Question: "What are the ophanim?"
Answer: Ophanim is the ancient Hebrew word for “wheels.” The singular is ophan. Of course, wheels are mentioned a number of times in the Old Testament, and ophanim can refer to normal wheels on a cart or chariot; but of special interest are the wheels on the throne of God mentioned in Ezekiel’s vision.
Ophanim are mentioned in Ezekiel 1:15–21: “As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the ground beside each creature with its four faces. This was the appearance and structure of the wheels: They sparkled like topaz, and all four looked alike. Each appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel. As they moved, they would go in any one of the four directions the creatures faced; the wheels did not change direction as the creatures went. Their rims were high and awesome, and all four rims were full of eyes all around.”
Ophanim are also mentioned in a similar fashion in Ezekiel 10:9–13: “And then I saw four wheels beside the cherubim, one beside each cherub. The wheels radiating were sparkling like diamonds in the sun. All four wheels looked alike, each like a wheel within a wheel. When they moved, they went in any of the four directions but in a perfectly straight line. Where the cherubim went, the wheels went straight ahead. The cherubim were full of eyes in their backs, hands, and wings. The wheels likewise were full of eyes. I heard the wheels called ‘wheels within wheels.’”
In the passages above, the throne of God is set on wheels (ophanim) and then pushed by four angels. There are wheels inside of wheels at cross angles, with the effect that the throne can move in any direction without having to turn. The angels who are powering the throne also have four faces, one facing each direction, so they can likewise travel in any direction without having to turn. The angels are identified as cherubim.
This seems clear enough—at least as clear as an apocalyptic passage full of symbolism can be. The throne is on wheels, it can move in any direction, and it is powered by cherubim. Of course, Ezekiel’s description should not be understood as a “literal” picture of God’s throne. God is spirit and therefore does not literally sit on a throne; likewise, He is omnipotent, so He does not need to be carried around on a throne from place to place. The point of the visions involving ophanim in Ezekiel is to show that God’s reign (throne) is all-encompassing, responding to any situation in any location with lightning speed. The visions are simply a picturesque way of saying that God is sovereign and omnipresent. The fact that the wheels and the angels are “full of eyes” emphasizes God’s omniscience.
The ophanim have been a point of fascination for many, and later Jewish apocalyptic writers gave them a life of their own. The wheels themselves came to be identified as a particular class of angel, the ophanim. Seraphim and cherubim are mentioned in Scripture as angels, and to this some have added the ophanim (also spelled ofanim). The pseudepigraphal Book of Enoch has helped further the idea that ophanim are angelic beings.
Colossians 1:16 speaks of “thrones” in a way that some interpret as a type of spiritual being: “For by [Christ] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” The “thrones” here have come to be associated by some with the ophanim, angels who help guard the throne of God.
There are several problems with this interpretation of Colossians 1:16. First, it is not clear at all that the verse is speaking of specific spiritual beings. It seems much more natural to interpret the passage as simply referring to various authorities (human or otherwise) that will one day be subjected to Christ. Second, although not specifically stated as such, the thrones in Colossians 1:16 seem to be a metonymical representation of rivals to Christ’s authority, whereas the ophanim, assuming they exist as angels, would be agents of His authority and already in submission to Him.
This brings us back to the biggest problem of all, and that is making the ophanim a separate class of angel. It is best to simply understand the ophanim as nothing other than wheels on the throne of God, not literal wheels on a literal throne, and not wheel-like creatures guarding the throne. The ophanim are just the wheels that Ezekiel saw in a vision that emphasizes the all-encompassing sovereignty and power of God—He reigns in every direction and in every location.