“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.
“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.” 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 powerful and personal He can be.
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).
He was justifiably angry and bitter about his situation (Ezek. 3:14) because throughout his early years he no doubt looked forward to being a priest and getting to serve God in that way, only to have it—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.
The Bible tells us that Ezekiel was among the captives by the Chebar canal when he noticed what at first looked like a storm on the horizon. However, it turned out to be not a normal desert storm but Yahweh Himself approaching on his chariot-throne, surrounded by clouds and flashes of what seemed to be lightning. And what a chariot-throne Yahweh rode on! The description of it is such that it challenges translators and boggles the mind, but is certainly fitting for Yahweh, the creator of the universe. The chariot-throne had four cherubim in a hollow square position, with four wings each, so the chariot-throne could fly, and four wheels beside the cherubim so it could roll on the ground, and it could move swiftly as lightning. When it moved it made a great sound like rushing waters or the commotion of an army, and it glittered brilliantly and flashed like fire. Above the cherubim was a platform that sparkled like ice or crystal, and on the platform was a great blue throne, and on the throne sat Yahweh Himself in the form of a man. That more or less summarizes Ezekiel 1, and then in Ezekiel 2 God begins to speak to Ezekiel about his calling and what he is supposed to do.
We need to see Ezekiel 1 for what it really is: not just a confusing description of what some people think is a space ship, but rather a loving and righteous God, angry over the sin of His people, who is coming in person to call out a young man into His service. God was about to call Ezekiel to a very serious and difficult ministry, in very difficult time, and He was going to show 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 is coming in all His power and glory; it demands our attention!