The visions of God which Ezekiel here saw were very glorious, and had more particulars than those which other prophets saw. It is the scope and intention of these vision, 1. To possess the prophet’s mind with very great, and high, and honourable thoughts of that God by whom he was commissioned and for whom he was employed. It is the likeness of the glory of the Lord that he sees (Ezek. 1:28), and hence he may infer that it is his honour to serve him, for he is one whom angels serve. He may serve him with safety, for he has power sufficient to bear him out in his work. It is at his peril to draw back from his service, for he has power to pursue him, as he did Jonah. So great a God as this must be served with reverence and godly fear; and with assurance may Ezekiel foretel what this God will do, for he is able to make his words good. 2. To strike a terror upon the sinners who remained in Zion, and those who had already come to Babylon, who were secure, and bade defiance to the threatenings of Jerusalem’s ruin, as we have found in Jeremiah’s prophecy, and shall find in this, many did. “Let those who said, We shall have peace though we go on, know that our God is a consuming fire, whom they cannot stand before.” That this vision had a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem seems plain from Ezek. 43:3; where he says that it was the vision which he saw when he came to destroy the city, that is, to prophesy the destruction of it. 3. To speak comfort to those that feared God, and trembled at his word, and humbled themselves under his mighty hand. “Let them know that, though they are captives in Babylon, yet they have God nigh unto them; though they have not the place of the sanctuary to be their glorious high throne, they have the God of the sanctuary.” Dr. Lightfoot observes, “Now that the church is to be planted for a long time in another country, the Lord shows a glory in the midst of them, as he had done at their first constituting into a church in the wilderness; and out of a cloud and fire, as he had done there, he showed himself; and from between living creatures, as from between the cherubim, he gives his oracles.” This put an honour upon them, by which they might value themselves when the Chaldeans insulted over them, and this might encourage their hopes of deliverance in due time.
Now, to answer these ends, we have in Ezek. 1:4-14 the first part of the vision, which represents God as attended and served by an innumerable company of angels, who are all his messengers, his ministers, doing his commandments and hearkening to the voice of his word. This denotes his grandeur, as it magnifies an earthly prince to have a splendid retinue and numerous armies at his command, which engages his allies to trust him and his enemies to fear him.
I. The introduction to this vision of the angels is very magnificent and awakening, Ezek. 1:4. The prophet, observing the heavens to open, looked, looked up (as it was time), to see what discoveries God would make to him. Note, When the heavens are opened it concerns us to have our eyes open. To clear the way, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, which would drive away the interposing mists of this lower region. Fair weather comes out of the north, and thence the wind comes that drives away rain. God can by a whirlwind clear the sky and air, and produce that serenity of mind which is necessary to our communion with Heaven. Yet this whirlwind was attended with a great cloud. When we think that the clouds which arise from this earth are dispelled and we can see beyond them, yet still there is a cloud which heavenly things are wrapped in, a cloud from above, so that we cannot order our speech concerning them by reason of darkness. Christ here descended, as he ascended, in a cloud. Some by this whirlwind and cloud understand the Chaldean army coming out of the north against the land of Judah, bearing down all before them as a tempest; and so it agrees with that which was signified by one of the first of Jeremiah’s visions (Jer. 1:14; Out of the north an evil shall break forth); but I take it here as an introduction rather to the vision than to the sermons. This whirlwind came to Ezekiel (as that to Elijah, 1 Kgs. 19:11), to prepare the way of the Lord, and to demand attention. He that has eyes, that has ears, let him see, let him hear.
II. The vision itself. A great cloud was the vehicle of this vision, in which it was conveyed to the prophet; for God’s pavilion in which he rests, his chariot in which he rides, is darkness and thick clouds, Ps. 18:11; 104:3. Thus he holds back the face of his throne, lest its dazzling light and lustre should overpower us, by spreading a cloud upon it. Now,
1. The cloud is accompanied with a fire, as upon Mount Sinai, where God resided in a thick cloud; but the sight of his glory was like a devouring fire (Exod. 24:16, 17), and his first appearance to Moses was in a flame of fire in the bush; for our God is a consuming fire. This was a fire enfolding itself, a globe, or orb, or wheel of fire. God being his own cause, his own rule, and his own end, if he be as a fire, he is as a fire enfolding itself, or (as some read it) kindled by itself. The fire of God’s glory shines forth, but it quickly enfolds itself; for he lets us know but part of his ways; the fire of God’s wrath breaks forth, but it also quickly enfolds itself, for the divine patience suffers not all his wrath to be stirred up. If it were not a fire thus enfolding itself, O Lord! who shall stand?
2. The fire is surrounded with a glory: A brightness was about it, in which it enfolded itself, yet it made some discovery of itself. Though we cannot see into the fire, cannot by searching find out God to perfection, yet we see the brightness that is round about it, the reflection of this fire from the thick cloud. Moses might see God’s back parts, but not his face. We have some light concerning the nature of God, from the brightness which encompasses it, though we have not an insight into it, by reason of the cloud spread upon it. Nothing is more easy than to determine that God is, nothing more difficult than to describe what he is. When God displays his wrath as fire, yet there is a brightness about it; for his holiness and justice appear very illustrious in the punishment of sin and sinners: even about the devouring fire there is a brightness, which glorified saints will for ever admire.
3. Out of this fire there shines the colour of amber. We are not told who or what it was that had this colour of amber, and therefore I take it to be the whole frame of the following vision, which came into Ezekiel’s view out of the midst of the fire and brightness; and the first thing he took notice of before he viewed the particulars was that it was of the colour of amber, or the eye of amber; that is, it looked as amber does to the eye, of a bright flaming fiery colour, the colour of a burning coal; so some think it should be read. The living creatures which he saw coming out of the midst of the fire were seraphim—burners; for he maketh his angels spirits, his ministers a flaming fire.
4. That which comes out of the fire, of a fiery amber colour, when it comes to be distinctly viewed, is the likeness of four living creatures; not the living creatures themselves (angels are spirits, and cannot be seen), but the likeness of them, such a hieroglyphic, or representation, as God saw fit to make use of for the leading of the prophet, and us with him, into some acquaintance with the world of angels (a matter purely of divine revelation), so far as is requisite to possess us with an awful sense of the greatness of that God who has angels for his attendants, and the goodness of that God who has appointed them to be attendants on his people. The likeness of these living creatures came out of the midst of the fire; for angels derive their being and power from God; they are in themselves, and to us, what he is pleased to make them; their glory is a ray of his. The prophet himself explains this vision (Ezek. 10:20): I knew that the living creatures were the cherubim, which is one of the names by which the angels are known in scripture. To Daniel was made known their number, ten thousand times ten thousand, Dan. 7:10. But, though they are many, yet they are one, and that is made known to Ezekiel here; they are one in nature and operation, as an army, consisting of thousands, is yet called a body of men. We have here an account of,
(1.) Their nature. They are living creatures; they are the creatures of God, the work of his hands; their being is derived; they have not life in and of themselves, but receive it from him who is the fountain of life. As much as the living creatures of this lower world excel the vegetables that are the ornaments of earth, so much do the angels, the living creatures of the upper world, excel the sun, moon, and stars, the ornaments of the heavens. The sun (say some) is a flame of fire enfolding itself, but it is not a living creature, as angels, those flames of fire, are. Angels are living creatures, living beings, emphatically so. Men on earth are dying creatures, dying daily (in the midst of life we are in death), but angels in heaven are living creatures; they live indeed, live to good purpose; and, when saints come to be equal unto the angels, they shall not die any more, Luke 20:36.
(2.) Their number. They are four; so they appear here, though they are innumerable; not as if these were four particular angels set up above the rest, as some have fondly imagined, Michael and Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel, but for the sake of the four faces they put on, and to intimate their being sent forth towards the four winds of heaven, Matt. 24:31. Zechariah saw them as four chariots going forth east, west, north, and south, Zech. 6:1. God has messengers to send every way; for his kingdom is universal, and reaches to all parts of the world.
(3.) Their qualifications, by which they are fitted for the service of their Maker and Master. These are set forth figuratively and by similitude, as is proper in visions, which are parables to the eye. Their description here is such, and so expressed, that I think it is not possible by it to form an exact idea of them in our fancies, or with the pencil, for that would be a temptation to worship them; but the several instances of their fitness for the work they are employed in are intended in the several parts of this description. Note, It is the greatest honour of God’s creatures to be in a capacity of answering the end of their creation; and the more ready we are to every good work the nearer we approach to the dignity of angels. These living creatures are described here, [1.] By their general ap 8000 pearance: They had the likeness of a man; they appeared, for the main, in a human shape, First, To signify that these living creatures are reasonable creatures, intelligent beings, who have the spirit of a man which is the candle of the Lord. Secondly, To put an honour upon the nature of man, who is made lower, yet but a little lower, than the angels, in the very next rank of beings below them. When the invisible intelligences of the upper world would make themselves visible, it is in the likeness of man. Thirdly, To intimate that their delights are with the sons of men, as their Master’s are (Prov. 8:31), that they do service to men, and men may have spiritual communion with them by faith, hope, and holy love. Fourthly, The angels of God appear in the likeness of man because in the fulness of time the Son of God was not only to appear in that likeness, but to assume that nature; they therefore show this love to it. [2.] By their faces: Every one had four faces, looking four several ways. In St. John’s vision, which has a near affinity with this, each of the four living creatures has one of these faces here mentioned (Rev. 4:7); here each of them has all four, to intimate that they have all the same qualifications for service; though, perhaps, among the angels of heaven, as among the angels of the churches, some excel in one gift and others in another, but all for the common service. Let us contemplate their faces till we be in some measure changed into the same image, that we may do the will of God as the angels do it in heaven. They all four had the face of a man (for in that likeness they appeared, Ezek. 1:5), but, besides that, they had the face of a lion, an ox, and an eagle, each masterly in its kind, the lion among wild beasts, the ox among tame ones, and the eagle among fowls, Ezek. 1:10. Does God make use of them for the executing of judgments upon his enemies? They are fierce and strong as the lion and the eagle in tearing their prey. Does he make use of them for the good of his people? They are as oxen strong for labour and inclined to serve. And in both they have the understanding of a man. The scattered perfections of the living creatures on earth meet in the angels of heaven. They have the likeness of man; but, because there are some things in which man is excelled even by the inferior creatures, they are therefore compared to some of them. They have the understanding of a man, and such as far exceeds it; they also resemble man in tenderness and humanity. But, First, A lion excels man in strength and boldness, and is much more formidable; therefore the angels, who in this resemble them, put on the face of a lion. Secondly, An ox excels man in diligence, and patience, and painstaking, and an unwearied discharge of the work he has to do; therefore the angels, who are constantly employed in the service of God and the church, put on the face of an ox. Thirdly, An eagle excels man in quickness and piercingness of sight, and in soaring high; and therefore the angels, who seek things above, and see far into divine mysteries, put on the face of a flying eagle. [3.] By their wings: Every one had four wings, Ezek. 1:6. In the vision Isaiah had of them they appeared with six, now with four; for they appeared above the throne, and had occasion for two to cover their faces with. The angels are fitted with wings to fly swiftly on God’s errands; whatever business God sends them upon they lose no time. Faith and hope are the soul’s wings, upon which it soars upward; pious and devout affections are its wings on which it is carried forward with vigour and alacrity. The prophet observes here, concerning their wings, First, That they were joined one to another, Ezek. 1:9 and again Ezek. 1:11. They did not make use of their wings for fighting, as some birds do; there is no contest among the angels. God makes peace, perfect peace, in his high places. But their wings were joined, in token of their perfect unity and unanimity and the universal agreement there is among them. Secondly, That they were stretched upward, extended, and ready for use, not folded up, or flagging. Let an angel receive the least intimation of the divine will, and he has nothing to seek, but is upon the wings immediately; while our poor dull souls are like the ostrich, that with much difficulty lifts up herself on high. Thirdly, That two of their wings were made use of in covering their bodies, the spiritual bodies they assumed. The clothes that cover us are our hindrance in work; angels need no other covering than their own wings, which are their furtherance. They cover their bodies from us, so forbidding us needless enquiries concerning them. Ask not after them, for they are wonderful, Jdg. 13:18. They cover them before God, so directing us, when we approach to God, to see to it that we be so clothed with Christ’s righteousness that the shame of our nakedness may not appear. [4.] By their feet, including their legs and thighs: They were straight feet (Ezek. 1:7); they stood straight, and firm, and steady; no burden of service could make their legs to bend under them. The spouse makes this part of the description of her beloved, that his legs were as pillars of marble set upon sockets of fine gold (Song 5:15); such are the angels’ legs. The sole of their feet was like that of a calf’s foot, which divides the hoof and is therefore clean: as it were the sole of a round foot (as the Chaldee words it); they were ready for motion any way. Their feet were winged (so the LXX.); they went so swiftly that it was as if they flew. And their very feet sparkled like the colour of burnished brass; not only the faces, but the very feet, of those are beautiful whom God sends on his errands (Isa. 52:7); every step the angels take is glorious. In the vision John had of Christ it is said, His feet were like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace, Rev. 1:15. [5.] By their hands (Ezek. 1:8): They had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides, an arm and a hand under every wing. They had not only wings for motion, but hands for action. Many are quick who are not active; they hurry about a great deal, but do nothing to purpose, bring nothing to pass; they have wings, but no hands: whereas God’s servants, the angels, not only go when he sends them and come when he calls them, but do what he bids them. They are the hands of a man, which are wonderfully made and fitted for service, which are guided by reason and understanding; for what angles do they do intelligently and with judgment. They have calves’ feet; this denotes the swiftness of their motion (the cedars of Lebanon are said to skip like a calf, Ps. 29:6); but they have a man’s hand, which denotes the niceness and exactness of their performances, as the heavens are said to be the work of God’s fingers. Their hands were under their wings, which concealed them, as they did the rest of their bodies. Note, The agency of angels is a secret thing and their work is carried on in an invisible way. In working for God, though we must not, with the sluggard, hide our hand in our bosom, yet we must, with the humble, not let our left hand know what our right hand doeth. We may observe that where these wings were their hands were under their wings; wherever their wings carried them they carried hands along with them, to be still doing something suitable something that the duty of the place requires.
(4.) Their motions. The living creatures are moving. Angels are active beings; it is not their happiness to sit still and do nothing, but to be always well employed; and we must reckon ourselves then best when we are doing good, doing it as the angels do it, or whom it is here observed, [1.] That whatever service they went about they went every one straight forward (Ezek. 1:9, 12), which intimates, First, That they sincerely aimed at the glory of God, and had a single eye to that, in all they did. Their going straight forward supposes that they looked straight forward, and never had any sinister intentions in what they did. And, if thus our eye be single, our whole body will be full of light. The singleness of the eye is the sincerity of the heart. Secondly, That they were intent upon the service they were employed in, and did it with a close application of mind. They went forward with their work; for what their hand found to do they did with all their might and did not loiter in it. Thirdly, That they were unanimous in it: They went straight forward, every one about his own work; they did not thwart or jostle one another, did not stand in one another’s light, in one another’s way. Fourthly, That they perfectly understood their business, and were thoroughly apprised of it, so that they needed not to stand still, to pause of hesitate, but pursue their work with readiness, as those that knew what they had to do and how to do it. Fifthly, They were steady and constant in their work. They did not fluctuate, did not tire, did not vary, but were of a piece with themselves. They moved in a direct line, and so went the nearest way to work in all they did and lost no time. When we go straight we go forward; when we serve God with one heart we rid ground, we rid work. [2.] They turned not when they went, Ezek. 1:9, 12. First, They made no blunders or mistakes, which would give them occasion to turn back to rectify them; their work needed no correction, and therefore needed not to be gone over again. Secondly, They minded no diversions; as they turned not back, so they turned not aside, to trifle with any thing that was foreign to their business. [3.] They went whither the Spirit was to go (Ezek. 1:12), either, First, Whither their own spirit was disposed to go; thither they went, having no bodies, as we have, to clog or hinder them. It is our infelicity and daily burden that, when the spirit if willing, yet the flesh is weak and cannot keep pace with it, so that the good which we would do we do it not; but angels and glorified saints labour under no such impotency; whatever they incline or intend to do they do it, and never come short of it. Or, rather, Secondly, Whithersoever the Spirit of God would have them go, thither they went. Though they had so much wisdom of their own, yet in all their motions and actions they subjected themselves to the guidance and government of the divine will. Whithersoever the divine Providence was to go they went, to serve its purposes and to execute its orders. The Spirit of God (says Mr. Greenhill) is the great agent that sets angels to work, and it is their honour that they are led, they are easily led, by the Spirit. See how tractable and obsequious these noble creatures are. Whithersoever the Spirit is to go they go immediately, with all possible alacrity. Note, Those that walk after the Spirit do the will of God as the angels do it. [4.] They ran and returned like a flash of lightning, Ezek. 1:14. This intimates, First, That they made haste; they were quick in their motions, as quick as lightning. Whatever business they went about they despatched it immediately, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. Happy they that have no bodies to retard their motion in holy exercises. And happy shall we be when we come to have spiritual bodies for spiritual work. Satan falls like lightning into his own ruin, Luke 10:18. Angels fly like lightning in their Master’s work. The angel Gabriel flew swiftly. Secondly, That they made haste back: They ran and returned; ran to do their work and execute their orders, and then returned to give an account of what they had done and receive new instructions, that they might be always doing. They ran into the lower world, to do what was to be done there; but, when they had done it, they returned like flash of lightning to the upper world again, to the beatific vision of their God, which they could not with any patience be longer from than their service did require. Thus we should be in the affairs of this world as out of our element. Though we run into them, we must not repose in them, but our souls must quickly return like lightning to God their rest and centre.
5. We have an account of the light by which the prophet saw these living creatures, or the looking-glass in which he saw them, Ezek. 1:13. (1.) He saw them by their own light, for their appearance was like burning coals of fire; they are seraphim-burners, denoting the ardour of their love to God, their fervent zeal in his service, their splendour and brightness, and their terror against God’s enemies. When God employs them to fight his battles they are as coals of fire (Ps. 18:12) to devour the adversaries, as lightnings shot out to discomfit them. (2.) He saw them by the light of some lamps, which went up and down among them, the shining whereof was very bright. Satan’s works are works of darkness; he is the ruler of the darkness of this world. But the angels of light are in the light, and, though they conceal their working, they show their work, for it will bear the light. But we see them and their works only by candle-light, but the dim light of lamps that go up and down among them; when the day breaks, and the shadows flee away, we shall see them clearly. Some make the appearance of these burning coals, and of the lightning that issues out of the fire, to signify the wrath of God, and his judgments, that were now to be executed upon Judah and Jerusalem for their sins, in which angels were to be employed; and accordingly we find afterwards coals of fire scattered upon the city to consume it, which were fetched from between the cherubim, Ezek. 10:2. But by the appearance of the lamps then we may understand the light of comfort which shone forth to the people of God in the darkness of this present trouble. If the ministry of the angels is as a consuming fire to God’s enemies, it is as a rejoicing light to his own children. To the one this fire is bright, it is very reviving and refreshing; to the other, out of the fire comes fresh lightning to destroy them. Note, Good angels are our friends, or enemies, according as God is.