Both Isaiah and Ezekiel have visions of God seated on the throne at the beginning of their ministries, yet whereas Isaiah’s vision is well-known among Christians, Ezekiel’s is decidedly less well-known. The reason for this may be obvious. Isaiah’s vision is compact and rather stunningly straight-forward. He sees the Temple, God, and the throne, and everything makes sense from a human perspective. Yet when you read Ezekiel’s vision, however, it quickly takes a turn into the strange, with apocalyptic imagery surrounding beasts, wings, wheels and eyes. Whereas Isaiah portrays an image of God in majesty in the Temple, Ezekiel portrays an image of God in exile.
By the time Ezekiel had received the call of prophecy, Judah, the Southern Kingdom of Israel was in ruins. Five years before his call, Babylon sieged Jerusalem, sacked it, and carried off approximately 10,000 prisoners. These political prisoners, Ezekiel included, left Judah in ruins, and more importantly, left the Temple desecrated and destroyed. Utterly defeated and demoralized, they were led into the heart of their enemy’s country and set up in ghettos there.
It is also important to note that Israel (and Judah) had fallen prey to nationalistic understandings of God. As we know, in the ancient near East at this time there were many countries and city-states around, and each place had their own gods and goddesses. These gods were geographically-locked, as in, the god of a certain area only had power and control over that area. Much like territorial animals, gods could encroach on other god’s territory, but battle would surely follow. This was how ancient near-eastern communities viewed war, with spiritual repercussions. Whichever side won clearly had the more powerful god, and the defeated god would surely not leave their territory and risk another confrontation.
Israel and Judah had begun to think in these terms as well, tying God’s presence to the Temple in Jerusalem. The answer to the question, “Where is God?” was definitively, “In Jerusalem.” The exile challenged all of this.
When Judah was defeated by the Babylonians, one of the first things the conquering army did was raze the Temple to the ground. You can imagine why this was so significant. Nothing could demoralize a people more than watching their god’s house torn down. As the Judean captives were led away from Palestine, you can imagine the theological crises they were experiencing. They had been told that they were God’s people, and yet they were defeated by a heathen country. Not only that, but they were being dragged out of God’s territory, and because God’s presence was tied to Jerusalem and the Temple, they believed there was no hope of rescue. They were surely sentenced to destruction.
Ezekiel’s ministry begins as a captive in Babylon, supposedly far away from God’s reach. And yet he finds himself in a vision, with a strange chariot coming towards him. At first the chariot looks like it is a massive storm, but as it gets closer he begins to discern more details. There are four (rather strange) creatures at the base of the “thing” that is approaching, and as it gets closer Ezekiel sees that the creatures are actually wheels, or rather, the wheels are actually creatures (this is the way it is with visions of God). Above the creatures was a dome and, sitting on the dome, was God on his throne.
In other words, God is no longer sitting in majesty in Jerusalem’s Temple, but rather God is on the move, and in exile with his people. This is a massive theological statement which revolutionizes Israel’s understanding of their God. Israel’s God is not bound to a specific geographical territory, nor is he confined to his Temple. God’s throne has wheels, he is a mobile God, and can travel and be found even in distant lands. Whereas other gods may fear to leave their territory, Israel’s God has no problem showing up in Babylon in full splendor. Babylon’s defeat of Israel was not a defeat of God.
This vision has massive implications for Israel’s exile. They can now understand that God has not abandoned them and become separated from them. In fact God has moved with his people and is now sojourning with them in exile. Second, God cannot be confined to a single geographical territory, rather he is truly the God of all creation. There is nowhere in creation that is too far for God to travel to find his people. Third, God does not lose his splendor and reign when in exile. He remains sovereign over all. All other gods, no matter how powerful their nations are, must make way for the Creator God. Fourth, God will show up, and when he does, even exile cannot remain.
This Yahweh, Israel’s God, is a mobile God. He sits not on a stationary throne, but on a throne with wheels. He cannot be confined, contained, or distanced. And above all, this God will seek you out, even if you find yourself at the end of the earth in the worst exile. This is the gospel of Ezekiel, and it is good news indeed.