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Chapter 1 of Ezekiel contains a famous description of God's heavenly chariot (the maaseh merkava):

...as I was among the captives by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God... And I looked, and, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, a great cloud, with a fire flashing up, so that a brightness was round about it; and out of the midst thereof as the color of the electrum, out of the midst of the fire. And out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had the likeness of a man... (1:1, 4-5) (JPS translation)

What is the significance of this chapter? What is its place in the book of Ezekiel as a whole? How have different commentators interpreted and understood this imagery over the years? How was this prophecy relevant to Ezekiel's original audience and his overall prophetic message?

The first ten chapters or so of Maimonides' Guide to the Perplexed Book III are dedicated to explaining Ezekiel 1. Unfortunately, I don't really understand what Maimonides is saying/getting at. You can read it for yourself here.

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This is an expansive question; as such, I've limited my answer to keep it from getting too much longer. Hopefully someone else can/will address historical interpretations of the imagery.

Ezekiel writes during the time of the exile (1:2) to the people in exile (3:11). Much of Judah has already gone into Babylonian captivity, but at the time he begins writing, Jerusalem still stands. Many of the exiles believed the city would never fall, that it was a sanctuary (cf. 11:3 and 11:11). Against this backdrop comes Ezekiel's prophetic message, which begins with a vision:

The Four Living Creatures
The first thing that Ezekiel recounts of his vision is four living creatures. Later we are told these creatures are cherubim (e.g. 10:20); but in appearance they are a mixture of angel, animal, and human. They have four faces (human, ox, lion, and eagle).

The Great Wheels
Next to each living creature there is a giant wheel made of two wheels intersecting one another. The wheels are covered with eyes. The wheels move in every direction and in unison.

The Expanse
An expanse sits above the heads of the four living creatures, and above the expanse is a throne, and above the throne is a figure of a man gleaming like fire, surrounded by a rainbow-like radiance.

One of the difficulties in interpreting a vision like in Chapter 1 of Ezekiel is the tendency to get lost in the details rather than focusing one's attention on the major ideas. With that in mind, here are a several broad pictures that the vision seems to paint:

  • The breadth of the expanse and the highness of the throne and the One above the throne suggests the sovereignty of God's rule. Some thought that God has abandoned Israel (9:9), but the vision is to remind its hearers that God is still in control even though the people are in exile.

  • The four living creatures re-enforce the point above. They seem to represent not only the breadth of God's creation (angel, animal, man), but also the height: each face representing the chief creatures of their domains (man over all creatures, lion over all wild creatures, ox over all domesticated creatures, and the eagle over the birds of the air). All of this sits under the throne (sovereignty) of God.

  • The brilliance of the light and fire in and around the figure on the throne call to mind the holiness, the majesty, and the glory of God. The rainbow recalls God's promise to Noah and the promise-keeping nature of God.

  • The many eyes on the wheels likely represent the totality of God's perceiving. Some thought that God did not see what was happening (9:9), but the eyes in Ezekiel's vision show that nothing can escape God's vision.

  • Lastly, the wheels and the motion of the wheels demonstrate a point critical to the rest of the book: the mobility of God's glory.

This heavenly chariot, as you call it, appears twice more in the book of Ezekiel: once in chapters 10/11 and again in chapter 43. But here it starts by coming from the north (1:4). The north signifies the land of Israel's invaders; judgement comes from the north. As mentioned, many thought Jerusalem was unassailable, but now God gives to Ezkiel a message to deliver: that Jerusalem will be destroyed (Ezekiel 4).

Before that can happen, though, God will leave the city. So in chapter 10, we see again this heavenly chariot and the glory of God departs from the temple and stops above the four living creatures (10:18) and then moves to the east gate. After pausing there, the heavenly chariot moves east of the city altogether to the mountain east of it and Ezekiel's vision ends (11:23-24).

Here is where the mobility of the glory of God becomes important to the theme of the book. For the people thought that God's glory was always in the land and that God was not with the exiles (11:15). The heavenly chariot, though, shows not only that judgement can come upon the land, but also that God is with his people in exile. He has sent them into exile, but He goes into exile with them.

The heavenly chariot, though, makes one last appearance in Ezekiel's book. In chapter 43, Ezekiel sees again a vision like before (43:3) of the glory of God coming from the east (43:2). God returns from the exile, having promised to return the people to the land (36:24). As the rest of the book unfolds, God makes clear that he will not send his people again into exile but that He will dwell with the people he has gathered.

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As Soldarnal says in his helpful answer, this is an expansive question. So I thought I would add some supplementary comments to his helpful answer. I have no attempted to keep it short.

What is the significance of this chapter?

At the most basic level, the significance of this chapter is a powerful visual metaphor for the truth of the song of the Burning Ones:

Holy, holy, holy
is Yahweh Almighty.
The whole earth is full of his glory. —Isaiah 6:3

The specific significance for...

  • ...Ezekiel. Even the most humble among us must see himself as sickeningly prideful when confronted with a vision of appearance of the likeness of God. The vision services to humble Ezekiel and give him a much fuller introduction to the God whom he served and was to serve much more.
  • ...his contemporaneous audience. Daniel Block says of the Exile in the introduction to his commentary that "the spiritual fallout was more difficult to deal with than the physical." The pop theology of the day was that there was an unbreakable people-land-God triad which ensured the perpetual safety of Israel in spite of their breach of covenant with Yahweh. Thus, Block says, "the exiles suffered from intense theological shock." This chapter serves, in brief, to re-introduce them to their God, whom they are forgetting twice over.
  • ...everyone else. A vivid illustration of the transcendence, glory, holiness, sovereignty, power, and yet condescension and graciousness of Yahweh, King of Kings.

Daniel Block lists seven theological implications of the chapter:

  1. "The vision proclaims the transcendent glory of God."
  2. "The vision proclaims the transcendent holiness of Yahweh."
  3. "The vision proclaims the sovereignty of Yahweh."
  4. "The vision proclaims Yahweh's interest in his people."
  5. "The vision proclaims the presence of Yahweh among the exiles."
  6. "The vision hints at the impending judgment of Yahweh."
  7. "This vision serves notice that whoever would enter into divine service must have a clear vision of the one into whose service he or she is called."

What is its place in the book of Ezekiel as a whole?

  • Introduction of many of its major themes
  • The recurrence of the chariot itself in the book (explained by Soldarnal)
  • Commissioning of Ezekiel

How was this prophecy relevant to Ezekiel's original audience?

I stated summarily above that it serves to re-introduce them to Yahweh. Some specific points directly relevant to their situation:

  • His sovereignty everywhere, including in Babylon.
  • The mobility of his glory, not constrained to the temple in Jerusalem or the land of Israel.
  • His supremacy over the gods of Babylon.
  • "Listen to Ezekiel; he is a true prophet of mine!"

How have different commentators interpreted this imagery?

Different explanations of a number of the different elements:

  • From the north. I have read two basic interpretations of this:
    • Judgment, because though Babylon was east of Israel, they always approached Judah from the north. An example that springs to mind:

      The word of Yahweh came to me again: "What do you see?"
      "I see a boiling pot, tilting away from the north," I answered. —Jeremiah 1:13 This is the most obvious interpretation. Remember that the first half of Ezekiel's ministry is to proclaim further Babylonian judgment.

    • Supremacy over Marduk. The one noteworthy objection to the above option is that the vision occurred in Babylon. Daniel Block notes that the mountain that was associated with Marduk, the god of the Babylonians, was north of Ezekiel's location. Thus, just as the Egyptians plagues, this very well may be the true God thumbing his nose at the pagan gods.
  • Four.
    • Calvin lists these interpretations from older commentators, which he considers far-fetched:
      • The four evangelists.
      • The four seasons. (Similar implications as "the four corners of the earth," but less evidence for this line of thinking.)
      • Four passions (fear, hope, sorrow, joy)
    • Earthly completeness, as in "the four corners of the earth" (three an seven are also numbers of completeness, but have different connotations).
  • The living beings.
    • Calvin: God governs the creation through the administration of angelic beings.
    • Gill: the living beings represent ministers of the Gospel.
    • Other: these are angels, but that does not mean that angels provide the principle of motion in nature.
  • The faces of the living beings.
    • Each of the animals is the greatest within its realm.
    • The supremacy over pagan gods. The similarity to contemporary illustrations of their gods; but the cherubim are not the gods of Israel, they are his servants.
  • The eyes.
    • Traditional: God's omniscience (see Soldarnal's answer).
    • Block: "eyes" actually means "shimmering"; it is an addition to the overwhelming visual splendor.
  • Flame, thunder, lightning.
    • Fire and storm somehow arouse us deeply (I think of Rudyard Kipling's claim in The Jungle Books that fire is what differentiates humans from animals). Their is a strangeness and power in fire and lightning that move us. They are one of God's most effective means of imminently communicating his transcendence to us. As such, he uses them frequently.
    • These signs also form a tie with his appearance at Sinai and in the wilderness. He is demarcating himself as the same, immutable covenant God that delivered the law which Israel has broken.
  • The expanse.
    • Gill: above the expanse is third heaven. Thus the beings below represent ministers of the Gospel, not cherubim. I disagree. Rather...
    • Transcendence. God is categorically separated even from the angels.
  • The appearance of the likeness of a man.
    • The nature of the imagery. Even the angels do not appear as they are, for they are not physical.
  • The principle of motion in the living beings and the wheels.
  • Rainbow.
[This answer is not quite complete, but it has worn me out. Hope to fill out the last bit later on.]

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I really hope you do come back and finish it. Specifically, what are the wheels about? :) –  Wikis Mar 13 at 19:49
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@Wikis I was in a Bible study and was reading several commentaries for it. I lost my steam on this answer and it garnered little attention so I didn't return. I'm afraid now that I would learn more from this answer than be able to add to it... but I'll keep it in mind the next time I study Ezekiel. :) –  Kazark Mar 13 at 19:51
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