The following is an excerpt from the For Everyone Commentary Series by John Goldingay and N.T. Wright.
WE DON’T ALWAYS GET WHAT WE DESERVE
I’ve remembered why I had that visit from the man I mentioned in connection with Lamentations 5. I’d talked in class about a pastor who ignored a call from God to go and serve him abroad as a missionary. His subsequent ministry in England had been greatly blessed, even though he was not in the place where God had wanted him. One failure in obedience to God doesn’t have to ruin your whole life.
The man who came to see me had been told that persisting with his new relationship and divorcing his wife so he could marry this other woman would mean God would never bless his new marriage. I told him you could never make such predictions because God is always having to decide afresh whether to be merciful or disciplinary. Our calling is to do the right thing because it’s the right thing, not because we might forfeit God’s blessing.
LEARNING FROM EZEKIEL 1:1-28
Ezekiel’s community is people who were transported to Babylon in 597; five years have now passed. Anyone with religious sensitivity or principle knew that they’d deserved this fate (even if there were individuals like Ezekiel who didn’t deserve it) and would wonder whether they could ever expect Yahweh to reach out to them in Babylon. Their feelings might be similar to those expressed in Lamentations after the further fall of Jerusalem in 587. They’ve forfeited any right to expect God’s blessing.
(We don’t know what “the thirtieth year” refers to. Maybe Ezekiel was thirty years old, the age when he might have taken up his ministry as a priest if he hadn’t been transported to Babylon.)
GOD SHOWS UP
Out of the blue, in a literal sense, Yahweh appears in Babylon. Maybe Ezekiel sees a literal storm approaching, with wind, cloud, and lightning. If so, Yahweh turns the literal storm into an appearance of his own cloud carriage. Yahweh is coming to his people in Babylon—Babylon of all places!
Not that he’s coming with a message of comfort; rather the opposite. It does mean he hasn’t simply washed his hands of them. Perhaps the vision’s significance is to show that Yahweh has already been present with his people in Babylon; he now enables this prophet to see behind the veil constituted by the heavens themselves, to see that Yahweh is present, and to report that fact to the people.
There are limits to what God dares let Ezekiel see. Too direct an appearance of God would simply blind a mere human being. Most of what God lets Ezekiel see is his carriage pulled by four creatures—not mere horses but combinations of human being, animal, and bird (so they can fly and transport God through the heavens). They’re subsequently called cherubs. Their combined features give them great maneuverability, as do the crisscross wheels on the carriage that can go this way or that at will. But they’re driven by one will.
HE LETS US SEE & EXPERIENCE HIS GREATNESS
The creatures support a platform on which there stands a throne; on the throne is a human-like figure. Ezekiel is looking from below, so he sees little of the figure. His experience parallels that of Isaiah, who sees only the hem of God’s robe. While God can be pictured as lion-like or rock-like, more often God is described as human-like—it links with the fact that human beings are made in God’s image to represent God in the world. Ezekiel’s account also safeguards God’s transcendence (it won’t let us think of God in too human terms) by using the name Shadday. The traditional translation “Almighty” is a guess. The only other Hebrew word with which the Old Testament links the name is a verb meaning “destroy,” so people might take “Shadday” to suggest “destroyer”; this understanding would suit Ezekiel.
It’s also a solemn fact that the storm comes from the north, the direction where people often located God’s abode, but also the direction from which invaders came. But then it declares that there was something of a rainbow’s appearance about this God, one who put his bow away and let it hang in the sky without string and without arrows (see Genesis 9).
God’s appearing to Ezekiel is both good news and solemn news. For Ezekiel’s audience and for people reading his messages in written form, it also indicates that we’d better take his words seriously.
THE FOR EVERYONE COMMENTARY SERIES
Did you enjoy how this commentary takes a passage of the Old Testament and relates it to daily life?
The For Everyone Commentary Series has 35 volumes, including books from both the Old and New Testament. Each volume includes the editors’ translations of the entire text. Then, each short passage is followed by background information, useful explanations and suggestions, and thoughts as to how the text can be relevant to our lives today.
This resource works with the Resource Guide, showing you relevant articles as you read the Bible. Also, verses and footnotes are linked for quick reading.
COMMENT BELOW: Where have you seen God show up where you didn’t expect or deserve?