsten berg. Translated by R. Keith. “Ezek. Introd.,” Vol. III., p. 460.

VI.The divisions of the book may be given differently, according to the point of view from which it is regarded. It is quite common to make an arithmetically equal division into two parts, of twenty-four chapters each; and this plan is to a certain extent just, as there occurs a manifest change of subject at the close of Ezekiel 24. But it is far better to divide the book in connection with the great historic event of the overthrow of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, the tidings of which reached Ezekiel in the twelfth year of his captivity, at Ezekiel 33:21. At this point the general tone of the prophecies changes. Up to this time they have been chiefly occupied with sin and consequent judgment; from this time onward, as the great manifestation of the Divine wrath had taken place, they are mainly concerned with promises and consolations. Each great division has an introductory portion: Ezekiel 1-3 containing the call of the prophet, with the instructions to him and his installation in his office, and Ezekiel 33, more briefly, as was fitting, a renewal of the charge to him in relation to that office. Each division closes, too, with a special section: the first with a series of prophecies against heathen nations, the enemies of Israel (Ezekiel 25-32), and the second with the future glory of the Temple and the Holy Land and city (Ezekiel 40-48. Minor sub-divisions will be treated as they occur.

VII. The style of Ezekiel is more varied than that of any other prophet. All forms of prophetic writing are laid under contribution to further the great work he was set to accomplish. Hence different writers, looking at his book from different points of view, have formed very different, and often exaggerated, estimates, on one side or the other, of its literary merits. Ewald justly says of him (Propheten. p. 212) :—“Considered simply as a writer, this prophet exhibits great excellences, especially as living in so dismal a period. His mode of representation, indeed, like that of most of the later writers, has a tendency to length and expansion, with sentences often very much involved, and rhetorical breadth and copiousness. . . . His language has scattered through it several Aramaic and foreign expressions, in which one may perceive the influence of his exiled condition; though for the most part it is formed after the older and better models.” Lowth (Lect. on Sacred Poetry, 21, p. 294) says :—His diction is sufficiently perspicuous; all his obscurity consists in the nature of the subject.” In regard to this matter of obscurity, which has been so much objected to, Fairbairn[8] well says, “that the darkness inseparably connected with our prophet’s delight in the use of parable and symbol was, when rightly contemplated, by no means at variance with his great design as a prophet. His primary object was impression—to rouse and stimulate, to awaken spiritual thoughts and feelings in the depths of the soul, and bring it back to a living confidence and faith in God. And for this, while great plainness and force of speech were necessary, mysterious symbols and striking parabolical delineations were also fitted to be of service.

[8] Fairbairn: On Ezekiel 2nd Ed., Introd., p. 12.

Accordingly, while Ezekiel often addresses the people in the simplest language of admonition or of promise, he also abounds in the most elaborate visions (as Ezekiel 1, 8-10, 37, 40-48.) and symbolical actions (Ezekiel 4, 5, 12); and has also similitudes (Ezekiel 15, 33, 35) and parables (Ezekiel 17) and prolonged allegories (Ezekiel 23); while in his denunciations, as of Egypt (Ezekiel 29-32), he sometimes rises to the height of most bold and effective poetry. “He has remarkable power in grouping a mass of somewhat minute details in a way to heighten the effect exceedingly. Witness his portrayal of the horrible impurities of idolatry in Jerusalem and Samaria (Ezekiel 23), or his description of the commerce, the splendour, and the fall of ancient Tyre (Ezekiel 27, 28).”[9] In such varied ways did inspiration manifest itself in this remarkable prophet that he might accomplish his work under the extraordinary circumstances in which he was placed.

[9] Ezekiel. By Rev. H. Cowles, D.D. Introd. p. 11.

Underlying all this varied form, the personal characteristics of the prophet are always to be kept in mind that we may understand his writings. He was eminently realistic, always striving after a concrete representation of abstract thoughts; and moreover, intensely energetic, always having before his mind the accomplishment of a definite practical result. With all this, he had a rich fancy, and was possessed of deep emotions; he was an earnest priest, and deeply imbued with the symbolism and imagery of the Jewish temple and worship, and was also a captive in Babylonia, where the symbolism of the great Chaldæan works of art had produced a strong impression on his mind. It is sometimes difficult, therefore, to distinguish in his utterances between the form in which he so vividly sets forth the truth and the truth itself which he wishes to convey to the mind. But in this great help may be derived from observing the progressive character of his prophecies, and making ourselves thoroughly familiar with the earlier before we attempt to grapple with the difficulties. of the later. In no other prophet is it of so great importance to study his writings in the order in which he was inspired to deliver them, and also the personal characteristics of the writer. The main clue to guide us through the difficulties of the interpretation of his book is the appreciation of his tendency to express every thought and every Divine communication in concrete form. This tendency is so intense in Ezekiel, and is so carried into detail, that there has always been a disposition to mistake his ideal descriptions of the future for prophecies of coming realities. It will be seen on examining them that they contain particulars which, if literally interpreted, would be self-contradictory, and that they cannot therefore have been intended to be so understood. Nevertheless, the descriptions are so vivid, and the idea to be conveyed is so concretely expressed, that it is only by following his prophecies in their order, and coming gradually to enter into his spirit,. that we can appreciate their truly ideal character.

It is quite in accordance with these general characteristics of Ezekiel’s writings that much of them should be on the border-land between poetry and prose. Parts, indeed, are plainly in simple prose, and in other parts the complete poetic form corresponds to the thought; but there are many passages thoroughly poetic in their matter which yet defy the attempt to reduce them to the parallelism which characterises Hebrew poetry, and much that, while it must on the whole be classed as poetry, is yet very irregular in form. The earnestness and impetuosity of the thought continually overrides artificial rules of diction.

VIII. Literature.—The principal commentators upon this book are:—Among the ancients, Origen, Jerome, and Theodoret; among the Jews, the Rabbis D. Kimchi and Abarbanel; of the period of the Reformation, (Ecolampadius and Calvin, whose work was terminated by his illness and death at Ezekiel 21; and of the Romanists, Pradus and Villalpandus, a huge work in three volumes, fol. 1596-1604; more modern commentaries are those of Starck, 1731; Venema, 1790 (this does not include the last nine chapters); Newcome, 1788; W. Greenhill (London, 1645-62, five volumes, 4to reprinted), 1829; Rosenmüller, Scholia, second edition, 1826; Ewald, 1841; Umbreit, 1843; Hävernick, 1843; Hitzig, 1847; Henderson, 1855; Fairbairn, third edition, Edinburgh, 1863, a work of exceptional value,. from which considerable extracts are made in the translation of Ezekiel in Lange’s Bïbelwerk; Cowles, New York, 1867; G. R. Noyes, New Trans, of the Heb. Prophets, with notes, third edition, Boston, 1866, Vol. II; Hengstenberg, 1867-68, subsequently translated into English; Kleifoth, 1864-65; Dr. G. Currey, in the collection known as The Speaker’s Commentary, 1876; and the Commentary of Keil, translated and published in Clark’s Foreign Theolog. Library, 1876.

Now it came to pass in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, in the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the river of Chebar, that the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.
(1) The thirtieth year.—On this date see Introduction, § 4. It may be added here that the concurrence of the “fifth day of the month” in connection with this epoch, and with that of Jehoiachin’s captivity in Ezekiel 1:2, shows that the years of the two epochs began at the same time.

Among the captives.i.e., in the midst of the region where they were settled. The vision which follows was seen by Ezekiel only, and was probably vouchsafed to him in solitudes” The captives,” or rather, the captivity, as it is in the original, is the same word as is used of Jehoiachin in the next verse, and yet must be somewhat differently understood in the two cases. Jehoiachin was actually in prison for many years; his people, within certain limits, were free. They were more than exiles, but less than prisoners. (On “the heavens were opened,” comp. Matthew 3:16; Acts 7:56.)

Visions of God.—Not merely great visions, as the Divine name is often added in Scripture to express greatness or intensity (see Genesis 10:9; Psalm 36:6, marg., Psalm 80:10, marg.; Jonah 3:3, marg.; Acts 7:20, marg.), but Divine visions, visions sent from God, as in Ezekiel 8:3; Ezekiel 40:2.

The word of the LORD came expressly unto Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar; and the hand of the LORD was there upon him.
(3) Came expressly.—Or, came certainly, with the fullest proof of reality. In the original there is simply the ordinary form of the repetition of the verb for the sake of emphasis. The prophet mentions his own name only here and in Ezekiel 24:24.

The hand of the Lord was there upon him.—A form of expression to indicate that special power and influence which the Spirit exercised over the prophets at times when they were called to become the means of the Divine communications. (Comp. 1Kings 18:46, and Ezekiel 3:22; Ezekiel 37:1; see also Daniel 8:18; Daniel 10:10; Revelation 1:17.) It is noticeable that Ezekiel here speaks of himself in the third person, while in Ezekiel 1:1, and always after this, he uses the first person. It had been suggested that this, together with the mention of his own name, may indicate the insertion of these two verses on a revision of his work by the prophet.

In entering upon the vision of the glory of the Lord, which fills the rest of this chapter, it is to be remembered that Ezekiel is struggling to portray that which necessarily exceeds the power of human language; it is not therefore surprising that there should be something of repetition and of obscurity in the detail. All similar descriptions of Divine manifestations are marked more or less strongly by the same characteristics. (See Exodus 24:9-10; Isaiah 6:1-4; Daniel 7:9-10; Revelation 1:12-20; Revelation 4:2-6, &c.) It is also to be borne in mind that what the prophet saw was not the eternal Father in His own absolute essence, who dwells in unapproachable light, and whom “no man hath seen, nor can see” (1Timothy 6:16); and had it been possible that Ezekiel should have been so transported out of the body as to behold this, it would then have been impossible for him to describe it. But what he saw in vision was such manifestation as man could bear, in which God hides His face, and allows to be seen only His uttermost parts (Exodus 33:22-23). In the description that follows may be recognised a mingling of the symbols of the Divine manifestation at Sinai with the “patterns of heavenly things” in the most holy place of the Temple, the whole modified to suit the present occasion, and possibly somewhat coloured by the now familiar symbolic art of Babylonia.

And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire.
(4) A whirlwind came out of the north.—The north is seen as the quarter from which the vision proceeded, not because the Babylonians conceived that there was the seat of Divine power (Isaiah 14:13-14), but because it was common with the prophets to represent the Divine judgments upon Judæa as coming from the north (see Jeremiah 1:14-15; Jeremiah 4:6; Jeremiah 6:1), and it was from that direction that the Assyrian and the Chaldæan conquerors were accustomed to descend upon the Holy Land. The vision is actually seen in Chaldæa, but it has reference to Jerusalem, and is described as if viewed from that standpoint.

A great cloud.—As in the Divine manifestation on Sinai (Exodus 19:9-16). The cloud serves at once as the groundwork for all the other details of the manifestation—a place in, and by means of which, all are located, and also as a hiding-place of the Divine majesty, so that all may be seen which human eye can bear, and that which it cannot bear may yet be known to be there, shrouded in the cloud. The transposition of a single letter from the end of one word in the Hebrew to the beginning of the next will change the reading to “a whirlwind out of the north brought on a great cloud.”

A fire infolding itself.—More literally translated in the margin, catching itself. The idea intended to be conveyed is that of flames round and round the cloud, the flashes succeeding one another so rapidly that each seemed to lay hold on the one that had gone before; there were tongues of flame, where each one reached to another. The same word occurs in Exodus 9:24, in connection with “fire,” and is there translated mingled. The vision thus far seems moulded on the natural appearance of a terrific thunderstorm seen at a distance, in which the great black cloud appears illuminated by the unceasing and coalescing flashes of lightning. So, with all its impressive darkness, “there was a brightness about it.”

As the colour of amber.—Colour is, literally, eye. The word rendered “amber” (chasmal) occurs only in this book (here, and Ezekiel 1:27 and Ezekiel 8:2), and is now generally recognised as meaning some form of bright metal, either glowing in its molten state, or as the “fine brass” of Ezekiel 1:7 and Revelation 1:15, burnished and glowing in the light of the “infolding flame.” There is therefore now superadded to the first appearance of the natural phenomenon, a glowing eye or centre to the cloud, shining out even from the midst of the fire.

Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man.
(5) The likeness of four living creatures next appeared from this centre of the fiery cloud. The word “likeness” is not without significance. The prophet would make it plain that this was a vision, that these were symbolic, not actually existing creatures. Their prominent characteristic is that they were “living.” This word is used over and over again in connection with them (see Ezekiel 1:13-15; Ezekiel 1:19; Ezekiel 1:21, &c.); and in fact, in Ezekiel and Revelation (Ezekiel 4:6, &c., where it is mis-translated beasts) it occurs nearly thirty times. The same characteristic is further emphasized in Ezekiel 1:14 by the speed, “as of a flash of lightning,” with which they “ran and returned,” by the multiplicity of eyes in the wheels connected with them (Ezekiel 1:18), and by their going instantly “whithersoever the spirit was to go” (Ezekiel 1:20); while in Revelation 4:8 it is said that “they rest not day and night.” Their life is represented as most closely connected with the source of all life, the “living God,” whose throne is seen in the vision (Ezekiel 1:26) as above the heads of these “living creatures,”

Ezekiel does not here say what these living creatures were, but in a subsequent vision, when he saw them again in connection with the Temple, he recognised them as the cherubim (Ezekiel 10:15; Ezekiel 10:20). Cherubim, whether here, or in the Temple overshadowing the mercy-seat, or in the garden of Eden keeping the way of the tree of life, always indicate the immediate presence of the God of holiness. The prophet again mentions these composite symbolic figures in connection with the vision of the Temple in Ezekiel 41:18-20. The origin of such ideal figures has been variously ascribed to the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Phœnicians, and the Arabs; but this symbolism was, in fact, almost universal throughout the East. Dr. Currey (Speaker’s Com., note on Ezekiel 1) points out the striking difference between this symbolism and that of the Greeks. They tried to delineate the Divine attributes with the utmost beauty of form and harmony of detail under some human figure in which those attributes were conspicuous. In consequence, the mind of the worshipper lost sight of the ideal, and became absorbed in the sensuous imagery by which it was represented; while here, by the very strangeness, and sometimes grotesqueness, of the imagery, its purely symbolic character was kept constantly in view. Cherubim are associated in the Old Testament with that tree of life of which man might not partake save through Him who is “the life,” and with that typical holy of holies which man might not enter until the true Holy of Holies was entered once for all by Christ through His own blood (Hebrews 9:8; Hebrews 9:12).

They had the likeness of a man.—With all the strange variety of details to be described immediately, they had yet a general human form, and are to be understood as like man in whatever is not specified.

And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings.
(6) Four faces.—The cherubim, being merely symbolical figures, are variously represented. Those placed in the Tabernacle and in the Temple of Solomon appear to have had only a single face; those described in Ezekiel’s vision of the Temple (Ezekiel 41:18-19) had two; the four living creatures of Revelation 4:7 were each different from the other: one like a man, one like a lion, one like an ox, and one like an eagle, and these four are combined here in each one of the cherubim (Ezekiel 1:10). Man is the head of the whole animal creation, the lion of wild beasts, the ox of the domestic animals, and the eagle of the birds.

Four wings.—In Revelation 4:8, six wings are mentioned, as also with the seraphim of Isaiah 6:2. The cherubim in Solomon’s Temple had two (1Kings 6:27). In Ezekiel 10:21, as here, they have four. The number is plainly not important, though doubtless assigned to them with reference to the number of creatures, and of their faces, and of the wheels; but that they should have more than the normal number of two is here appropriate, partly to concur with the other indications of the fulness of their life and activity, and partly because (Ezekiel 1:11) two of them were used to express their reverence, as were four of those of the seraphim in Isaiah.

And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf's foot: and they sparkled like the colour of burnished brass.
(7) Their feet were straight feet.—Rather, each of their legs was a straight leg, i.e., without any bend in it, as at the knee, but was equally fitted for motion in any direction. So also “the sole of their feet,” the part which rested on the ground, was not, like the human foot, formed to move forward only, but was round and solid, something “like the sole of a calf’s foot.”

They sparkled.—This refers only to “the sole of the feet,” the hoof. The “burnished brass” is a different word from that used in Ezekiel 1:4, and gives another feature to the general brilliancy and magnificence of the vision.

And they had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides; and they four had their faces and their wings.
(8) The hands of a man.—Implying, of course, also human arms. This particular adds to the generally human appearance of the cherubim, yet we must understand (see Ezekiel 1:11) that there were four hands corresponding to the wings for each cherub. These hands were “under their wings on their four sides.” Hence the wings must have been attached at the shoulder. The repetition, “they four had their faces and their wings,” is for the sake of emphasis and distinctness.

Their wings were joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward.
(9) Their wings were joined one to another.—i.e., the outstretched right wing of one cherub was joined at its tip to the left wing of another, so that although four, they yet constituted in some sense but one creature, all moving in harmony and by a common impulse. This applies to the cherubim only when in motion; when they stood, the wings were let down (Ezekiel 1:24). The joining of the extremities of the outstretched wings of the cherubim recalls the arrangement in Solomon’s Temple (1Kings 6:27), in which the wings of the larger cherubim touched one another above the mercy-seat.

They turned not when they went.—Whichever way they wished to go, they could still go “straight forward,” i.e., in the direction towards which they looked, since they looked in all directions, and their round feet made it equally easy to move in any way. It would at first seem that as two of the wings of each cherub were used to cover their bodies (Ezekiel 1:11), the wings would have required their turning when they changed their course; but if we conceive of the four cherubim as arranged to form a square, and with their wings moving as one creature, this difficulty disappears.

As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.
(10) On the right side . . . on the left side.—The apparent obscurity of this description is due only to the punctuation in the English Bible. “They four had the face of a man” (viz., in front, as Ezekiel viewed them), “and the face of a lion on the right side; and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle” (viz., on the back, or side opposite to Ezekiel). These faces are the same as those given to the living creatures in Revelation 4:7, except that there each creature had but one of them.

Thus were their faces: and their wings were stretched upward; two wings of every one were joined one to another, and two covered their bodies.
(11) Thus were their faces: and their wings were stretched upward.—Rather, and their wings and their faces were separated above. The word never has the sense of stretched, but always that of separated or divided, as given in the margin. Each cherub was essentially one creature, and yet (not Janus-like, with four faces upon one head) their heads and their wings were separated above, and when they were in flight the two lifted wings touched on either side the wing of the next cherub, while two were used to veil their bodies. There is much of emphatic repetition throughout the description.

And they went every one straight forward: whither the spirit was to go, they went; and they turned not when they went.
(12) Whither the spirit was to go.—The one informing spirit which animated all the living creatures alike, and in accordance with which all their movements were ordered.

As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, and like the appearance of lamps: it went up and down among the living creatures; and the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning.
(13) Like the appearance of lamps.—The word “and” before this phrase is not in the original, and should be omitted. The words are merely a further explanation. The cherubim were like burning coals of fire, like torches or lightnings. The word “lamps” does not refer to the material, but to the light, and whether in the Hebrew or in its Greek equivalent, is translated by torches (Nahum 2:4; John 18:3),firebrands (Judges 15:4), or lightnings (Exodus 20:18). Ezekiel could find no single word to express his meaning, and has therefore given two, that between them the idea of the fiery brilliancy may be better conveyed.

It went up and down.—“ It” refers to the fire. This indescribable fiery appearance went up and down among the living creatures, “bright” in itself, and throwing out coruscations of “lightning.”

And the living creatures ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning.
(14) A flash of lightning.—Not only was the appearance of the cherubim thus glittering, but also their speed as they “ran and returned” was that of the lightning.

The vision up to this point, so far as we may venture to interpret its object, seems designed to show forth the power and activity, the irresistible energy of the agencies employed for the fulfilment of the Divine purposes, and at the same time their perfectly harmonious action, controlled by one supreme will. We now enter upon a fresh phase of the vision, in which the same things are represented still further by an additional and peculiar symbolism.

Now as I beheld the living creatures, behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures, with his four faces.
(15) Behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures.—The prophet sees this while still looking intently upon the cherubim—“ as I beheld the living creatures “—showing that it was still a part of one and the same vision. The wheel was one in the same sense in which the living creatures were one, yet actually four, as appears from the following verse and the whole subsequent description. In the corresponding vision (Ezekiel 10:9), they are at once described as four. The cherubim had been seen in the cloud (Ezekiel 1:4-5); now they need to be connected below with the earth, and presently (Ezekiel 1:26) above, with the throne of God. Therefore the wheel is “upon the earth,” but of a great height (Ezekiel 1:18). There was a wheel in front of each of the cherubim, again forming a square, yet so that, as already said, they might in a sense be all considered as one wheel. Reference has been made for the origin of this imagery to the wheels under the ten bases of Solomon’s Temple (1Kings 7:32-33); but there seems to be nothing either in size or form to correspond, and, so far as we know, the imagery here is purely original.

The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto the colour of a beryl: and they four had one likeness: and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel.
(16) Their work was like unto the colour of a beryl.—“Work” is used in the sense of workmanship or construction; and “beryl” here, and in Ezekiel 10:9, is not the precious stone of a green colour which we know by that name, but the “chrysolite” of the ancients, the modern topaz, having the lustre of gold, and in harmony with the frequent mention throughout the vision of fire and brilliant light.

A wheel in the middle of a wheel.—We are to conceive of the wheels as double, and one part at right angles to the other, like the equator and a meridian circle upon the globe, so that they could go, without being turned, equally well in any direction. Of course, such a wheel would be impossible of mechanical construction; it is only seen in vision and as a symbol; it was never intended to be actually made.

When they went, they went upon their four sides: and they turned not when they went.
(17) Upon their four sides—i.e., forwards or backwards upon the one wheel, and to the right or the left upon the other. Four directions are considered throughout the vision as representing all directions, just as elsewhere the four winds represent all winds, and the four corners of the earth the whole earth.

As for their rings, they were so high that they were dreadful; and their rings were full of eyes round about them four.
(18) Their rings.—The same word is used twice in this verse, and means what we call the felloes. “They were both high and terrible,” i.e., they had both these characteristics, but not, as seems to be implied in our translation, that one was the cause of the other. The height might be inferred from the fact that the wheel was “upon the earth,” and yet was “by the living creatures” (Ezekiel 1:15) who were seen in the cloud (Ezekiel 1:5). The terribleness was in keeping with all other parts of the vision, and its reason is explained in the circumstances which follow.

Full of eyes.—In Ezekiel 10:12 it is said of the living creatures, “their whole body, and their backs, and their hands, and their wings, and the wheels were full of eyes round about.” It was the same vision in either case (Ezekiel 10:20-22), only in the effort to describe it, which the prophet evidently feels it impossible to do adequately, he mentions now one particular and now another. In the corresponding vision in the Apocalypse the four living creatures are represented as “full of eyes within” (Revelation 4:8). In both places alike the symbolism sets forth God’s perfect knowledge of all His works: here as showing the absolute wisdom of all His doings (comp. 2Chronicles 16:9), there as resulting in perfect and harmonious praise from all His works. The Hebrew seers ever looked through all secondary causes directly to the ultimate force which originates and controls all nature, and which they represent as intelligent and self-conscious. To do this the more effectively, they often use in their visions such concrete imagery as this before us.

Whithersoever the spirit was to go, they went, thither was their spirit to go; and the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.
(20, 21) The spirit of the living creature—Not, as in the margin, “the spirit of life.” The object of Ezekiel 1:19-21 is by every repetition and variety of expression to represent “the living creatures” and “the wheels” as one, animated by one spirit, and moved by one impulse. The word is the same throughout, and there was no “spirit of life” in the wheels independent of that of the living creatures. All formed together one strange, symbolic whole.

The mention in Ezekiel 1:19-21 of the wheels being “lifted up from the earth” simultaneously with the living creatures is not in opposition to the symbolism already explained, of the wheels resting upon the earth. That was to show that God’s purposes are carried out as He wills in this world. This brings out, in addition, the perfect harmony of these purposes, whether relating to earth or to heaven.

And the likeness of the firmament upon the heads of the living creature was as the colour of the terrible crystal, stretched forth over their heads above.
(22) The likeness of the firmament.—The word rendered “firmament” has undoubtedly originated, etymologically, from a verb originally signifying to beat out, as in the case of metals; but the derivative word, in its use in connection with the heavens, had wholly lost this reference, and had come to mean simply an expanse. The Hebrews do not appear to have ever entertained the classical idea of the sky as a metallic vault, the only passage seeming to indicate such a notion (Job 37:18) being capable of quite a different explanation. We are here to conceive, therefore, of that which was “stretched forth over their heads above” as a simple expanse, like the sky, as if he had said, “And above their heads was stretched forth the sky.” This expanse is not represented as supported by the cherubim, or resting upon them, and it remained undisturbed when they let down their wings (Ezekiel 1:25). It was simply “stretched forth over their heads,” at once separating them from, and yet uniting them with, the throne above. It fulfils, therefore, the complementary part to the wheels. They connected the vision with the earth; this connects it with God.

The colour of the terrible crystal—The expression “crystal” is doubtless derived from Exodus 24:10, as in turn it became the foundation for Revelation 4:6. Yet it is not here any particular crystal; the word is Merely used to convey some idea of the appearance of the expanse beneath the throne, clear as crystal, terrible in its dazzling brightness.

And under the firmament were their wings straight, the one toward the other: every one had two, which covered on this side, and every one had two, which covered on that side, their bodies.
(23) Two, which covered on this side.—The excessive literalness of this translation obscures the sense, for it seems to imply that each cherub used four wings to cover his body; whereas the true meaning is that each had two wings covering his body on either side.” The other two wings of each cherub were “straight,” extended when they were in motion, but let down when at rest (Ezekiel 1:25).

And when they went, I heard the noise of their wings, like the noise of great waters, as the voice of the Almighty, the voice of speech, as the noise of an host: when they stood, they let down their wings.
(24) The noise of their wings.—The same word translated “noise” three times in this verse is also translated “voice” twice here, and once in the next verse. It is better to keep voice throughout. “I heard the voice of their wings, like the voice of many waters.” The same comparison is used to describe the voice of God in Ezekiel 43:2; Revelation 1:15. Further attempts to convey an impression of the effect are :—“ As the voice of the Almighty,” by which thunder is often described in Scripture (Job 37:4-5; Psalm 29:3-4); “the voice of speech,” by which is not to be understood articulate language. The word occurs elsewhere only in Jeremiah 11:16, and is there translated a tumult. The idea conveyed by the word is probably that of the confused sound from a great multitude, and, finally, “as the voice of an host.” All these comparisons concur in representing a vast and terrible sound, but inarticulate.

And there was a voice from the firmament that was over their heads, when they stood, and had let down their wings.
(25) A voice from the firmament.—Rather, from above the firmament, not as proceeding from the firmament itself. This is a new feature in the vision: the voice is quite different from the sounds mentioned before, and although not here expressly said to have been articulate, yet it is probably to be identified with the Divine voice spoken of in Ezekiel 1:28, Ezekiel 3:12, and elsewhere. The latter part of the verse, literally translated, is simply, In, or at, their standing they let down their wings, and may be simply a repetition of the last clause of the preceding verse. In its connection, however, it seems rather to convey the idea of a fresh act of reverence towards the majesty above. When the voice was heard the cherubim stood still, the mighty sounds of their going were hushed, and their wings fell motionless, all in the attitude of reverential attention.

The vision now advances to another and final stage. We have had the whirlwind from the north, with its great cloud and infolding fire, as the background on which the whole is portrayed; then the cherubim, with all their marvellous symbolism; the wondrous and terrible wheels, connecting them with the earth below, the glowing firmament, connecting them with the throne above; and now we come to the throne itself, and to Him that sat upon it.

And above the firmament that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone: and upon the likeness of the throne was the likeness as the appearance of a man above upon it.
(26) As the appearance of a sapphire stone.—Comp. Exodus 24:10, where the same description is applied to “the pavement under His feet” as here and in Ezekiel 10:1 to his throne, in either case indicating the intense clearness of the heavenly blue. The constant repetition of the words “likeness” and “appearance” is very striking throughout this vision. They occur five times in this verse, and four times in each of the two following. The prophet thus labours to make it plain that what he saw was not the realities of existing things, but certain symbolic representations given for the purpose of producing their fitting impression upon the mind. It is especially important to remember this in connection with “the likeness as the appearance of a man” “upon the likeness of the throne.” It was not the Divine Being Himself whom Ezekiel saw, but certain appearances to impress upon him the character and attributes of Him whom “no man hath seen, nor can see.”

The appearance of a man—As in the case of the cherubim the form of a man, as the highest known in nature, was made the groundwork to which all their peculiarities were attached, so here, in rising to something still higher, the same basis must be retained in the impossibility of anything better; only that which is added is more vague, as being incapable of any definite description, Yet possibly there may be even her a hint at the great truth of the incarnation. (Comp. Daniel 7:13; Revelation 1:13.)

And I saw as the colour of amber, as the appearance of fire round about within it, from the appearance of his loins even upward, and from the appearance of his loins even downward, I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and it had brightness round about.
(27) As the colour of amber.—See on the same expression Ezekiel 1:4. Literally, as an eye of bright metal. The rest of the verse is simply an attempt, by various repetitions, to convey an idea of the exceeding brightness and glory of the vision, yet also with the notions of purity and holiness, of power and activity always associated with fire. (Comp. Exodus 24:17; Daniel 7:9; Revelation 1:14-15; Revelation 4:5.)

As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face, and I heard a voice of one that spake.
(28) As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud.—Comp. Revelation 4:3; Revelation 10:1. The addition, “in the day of rain,” is not merely a reference to the ordinary natural phenomenon, but distinctly connects this vision with the gracious promise in Genesis, and shows that God, who has in this vision presented His attributes of terrible majesty, will add to them also those of mercy and loving-kindness. It was in both alike that He was to be made known to His people through the prophet who is now receiving his commission. This was the merciful “appearance of the brightness round about.”

I fell upon my face.—The immediate manifestation of the Divine has always proved overpowering to man. (Comp. Ezekiel 3:23; lea. 6:5; Daniel 8:17; Acts 9:4; Revelation 1:17. Comp. also Luke 5:8; Luke 8:37.)

In considering the general significance of this vision, it is to be remembered that it was seen four times by Ezekiel in various connections in his life-work. First, at this time, when he is called to the exercise of the prophetic office; a second time when, shortly afterwards, he is sent to denounce judgments upon the sinful people, and to foretell the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (Ezekiel 3:23, &c.); again, a year and a half later (Ezekiel 8:4; Ezekiel 10:15), he sees the same vision, while he is made to understand the evils and abominations wrought in the Temple (which is still standing), until the “glory of the Lord” forsakes His house and departs from the city (Ezekiel 11:23), in token that God had given them over to punishment; finally, in the prophecy of future restoration and blessing, he again sees the presence of the Lord, by means of the same vision, re-enter and fill the house (Ezekiel 43:3-5). Its meaning, therefore, clearly relates to the whole prophecies of Ezekiel, whether of judgment or mercy; and, without attempting an explanation of the symbolism in detail, we cannot be wrong in assuming that it represents the resistless Divine activity, controlling alike the agencies of judgment and of mercy, directed to every corner of the earth, and requiring of all profoundest homage and veneration. The perfect unity of purpose in all God’s doings is made especially prominent, and the consistency of His wrath with His love, of His judgments with His mercy; while over all seems to be written, as on the plate of the mitre which He had of old commanded the high priest to wear in His temple, “Holiness unto the Lord.”

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

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