I Saw Visions of God
March 10th, 1985 @ 10:50 AM
I SAW VISIONS OF GOD
Dr. W. A. Criswell
3-10-85 10:50 a.m.
And sharing the service of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, this is the pastor bringing the message entitled The Heavens Were Opened and I Saw Visions of God. It is an exposition of the entire first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel. And the title is in the first verse:
It came to pass in the thirtieth year—
when Ezekiel was thirty years old, when he had been a captive, a slave in Babylon for five years—
in the fourth month, in the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the River Chebar, that the heavens were opened, and i saw visions of God.
It is hard for us to enter into the vast, almost indescribable contrast that overwhelmed these broken and beaten and enslaved captives from the hills and the wilderness of Judah and the mountains of Israel as they were brought to this new empire, the land of Babylonia with its magnificent capital, the city of Babylon. They saw there things beyond their imagination: art, architecture, temples, and above all, the gorgeous ritual and worship of the great Babylonian deity, Baal-Merodach. So great was that city that its very name signifies the vast, mighty cities of the word to this very day, Babylon. In the fourth chapter of the Book of Daniel, you have a description of Nebuchadnezzar the king who stands in the center of that scintillating, throbbing, bursting, builded city and cries, saying: “Is not this the great Babylon, the house of my kingdom and the glory of my majesty?” [Daniel 4:30].
And these slaves, these captives, these exiles who were brought from those impoverished hills and mountains of Judah and Israel, how they must have been overwhelmed by the grandeur and the glory and the magnitude of that glorious civilization; and how they must have been thrown into an inward conflict when they saw the gorgeous ritual and the beauty of expression as the king and his conquering army and the victorious people bowed down in worship before the deities of the Babylonian pantheon. These are the people of triumph and victory, and this is the god who has led them to such immeasurable conquest.
The inevitable temptation resulted. How could they escape it: the vast invitation to share in the wealth, and the culture, and the affluence, and the rewards of these victorious and conquering people? And many of them succumbed. When Cyrus gave permission to return back to those barren hills of Palestine, very few of them returned [Ezra 1:1-3, 2:64-65]. They were enticed by the affluence and the wealth of the great city and kingdom of Babylon.
They took Babylonian names. They married Babylonian wives. They brought libations to Babylonian gods. They copied Babylonian ways. They identified them with a worldliness of city culture. They entered Babylonian commercial enterprises. They became businessmen, successful in the Babylonian world. They forgot that they were Israelites, that they were Hebrews. They forgot their Hebrew language. In one generation, it was never spoken again [Nehemiah 8:8]. And for two thousand five hundred years was never spoken. And they were introduced to the worship of the great god of Babylon who had led those people to victory and triumph over the civilized world. That was the fate, the providence that faced these broken exiles, captives from the land of Judea and Israel.
And it was then, it was at that time, it was at that moment that Ezekiel, God’s called and commissioned prophet, burst into the life of the captives like Elijah, like a bursting, breaking star [Ezekiel 2:1-10]. And the vision that he saw by the River Chebar was one of the most brilliant, and dynamic, and scintillating, and remarkable visions of all time [Ezekiel 1:1-28]. There is hardly anything comparable to it in the Word of God. Ezekiel sees the great Jehovah God Almighty coming forth, proceeding forth, going before him a storm, the tempest, the whirlwind [Ezekiel 1:4]. And His presence is signified by the flashing thunder and lightning [Ezekiel 1:14], and round about Him is the iridescent colors of the rainbow, the sign of God’s eternal faithfulness to His people [Ezekiel 1:28].
And as Ezekiel looks at the vision more intently, it seems that the great Lord God of heaven and earth is borne by strange figures with strange faces. They are like burning coals and they move with the rapidity of lightning. And when Ezekiel looks at them more intently, he sees them, each one with a face of a man, and the face of a lion, and the face of an ox, and the face of an eagle [Ezekiel 1:10]. These are the symbols of the gods of Babylon. And among them, the throne and the chariot of the Lord God pantokratōr of the whole created universe, Jehovah, the God of those despised and exiled Israelites, Hebrews [Ezekiel 1:26]. As Ezekiel looks at those who are bearing the great throne of the mighty Jehovah, one of them, one of the faces is that of a man, a man [Ezekiel 1:10]. On the plain of Dura in Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar built the great image of a man [Daniel 3:1]. And by mandate and commandment, every man, woman, and child had to bow down in worship before that image of a man, raised on the plain of Dura by Nebuchadnezzar, the face of a man [Daniel 3:2-7].
You have that today; it is not any different. Humanism: the worship of man. We can solve all of our problems. That’s all we need in our schools, humanism, secularism, the face of a man, the worship of man.
He saw also that each one of those strange figures had the face of a lion, the face of a lion [Ezekiel 1:10]. That was the symbol of Nergal, Nergal, the deity, the Babylonian god of the underworld, the ravages of death. And he saw the face, one of them as that of an ox [Ezekiel 1:10], the crouching bull, the universal symbol and sign of the leader and the director of the pantheon of the Babylonian’s god whose name was Baal-Merodach.
And he saw one of the faces as of an eagle [Ezekiel 1:10], the sign and the aegis and the symbol of the Assyrian-Babylonian god Shamash, the eagle. For how many generations after has that been a sign and insignia of the power of a nation; the Roman eagle, the German eagle, the American eagle? And in his vision, Ezekiel saw all of those deities and gods of Babylon underneath the throne of the great mighty Jehovah [Ezekiel 1:5-28], the Lord of all the earth, exalted, majestic, glorious, infinite, marvelous. And these gods of the Babylonians are but draft horses, chained and tied to His chariot, and these worshipers are but slaves before the might and glory of the going forth of the great Lord Jehovah God.
What a vision! What a message! What an apocalypse! What a revelation! And in these few minutes that remain for us, with Ezekiel we’re going to look intently at that apocalyptic vision. “I saw heaven opened and visions of God” [Ezekiel 1:1].
This passage is divided into three parts. First, he describes those living creatures [Ezekiel 1:5-24]. In the tenth chapter of the Book of Ezekiel, several times they are called cherubim, cherubim [Ezekiel 10:1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, 9, 15, 16, 18, 19, 20]. Cherubim in the Bible are always these created angelic beings who uphold the holiness and the majesty and the glory of God. In the first part of the first chapter, they are described as being erect [Ezekiel 1:7]. That is different from all of the symbols of that ancient day. All of those gods were either seated or they were crouching like Baal-Merodach, the bull, the ox god. These are erect. They stand erect [Ezekiel 1:7, 21]. And they flame with fire [Ezekiel 1:13]. And their wings touch. Their wings at the tip touch [Ezekiel 1:9, 11]. They move together in harmony [Ezekiel 1:12, 17]. And underneath their wings are the hands of a man [Ezekiel 1:8]. What an amazing revelation: beneath their wings, the hands of a man!
True religion has wings. It soars to God. True religion also has hands. It reaches down to humanity. There is a religion that has wings alone. It flies to the eternal mysteries, and it disdains the earth and things earthly. It is ascetic. It is unworldly. It is separated and apart. It lives and moves up there among the stars and among the great mysteries of God. It has wings. But it has no time for or interest in the things of the world.
Adversely, there is religion that has just hands. It spurns theology. It spurns the worship of God. It spurns the revelation of the Almighty, and it has time only for the things of humanity: civic, and moral, and economic, and domestic, and political betterment, all of the things that we seek to do down here to further the cause of humanity, but no time for God.
One of the strangest things I have ever met in my life is so oftentimes do social workers spurn the worship of Almighty God. “That is my religion.” That is this religion, “That is the religion to which I give my life: just the service of humanity.” True religion is both. True religion always has wings that makes flight up to God, and it has hands that reach down to humanity, both of them, both of them. We have a vision of God, and we also have a heart for humanity. We have a flight in our souls heavenward and Christ-ward, and we also have a deepening love and interest in the Word and the woes of humanity. There is a vision and a dedication and a consecration to God to pray, and to praise, and to worship in His glorious name, and to give ourselves to Him in love and adoration, and at the same time to pour our lives into the ministries of helpfulness and remembrance and compassion.
Jesus was like that. He had wings, and He had human hands. He was God, wings belonged to heaven and yet His hands stooped to the humblest of all ministries. With His hands He would touch a leper [Mark 1:40-42]. Nobody ever did that. With His hands He would bless little children; the disciples couldn’t understand that [Mark 10:13-16]. With His hands He would break bread and feed the hungry [Luke 9:16]. With His hands, He would lift up a sinking Simon Peter [Matthew 14:28-31]. With His hands He would wash the apostle’s feet [John 13:5]. With his hands He was nailed to the tree [1 Peter 2:24]; died with His hands outstretched to the world on the cross [Matthew 27:32-50]. And when He was ascended up into heaven, He is described: “And He stretched forth His hands and blessed them. And as He blessed them, He was taken out of their sight” [Luke 24:50-51; Acts 1:9].
And in the marvelous passage that you just read in the first chapter of the Book of Revelation, when John saw Him, glorified, resplendent, he fell at his feet as dead. And the Lord Jesus, glorified, reached forth His right hand [Revelation 1:17]. How many times had He done that in the days of His flesh? And the Lord Jesus reached forth His right hand and touched him. Put His hand upon him and said:
…Fear not. I am the First and the Last.
I am He that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore; and I have the keys of Hell and of Death, Amen.
Wings and hands…true religion always has both! We bow in reverence, and adoration, and love, and dedication before our great God, and we extend our hands in loving sympathy and compassion and help to the needs of the human heart and the human life; both wings and hands.
The middle part of this first chapter describes the double wheels. By each side of a cherub, by each side of the cherubim, were great enormous awesome wheels. And there was a wheel within a wheel [Ezekiel 1:15-16]. The wheels were at right angles. And they were so high! He says they were dreadful! They were awesome!” [Ezekiel 1:18]. The wheel extended from the earth, it touched the earth, and it touched the throne of God in heaven, the great wheel [Ezekiel 1:15-21].
And it was instant with life. The life that was in the cherubim was in the double wheel [Ezekiel 1:16], and they moved together, and they had in nowise to turn because the wheel was at right angle this way or that way, and it moved with the rapidity of lightning [Ezekiel 1:14]. And the rim of wheels was filled with eyes [Ezekiel 1:18], representative and symbolic of the omniscience, the wisdom, the all-knowing Almighty God [Psalm 33:13-15].
Wheels: the wheels of God’s sovereign providence, the wheels of God’s elective choice and will. The turning of the wheel: our lives are enmeshed in that at the top, at the bottom, the turning of the wheel of God’s providence, and earth’s tumult neither begins nor ends the circuit of God’s sovereign grace. The wheel moves, history moves, God’s will moves and always it is in His elective choice and His elective purpose.
Sometimes it is difficult for us to see that or to believe that or accept that, but that is the revelation of the truth of Almighty God. His will in heaven touches earth beneath. And the great providence in which we are caught up as human beings are in the will and elective purpose and providence of God.
I don’t know of a more poignant illustration of that than in the life of that son whom Jacob loved, the son of Rachel to whom he gave a coat of many colors, Joseph [Genesis 37:3]. They, his brethren, were jealous of Joseph. Jealous of him; that’s bad. That’s bad! His brothers hated him and that’s bad [Genesis 37:4]. And they put him in a pit to die and that’s bad [Genesis 37:23-24]. And they sold him to the Ishmaelites. That’s bad [Genesis 37:26-28]. And the Ishmaelites put him on a slave block in Egypt, and he was sold as a slave to an Egyptian, and that’s bad [Genesis 37:36]. And while he was in the house of the owner that bought him, Potiphar, he was accused as being an affront to Potiphar’s wife, and Potiphar threw him in prison, and that’s bad. And in the prison he languished there for years and years, and that’s bad [Genesis 39:7-20].
It looks bad to us! But out of that turning of the wheel of God’s providence, God spared Jacob, God spared Jacob’s family, and God spared the people [Genesis 41:54-47:12]. In the fiftieth chapter of the Book of Genesis when Joseph died he gathered his brethren around him and said, recounting the providence that had overwhelmed him, “You meant it for evil, you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good. God meant it for good” [Genesis 50:20]. And these providences that overwhelm us in life and sometimes crush us, we weep whether we choose to weep or not, and the tears run down our faces whether we choose to cry or not, and our hearts are broken and crushed. Out of them, God purposes some good thing. Cheer up, my brother. Like that old song:
Farther along we’ll know all about it,
Farther along, we’ll understand why;
Lift up your heart, my brother!
[“Farther Along,” J.R. Baxter, W.B. Stevens]
The wheel of God’s providence working out some good thing for us.
And the last part—and dare I say it? Dare Ezekiel say it? Above these living forms instinct with life, and above these great double wheels that move with the same spirit as the cherubim [Ezekiel 1:20], administering, carrying through to fruition the sovereign will of God, above it, above it, he sees a vast expanse. It is as a sapphire stone, clear as the azure blue of the sky. And on that throne, and on that throne, dare he say this, even in a vision, on that throne—does he not blaspheme to write it?—on that throne, he sees as it were the appearance of a man [Ezekiel 1:26]. On the throne of the universe, the great God Almighty has the appearance of a human being, a man.
As you read this passage and we don’t have time to do it, as we read this passage, it is plainly language that is struggling with reality. Any theophany, any Christophany, any revelation or vision of God is just like this. Language cannot convey the weight and the glory of the meaning; it cannot bear it; it cannot say it. It is beyond language. It is beyond description. It is beyond words. Syllables and sentences are not commensurate.
If you read the theophany in the twenty-fourth chapter of Exodus [Exodus 24:9-10]; you read the Christophany in the sixth chapter of the Book of Ezekiel [Ezekiel 6:1-14]; you read the glorious vision of God in the seventh chapter of the Book of Daniel [Daniel 7:1-28]; you read the marvelous revelation that you just read of Jesus Christ in Revelation 1, or 4, or 6 [Revelation 1:9-17, 4:1-3, 6:1-17]; anywhere you read in the Bible, language stammers and stumbles and hesitates before the glory of the vision. And it does so here.
Look at the way he’ll say it. Five times in this one verse, 1:26, he uses the word “likeness” and “appearance,” five times [Ezekiel 1:26]. Four times he does that in the next verse [Ezekiel 1:27]. And four times he does that in the next verse: “The appearance and the likeness, the likeness and the appearance” [Ezekiel 1:28]. How do you describe God? And he says: “And upon the throne of the universe was the likeness as the appearance of a man” [Ezekiel 1:26]: the likeness of the appearance of a man on the throne of the great universe. So, our Lord God is human, man-like, the appearance of a man. God, the great God Creator of the universe [Genesis 1:1-31] has a nature akin to us [Ezekiel 1:26]. He feels. He is compassionate. He understands. He is moved [Hebrews 4:14-16]. God, if He could not speak, we could not understand Him. If He were not human in His heart, we could not respond to Him.
You can’t respond in love and tenderness to a star or to a mountain range or to an ocean. Somehow your heart responds to one who is compassionate, or tender, or understanding, or like you! God has human sympathies. Sounds like blasphemy, and yet this is the revelation of the Word of God. The great God of the universe is human. Look, the Book says we are made in His image and in His likeness. We are made in God’s image and in God’s likeness [Genesis 1:26-27]. Is not the adverse true?
If I am in the likeness and image of God, then is not God like me? Is He not in likeness and image like me? If I’m like Him, is He not like me? God, a human compassionate, understanding, Lord God.
What the Bible says sometimes is so overwhelming. The Bible will say that God is more precious than the finest husband. Isaiah 54:5: “For thy Maker—capital “M”—for thy Maker is thine husband; the Lord of hosts is His name; and thy Redeemer the Holy One of Israel; The God of the whole earth shall He be called.” More precious than the finest husband; “thy Maker, the Holy One of Israel; The God of the whole earth is like the finest husband.” He is like the most wonderful, caring father. Psalms 103:13: “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear Him and love Him.” Like a wonderful father is the great God of heaven. And He is like the preciousest, tenderest, darlingest mother. Isaiah 49:15: “Can a mother forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, that mother may forget, but I will never forget thee!” It’s hard to believe. Above the tenderest, sweetest, darlingest, remembering mother is our great Lord God in heaven.
And I have one other thing to point out. When the Lord Jesus came into this earth [Hebrews 10:5-14], when God came down incarnate [Matthew 1:23], He was so much like us that it was nothing that violated Him or humankind when God and man became One in Christ. He had been that all the way through. All the centuries past, the great God of heaven had human tenderness and human compassion and human love [John 3:16]. He was moved in His heart and His soul like human beings [Romans 5:8]. God had always been like that. He loved us, and His compassionate heart went out to us, and He sought for us when we were lost [Matthew 18:11; Ephesians 5:2]. And He healed us when we were sick [Psalm 103:3-5]. And He took care of us when we were helpless. And He blessed us when we were unblessed.
As Leon Howard says, “He loved me just as I was,” as he says, “warts and all.” That’s God all the way through. And when He appeared incarnate in Jesus Christ [Matthew 1:23], He didn’t change. He is “the same yesterday, and today, and forever” [Hebrews 13:8]. He is the great unchanging God. And when we saw Him, and met Him in Jesus Christ, He was just the same.
Did ever a hyphen mean so much; Jesus is the God-Man. And because God is so much like us, and we are so much like God, Jesus could be both, God and man. O Lord, how could I ever be than to bow in His presence; to worship in His name; to ask Him in the days of my defenseless weakness; seek His face in forgiveness; love Him in response; offer Him the adoration of my soul and the service of my hands? What a marvelous, great God and Savior is Jehovah Jesus! And John even says that in the twelfth chapter, that the name of Jesus in the old covenant is Jehovah, they are the same; they are the same [John 12:13].
My sweet brother and my wonderful sister, how is it that I could ever refuse His grace and love and mercy in my heart, in my house, in my home, in my life? How could I ever spurn and say “No!” to the overtures of grace of the blessed Lord Jesus? And that is our appeal and our invitation to you this wonderful, and beautiful, and worshipful, and meaningful moment.
[Tape ends before the invitation begins].