As Ezekiel stands at this border between present captivity and nostalgia for former freedom, the heavens are opened. This is significant—Israel is closed in, hedged up, locked away, and bound up in exile. The heavens open to release the captive from their chains and offer a new kind of freedom. It is then that the vision begins, with a whirlwind coming out of the North, the traditional direction of God’s realm (Psalm 48:2). Whirlwinds also act as heralds announcing the imminent approach of the LORD in Elijah’s theophany on the mountaintop, and later carries him to the presence of God in a heavenly chariot. It is the impassive whirlwind which delivers God’s message of the nothingness of man to a terrified Job (and it is also a “great wind from the wilderness” that kills his children). Isaiah also describes a whirlwind, in terms that bear a marked resemblance to Ezekiel’s vision: "For behold, the Eternal will come with fire, and with his chariots like a whirlwind" (Isaiah 46:15). The whirlwind coming from the north is the terrible and majestic power of God flowing from the source of His Presence. Whirlwinds are employed as images of awesome and destructive force throughout the Bible, often utilized to destroy the wicked in an overwhelming force of shattering divinity. The fact that Ezekiel remains standing at this point without being dissolved says much about his toughness of character. An encounter with God strips a man of his superficialities and communicates directly and awfully with his center. If there is nothing at his center, he is destroyed. The power of God, like a whirlwind, blasts away and dismantles anything merely ostensible or unstable. The whirlwind strips away Ezekiel’s external husks so that his central seed is exposed to the full power of the LORD directly. The heavens were opened, and now Ezekiel himself has been opened. The doors to his "little sanctuary" have been blasted off their hinges.
The whirlwind is further described as “a great cloud,” a phrase surely meant to remind readers of the “pillar of cloud” described in Exodus (13:21-22). This pillar of cloud served as a guide to the Israelites on their forty-year journey through the wilderness between the captivity of Egypt and the freedom of the Promised Land. The “great cloud” of Ezekiel’s vision also appears as a guide between the realms of captivity and freedom. The captives in Chaldea were sorely in need of a guiding presence as they wandered through the wilderness of exile and captivity. The cloud also serves to cover the terrible presence of the LORD, in order to protect mortal eyes. Direct contact with God would mean an instant melting away for anyone unprepared for such an encounter. God hides Himself within symbolic forms as a boundary, protecting our own frail frames from disintegration (cf. Exodus 19:24).
Whirlwinds often arise in desert areas and indeed take the form of a pillar of cloud. Such a whirlwind is created when local winds start to spin on the ground. This causes a "funnel" to form, which moves over the ground, pushed by the winds that first formed it. The funnel picks up debris as it moves over the ground, becoming a visible whirlwind, with a vortex at its center. A vortex is a spiraling flow with a circular motion. Interestingly, there is also a type of galaxy called a “spiral galaxy,” which is characterized by a thin, rotating disk, and created by a similar phenomenon, albeit on a cosmic scale. Since the Milky Way is a spiral galaxy, the galaxy in which we live is essentially a gigantic whirlwind. So, the whirlwind may be seen as a microcosm of the entire universe, or, conversely, a macrocosm of the individual man. If we study the formation process of whirlwinds in biblical terms, we begin to understand more of what this powerful image suggests. In Hebrew, the same word (ruah) is used to describe Spirit, breath, and wind. Because a whirlwind occurs when opposing winds (ruah) meet, we learn that the opposition of mighty spirits creates a circular, invisible form of incredible power. The powerful metaphor of the whirlwind emphasizes the nature of coordinated oppositions which we will discover in the fourfold Cherubim—opposing forces creating spiritual energy. Nahum tells us that “the LORD hath his way in the whirlwind (Nahum 1:3).” In the form of these spirits whirling in a divine counterpoint of opposition is inscribed the pattern of the universe, of God Himself, and of the godly man.