“To Describe the Indescribable”
August 10, 2014
If God’s glory were not indescribable, where would the wonder be?
I. Background and Chronology (Ezekiel 1:1-3)
II. The Living Creatures (Ezekiel 1:4-14)
III. The Wheels (Ezekiel 1:15-21)
IV. The Presence (Ezekiel 1:22-28)
I’ve been preaching for about 25 years, and I’ve preached a pretty good fraction of the whole Bible, but there have always been some books I’ve shied away from. Some seem too long, some seem too hard, some seem too foreign to our needs and experience. But I’m convinced all Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable. So over the past few years I’ve been tackling those hard books. One of the ways I’ve done that is through these hundred-days series, where I encourage all of us to read the book I’m preaching, but I only preach one passage from the weekly readings. This means we can get through a book like Isaiah in one long series. I find that very effective.
For this fall, I’ve selected a book that seems to many people too long, too hard, too foreign to our own needs, and too slow and repetitious. It has seemed that way to me at times over the 45 years of my Christian life. But lately it has been growing on me and I believe over the next three months we will see some profound truths about God and his glory in the book of Ezekiel.
We’ll start today with chapter 1 of Ezekiel, which is an awesome attempt to depict the glory of the presence of God. Ultimately, even after the 28 verses of this chapter, we can’t imagine this truth. But if God’s glory was not indescribable, where would the wonder be? We’ll spend the next few minutes looking at the setting of the book of Ezekiel, and then failing to describe the indescribable, and I think we will all be better off for that failure.
So, the setting is pretty fascinating. Ezekiel 1:1-3 In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the Chebar canal, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. 2On the fifth day of the month (it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin), 3the word of the Lord came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the Chebar canal, and the hand of the Lord was upon him there.
Ezekiel one of the most chronologically detailed books in the Bible. We not only know when it was written, we know when most of the pieces of it were written. The first verse specifies this chronology in terms of the personal experience of the prophet. It was in the thirtieth year of his life, almost certainly, when the word of God and the visions of God first came to him. Verse 3 tells us he is a priest, and in ancient Judaism a person was consecrated as a priest in their 30th year. So he was set apart to God and began receiving these visions in the same year. Probably not a coincidence.
Verse 2 tells us where the book fit in Jewish history. It was “the fifth day of the month. It was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin.” So all of these visions and messages take place during the Babylonian Exile.
Let me give you more detail. It’s roughly six hundred years before Christ’s birth. The ten tribes of the northern kingdom had been dispersed by the Assyrians more than a century earlier. But under the leadership of King Hezekiah, and guided by prophets like Isaiah and Micah, the Southern Kingdom, Judea, had regained some of its devotion to God. Then the wicked kings Manasseh and Amon turned the people to all kinds of idolatry and evil. They repudiated the law of God and even forgot it existed. Josiah, the next king brought renewed hope, but it came too late. His reforms and even his recovery of the Law, did not change the hearts of the people. God’s only remaining option was to send the people into exile, as he had promised.
Meanwhile, on the international scene Assyria, the dominant nation in the ancient Near East for more than 250 years, was declining, while the Babylonian Empire was rising. 15 years before Ezekiel began to write, the Babylonians first defeated the Assyrians. The remnants of the Assyrian army sought aid from Egypt, but the combined armies could not withstand Babylon.
In this whirl of international politics and wars, Josiah tried to stand against Egypt, but he was killed in battle. Egypt retained enough power to try to dominate Israel, removing Jehoahaz as king and setting up his brother Jehoiakim. Throughout this period the prophet Jeremiah warned Judah not to ally with Egypt, but to no avail. In 605 BC Nebuchadnezer of Babylon decisively defeated Egypt and Assyria at Carchemish. He invaded Judah and deported a group of young nobles. This was the beginning of the Babylonian captivity.
Jehoiakim became reluctant vassal of Babylon. He was also an evil king, despising the Mosaic covenant and the reforms of his father, Josiah. After three years of unwilling submission, Jehoiakim revolted against Babylon in favor of Egypt. In December 598 B.C., as the Babylonian army approached, Jehoiakim died. His 18-year-old son, Jehoiachin, succeeded him only to surrender the city of Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar three months later. Jehoiachin, his mother, his wives, his officials, and the leading men of the land, including Ezekiel, a priest, were taken into exile. Even from exile Jehoiachin turned to Egypt, and encouraged Jerusalem to rebel again. So in 588 B.C. the Babylonian army laid siege to Jerusalem. In the fall of 586 Jerusalem was destroyed; many inhabitants were murdered, and more were deported.
It was in this context that God called Ezekiel. Verse 3: “the word of the Lord came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the Chebar canal, and the hand of the Lord was upon him there.
So how do you prepare a man to offer warning and judgment and hope to God’s exiled people? God chose to do it in a profound way by revealing to Ezekiel a glimpse of his indescribable glory. Armed with the overpowering reality of this God he was called to serve, Ezekiel would be able to both condemn sin and offer consolation. He knew the glory of God. And though he could not fully describe it, he knew that ultimately the God of Glory would achieve his sovereign purposes and restore his glory to this nation that had forgotten him.
We can’t look at each verse in the remainder of the chapter in detail, but let’s read them bit by bit. And as I read, try to form the mental image the words convey. I guarantee that all of us will form a different image. And none of us will fully see what Ezekiel strove to describe. But armed with this vision we will have a foundation to understand this book, both the judgment and the mercy of God.
Verses 4-14 As I looked, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, and a great cloud, with brightness around it, and fire flashing forth continually, and in the midst of the fire, as it were gleaming metal. 5And from the midst of it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had a human likeness, 6but each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. 7Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot. And they sparkled like burnished bronze. 8Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. And the four had their faces and their wings thus: 9their wings touched one another. Each one of them went straight forward, without turning as they went
. 10As for the likeness of their faces, each had a human face. The four had the face of a lion on the right side, the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and the four had the face of an eagle. 11Such were their faces. And their wings were spread out above. Each creature had two wings, each of which touched the wing of another, while two covered their bodies.
12And each went straight forward. Wherever the spirit would go, they went, without turning as they went. 13As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, like the appearance of torches moving to and fro among the living creatures. And the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning. 14And the living creatures darted to and fro, like the appearance of a flash of lightning.
Imagine yourself walking down a long dark hallway. You feel your way along the wall, occasionally passing a doorway. Each door raises hope of a way out, but every door is locked, and as your disappointment grows, your dread of the end of the hallway grows with it. Then you begin to light, shining around, or as it appears, through a door at the end of the hallway. The light seems to be of every color, and the sound, when you begin to hear it, seems to be of songs without words at every pitch and rhythm, all fitting seamlessly together.
When you reach the door, you hesitate. It’s obvious there is something different and possibly wonderful behind this door, holding a promise none of the other doors ever held, but the sound and the light are frightening, even on this side. Do you want to walk through? Maybe that door a few back wasn’t really locked. Should you just go back and try? No, you decide, this is the door you’ve been led to. You stifle the fear, turn the knob, throw the door open, and . . . indescribable. Your sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, all are overwhelmed, all at once, by more glory than you have ever imagined being unable to imagine. Not a blast furnace glory, but a glory so concrete, so specific, so infinite, so varied, so textured that you cannot wrap your mind or even your heart around it. It drives you to your knees, it lifts you to the heights, it affirms your despair and self loathing and banishes them in a micro-second. It showers you with infinite love and flattens you with untouched holiness. Vainly, on hands and knees you try to sort out what it is you are hearing, feeling, seeing. And you come up with Ezekiel 1.
Now I don’t know what dark doors you’ve rattled recently, but none of them leads to the wonder, the challenge or the comfort of the Glory of the Sovereign God. His wonder and glory are indescribable, and we shouldn’t be surprised that Ezekiel, a mere man seems hardly coherent in the face of what he is seeing, hearing, feeling. A God who is really God has to be this way. It is only by grace he often in Scripture appears in ways we think we understand. And it is by grace that he appears this way, to remind us that we really don’t understand.
So Ezekiel sees . . . something. He starts by trying to describe four living creatures. Though the beings look like men, each one has four faces and four wings. The man's face was dominant, being on the front of each creature, while the lion's face was on the right, the ox's face on the left, and the eagle's face on the back. The wings were joined together, with two covering the sides and the other two spread for movement, touching the wings of the other living beings. Each side of the living being had hands like a man's under its wing, straight legs, and feet like a calf.
Now does this make a great mental picture for you? No, me neither. Many artists have tried to draw this, and failed, and no two of them agree. It’s a little like me trying to describe St. Paul’s Cathedral, which I saw in London, or the High Tatra Mountains of Slovakia. The difference is that if I showed you a picture of these things, you’d grasp them pretty quickly. But if I showed you a picture of what Ezekiel is seeing, you probably still wouldn’t grasp it.
In addition to the general appearance of brightness, these creatures contained in their midst that which looked like coals of fire, from which lightning issued when they moved. At the same time it somehow looked like burning torches were moving back and forth within or among them. Their forward movement was in the direction the man's face looked. When they moved, they did not turn around. Each of these creatures moved under the control of the "spirit," which, in this context, is most likely the Holy Spirit of God.
Ezekiel next turns his attention from the living creatures to the wheels which somehow accompanied them. Verses 15 to 21: Now as I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the earth beside the living creatures, one for each of the four of them. 16As for the appearance of the wheels and their construction: their appearance was like the gleaming of beryl. And the four had the same likeness, their appearance and construction being as it were a wheel within a wheel. 17When they went, they went in any of their four directions without turning as they went. 18And their rims were tall and awesome, and the rims of all four were full of eyes all around. 19And when the living creatures went, the wheels went beside them; and when the living creatures rose from the earth, the wheels rose. 20Wherever the spirit wanted to go, they went, and the wheels rose along with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. 21When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood; and when those rose from the earth, the wheels rose along with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.
Years ago people used to sing about this in a spiritual: Ezekiel saw da wheel, way up in the middle of the air. Wheels within wheels, people have said. Somehow these wheels are connected with the movement of the four living creatures. And just as the Holy Spirit of God moved the living creatures, so the spirit of the four living creatures moved the wheels.
What did Ezekiel see? Is there some way we could make an engineering drawing of this and reduce it to a mechanism? I don’t think so. We are prone to do so. We want to reduce everything to something Apple can create and Amazon can market. But there has to be room for wonder in our world, for a reality we can see and hear and touch, at least on a spiritual level, and yet not understand.
The ministry in Slovakia is like that. The team does simple things – talking, singing, dancing, being enthusiastic. Children and teens and even translators come to that without really expecting it. And yet at a level the team can’t see, but prays for, Jesus uses those simple external realities to create unexpected wonder and interest in those children and teens and translators. And sometimes he brings them to the place where they cross the line to faith.
The last week of English camps was something called KECY, part of a ministry that has been reaching out to youth in Eastern Europe since the fall of communism. One of the teens who attended the camp was Stanka, and the unseen Jesus reached out to her, and touched her heart, and brought her to the point of choosing faith. She wasn’t the only one. But she wrote a letter to the team, which said in part ‘this has not been the best week of my summer. This has been the best week of my life.’ She said ‘The Lord has touched me.’ ‘I now want to become a missionary and a protestant.’ That’s the glory of God at work among us. We can’t see it, but sometimes we can see its effects.
In verses 22 to 28 Ezekiel raises his eyes and sees the glory above the glory: Over the heads of the living creatures there was the likeness of an expanse, shining like awe-inspiring crystal, spread out above their heads. 23And under the expanse their wings were stretched out straight, one toward another. And each creature had two wings covering its body. 24And when they went, I heard the sound of their wings like the sound of many waters, like the sound of the Almighty, a sound of tumult like the sound of an army. When they stood still, they let down their wings. 25And there came a voice from above the expanse over their heads. When they stood still, they let down their wings.
26And above the expanse over their heads there was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness with a human appearance. 27And upward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were gleaming metal, like the appearance of fire enclosed all around. And downward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and there was brightness around him. 28Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness all around. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking.
These living beings are identified in Ezekiel 10 as cherubim, mentioned in several other places in Scripture 2 Samuel 22 says “He bowed the heavens and came down; thick darkness was under his feet. 11He rode on a cherub and flew; he was seen on the wings of the wind.” Psalm 18 says the same thing.
As a priest, Ezekiel would have been intimately familiar with the construction of the tabernacle and the temple, in which statues of cherubim adorned the cover of the Ark of the Covenant. So central was this image that one of the things that the Old Testament authors say to God frequently is ‘you are enthroned above the cherubim.’ That’s what Ezekiel sees: God enthroned above the cherubim. May that also be we what we see, with the eyes of our hearts.
Ezekiel, like all Biblical authors, is more restrained in his imagery the closer he gets to the vision of God himself. He sees an awesome expanse resembling sparkling ice, a platform over the heads of the four living creatures. The likeness of a sapphire throne stands on this expanse. And the likeness of a man is on the throne. The man appears to be surrounded by fire, which gives him a radiance similar to a rainbow. Notice the restraint with which Ezekiel writes. He’s saying ‘this is what it looked like to me. The throne was like sapphire. The one on the throne was like a man. This is the way it appeared to me. This rainbow, this fire. I can’t put it exactly into words.
But, he says in verse 28. “This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord." One commentator says this is the most significant phrase of the entire chapter. We’re hearing and reading a description of the indescribable, the glory of the God of the universe, the creator God, the redeeming God, the God of love and holiness. All his perfections and infinities are wrapped up in this word glory, and this glory is indescribable, awesome, overwhelming.
This vision needs to remain in our minds, as it surely remained in Ezekiel’s, while we walk through the messages of warning and judgment and hope in this book. We will see, with Ezekiel, the glory of God depart from the temple, depart from Jerusalem. We will see that hope return in the valley of dry bones, in the description of a new temple, in the promise of a new heart for God’s people. We have to keep in mind the wonder of the indescribable glory of God – to study this book, and to live our lives.
One day in Slovakia, the team was tired. I was tired, and I needed to lead a devotional for both the American team and the Slovakian team. I kept thinking of Paul’s words in 1st Corinthians 4, ‘we have this treasure in jars of clay.’ Cracked pots through which the glory of God could shine. Near the end of the chapter Paul says something we understand better in light of Ezekiel 1. “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”