“the rainbow.” The colors of the rainbow are also associated with God’s throne in Revelation 4:3. God loves brilliant colors, and we see them associated with God in different places, particularly here and Revelation 4, and, of course, in God’s world around us.
“This was the appearance of the form of the glory of Yahweh.” This translation in the REV is quite literal. The sense of the sentence is picked up in several versions that are slightly less literal but catch the sense well. For example, “This was how the appearance of the glory of ADONAI looked” (CJB). Or, “This is what the glory of the LORD looked like to me” (NLT).
Here in Ezekiel 1:28 and most other places, the “glory of Yahweh” is the brilliant light that surrounds Yahweh, and He is in the center of the brilliant light. Sometimes, such as in Ezekiel 1:28 and Revelation 4:3, the light surrounding God is multi-colored. Ezekiel saw both the brilliant light that surrounded Yahweh and Yahweh Himself in a human form (Ezek. 1:26-28). Historically it has sometimes been thought that the “glory” was the divine presence itself, but the Bible describes the brilliant glory as being around God, not God Himself appearing as a brilliant light. Thus the Hastings Bible Dictionary has: “It [“glory”] is also frequently used…to denote a particular physical appearance indicating the divine presence” (James Hastings, ed., A Dictionary of the Bible, Hendrickson Publishers, 1988, “Glory,” p. 184).
As we will see below, Yahweh appeared in different ways. There are times when He appeared to people without His glory being visible, such as when He visited Abraham (Gen. 18:1). At other times He appeared in a cloud of brilliant light, and people could see the light but not Yahweh Himself. Sometimes, like here in Ezekiel, Yahweh appeared in His “glory,” the brilliant light that surrounded Him, but Yahweh Himself could also be seen in the light (Ezek. 1:26-28).
Since the phrase “the glory of Yahweh” is a way of describing the brilliant light that surrounds Yahweh with Him in the center, sometimes the Bible focuses on the glorious brilliance around Yahweh and sometimes on Yahweh Himself. This in large part explains why, when Yahweh appears in a given record, the Bible sometimes says “Yahweh” while at other times it says “the glory of Yahweh.” For example, “the glory of Yahweh” stood in front of Ezekiel on a plain near Nippur, but it was Yahweh Himself who spoke to Ezekiel (Ezek. 3:22-24). Similarly, Ezekiel 3:12 says that “the glory of Yahweh rose from its place,” but it is clear in the context that Yahweh’s chariot-throne was lifting off and moving with Yahweh Himself in the center of the glory that surrounded Him. Also, in Ezekiel 9:3, “the glory of God” moved to the threshold of the Temple, but “He” (Yahweh) spoke to Ezekiel. Also, because of the sin of the religious and political leaders of Judah, “the glory of Yahweh” left the Temple (Ezek. 10:4, 18; 11:23), but it was Yahweh who left; and He returns in Ezekiel 43:1-6, which is still future. But the Bible says “the glory of Yahweh” left because Yahweh in all His glory left the Temple.
When Stephen was being stoned, he looked up and saw “the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God,” but he described it saying, “I see…the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55-56). Stephen saw “the glory of God,” i.e., the brilliant light that surrounded God, but he described it to the people there as “God” because he and his audience all knew that the “glory of God” was there because God was there in the center of the brilliant glory. Furthermore, to Stephen, “God” was the important focus, not the light around Him.
There are many times in the Bible when “the glory of Yahweh” is said to be present but Yahweh Himself was apparently not seen. The “glory of Yahweh” is not separate from Yahweh as if Yahweh Himself could be in one place and the “glory of Yahweh,” the brilliant light around Him, could be in another place. When the people saw the glory of Yahweh, they knew that the reason for the brilliant light was that God was in the center of it, and often when Yahweh appeared, He only allowed people to see the glorious light that surrounded Him, but not He Himself (cp. Exod. 16:7, 10; 24:16-18; Lev. 9:23-24; Num. 14:10; 16:19, 42; 20:6; 1 Kings 8:10-11; 2 Chron. 5:13-14; 7:1-3).
A good example of people seeing the light around God but apparently not God in person was when “the glory of Yahweh” filled Moses’ Tent of Meeting and Solomon’s Temple. The brilliant light revealed that God was present there in a special way, dwelling above the Mercy Seat and between the cherubim (Exod. 25:22; Num. 7:89; 1 Sam. 4:4; 2 Sam. 6:2; 2 Kings 19:15; 1 Chron. 13:6; Ps. 80:1, 99:1; Isa. 37:16). When “the glory of the Lord” shined around the shepherds at the birth of Christ, it almost assuredly indicated that a very proud Father God was personally present there at the announcement of the birth of His only begotten Son, but the shepherds did not see Yahweh Himself (Luke 2:9).
God is in control of when and how He appears to people, so it should not surprise us that when God shows up in person, He shows up in different ways, each appropriate to the circumstance. Sometimes He is surrounded by brilliant light, which can be multi-colored as it is in Ezekiel 1:27-28 and Revelation 4:3-5. The brilliant light around God is the inapproachable light of 1 Timothy 6:16. Sometimes when God shows up in the form of a human as He did to Ezekiel, His body is described as being like fire (Ezek. 1:27). This may refer to the yellow, orange, red, blue and even green colors of fire, but also it likely describes the fact that, like fire, God Himself is glowing and the light shining from Him is moving and changing. God does not have to show up in a dull human form, but can reveal Himself in an amazing form that apparently shines, glows, and flashes like fire. However, when God showed up in Daniel’s vision of the end-times judgment, it was a regal indeed, with God in snow white clothing and with the white hair of age and wisdom, sitting on a fiery throne of judgment (Dan. 7:9-10).
Sometimes when Yahweh comes in person the brightness around Him is described as a cloud. This is what happened at the dedications of Moses’ Tent of Meeting and Solomon’s Temple. The cloud of light that filled Moses’ Tent and Solomon’s Temple was so bright that the priests could not minister there (Exod. 40:34-35; 1 Kings 8:10-11; 2 Chron. 5:13-14; 7:1-3). The glory of Yahweh is also described as a bright cloud in Ezekiel 10:3-4, and God said he would appear in a cloud on the Mercy Seat between the cherubim in the Holy of Holies (Lev. 16:2). We can understand why the brightness around God is sometimes described as a “cloud” because His brightness was localized and thus was much like a bright cloud in the sky with the sun shining through it such that it can only be squinted at. A brilliant cloud also appeared at the Transfiguration and indicated the presence of God, and God spoke from the cloud and said, “This is my beloved Son…” (Matt. 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:34).
The appearance of the cloud around God could change, depending on the situation. Although it was usually a brilliant light, sometimes it was dark. Furthermore, sometimes it had lightning or both thunder and lightning, and sometimes it had some of the other colors of the rainbow around God as well, or the colors of fire. When God came down on Mount Sinai at the time of the Exodus, there was a thick dark cloud, thunder and lightning, smoke, and the appearance of a consuming fire (Exod. 19:16-18; 24:16-17). When God first showed Himself to Ezekiel, he saw a cloud flashing with fire and there was a brilliance around the cloud and a glow in the middle of it that had the deep yellow-orange color of amber (Ezek. 1:4).
It is important to recognize that there are a couple of times when “the glory of Yahweh” does not seem to refer to His personal presence. In the phrase, “the glory of Yahweh,” the Hebrew word “glory” is kabod (#03519 כָּבוֹד), and kabod has a broad range of meanings. The Hebrew word kabod can mean glory, splendor, honor, distinction, reputation, importance, essence, power, and even heaviness or burden, depending on the context.
When the Bible speaks of the “glory” of Yahweh as the brilliant light that surrounds Him, it is using “glory” with the meaning of something that is awe-inspiring and of great splendor and wonder. As we have seen above, that brilliant awe-inspiring and wonderous light indicates the presence of God (cp. Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew-English Lexicon, Hendrickson Publishers, p. 458, (#03519 כָּבוֹד) #2. c. “of God, glory, in historic theophanies”). There are times, however, when the word “glory” refers to God’s majesty, power, or His praise and honor. For example, in Isaiah 35:2 when the wilderness and desert will see the “glory of God” and be transformed into fertile land, the word “glory” most likely refers to His awe-inspiring power that elicits praise. A similar use is in Habakkuk 2:14 when the whole world is filled with the knowledge of the “glory of Yahweh,” most likely meaning His power and majesty.
In contrast to the “glory of Yahweh,” which occurs quite often in the Old Testament and almost always refers to the personal presence of Yahweh, the phrase the “glory of God” occurs very rarely in the Old Testament and never refers to His personal presence. In the Old Testament, the phrase “the glory of God” refers to the power and majesty of God (cp. Ps. 19:1, Prov. 25:2). However, the phrase “the glory of the God of Israel” refers to the glorious brilliance around Yahweh, and it only occurs five times, all in Ezekiel (Ezek. 8:4; 9:3; 10:19; 11:22; 43:2).
In the New Testament, the phrase “glory of the Lord” is rare, occurring three times, and it can refer to God’s personal presence (Luke 2:9), or to praise and honor (2 Cor. 8:19), or in one case it refers to the glory of the Lord Jesus (2 Cor. 3:18). The phrase “the glory of God” in the New Testament almost always refers to the power and majesty of God or something that elicits the praise and honor of God (cp. John 11:4, 40; Rom. 3:23; 15:7; 1 Cor. 10:31; 2 Cor. 4:14). Only a few times does the “glory of God” refer to the brilliant light that surrounds God (Acts 7:55; Rev. 15:8; 21:23, and perhaps Rev. 21:11).
God desires a special and personal relationship with people, so it is not unusual that He would manifest His presence among humans at various critical times in history, and often He is surrounded by glorious light, “the glory of Yahweh.”
[For more on the movement of the glory of Yahweh out and back into Jerusalem and the Temple, see commentary on Ezek. 9:3. For more on Yahweh appearing in human form, see commentary on Gen. 18:1].