And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire enfolding itself…
The history of the Jews was a succession of startling paradoxes. Their worst disasters ushered in their proudest successes. At three several crises in their career — in youth, in middle life, in old age — they came into collision with three giant empires of the ancient world — Egypt, Babylon, Rome. Each time they were crushed, almost annihilated, by the conflict. Yet each time they started up into a fresh and more vigorous life. Their unmaking was in each case a making anew. As a paradox, the Babylonian captivity was the most striking of the three. Blow follows upon blow, until the tale of their misery is full. The last company of exiles is deported; the last scion of royalty is a prisoner; the last breach in the fortress is stormed. The city is laid waste; the temple is a heap of stones. All is over. The sweet minstrelsies of the sanctuary jar cruelly on their ears now. The very name of Sion is a bitterness to them. And meanwhile, in this their helpless, hopeless misery, they are confronted with the most gigantic, awe-inspiring power which the world had hitherto seen. If at that crisis any calm and impartial bystander had been asked whether of the two — Babylon or Israel, the master or the slave — held in his grasp the future destinies of mankind, would he for a moment have hesitated what answer he should give? And yet out of the very abyss of despair the prophet's hope takes wing and soars aloft. It is not that he sees only the bright features of the prospect. No words can be fiercer or less compromising than the invective in which he denounces the sins of the nation. It would seem as if in his imagery he could not find colours dark enough to blacken the Israel of God. The Israel of God? Why, thy father was an Amorite and thy mother a Hittite — vile, polluted, God-forsaken heathens both; and after the foul deeds of thy parentage thou thyself hast done. The Israel of God? Why, thine elder sister is Samaria — Samaria, the profane and the profligate; and thy younger sister is Sodom — Sodom, whose very name is a byword for all that is most loathsome, most abominable in human wickedness, and whose vengeance — the sulphurous fire from heaven — flare out as a beacon of warning against sin and impurity to all time. "And thou art far worse than thy sisters." Restore thee from thy captivity? Ay, then when Samaria is restored, then when Sodom is restored — then, and not till then — unless thou repent. And yet, as the prophet's eye ranges beyond the immediate present, what does he see? The Spirit carries him into the wilderness and sets him down there. It is the scene apparently of some murderous conflict between the wild tribes of the desert or of some catastrophe which has befallen a caravan of travellers. The ground is strewn with the bones of the dead — fleshless, sinewless, picked clean by the vultures and bleached by long exposure, tossed here and there by the rage of the elements or the reckless hand of man. Is it possible that these bones, so bare and so dry, shall unite, shall be clothed, shall live and move again? God only can say. A moment more, and the answer is given. There is a rustling, a clatter, a uniting of joint and socket, a meeting of vertebra and vertebra. Sinews stretch from bone to bone flesh and skin spread over them. At God's bidding breath is breathed into them. They start up on their feet an exceeding great army. But the range of vision is not bounded here. Beyond the wilderness lies the pleasant land. Beyond the valley of dry bones is the hill of Sion, the city of the living God. After the revival of Israel comes the spread of the truth, the expansion of the Church. The exceeding great army is there; but the battle is still unfought, the victory has still to be won. So the prophet is carried again by the Spirit, and set down in the holy city. He is there once again within the sacred precinct's, where of old he had ministered as a priest. The scene is the same, and yet not the same. The hill of the temple has grown into "a very high mountain." Everything is on a grander scale — a larger sanctuary, a more faithful priesthood, richer and more abundant offerings. His eye is arrested by the little spring of pure water which issued from the temple rock and found its way in a trickling stream to the valley beneath — fit symbol of the Church of God. As he watches, it rises and swells, ankle-deep, knee-deep, overhead. Silently, steadily, it expands and gathers volume, pouring down the main valley and filling all the lateral gorges, advancing onward and onward, till it washes the bases of the far-off hills of Moab and sweetens the salt, waters of the very Sea of Death — teeming with life, watering towns and fertilising deserts, throughout its beneficent course — a stream so puny and obscure at its sources, so broad and full and bountiful in its issues — this mighty river of God. Indeed it was no earthly pile of masonry, no building made by hands — this magnified temple, which rose before the prophet's eyes. So it has always been. God's chief revelations have ever flashed out in seasons of trial and perplexity. As in Ezekiel's vision, there has been first the whirlwind — then the cloud — then the flame, the light, the glory, glowing with ever-increasing brightness from the very heart and blackness of the cloud. There is first the wild, impetuous force, unseen yet irresistible, rooting up old institutions, scattering old ideas, perplexing, deafening, blinding; sweeping all things human and Divine into its eddies. Then the dark cloud of despair — the despair of materialism or the despair of agnosticism — settles down, with its numbing chill. Then at length emerges the vision of the Throne, the Chariot of God, blinding the eyes with its dazzling splendour; and after this the vision of the dry and bleaching hones starting up into new life; and after this the vision of a larger sanctuary and a purer worship. It was so at the epoch of the Babylonian captivity; it was so at the downfall of the Roman empire; it was so at, the outbreak of the Reformation. And shall it not be so once again? We are warned by the experience of the past not to overrate either the perplexities or the hopes of the present. Nearness of view unduly magnifies the proportions of event's. Yet it is surely no exaggeration to say that the Church of our day is passing through one of those momentous crises which only occur at intervals of two or three centuries. It is the concurrence of so many and various disturbing elements which forms the characteristic feature of our age. Here is the vast accumulation of scientific facts, the rapid progress of scientific ideas; there is the enlarged knowledge of ancient and widespread religions arising from the increased facilities of travel. Here is the sharpening of the critical faculty to a keenness of edge unstrained in any previous age; there is the accumulation of new materials for its exercise from divers sources, the recovery of many a lost chapter in the history of the human race, whether from ancient manuscripts, or from the deciphered hieroglyphs of Egypt and the disentombed palaces of Assyria, or even from the reliques of a more remote past, the flint implements and the bone caverns of prehistoric man. These are some of the intellectual factors with which the Church in our age has to reckon. And the social and political forces are not less disturbing. What, then, must be our attitude as members of Christ's Church at such a season? The experience of the past will inspire hope for the future. "In quietness and confidence, shall be your strength." We shall not rush hastily to cut the political knot, because it will take us some time and much patience to untie it. We shall keep our eyes and our minds open to each fresh accession of knowledge, stubbornly rejecting no truth when it is attested, rashly accepting no inference because it is novel and attractive. As disciples of the Word incarnate, the same eternal Word who is, and has been from the beginning, in science as in history, in nature as in revelation, we shall rest assured that He has much yet to teach us; that a larger display of His manifold operations, however confusing now, must in the end carry with it a clearer knowledge of Himself; that for the Church of the future a far more glorious destiny is in store than ever attended the Church of the past. There is the whirlwind now, sweeping down from the rude tempestuous north; there is the gathering cloud now, dark and boding; but even now the keen eye of the faithful watcher detects the first rift in the gloom, the earliest darting ray which shall broaden and intensify, till it reveals the chariot throne of the Eternal Word framed in transcendent light.
1. The idea of mobility is the foremost which the image involves. The vision of Ezekiel provokes a comparison with the vision of Isaiah. Isaiah saw the Lord enthroned on high, there above the mercy seat, there between the cherubim, there in the same local sanctuary, where for centuries He had received the adoration of an elect and special people. The awe of the vision is enhanced by its localisation. But with Ezekiel this is changed. The vision is in a heathen land. The throne is a chariot now. It is placed on wheels arranged transversely, so that it can move easily to all the four quarters of the heavens. Its motion is direct, immediate, rapid, darting like the lightning flash, whithersoever it is sped. Not, indeed, that the element of fixity is lost. Though a chariot, it remains still a throne. It is supported by the four living creatures whose wings as they beat fill the air with their whirring, but whose feet are planted straight and firm. They have four faces looking four ways, but these are immovable. "They turned not when they went." However we may interpret them, they are the firm supports of the chariot, moving rapidly, yet never turning, unchangeable in themselves, yet. capable of infinite adaptation in their processes.
2. The counterpart to the mobility in the larger dispensation of the future thus implied in the vision is its spirituality. It is mobile just because it is spiritual. The letter is fixed; the form is rigid and motionless as death. The spirit only is instinct with life. "Whither the spirit was to go they went." Everywhere the presence of the Spirit is emphasised; and this emphatic reiteration is the more remarkable because it is found in the midst of accurate dates, precise measurements, topographical descriptions, minute external details of all kinds.
3. But lastly, if spirituality characterises the motive power, if mobility is the leading feature in the intermediate energies and processes, universality is the final result. The chariot of God moves freely to all the four quarters of the heavens. The prophet sees it first in the plains of Babylonia. He is then carried in his vision to the Temple at Jerusalem. There he beholds the glory filling the holy place, the throne of God supported on the cherubim: and there, too — an unwonted surprise — are the four faces, the wings, the hands, the wheels full of eyes, just the same forms and the same motions which he had seen in the land of his exile. Ay, he understands it now. The living creatures of Babylonia are none other than the sacred cherubim of the sanctuary. Three times, as if he would assure himself or convince others by reiteration, he repeats the words, "The same which I saw by the river Chebar." So, then, God works with power, God is enthroned in glory, not less in that far-off heathen land than in His own cherished sanctuary among His own elect people. The vision of Ezekiel is not a dead or dying story, which has served its turn and now may pass out of mind. It lives still as the very charter of the Church of the future. If in this nineteenth century we Englishmen would do any work for Christ's Church, which shall be real, shall be solid, shall be lasting, we must follow in the lines here marked out for us. Mobility, spirituality, universality, these three ideas must inspire our efforts. Other methods may seem more efficacious for the moment, but this only will resist the stress of time. Not to cling obstinately to the decayed anachronisms of the past, not to linger wistfully over the death-stricken forms of the past, not to narrow our intellectual horizon, not to stunt our moral sympathies; but to adapt and to enlarge, to absorb new truths, to gather new ideas, to develop new institutions, to follow always the teaching of the Spirit — the Spirit, which will not be bound and imprisoned — the Spirit, which is like the breath of wind, and whose very name speaks of elasticity and expansion, passing through every crevice, filling every interstice, conforming itself to every modification of size and shape; this is our duty as Christians, as Churchmen, as Anglicans, remembering meanwhile that there is one fixed centre from which all our thoughts must radiate, and to which all our hopes must converge — Jesus Christ, the same yesterday and today and forever.
Parallel VersesKJV: And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire.
WEB: I looked, and behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, a great cloud, with flashing lightning, and a brightness around it, and out of its midst as it were glowing metal, out of the midst of the fire.