In the previous post, we began studying the book of Ezekiel in the Hebrew Bible. In chapter 1, verse 1, Ezekiel tells us that he was among exiles by the Kebar River. Psalm 137:1, a psalm written by exiles in Babylon says, “By the rivers in Babylon, we sat and wept, when we remembered Zion.” Zion is another name for Jerusalem. We don’t know precisely what body of water the Kebar is, or where it is located, but it was likely a canal connected to the great Euphrates River. In the ancient world, rivers were often places of prayer, and it seems that was the case for the exiled Israelites. They would go to bodies of water like the Kebar and long for a return to Jerusalem.
There, Ezekiel tells us in verse 1, the heavens open up and he saw visions of God. That one phrase is amazing. He saw visions of God. I thought about that and wondered if I would want to see visions of God. On the one hand, I do, out of curiosity’s sake. I also do because it would help me deal with lingering doubts. Yes, even we pastors have lingering doubts about the existence of God. And we, too, would love God to just break out of the heavens and reveal himself in a vision. But on the other hand, whenever there are visions in Scripture, the visions pretty much freak people out. My guess is that if God gave us a vision, it would freak us out too. There is a safety in the routine experience of life. Ezekiel had that routine too. Even there in Babylon in exile. From the moment this vision arrives, though, Ezekiel’s routine changes. What results is anything but a mundane life. Ezekiel is about to describe the vision for us, and I’ll think you’ll see why it is so life-altering.
Before describing the vision, notice how verse 1 is written in the first-person, where Ezekiel refers to himself as “I,” but in verses 2-3, someone else is writing, talking about Ezekiel in third person, “him.” This is the only place in the entire book that a narrator speaks. Verses 2 and 3 are likely a later editorial comment by a scribe or compiler, helping us understand the context of this amazing vision.
In verse 2 the narrator repeats what we already knew about the exile, as I mentioned in the previous post. Then the narrator adds that the events of Ezekiel 1 take place five years into the exile, an important detail to keep in mind. In verse 3, the narrator reveals that Ezekiel was the son of a priest. That answers why Ezekiel was exiled in the first place, because he was in a priest’s family, and the Babylonians, when they defeated Jerusalem, carted off the priests.
But there’s more we need to consider about priests that relates to Ezekiel’s situation. The Mosaic Law, in Numbers 4:3, mentions that the earliest a person qualified for the priesthood was their 30th year. So when you tie that fact to Ezekiel’s reference in verse 1 to “the thirtieth year,” it seems to confirm that he was 30 years old when this vision came to him. What this means is that instead of becoming a priest, God has a different plan for him. We read in verse 3 that the word of the Lord came to him, that God’s hand was on him, and thus Ezekiel would become not a priest, but a prophet.
With those details in mind, look at verse 4 which is where Ezekiel begins to describe the vision he received there in Babylon beside the Kebar River. In Ezekiel 1, verse 4, we read: “I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north—an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light.”
So far, the vision doesn’t seem like a vision at all. It seems like a normal meteorological event. A bad thunderstorm. Wind, clouds, lightning. Nothing out of the ordinary yet. We had some of these this past week where I live in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and you’ve seen them too where you live.
As we keep reading in the middle of verse 4, the vision begins to take an unusual turn: “The center of the fire looked like glowing metal…”
Now that is not a normal thunderstorm! Something is in the middle of the storm, and it is glowing like metal that has been heated super-hot. What is it?
Check back tomorrow, and we’ll find out!