In building their empire, the Babylonians followed a policy of relocating populations as a way of preventing rebellions. After they conquered Judah in 605 B.C., they moved the upper class of Jewish society to Babylonia. For the Jews, the worship of God in the temple at Jerusalem was essential to their faith. After all, it was there that the Ark of the Covenant was housed. Thus, this relocation posed a challenge to their traditional understanding of religion. It is in this context that the prophet Ezekiel’s vision and message in the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel have been interpreted by biblical scholars.
In Ezekiel’s fantastic vision four creatures appear who support God’s throne and who symbolize the four directions, a symbolic allusion to God’s omnipresence. Ezekiel also mentions that beside each creature is a wheel with rims and spokes, the rims full of eyes. Wheels are symbols of mobility and the eyes reflect God’s all-seeing power in the world. The implicit message is clear-God does not exist in a stationary throne in a temple; he is everywhere and can thus be worshiped anywhere. This was an essential message to a people who had been exiled from the promised land and their sacred place of worship destroyed.
The first part of Ezekiel’s vision contains description of the four creatures. This description later became the basis for the Christian iconography of thrones, the third choir in the nine-rung hierarchy of angels originally laid out by Dionysius the Areopagite. Ezekiel’s vision begins thus:
As I looked, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, and a great cloud, with brightness round about it, and fire flashing forth continually, and in the midst of the fire, as it were gleaming bronze. And from the midst of it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had the form of men, but each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot; and they sparkled like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands, and the four had their faces and their wings thus: their wings touched one another; they went every one straight forward, without turning as they went. (Ezek. 1:4-9)
It is important to note the four faces of each creature: the face of a human being, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. These represent the four highest forms of the various realms of creation: the face of man, as the supreme being, faces forward; the lion is the king of the wild beasts; the ox is at the fore of domesticated animals; and the eagle is the king of the skies. Besides providing the visual model for throne angels, Ezekiel’s vision has sometimes been interpreted as the vision of some great flying machine, or UFO.