This morning, I preached about David's desire and determination to bring the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem. Here are a few more thoughts on the subject of God's glory that I jotted down last week, taken from one of the Old Testament prophets...
Ezekiel's writings contain some of the most unusual passages in the Bible, and certainly some of the most difficult to understand. They speak of things both strange and wonderful, but, also mysterious. Reading some of his descriptions, one quickly comes to the opinion that the guy had a supernatural encounter with God of the highest order, seeing and hearing things so incredible, so otherworldly, so awesome, that he felt at a loss to know how to convey them in ordinary human language. No wonder he frequently used such Hebrew words translated into English as "like" and "appearance" to describe things that were completely beyond any earthly experience.
Try to visualize in your own mind, for instance, what he sees as he describes the four living creatures:
"5 ... in the fire was what looked like four living creatures. In appearance their form was that of a man, 6 but each of them had four faces and four wings. 7 Their legs were straight; their feet were like those of a calf ... 8 Under their wings on their four sides they had the hands of a man. All four of them had faces and wings, ... 10 Their faces looked like this: Each of the four had the face of a man, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle." (Ezekiel 1:5-10, NIV)
Can you visualize that? ... Not me!
Or, how about this:
"15 As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the ground beside each creature with its four faces. 16 This was the appearance and structure of the wheels: They sparkled like chrysolite, and all four looked alike. Each appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel. 17 As they moved, they would go in any one of the four directions the creatures faced; the wheels did not turn about as the creatures went. 18 Their rims were high and awesome, and all four rims were full of eyes all around." (Ezekiel 1:15-18, NIV)
What is a wheel that intersects a wheel that can move in any of four directions without turning? And, why does this kind of wheel have eyes on it...?!
And, that's just the first chapter...!
The apostle Paul declared that the natural mind cannot understand the things of the spirit. (1 Corinthians 2:13-14) That certainly applies to Ezekiel's words. My human thought processes begin to break down when I try to picture such scenes.
When I awoke early last Monday morning, though, and moved into the still tranquility of our living room for one of those special moments alone with the Lord, I felt prompted to read Ezekiel again. I thought about what he wrote for a while in an attitude of prayer, but I have to admit that I still did not have a completely clear idea of what his unusual descriptions actually mean. I looked the chapters up in a couple of commentaries to see if that would help me grasp things better. Predictably, each of their authors had an opinion, and maybe one of them is right, but quite honestly, what they wrote reads to me more like speculation than deep conviction. About the only thing we know for absolutely sure concerning these passages is that the four creatures are cherubim, a high order of angels, closely associated in Scripture with the throne of God (10:20).
In spite of the uncertainty surrounding some of what Ezekiel wrote, even a casual reading of his prophecies makes one thing very clear - this man's encounters with God's manifest presence impacted him in a very profound way. The first time he glimpsed a physical manifestation of God's glory, he was so overcome with awe that he fell face down to the ground.
"4 I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north-an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light. The center of the fire looked like glowing metal...22 Spread out above the heads of the living creatures was what looked like an expanse, sparkling like ice, and awesome...."26 Above the expanse over their heads was what looked like a throne of sapphire, and high above on the throne was a figure like that of a man. 27 I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him. 28 Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. When I saw it, I fell facedown, and I heard the voice of one speaking." (Ezekiel 1:14, 22, 26-28, NIV)
Ezekiel's passion for God's glory must have caused him tremendous sorrow when he wrote chapter ten. In that passage, he describes how God's glory leaves the temple. That terrible thing was certainly not what God wanted to happen, and it did not take place all at once, but came about in stages. First, the Lord's manifest presence that resided over the mercy seat above the cherubim moved away from the altar to the threshold or door of the temple. Then, it arose and moved to the east exterior gate. In chapter eleven, it finally moved out of the temple door to the Mount of Olives, east of the city.
As I read those verses, I found myself wondering, "Did anyone notice that something was different when this occurred?" By the eye of the Spirit, Ezekiel saw what was transpiring on a spiritual level, but I wonder if anyone could tell what was happening on a natural level. Crowds of people may have continued to throng the temple area. After all, it was the only place pious individuals could offer the sacrifices required by the Law of Moses. Since the temple was also the center of Jewish social life, personal interaction, deep friendships, and other long-lived relationships may have continued to draw other people to its courts. In any event, even after the glory was gone, the temple building itself retained all its architectural splendor and an entire class of religious professionals continued to carry out their ritual functions and duties.
Seen from the human perspective alone, things probably seemed to be the same as they had always been, but the spiritual reality was that the manifest presence of God had gradually slipped away from the midst of it all. Because Israel's spiritual leaders committed persistent, serious sins, God eventually withdrew His blessed anointing from what was taking place. In the book of Judges, chapter sixteen, we read that Samson arose and shook himself as he had done at other times, thinking that he would experience supernatural help from the Lord as he always had before, without realizing that the Lord had left him. Confronted with a problem too big for him to solve without divine intervention, he came to the very rude awakening that the anointing had lifted from off of his life without him even knowing it. What a sobering thought...!
I suspect something similar happened in the temple when the glory of God left. Because of His great love for Israel, the Lord did not remove His manifest presence in a single moment, but lessened it in stages, giving their spiritual leaders the opportunity to respond in repentance by turning away from their self-sufficiency and back toward Him so He could return in all His fullness. The first sign that something was seriously wrong was when God's presence was not quite a strong as it had been before and His glory was no longer at the center of all that was taking place.
This same thing can happen in the life of a local church. Imagine for a moment a congregation where there is still enough of the Holy Spirit's work for a few people to get saved every now and then; other individuals are having their needs met through its various programs and ministries. Enough good things are happening that, at first glance, it appears that everything is as it should be. When you look a little more closely, though, you discover that some other religious or social activity has become more important in the life of that body than the pursuit of God's manifest presence. In such a context, it is very easy for that body's leaders and members to be lulled into thinking that everything is okay, when in reality, it is only a matter of time until their church has evolved into a mere social entity, devoid of any true spiritual life.
This has happened many times throughout church history in many different sectors of the Christian church. One way to guard against this tendency is to ask ourselves these important questions from time to time: "If the Holy Spirit were suddenly removed from the world tonight, tomorrow morning, would it just be 'business as usual' around here or would we keenly sense our loss? How much of the life and ministry of this church really does depend on the Holy Spirit's help? How much of it can we do without any supernatural intervention? How clearly do we see ongoing evidences that He is still working among and through us, or do we just take that for granted by faith?"
I am very glad that Ezekiel did not end his prophecy in chapter ten! He went on to write chapter forty-three, describing how God's glorious presence returned to the temple, accompanied by the promise that it would never leave again. This followed a deep, cleansing work of the Spirit in the Israelites as the result of their repentance. This is certainly the heart and desire of God for every local body of believers.
I am so thankful that we are experiencing a fresh move of His Spirit among us at Hillcrest! As I preached this morning, let's be like David and do everything it takes to keep His manifest presence in our homes and in this "house!"