Every time I read the first few chapters of the book of Ezekiel I am reminded of stories from my druggie friends back in high school. They would often regale us of drug induced visions of wild tambourines and elephants and musical creatures. They would often tell of visions of fire and ice and, on a bad trip, the occasional demon and monster. When I read of the four creatures of Ezekiel and the wheels within the wheels way up in the middle of the sky . . . I often pause and wonder: is he on drugs?
But there is more here than "better living through chemistry." Ezekiel is living in exile. He has been forcibly evicted from his home in Jerusalem and is now living by the waters of Babylon. He is living among a defeated, deflated, and, no doubt, despairing people who cannot see a future, cannot see any hope whatsoever and believe that God the LORD has abandoned them. Moreover, the place where they live is Babylonian, run by a totalitarian government were it is punishable by death if you speak against the King or the country.
How would you convey a message of hope and possibilities in this situation? You have been given a word from God. It is a word of repentance and a word of hope. It is a word that calls the people back to the LORD in a foreign land while, at the same time, not speaking ill of the government around them. This kind of literature is called "Apocalyptic" by biblical scholars and is frequently filled with pictures and visions that border on the fantastic. As I understand it, the imagery used would have been understood by the original listeners -- it was a kind of code -- but the "powers that be" would have a harder time understanding it.
Who are these creatures? What are these wheels? Why eat a scroll? These are interesting questions that in the final analysis do not matter. What matters is that God has not abandoned his people, that God is working out a plan and a destiny for his people, and that there is reason to have hope even in the most hope drained of situations.