The Ezekelian apocalypse continues. The prophet, I surmise, is standing in the vestibule of the temple. The doors of both the Holy Place (Hekhal) and Holy of Holies (Kodesh Hakodashim) are presumably open, as he has clear line of sight to the altar of incense and the Ark of the Covenant:
Then I looked, and above the dome that was over the heads of the cherubim there appeared above them something like a sapphire, in form resembling a throne. He said to the man clothed in linen, “Go within the wheelwork underneath the cherubim; fill your hands with burning coals from among the cherubim, and scatter them over the city.” He went in as I looked on. Now the cherubim were standing on the south side of the house when the man went in; and a cloud filled the inner court. Then the glory of the Lord rose up from the cherub to the threshold of the house; the house was filled with the cloud, and the court was full of the brightness of the glory of the Lord. The sound of the wings of the cherubim was heard as far as the outer court, like the voice of God Almighty when he speaks. When he commanded the man clothed in linen, “Take fire from within the wheelwork, from among the cherubim,” he went in and stood beside a wheel. And a cherub stretched out his hand from among the cherubim to the fire that was among the cherubim, took some of it and put it into the hands of the man clothed in linen, who took it and went out. (Ezek 10:1-7 [NRSV])
The chariot-throne of God, which Ezekiel saw during his inaugural call in chapter 1, returns; but now it has moved into the Holy of Holies (cf. 1 Chron 28:18). The boundary between heaven and temple is so very thin. The exalted Son instructs the linen-clothed angel to walk underneath the cherubim and fill his hands with the the burning coals of divine fire (altar of incense?) and scatter them upon Jerusalem; but he must go into the temple to receive them. The sacred objects within are now alive; they have become their heavenly prototypes. The sacramental veil has been removed, and the divine realities are visibly manifest. (Is this why Ezekiel sees four cherubim carrying the divine throne, because four cherubic statues—two on the Ark and two alongside it—stand within the Holy of Holies?) When the glory of the LORD departs from the temple, the sacred forms, or objects, will cease to mediate his presence.
The divine judgment envelops the entirety of the holy city. Given the first two stages of the vision, we are not surprised. God has judged Israel as a collective whole. But we should not think of the fire as an impersonal substance. It is the fire of the divine glory, the fire that is God himself. “Even at this extremity,” Robert Jenson observes, “the Lord will not deal with Israel from a distance; it is his own fire that will burn and cleanse his city” (Ezekiel, p. 89). The Babylonian army will put Jerusalem to the torch, but the physical fire is but the sign (and anti-sign) of the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!“ (Luke 12:49). Jenson then raises an interesting question: Might the divine fire also be purgative?
Is scattering holy fire over Jerusalem simply deadly, so that the erstwhile savior angel now turns and completes the catastrophe? The fire of the Lord’s glory certainly can destroy, as when it burst from the desert tabernacle to consume Korah and his followers (Num. 16:35). But there is another possibility: that the fire, while indeed it burns away old Jerusalem, is nevertheless cleansing, preparing for a new Jerusalem. This better fits the angel’s office in the previous scene and better carries through the conclusion of the apocalyptic scenario in which he functions. This latter reading is therefore my preference. (p. 89)
Jenson’s proposal of the purgatorial nature of the divine fire makes both narrative and evangelical sense. The LORD has not chosen Israel to be his covenantal people only to destroy her. Her life and mission must continue. As the Apostle Paul would centuries later declare: “For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29). In chapter 40 the LORD will share with Ezekiel a vision of a new temple.
But first there is judgment.
The cherubim rose up. These were the living creatures that I saw by the river Chebar. When the cherubim moved, the wheels moved beside them; and when the cherubim lifted up their wings to rise up from the earth, the wheels at their side did not veer. Then the glory of the Lord went out from the threshold of the house and stopped above the cherubim. The cherubim lifted up their wings and rose up from the earth in my sight as they went out with the wheels beside them. They stopped at the entrance of the east gate of the house of the Lord; and the glory of the God of Israel was above them. The cherubim rose up. These were the living creatures that I saw by the river Chebar. When the cherubim moved, the wheels moved beside them; and when the cherubim lifted up their wings to rise up from the earth, the wheels at their side did not veer. When they stopped, the others stopped, and when they rose up, the others rose up with them; for the spirit of the living creatures was in them … Then the cherubim lifted up their wings, with the wheels beside them; and the glory of the God of Israel was above them. And the glory of the Lord ascended from the middle of the city, and stopped on the mountain east of the city. (10:15-19; 11:22-23)
The conclusion of the apocalyptic vision is devastating. God withdraws his presence and blessing from his house. There remains only lament and ruin.