Given what I wrote on Bible interpretation in my earlier post this week, I figured I would follow it up and write something on the vision Ezekiel has at the end of the book. Who knows? Some desperate soul might google “Ezekiel Temple” and find something that is actually helpful instead of the endlessly unsatisfying, enormous barrage of dispensational weirdness that is out there on this challenging, but fascinating topic. In any case, by writing this I hope to put to rest some of the pestering thoughts in my head on this topic. So now you also can enjoy some pestering thoughts…
There is no passage is Scripture that makes me scratch my head more that the end of Ezekiel.
Ezekiel closes his prophecy with nine chapters that give a detailed, elaborate vision of a temple. Ezekiel lives in Babylon and he is transported by a heavenly guide who reveals to him a magnificent temple with all the temple rituals going on inside. The temple is beautiful. There is a stream flowing from it. The vision contains detailed description of the animal sacrifices and the priesthood and operations in the temple. The vision tells us about “the prince” and it tells how the land will be divided up between the tribes of Israel. It is also details the measurements of the walls, gates, and courts, which, interestingly, are of different proportions than Solomon’s temple, which we read about in the history books.
The head-scratching part is that this temple has never been built. It wasn’t Solomon’s temple for that was already destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. Furthermore, when the Jews came back from exile under Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah the temple they built utterly paled in comparison to Ezekiel’s vision.
Some have suggested that the temple was only ever hypothetical and conditional – it was a reality that would only happen if Israel had obeyed Yahweh. I want to reject that notion. It is an easy solution but it is simply not how prophecy works in the Old Testament. When God gives a vision, promising to do something, he always does it.
When you take this all together it makes us ask some hard questions: will this temple be built in the future? Is this temple some kind of symbolic portrayal of the church in Jesus?
There are actually two dominant views on the topic: many think that this temple will be built one day in the millennial reign of Jesus on earth. But that view has some big problems: why would animal sacrifice for atonement return under Jesus, especially since Hebrews says that it is done (Ezek 45:18; Heb 10:1-18)? Moreover, why, if the New Testament tells us we are the temple of God, do we need another temple for God’s presence will dwell – does he not already dwell in us by his Spirit (Rom 8)?
The other view is that this is simply a spiritual description of the Church, or the Church age, which is elsewhere called “the temple” of God (1 Cor 3:16; 1 Pet 2:5ff.). But if that is the case then why is there so much elaborate detail on animal sacrifices and priestly rituals and careful measurements? What do those symbols point to?
The first thing to say is that the challenges in this topic that are thousands of years old. In fact, around the time of Christ, there were Jewish Rabbis who had a very hard time dealing with this prophecy since Herod’s temple was being sacked. In a sense, this problem is pre-Christian. And that is reason to go slow on it. In fact, John Calvin, one of my heroes, never addressed this in his commentary because he died before getting to it…
With all that said, I want to propose that what Ezekiel is describing, in symbolic terms, is nothing other than the New Creation – the restoration of all things through Christ – the New Heavens and the New Earth.
Note that Ezekiel opened his prophecy with a vision of God’s presence on wheels, travelling to and fro around the earth (ch. 1-2). The point of that prophecy was to show the exiled people of God that God’s temple – his presence – is not anchored to one location, especially for a people soon to be living in Babylon. But now at the end of his prophecy we see that the temple – the dwelling presence of God – has come off it’s wheels and come to rest on the entire creation – a wasteland now turned into a tropical paradise. Context. Context. Context. The book points in this direction.
On top of that, the twin themes in Scripture of creation and temple (God’s blessing presence) are intertwined all through the Old Testament. The Garden of Eden, where God walked in the cool of the day, was a sort of temple that housed the presence of God. Furthermore, the temple contained all sorts of trees in it’s art and gold work – it harkened back to Eden. Moreover, the temple was where God sit enthroned between the cherubim – his shekinah glory radiated there. It is no coincidence that God places a cherib outside the temple…er…the Garden, after Adam’s sin.
Now some would object that this view simply does not do justice to the meticulous description of the temple in Ezekeil – if this is really portraying the New Creation than isn’t it deceitful to describe it in terms of a temple? Here are two supporting reasons based on the way God’s revelation works:
- When God speaks he accommodates himself to the context, the culture, and the language of the people to whom he speaks. It makes sense for God to portray glorious New Covenant realities in Old Covenant terms like sacrifice, priest, and prince. To many this seems like a cop-out. But it isn’t. When God told Eve that her offspring would crush the head of the snake he wasn’t lying. But the snake is actually a dragon and the offspring is actually God himself. God accommodated his promise to language Eve would understand and trust in.
- The vision itself is prophetic and apocalyptic, not legal or historical. One reason I believe that people get confused on this vision is that we are used to reading temple instructions and measurements in the Pentateuch or in Kings and so we switch into thinking that this apocalyptic vision is actually a legal code. But it isn’t. Apocalyptic imagery always has a degree of fluidity to it when you apply it to future or past events. For example, in Daniel the statue of iron, clay, bronze, silver, and gold is not a literal statue. The symbols represent reality of course – they represent empires – but the vision is not to be taken literally. And neither is Ezekiel’s vision.
Finally, this view rests on a symbolic understanding of the vision in Ezekiel and here are two final, supporting reasons for understanding this vision symbolically:
- The vision has symbolic, or non-literal, aspects already. The stream flows and gives life to the land. That, I believe, is the key to grasping the meaning of this thing. The temple emits a stream that leads to the healing of the nations, the return of prosperity, plants, and animals, and ultimately to the portioning up of the land among God’s people (Ezek 47). When you contrast this language with the way Isaiah speaks it becomes evident pretty fast that this is highly eschatological language and it is highly new-creational language (See Isaiah 25 and 66).
- The detailed measurements given to describe the temple have a clear purpose. The detail in Ezekiel’s temple vision is meant to do at least two things: it is meant to teach us something about the meticulous way God’s grace affects everything in the New Creation. Interestingly, we also have detailed measurements in the book of Revelation about the temple and that temple is in fact the “bride” of God that is inhabited by the glorious presence of God himself (Revelation 21). In this way, there is good precedent for taking the measurements of Ezekiel as pointers towards symbolic realities. They speak to the totality of God’s redemption and to his meticulous grace. Furthermore, these details are also meant to heighten the anticipation of Israel at the time of Ezekiel who are looking forward in hope for what God has in store – the details bolster their hope, just as the book of Revelation, with all it’s amazing detail, was given to Christians in the midst of intense persecution to bolster their anticipation.
So what I think Ezekiel foresees at the end of his book is nothing short of the New Creation, the Restoration of all things. This is glorious.