The book of Ezekiel paints a fantastical and unique picture of God’s glory across three visions. These visions have a lot of interesting and unusual elements that are worth digging into but what I want to focus on in this series of posts is how Ezekiel’s portrayal of God’s glory acts to encourage its readers, including us, and invite them into an experience of God’s glory that would’ve been unthinkable at the time.
- In this first article, we’ll read that the vision of God’s glory was unlike the expectations of the exilic people.
- These visions of God’s glory were mediated and therefore limited.
- The final vision functions as an invitation to an unmediated experience of God’s glory.
God’s Glory in Ezekiel 1
The book of Ezekiel is set on the backdrop of the Babylonian exile (1:1). For the exilic community, it was a physical loss of access to the promised land, the temple, the temple cult, and therefore loss of access to God’s presence. Metaphorically it was a return to slavery in Egypt.
Two Implied Truths
Because of this context, Ezekiel’s encounter with God’s glory is unexpected and stretches the exilic community’s understanding of God and brings hope. In the cultic view there were two implied truths about the glory of the LORD.
The first, that it was immobile. After entering into covenant with the Israelites, God’s glory chooses to reside with his people by dwelling upon the ark of the covenant, between the cherubim (Exod. 25:10-22), effectively becoming immobile. On its own, the ark had no demonstrated mobility, rather it was only mobile as far as people made it mobile. It seemed that God’s glory was considered to be so tied to the ark of the covenant that loss of the ark was equivalent to loss of God’s presence.
The second, that God’s glory was not easily approachable. Access to God’s glory was limited to one day a year, and to only one person, the high priest (Lev. 16:32-34). And when the high priest entered the holy of holies on the day of atonement, he had to obscure the ark from view with smoke so that he would not directly encounter God’s glory and so die (Lev. 16:13).
God’s Unexpected Glory
Understanding the cultic view of the glory of the LORD, we can see Ezekiel’s picture of it is rather unexpected. His vision distances God’s glory from its expected manifestation in the temple cult in favour of the more ancient manifestation seen in the exodus.
God’s glory in Ezekiel still rides upon cherubim, maintaining some link to the temple cult. But rather than being tethered to the ark, or moving at the decree of man, it’s carried on the wings of living cherubim (1:22-26). Upon these cherubim, God’s glory can move in any direction, without hindrance, at the will of God’s spirit (1:12,20) like it did at the Red Sea (Exod. 13:21-22; 14:19-20).
His form was like that of a man (1:26), plainly seen, not veiled in smoke as in the temple, yet still impossible to describe. He arrives in a great cloud (ענן) that flashes fire (אשׁ) back and forth (1:4), very reminiscent of the pillar of cloud (ענן) and the pillar of fire (אשׁ) that led the Israelites in the exodus (Exod. 13:22). Also, a pavement of sapphire (ספיר) was a defining feature of Moses’ encounter with God as the covenant was sealed (Exodus 24:10) and here God’s glory sits upon a sapphire (ספיר) throne (1:26). Thus Ezekiel’s vision of God’s glory forgoes the cultic connotations in favour of exodus connotations.
The Paradigm of God’s Glory
With the exilic loss of access to the land, temple, ark and therefore the presence of God, in the background, God’s glory in Ezekiel 1 reminds the exiles of a more ancient understanding of God’s glory. The highly mobile cherubim-throne, carrying the unexpectedly immanent God of Israel, compels Ezekiel to reconsider his priestly (1:3) paradigm of God’s glory. In this way, Ezekiel, in his first vision, presents the return of the God of the Exodus, the only beacon of hope for an Israelite community held in slavery in a foreign land.