“a stormy wind came out of the north.” It is certainly no accident that God appeared to Ezekiel coming out of a storm cloud. Nippur was one of the most ancient Sumerian cities, and the name “Nippur” comes from ancient Sumerian and means “Lord wind.” In Sumerian mythology, Nippur, the city close to where Ezekiel was located, was the home of Enlil, the Sumerian storm god and creator of mankind. In fact, the ancient mythology was that Enlil actually created mankind at Nippur. Through the centuries and conquests of nations, Enlil lost his powerful position to the Babylonian god Marduk, but Enlil remained as one of the powerful Mesopotamian gods and the god who carried out the decrees of the council of gods that met at Nippur. The sanctuary of Enlil at Nippur was considered sacred by all the various dynasties that ruled Mesopotamia.
Understanding the religious context of the area where Ezekiel was located helps us understand why Yahweh showed Himself to Ezekiel in the way He did. Yahweh showed Himself to Ezekiel not only as the true God and thus the creator of mankind, but as the “real” storm God as well, approaching Ezekiel like a powerful storm on His chariot-throne, complete with wind, clouds, and lightning. Yahweh is rightfully called, “the Most High God” because He rules over all other gods and lords (cp. Gen. 14:18; Ps. 7:17; Isa. 14:14; Dan. 4:2; Mark 5:7; Acts 16:17. this is often abbreviated to simply “Most High”).
“a great cloud with fire flashing back and forth.” Although this is described as if Ezekiel is seeing an actual storm coming, we learn as we read that this “storm” is Yahweh approaching, and what Ezekiel is seeing is part of a grand vision in which Yahweh appears to him. The “cloud” surrounding God was the cloud of glory around him.
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).
[For more information about the glory and brightness surrounding God, see commentary on Ezek. 1:28.]
“And out of the center of it gleamed something like the glow of gleaming amber.” As Yahweh’s chariot-throne approached, surrounded by clouds and flashing like lightning, it makes sense that the inside would gleam and glow like amber, for Yahweh Himself was on the throne of His chariot. As for the gleaming “amber,” the meaning of the Hebrew word is uncertain, and it is only used in Ezekiel 1:4, 27; and 8:2. We know that God’s presence caused a gleam or glow, but the exact nature of it is unknown, although amber is a likely candidate. The fact that Ezekiel describes the gleam from the presence of God in rare and uncertain terms shows us that it was a rare and hard-to-describe sight.
The word “gleam,” which in some versions is “the color of” (CJB; JPS; KJV) is the same Hebrew word as many versions translate as “eye” in Ezekiel 1:18.