Ezekiel’s first vision – four living creatures accompany a prophetic message from God (Ezekiel 1:1 – 1:28)
When Ezekiel was 30 years old, in the late spring or summer of the year, he was living among the exiles by the Kebar River in the land of the Babylonians. It was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin when the word of God came to Ezekiel. The heavens opened and the widely respected priest received a vision from God.
Ezekiel saw a windstorm coming out of the north, an immense cloud surrounded by a brilliant flashes of lightning. In the center of the storm was fire that looked like glowing metal and what looked like four living creatures.
The creatures looked human except each had four faces and four wings. Their legs were straight and their feet were like burnished bronze feet of a calf. Under their wings were human hands. They stood so the wings of one touched the wings of the other. Each travelled straight ahead but did not turn as they moved.
Each of the four living creatures had the face of a human on one side. On the right side, each had the face of a lion. On the left, each had a face like an ox. On the back, each had a face that looked like an eagle.
Each creature had two wings spreading outward and two wings covering its body. Where the spirit would go, they would go without turning as they moved. Fire moved back and forth among the creatures and bursts of light exploded around them. Ezekiel says the creatures sped back and forth like flashes of lightning.
Next to each creature was a “wheel” that sparkled like topaz and looked like a wheel within a wheel, each with four tall rims covered in eyes. As they moved, the creatures could go in any of four directions. When the creatures moved, the wheel beside them moved too. When the creatures rose into the air, the wheel rose into the air with them.
Above the creatures was a vault sparkling like crystal. When they moved, their wings sounded like rushing waters, like the sound of an army on the move.
The angels then stood still and lowered their wings. Above the vault was what looked like a throne of blue sapphire. On the throne sat a figure like that of a man. A voice came from above the vault. From the waist up, the figure looked like glowing metal, full of fire. From the waist down, the figure looked like fire, a brilliant light surrounding him. The radiance around the figure appeared like a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day.
This was the appearance of the likeness of God. When Ezekiel saw the vision, he fell facedown and listened to what the voice said.
What the story means to us today
A guide for mankind’s future – in code
Although Ezekiel struggled to describe what he had seen, using words like “resembling”, “looked like”, and “appearance of”, his visions provide guidance for Christians who take the time to study the Bible’s prophecies. Remember, prophecy is not intended to paint an easy-to-understand picture of what is to come but rather, provides coded evidence that will become clear to believers when the events they describe come to light.
Additional thoughts and considerations
How did a bizarre vision like this make it into the Bible?
This vision describes how God made his appearance to Ezekiel. It is one of the most-read prophecies in the Bible but the strangeness of the imagery may seem out of place to some. This vision, and the book of Ezekiel in general, found their way into the Bible because of the legendary status the prophet Ezekiel’s obtained when his predictions were ultimately proven to be true.
At the time Ezekiel was written (around 585 BC), the Israelites were being held captive in Babylon. The generation had given up hope and began to assimilate Babylonia’s sinful customs into their culture. Ezekiel knew the sin his generation had accepted would extinguish what remained of the Israelite nation (see our end-depth discussion on how a decline in morality always accompanies the collapse of civilizations). He knew they must become overcomers or they would be overcome. When Ezekiel himself gave up hope, God stepped in and inspired him to take action to save his people from ruin.
Ezekiel tried everything he could to minister to the hopeless, sinful generation, to give them hope and confidence that God had not abandoned them and the future for the Israelites was brighter than they could imagine. He tried talking to them, preaching to them, drawing pictures in the sand, even chopping off his hair and beard to get their attention. Included in his ministry was a series of prophetic visions.
At first, Ezekiel’s visions were discounted, even laughed at by the Israelites. But when the events he foresaw transpired, in the same order he predicted and in exactly the same manner, Ezekiel’s legend was firmly established. As we will learn in later chapters, Ezekiel correctly predicted the ruin of Jerusalem, the judgement of the nearby nations, and the future restoration of Israel as a nation.
And angry thunderstorm approaches from the north
Ezekiel describes an angry storm approaching from the north. Storms of course, often serve as metaphors for impending doom. Inside the storm, he sees light, referring possibly to hope but more likely, a symbolism representing God. It’s notable to recognize that Ezekiel saw the storm approaching but then shifted his gaze to the four living creatures implying a trust, recognition, or acceptance of what was coming.
Ezekiel struggles to understand what he is seeing
Describing the four creatures as “chayyah”, literally meaning “animated being”, Ezekiel did not use the traditional word for heavenly beings. What he was seeing was either unfamiliar to him, a different type of angel, or something altogether inexplicable.
Four living creatures are arranged with wings touching
Each creature had four wings, two of which touched the outstretched wings of the creature next to it. Although it’s common to envision this formation as a line of creatures standing wing-to-wing, this more likely paints a picture of four creatures forming a connecting box with wing tips forming the corners or the creatures’ bodies forming the corners with wings extended slightly in front of them and touching.
Given that each creature had four faces, one face on each side of the head and another pair in front and back, this square-shaped formation would allow the creatures to move in any direction with forward-looking sight (as Ezekiel says, moving “straight ahead” without turning).
Note too that Ezekiel describes the sound of the creatures’ wings when they moved. According to Ezekiel, the sound was intense – like the “tumult of an army”.
The faces of the four living creatures
Ezekiel describes the four faces of the creatures as looking like a man (the front), lion (right side), ox (left side), and eagle (rear). These representations have been interpreted many ways. Some feel the four faces represent intelligence (man), power or courage (lion), service or strength (ox), and speed or agility (eagle).
The faces could also represent the top-level hierarchy of life forms: man (king of all), lion (king of animals), ox (king of strength), and eagle (king of birds).
Although the creatures are angelic, another interpretation takes a more sinister approach. This interpretation sees each face as a representation of a country or leader: Man (leading all), lion (e.g. China), ox (e.g. Russia), and the eagle (e.g. United States). If this is the intended interpretation, the direction each is facing could be significant too: a man leading or supported by two states (the sides) with some sort of unique support from a third state (the rear).
Creatures burning like fire
Ezekiel describes the creatures as having the appearance of bright, shining metal and like burning coals or flaming torches with fire and lightning flashing around them. Some interpret the burning appearance to be representative of “God’s burning judgment”.
The expanse above the four living creatures
As with other aspects of his vision, Ezekiel seems to have trouble describing the expanse seen above the creatures’ heads. We can deduce however, that the expanse was not empty. The same word, often translated as “firmament”, was used to describe the expanse created by God on the second day of creation. In the Genesis account, the expanse appeared to be some sort of solid substance, possibly a form of water. What this substance is remains unknown but has been described variously as a sparkling vault, gleaming crystal, shimmering dome, cut glass, glittery ice, and awe-inspiring crystal. It is described similarly in John where the expanse seems to be clear or sparkling (like ice crystals). It’s possible this is what Ezekiel saw too.
The wheel within a wheel
Ezekiel’s description of the wheels hints that he has trouble describing what he was seeing. The wheels could have been concentric circles, round globes (like wheels on an office chair) or possibly a form of propulsion he could not comprehend.
He continues his description, noting that the wheels had “eyes all around”. The “eyes” could be literal eyes or metaphors for an all-seeing system of vision. Possibly he is describing lights, precious decorative stones, or maybe something as simple as modern-day rivets.
Ezekiel says that “the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels”. This may be a metaphorical symbol of God’s guidance or it may indicate there was no visible control for the guidance and propulsion of the wheels – the creatures simply controlled the movement of the wheels using their minds or the will of God.
The figure on the throne
When the sound of the creatures’ movement ceased, Ezekiel heard another noise. This new sound came from the expanse over the creatures’ heads. It was the voice of God.
When Ezekiel looks upward towards the sound, he sees a throne with a figure seated upon it. Although Ezekiel sought to describe the creatures, the expanse, and the wheels within wheels, his only description of God was a radiance like glowing metal or fire throwing off light so pure, it presents the entire spectrum of rainbow colors.
The science and history behind the story
The Kebar River – a real river?
Ezekiel says he was among the exiles by the Kebar River when he had his vision. The Kebar River has been proven to exist. It is referenced in historical Babylonian texts as the Chebar canal.
Text from the city of Nippur (an ancient Sumerian city in present day Iraq) around 500 BC adds that the river provided artificial irrigation from the Euphrates through the city of Nippur.
Notes on Biblical translation
A note about Ezekiel’s difficult verbiage
Given Ezekiel’s detailed description and use of metaphors and analogies, some original Hebrew phrases can be difficult to translate. For instance, the description of “molten metal” may indicate glowing metal. The “flashing of fire and lightning” is more accurately translated as “fire taking hold of itself”. Various other sentences in the chapter suggest Ezekiel had trouble accurately relating what he saw.
Regardless, English translations are sufficient to provide an appropriate visual of what Ezekiel witnessed. Understand though, that some of the visuals were not only difficult to describe, but difficult to translate.
“In my thirtieth year”
The original text begins with “in the thirtieth year…” Most take this to mean Ezekiel’s age at the time of the vision but it could have alternative meanings. One alternate translation suggests the thirtieth year dated from the recovery of the book of the Torah from the temple in Jerusalem.
A “wheel within a wheel”
The phrase “wheel within a wheel” could also be translated as “like a wheel at right angles to another wheel”. As such, translations of this phrase can vary greatly. Some propose concentric wheels while others describe the mechanism as a globe-like structure with two wheels operating at right angles to each other.
The “spirit” of the living creatures
The Hebrew word translated as “spirit” can also be translated as “wind”. This would render the sentence as “the wind of the living creatures was in the wheels”. Regardless, Ezekiel was obviously attempting to describe the force that caused the wheels to move.
1 In my thirtieth year, in the fourth month on the fifth day, while I was among the exiles by the Kebar River, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.
2 On the fifth of the month—it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin—3 the word of the LORD came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, by the Kebar River in the land of the Babylonians. There the hand of the LORD was on him.
4 I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north—an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light. The center of the fire looked like glowing metal, 5 and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures. In appearance their form was human, 6 but each of them had four faces and four wings. 7 Their legs were straight; their feet were like those of a calf and gleamed like burnished bronze. 8 Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. All four of them had faces and wings, 9 and the wings of one touched the wings of another. Each one went straight ahead; they did not turn as they moved.
10 Their faces looked like this: Each of the four had the face of a human being, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle. 11 Such were their faces. They each had two wings spreading out upward, each wing touching that of the creature on either side; and each had two other wings covering its body. 12 Each one went straight ahead. Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, without turning as they went. 13 The appearance of the living creatures was like burning coals of fire or like torches. Fire moved back and forth among the creatures; it was bright, and lightning flashed out of it. 14 The creatures sped back and forth like flashes of lightning.
15 As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the ground beside each creature with its four faces. 16 This was the appearance and structure of the wheels: They sparkled like topaz, and all four looked alike. Each appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel. 17 As they moved, they would go in any one of the four directions the creatures faced; the wheels did not change direction as the creatures went. 18 Their rims were high and awesome, and all four rims were full of eyes all around.
19 When the living creatures moved, the wheels beside them moved; and when the living creatures rose from the ground, the wheels also rose. 20 Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, and the wheels would rise along with them, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. 21 When the creatures moved, they also moved; when the creatures stood still, they also stood still; and when the creatures rose from the ground, the wheels rose along with them, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.
22 Spread out above the heads of the living creatures was what looked something like a vault, sparkling like crystal, and awesome. 23 Under the vault their wings were stretched out one toward the other, and each had two wings covering its body. 24 When the creatures moved, I heard the sound of their wings, like the roar of rushing waters, like the voice of the Almighty, like the tumult of an army. When they stood still, they lowered their wings.
25 Then there came a voice from above the vault over their heads as they stood with lowered wings. 26 Above the vault over their heads was what looked like a throne of lapis lazuli, and high above on the throne was a figure like that of a man. 27 I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him. 28 Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him.
This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. When I saw it, I fell facedown, and I heard the voice of one speaking.
1 When I was thirty years of age, I was living with the exiles on the Kebar River. On the fifth day of the fourth month, the sky opened up and I saw visions of God.
2–3 (It was the fifth day of the month in the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin that GOD’s Word came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, on the banks of the Kebar River in the country of Babylon. GOD’s hand came upon him that day.)
4–9 I looked: I saw an immense dust storm come from the north, an immense cloud with lightning flashing from it, a huge ball of fire glowing like bronze. Within the fire were what looked like four creatures vibrant with life. Each had the form of a human being, but each also had four faces and four wings. Their legs were as sturdy and straight as columns, but their feet were hoofed like those of a calf and sparkled from the fire like burnished bronze. On all four sides under their wings they had human hands. All four had both faces and wings, with the wings touching one another. They turned neither one way nor the other; they went straight forward.
10–12 Their faces looked like this: In front a human face, on the right side the face of a lion, on the left the face of an ox, and in back the face of an eagle. So much for the faces. The wings were spread out with the tips of one pair touching the creature on either side; the other pair of wings covered its body. Each creature went straight ahead. Wherever the spirit went, they went. They didn’t turn as they went.
13–14 The four creatures looked like a blazing fire, or like fiery torches. Tongues of fire shot back and forth between the creatures, and out of the fire, bolts of lightning. The creatures flashed back and forth like strikes of lightning.
15–16 As I watched the four creatures, I saw something that looked like a wheel on the ground beside each of the four-faced creatures. This is what the wheels looked like: They were identical wheels, sparkling like diamonds in the sun. It looked like they were wheels within wheels, like a gyroscope.
17–21 They went in any one of the four directions they faced, but straight, not veering off. The rims were immense, circled with eyes. When the living creatures went, the wheels went; when the living creatures lifted off, the wheels lifted off. Wherever the spirit went, they went, the wheels sticking right with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. When the creatures went, the wheels went; when the creatures stopped, the wheels stopped; when the creatures lifted off, the wheels lifted off, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.
22–24 Over the heads of the living creatures was something like a dome, shimmering like a sky full of cut glass, vaulted over their heads. Under the dome one set of wings was extended toward the others, with another set of wings covering their bodies. When they moved I heard their wings—it was like the roar of a great waterfall, like the voice of The Strong God, like the noise of a battlefield. When they stopped, they folded their wings.
25–28 And then, as they stood with folded wings, there was a voice from above the dome over their heads. Above the dome there was something that looked like a throne, sky-blue like a sapphire, with a humanlike figure towering above the throne. From what I could see, from the waist up he looked like burnished bronze and from the waist down like a blazing fire. Brightness everywhere! The way a rainbow springs out of the sky on a rainy day—that’s what it was like. It turned out to be the Glory of GOD!
When I saw all this, I fell to my knees, my face to the ground. Then I heard a voice.
Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.
The NET Bible
1:1 In the thirtieth year, on the fifth day of the fourth month, while I was among the exiles at the Kebar River, the heavens opened and I saw a divine vision. 1:2 (On the fifth day of the month—it was the fifth year of King Jehoiachin’s exile—1:3 the word of the LORD came to the priest Ezekiel the son of Buzi, at the Kebar River in the land of the Babylonians. The hand of the LORD came on him there).
1:4 As I watched, I noticed a windstorm coming from the north—an enormous cloud, with lightning flashing, such that bright light rimmed it and came from it like glowing amber from the middle of a fire. 1:5 In the fire were what looked like four living beings. In their appearance they had human form, 1:6 but each had four faces and four wings. 1:7 Their legs were straight, but the soles of their feet were like calves’ feet. They gleamed like polished bronze. 1:8 They had human hands under their wings on their four sides. As for the faces and wings of the four of them, 1:9 their wings touched each other; they did not turn as they moved, but went straight ahead.
1:10 Their faces had this appearance: Each of the four had the face of a man, with the face of a lion on the right, the face of an ox on the left and also the face of an eagle. 1:11 Their wings were spread out above them; each had two wings touching the wings of one of the other beings on either side and two wings covering their bodies. 1:12 Each moved straight ahead—wherever the spirit would go, they would go, without turning as they went. 1:13 In the middle of the living beings was something like burning coals of fire or like torches. It moved back and forth among the living beings. It was bright, and lightning was flashing out of the fire. 1:14 The living beings moved backward and forward as quickly as flashes of lightning.
1:15 Then I looked, and I saw one wheel on the ground beside each of the four beings. 1:16 The appearance of the wheels and their construction was like gleaming jasper, and all four wheels looked alike. Their structure was like a wheel within a wheel. 1:17 When they moved they would go in any of the four directions they faced without turning as they moved. 1:18 Their rims were high and awesome, and the rims of all four wheels were full of eyes all around.
1:19 When the living beings moved, the wheels beside them moved; when the living beings rose up from the ground, the wheels rose up too. 1:20 Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, and the wheels would rise up beside them because the spirit of the living being was in the wheel. 1:21 When the living beings moved, the wheels moved, and when they stopped moving, the wheels stopped. When they rose up from the ground, the wheels rose up from the ground; the wheels rose up beside them because the spirit of the living being was in the wheel.
1:22 Over the heads of the living beings was something like a platform, glittering awesomely like ice, stretched out over their heads. 1:23 Under the platform their wings were stretched out, each toward the other. Each of the beings also had two wings covering its body. 1:24 When they moved, I heard the sound of their wings—it was like the sound of rushing waters, or the voice of the Almighty, or the tumult of an army. When they stood still, they lowered their wings.
1:25 Then there was a voice from above the platform over their heads when they stood still. 1:26 Above the platform over their heads was something like a sapphire shaped like a throne. High above on the throne was a form that appeared to be a man. 1:27 I saw an amber glow like a fire enclosed all around from his waist up. From his waist down I saw something that looked like fire. There was a brilliant light around it, 1:28 like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds after the rain. This was the appearance of the surrounding brilliant light; it looked like the glory of the LORD. When I saw it, I threw myself face down, and I heard a voice speaking.
King James Version
1 NOW it came to pass in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, in the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the river of Chebar, that the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. 2 In the fifth day of the month, which was the fifth year of king Jehoiachin’s captivity, 3 The word of the LORD came expressly unto Ezekiel fthe priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar; and the hand of the LORD was there upon him.
4 And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof las the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire. 5 Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man. 6 And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings. 7 And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf’s foot: and they sparkled like the colour of burnished brass. 8 And they had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides; and they four had their faces and their wings. 9 tTheir wings were joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward. 10 As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle. 11 Thus were their faces: and their wings were stretched upward; two wings of every one were joined one to another, and two covered their bodies. 12 And they went every one straight forward: whither the spirit was to go, they went; and they turned not when they went. 13 As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, and like the appearance of lamps: it went up and down among the living creatures; and the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning. 14 And the living creatures ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning.
15 Now as I beheld the living creatures, behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures, with his four faces. 16 The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto the colour of a beryl: and they four had one likeness: and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel. 17 When they went, they went upon their four sides: and they turned not when they went. 18 As for their rings, they were so high that they were dreadful; and their rings were full of eyes round about them four. 19 And when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them: and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up. 20 Whithersoever the spirit was to go, they went, thither was their spirit to go; and the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels. 21 When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood; and when those were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels. 22 And the likeness of the firmament upon the heads of the living creature was as the colour of the terrible crystal, stretched forth over their heads above. 23 And under the firmament were their wings straight, the one toward the other: every one had two, which covered on this side, and every one had two, which covered on that side, their bodies. 24 And when they went, I heard the noise of their wings, like the noise of great waters, as vthe voice of the Almighty, the voice of speech, as the noise of an host: when they stood, they let down their wings. 25 And there was a voice from the firmament that was over their heads, when they stood, and had let down their wings.
26 And above the firmament that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone: and upon the likeness of the throne was the likeness as the appearance of a man above upon it. 27 And I saw as the colour of amber, as the appearance of fire round about within it, from the appearance of his loins even upward, and from the appearance of his loins even downward, I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and it had brightness round about. 28 As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face, and I heard a voice of one that spake.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.