EZEKIEL i.1, 26.
Now it came to pass, as I was among the captives by the river of Chebar, that the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. And upon the likeness of the throne was the likeness as the appearance of a man.
Ezekiel's Vision may seem to some a strange and unprofitable subject on which to preach. It ought not to be so in fact. All Scripture is given by Inspiration of God, and is profitable for teaching, for correction, for reproof, for instruction in righteousness. And so will this Vision be to us, if we try to understand it aright. We shall find in it fresh knowledge of God, a clearer and fuller revelation, made to Ezekiel, than had been, up to his time, made to any man.
I am well aware that there are some very difficult verses in the text. It is difficult, if not impossible, to understand exactly what presented itself to Ezekiel's mind.
Ezekiel saw a whirlwind come out of the north; a whirling globe of fire; four living creatures coming out of the midst thereof. So far the imagery is simple enough, and grand enough. But when he begins to speak of the living creatures, the cherubim, his description is very obscure. All that we discover is, a vision of huge creatures with the feet, and (as some think) the body of an ox, with four wings, and four faces, -- those of a man, an ox, a lion, and an eagle. Ezekiel seems to discover afterwards that these are the cherubim, the same which overshadowed the ark in Moses' tabernacle and Solomon's temple -- only of a more complex form; for Moses' and Solomon's cherubim are believed to have had but one face each, while Ezekiel's had four.
Now, concerning the cherubim, and what they meant, we know very little. The Jews, at the time of the fall of Jerusalem, had forgotten their meaning. Josephus, indeed, says they had forgotten their very shape.
Some light has been thrown, lately, on the figures of these creatures, by the sculptures of those very Assyrian cities to which Ezekiel was a captive, -- those huge winged oxen and lions with human heads; and those huge human figures with four wings each, let down and folded round them just as Ezekiel describes, and with heads, sometimes of the lion, and sometimes of the eagle. None, however, have been found as yet, I believe, with four faces, like those of Ezekiel's Vision; they are all of the simpler form of Solomon's cherubim. But there is little doubt that these sculptures were standing there perfect in Ezekiel's time, and that he and the Jews who were captive with him may have seen them often. And there is little doubt also what these figures meant: that they were symbolic of royal spirits -- those thrones, dominations, princedoms, powers, of which Milton speaks, -- the powers of the earth and heaven, the royal archangels who, as the Chaldaeans believed, governed the world, and gave it and all things life; symbolized by them under the types of the four royal creatures of the world, according to the Eastern nations; the ox signifying labour, the lion power, the eagle foresight, and the man reason.
So with the wheels which Ezekiel sees. We find them in the Assyrian sculptures -- wheels with a living spirit sitting in each, a human figure with outspread wings; and these seem to have been the genii, or guardian angels, who watched over their kings, and gave them fortune and victory.
For these Chaldaeans were specially worshippers of angels and spirits; and they taught the Jews many notions about angels and spirits, which they brought home with them into Judaea after the captivity.
Of them, of course, we read little or nothing in Holy Scripture; but there is much, and too much, about them in the writings of the old Rabbis, the Scribes and Pharisees of the New Testament.
Now Ezekiel, inspired by the Spirit of God, rises far above the old Chaldaeans and their dreams. Perhaps the captive Jews were tempted to worship these cherubim and genii, as the Chaldaeans did; and it may be that Ezekiel was commissioned by God to set them right, and by his vision to give a type, pattern, or picture of God's spiritual laws, by which He rules the world.
Be that as it may. In the first place, Ezekiel's cherubim are far more wonderful and complicated than those which he would see on the walls of the Assyrian buildings. And rightly so; for this world is far more wonderful, more complicated, more cunningly made and ruled, than any of man's fancies about it; as it is written in the Book of Job, -- 'Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding. Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner-stone thereof; when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?'
Next (and this is most important), these different cherubim were not independent of each other, each going his own way, and doing his own will. Not so. Ezekiel had found in them a divine and wonderful order, by which the services of angels as well as of men are constituted. Orderly and harmoniously they worked together. Out of the same fiery globe, from the same throne of God, they came forth all alike. They turned not when they went; whithersoever the Spirit was to go, they went, and ran and returned like a flash of lightning. Nay, in one place he speaks as if all the four creatures were but one creature: 'This is the living creature which I saw by the river of Chebar.'
And so it is, we may be sure, in the world of God, whether in the earthly or in the heavenly world. All things work together, praising God and doing His will. Angels and the heavenly host; sun and moon; stars and light; fire and hail; snow and vapour; wind and storm: all fulfil His word. 'He hath made them fast for ever and ever: He hath given them a law which shall not be broken.' For before all things, under all things, and through all things, is a divine unity and order; all things working towards one end, because all things spring from one beginning, which is the bosom of God the Father.
And so with the wheels; the wheels of fortune and victory, and the fate of nations and of kings. 'They were so high,' Ezekiel said, 'that they were dreadful.' But he saw no human genius sitting, one in each wheel of fortune, each protecting his favourite king and nation. These, too, did not go their own way and of their own will. They were parts of God's divine and wonderful order, and obeyed the same laws as the cherubim. 'And when the living creatures went, the wheels went with them; for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.' Everywhere was the same divine unity and order; the same providence, the same laws of God, presided over the natural world and over the fortunes of nations and of kings. Victory and prosperity was not given arbitrarily by separate genii, each genius protecting his favourite king, each genius striving against the other on behalf of his favourite. Fortune came from the providence of One Being; of Him of whom it is written, 'God standeth in the congregation of princes: He is the judge among gods.' And again, 'The Lord is King, be the people never so impatient: He sitteth between the cherubim, be the earth never so unquiet.'
And is this all? God forbid. This is more than the Chaldaeans saw, who worshipped angels and not God -- the creature instead of the Creator. But where the Chaldaean vision ended, Ezekiel's only began. His prophecy rises far above the imaginations of the heathen.
He hears the sound of the wings of the cherubim, like the tramp of an army, like the noise of great waters, like the roll of thunder, the voice of Almighty God: but above their wings he sees a firmament, which the heathen cannot see, clear as the flashing crystal, and on that firmament a sapphire throne, and round that throne a rainbow, the type of forgiveness and faithfulness, and on that throne A Man.
And the cherubim stand, and let down their wings in submission, waiting for the voice of One mightier than they. And Ezekiel falls upon his face, and hears from off the throne a human voice, which calls to him as human likewise, 'Son of man, stand upon thy feet, and I will speak to thee.'
This, this is Ezekiel's vision: not the fiery globe merely, nor the cherubim, nor the wheels, nor the powers of nature, nor the angelic host -- dominions and principalities, and powers -- but The Man enthroned above them all, the Lord and Guide and Ruler of the universe; He who makes the winds His angels, and the flames of fire His ministers; and that Lord speaking to him, not through cherubim, not through angels, not through nature, not through mediators, angelic or human, but speaking direct to him himself, as man speaks to man.
As man speaks to man. This is the very pith and marrow of the Old Testament and of the New; which gradually unfolds itself, from the very first chapter of Genesis to the last of Revelation, -- that man is made in the likeness of God; and that therefore God can speak to him, and he can understand God's words and inspirations.
Man is like God; and therefore God, in some inconceivable way, is like man. That is the great truth set forth in the first chapter of Genesis, which goes on unfolding itself more clearly throughout the Old Testament, till here, in Ezekiel's vision, it comes to, perhaps, its clearest stage save one.
That human appearance speaks to Ezekiel, the hapless prisoner of war, far away from his native land. And He speaks to him with human voice, and claims kindred with him as a human being, saying, 'Son of man.' That is very deep and wonderful. The Lord upon His throne does not wish Ezekiel to think how different He is to him, but how like He is to him. He says not to Ezekiel, -- 'Creature infinitely below Me! Dust and ashes, unworthy to appear in My presence! Worm of the earth, as far below Me and unlike Me as the worm under thy feet is to thee!' but, 'Son of man; creature made in My image and likeness, be not afraid! Stand on thy feet, and be a man; and speak to others what I speak to thee.'
After that great revelation of God there seems but one step more to make it perfect; and that step was made in God's good time, in the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Forasmuch as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, He also -- He whom Ezekiel saw in human form enthroned on high -- He took part of flesh and blood likewise, and was not ashamed, yea, rather rejoiced, to call Himself, what He called Ezekiel, the Son of Man.
'And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us; and we beheld His glory.' And why?
For many reasons; but certainly for this one. To make men feel more utterly and fully what Ezekiel was made to feel. That God could thoroughly feel for man; and that man could thoroughly trust God.
That God could thoroughly feel for man. For we have a High Priest who has been made perfect by sufferings, tempted in all points like as we are; and we can
'Look to Him who, not in vain,
Experienced every human pain;
He sees our wants, allays our fears,
And counts and treasures up our tears.'
Again, -- That man could utterly trust God. For when St. John and his companions (simple fishermen) beheld the glory of Jesus, the Incarnate Word, what was it like? It was 'full of grace and truth;' the perfection of human graciousness, of human truthfulness, which could win and melt the hearts of simple folk, and make them see in Him, who was called the carpenter's son, the beauty of the glory of the Godhead.
'He is the Judge of all the earth.' And why? Let Him Himself tell us. He says that the Father has given the Son authority to execute judgment. And why, once more? Because He is the Son of God? Our Lord says more, -- 'Because,' He says, 'He is the Son of Man;' who knows what is in man; who can feel, understand, discriminate, pity, make allowances, judge fair, and righteous, and merciful judgment, among creatures whose weakness He has experienced, whose temptations He has felt, whose pains and sorrows He has borne in mortal flesh and blood.
Oh, Gospel and good news for the weak, the sorrowful, the oppressed; for those who are wearied with the burden of their sins, or wearied also by the burden of heavy responsibilities, and awful public duties! When all mortal counsellors fail them, when all mortal help is too weak, let them but throw themselves on the mercy of Him who sits upon the throne, and remember that He, though immortal and eternal, is still the Son of Man, who knows what is in man.
There are times in which we are all tempted to worship other things than God. Not, perhaps, to worship cherubim and genii, angels and spirits, like the old Chaldees, but to worship the laws of political economy, the laws of statesmanship, the powers of nature, the laws of physical science, those lower messengers of God's providence, of which St. Paul says, 'He maketh the winds His angels, and flames of fire His ministers.'
In such times we have need to remember Ezekiel's lesson, that above them all, ruling and guiding, sits He whose form is as the Son of Man.
We are not to say that any powers of nature are evil, or the laws of any science false. Heaven forbid! Ezekiel did not say that the cherubim were evil, or meaningless; or that the belief in angels ministering to man was false. He said the very opposite. But he said, All these obey one whose form is that of a man. He rules them, and they do His will. They are but ministering spirits before Him.
Therefore we are not to disbelieve science, nor disregard the laws of nature, or we shall lose by our folly. But we are to believe that nature and science are not our gods. They do not rule us; our fortunes are not in their hands. Above nature and above science sits the Lord of nature and the Lord of science. Above all the counsels of princes, and the struggles of nations, and the chances and changes of this world of man, sits the Judge of princes and of peoples, the Lord of all the nations upon earth, He by whom all things were made, and who upholdeth all things by the word of His power; and He is man, of the substance of His mother; most human and yet most divine; full of justice and truth, full of care and watchfulness, full of love and pity, full of tenderness and understanding; a Friend, a Guide, a Counsellor, a Comforter, a Saviour to all who trust in Him. He is nearer to us than nature and science: and He should be dearer to us; for they speak only to our understanding; but He speaks to our human hearts, to our inmost spirits. Nature and science cannot take away our sins, give peace to our hearts, right judgment to our minds, strength to our wills, or everlasting life to our souls and bodies. But there sits One upon the throne who can. And if nature were to vanish away, and science were to be proved (however correct as far as it went) a mere child's guess about this wonderful world, which none can understand save He who made it -- if all the counsels of princes and of peoples, however just and wise, were to be confounded and come to nought, still, after all, and beyond all, and above all, Christ would abide for ever, with human tenderness yearning over human hearts; with human wisdom teaching human ignorance; with human sympathy sorrowing with human mourners; for ever saying, 'Come unto me, ye that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.'
Cherubim and seraphim, angels and archangels, dominions and powers, whether of nature or of grace -- these all serve Him and do His work. He has constituted their services in a wonderful order: but He has not taken their nature on Him. Our nature He has taken on Him, that we might be bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh; able to say to Him for ever, in all the chances and changes of this mortal life -
'Thou, O Christ, art all I want,
More than all in thee I find;
Raise me, fallen; cheer me, faint;
Heal me, sick; and lead me, blind.
Thou of life the fountain art,
Freely let me drink of Thee;
Spring Thou up within my heart,
Rise to all eternity.'