The Glory of the Lord
Ezekiel begins with a vision of what appears to be a moveable throne, with a kind of platform beneath it (Ezek. 1:22-26). At its sides, just below the platform were wheels (Ezek. 1:19-21), and creatures full of life (“living creatures”), who had some sort of symbiotic attachment to each other; the creatures energizing the wheels.1 These are identified later as cherubim (Ezek. 10:1ff.). The “voice of the Almighty” seemed to be heard in the wings of these creatures (Ezek. 1:24), and the Figure on the throne is identified as “the likeness of the glory of the Lord.” (Ezek. 1:28). It is significant that a rainbow is seen around the throne and the Figure (Ezek. 1:28); perhaps alluding to the covenant in Genesis 9:11-13.
This introduction serves the purpose of making what happens in the book a reaction of Yahweh to the situation of His people. The “glory” (kabod) is seen several times by the prophet before it finally abandons the temple in Jerusalem (Ezek. 11:22-23).2 Besides a single mention in an eschatological promise in Ezekiel 39:21, the glory of God is not seen again until it enters and remains in the new temple in Ezekiel 43:2-5 and 44:4. Therefore, the glory leaving the old temple in Ezekiel 11, and the glory returning to the great new temple in chapter 43, forms a kind of theological arc in the book.3 There is absolutely no doubt that the temple in the first part of Ezekiel is a literal edifice. It is Solomon’s temple which was razed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. But there is a good deal of debate about whether the greater temple at the end of the book is literal or just a metaphorical “temple.” If it is a metaphor then the arc we have noted is an uneven thing. The glory leaves a physical temple but enters a metaphorical one, with no warning from the author that this is what is happening.4
Certainly, the image of God’s glory among His people is a vital idea within the book as a whole. The departing glory in Ezekiel 11 signifies God giving over the nation to the consequences of their sins (Ezek. 11:1-12). But then, just as we saw in Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah, there is a prediction of a turnaround. Ezekiel is so overawed with the Lord’s oracle of doom, underscored as it was by the death of his enemy Pelatiah (Ezek. 11:13a), that he cries out to God, asking Him if He intends to bring the Remnant of Israel to a complete end (Ezek. 11:13b).
What he gets by way of an answer is a promise that Yahweh will give the land back to Israel (Ezek. 11:17), and at the same time they will be given a clean heart to obey Him (Ezek. 11:19-20). This is a New covenant promise of salvation, and it is given right before the prophet sees the glory of God, the cherubim, the wheels and all, go up from Jerusalem by the east side of the city (the same side that it will return to when it enters the new temple in Ezekiel 43:1-5). This same New covenant is what is referred to at the close of Ezekiel 16 (Ezek. 16:60-63) where God promises that He will “provide an atonement” for Israel and establish an everlasting covenant with them.5
Ezekiel 20 recounts God’s judicial dealings with Israel. He reminds them of the oath that He took during the rebellion in the wilderness, that He would not bring the people into the Promised Land (Ezek. 20:13-15). This refers, of course, to the generation that came out of Egypt and witnessed the mighty acts of the Exodus (Num. 14:26-35; Psa. 95:9-11), but not to their children (Ezek. 20:17-20).
The chapter is notable for its designation of the Sabbath as a “sign” between God and Israel (Ezek. 20:12, 20). Even though the nation has defected from the Mosaic precepts, the Sabbath still has importance for them beyond its function in helping to preserve a sense of identity. Quite how the sabbaths are a sign is not spelled out, although it has something to do with Israel’s sanctification (Ezek. 20:12). The fact that Israel’s sabbaths serve as signs makes the fourth commandment of Exodus 20:8-11 stand apart from the other nine, which may explain why this commandment alone is not enjoined in the New Testament.
After this we once more encounter a passage which speaks of a future regathering of Israel in language deliberately alluding to the post-Exodus wanderings (Ezek. 20:33-38). God tells them that He intends to bring them “under the bond of the covenant” (Ezek. 20:37); a way of saying that they will be measured according to their obedience to the terms of the Mosaic covenant (or at least the “book of the covenant”), to which they had sworn allegiance (see Exod. 24:3-8). This will differentiate the true Israel from the apostates (Ezek. 20:38). There is mention of God’s “holy mountain,” and of future sacrifices which will be accepted by Yahweh (Ezek. 20:40-41). This moreover will occur in tandem with a restoration to “the land of Israel…which I raised My hand in an oath to give to your fathers.” (Ezek. 20:42-43).6 It ought to be patently clear that none of these promises were fulfilled in the Second Temple period (538 B.C. to A.D. 70). In the following chapter there is a brief oracle against King Zedekiah (Ezek. 21:26), but then comes an enticing prediction of the rightful King:
I will make it overthrown!
It shall be no longer,
Until He comes whose right it is,
And I will give it to Him (Ezekiel 21:27)
There is a clear echo of the Messianic prophecy of Genesis 49:10 here. The true and glorious Heir to the throne will come. Is this a throne in heaven? Not by every appearance made available to worshipers of God in the Old Testament. This all takes place on terra ferma. The hope that is held out is hope in this world.
1 This suggests to me that whereas in human experience mechanical power is the norm, in heaven inanimate things (like wheels) are powered by Life.
2 The Glory of God moves out to the mountain on the eastern part of the city. This is the Mount of Olives. That is where the vision ends. Is it not informative that Jesus both left from and will return to the Mount of Olives (Acts 1:11)? Can we connect Acts 1:9-12 and Ezekiel 43:1-7? Do they describe the return of Christ?
3 Mark F. Rooker, “Evidence from Ezekiel,” in A Case for Premillennialism: A New Consensus (Chicago: Moody, 1992), edited by Donald K. Campbell & Jeffrey L. Townsend, 128. D. N. Freedman wrote, “The theme of the Temple runs through the entire book, and is the key to its unity. In a sentence, it is the story of the departure of the glory of God from the Temple, and its return.” – Cited by Michael G. McKelvey, “Ezekiel”, A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, edited by Miles V. Van Pelt, 310. The real question comes down to whether both Temples in the book are literal or one of them is figurative.
4 Presumably those who prefer to understand the temple in Ezekiel 40-48 as symbolical do not think the glory of the Lord is to be understood that way?
5 Cf. Paul R. Williamson, Sealed with an Oath, 42; and Larry R. Helyer, Yesterday, Today, and Forever, 234
6 Another deliberate structural marker is the repetition of this promise right at the end of the book (Ezek. 47:14). Many commentators, of course, take the final chapters of Ezekiel as merely symbolical, but features such as this, along with other matters to be discussed, bring such understandings in to doubt.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.