Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Ezekiel sees four creatures: Lessons on traits of servants of God and heavenly cooperation

It's been a while, but I'm back! Woo-hoo!

A few days ago I was puzzling over these verses in Ezekiel 1:
3 The word of the Lord came expressly unto Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar; and the hand of the Lord was there upon him.
4 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.
5 Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man.
6 And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings.
7 And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf’s foot: and they sparkled like the colour of burnished brass.
8 And they had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides; and they four had their faces and their wings.
9 Their wings were joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward.
10 As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.
11 Thus were their faces: and their wings were stretched upward; two wings of every one were joined one to another, and two covered their bodies.
12 And they went every one straight forward: whither the spirit was to go, they went; and they turned not when they went.
13 As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, and like the appearance of lamps: it went up and down among the living creatures; and the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning.
14 And the living creatures ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning. (Ezekiel 1:3-14)
One thing that I notice is the overwhelming emphasis on the number four. There are four living creatures, each with four faces, and four wings, and four sides. So it seemed to me that it was important to learn what the number four symbolized. Four symbolizes the earth or everything that was created, and in the scriptures there are a number of references to “the four corners of the earth” (see Isaiah 11:12, Ezekiel 7:2) (We also refer to the four seasons and the four winds and the four dimensions, etc.) We will come back to this at the end to see how it helps us make more sense of the rest of these verses and understand the message that the Lord was giving Ezekiel.

I’ve previously noticed that wings frequently symbolize heavenly power. In these verses, Ezekiel notices that each of the four creatures have four wings (v6), which conveys an idea that the heavenly power in these creatures is over the whole earth. To me this begins to give an idea that these creatures are servants of God and that they are meant to represent to Ezekiel all the servants of God in the whole earth. But I’m getting a little distracted here; let’s go back to wings. In verse 11, we are told that their wings stretched upward, with two wings of each creature joined to each other, and two wings covered their bodies. Symbolically, this is very significant. Wings stretching upward communicates how heavenly powers in all servants of God are striving to grow, stretching toward heaven, trying to become better, seeking the Lord. That two wings of each of these creatures join to each other conveys how servants of God cooperate with each other and are united through their heavenly power. (We know this is definitely true. The Spirit and the priesthood power build unity among all servants of God.) That two wings of each creature also cover their bodies communicates how servants of God are also very modest, not just in their dress, but also in their acts. They focus on results rather than feeding ego, and this must certainly help them work together.

One aspect that puzzled me in verse 10 was the four faces each creature had. Why a man, lion, ox, and eagle? Why different faces? Finally I realized that the faces must be representative of different personality traits that servants of God must have. I also noticed that it seemed like the faces were being paired in a certain way—the man with the lion and the ox with the eagle. As I thought it about it, it seemed like the lion symbolized strength and courage and even fierceness for truth and righteous principles, while the man symbolized humanity, kindness, and reason. It seemed like the “lion” and “man” characteristics were meant to balance each other. In the ox and eagle pairing, I noticed right away that the ox face might be conveying down-to-earth, practical-thinking, detail-oriented hard work (like an ox pulling a plow in a furrow), while the eagle face might be far-seeing, visionary, and uplifted on flights of the Spirit, seeing the big picture (like an eagle soaring hundreds of feet in the air). Once again, those character traits would balance each other. So it seems that Ezekiel was shown symbolically some character traits that all servants of God should have.

“And they went every one straight forward: whither the spirit was to go, they went; and they turned not when they went.” (v12) These creatures followed the Spirit within them, which was a righteous spirit. Their path was straight, not crooked. Also their feet were straight (v7), not crooked, which seems to confirm that they were righteous servants. They didn’t turn out of the way, which teaches us they didn’t get distracted or change their minds in the middle of what they were doing. All of this is a great example of what servants of God are like.

“And the living creatures ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning.” (v14) To me this communicates how quick they were to obey and how quickly they accomplished their righteous tasks.

Now we see how understanding what “four” means helps us. These four creatures with four wings and four faces communicate to us that the Lord wants ALL His servants on the earth to have those certain personality characteristics along with the powers of heaven.

Why did Ezekiel receive this vision at the very beginning? As a prophet of the scattered Israel in Babylon, he would begin the preparation for the return of the Israelites to their homeland, and even though it would take several generations, they had to start immediately by preparing themselves to be obedient servants of God. In fact, it would be impossible to begin preparing too soon. It is significant that the first thing Ezekiel is shown is a vision teaching symbolically the character traits of all servants of God and how they must cooperate together.

It also shows the mercy and long-suffering of God. God warned the Israelites for years to repent or He would destroy them and scatter them, but they refused to listen. So He destroyed and scattered them. But rather than completely abandon them in that state forever, He immediately began teaching and preparing them to gather together again. He called Ezekiel as a prophet and started teaching about the important character traits servants of God must have and the importance of cooperation and humility and the power of God.

I think this is definitely relevant and applicable to us today, since we are engaged in helping to gather Israel. We need to cultivate these characteristics and get good at working together with humility.

How have you seen these traits at work today? Will you share some stories or examples with me?


Anthony E. Larson said...

I think you have managed to miss the meaning of Ezekiel entirely. Have you ever noticed that those four "beasts" are also found in the visions of Daniel and John in Revelation. Did you know that they are also found in the Joseph Smith papyri, where Joseph explained what they represented? Have you consulted the writings of pre-eminent Egyptologists who confirm Joseph's interpretation? Did you know that Joseph said that everywhere the prophets report seeing "beasts" in vision, the word "image" should have been used instead? Aren't images the stuff of pagan worship? What does that imply about your interpretation? You might care to find out what the prophets believed about these four before you start asigning your own interpretation to prophetic symbolism. I'm just saying.

Michaela Stephens said...

Anthony, your tone seems bent on implying that you know far more than I do about this, which I am quite willing to believe. But I take exception to how you don't share anything enlightening from the sources that you insist I should consult. You don't do anything to help me or any of my readers make sense of it. Second, I fail to see how the beasts seen by Daniel (chapter 7?) have any connection to Ezekiel 1. Or the beasts in Revelation. If you see any connection, you will have to explain it to me carefully and kindly, because I'm kind of inclined to think you're waaay out there. Thirdly, I reserve the right to interpret prophetic symbolism as much as I want and I allow everyone else the same. I do not pretend to be an authoritative interpreter, but I have the freedom to give my opinions.

Anthony E. Larson said...

Try looking for the answers to your question on my webpage, my blog and my video clips on You Tube. There you will find the evidence to support my claims.