What are the ophanim in the book of Ezekiel?

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Ophanim

Ophanim is the old Hebrew word for “wheels.” The singular is ophan. The word ophanim is mentioned in the book of Ezekiel in relation to the throne of God (vision of the chariot), which is set on wheels (ophanim) and led by four angels.

One of the Dead Sea scrolls (4Q405) interprets them as angels; late sections of the Book of Enoch (61:10, 71:7) portray them as a class of celestial beings who (along with the cherubim and seraphim) never sleep, but guard the throne of God. The late Second Book of Enoch (20:1, 21:1) also refers to them as the “many-eyed ones.”

The Vision of Ezekiel

Now as I looked at the living creatures, behold, a wheel was on the earth beside each living creature with its four faces.  The appearance of the wheels and their workings was like the color of beryl, and all four had the same likeness. The appearance of their workings was, as it were, a wheel in the middle of a wheel. When they moved, they went toward any one of four directions; they did not turn aside when they went.  As for their rims, they were so high they were awesome; and their rims were full of eyes, all around the four of them.”

“When the living creatures went, the wheels went beside them; and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up.  Wherever the spirit wanted to go, they went, because there the spirit went; and the wheels were lifted together with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.  When those went, these went; when those stood, these stood; and when those were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up together with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels” (Ezekiel 1:15–21).

And when I looked, there were four wheels by the cherubim, one wheel by one cherub and another wheel by each other cherub; the wheels appeared to have the color of a beryl stone. As for their appearance, all four looked alike—as it were, a wheel in the middle of a wheel. When they went, they went toward any of their four directions; they did not turn aside when they went, but followed in the direction the head was facing.”

“They did not turn aside when they went.  And their whole body, with their back, their hands, their wings, and the wheels that the four had, were full of eyes all around.  As for the wheels, they were called in my hearing, “Wheel’” (Ezekiel 10:9–13).

Cherubim

The word “creature” does not indicate to what order of creatures these four beings belong. Ezekiel calls them cherubim – angels of the second highest order (Ezekiel 10:20–22). These creatures refer to the winged cherubim beneath the throne of God and also around it. The Psalmist writes, “God of Israel, the One who dwells between the cherubim” (Isaiah 37:16 also Psalms 80:1; 99:1).

In the angelic hierarchy, the cherubim are a different class of angels than the seraphim. The cherubim of Ezekiel’s vision each had four wings (Ezekiel 1:6; 10:21), whereas the seraphim (highest order of angels) of Isaiah had six (Isaiah 6:2). Wings may be understood as indicating the speed with which God’s heavenly creatures perform and execute their missions (Hebrews 1:14).

Wheels and Angels

The verses that refer to the wheels within wheels indicate that God’s throne can move in any direction without having to turn. The ophanim angels, who are identified as “cherubim” also have four faces in each direction, showing that they can move without having to turn. The prophet saw that the wheels were in midst of the fire of God’s glory (Ezekiel 1:4, 5).

The fact the wheels were covered with eyes signifies that the vision was not dealing with mere physical forces, but with beings that possessed intelligence. And the fact that the eyes covered wheels move with the cherubim stresses their perfect coordination. There is no independent operation.

Not a Literal Vision

In interpreting a symbolic prophecy, it is essential to allow the same Spirit that gave the vision to interpret its symbols. Where such interpretation is missing, Bible students are left to guess as to the meaning. As a parable must not be taken literally, likewise, symbolic prophecy should not be taken literally. As with parables, we must see what is the general objective of the vision, and what aspects of the vision are intended to show God’s truth.

In Ezekiel’s vision, the spirit of the cherubim, represents a heavenly being but it is not essential to envision that in the service of God are four-headed, four-winged beings. The forms chosen for this prophetic vision were merely given to represent heavenly messengers in their different divine duties and responsibilities.

The Purpose of the Vision

This prophetic vision gave a message of hope to the Jews at a time when much of their land was destroyed by the repeated enemy attacks and while many of their people were already prisoners by the enemy. To these persecuted ones, it seemed that God was not in control. The ravage of the enemy was seen by them as though God no longer loved them. These afflicted ones failed to see the overall picture and how God was actually overruling the course of history to bring about His own divine will.

In His service,

BibleAsk Team

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