Notes on Ezekiel's Cherub Part Three: Little Sanctuaries
At this point we must engage with Ezekiel’s gigantic cherubinic vision by the river Chebar, and grimly say, with Esther, “If I perish, I perish.” Ezekiel begins his vision (and his book) with a very brief prologue. He starts out by specifying the precise moment in time and exact location in which he received his prophetic call: “in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, in the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the river of Chebar.” This precision emphasizes not only the importance of the call to Ezekiel, but also the essential "nowness" of its nature—he was prophesying to his particular people on this particular day. Ezekiel addressed himself not to the past or even the future so much as the present. In verse two, Ezekiel goes over the time again, emphasizing the length of the drudgery and misery of the captivity. The captives have been waiting moment by moment, day by day, month after month, for deliverance. Ezekiel was already a priest at this time, and so was a kind of representative of the Israelite people as an aggregate. He had been brought, with many others of his people, to Babylon as captives following the destruction of Jerusalem. This exile, an event the prophets of the time (such as Jeremiah) had been discussing for decades, created an enormous shift in worship practices. Previously, the Israelites had gathered to the temple on the holy days to offer sacrifice and participate in ritual purification. Now, with the temple destroyed and the holy city occupied, a new, more internal form of spirituality was required. Ezekiel addresses the problem thus:
“Thus saith the Lord GOD; Although I have cast them far off among the heathen, and although I have scattered them among the countries, yet will I be to them as a little sanctuary in the countries where they shall come.”
In spite of the fact that the absence of a temple, or sanctuary, nullified many aspects of their religion, Yahweh would become a “little sanctuary,” or temple, within each of His scattered children. Rather than being cast out from spiritual experience, Israel had merely to adjust it’s spiritual expectations. No longer would the sacrificial order of temple ritual be necessary—instead religion had migrated inward as Israel had migrated outward. Ezekiel further clarifies the new concept:
“I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them an heart of flesh.”
The stony heart of communal temple ritual (the temple was constructed of stone) was replaced by the fleshy heart of internal, individual religious experience. The exiled Israelites, cast out of their beloved and holy land, each carried within them a piece of God, and in Him could find their “sanctuary.” Like all of us, exiled from the presence of God, the Israelites have been granted an inner light with which they may commune with the distant divinity.
The hand of the LORD lights upon Ezekiel and opens the heavens to reveal the magnificent vision that is to come. The hand of the LORD acts in many different ways throughout the Bible. In this case, is it ordaining him to his prophetic call? Smiting him with the fury of vision? Pressing him down with it’s extraordinary power? Lifting him up, nearer to the presence of God? Embracing him with divine love? The hand, as a symbol, generally refers to the possibility of action. The hand of the LORD is upon Ezekiel to impart to him the powers of godlike action—the ability to prophesy, or proclaim, the grandeur of God’s vision.