Chariots of the Lord

March 13, 2018

by Vern Poythress

A clear instance of God appearing with chariots is found in Isaiah 66:15–16:

“For behold, the Lord will come in fire, and his chariots like the whirlwind, to render his anger in fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire. For by fire will the Lord enter into judgment, and by his sword, with all flesh; and those slain by the Lord shall be many.”

In the ancient Near East, chariots were not commonly owned by ordinary people. They were expensive. They could, of course, be used for mere show. But their main practical use was in war. They provided a mobile platform. So when chariots occur in connection with God appearing, we should think first of all of God waging war against evil. And that is in fact what we find in Isaiah 66:15–16 and other passages.

Here are more instances involving a warlike context:

Was your wrath against the rivers, O Lord? Was your anger against the rivers, or your indignation against the sea, when you rode on your horses, on your chariot of salvation? You stripped the sheath from your bow, calling for many arrows. Selah. You split the earth with rivers. (Hab. 3:8–9)

Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. (2 Kings 6:17)

See also Psalm 68:17–18.

We also have the well-known instance where chariots of fire come to take Elijah up to heaven:

And as they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it and he cried, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw him no more. (2 Kings 2:11–12)

The main point here seems to be the power and mobility of the chariots, not that they are actually engaged in war.

When chariots occur in connection with God appearing, we should think first of all of God waging war against evil.

Allusions to Chariots

We also have cases that describe God as “riding,” but where there is no explicit description of chariots. In the light of clear cases where God uses chariots, these instances also should be understood as involving an allusion to chariots:

There is none like God, O Jeshurun, who rides through the heavens to your help, through the skies in his majesty. (Deut. 33:26)

Sing to God, sing praises to his name; lift up a song to him who rides through the deserts; his name is the Lord; exult before him! (Ps. 68:4)

See also Psalm 68:33; Isaiah 19:1.

Ezekiel 1:15–17 and Daniel 7:9 mention wheels. How do the wheels function, and what is the point of the symbolism? The wheels in Daniel 7:9 are chariot wheels. Daniel 7:9–10 has combined a description of a scene of God’s court with a feature from chariots. Ezekiel 1 makes this plain by including more detail. God’s throne is at the center (v. 26), and the living creatures are part of the surrounding “court.” The wheels come with the living creatures.

In Ezekiel 1, we may infer that the four wheels, with the four living creatures, were spaced around the central throne. There are four wheels, rather than the two wheels that are attached to a normal human chariot. And each wheel is “as it were a wheel within a wheel” (v. 16). These wheels probably symbolize the power of the chariot to move in any direction—unlike an ordinary chariot, built to move in only its “forward” direction. Later on in Ezekiel the whole structure does move: the presence of God, as represented in the structure with the living creatures, departs from the temple and moves toward the east (Ezek. 10:18–19; 11:22–23).

The passage in Ezekiel 1 also makes it clear that there is a close correlation between the wheels and the four living creatures. The two move together (vv. 19–20). This connection is explained: “for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels” (1:20; cf. 10:17).

It appears that with the mention of the living creatures and the wheels we have two different symbolic representations of the “vehicle” that carries the throne and the presence of God. The vehicle consists in the four living creatures and the wheels, which are closely identified with the living creatures. Together, the four wheels form a chariot to carry the presence of God.

We can add to this picture a key verse in 1 Chronicles 28:18: “. . . also his plan [David’s plan given to Solomon; v. 11] for the golden chariot of the cherubim that spread their wings and covered the ark of the covenant of the Lord.” The overall “plan” in 1 Chronicles 28 specifies designs for various items that will furnish the temple that Solomon is instructed to build. Included in the master plan is a plan for “the golden chariot of the cherubim.” What cherubim are in view? From an earlier point in history, the ark of the covenant already had images of two cherubim attached to its cover (Ex. 25:17–21). The plan from David’s time also includes two larger cherubim that Solomon made and that were placed in the Most Holy Place of the temple (1 Kings 6:23–28; 2 Chron. 3:10–13). The fact that the cherubim “spread their wings and covered the ark” (1 Chron. 28:18) seems to indicate that the immediate reference is to the two cherubim attached to the cover of the ark (Ex. 25:20).

It is through Christ that God executes war against evil.

The point to notice is that the cherubim are identified with “the golden chariot.” The cherubim are God’s chariot. Rather than having some physical structure made of wood or iron, God’s chariot is made of living creatures, who are cherubim (Ezek. 10:20).

Once we have this information, other verses fall into place, which describe God as riding on a cherub: “He rode on a cherub and flew; he was seen on the wings of the wind” (2 Sam. 22:11; cf. Ps. 18:10). Here the “cherub” functions as the vehicle on which God rides: it is his chariot. The expression “wings of the wind” enjoys a connection with the wings of the cherubim, mentioned in 1 Kings 6:27; 8:6–7; 1 Chronicles 28:18; 2 Chronicles 3:11, 13; 5:8; Ezekiel 1:6, 8, 9, 11, 23, 24, 25.

Significance of Chariots

As we already observed, chariots typically function as equipment in war. God’s chariot or chariots symbolize his ability to execute judgment as a warrior whenever and wherever he wishes. He does not have the limitations in space and time of a human warrior.

Like the warrior theophanies, the chariot theophanies manifest God’s faithfulness to his promises and to his covenant. They also affirm his kingly power.

Fulfillment in Christ

In the New Testament, Christ comes as the divine warrior warring against sin, evil, and death. In the Old Testament, the two cherubim above the ark of the covenant were attached to the mercy seat (Ex. 25:18–19). In the New Testament, we see that Christ through his sacrifice is the source of all mercy and atonement for us (Rom. 3:25). In addition, Christ’s execution of war is depicted especially with reference to his second coming in Revelation 19:11. He rides on a horse, not on a chariot. But the point is similar. It is through Christ that God executes war against evil. In this way, Christ is the fulfillment of the chariot symbolism in the Old Testament.

This piece is adapted from Vern Poythress, Theophany: A Biblical Theology of God’s Appearing (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 79–82. Used with permission of the publisher.

Vern Poythress

Dr. Poythress (PhD, Harvard; DTh, Stellenbosch) is professor of New Testament interpretation at WTS.

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