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A Literal Reading
The structure of Ezekiel reaches its crescendo in the theme of the returning Glory to the Temple in Ezekiel 43:1-7.1 This return must be linked with the abandonment of Solomon’s Temple by the Glory-cloud in chapter 11. There is a narrative-theological arc extending from Ezekiel 8 and 11 over to Ezekiel 43.
This arc from a literal temple to what is often taken to be a spiritual temple at the end of the book, looks hermeneutically unbalanced and forced upon the prophet’s words. But if this arc and the other details in this section can be adequately accounted for by not spiritualizing them, then the theological fallout is immense.2 The strongly covenantal connections involved would, for example, stimulate a long overdue examination of God’s eternal covenant of peace with Phinehas (Num. 25:10-13) and his descendants the Zadokites (cf. 1 Chron. 6:4-8).
The whole section moves logically from the command to Ezekiel to describe the temple (Ezek. 40:4), to a guided tour of the premises, with measurements related at each step (Ezek. 40:6-42:20). We get a description of the altar and offerings (Ezek. 43:13-27), followed by rules on who can and who cannot enter the sanctuary (Ezek. 44:1-9). The two-tier priest system, consisting of Zadokites and Levites, is delineated (Ezek. 44:10-16). Then basic duties are described (Ezek. 44:17-31). In Ezekiel 45:1-8 the division of the land around the sanctuary is prescribed, beginning with a large “holy” area for the Zadokites, in which the sanctuary itself sits in its own acreage, situated in the center (cf. Ezek. 48:10). There will also be a smaller area “adjacent to the holy area” given to “the whole house of Israel” who live in the city (Jerusalem). The “prince,” receives a portion next to the city portion and the holy portion.3 A separate large area is for the other Levites. Several ordinances and offerings finish off the chapter and continue to Ezekiel 46:15. Then the gifts of the “prince” are mentioned (Ezek. 46:16-18). This includes a passage about how the prince is not to take other people’s property (Ezek. 46:18). Whoever this “prince” is then, he is not divine.4
More descriptions close chapter 46, and then there is the description of the healing waters which flow out from the door of the temple (Ezek. 47:1-11). This is followed by an outline of the land inheritance (Ezek. 47:12-23). The prophet even includes Yahweh’s recollection of His covenant of land:
Thus says the Lord GOD: “These are the borders by which you shall divide the land as an inheritance among the twelve tribes of Israel. Joseph shall have two portions.
You shall inherit it equally with one another; for I raised My hand in an oath to give it to your fathers, and this land shall fall to you as your inheritance.” (Ezekiel 47:13-14, my emphasis)
To those who place the whole last section of Ezekiel in the past, this is still a late reminder that God has not rescinded the land promise to the nation of Israel. The reason given for this is the oath He pledged to the Fathers centuries before: To repeat, covenant oaths are hermeneutically fixed points in Scripture.
If the prophetic context is kept in view then the establishment of the nation of Israel around this glorious temple will come to pass in the future in exactly the way the prophet described it. There has certainly been no such river as is here described in the history of the world until now! It is not for us to quibble at place names or future sacrifices or sin offerings. That is not our problem, and the One whose problem it is, is more than capable of resolving any apparent conflicts with our theology.
Ezekiel 48 is remarkable for its two lists of the tribes of Israel. In Ezekiel 48:1-8, 23-29 lists the borders of each tribe’s inheritance. Then Ezekiel 48:30-34 the gates of the city are named after the tribes. But the lists differ! The list of tribes who are given land is as follows:
- Dan, Asher, Naphtali, Manasseh, Ephraim, Reuben, Judah, Benjamin, Simeon, Issachar, Zebulun, and Gad.5
Levi is omitted and Joseph is represented by his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. When we compare the names on the gates of the city, we get the original brothers:
- Reuben, Judah, Levi, Joseph, Benjamin, Dan, Simeon, Issachar, Zebulun, Gad, Asher, and Naphtali.
There is no contradiction here. Obviously, the reasons for the two lists differ. Because Levi is given land around the temple, the tribe of Joseph is divided between his sons to make up the twelve.
The last verse in Ezekiel puts a time-stamp on the whole section (Ezek. 48:35). God is present in the new temple (Ezek. 43:1-5). The tribes of Israel are around it north and south, and Jerusalem is called Yahweh Shammah (“Yahweh is there”). This is the coming Kingdom.
Did the Post-Exilic Community Expect to Build Ezekiel’s Temple?
There are several reasons why the returning exiles would not have thought to take up the task of constructing Ezekiel’s temple. These include the design of the book of Ezekiel itself; the obvious fact of the sheer size of the structure, which they were ill-prepared to construct, even if they had had the land to build it on. Then, there are the clear differences between the Mosaic institutions and those in Ezekiel’s vision. Finally, there is the fact that these chapters are prophetic and look to the time when God’s covenants with Israel will be realized under New Covenant conditions. As one Old Testament scholar has said,
In terms of the future and the Messiah, Routledge views things from an amillennial context. Everything prophesied in the future was symbolized and fulfilled in Jesus. There is no future temple or time of peace before the new heavens and new earth. So when Ezekiel 40-48 describes this in detail, he was just condescending to people who could not otherwise understand except by making them think there was really going to be a temple and a repopulated Promised Land. Somehow Routledge doesn’t find this deceptive in the least, despite the fact that every example we have until after the New Testament was written believed in a literal fulfillment of a restored temple. (my emphasis)6
Some interpreters claim that the people in exile enjoyed access to God on a footing with when they were in the land. But then why rebuild any temple? Such a proposal misunderstands the concept of exile. In Ezekiel 16, for instance, the description of apostate Israel as “naked” very possibly implied “exile” since the Hebrew for “naked” and “exile” are, to quote Stuart, “basically the same word.”7
But were not Israel under God’s judgment during the exile? Deuteronomy 29:14-28 leaves this impression. Deuteronomy 29:19 and 30:1 speak of exile as a “curse.” Leviticus 26:36 hardly depicts the future exiles having confident access to the Lord. 2 Kings 24:20 describes the Lord’s attitude towards Israel as “He cast them out from His presence.” Jeremiah is even more blunt: “The Lord has rejected His altar, He has abandoned His sanctuary.” (Lam. 2:7).
Yet in Ezekiel 11:16 we find God’s promise to be “a little sanctuary for them in the countries where they have gone.” One might ask, did God “tabernacle” with the Jews in exile? Does this mean that the Glory which departed the temple in Ezekiel 10 actually dwelt with the Jews in Babylon?8 This is very unlikely. Rather, it is a way of describing God’s providential eye watching over His people, even in judgment; a theme prominent in the book of Esther (cf. Hag. 2:5).
1 “Furthermore, nothing suggests that the glory of the Lord filled the second Temple in the way described in Ezekiel 43:1-12…” – Mark F. Rooker, “Evidence from Ezekiel,” 129.
2 I do not pretend to know how everything in these chapters comes together. I only know that nothing will contradict the covenants. God will reveal new things to us when the Kingdom arrives.
3 Note this command: “My princes shall no more oppress My people, but they shall give the rest of the land to the house of Israel, according to their tribes.” – Ezekiel 45:8 (my emphasis). This cannot be said about Messiah. The language about “princes,” though somewhat cryptic from our point of view, should not be spiritualized.
4 This is not the place to speculate about the matter, but as David is glorified this cannot be him either. It must be a descendant of David who is not glorified.
5 Additionally, there is Levi, which is split into Zadokites and Levites (i.e. non-Zadokite Levites).
6 Richard S. Hess, review of Robin Routledge’s Old Testament Theology: A Thematic Approach, in Denver Journal, Vol.14 (2011), online at http://www.denverseminary.edu/resources/news-and-articles/old-testament-theology-a-thematic-approach/. See similar remarks in Hess’s chapter, “The Future Written in the Past,” in A Case for Historic Amillennialism, edited by Craig L. Blomberg and Sung Wook Chung (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009). I might add that having a prophet write out such painstaking details that had no literal reference to anything would be a colossal waste of time and effort.
7 Douglas Stuart, Ezekiel, 141. “Exile means exposing, taking away from protection or covering, and that is also what nakedness is, so the idea of nakedness became for the prophets a common way of talking about the coming exile.”
8 Iain M. Duguid, Ezekiel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 151, implies it, but the temporary sanctuary of Ezekiel 11:16 is not the Glory-cloud, which is what God’s presence in the temple meant.
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.