“in the thirtieth year.” This is Ezekiel’s age. Although that fact is not plainly stated and has been challenged, that the 30 years refers to Ezekiel’s age has been generally accepted since the time of the Church Father Origin. It is unlikely it refers to an unstated and unknown event. According to Num. 4:3, a descendant of Aaron, and thus a priest, entered priestly ministry at age 30, and Ezekiel was a priest (Ezek. 1:3). Thus it is appropriate that his prophetic visions started when he was 30.
“in the fourth month, in the fifth day of the month.” Edwin Thiele (The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings. Revised Edition, 1983) has proposed that this date, in the fifth year of the captivity of Jehoiachin (Ezek. 1:2), is July 31, 593 BC, and that date has been accepted by many scholars. Ezekiel is the most exactly dated of all the prophetic books.
“I was among the captives.” Ezekiel was taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar’s army when Jehoiachin, who only reigned 3 months, was king of Judah (2 Kings 24:14-16). He was taken to the area of Nippur, about 600 miles (950 km) east of Jerusalem. Ezekiel was taken captive to Babylon when he was 26 years old and when Jehoiachin was king of Judah (Ezek. 1:2; 33:21; 40:1; 2 Kings 24:14-16), and the Babylonians settled him in the area of the Chebar canal close to the city of Nippur. It is worth noting that Ezekiel the priest was taken captive to Babylon, while Jeremiah the priest (Jer. 1:1) was left in Judah and had many interactions with King Zedekiah there. Ezekiel was a priest from a line of priests (Ezek. 1:3) and was in the fifth year of his captivity when God appeared to him (Ezek. 1:2). He had just turned 30 when God appeared to him (Ezek. 1:1) which meant that he was not yet considered in the fullness of his priestly service in Jerusalem when he was taken captive (cp. Num. 4:3-47), although he likely had started working as priest when he was 20 (1 Chron. 23:24-25).
“Chebar canal.” Of this canal that is mentioned in Ezekiel 1:1, Daniel Block writes: “Located in the vicinity of Nippur, the Chebar conduit was but one of many branches of an elaborate canal system that distributed water from the Tigris and the Euphrates throughout the city and its environs” (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Ezekiel chapters 1-24).
Because Ezekiel says he was among the captives located by the canal, we do not know if Ezekiel was personally near the canal at the time of the vision. Nippur is around 70 miles southeast of the city of Babylon, which would have been a good two days journey at that time, so Ezekiel was far enough from the captive royalty of Judah he would not have been influenced much by them.
“I saw visions of God.” The opening chapters of Ezekiel are an amazing introduction to Ezekiel’s calling and experience with God. It gives us a view of God and how He moves in the spirit world and among humans that does not occur anywhere else in the Bible. The opening chapters of Ezekiel, especially chapter one, have been hard to translate and understand because they present spiritual realities that are difficult to describe. Added to that is the fact that some Christian traditions make it hard to understand Ezekiel chapter one. For example, the Christian tradition that people cannot see God makes chapter one very difficult to understand because God appears bodily to Ezekiel. Also, that God portrays Himself riding on a chariot-throne is not expected or understood by most Christians, which adds to the difficulty in understanding Ezekiel.
Ezekiel 1:1-3 gives us the date and place that God called Ezekiel to ministry. Then, starting with Ezekiel 1:4, Ezekiel describes God’s chariot-throne, and quite specifically describes the cherubim who power it (Ezek. 1:5-14). God and His chariot-throne first appear to Ezekiel like a cloud of fire moving towards him from the north (Ezek. 1:4). Then, Ezekiel describes the cherubim that he saw powering the chariot-throne—they were the “engine” of the chariot-throne. The cherubim were basically humanoid in form (Ezek. 1:5), but they also had many distinct differences. For example, each of the cherubim had four faces that were facing in the four different directions, the face of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. Also, each of the cherubim had four wings with which they flew (Ezek. 1:6. This fits with 2 Sam. 22:11 and Ps. 18:10, that God rode on a cherub and flew). The cherubim took God’s chariot-throne wherever God, “the Spirit,” wanted to go (Ezek. 1:12), and when the cherubim moved, their wings made a loud sound (Ezek. 1:24).
Ezekiel then tells us that God’s chariot throne had wheels but describes them in a way that is challenging to understand and translate (Ezek. 1:15-21). In any case, we learn that when God’s chariot-throne was on the ground it rolled on the wheels, but verses 19-21 tell us that when God wanted to fly, His chariot-throne lifted off the earth and the wheels traveled right along with the chariot-throne, much like an airplane has wheels that it uses when it’s on the ground but does not use them when flying.
Then, from Ezekiel 1:22-26, we learn that the cherubim supported a platform. The platform was above the cherubim, and on the platform was the throne of God with God sitting on the throne. The throne had the appearance of sapphire, and God appeared in the form of a man sitting on the throne with shining brightness like fire all around Him. God would speak to the cherubim and they would stop or go at His command (Ezek. 1:25).
So, Ezekiel chapter one describes God riding a chariot-throne. It was powered by cherubim with wings and it had wheels on which it rolled when it was on the ground. It had a platform above the cherubim on which was God’s throne, and God, in the form of a man, was sitting on the throne. In response to this unexpected and powerful revelation, Ezekiel fell on his face before God, and God spoke with him (Ezek. 1:28).
At this point, Ezekiel chapter two begins. After Ezekiel fell on his face, God told him to get up (Ezek. 2:1), and then God told Ezekiel that He was sending him to speak to the people of Israel, that “nation of rebels” (Ezek. 2:3). God’s first commissioning of Ezekiel and His first set of commands is recorded in Ezekiel 2:1-3:11. Then God moved Ezekiel to a place where Israelites lived so that he could speak to them. Those particular Israelites had been taken captive by Babylon and moved from Tel Aviv in Israel to near to where Ezekiel lived by the Chebar canal (Ezek. 3:12-15). Then the ministry and revelations of Ezekiel continue and are recorded in the rest of Ezekiel.
God called and chose Ezekiel and, as we learn when we read the book, involved him in an honorable and amazing mission, but one fraught with difficulties and dangers. Ezekiel’s calling was not guesswork on the part of the prophet, nor was it a subtle revelation to him. God shows us by Ezekiel’s example how personal He can be.
Ezekiel was justifiably angry and bitter about his situation as a captive (Ezek. 3:14) because throughout his early years he no doubt looked forward to being a priest and getting to serve God, only to have that—and his homeland and even likely his family—taken from him due to the sin of the leaders of Judah who had consistently ignored the warnings of the prophets, Jeremiah being one of them.
We need to see Ezekiel 1 for what it really is: not just a confusing description of what some people think is a spaceship, but rather a loving and righteous God, angry over the sin of His people, who came to call a young man into His service. God called Ezekiel to a very serious and difficult ministry, in very difficult times, and He showed up in person to do it. He came to Ezekiel in all the power and majesty of His holy position as God; riding on his chariot-throne, complete with glittering colors, fire, flashing lightning, and the sound like the commotion of a coming army. Yahweh’s coming to Ezekiel demanded his attention. At some point in the future Jesus will come in person, accompanied by angels and great glory, and that fact demands the attention of believers today so we are prepared for his coming.
[For more information on God coming into concretion in the form of a man, see commentaries on Genesis 18:1 and Acts 7:55].