Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Theme of the Glory of God in Ezekiel

One of the major themes of the book of Ezekiel is the glory of God. In the English mind, when we think of glory, we usually think of something that is bright, something that has a radiance to it, something or someone with magnificence and splendor, like a king, for example. This is reflected in Chinese culture as well. In the word rong yao (荣耀), the Chinese word for glory, the longer form of rong has a double fire above a crown. The word yao has guang or light as one of its components, and itself means to shine. The etymology of the Chinese word for glory suggests that glory from a Chinese perspective was originally thought of in terms of brightly shining, majestic light.

The book of Ezekiel reminds us that the God of Israel is a glorious and majestic God. He is the King of glory, who is in and of himself magnificent, majestic, full of glory and splendor. He is the God who, as the Apostle Paul teaches, is the true God, Creator of the universe, “who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, which no person has ever seen, nor can see” (1 Tim 6:16). The true glory of God is something that no mortal person can fully observe.

Yet God is not a God who has hidden himself away, but a God who reveals his glory. Ezekiel’s vision in Ezek 1 is an example of the fact that God is a God who reveals his glory to his people. The revelation of God’s glory is developed in four stages in this chapter.

The first stage is the vision of the cherubim in Ezek 1:4–14. Ezekiel observed a black storm cloud coming from the north. This massive cloud had brightness round about it, and fire flashing forth continually within it, and in the middle was something like gleaming bronze. From this Ezekiel could make out the shapes of four strange creatures, whom we learn later on were cherubim. These four creatures are described as having four faces: the face of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. The four faces, enabling 360° vision, emphasize the global perception of the cherubim. The faces of the man, lion, ox, and eagle are also all symbols of strength. The human being is the pinnacle of creation, and the lion, ox, and eagle are the rulers of the domains of the wild, domesticated, and winged animals respectively. This global perception and great strength on the part of the cherubim is particularly appropriate given that their job is basically that of being the guardians of God’s holy space. The cherubim function as the bodyguards standing around God’s throne. Not that God needs bodyguards. However, the presence of the cherubim shows that access into God’s holy presence is ordinarily restricted.

The second stage of the vision is recorded in Ezek 1:15–21. These verses describe the wheels upon which God’s throne was transported. This vision of the glory of God is nothing other than a vision of God as a King seated on his throne. The only thing is that God’s throne is able to move around in accordance with the promptings of his Spirit. God’s throne is not fixed in one place (unlike the throne of most kings), but it is pictured in Ezekiel’s vision as being mounted on wheels. Each wheel is described as being composed of two wheels placed at right angles. This symbolizes the omnipresence of God, that God moves easily wherever he wants to go. He does not have to waste time doing a U-turn as it were, but moves straight to wherever he wants to go. The fact that the wheels have rims filled with eyes also symbolizes the all-seeing ability of God. There is nowhere that God cannot go, and nothing that God cannot see.

The third stage of the vision is recorded in Ezek 1:22–25. These verses zoom in to look at what lies above the cherubim and the wheels. The firmament of crystal above the cherubim is nothing other than the floor of heaven. The floor of heaven is often pictured in the Bible as a crystal sea, like in Rev 4:6.

The fourth and final stage of the vision is recorded in Ezek 1:26–28. These verses focus in on what is found in heaven itself. Above the firmament was a likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire, and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness of a human form. Ezekiel could see a human form, but it was just so bright that he could not really see the figure with any great clarity. Apart from God’s waist, all that Ezekiel could see was something like gleaming bronze and burning fire, and around the figure was a brightness like the brightness of a rainbow.

This wonderful vision functions as a prelude to Ezekiel’s call to the office of prophet (recorded in ch. 2). It is definitely a spectacular call to the ministry, but it is necessary at this point to recall that the description of God’s glory in the form of a bright cloud has links back earlier into the Old Testament. The cloud of God’s glory is symbolic in the Old Testament of God’s presence with his people. After God manifested his glory to Moses in the burning bush, God saved his people Israel from slavery, and led them out of Egypt by a fiery cloud. This was the same fiery cloud that came down upon Mount Sinai. The people saw something of God’s glory then, but it was really only Moses who was allowed to see God’s glory up close every time he went up the mountain to meet with God. Then, after the tabernacle was built, God’s glory resided in the tabernacle; and when the tabernacle was replaced by Solomon’s temple, God’s glory filled the temple.

The glory cloud seen by Ezekiel is the same glory cloud that was revealed to Israel in earlier generations. It is significant, however, that, as we read on in chs. 9 and 10 of Ezekiel, it is evident that God’s glory was slowly moving out of the temple. The significance of Ezekiel’s vision in the historical context of his day is that the collective sin of God’s people had become so bad that God was at the point of abandoning his people to their enemies. They wanted to live like the nations around about them? Well, God would deliver them over to the nations. He would even let his temple be destroyed by the Babylonians. In fact at the time of the vision in Ezek 1, sometime around 593 B.C., Ezekiel was in exile in Babylon, some six years before the final fall of the kingdom of Judah. In six years time, the temple, the symbol of God’s presence among his people, would be totally burnt to the ground.

Because of the great idolatry of God’s people, which took place even within the temple precinct itself with the worship of images of animals and foreign fertility gods, God was going to withdraw his presence from his people. God’s glory can only reside among his people provided that they are holy. But because Israel was not holy, and because they had abused God’s grace, God’s glory left the temple; and the Jews were defeated by the Babylonians, and taken off into exile.

This vision of the glory of God in Ezek 1 is basically a wonderful beginning to a sad story! Separation between God and human beings because of sin is always sad. The resultant distance between God and his people meant that Israel would not experience the blessing of life in all its fullness, the blessing of life which stems from living in proximity to God himself. Separated from communion with God, Israel would suffer the full extent of God’s curses rather than his blessings.

Now it would be very sad if all that there were to the theme of God’s glory in the book of Ezekiel was God packing up and leaving his people—God’s glory leaving the temple—never to come back. But in a wonderful way, the book of Ezekiel is sandwiched by two great visions of God. If the first is a vision of God’s glory leaving his people, then the other slice of the sandwich is a quite magnificent vision of a new temple, to which God’s glory cloud returns. Ezekiel 43–44 records how God’s glory came back and “filled the temple” with God’s presence once more, this time eternally. God would never have to leave his people again. According to this final vision, the new temple filled to overflowing with God’s glory would be the centerpiece of the new city of God. This city would no longer be called Jerusalem, but instead it would be called Yahweh-shamah, which means Yahweh is there. The final prophetic vision in the book of Ezekiel, therefore, is a wonderful picture of a relationship restored. God would deal with the sin of his people, and would come back to dwell in their midst again … eternally!

A Christian response to the theme of glory in the book of Ezekiel should note that Jesus is portrayed in the New Testament as being the fulfillment of this prophetic vision about the return of the glory of God to be among his people. As the Apostle John taught: “the Word became flesh, and tabernacled among us, full of grace and truth. We have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” The Apostle John in penning those words was asserting the idea that God’s glory has returned to his people in the person of the Lord Jesus. Because God has dealt with the sin of his people in the death of Christ, through his resurrection and ascension into heaven the relationship between God and humanity has finally been restored. Seated in the heights of heaven, humanity in Christ is now dwelling in the glorious presence of God.

The magnificent glory of God is also what Christians have been and will be privileged to behold. For all the splendor of Ezekiel’s visions of God’s glory, that, says Ezekiel, was merely “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord” (Ezek 1:28)! It was not the real thing, but only the likeness of the real thing. Now if that wonderful vision was only the likeness of the glory of the Lord, then imagine how magnificent, how splendorous, how absolutely blindingly bright must be the true vision of God’s glory! This is why the Apostle Paul could describe the light of God’s glory as unapproachable. Even the darkest of sunglasses will not be enough to deal with the brightness of the glory of God.

Yet this is the true glory of God that Christians are privileged to observe and behold on the face of Christ. Although in this world we behold Christ’s glory through the eyes of faith, we do so in the sure hope that one day we will see him face to face. On the day that Christ returns in glory, we shall no longer see from a distance like Israel before Sinai, but face to face! And it will not be like Moses who only got to see God’s glory occasionally every time he went up the mountain or into the tent of meeting; but rather, from that day forth, God’s people will have the privilege of beholding the fullness of God’s glory constantly and forever more.

If this is true, then we need to live our time on earth in the hope that as we have beheld the glory of God in the person of Jesus in the gospel story, then so also there will come a day when we shall be invited into the very presence of God, where we will behold the fullness of his glory, and be changed fully and completely by the experience.

The famous Christian writer, C. S. Lewis, once said: the glory of God “is the business of life.” The glory of God is what life is about. The whole purpose of creation is for God to reveal his glory, and share it with his most special creature, us human beings. In the end, God’s plan for the glorification of humanity will be fully realized.

David Livingstone, the famous missionary to Africa, once wrote: “Anxiety, sickness, suffering, or danger ... may make us pause, and cause the spirit to waver, and the soul to sink; but let this be only for a moment. All these are nothing when compared with the glory which shall hereafter be revealed in, and for, us.” Anxiety, sickness, suffering, or danger … nothing compared to the glory of God.

If anyone could write about “anxiety, sickness, suffering, or danger,” it would be David Livingstone. He travelled over six thousand miles in Africa during the nineteenth century. He had to endure debilitating illnesses, and put up with danger from wild animals and hostile tribes. At the end of his life, he was found dead kneeling at his bedside, still in Africa yet still in prayer. It was the vision of God’s glory that kept Livingstone going through all the difficulties of life; and even at the end, it was the vision of God’s glory, and the hope of sharing in this, that inspired him on. I believe that meditating on Ezekiel’s vision of the glory of God can also inspire God’s people today to pursue the true business of life.

1 comment:

Sherree said...

Amazing explanation of Ezekiel's vision of the Glory of God. Thank you; I will share this with my bible study class.