It didn't always used to be this way, he thought as he sat by the canal under the hot sun one late summer morning, the thirty-first of July. He hadn't always lived here. He wasn't always a refugee, living in a camp of weather-worn tents and ramshackle huts. He used to live in Jerusalem, the city of God. His father Buzi was a dignified priest, who served in the temple of the Lord. But then, five years ago, they came – not for the first time, but with grave wrath they came. Laid siege to the holy city for three-and-a-half months.
And finally, on the sixteenth of March, they came pouring in – the sneering soldiers, the armies of Babylon, under King Nebuchadnezzar's command. Oh, they ransacked the temple – took all the holy silver vessels, all the gold. They kidnapped the new king Jehoiachin, just eighteen years old then, and replaced him with his contemptible twenty-one-year-old uncle Mattaniah. Jehoiachin only reigned three months and ten days – though everyone still considered him the real king, even now. The invaders took his mother Nehushta; they took the elders of the city; they took the palace officials; they took thousands of smiths and craftsmen – and some priests. Ezekiel, son of Buzi, was among them.
He remembered the long march they made in chains, up and around the Fertile Crescent, down toward Babylon. He remembered screaming for home, the only home he'd known. He remembered the first moment Jerusalem faded entirely from view. He remembered mourning the loss of his future, his longed-for career as a priest – he was still a few years away from beginning service. He was twenty-five years old then. It's been five years now since the great deportation. Some of the exiles, like Jehoiachin and Nehushta, were kept prisoner in Babylon. But most ended up in places like this, downstream along the Euphrates. Ezekiel had been settled outside Nippur, a great pagan city largely owned and operated by Ekur, the “Mountain House,” the massive ancient temple of the Sumerian god Enlil.
In particular, their refugee camp sat atop a desolate mound of silt called til abubi, not far from the wide ka-ba-ru irrigation canal. It was there that they, and deported members of other conquered nations, were assigned the menial task of clearing salt deposits out of the canal, all under the supervision of a few Babylonian overseers. That was life now, for these nobles taken far from home, far from the city they loved. It was demoralizing, the gross loss of their prestige. It was demoralizing, the humiliation they endured. It was demoralizing, the feeling that they had been abandoned by God; that their God, way off in Jerusalem, couldn't reach them here. They were, after all, in a foreign and unclean land – one that ritually defiled them constantly, making them scarcely able to lift their eyes to heaven.
That was one prevailing sentiment over the past five years: that worship is impossible in a place like this. One of Ezekiel's neighbors, a few tents away from his, was a former singer from the temple, and he wrote a song about it – about the tears they cried, about the pain of their souls, about the shame of being mocked by the pagan fellow-refugees who toiled alongside them. As he sat by the banks of the canal, Ezekiel sang it to himself in a low, wavering voice:
By the waters of Babylon
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How shall we sing the LORD's song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget its skill!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy! (Psalm 137:1-6)
It was one of the only songs they ever still sang – a song of lament, a song of sorrow. They doubted that there could be any hope – but their desperation made them eager for any glimmer of it. Many in the camp speculated that their stay here would be short-lived – that their God would raise up an army to destroy Babylon and set them free any day now. They heard rumors of prophets in Babylon who spoke about this – Ahab and Zedekiah and Shemaiah. A year and a half ago, some of the elders became agitated in speaking out against Babylon, and lost their lives.
A few months ago, there came to Tel-Abib news of a letter from Jerusalem – it had reached Babylon last year – from a forty-seven-year-old prophet Ezekiel remembered hearing his whole life, a man named Jeremiah. He'd predicted that Ahab and Zedekiah would be executed by roasting; and, sure enough, that had happened. He warned them that their exile would not be over so quickly – that it would take seventy years, give or take. And he encouraged them to settle down where they'd been settled – to not be content with tents, but to build houses, to plant gardens, to marry and have children; to identify, in a way, with Babylonian society, not hoping for its downfall – their fates were one now. And there came promises that God had not forgotten them; that they could worship where they were, that they could pray and God would hear them, that they could seek and find God, that there was hope of being restored and brought back home – after seventy years (Jeremiah 29:5-14). Most of the Judean refugees didn't know what to believe – whether to trust Shemaiah or to trust Jeremiah, whether they'd return home now or in decades, whether to live by hope or surrender in despair. The refugees often vacillated between the two feelings.
For Ezekiel's part, he was feeling rather melancholy that hot summer day, sitting by the canal. He was thirty years old now (Ezekiel 1:1-3). If he were back home, this would be the year he began serving in the temple. The year he would offer sacrifices to God. The year he would see the abundant traces of the LORD's glory there, and listen to the choirs and the people and join them in their lofty psalms of praise. But here he was, exiled far from the house of God, surrounded by pagans in an unclean land – and what's a defiled priest to do there? And so he sat by the canal. And soon the skies grew cloudy overhead, and the wind picked up. And he thought to himself that he might as well mingle his tears with the rain.
And that's when he felt it. That's when he saw it. That's when everything changed. Did the air start to shimmer, I wonder, when it happened? But one of the storm clouds grew larger, and light began to pour out, and then it cracked open – at least, that's what Ezekiel saw. And what he glimpsed next? It well nigh broke his brain like eggs on asphalt. He caught sight of things no one could understand, his mind couldn't even process, could only fumble pieces of pictures of distant analogies. But, he said, he first saw four creatures, with four faces and four wings – two wrapped around their bodies, two lifted high and touching tips to their neighbors' – and between them there flashed fire and lightning, and they glowed like polished metal, and the sight of them made him want to pass out. And beneath or beside them hovered wheels within wheels, covered in brilliant gems that looked like eyes. And they moved with the swiftness of lightning, and the undulation of their wings sounded like loud crashes of thunder.
And as the wheels touched down to earth, Ezekiel saw that what they carried above their heads was filled with even greater light – there was a platform of gleaming crystal spread out, and over it was something like a blue throne carved from sapphire or lapis lazuli, and on it sat a figure like a man, but his legs were fire, and he was circled by rainbows beaming out every which way, and his torso was like amber or like super-heated metal filled with even more fire, and the light around him was hopelessly blinding, and Ezekiel's eyes began to burn and itch, and who could even bear to see it for one second longer? And Ezekiel, perspiration streaming from his pores, his heart pounding faster and faster and faster, his sanity stretched beyond its limits, plunged himself into the dirt, scarcely catching himself from rolling into the canal, as some dark recess of his mind pieced together who exactly was riding this vast chariot down from heaven – that he had seen the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD (Ezekiel 1:4-28)!
It was on that day that Ezekiel saw the glory of God – or, at least, that his eyes managed to perceive its appearance, that his mind managed in retrospect to cobble together a sense of its likeness. (His account reads like some of the visions in Babylonian epic poetry, but so much more vivid!) It was on that day that a voice thundered from within the inapproachable light, bidding him to rise. And though the weight of God's glory was too heavy, though Ezekiel found he couldn't stand on his own, yet the lively wind that passed between the unfathomable creatures rushed into him, filling his lungs with life, electrifying him with holy fire, and yanked him to his feet. And he heard himself addressed as “thou son of Adam,” heard his appointment as a prophet (Ezekiel 2:1-3). Was he dreaming? Was he awake? Was he even still in the mortal world? A hand stretched out from one of the four strange creatures, looking at him from the faces of a lion and man and ox, and presented Ezekiel with a small scroll, which God bade him choke down – and though the words he saw on it were full of sorrow, it was sweet like honey to his tongue (Ezekiel 2:9—3:3).
And when the chariot took off again, lifting up from the earth, so too was Ezekiel lifted up. And, filled with this strange Spirit that made his soul hot, feeling the bitterness of the scroll as it soured in his belly, feeling the pressure of being in the grip of an infinite force beyond his comprehension, he didn't even know how it was he came to his tent in Tel-abib. But he was utterly stupefied – all he could do for a whole week was babble in awe, sitting on the ground, as his senses slowly returned to him, as he began to process the unimaginable he'd endured (Ezekiel 3:12-15).
And as he did, as he tried to come to grips with it, one question kept returning to his mind, over and over again: “How could this be?” As in, “How could I see God out here in the shadow of Nippur, in an unclean land under Nebuchadnezzar's thumb? God should be in Jerusalem – why isn't he there? God certainly shouldn't be in Babylon – how can he be here?”
It would be fourteen months before he finally understood the answer. In the meantime, he prophesied, whatever the Word of the LORD came to him and told him. He built miniatures of Jerusalem and lay siege to it. He bound himself to lay on his side on a regular basis. He ate food cooked over repulsive fuel. He shaved his head and chopped at his hair with a sword. All these things that the stranger, mysterious Word told him to do. But in the meantime, he'd also built himself a small house – he knew now that Jeremiah's letter was the truth, that houses and gardens were God's plan for his people even out here by the canal. And on the eighteenth day of September, fourteen months after his vision, with the local elders gathered around in his house, suddenly he felt himself once again in the Lord GOD's grip. And he saw a figure grab him by a lock of his grown-back hair. In one Babylonian story, a god grabbed a prince by the lock of his hair with the intent to kill him; but Ezekiel was grabbed out of mercy and grace, to be lifted up between heaven and earth (Ezekiel 8:1-3).
He traveled in vision to Jerusalem – and what he saw there was utterly horrifying. In the presence of the glory of God – the same glory he'd seen descend from the storm – he saw an idol statue raised outside the north gate of the temple (Ezekiel 8:5). He peered through a hole in the wall, and saw engravings of snakes and scorpions and other creepy-crawling things, and the elders of Israel offering up incense to them (Ezekiel 8:10-11). He saw the women of Jerusalem worshipping the Babylonian god Dumuzi – or rather, performing the Babylonian ritual of mourning his annual departure to the underworld (Ezekiel 8:14). They cry out, “The orchardman has been killed in his grove, the irrigator among his waterworks. We weep bitterly, we weep for our orchardman!”
And in the inner court, Ezekiel saw men facing away from the temple, bowing toward the sun, passing gas toward the Holy of Holies (Ezekiel 8:16-17). And in response, Ezekiel saw the glory of God slowly ascend to the sapphire throne-chariot, and the chariot of cherubim – that, he realized, is what the strange four-winged creatures really were – rose up from the earth (Ezekiel 9-10). And as he watched judgment begin to fall on Jerusalem, as Ezekiel cried out in anguish of soul, as the Word of the LORD comforted him with promises to change Israel's stony heart and deadened spirit, he saw the chariot fly off toward an eastern mountain – and that's the message he related to the elders in his house that day (Ezekiel 11:1-25).
What Ezekiel saw is that the temple – the place where he would have served, had he remained in Jerusalem and begun serving as a priest there – had become hopelessly corrupt, filled with idolatry of the most repulsive kind. One may wonder how to sing the LORD's song in an unclean foreign land, but they didn't bother singing it any more in Jerusalem, either. And so, in these visions, Ezekiel comes to understand why God has absented himself from Jerusalem, why he isn't found there at the temple any more – his throne gets further and further from the temple, from the land itself, because the abominations of Judah have driven him away. And that's why God's glory is no longer stationary; he's on a soaring, rolling throne!
That answered half of Ezekiel's question – why God's glory was seen outside Jerusalem. But I wonder whether Ezekiel realized right away the answer to the other half – why God's glory was seen in Babylonia. When he left the temple, he could have gone anywhere. The throne-chariot could have flown north, to the chilly climate of Scandinavia or Russia. The throne-chariot could have flown south to Arabia. The throne-chariot could have gone west, far west, to lands still unknown far across the sea, where we reside today. The throne-chariot could have ascended into space, gone to the moon, gone to Mars, gone anywhere in all creation. And yet the throne-chariot went to the eastern mountain. The throne-chariot was seen, when Ezekiel had eyes to see it, rolling in the dirt outside a refugee camp not so far from the temple of Enlil. God had invaded Babylon already – and not Enlil, not Dumuzi, not even Babylon's patron deity Marduk, in whom Nebuchadnezzar so vainly trusted, could keep the LORD God at bay.
But why was the rolling throne here? Why would those whirling wheels plant down firmly in unclean, foreign soil? And if Ezekiel thought about it for long, there's only one reason. The glory of the God of Israel could have gone anywhere, but he went to be where his people were – this first wave of deported Judeans. For their sake, he moved to Babylon. For their sake, the God of Israel became an exile, too. He chose to be with his exiled people in their distress. And because of that, the words of Jeremiah's letter are true: the LORD really can still be sought and found, even in Babylon (Jeremiah 29:13) – because he's exiled himself there, too. And so the people can sing the LORD's songs in their foreign land – even in a refugee camp by the Chebar Canal. Because the glory of the God of Israel has gone there.
It's a startling realization – that the glorious God Ezekiel saw would go into exile with his people, would have his astounding throne-chariot's wheels trudging through Babylonian dirt, just so he could be near his people. But it fits with what we know. Because we know that the God Ezekiel saw would again touch down to terra firma with human feet; that the shining rainbow face would gaze at a crowd from a cross; and that the cherubim of the wheels would sing for joy on the third day, beholding their God's conquest of death. The cross, the nails, the thorns, the tomb, the stone – they can't stop this throne from rolling on out. And they can't stop the mighty wind of God from blowing in our hearts.
Maybe you feel like Ezekiel felt, that hot summer morning. Maybe you feel like he felt on the long march away from Jerusalem. Do you feel like you're in a foreign land? (Maybe that land's name is stress; maybe it's loss; maybe it's injustice or poverty or ill health or strife. Are you there?) Are you finding yourself in uncharted territory, dire straits, with your dreams dashed? Do you sit and weep in an unfamiliar place? Have you hung up your instruments of praise, just given up? Does it feel like the world is mocking you, asking you to sing joyful songs when everything has gone wrong? Do you feel like everything's in upheaval, that you've got no stability, like you're living in a tent by the canal? Does it feel like nothing you do has meaning – that it's all pointless labor for your captors? Do you feel like God must be a million miles away, and that he doesn't remember you, and you don't know how you can sing his songs in the place your life has gone (cf. Psalm 137:1-4)?
Then this message is for you this morning. Because the glory of God's on a rolling throne, and his wheels are in the dirt right where you are in life now. If you're in exile, he's in exile with you. No matter how far you've gone away from him, he's closed that distance. There is nowhere you can go, nowhere life can take you, where the rolling throne won't go. In your trouble, in your distress, in your exile, God is near. Trust in him, reach out to him – your exile won't last forever. Call upon him, come to him, pray to him – he'll hear you (Jeremiah 29:12). Seek him, and you'll find him (Jeremiah 29:13; cf. Matthew 7:7). You may have to endure plenty – exile may be long and hard – but God's on his rolling throne, and he's there in the thick of it with you. So go with God – because God goes with you. The throne is rolling on! Hallelujah. Amen.