Extremely interesting, but equally important for understanding the entire prophecy of Ezekiel is the vision of the living creatures mentioned in chapter 1, and referred to again later in the prophecy. Whenever we read the prophecy of Ezekiel, also in our family worship, a clear picture of the vision and its significance is most essential for all of us.
As is obvious from the first few verses of this prophecy, Ezekiel lived and prophesied among the exiles in Babylon. He was a contemporary of Daniel, with this difference, that Daniel lived and spoke in the king’s court, while Ezekiel lived and prophesied among the people of Judah. Daniel spoke of the destruction of all the kingdoms of this world through the establishment of the kingdom of Christ in heavenly perfection. Ezekiel spoke of the destruction of the earthly temple in Jerusalem to prepare the way for the eternal temple of God in the heavens. That is the theme of the entire prophecy of Ezekiel, the destruction of the earthly temple in Jerusalem to open the way for its spiritual reality, the heavenly temple of God, where the promise of God will be realized in glorious perfection, “And ye shall be my people, and I will be your God.” Ezek. 36:28.
It is important to bear in mind that we are dealing with a vision. The prophet mentions in the first verse that, “the heavens were opened, and I saw the visions of God.” And again in the third verse that the hand of the Lord was upon him, evidently referring to the fact that it was the hand of God which enabled him to see the revelation of God in a vision. Coming at the very beginning of his labors, and appearing here already in the first chapter, this vision is closely related to the calling of the prophet, and somehow expresses the theme of all his prophecies.
Let us try, in as far as that is possible, to form a mental picture of the living creatures as seen by the prophet in. the vision.
We are told that he sees a whirlwind coming out of the north. This whirlwind carries with it a great cloud, which comes rolling toward the prophet. This cloud contains in the center of its vortex a ball of fire, shining forth in glorious brilliancy. For out of the midst of the fire radiates in all directions a dazzling brightness like the color of amber, or better, like glistening, shining brass.
As this whirlwind approaches, the form of living creatures appear before the wondering gaze of Ezekiel. Since we are dealing with a vision, these are no real creatures, but rather a likeness, and have symbolical significance. They bear the appearance of living beings, or living creatures. From now on his attention is fixed upon this appearance.
The predominating likeness is that of a man. Evidently they have bodies that resemble human bodies, for they also have the hands of a man. Besides, one of the faces is a man’s face. The creatures, four in number, all look in opposite directions, likely towards the four points of the compass. They also have four sets of wings. That is, each creature has two wings; two extended over their heads while they are flying, and two used to cover their bodies. The wings of each touch the wings of the creature next to him.
In a more detailed description that follows of the faces, we find that these four faces each have their own peculiar likeness. The one, as has been said, is the likeness of a man. To the right, is the likeness of a lion. To the left, the face of an ox. And in the back, the face of an eagle.
Concerning the hands, we read that they are under the wings on the four sides. This must mean that there are eight hands in all.
There is also a peculiarity about the feet. We are told that the feet are straight. This is commonly taken to mean that the legs have no joints at the knee. It may mean, however, that the feet do not extend straight out from the body, as is the case with a human. Rather, the legs extend straight down, and end in the hoof of a calf. For we read, “And the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf’s foot.” And it should not escape us that also these feet glisten, even as the cloud, like polished brass.
So we have the appearance of living beings, yet with four faces, including the likeness of a lion, an ox, and an eagle, as well as that of a man. Besides, these creatures have the feet of a calf. And, what stands out most prominently, they have many wings, the wings of cherubim, even as the cherubim that were embroidered on the veil of the temple.
There is another element in the vision, and that is, that these creatures are living and active. They seem to be always on the move. And even their movement catches the attention of the prophet as being significant. They do not whirl about, even though they move in different directions. They always move in the direction of one of the faces, either to the right or to the left, either toward the prophet or away from him. Yet they do not move arbitrarily, as fancy might dictate. They always move as directed by the Spirit. The idea must be, that the Holy Spirit directs all their movements, causing them, each in particular, and all together, to serve the plan and purpose of the. Most High, who sits upon the throne. (Verse 26.)
Finally, mention is made of the fact, that a bright fire burns among them, like coals of fire or a burning lamp, causing light to radiate from them and sending forth flashes of lightning.
All this should aid us in forming a mental picture of the living beings as seen in the vision.
But now we should also turn to the tenth chapter of this prophecy, where these same creatures appear again. Rather than to enter into detail, we shall point out only the most important features of this new vision.
First, the prophet is now standing in the inner court of the temple in Jerusalem, as that temple had once been. He sees the dead who have been slain by the righteous judgment of God and whose bodies lie in heaps in the temple.
Secondly, he sees the likeness of a throne, which is the throne of God’s sovereign majesty. The time has come when God not only visits the inhabitants of Jerusalem with His judgments, but He also destroys the city and the temple. The man in white linen, who is obviously the Christ, is instructed to pour fiery coals upon the city. At the same time Jehovah prepares to depart from the earthly temple in His cloud of glory.
Thirdly, we note that again the living creatures of chapter 1 are present, standing to the south of the temple. In fact, the coals used to destroy the city are taken from the bright fire which is in the midst of them. These living creatures take an active part in the judgment of God upon that temple that is destroyed.
Finally, we notice that there are some outstanding differences between the creatures as they appear here, and as we have already met them in chapter 1. The four faces are described here as the face of the cherub, of a man, of a lion, and of an eagle. Here the cherub is on the foreground instead of the face of a man. In fact, the face of the cherub has replaced the face of an ox, which is not mentioned here. Moreover, their bodies, and their backs, and their hands, and their wings are full of eyes round about. As for the rest, the description is the same, and it is emphasized that these are the same creatures which were seen in the original vision, even though here they are referred to as cherubim.
Just one more remark about the vision, and that is that John sees a very similar appearance of living creatures in the fourth chapter of the book of Revelation, the verses 6 to 8. We urge you to read also that passage, and refer you to the interpretation given by the Rev. H. Hoeksema in The Standard Bearer, vol. 33, page 368 ff.
Considering now the various elements of the vision, we find that the cloud from the north evidently refers to Babylon, which came against the Holy City and the temple to destroy them. Both the cloud and the whirlwind symbolize the fact that they are instruments in God’s hand to pour out His judgment upon Judah because of their abominations and idolatry. The fire also speaks of judgment, and generally includes the idea of purging, even as God will bring forth a new creation out of the old through the fire of His final judgment. That same idea we meet again in chapter ten, where the Lord through His Servant, the Christ, spreads coals of fire upon Jerusalem and the temple to destroy them. And at the same time, He withdraws Himself to dwell there no more.
It is in that light that we must regard the living creatures. As you can well imagine, there are many varied interpretations of this part of the vision. Some regard these creatures as heavenly spirits, cherubim. Others lay emphasis upon the fact that they are representatives of the earthly creation. Actually, of course, both ideas are included in the vision.
The four living creatures represent, first of all, the whole earthly creation. This is evident from the number four, which in Scripture always expresses the four ends of the earth, or the entire earthly creation. But this is also evident from the creatures themselves. Prominent among them, especially in the first chapter, is the appearance of a man, who was created as king of the earthly creation. Accompanying this face of a man is the face of the mighty lion, commonly referred to as the king of the beasts. There is also the face of an ox, the powerful representative of the domesticated animals. And there is the stately eagle, which represents the whole bird kingdom. Obviously, all the animate creatures are symbolized in these likenesses.
But this plainly ignores a very important part of the vision. For in chapter 1 we noted that they had wings, the tip of each touching the tip of the wing next to it. In chapter 10 these creatures are referred to as cherubim. And there the prominent face is that of a cherub.
That points to the fact that these creatures belong to the heavenly creation. They are spiritual beings, like unto the angels of heaven, and are a part of the new creation. The prophet does not see these creatures as we see them now with our natural eye. As far as we are concerned, man and beast and birds are still a part of this present earthly creation. They are even subject to vanity, and thus they groan in hope, “because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the sons of God,” Rom. 8:19-22. But the prophet sees them as they have been renewed and now belong to the heavenly creation. Actually they already exist as new creatures in the counsel of God, and therefore can appear in the vision. They take an active part, as it were, in the destruction of the earthly temple; for the new creation that is eternal in the heavens displaces the old.
That accounts for it that these creatures are full of eyes and constantly move about. That also accounts for it that a fire is in the midst of them and that their feet glow with the glory of God’s holiness and majesty. These are living creatures, filled with the Spirit of God. They have their own nature and their own life, so that each in its own way serves the purpose of the Most High. This is expressed by the eyes that cover them. But this is also expressed by the power of the Spirit which pervades them, so that they move under the direction of the Spirit, to cause all things to serve toward the coming of God’s kingdom and the eternal revelation of His glory.
That leaves us with the final question, what is the significance of these visions for the prophet and for us?
And then we answer, first of all, that they serve to point Ezekiel to his calling and his message in the midst of the people of Judah. It is his calling to point Judah to her idolatry, whereby she profaned the name of Jehovah among the heathen. But he must also speak to the remnant according to election concerning the faithfulness of God, who saves His people in Christ for His Name’s sake. God is jealous of His honor, and He will declare His glory among the heathen through the salvation of His people in Christ.
Therefore, in the second place, the prophet is given to see the destruction of the earthly temple in the presence of these living creatures. These creatures exist before God, even according to His eternal counsel and good pleasure. These creatures, as a part of the new creation, are the instruments of God to destroy the earthly temple. God’s temple in the heavens displaces, as it were, the temporal temple of Jerusalem. The old must give way that the new may appear.
And finally, believing Israel in exile is comforted with the hope of deliverance. Through these visions the prophet is able to point them to the coming of the Son of God in the flesh, to tabernacle among men. He can promise the victory of the cross, the resurrection from the dead, and the exaltation of Christ in heavenly glory. And through all this the eye of faith is fixed upon Pentecost, but beyond that, upon the new Jerusalem, where God will dwell with His people in heavenly perfection.
Thus, according to Revelation 4, the whole creation is always active to the glory of God. For we read in verses 8 and 9, “And the four beasts . . . rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come. And . . . those beasts give glory and honor and thanks to him that sat upon the throne, who liveth forever and ever.”