Wednesday, September 25

Imagery and Symbolism in Ezekiel's Vision

The book of Ezekiel, likely written between 592-570 BC in Babylon, details the visions of the prophet Ezekiel. Saint Jerome in the fourth century called this book “a labyrinth of the mysteries of God.” One of the first chapters describes the vision of God on his throne and the presence of four cherubim. These cherubim have been interpreted a variety of ways, with different symbolism, different views and different meanings. The vision seen by Ezekiel on the bank of the Kebar River does not utilize the bronze serpent, the rod, the burning bush (which for various reasons some scholars think may actually refer to Mt. Sinai and not a bush), nor the parting of water. To note, however, the usage of wheels, eyes, a throne of lapis lazuli and wings are not original to Ezekiel’s work.

These images would have been familiar to a Jewish audience, in some sense. The cherubim are mentioned elsewhere – guarding the Edenic paradise (Genesis 3:24), were modeled for the tabernacle (Exodus 25:17-26:31), and elsewhere. Lucifer is thought to be described in Ezekiel 28:124-24 as the “guardian cherub” of “Eden.” Similar creatures appear in the final work of the New Testament (from the Latin testamentum), where they are described as “four living creatures… covered with eyes, on front and back” (Revelation 4:6). The first creature was “like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, and the fourth was like a flying eagle. Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings” (4:7-8a). Interestingly, the cherubim mentioned in Ezekiel 1 are described as having the face of a lion, an ox, a man and an eagle, just as those mentioned in Apocalypse of John.

Why is this significant? Before we tackle that question, one more passage is worth citing for our purposes. According to Exodus 24:9-11, after Moses came down from Sinai, God had asked to have the elders confirm the covenant. So “Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of lapis lazuli, as bright blue as the sky. But God did not raise his hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank” (cf. Revelation 4). This is important as it establishes an earlier reference to a pavement (Ezekiel calls it a “throne of lapis lazuli” in 1:26). Lapis lazuli has an intense blue color, and in antiquity was used for vases, ornaments, jewelry, carvings and such. It was a prized stone that was often used by Egyptians, Sumerians, Akkadians and others for seals and jewelry. Historically, this commodity was well sought-after.

To phrase this in modern terms, when we see a Renaissance portrait of Jesus wearing purple robes, although he likely did not do so aside from His crucifixion, it provides Jesus with an air of nobility as purple is a royal color. Likewise, the lapis lazuli signifies that God is King – indeed, King of the Universe. The eyes on the wheels (and the wheels themselves) essentially represent God’s omnipresence and omniscience, while the creatures symbolize God’s control over creation and as cherubim are considered a form of angel, it demonstrates the servitude of angelic beings to God. Why not use the other symbols and imagery found in older Scriptures? Ezekiel’s audience needed to understand that despite their upcoming exile to Babylon, God was still there, and God was still watching – even in other nations.

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