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Cosmology and Ezekiel’s throne vision

September 14, 2012

In his commentary on Ezekiel, George Currey (1816-1885) discussed the relationship between Ezekiel and the Apocalypse of John, and he pointed out some striking differences.

One of the ways the accounts differ is in their respective descriptions of God’s throne. Currey notes some differences between the accounts in the  following paragraph. [1]

The opening visions of Ezekiel and of St John can scarcely be otherwise than substantially identical. In each, the prominent object is a throne, and He that sitteth on it; the throne is surrounded by ineffable brightness, lightnings flash forth from it, and a rainbow encircles it, whilst in constant attendance upon it are four, called, according to our English version, by Ezekiel living creatures, by St John beasts, but in the Greek of the Septuagint and of the New Testament ζῷα (Heb. chaiioth), being the common name for animals, living ones. In Ezekiel he who sits upon the throne is described as the likeness or the appearance of a man; in St John He is to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone, and is addressed in adoration as the Lord (Rev. iv. 11), being no doubt the same person described more fully in Rev. i. as like unto the Son of Man, and as He that liveth and was dead, and is alive for evermore. As there can be no doubt who is designated by St John, we are led by an irresistible conclusion to recognize in the vision of Ezekiel the manifestation of the glory of God in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, made Man, in whom dwelt all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. But while the central object is the same there are in the two visions marked differences. In St John we have no clouds from the north, and no firmament. The wheels, which are so striking a feature in Ezekiel, are altogether wanting, the eyes being transferred to the bodies of the four beasts. The Four differ considerably. While in Ezekiel the fourfold variety is common to all, so that each of the Four is precisely similar to the others, in St John the varieties are distributed, to one being given that of a man, to another that of a lion, and so forth. The peculiar motion of the Four, all together moving to all quarters of the earth with no change in their relative positions, occurs not in St John; and, in short, while unity is a characteristic of Ezekiel’s Four, actuated by one spirit, so as to be called, not only living creatures, but the living creature (Heb. chaiiah) (i. 20), in St John the Four seem more like four persons offering, like the twenty-four elders, common adoration. These differences bear directly upon the subject of the two visions. The cloud from the north localizes the vision to a spot upon the earth’s surface. The wheels connect the chariot with the earth, the movements are to do service on the earth, the firmament is the medium between earth and heaven. The various particulars are parts of one whole, which represents the manifestations of the glory of God upon earth, and in all the creatures of the earth. But in St John the scene is Heaven. Visible creation is indeed represented, but it is translated to heaven. No services are required on earth, but the employment of all creation is to render perpetual worship to Him who is enthroned in glory, having taken His manhood into God. If, as is most probable, the number four is symbolical of the earth, we see why by Ezekiel the number is so much more frequently repeated than by St John, not only four beings, but each being fourfold, with four faces, four (not six) wings.

A possible reason for some of the different features in Ezekiel’s vision is that the original account of Ezekiel’s vision was modified, in an attempt to promote the geocentric cosmology of the Greeks, in the inter-Testament period. The mention of clouds, and enormous wheels, (perhaps alluding to planetary spheres, centred upon the earth) the number of the wheels, (Eudoxus of Cnidus proposed four spheres for each of the five planets, and three each to the sun and moon) their constant orientation (“they turned not when they went”) and the manner of their movement, (orbits?) and the presence of eyes, (stars) and the firmament below the throne, (the rigid sky revolving around the earth) may all be features that were added to the account, probably during the second century B.C. by Jews who admired the cosmological theories of the Greeks, in which the planetary motions were explained in terms of perfectly circular revolutions. Some of the features of the throne vision that are specific to Ezekiel could indicate a cosmological significance, introduced by subtle changes to the original text, that imply a connection between Yahweh and Zeus, the chief deity of the hellenistic Greeks. Comparing John’s account with Ezekiel’s exposes the probable additions.


1. George Currey. Ezekiel. In: Frederic Charles Cook, Ed. The Holy Bible, According to the Authorized Version (A.D. 1611), v. 5: Ezekiel. Daniel, and the minor prophets.  pp. 8-10.