As for the wheels, it was cried to them in my hearing, O wheel.
The cry, "O wheel," the articulated cry of the universal human spirit, meant, "O Divine mystery! the intellect cannot comprehend thee, yet the heart's aspiration is towards thee."
1. This exclamation indicates our proper attitude in presence of these mysteries as one of awe, and not of definition. Modern scientific investigation tends to reveal to us, more and more humiliatingly, the narrowness and impotence of our faculty. The very growth of knowledge makes manifest the limitations and the illusiveness of knowledge. And the danger is that of a universal scepticism; that men should say, "I cannot know anything as it is, and therefore I will believe nothing, obey nothing, but the instincts of my own nature." It is only the spirit of reverence that can save us. Let us not spend our intellectual energies and dissipate our spiritual forces in the pursuit of that which ever eludes us. Let our language be, "Though we cannot comprehend, we will adore." And so let our reverence teach us obedience and love, and our piety be of the life and not of the intellect. Let us not divorce religion from life, and make it a series of dead abstractions instead of a living spirit. It is the pursuit of a good that is known, and not speculation, however dogmatic, upon that which is unknowable, that constitutes practical religion. It is "in loving our brother whom we have seen" that we attain to the love of God, "whom we have not seen."
2. In all this imagery the prophet is describing a vision of God, and by the emblem of the wheels he describes so much as is understood of the Divine nature. There is breath in the wheels. It is a living deity. There are eyes around the peripheries. This points to infinite knowledge and intelligence as overruling the world. The wheels are four-faced; the faces representing the different orders of creation, showing the relation of the Divine Spirit to all the various kingdoms of life. The movements are swift and in all directions, there being a double motion of the wheels, which are inserted in pairs at right angles to each other. This suggests the idea of omnipresence. The mischief is, that so many minds stay in the symbol and suffer it to block out the spiritual idea, instead of serving as a stepping stone to it The wheel becomes the deity instead of the symbol of deity; the object of idolatry, instead of simply a spiritual hieroglypbic to aid our conceptions of the Divine.
3. The wheel which the prophet saw in his vision stands not only for a representation of the Divine nature, as he conceived it, but also as an illustration of the Divine method in the universe.
(1) It is curious, in the light of the prophet's representation, that the scientific theory of the origin of the universe which at present holds the field is the doctrine of "vortices," which teaches that the atoms of the impalpable ether first became compacted into solid matter through a spinning motion in some way imparted to them, or generated amongst themselves. All the planets were originally whirling rings of molten or meteoric matter thrown off from their central sun, such as may still be seen in the rings of the planet Saturn. The mightiest forces of nature with which we are acquainted on our earth travel in circles more or less perfect: the cyclone, the whirlwind, the whirlpool, the ocean currents. There is perpetual circulation, or, to use the prophet's term, "wheeling" or "whirling" everywhere. It is in the body, in the course traversed by the blood. It is in the cells of minutest plants, where the protoplasmic fluid travels in circles or circuits with a movement that is called for this reason "cyclosis." It is in the meteorological conditions of the earth. The fierce heat of the sun in equatorial regions causes the water of the ocean to evaporate in vast bodies of invisible vapour, which, rising to the upper regions of the air, are drawn into currents which bear them to the colder northern regions of our planet, where they distil in snow and rains upon the mountains; form rivulets and rivers which flow back into the sea, and are borne once more by the trend of the pelagic currents to the regions whence they arose. The movements of the tides imply a constant circulation. This portion of the globe on which we dwell has experienced remarkable rotations of climate. It has known, for long ages together, both tropical heat and arctic cold; and it is supposed that the slow oscillations of the earth's polar axis may bring round similar changes again. And so, in the movements of History, the same law prevails — the whirling wheel is still the type. The very words we use to describe the course of providential occurrences is a proof of this. We talk of cycles — of revolutions — of evolution. In all these words the central idea is that of circular motion. There is everywhere revolution and return. There are cycles of thought which complete themselves, and then the human mind seems to revert to its starting point. Old exploded errors are continually cropping up again, and the world's teachers have to be perpetually doing their work anew. We all know how fashions recur: not only fashions in dress but fashions in thinking. We laugh at witchcraft and toy with spiritualism. The pages of history are filled with the stories of the rise and fall and decay of nations that emerged from comparative barbarism to a splendid civilisation and universal conquest, and then fell back into a condition of comparative barbarism once more.
(2) In the prophet's vision there were "wheels within wheels." This points to another law of the universe, the complex relations of forces. You have seen an orrery, a most complicated piece of mechanism, whereby the orbits of the heavenly bodies are illustrated. It is just a system of "wheels within wheels." Nothing can be explained by itself. The ancients used to divide off the various sciences as though each were a self-contained and independent department of study. But now the sciences are so interlaced and mutually dependent that you cannot effectively study any of them alone. "To understand botany aright you must also possess a knowledge of chemistry. You cannot understand zoology apart from geology. Psychology, the science of mind, is rapidly becoming a department of physiology. The same force which we call electricity is, according to varying conditions, at one time heat, at another time motion, at another time light, at another time latent energy, — "wheels within wheels." We talk about simple thoughts. There is no thought that is not the product of, and that does not ramify into, a thousand other thoughts. We talk of the "simple Gospel," but what wheels within wheels of mystery, what a vast range of insoluble questions does it suggest! It is a simple Gospel only to the unthinking.
4. I find further suggested by this emblem, the Divine law of progress. The revolution of the wheels results in transition over space. There is the motion, not only upon their own several axes, but through the air and over the ground, according to the will of the informing spirit. They are the type, not only of motion, but of locomotion, Winter after winter the leaves fall, and vegetation dies down, and everywhere is apparent decay and death. But nature is only recovering herself for another effort, and in the spring every tree shoots forth into a more vigorous growth. Nature dies to live again. Out of the decomposition of last year's foliage what new and beauteous forms of floral life have sprung! And their decay in turn will nourish other forms of life. "Every atom of the soil is in the universal wheel of things." Shall this be true of nature alone? Shall not man rise through seeming dissolution to his true completion? As one of our modern mystics says, "We call autumn the fall of the year, and winter the dead past of the year, but they are as really included in the circuit of the year as spring and summer. Let us learn to contemplate the fall and the death of man, together with his new birth and resurrection, his ascension and glorification, as comprehended in the wheel of God."
5. The prophet is careful to tell us that, complex as were the wheels, they were not mere dead mechanism. "The spirit of life was in the wheels." The immanency of the Divine life in all things was to him a noble and a helpful conception. And the latest teachings of science and philosophy, God's modern priests and prophets, are that all this mighty universe, all the things that we see and hear and perceive, are the phenomena, the manifestations, of a hidden but all-pervading life that, through our sensations, is thus in direct, constant, and vital contact with our consciousness. There is no such thing as dead matter. It is we who. are dead, not to perceive the life that is in all.
6. Think of Ezekiel's monsters and griffins, and his impossible machinery careering through the air, as embodying the thought of God; and then contrast these representations with those of Him who said, "He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father"; who translated Divine abstractions into living and loving deeds; who healed the sick, and said, "That is God"; who taught the ignorant, and said, "That is God"; who forgave injuries, and said, "That is God"; who laid down His life, and said, "That is God"; who pointed to no grotesque symbols and spoke in no mystical jargon, but of the ever-serving, the ever-sacrificing, the ever-present, the ever-loving Father — God.
Parallel VersesKJV: As for the wheels, it was cried unto them in my hearing, O wheel.