How goes the world? Answering that question tends to lead to discouragement. Everything seems upside down. Evil is considered good; good is considered evil. Truth has fallen in the streets and is trampled by academic processions, political machinery, and populous parades. It seems that Christianity is an ever-shrinking minority with less influence than numbers. Who is in control? How can these things be? Although we may not know why things are the way they are, we must believe that the Bible is true and that there is a throne secluded from natural sight that governs absolutely with an agenda of self-glory and salvific good—God’s throne. It may seem that the world is out of control, but it is not.

Throughout biblical history, God assured His people of His unfailing purpose at times when they needed that assurance most. Ezekiel lived when it appeared that hostile powers would successfully have their pagan way against God’s redemptive plan. Since he was a priest, Ezekiel knew that the sins of his nation warranted the present calamity (Deut. 28), and he was keenly aware that God was using the Babylonians as His instrument to inflict long-threatened chastisement on Judah, the covenant-breaking nation. Yet, Ezekiel, now exiled in Babylon through no fault of his own, faced a personal crisis. The dates mentioned in Ezekiel 1:1–2 are telling. The thirtieth year most likely refers to Ezekiel’s age, which coincided with the fifth year of Jehoiachin’s captivity, a captivity that included Ezekiel and ten thousand others (2 Kings 24:8–16). Destined to be a priest from birth, the exiled Ezekiel missed two critical points in his lifelong calling. At age twenty-five, he should have entered the temple service to commence his apprenticeship (Num. 8:24), and at thirty he would have officially commenced his priestly duties (Num. 4:35). Contrary to his expectation, he was now an unemployed priest miles away from the temple, the place where priests were to work. At this moment of crisis, God revealed Himself to Ezekiel in a strange vision and called the jobless priest to be prophet. In the providence of God, there was a divinely intended job for Ezekiel after all. The vision that God gave to Ezekiel to assure him in his dark days is relevant and assuring for our dark days as well.

Visions were one of the ways that God communicated His word to the holy men of old (Heb. 1:1). Significantly, the visions of God that Ezekiel saw (Ezek. 1:1) are equated with the word of the Lord (Ezek. 1:3). For sure, the images of the vision are odd and highly symbolic, but they are the authoritative revelation given by God, intended to convey, not conceal, truth. Although it would be virtually impossible to portray what Ezekiel saw in art, the point is the function of the figures rather than in their strange appearance. The mysterious vision progresses in four movements or scenes, each one highlighting a vital truth that should assure us that everything is under control regardless of time or circumstance.

Scene 1: God’s Presence Is Certain

By the Chebar River in Babylon, Ezekiel saw a bright fiery cloud coming from the north that became increasingly dazzling as it approached (Ezek. 1:4). Often in the Old Testament, the cloud was a visible symbol of the divine presence, a theophany or appearance of God. For instance, it was the cloud that led the nation out of Egypt, overshadowed Sinai at the giving of the law, and guided the people throughout the wilderness wanderings. It was the shekinah cloud of glory that descended on both the tabernacle and then the temple as a manifestation of God’s presence in the place of worship.

Throughout biblical history, God assured His people of His unfailing purpose at times when they needed that assurance most.

Most significant for Ezekiel was this cloud’s coming from the north. North often designated Israel’s enemies since any invasion of the land came from that direction, except for invasions from Egypt that could enter from the south. In Ezekiel’s context, the north referred to Babylon (see Zech. 2:6–7). Here is the irony and principal point of the vision. Babylon was the place responsible for the darkness, but God was assuring Ezekiel of His presence in this most unexpected place. It may have seemed to Ezekiel that God had abandoned him in the darkness, but it is a spiritual law that appearance and reality are not always the same. According to natural sight, there was only cause for discouragement and fear of the unknown. But the knowledge of God’s certain presence dispels fear and instills confidence that He is really with His people regardless of how dark, discouraging, and dreadful things may appear to be (see Ps. 23:4).

The assurance God gave to Ezekiel applies to us as well. We see the darkness of political, social, economic, and health crises and wonder where God is in all this. We must rest in the assurance that God is right here with us. The reality of His presence is determined not by circumstance or location but by the certainty of His word that He will never leave or forsake His people. Faith takes precedence over sight.

Scene 2: God’s Activity Is Otherworldly

Having assured Ezekiel of His presence, the Lord draws Ezekiel’s attention to His activity (Ezek. 1:5–14). The focus of the vision transitions from the cloud to four mysterious living beings. When Ezekiel recounts this vision later on, he identifies them specifically as cherubim (Ezek. 10:15). According to Hebrews 1:14, all angels are ministering spirits commissioned to minister to God’s people as the agents of divine providence. The cherubim are a specific class of angelic beings, particularly associated with God’s presence and holiness. That function was first seen when they were stationed at the entrance to Eden with flaming swords to prevent fallen man from the Tree of Life and then later with their image hovering over the ark of the covenant, that apex object lesson of God’s holy presence with His people.

In this vision, the cherubim are described as strange-looking creatures. Each odd feature of the living beings highlights their submission to God’s control. Each one had four faces and four wings (Ezek. 1:6, 10). Most likely, the human face was a symbol of their intelligence, the lion of their power, the ox of their persistent, unwearied service, and the eagle of their swiftness to do God’s bidding. The four wings underscored their ability to move quickly in their obedient service to the Lord. These general descriptions are reinforced with specific and curious imageries detailing aspects of their divinely ordered activity. For instance, their straight, calf-like feet that sparkled like burnished bronze represent stability and purity (Ezek. 1:7). That they had hands symbolizes their capacity and ability for work (Ezek. 1:8). Their wings’ being joined together speaks of the unity of purpose; there was no competition or self-promotion among them (Ezek. 1:9,11). That they moved straight forward without turning puts in bold relief their unrelenting determination and resolve to fulfill their commission (Ezek. 1:9). Adding to the significance of this straight-ahead movement was the fact that they had those four faces, each pointing in a different direction. Although difficult to visualize, there was no reason to turn because they were going in every direction at once. That they moved swiftly, like a flash of lighting (Ezek. 1:14), only according to the Spirit’s leading, was evidence of their submissiveness to obey God (Ezek. 1:12).

The reality of God's presence is determined not by circumstance or location but by the certainty of His word that He will never leave or forsake His people.

Notwithstanding the subjective, yet contextual, use of imagination to interpret the specifics of the symbols, the main lesson of this scene is clear: The events of earth are not to be understood apart from activity in the invisible, spiritual realm. There is a spiritual world that is beyond sight but is nonetheless real. God assured Ezekiel and us that He rules that realm to accomplish His glory and His purpose for His people. Remember that episode in 2 Kings 6 when Elisha’s servant was fearful because the Syrian army had surrounded Samaria, and all seemed to be hopeless. Elisha admonished his servant not to fear because there were more with them than the number of the enemy (2 Kings 6:16). The prophet then prayed that God would open his servant’s eyes to let him see that in reality there were horses and chariots of fire surrounding the enemy (2 Kings 6:17). God enabled the fearful servant to see something of the otherworld. The point is that the angelic cavalry and chariotry were there before they were visible. Although the spiritual realm remains largely invisible to us, nothing has changed. The Psalms assure us that the Lord commands His angels to guard His people in all their ways (Ps. 91:11; 34:7). The danger in that otherworld is why the New Testament instructs us to put on the whole armor of God. We fight ultimately not against the flesh and blood that we can see but against the spiritual wickedness that we cannot see (Eph. 6:11, 12). Our confidence must be that God is in control and that Christ has utterly defeated every spiritual foe, even those otherworldly principalities and powers (Col. 2:15). In days of darkness, we must walk by faith and not by sight.

Scene 3: God’s Rule Is Universal

In the third scene, the vision draws attention to a strange-looking chariot (Ezek. 1:15–25). If the cherubim were the agents of providence, this chariot represents the activity of providence. Although the details of its description are hard to envisage, the lesson from the chariot is clear: God’s rule is universal. There is no part of the world exempt from God’s sovereign control. The power and authority of any earthly government is determined by and limited to its borders. But God’s kingdom has no borders, and His authority is absolute. God assured Ezekiel that even though he was residing within the physical borders of Babylon, Babylon was under the ultimate jurisdiction of the King of kings. Contrary to sight, everything was under control.

Four features of this chariot stand out as contributing to the primary lesson about the extent of God’s providential rule. First, the immensity of the wheels was overwhelming. The circumference (rings) of the wheels was perplexingly high, inspiring dread (Ezek. 1:18). The sheer size of the wheels would require a vast territory to operate. No place could escape the wheels’ movement. Ezekiel was in the most powerful and expansive kingdom of his day, but Babylon was absolutely nothing in comparison to God’s kingdom. Babylon was just another place for the chariot of divine providence to roll. So it is for today as well. Washington, Moscow, Beijing, and every other place on earth are all in the path of providence—just places for God’s chariot to roll.

Second, the complexity of the chariot’s construction and movements was breathtaking (Ezek. 1:16–17). The chariot had four wheels. Two were inside of two—perhaps in a gyroscopic design. The wheels within wheels appeared to be crosswise, at right angles with each other. One set would face north and south; the other east and west. Consequently, their movement was in every direction simultaneously; there was no need to turn. The movement of the chariot was elaborate, intricate, and inescapable. The chariot left no place untouched. It is a strange sight indeed, but it is a most assuring message about God’s providence. The operations of providence are beyond our understanding, as God’s ways are past finding out. But even though we may not understand the operation of providence, we must never misunderstand its purpose. The activity of providence is ordered, controlled, progressing, and extensive. In times of darkness, we should be on the lookout for chariot tracks.

God’s kingdom has no borders, and His authority is absolute.

Third, that the rims of the wheels were full of eyes highlights the wisdom by which God rules (Ezek. 1:18). In the Bible, eyes are a common symbol of intelligence and knowledge and are a fitting picture of the infinite wisdom by which God rules. Providence is not the blind, aimless movements of circumstance occurring by chance or fate. Rather, it is the divinely willful and wise preserving and governing of all His creation to the certain end of His glory and the corollary good of His people. God knows the end of things from the beginning of things because He has decreed them to be. His unfailing and universal providence guarantees the successful accomplishment of His will. Nothing can frustrate or alter His will. Sometimes His providence is hard, leading into what from the perspective of sight is darkness. But even in the dark times in the midst of the hard providences, we must be assured that God is actively accomplishing His purpose. In His providence, God put Ezekiel in Babylon, and He left him there with the assurance that he was where he was according to God’s will. Resting in God’s wise providence does not mean escape from dark times, but it does shine the light into that darkness assuring us that our times are in His hands. There is no better place to be.

Fourth, the vision of the attendance of the living creatures with the chariot pictures the harmony of God’s rule. One Spirit directed the entire operation. The living creatures and the chariot moved as a single unit; they went up, went down, or stayed in place in unison (Ezek. 1:19–21). The agents of providence executed the activity of providence without hesitation or misstep. In Pauline terms, this harmonious operation of God’s providence is all things working together for good (Rom. 8:28). All creation is His, and all is under control. We, like Ezekiel, should be assured that everything in life is happening according to His plan. The rolling of the wheels is true for the big picture regarding the events on the national and world scene as well as the personally bigger picture regarding the circumstances of individual life.

Scene 4: God’s Person Is Supreme

The final scene moves from the works of God to God Himself (Ezek. 1:26–28). Too often, the personalities of the world, good or bad, blind us to reality. Only as we give attention to God as the supreme person can we truly know peace of soul and mind in a hostile world. Seeing the Lord puts self, others, and circumstances in the proper perspective. Ezekiel’s first assurance of God’s presence was a cloud; his climactic assurance draws his eyes to the Lord upon a throne.

As Ezekiel gazes upward, his attention focuses on God’s superiority. Above the chariot and the cherubim, he sees a throne and One looking like a man seated on it. When he saw the immense height of the chariot, he was astonished, but now his attention is attracted even higher. The works of God, including His providence, testify of Him. As glorious and amazing as the works of God are, the person of God who performs the works is even more glorious and amazing. With his natural eye, Ezekiel could see King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, the most majestic sovereign on earth, whose leadership and military skills were unmatched. Seeing Nebuchadnezzar would have generated awe and angst since he was the human agent of the darkness that Ezekiel was experiencing. But in comparison to the Lord, Nebuchadnezzar was nothing. To see God with the eye of faith as He reveals Himself as the Most High is a most assuring sight and light in the darkness. We need to plug this truth into our experience as well. It is so easy to fret over politicians or world figures whose agendas appear to be contrary to our concerns and to fawn over those whom we assess to be for us. In comparison to God, they are nothing. To fear man or to hope in man is folly. To look up and away from man to fix the eye of faith on the one true and living God who is infinitely higher than all is the antidote to the darkness of our day, the ultimate assurance.

The works of God, including His providence, testify of Him.

That Ezekiel saw the Lord on the throne focused attention to God’s absolute authority. The throne is a symbol of dominion, power, and the right to rule. On that heavenly throne, God does whatever He pleases to do (Ps. 115:3; Dan. 4:34–35). It is a most assuring and comforting truth to know that God is not sitting on bleachers as a spectator of what is happening to us, but rather He is on a throne directing all the affairs of time and circumstance according to His eternal purpose. There would be little comfort in times of darkness if all that we could say is that God knows about our trouble. The perplexing question would always be that if God is as great as He is, why, then, the difficulty and darkness? God certainly knows about our troubles, but that knowledge is not just sympathetic awareness. On His eternal and uncontested throne, God rules. He orchestrates even the hard providences for His glory and our good. Indeed, God has juxtaposed days of adversity with days of prosperity to teach us to depend on Him every day and in every circumstance (Eccl. 7:14).

Ezekiel’s attention was also attracted to God’s majesty. The references to sapphire, amber, fire, and brightness are meager descriptions pointing to the Lord’s incomparable glory. The sight was dazzling. In dark Babylon, the unemployed priest and soon-to-be prophet was seeing something of the honor, majesty, strength, and beauty that was normally associated with the sanctuary (Ps. 96:6; 63:2). This was yet another assurance to Ezekiel that God had not forsaken him in this trial. The brightness of God’s majesty is able to blind those who see it to the encompassing darkness. The supremacy of God is the ultimate reality.

Most encouraging is the attention to God’s mercy. Encircling, not just arching, the throne was the rainbow. The bow is the symbol of peace. God is not the enemy of His people. The rainbow is the token sign of covenant faithfulness, mercy, and grace. What a comforting assurance it is to know that circumscribing the operations of providence is the covenant faithfulness of God. No matter where the wheels roll, the chariot of providence displays God’s constant fidelity to His word and His people. When the days are dark, remember the bow.

Finally, Ezekiel’s attention climaxes in God’s Son. The One seated on the throne was in the likeness of a man. The vision began with a theophany (an appearance of God); it ends with a Christophany (an appearance of the preincarnate Christ). Significantly, Ezekiel says that the appearance of what he saw was the likeness of the glory of God (Ezek. 1:28). Paul declares that the light of the knowledge of the glory of God is in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6). To see God is to see Christ; to see Christ is to see God. That was true in the Old Testament era as well. Technically, a Christophany was an actual preincarnate appearance of Christ in the sphere of time and circumstance. Ezekiel saw Him in vision, an internal experience, but the point of significance is the same. Ultimately, it is as we see the Lord revealed in Christ that darkness is expelled. He is the light that shines in the darkness and brings life (Isa. 9:2–7; John 1:4–5). Today we see Him not in visible manifestations or in visions but in and through the written Word. Significantly, the Apostle Peter says that the written Word is surer than an eyewitness experience and that this Word is a light shining in the darkness (2 Peter 1:19). Reading the Bible with an eye for Christ is the best way to cope with the darkness and to see the light. In times of crisis and darkness, our blessed assurance is that Christ is on the throne as the mediatorial King who rules unfailingly for the welfare of His people (Col. 1:18).

In response to his encouraging and assuring vision, Ezekiel fell on his face in submissive and reverent worship. Ezekiel was not alone in this response; Isaiah (Isa. 6), Daniel (Dan. 9), and John (Rev. 1) all did the same when they saw the Lord. Worship is always the right response to seeing God as He reveals Himself. But worship does not breed passivity. Those who have a vision of the Lord always have a telling message for others. In chapter 2, God commands and enables Ezekiel to stand up, and He calls the unemployed priest to be a prophet. Ezekiel’s circumstances did not change as he lived and preached God’s Word throughout the dark days of Babylonian captivity. On earth, it appeared that pagans ruled. But God assured Ezekiel that He rules in heaven and determines all the events on earth. It is for us to know that God is on the same throne that Ezekiel saw and is ordering His cherubim and chariots to accomplish His will and purpose as much now as then. So, in the light of God’s assuring Word, let’s return to the initial question: How goes the world? It goes exactly as God has purposed, and nothing can frustrate that unfailing purpose.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on May 24, 2021.

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