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Ezekiel's Temple: Literal or Symbolic?

What an amazing and exciting book!  At times it is tedious, slow going, with detailed instructions for the building of the temple and the restoration of Israel to the land.  And to our western, scientific minds much is mysterious, veiled in symbolism.
One school of thought believes that Israel has no future as God's people, that all the O.T. promises are fulfilled in the Church, God's people in this age.  The dispensationalists disagree with this and hold that while the Church is currently God's people, that Israel does have a future.  When Christ returns and Israel is smitten with grief and repentance, then they will be grafted in again as God's people nationally (Zech. 12, 13; Rom. 11:23-27).  Then the Lord will set up His kingdom and the Millennium will begin. 

Ezekiel was a priest and a prophet for God to the Jews in Babylon during the exile (606-536 B.C.)  He had heard the news of the fall of Jerusalem in 586 and of the subsequent destruction of the temple.  To a priest whose life centered in the temple there could be no worse tragedy.  The ark of the covenant was gone, the temple furniture plundered and the sacrifices had ceased.  Eight hundred years of tabernacle and temple worship had come to an end.  Would the people of Israel ever be back in the land again?  Would the temple ever be rebuilt?  Ezekiel came as a prophet to encourage God's people and to tell them that God would see them return to the land.  The temple would be rebuilt.  God gave Ezekiel this vision in about 571 B.C.

The original tabernacle was built by Moses with detailed instructions.  It was designed as a portable sanctuary, fifteen feet wide, forty-five feet long and fifteen feet high.  Although small it was beautifully adorned.  It is estimated that one ton of gold, three and a quarter tons of silver and two and a quarter tons of bronze were used in its construction, besides the wood, fabrics and leather.    It was the only house God requested them to build.  It was used by Israel for around four hundred years, no doubt with many repairs!

Solomon built the first temple, although David desired to do this.  We do not have as detailed directions for this as for the tabernacle.  It was twice the size of  the tabernacle, thirty feet wide, ninety feet long and thirty feet high.  It also had a vestibule that extended out for thirty feet.  It was a magnificent building and was used by Israel until 586 B.C. when it was razed to the ground.

Ezekiel encouraged the people to have faith.  God would take them back to the land and they would have another temple.  When Persia conquered Babylon an edict was issued encouraging Jews to return to their homeland.  The first group returned in 536 and began to rebuild.  Under the leadership of Zerubbabel and Joshua the high priest they built the altar, re-instituted sacrifices and began to rebuild the temple (Ezra 3).  The work slowed and in 520 B.C. Zechariah and Malachi rose up to prophesy and to urge the people to continue the work. Under their ministry the work prospered and the temple was finished by the spring of 515 B.C.  The temple area was 150' by 500' and the temple dimensions were similar to Solomon's.  The Jews once again had a temple in which to worship, although it was lacking the splendor of the first temple.

When Herod the Great came into power in Israel he determined to make Jerusalem a splendid city and engaged in many great building projects.  He determined to rebuild the temple and make it a magnificent structure, beginning the work in 20 B.C..  He doubled the temple compound to 600' square, leveling and filling the area.  Priests were trained to do the remodeling work in the holy areas and the temple proper was completed in a year and a half.  But work continued on the temple compound, building courts, porches and porticos for years until the early 60's.

This was the temple that Jesus knew and in which He often taught, called the Second Temple by the Jews.  He predicted its complete destruction (Mt. 24) and in 70 A.D. the Roman armies crushed the Jewish rebellion, entered the city and destroyed the temple, leveling it to the ground.  It was a crushing blow to the Jews.  Once again they were without a temple.

Since the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came in power to indwell God's people, the Church has been the temple of God, corporately and individually (I Cor. 3:16-17; Eph. 2:19-22).  This temple is made of living stones and is still under construction today (I Peter 2:5).  But the question arises: Will there ever be another temple in Jerusalem and is Ezekiel's vision that future temple?

`Isaiah envisioned a temple in the future that would be a house of prayer for all the nations.  "Many peoples shall come and say, `Come and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths'" (Is. 2:3, NKJ). The location is Jerusalem, "`My holy mountain, Jerusalem,' says the Lord" (Is. 66:20).  Many believe that it is uncertain whether this will be a literal temple like Herod's or simply a spiritual center for the world to come.  It is a vision of great blessing for a world under the authority and leadership of God in the future.  This much we can say.

But this leaves us with Ezekiel's temple.    It is apparent that the Jews of that time did not regard it as a pattern for the temple they built.  Instead they modeled their new temple after Solomon's.  Ezekiel was instructed, "Son of man, describe the temple to the house of Israel, that they may be ashamed of their iniquities; and let them measure the pattern" (Ezekiel 43:10  NKJ).  This is followed with a detailed description of the temple and the allotment of the land to the twelve tribes, along with the revival of the sacrificial offerings and priestly ritual.  The detail becomes quite wearisome to many who read it today.  But to the Jew of that day it was a thrilling vision of a glorious future for Israel.  Such a vision of God's love and faithfulness should have moved them to repentance and a fresh commitment to their God. 

There are many reasons why Ezekiel's temple will not see a literal fulfilment and why it will not fit Isaiah's prophecies.  (An article by Harold St. John in Uplook, April, 1995, p.25 takes a similar position.) The location of Ezekiel's temple was north of Jerusalem in Samaria.  The land allotments to the tribes ignore natural boundaries in Ez. 48.  Beginning with Dan in the north, seven tribes are given equal slices of the land, running from the Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea.  Then a wider section is set apart for the Lord "with the sanctuary in the center" (Ez. 48:10).  South of this district for the Lord, beginning with Benjamin, the five remaining tribes are given parallel slices of the land.  No mention is made of Jerusalem because this city would be in the area of Samaria.  It is obviously an artificial, symbolic description.  Land could not be divided and assigned in this manner in ancient days.  They used natural landmarks to designate boundaries.

Ezekiel's temple stands squarely under the Mosaic Covenant, insisting on separation from the Gentiles; "Thus says the Lord God:`No foreigner, uncircumcised in heart of uncircumcised in flesh, shall enter my sanctuary'" (Ez. 44:9).  But the sanctuary of Isaiah is open to all nations.   "`All flesh shall come to worship before Me,' says the Lord" (Is. 66:23).  And the priesthood is not limited to the sons of Levi but priests are from "all nations" (Is. 66:20-21).

Ezekiel's vision insists on the reestablishment of the Mosaic sacrificial system.  The prince must offer "for himself and for all the people of the land a bull for a sin offering" (Ez. 45:22).  These are not commemorative as some would suggest but are offerings for sin.  All of the Jewish festivals beginning with Passover must be celebrated (Ez. 45:21).  The Law of Moses is in full force.  But the whole book of Hebrews argues against one going back to the sacrifices and practices of the Old Covenant.  "But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God, from that time waiting till His enemies are made His footstool, for by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified..... Now where there is remission of these, there is no longer an offering for sin (Heb. 10:12-18).  Thank God, there will be no animal offerings for sin in God's Kingdom.

The vision was connected in time to Ezekiel and his generation.  He himself was commanded to provide and to offer sacrifices for the dedication of the altar and the temple (Ez. 43:18-27).  But we have no record that he ever went back to Israel or even saw the temple built by the returning Jews.  The vision then was especially for his time and generation.  The temple was to be rebuilt, the priesthood to function again and the sacrifices to be offered according to the Law of Moses.  However, the Jews of that day understood it as a vision and did not attempt to carry out the instructions of Ezekiel literally.  Zadok's family was not given the priesthood and the temple was not built in Samaria.  But God did bring His people back to the land.  The vision Ezekiel saw of a temple in the land had come true. 

Over 600 years later another prophet on the isle of Patmos saw glorious visions also.  Like Ezekiel he saw amazing things and students today still wonder: How much is literal and how much is figurative?  Many of Ezekiel's images are used by John.  "Then I, John, saw the holy city,  New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband" (Rev. 21:2).  "`Come, I will show you the bride, the Lamb's wife.'  And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, having the glory of God" (Rev. 21;9-11).  This city is square, like Ezekiel's and has twelve gates with the names of the twelve tribes, just like Ezekiel's.  It also has twelve foundations with the names of the apostles inscribed, thus bringing together the saints of the Old Covenant and the New.  It is a glorious city with walls built of precious stones and streets of pure gold. 

As in Ezekiel's vision a stream of pure water issues from the city, from the presence of God and from the Lamb, bringing life to all who drink (Rev. 22:1).  As in the vision of old this river heals the land and causes trees to flourish (Ez. 47:1-12).  It brings healing from the curse of sin (Rev. 22:3).  That stream of healing water is flowing today from the Lord.  "On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying `If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink.  He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of  living water (Jn. 7:37-38). 

Ezekiel closes his book with the promise "And the name of the city from that day shall be THE LORD IS THERE" (Ez. 48:35).  In the New Jerusalem the Lord is there in all His glory: "They shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads" (Rev. 22:4).  Glorious vision!

But it is picturing the bride of the Lamb, God's people, and is certainly not to be taken in literal terms.  These visions are a feeble attempt to picture the glorious future God has for His people.  The Jews of Ezekiel's day in Babylon were depressed and discouraged.  Was there any future for them?  His visions inspired them to press on; God was not through with them.  The visions of John are intended to inspire God's people who are involved in a fierce conflict with Satanic forces to press on.  A glorious future lies ahead.

Donald L. Norbie
January 17, 1989