Encounters with God is a sermon series about the theophanies or divine appearances and how they reveal the stunning character of God and his heart for a world that is lost without him. Ezekiel had an awesome encounter with God as an exile in a foreign land. Ezekiel was transformed from priest to prophet, delivering a message of the power of God and God’s word to a people in exile. Recorded on Dec 26, 2021, on Ezekiel 1-3, by Pastor David Parks.
All year, we’re talking about The Greatness of God. And today, we’re continuing a sermon series called Encounters with God. After this week, we only have two more weeks in this series before we start a new series called The Making of Heaven and Earth from Genesis 1-3. But in the Bible, when God appears to someone it’s known as a theophany or divine appearing. And these encounters are wild stories; God never seems to act how we would expect. But these encounters, including our encounter today between God and the prophet Ezekiel, reveal the stunning character of God, and his heart to save a world that is lost without him. If you have a Bible/app, please open to Ezekiel 1:1. We’ll unpack this as we go. v. 1.
Ezekiel 1:1-3 (NIV), “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. On the fifth of the month—it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin—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.”
Let’s pause here. So this is the brief introduction to the book of Ezekiel; the rest of the book is written in the first person. According to the events listed here, we know that Ezekiel’s encounter with God happened on July 31, 593 BC, and if we understand the opening line as referring to his age at the time, Ezekiel was 30 years old when God called him to be a prophet. This took place about 30 years after Jeremiah’s encounter with God that we looked at last week. It was also about 5 years after Ezekiel, who was a priest from Jerusalem in Judah, had been carried into exile after the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. [map slide] Here, Ezekiel found himself over 800 miles from home; in the middle of modern Iraq. As an exile, he was a man without a country, a priest without a temple. Daniel was another prophet in Babylon with Ezekiel at this time. As I said last week, it’s hard to overstate just how heartbreakingly traumatic the exile was for the people of Israel. The northern kingdom of Israel had fallen several generations earlier to the Assyrian Empire. Now the southern kingdom of Judah had fallen to the Babylonian Empire. And roughly 90% of the people had either been killed or carried off to a foreign land as a conquered people. It was in this terrible circumstance, it was during these dark days, it was during this calamity that Ezekiel had his theophany, his encounter with God, by the Kebar River in Babylon. v. 4.
Ezekiel 1:4-28 (NIV), “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, and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures. In appearance their form was human, but each of them had four faces and four wings. Their legs were straight; their feet were like those of a calf and gleamed like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. All four of them had faces and wings, and the wings of one touched the wings of another. Each one went straight ahead; they did not turn as they moved. 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. 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. Each one went straight ahead. Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, without turning as they went. 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. The creatures sped back and forth like flashes of lightning. As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the ground beside each creature with its four faces. 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. 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. Their rims were high and awesome, and all four rims were full of eyes all around. When the living creatures moved, the wheels beside them moved; and when the living creatures rose from the ground, the wheels also rose. 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. 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. Spread out above the heads of the living creatures was what looked something like a vault, sparkling like crystal, and awesome. Under the vault their wings were stretched out one toward the other, and each had two wings covering its body. 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. Then there came a voice from above the vault over their heads as they stood with lowered wings. 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. 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. 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.”
I told you this would be a wild story! This is the wildest story I’ve got. So to this poor, out-of-work priest with no temple, living in exile along with whoever hadn’t died in the war, has a vision of God high and lifted up. But also, this vision is poetically rich with meaning. Every detail is meant to communicate something to Ezekiel and through him to both his people in exile then, and us today, about who God is and his heart to save a world that is lost without him. So God shows up riding some sort of mobile throne. The cherubim seem similar to the seraphim that we saw in Isaiah’s vision from a few weeks ago, but the description is a little different. And instead of calling/singing to one another in the throne room of heaven, they have wheels with eyes that can move in any direction, and they ride in a storm of thunder/lightning/fire. From this wild scene, Ezekiel sees a figure like that of a man on the throne, a man of fire and light. You can tell he’s trying to stretch the bounds of earthly language to describe a heavenly experience. He says, “This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory,” of Yahweh, the Lord God Almighty. Now, as impressive as this theophany is, did you notice something? It has several elements of some of the other theophanies, but in many ways, it’s totally unique. Nowhere else in Scripture does God show up exactly like this. In fact, every time he appears, it seems to be perfectly tailored to the individual. Well, this leads us to ask the question: Why does God appear to Ezekiel like this? We’ve seen in this series that God can appear in a storm or on a mountain or in a burning bush or as the angel of the Lord or as a still small voice, and more. Is anything impossible for God? No! So why does God choose this way of appearing? I believe it’s to communicate a message to Ezekiel and Ezekiel’s people, and even to us today. And that message is this:
God is far greater than what we’re going through. You see, the exile of ancient Israel first into Assyria and then into Babylon was profoundly theologically unsettling. Of course, it was literally/physically unsettling, but it had major theological implications. Had God abandoned his people when they left the promised land? Was Yahweh not as powerful as they had believed, letting his people be killed or carried away? Maybe Babylon’s gods were more powerful? What in the world was God doing in this terrible tragedy? Where was he? Can you see then, why this theophany needed to be a big one? Why Ezekiel needed to see a vision of the greatness and the glory of God, one that stretched the bounds of his language? At that moment, in those dark days, Ezekiel needed to see that God was the ruler over the whole of the earth, not just over Israel and not just over the promised land. There was nowhere in all of creation where the people of Israel could go and be free from the presence and the power of God. And he wasn’t just sort of powerful. He wasn’t a God of the good, he was a God of supreme greatness.
This is what all the details of this vision are about. First, the living creatures and this vision of God high and lifted up, with radiant splendor/glory/beauty represents the all-surpassing power of the Kingdom of God and the omnipotence of the King over all creation. So is God able to deal with the mighty kingdom of Babylon? Of course, he can. As mighty as King Nebuchadnezzar was at the time, he was only a tool in the hand of the Almighty. A terrible tool of judgment against wicked injustice of Israel, but a tool nonetheless. His authority was never above the Creator of the heavens and the earth. Second, the wheels and a throne that can move immediately in any direction and even that this vision is happening in Babylon represent the omnipresence of God — that God is everywhere all the time. There is nowhere in all the universe where God is not present. So is God able to help his people in Babylon? Does his reign extend beyond the borders of the promised land? Of course, it does. Yahweh isn’t only a local deity, he is everywhere. Finally, we have all the eyes. What does that tell us about who God is? This represents that God is not only all-powerful and ever-present but that he is all-knowing and all-seeing, he is omniscient. So did the destruction and chaos that the exile caused somehow happen outside the plans of God? Did God have to scramble to catch up or react to the plans of King Nebuchadnezzar? Of course, he didn’t. For generations, God had warned his people that this was coming. He gave them countless opportunities to avoid this crisis. But they didn’t listen to him. Now they were in exile and were in the midst of a theological crisis. But Ezekiel has this vision, one of God high and lifted up. And not in the temple in Jerusalem, like Isaiah saw, but here in exile, here in Babylon, here in the midst of the calamity. But again, we must ask ourselves, why did God show up in this unusual manner? I believe it was to prove to his people that God is far greater than what we’re going through. Whatever you’re going through, God is greater. God is far greater than the greatest successes/victories you could dream of. But he’s also far greater than the worst failures or the most crushing defeats you could ever imagine. Isn’t that a comfort? Isn’t that just part of the kindness of God? This strange/unsettling vision becomes a beacon of hope for people who were lost without God. And how does Ezekiel respond? He falls on his face. Just like everyone else before the perfection of the glory of God. He falls over likely thinking he was absolutely ruined, in the presence of a holy God. That is, until…until he hears the voice/word of the Lord.
Ezekiel 2:1-3 – 3:4 (NIV), “He said to me, “Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you.” As he spoke, the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet, and I heard him speaking to me. He said: “Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have been in revolt against me to this very day. The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says.’ And whether they listen or fail to listen—for they are a rebellious people—they will know that a prophet has been among them. And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or their words. Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you and you live among scorpions. Do not be afraid of what they say or be terrified by them, though they are a rebellious people. You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are rebellious. But you, son of man, listen to what I say to you. Do not rebel like that rebellious people; open your mouth and eat what I give you.” Then I looked, and I saw a hand stretched out to me. In it was a scroll, which he unrolled before me. On both sides of it were written words of lament and mourning and woe. And he said to me, “Son of man, eat what is before you, eat this scroll; then go and speak to the people of Israel.” So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. Then he said to me, “Son of man, eat this scroll I am giving you and fill your stomach with it.” So I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth. He then said to me: “Son of man, go now to the people of Israel and speak my words to them.”
So after this wild vision of God, high and lifted up, in Babylon of all places, the Lord calls/commissions Ezekiel into his service, not only as a priest, which he was by birth but as a prophet. A priest was responsible for representing the people to God in worship. But a prophet was responsible for representing God to the people by revealing God’s word to them. The Apostle Peter wrote, “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:20–21). So here, Ezekiel discovers that God has a message for his people, he has things they need to know and remember and believe, even in exile. This taught them and it teaches us today:
God’s word supplies the nourishment we need to keep going. Notice in this theophany, when Ezekiel is given a scroll that represents God’s word to his people, he describes it as being a message of lament/mourning/woe. At first, this seems like a message of judgment and doom for the people of God, not good news at all. But then, he’s told to eat it, to eat the scroll. To consume God’s word. And what does he discover? That the scroll is sweet, as sweet as honey. So even though there is a severe message of judgment and destruction, there is a sweetness that will come. There’s a glimmer of hope. There is good news, even for those who thought they were lost and forgotten by God in exile. Not only was God far greater than what they were going through, but God had spoken and was still speaking to his people. Even in the justice of judgment, the mercy and grace of God were present. Because God’s word would supply the nourishment they needed to keep going, to know what was true about their circumstances, to know what God was doing even in the unthinkable, to stay faithful/hopeful even in Babylon. In Psalm 119, the psalmist wrote, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” In calling him to be a prophet, God wanted Ezekiel to fill himself on his word. Why? Because we, human beings, were not made to live on bread alone. We were made/created to live by the power/truth/life that comes by the word, the living and enduring word of God. So often, when Christians go through seasons of difficulty or hardship well, holding fast to Jesus as the anchor of their souls, they have done what Ezekiel did. They have eaten the scroll. They have consumed God’s word to the point where it is down deep within them. It’s the first thing that comes to mind as they consider their lives or their hardships.
You know, this is exactly how Jesus lived. If you cut him, Jesus bled scripture. Do you know how Jesus stayed faithful and true in the face of the temptation of Satan in the wilderness? Do you know what he was quoting, even during the suffering of the cross? He quoted God’s word. Do you know what the Apostle John said of Jesus? That he was the word of God made flesh, Jesus was/is the living embodiment of the word of God, the full revelation of who God is and what God has done. And what message did Jesus, the word of God, reveal to us? A message similar to the one of Ezekiel. A message of lament/mourning/woe. But not for us, for Jesus. You see, in Jesus, God was forming a new covenant/relationship with his people, but it was one based not on our obedience to the law, but on the obedience of Christ. On the cross, Jesus died as a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the world. But this terrible judgment of God contains more than a glimmer of hope. Because of the cross of Christ, all the promises of God, the whole scroll, can taste sweet to us. God is far greater than what we’re going through. If God was greater than Babylon/exile, then God is greater than anything we might face today. But the reason we can know that this is true is because God’s word supplies the nourishment we need to keep going. So today, would you again get this vision of God high and lifted up? Far greater than what we’re going through? Would you again be filled/nourished by the bread of life? The living and enduring word of God? It will supply everything you need to keep going.