What Does the Vision in Ezekiel 1 Mean?


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 Psa 29:10) and to describe God’s abode (Psa 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 in the midst of difficult circumstances, we can know that an all-powerful God is active and present in our lives.

why is the bible hard to understandDr. Michael S. Heiser is a scholar-in-residence for Faithlife, the makers of Logos Bible Software. He is the author of The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible and has taught many Mobile Ed courses, including Problems in Biblical Interpretation: Difficult Passages I.

This article is excerpted from Dr. Heiser’s book I Dare You Not to Bore Me with the Bible.

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Comments

  1. Alfredo Sosa says:

    I really enjoy Dr. Heiser’s comments and his insights into the text.
    We need more theologians like Dr. Mike Heiser…
    Somebody in Logos should develop a Mobile Ed of the “Unseen Realm”.
    Excellent article…

  2. Thank you for using your Spiritual gifts, talents, and calling to be God’s instrument to interpret God’s word. I see His word as God in writing and He reveals Himself in His time as I prayerfully seek. You, and others, are being used to provide insight to those passages the ancients saw and Paul wrote reference to in Ephesians 6: 12″ heavenly realms.” These passages are too long skipped over and ignored instead of broadening our vision of God and His Kingdom in battle with the, forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Eph 6:12.

  3. I guess part of me has always wondered why does God need a “chariot”. As the Star Trek character Kirk asked, “Why does God need a starship”……..

  4. Kevin Cherry says:

    This passage, even when interpreted has often times confused me as I didn’t have the context of the time and place as I do now with Mike’s explanation. Thinking of it through the eyes of an ancient Israelite who is held captive by the Babylonians, it makes perfect sense. If I were to insert myself into the contexts of time and place I would think about it like this.

    My family, friends, and I are being held captive in a foreign land by people who have “others gods” they worship. At times I question whether or not YHWH is still in control. Has he been defeated, is he still in charge, does he care about us still? I hear our captives gloating all the time about their gods defeating YHWH. Then I think about Ezekiel’s recent vision and it puts my mind at ease. YHWH is still ruling the entire cosmos from his throne, and he is still in control. He still cares about us, because he gave Ezekiel a vision to address our concerns. All is well and we will be taken care of.

    Great stuff as always Dr. Heiser. Thank you for your dedication.

  5. Terry L Lewis says:

    I enjoyed reading the above.

  6. Could you please provide documentation for the Babylonian association between animals and the four cardinal points? Why would the Apostle John have used this imagery when writing to recipients living in Rome? Thank you.