A Portrait of God's Glory

(Photo: Unsplash)

This post was originally published in July 2018. –ed.

While God’s Word does not give us all the details about our future home with Him, Scripture is hardly silent when it comes to His eternal kingdom. In fact, the Bible contains many descriptions of heaven.

However, some of those descriptions are cast in apocalyptic or prophetic language filled with symbolism and mystery. Such complex imagery can be confusing, even for seasoned biblical scholars. Some want to treat the verses like riddles or treasure maps that unlock deeper meaning and hidden truths about what we can expect in heaven. Others look to allegorize the imagery, leading down infinite rabbit trails of subjective interpretation. But that’s not why the writers of Scripture—under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit—described their heavenly visions the way they did.

It’s crucial to remember that apocalyptic symbolism in Scripture always means that something of great consequence is under discussion. Don’t make the error of thinking symbolic language means the thing described is unreal. The Bible asserts that heaven is a real place. And the descriptions of heaven, even the most apocalyptic ones, describe a real place.

Ezekiel’s Wheel

One of the most dramatic depictions of heaven in all Scripture comes from the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel was wonderfully transported to the very heart of heaven in a vision, and he describes in vivid detail what heaven and the throne room of God are like.

Here is Ezekiel 1 in its totality:

Now it came about in the thirtieth year, on the fifth day of the fourth month, while I was by the river Chebar among the exiles, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God. (On the fifth of the month in the fifth year of King Jehoiachin’s exile, the word of the Lord came expressly to Ezekiel the priest, son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar; and there the hand of the Lord came upon him.)

As I looked, behold, a storm wind was coming from the north, a great cloud with fire flashing forth continually and a bright light around it, and in its midst something like glowing metal in the midst of the fire. Within it there were figures resembling four living beings. And this was their appearance: they had human form. Each of them had four faces and four wings. Their legs were straight and their feet were like a calf’s hoof, and they gleamed like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides were human hands. As for the faces and wings of the four of them, their wings touched one another; their faces did not turn when they moved, each went straight forward. As for the form of their faces, each had the face of a man; all four had the face of a lion on the right and the face of a bull on the left, and all four had the face of an eagle. Such were their faces. Their wings were spread out above; each had two touching another being, and two covering their bodies. And each went straight forward; wherever the spirit was about to go, they would go, without turning as they went. In the midst of the living beings there was something that looked like burning coals of fire, like torches darting back and forth among the living beings. The fire was bright, and lightning was flashing from the fire. And the living beings ran to and fro like bolts of lightning.

Now as I looked at the living beings, behold, there was one wheel on the earth beside the living beings, for each of the four of them. The appearance of the wheels and their workmanship was like sparkling beryl, and all four of them had the same form, their appearance and workmanship being as if one wheel were within another. Whenever they moved, they moved in any of their four directions without turning as they moved. As for their rims they were lofty and awesome, and the rims of all four of them were full of eyes round about. Whenever the living beings moved, the wheels moved with them. And whenever the living beings rose from the earth, the wheels rose also. Wherever the spirit was about to go, they would go in that direction. And the wheels rose close beside them; for the spirit of the living beings was in the wheels. Whenever those went, these went; and whenever those stood still, these stood still. And whenever those rose from the earth, the wheels rose close beside them; for the spirit of the living beings was in the wheels.

Now over the heads of the living beings there was something like an expanse, like the awesome gleam of crystal, spread out over their heads. Under the expanse their wings were stretched out straight, one toward the other; each one also had two wings covering its body on the one side and on the other. I also heard the sound of their wings like the sound of abundant waters as they went, like the voice of the Almighty, a sound of tumult like the sound of an army camp; whenever they stood still, they dropped their wings. And there came a voice from above the expanse that was over their heads; whenever they stood still, they dropped their wings.

Now above the expanse that was over their heads there was something resembling a throne, like lapis lazuli in appearance; and on that which resembled a throne, high up, was a figure with the appearance of a man. Then I noticed from the appearance of His loins and upward something like glowing metal that looked like fire all around within it, and from the appearance of His loins and downward I saw something like fire; and there was a radiance around Him. As the appearance of the rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the surrounding radiance. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell on my face and heard a voice speaking.

That is Ezekiel’s description of God’s throne in heaven. We can’t fully understand all he described, and neither did he. But under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit he attempted—within the limitations of human language and intelligence—to describe what he saw: blazing light reflected off polished jewels and colored wheels of light mingled with angelic beings (the “living beings”). Around the throne of the eternal, glorious God, he saw a flashing, sparkling, spinning rainbow of brilliance.

How do we interpret such mysterious language? Some strive to find meaning in every facet of Ezekiel’s vision. (One source I consulted, for example, explains the faces of the angelic creatures like this: The lion refers to majesty and power, the man represents intelligence and will, the ox stands for patient service, and the eagle speaks of swift judgment.) But we must be cautious not to get carried away reading meaning into symbols that are not explained to us.

This is not a secret message to be decoded; it is a large picture designed to display the sovereignty, majesty, and glory of God and the incredible beauty, symmetry, and perfection of His heaven. Although it’s impossible to interpret the specifics definitively, we can understand that Ezekiel’s aim was to put the glory of heaven on display. The wheels that moved in concert, the flashing lightning, the sparkling jewels, and the brilliant light—all picture God’s glory.

So although Ezekiel’s picture of heaven may be beyond our ability to fathom, we can certainly grasp the main idea: Heaven is a realm of inexpressible glory.