Well! This is a pretty strange song. Have you ever wondered what on earth it means, or have you just sung it, or listened to it, and enjoyed the rhythm and tune? If you take a look at the first chapter of the book of Ezekiel in the Jewish Bible/Old Testament you'll find the source for the images of this spiritual. Ezekiel, we are told, is writing during the Jewish exile in Babylon, which occurred after Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem in about 595 BC. He was a contemporary of both Daniel and Jeremiah, and his book is full of visions and prophecies. It's pretty strange and hard to understand, it must be admitted. But Ezekiel himself tells us that he's simply reporting what God showed him: “While I was among the exiles by the Kebor River, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.” So perhaps we should just take him at his word. He then goes on to describe his first vision, the one that appears in our selection. He sees a windstorm, and clouds, and lightning, and then four winged beings with multiple faces, each of them with a wheel beside or underneath. The wheels themselves are made of precious stones, they are “high and awesome,” and they are “full of eyes all around.” Not only that, but they are double wheels: “a wheel intersecting a wheel.” What do these wheels symbolize? It's hard to pin it down completely, but they obviously refer to something truly otherworldly: “the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.” This first vision culminates with the image of God on His throne: “brilliant light surrounded him. Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him.”
How did we get from this vision to our spiritual? I'm going to do some speculating here. We know that there were slave preachers, and that they usually chanted their sermons and/or used the “call and response” pattern of preaching, getting into a back-and-forth rhythm. This style can still be seen in many African-American churches today. But what was the reason for it? While there may have been several reasons to use this method of preaching, one would almost certainly be that chanted, rhythmic material is easier to remember than plain prose. Remember, these preachers couldn't read or write. No sermon notes! We forget in our literate world that writing ideas down has been impossible for the vast majority of people in history. You had to remember things. Those traveling bards who provided after-dinner entertainment for kings and nobles during the millennia before books and electronics knew prodigious amounts of material by heart, memorized with the help of rhyme and rhythm. That's how The Iliad and The Odyssey were transmitted for a thousand years before someone wrote those works down.
So you can imagine one of these preachers who has heard about the visions of Ezekiel. He has no access to the Bible itself or to any commentary, and he can't read them anyway. But he wants to teach this material. What does it mean? How can he relate it to his fellow slaves? And so he comes up with an application that he thinks his audience will understand and appreciate. He has the wheels refer to doctrines they're already familiar with: faith and grace. He's perhaps misheard something, or the teaching he got was just wrong, so he describes the wheels as being of two different sizes, one inside the other. And he uses the phrase “Way in de mid'l of de air” as the phrase that the audience shouts back at him.
There are many versions of these lyrics, a fact that in itself shows us this is an authentic folk song passed down orally before being written, just as we've seen with some of the traditional Christmas carols we've sung. I got very tickled with one variant and just have to pass it along to you, as it were: “Ole Satan wears a clubfoot shoe” in our version is rendered elsewhere as “Satan wears a number 11 shoe.” So the idea of Satan having hoofs (hooves?) means that he has to wear special shoes like the people with clubfoot would wear. (I'm not going to get into why Satan is depicted that way. He'll probably show up again in some other program and we'll explore the whole thing then.) But at some point someone misunderstood what was being said, or sung, and changed it to show simply that Satan has big feet, all the better to stomp on unrepentant sinners who “don' mind.”
If you find the actual vision of Ezekiel interesting and would like to hear more about it, I will refer you to a sermon by Dr. Mark Dever, who used to be my pastor. It's pretty short, around 35 minutes, and I promise you that you won't be bored. You may disagree with him, but I can guarantee that you'll learn a good-sized chunk of theology in a thoroughly engaging way. Here's the link:
And, if your appetite for Ezekiel's visions as they appear in spirituals has not been sated, I would mention that he also provided the imagery for “Dem Bones, Dem Bones, Dem Dry Bones.” I'll leave it up to you to look it up in Ezekiel chapter 37 if you're interested.