We are prone to make assumptions about God and his favor when life has us down due to sin, mistakes, or incomprehensible circumstances. Of all the Scripture passages we might turn to during these times, the bizarre vision that opens the book of Ezekiel would not register high on our list. However, reading this passage with its original ancient context in mind reveals a powerful message for its original recipients and for every believer.
The Babylonian context
Ezekiel had his vision in Babylon as one of the captive exiles (Ezek 1:1–3). Comparing his vision to Babylonian iconography reveals that Ezekiel saw a divine “throne chariot” of the heavens—widely described in the ancient biblical world. Just as human kings had chariots, so did deities. A deity would traverse the heavens in his chariot throne, inspecting his domain and exercising authority over it. In Ezekiel’s vision, this throne sits atop the “expanse” (רקיע, raqiaʾ, 1:26)—the same word used in Genesis 1:6–8 for the heavens (see also Ps 29:10) and to describe God’s abode (Ps 150:1).
Wheels supported the chariot throne, along with four unusual creatures (identified as cherubim in Ezek 10:4). Each creature had four faces: human, lion, eagle, and ox (Ezek 1:10). Next to each cherub were four gleaming wheels (Ezek 1:15–16). These wheels were set on edge, since they are described as “tall” (Ezek 1:18). They had wheels within them—that is, each one had at least one concentric circle within it. The vision describes the outer edge, or “rim,” of each wheel as having “eyes” (עַיִן, ʿayin). The prophet Daniel, who was also in Babylon, described the very same blazing throne with wheels (Dan 7:9).
The vision in context
The four faces of the four animals or cherubim correspond to the iconography of the Babylonian zodiac. Each represents a seasonal constellation in Babylonian astrology, and each face or constellation also represented one of the four directions (N, S, E, W) or quadrants of the sky. Babylonians knew that the heavens were connected to what happened on earth (times, seasons, crops, weather, etc.), and they believed their gods controlled those functions. Information about the stars was laid out on Mesopotamian astrolabes, clay tablets whose concentric circles could well correspond to the “wheels within wheels” imagery.
English translations of Ezekiel’s vision often break down at the point where the prophet describes “eyes” (עַיִן, ʿayin) on the rims of the wheels. ʿAyin occurs a number of places in the vision, but it is not always translated. Taking the ESV as an example, ʿayin occurs six times in chapter 1 (vv. 4, 7, 16, 18, 22, 27) but is left untranslated three times (vv. 4, 7, 27). In the vision’s description of the wheels, the word ʿayin is translated once as “sparkling” (Ezek 10:9). Since ancient astronomical texts commonly describe shining stars as “eyes,” ʿayin can refer to stars or their sparkling appearance. Many translators miss this possibility, failing to consider the astronomical context portrayed by the four faces.
The meaning of the vision
During their time of exile, the Jewish captives might have easily believed Yahweh had abandoned them forever. Likewise, the Babylonians could have simply assumed their gods had defeated Yahweh and ruled the heavens and the earth unchallenged. But Ezekiel’s imagery sends a message to the Jews in exile—and to their Babylonian captors: Both assumptions are flawed. Yahweh has not been defeated, nor has he turned away from his people, Israel. He remains seated in his chariot throne at the center of his domain—the entire cosmos.
When we read Ezekiel 1 through ancient eyes, we can feel the same hope today: even amid difficult circumstances, we can know that an all-powerful God is active and present in our lives.
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