In the previous study we looked at the first part of Ezekiel chapter 10, where the man dressed in linen was asked to get one of the coals from between the cherubim. Ezekiel began to describe in detail what he was seeing, and we continue this description now.
I looked, and I saw beside the cherubim four wheels, one beside each of the cherubim; the wheels sparkled like topaz. As for their appearance, the four of them looked alike; each was like a wheel intersecting a wheel. As they moved, they would go in any of the four directions the cherubim faced; the wheels did not turn about as the cherubim went. The cherubim went in whatever direction the head faced, without turning as they went. Their entire bodies, including their backs, their hands and their wings, were completely full of eyes, as were the four wheels. I heard the wheels being called ‘the whirling wheels’. Each of the cherubim had four faces: one face was that of a cherub, the second the face of a human being, the third the face of a lion and the fourth the face of an eagle.
Then the cherubim rose upward. These were the living creatures I had seen by the River Kebar. When the cherubim moved, the wheels beside them moved; and when the cherubim spread their wings to rise from the ground, the wheels did not leave their side. When the cherubim stood still, they also stood still; and when the cherubim rose, they rose with them, because the spirit of the living creatures was in them.
Then the glory of the Lord departed from over the threshold of the temple and stopped above the cherubim. While I watched, the cherubim spread their wings and rose from the ground, and as they went, the wheels went with them.
These were the living creatures I had seen beneath the God of Israel by the River Kebar, and I realised that they were cherubim. Each had four faces and four wings, and under their wings was what looked like human hands. Their faces had the same appearance as those I had seen by the River Kebar. Each one went straight ahead.
First thing here, and a little obvious: if these were my words and not the words of scripture, I think I would be criticised about my repetitive style. Ezekiel says the same things over and again, with little variation. But it is also a clear indication of how deep and clear an impression he received, of how deep they were etched onto his heart. And I think that such repetition comes from excitement and amazement – and you will have experienced this yourself when you or someone else has just seen something really extraordinary or experienced something. For instance, maybe you witnessed a really close miss that could have become an awful car crash. You can imagine the ensuing conversation that begins with, “Did you see that?!” And such a conversation often includes a lot of repetition of details. This is the kind of thing I feel from Ezekiel’s descriptions.
There is also the important link with what I was saying yesterday. We have some details that are the same as before, and so three times now he has seen such things. And this time he has the time and leisure to take in the details a bit more. When something unexpected, unusual, or even a bit scary happens – as was the case with the first vision of Ezekiel and his commissioning as a prophet – the shock and the fear that is in you prevents you from taking everything in with clarity. Actually it can be hard, after such a thing, to record some of the details clearly. Yes, you know the main event, as it were, with clarity and you will never forget – but some of the finer details, and sometimes even the colours and shapes, can be lost. You were scared and in shock, and this was the problem.
But now Ezekiel is almost beginning to get used to this weird thing he kept on seeing, and so now we have a clearer set of descriptions of the cherubim (or four living creatures) that were seen, and their unusual wheel companions.
Sometimes these verses are quoted as one of the proofs that the bible is not infallible or perfect. Why? Well look again at the description of the four faces of the cherubim. In the first vision of Ezekiel he described the faces as being those of a man, an ox, a lion and an eagle. But now, in place of the ox, we have the face of a cherub. So are these the same as the ‘four living creatures’ or are they different creatures? Yet Ezekiel says they are the same as those he saw by the River Kebar.
For me, I have no problems about the bible being as it is, and so to find a discrepancy like this is also not a problem for me. This is because I recognise the bible for what it is.
For those who have not read this explanation before, I can say again that I avoid referring to the bible by the way it is often referred to in the churches: as the word of god. There are two reasons why I have this rule for myself (yes, it is a rule for me, and I do not teach this as doctrine that others must follow. Make your own decisions about this).
First is the fact that the bible itself, at the beginning of the gospel according to John, tells us exactly what the Word of God really is – and it is not words on paper or any other medium!
Second, and this is the most important one for me, is that to call the bible the word of god can imply 2 things that are not true: that god wrote or spoke the bible; and that it is one book. Again, the bible itself refutes both of those things. In most cases, we are told exactly who wrote each part, and it was not god, but men (and possibly, in 2 cases, women). And the word ‘bible’ comes from the Ancient Greek (although the Latin counterpart is a very similar word) and means ‘library’ – a collection of books.
Depending on your tradition you may have 66 books, 70, or even more. (That’s right – not all bibles are the same canon. And this is one of the things that divides denominations. I only pray that such divisions do not stop Christian believers from loving and respecting each other.)
Yes, the bible is inspired by god (some interpret this as ‘god-breathed’ – but no breath does actual writing, only erosion!) but that is nothing anywhere near the same as actually written or spoken by god. When god writes (as in one place in the book of Daniel) we are told specifically that this is happening. And when god speaks (as in these visions of Ezekiel) we are again told specifically which words have come from god. All the other words of the bible are the words of men or of angels (as in the beginning of Luke’s gospel). The scriptures themselves are very clear about this.
The problem with humans doing the writing is that they are the fallen creation. They are not ‘possessed’ by the Holy Spirit and placed into a kind of trance that removes their own human will and replaces it with that of God, and so write like robotic automatons controlled externally. God always treats us with much more respect! But we have to face one ‘problem’ with the scriptures (I actually do not think of it as a problem, but an aid in understanding and interpretation) which is that the writings come through the filter of a human being, and is subject to the thinking and interpretation and the personal ‘axes to grind’ of the individual authors.
It is also subject to the thinking and mentality of the cultural norms of the time period and situation of the author. As I had to point out in an earlier study, the true meaning of a certain phrase has been lost over time, and we can only have the generalised meaning. But there are emphases also that may not have come from god, but from the personal prejudices of the author.
For this reason it is important to have the rule that I was taught by conservative evangelical tutors about studying the scriptures. Never, for instance, to form a doctrine based on one passage of scripture on its own (and especially not ever on one verse on its own.
I think all of you know by now how I insist on looking at the whole context, which even reverses some popular false teachings of today. But where the same message is repeated, particularly from different authors, and especially where it is confirmed by Jesus – then we have a solid foundation for doctrinal teaching.
If there are discrepancies in the bible – like the one we have today – it is because of humanity and not because of divinity. If you recognise the humanity of Ezekiel, and that the first time he experienced visions he was scared out of his wits, then you understand things like this much better.
So what can we say about this face of the cherubim? Is it the face of a cherub, or the face of an ox? Well, as I pointed out in the studies of the first vision, the ox is a strong symbolic figure on its own. The cherub is a different symbolism. Now let’s get one thing straight – the ‘classical’ period of art intermingled Roman and Greek symbolism and mythology with Christian, and resulted in depictions in art and in churches that have become part of our cultural heritage. And so, from this, cherubs are often shown as cupid/eros figures – baby boy angels with wings. Brothers and sisters, this comes from paganism and not from scripture. Cherubs are not baby-boy faces! In fact, they may not be human faces at all!
In the earliest parts of the bible and in the rabbinic traditions, the cherubs were not even angelic, but in later times became thought to be part of the angelic hierarchy of creatures. There is also the tradition that their original purpose was as the protectors of the Garden of Eden. But we have nothing from scripture to indicate to us that, when Ezekiel says face of a cherub, what he meant was a youthful boy’s face. That is wrong! There is the strong possibility that the face did not look human at all.
So, in his trembling fear, did Ezekiel interpret this face wrongly when he first witnessed these creatures and so wrote ‘ox’ instead of ‘cherub’? It is possible, but I think not. The symbolism is too strong and important. In that first vision, it meant the strength of god revealed for his purposes. In the second vision, the face of the cherub reveals god’s purpose to protect.
We must remember that these are spiritual creatures, and not of the earth. It can even be possible that these visages will alter, like shapelings, according to the mood and purposes of god. It is not the same as though these creatures are mortal flesh and blood, and so the same rules do not apply.
But here is an interesting thought about the difference: how, in the midst of judgement and death, do we now have a symbol of protection?
I think the same reason that Adam and Eve were cast out of Eden. They were polluted and impure and so not fit for paradise. God was protecting the pure from pollution. And that is what is also happening in this vision, and with terrifying consequences.
And yet, the work is positive and we can see the beauty of the Lord in it.