“He’s my rock, my sword, my shield, He’s my wheel in the middle of a wheel …” Have you ever heard or sung these lyrics? What do they mean? A number of songs, including the old negro spiritual, “Ezekiel Saw De Wheel,” are based on an obscure passage in the first chapter of the OT book of Ezekiel. While different songwriters may have different ideas, our purpose is to consider the passage in its original context.
Around 605 BC, the people of Judah were forced to pay tribute to the rapidly expanding Babylonian empire, while Daniel and certain others were carried off into captivity. About seven or eight years later, in response to Judah’s revolt, the Babylonians enacted a massive deportation of the upper echelons of Jewish society, including King Jehoiachin and Ezekiel the priest. Five years into this exile, Ezekiel is called to be a prophet to the Jewish captives, warning that divine judgment against the rebellious people of Judah has not ended.
Ezekiel’s Call (1:1-3)
The “thirtieth year” (v. 1) is probably the thirtieth year of Ezekiel’s life, seeing that as a priest (v. 3) he would have been eligible to begin his priestly service at age thirty (Num. 4:23, 30, 39, 43, 47). But in exile God had another job for him. In the fifth year of captivity (ca. 593/592 BC), Ezekiel saw “visions of God,” and “the word of the LORD” came to him.1
A Vision of God’s Glory and Divine Judgment (1:4-14)
The record of Ezekiel’s vision is highly symbolic, because God’s glory (v. 28) cannot be seen, described, or fully conceptualized by finite humans. The images in v. 4 of “a whirlwind,” “a great cloud,” “brightness,” and “fire” are common symbols of divine activity and judgment.2 The “four living creatures” (v. 5a) symbolize God’s attributes,3 depicted in “the likeness of a man” (v. 5b), i.e., in human terms and concepts (anthropomorphism), with faces, wings, legs/feet, hands, bodies, spirit (vv. 6-12).
“Each one had four faces, and each one had four wings” (v. 6). They moved in one direction, with singleness of purpose (vv. 7a, 9b, 12). Their feet were “like the soles of calves’ feet” (v. 7b), not getting blistered or tired. There was a radiance about them (vv. 4, 7c). “The hands of a man” (v. 8a) represent action to be taken, while “under their wings” (v. 8b, 11) suggests the divine activity is somewhat hidden from plain sight. The touching of the wings (vv. 9a, 11) shows unified action. Each had “the face of a man” (v. 10a), indicative of intelligence and dominion (Gen. 1:26); “the face of a lion” (v. 10b), signifying sovereignty (Gen. 49:9-10); “the face of an ox” (v. 10c), representing strength (Num. 23:22); and “the face of an eagle” (v. 10d), symbolizing swiftness [in judgment] (Hos. 8:1; Hab. 1:8). All were directed by one spiritual force (vv. 12, 20). God’s judgment is again depicted in vv. 13-14 with the symbols of “burning coals of fire,” “torches,” and “lightning” (cf. v. 4; also 2 Sam. 22:9, 13, 15; Psa. 77:18).
The Wheels (1:15-21)
Next Ezekiel saw “a wheel on the earth” (v. 15), so divine judgment is not coming in the heavenly realm but on the earth. Then the single wheel becomes four radiant wheels (v. 16a), and Ezekiel seems to struggle to describe what he was seeing. He says, “The appearance of their workings was, as it were, a wheel in the middle of a wheel” (v. 16b). What does that mean? Commentators and artists have made valiant attempts to explain or depict this enigmatic vision, but in so doing I think they are missing the point. What Ezekiel saw was incomprehensible and even indescribable because it represents the working of God, whose ways are incomprehensible and indescribable (cf. Job 42:3; Isa. 55:9).
The wheels were working in unison. “When they moved, they went toward any one of four directions” (v. 17a) – omnipresence; “they did not turn aside when they went” (v. 17b) – singleness of purpose. “As for their rims, they were so high they were awesome” (v. 18a) – exalted; “and their rims were full of eyes, all around the four of them” (v. 18b) – omniscience. In the vision the living creatures have metamorphosed into God’s chariot of judgment, directed by a single spiritual force (vv. 19-21; cf. 2 Sam. 22:8-11).
The Rest of the Opening Vision (1:22-28)
The symbolism continues, depicting God’s glory (v. 22), God’s providential working (v. 23), God’s power (v. 24), God’s authority (v. 25), God’s sovereignty (v. 26), and God’s splendor (vv. 27-28a). “This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. So when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard a voice of One speaking” (v. 28b).
Whatever application modern-day songwriters have chosen to make from Ezekiel’s opening vision, our concern is the passage itself and its intended meaning. Contextually the “wheels” of Ezekiel 1:15-21 seem to depict the chariot of God’s judgment in the broader framework of God’s glory in judgment. Ezekiel’s prophetic vision was fulfilled approximately five years later as divine wrath was poured out on the rebellious people of Judah. About 587/586 BC, Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, followed by another massive deportation of the Lords’ defiant (now defeated) people into Babylonian exile.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 Scripture quotations are from the NKJV.
2 See, e.g. Ezek. 30:8, 14, 16; Job 38:1; 40:6; Psa. 18:12; 58:9; 77:18; 104:3; Isa. 17:13; 19:1; 34:9; Jer. 4:13; Lam. 2:3, 4; 4:11; Joel 1:19-20; 2:3, 5, 30; Amos 5:6; Ob. 18; Zeph. 1:18; Mal. 4:1; et al.
3 Called cherubim in 10:5, 10; imagery borrowed by John in Rev. 4:6-9; 5:6-14; 6:1, 6; 7:11; 8:9; 14:3; 15:7; 19:4.