The Bible in Hi Def: Learning to Interpret Prophetic Imagery

Ours is an age of stunning multimedia technology. IMAX theaters project images onto a screen so large that we must turn our heads to take it all in. Advanced 3D technology and the advent of hi def has sharpened video images in remarkable ways. Thundering subwoofers help us to feel movies, and digital scent technology even lets us smell the images on screen. Coupled with computer-generated imagery (CGI) technology, all of this has enabled filmmakers in 2015 to convey experiences and ideas with a power and vividness never available before. Many of us have gripped our seats to prevent falling, plugged our ears in fear, and held up our hands to deflect (seemingly) oncoming objects, all from the comfort of padded theater seating.

It may sound surprising, but the Old Testament prophets also lived in a stunning age of communication. Though they lacked 3D, IMAX, and CGI, they were still able to share remarkable experiences in vivid ways. They had at their disposal a powerful tool for conveying the power and intensity of God’s appearances and actions in history: imagery. The prophets stirred the emotions and kindled the imaginations of hearers through a rich array of images, symbols, and metaphors.

In this article, we will consider the oft-neglected power of prophetic imagery. Though it can be a challenge for modern moviegoers to appreciate the imagery of the Old Testament prophets, we will strive to become better readers of this type of biblical literature. After discussing the method and power of prophetic imagery, we will consider an especially vivid passage of Scripture, Ezekiel 1. I will suggest three interpretive steps to take in order to experience something of the same awe and wonder felt by the original readers of these types of texts.

Imagery as Powerful . . . and Puzzling

Stones growing into mountains that fill the whole earth (Dan. 2:35), trees growing so high that they reach heaven (Dan. 4:10–11), horns that scatter and terrify entire nations (Zech. 1:21), seven lamps which roam about the whole earth as the eyes of the Lord (Zech. 4:10)—images like these were the hi def of the ancient world. D. Brent Sandy explains: “In order to speak to our hearts, the powerful language of prophecy brings God’s might and wrath and humankind’s sin and doom to life with surrealistic images. It is reality described in unreal ways.”1

Many of us struggle to appreciate books like Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah because we have suffered imagination atrophy at the hands of multimedia technology. Filmmakers have expended a great deal of creative mental energy so that viewers do not have to. Many of us do not even know where to begin when trying to envision image-laden passages of Scripture. To better understand prophetic imagery, we need to use our imagination. By imagination, I do not mean what children use to come up with nonexistent friends and pets. Interpretive imagination is a tool we use to piece together things that do not immediately seem to fit. Kevin Vanhoozer explains: “The imagination is a cognitive faculty by which we see as a whole what those without imagination see only as unrelated parts. Where reason analyzes, breaking things (and texts) up into their constituent parts, imagination synthesizes, making connections between things that appear unrelated.”2 In the paragraphs that follow, we will put our imaginations to work in this way.

Another reason we struggle is that prophetic imagery lacks the precision of more literal types of language. This does not mean it is deficient; indeed, this lack of precision is its strength. Images, like metaphors (a closely related literary technique), force us to grapple with both similarities and differences between things being associated. But as Tremper Longman notes, “the similarity is unstated or hidden, and the reader must meditate on the metaphor to rrive at its interpretation.”3 While this meditation takes work, language experts note that this makes for a more memorable and rewarding experience.4

A final reason we struggle to understand prophetic imagery is due to the change in cultural metaphors that happens over time. Today we associate traits (e.g., speed, agility) and abstract concepts (e.g., death, brain activity) with symbols and metaphors that were not shared with people who knew nothing of our modern technology. To appreciate their imagery, we must translate their symbols and metaphors into the symbols and metaphors we use today to express the same ideas.

Experiencing Ezekiel 1

Ezekiel, who was exiled along with King Jehoiachin in 597 BC (see 2 Kings 24–25), ministered to two main groups of people. First, some Judeans had avoided the initial exile of 597 BC and continued living in Jerusalem under Zedekiah. They presumptuously believed they had avoided God’s judgment. Ezekiel had to convince them that God would not remain with them for long; they would indeed be punished for their idolatry. Second, many who were exiled with Ezekiel were true, repentant believers who worried that God had abandoned them. Ezekiel sought to convince them that God was preserving a remnant in exile which could indeed experience His nearness though far from the Jerusalem temple. In order to convey these realities to each group, God provided Ezekiel with vivid imagery that would fiercely rattle the Jerusalemites and deeply comfort the exiles. The first revelation Ezekiel received from God contained many strange features. In this article we will limit our focus to only two: the four creatures and the “wheels within wheels” that accompanied them.

1. Study how other biblical writers use the imagery. Though some imagery is clarified by studying other ancient Near Eastern writings, it is best to try to understand biblical imagery on its own terms before expanding the inquiry. How do we determine the way other biblical writers use these images? Two tools will help: a concordance and a Bible dictionary. One especially useful volume is the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery.5

Ezekiel 1:5 describes four creatures emerging from the windstorm. Because of the four points of the compass, the number four is frequently used by biblical writers (especially in visionary material) to depict universality and completeness (cf. Dan. 7:2–7; 11:4; Zech. 1:18–20; 6:1–8; Rev. 4:6–8; 7:1; 20:8). That each of the four creatures has four faces further impresses upon us their greatness. As applied to the creatures that accompany the presence of the infinite and almighty God (see Ezek. 1:28), this use of four is appropriately grandiose.

The types of faces on each creature detail their abilities. First, each has the face of a man. As man is the apex of God’s creation, made uniquely in God’s image to have dominion (Gen. 1:26–27; Ps. 8:4–8), this face associates the creatures with the greatness of man as God created him.

Second, each has the face of a lion. In Scripture, lions are clever, powerful, and ruthless killers (Num. 23:24; Ps. 7:3; Dan. 6:24). When one is killed, it illustrates the strength and skills of the man who kills it (Judg. 14:5ff.; 1 Sam. 34:17ff.). When one is tamed, it illustrates God’s infinite power (Isa. 11:7; Dan. 6:22). As lions are sometimes agents of God’s judgment (1 Kings 20:35–36; 2 Kings 17:25), the creatures in Ezekiel 1 resemble the ferocity of God’s perfect and righteous wrath.

Third, each has the face of an ox. Biblical writers speak of oxen in terms of strength (Exod. 21:28; Deut. 33:17) and in terms of wealth and prestige (Gen. 32:6; Exod. 20:17). For most of history and across most world cultures, oxen are well-attested symbols of raw power.

Finally, each has the face of an eagle. The eagle is described in Scripture as swift (Deut. 28:49; Job 9:25–26; Jer. 4:13). Eagles’ ability to soar high in the heavens is awe-inspiring (Prov. 30:18–19) and illustrates their incredible stamina (Ps. 103:5).

Before we tie the imagery of these four faces together, let us consider the mysterious wheels that accompany them. Though the wheels do pose interpretive challenges, other passages help us to narrow down the possibilities.

In Scripture, these particular kinds of wheels are found on chariots (Exod. 14:25; Nah. 3:2), on the ten bronze stands in Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 7:30–39), and on agricultural implements used for winnowing and threshing (Prov. 20:26; Isa. 28:27). Their design, however, is somewhat mysterious. Ezekiel 1:16 calls each a “wheel within a wheel,” which may refer to a hub design, or to two wheels that intersect at 90-degree angles (impossible in our world, though not in the world of imagery), perhaps to help the creatures travel any direction without turning (Ezek. 1:17).

While we sometimes take for granted the availability and utility of wheels, we must not lose sight of the movement that wheels enable. Key to this passage is the ability of wheels to enable the movement of heavy objects like the bronze stands in the temple, each made of solid bronze and carrying 220 gallons of water. (The water alone weighed 1,835 pounds!) But as God is also described as a chariot warrior (Ps. 104:3), the wheels may also convey swiftness and ferocity. As we will see in a moment, however, drawing together a seemingly paradoxical combination of traits (heavy transport and swift attack) is common in prophetic imagery.

2. Imagine the imagery in modern symbols and ideas. We noted above that we must use our imaginations in order to grasp the fullness and intensity of prophetic imagery. How might we imagine Ezekiel 1 in terms of modern metaphors?

What do we make of the fullness or universality conveyed by the number four? Because we still use the four points of the compass in navigation today, there is not quite as large of a gulf to cross. Nevertheless, because the number four may seem like a small number, perhaps expanding the number to reflect the large number of vehicles in a presidential motorcade, or further, envisioning the swarms of watercraft crossing the English Channel on D-Day will conjure up in us an appreciation for these four creatures. This is a complete force of supernatural beings, entirely fit to accompany the grandeur of the Lord’s glory.


The different faces on the four creatures comprise a catalogue of abilities, drawing together into each creature what ordinarily would exist in separate creatures. Eagles are fierce, but not fierce like lions. Lions are strong, but not strong like oxen. Lions are also perceptive, yet not perceptive like humans. And none of these creatures has the speed and stamina of the eagle. The creatures in Ezekiel 1, however, exhibit the ultimate examples of these traits in themselves. Perhaps we can imagine a similar combination of traits by combining the speed of a fighter jet, the power and brawn of a locomotive, the intelligence of a fully staffed NASA mission-control group, and the ferocity of a detail of Navy Seals. (As with the wheels, here too seemingly disparate images of brute strength and swift agility have been drawn together.) The creatures Ezekiel saw were unsurpassed in terms of creaturely abilities, helping to magnify the infinite and perfect strength of the God in whose presence they served. (Note that the creatures appear again in Ezekiel 10:3–22 and Revelation 6–8, albeit in modified form. This seeming ability to shape­shift is another feature of prophetic imagery.)

Finally, the wheels on the creatures draw our attention to the mobility of these creatures and the God whom they accompany. For a people whose focus had long been on the permanence of God’s presence in the Jerusalem temple, the movability of God and His attendants would be a remarkable thing. Yet in just a few chapters, the people of Jerusalem will witness God’s glory departing from the temple (Ezek. 10:3–11:23). How might we envision such an unexpected move? From October 11–14, 2011, people lined the streets to watch the space shuttle Endeavour creep from LAX through the streets of Los Angeles to Exposition Park. It is hard to imagine that behemoth escaping earth’s gravity atop a tail of fire, but there is something almost more surreal about watching it roll past one’s apartment on something as ordinary as wheels.

3. Imagine the emotional response to the imagery. What we have done in the last two steps is a bit like “showing your work” in math. But we must not forget that the goal of this process is to try to experience the imagery with the power and intensity it is designed to convey. Gary V. Smith offers an important warning: “In some ways the reader should not stop to rationally analyze every metaphor; instead, one should subconsciously enter in the world of these prophetic images to experience their richness and internalize the emotional world they depicted.”6

The mourning exiles, those who worried that God had forgotten them, received a powerful shot of comfort and confidence from Ezekiel’s opening vision. Yahweh, the God of Israel, had not been outwitted by Nebuchadnezzar. No, even here by the Chebar Canal in Babylon God remains accompanied by a complete detachment of heavenly escorts. He has not been kidnapped by hostile forces intended to gain control of His realm. His kingship is intact! His rule remains unchallenged!

What is more, this detachment of escorts is not battered and bandaged. They did not protect their master by the skin of their teeth. No, they are strong, fast, brilliant, and fierce! If they have remained this way after the exile, how much more the Creator of these beings? The exiles look upon a force that cannot be thwarted, and they are active and at work. Though everything had seemed lost, now it is evident that nothing has changed. God and His servants remain as strong as ever. Can you imagine the waves of relief that begin to wash over the exiles? What is the greatest news you’ve ever heard? “It was just a little scare, but don’t worry, the baby is just fine.” “Good news, the tumor is benign.” “The company has just secured its contracts through the next ten years; your job is no longer set to be terminated.” Imagine this relief amplified even further!

The presumptuous Jerusalemites, however, who felt that God was no nearer or further with or without the Babylonians in control, were in for a big surprise. In a few chapters they will despise God, exchanging worship of Him for worship of images and created things (Ezek. 8:5–16). What is more, they will accuse God of injustice, thereby envisioning Him to be like the fickle gods of the surrounding nations (Ezek. 18:25–29). But here God is revealed as still fully in control. Here the God who hates idolatry and treachery is accompanied by the fiercest and strongest agents of judgment and wrath imaginable. Can you imagine the sinking feeling and fear that must begin welling up in their stomachs?

What about the wheels? What does God’s motion convey to these groups? For the many Judeans who had grown accustomed to God’s presence in Jerusalem—some of whom wrongly conflated the symbol of God’s presence (the temple) with the extent of God’s presence (cf. 1 Kings 8:27; Ps. 139:7–10; Jer. 23:24; Isa. 66:1)—a God prepared to “roll out” would cut them to the core. The presumptuous Jerusalemites would be shaking with fear, desperately wishing to keep God close. They knew His benefits; they had experienced His patience. And now they knew that these were coming to an end.

But for the exiles who had just journeyed some nine hundred miles from Jerusalem, likely carrying their possessions, elderly, and children in carts, seeing God’s presence similarly ready to travel would stir in them great excitement. God would Himself make the journey to them! I can imagine that their relief at the mobility of God’s presence, coming to them in their exile, conjured in them something like that of the aged Simeon who saw God’s arrival in the person of the infant Christ and cried out a blessing to God, saying: “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:29–32, ESV).

A Journey of a Thousand Miles . . .

Of course, what we have covered here only scratches the surface. More could be said about imagery in general. Many more details from Ezekiel 1 could be studied. Indeed, more details from the creatures and the wheels themselves could have been explored. But alas, space does not allow for us to take more than the initial step of this long but exciting journey. Nevertheless, the steps we have taken have given us a toehold for studying other passages of prophetic imagery and have opened the door for some wonderful encounters with these powerful passages in Scripture. Though it is tempting to stick to “easier” passages in the Bible, reading and reflecting upon prophetic imagery is worth the effort as it enables us to hear God’s voice in vivid and powerful ways. The Old Testament prophets may have not had IMAX, 3D, CGI, or the many other multimedia technologies available to us today, but that did not prevent them from helping their readers to experience God’s word in hi def.

1. D. Brent Sandy, Plowshares and Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 19. 2. Kevin Vanhoozer, “Lost in Interpretation: Truth, Scripture, and Hermeneutics,” in Whatever Happened to Truth, ed. Andreas Köstenberger (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005), 121. 3. Tremper Longman III, Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation in Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation: Six Volumes in One, ed. Moisés Silva (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 176. 4. See Adele Berlin, The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism, rev. and expanded ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 134, who notes that literature too easily understood is less informative and “devoid of interest” (i.e., boring) when compared with writings that challenge expectations and take more work to process. 5. Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III, eds., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1998). 6. Gary V. Smith, Interpreting the Prophetic Books: An Exegetical Handbook (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2014), 52.

  Rev. R. Andrew Compton is the associate pastor at Christ Reformed Church (URCNA), Anaheim, CA, where he has served since 2008. He holds an MDiv from Westminster Seminary California and an MA in Old Testament from the University of California, Los Angeles.