The prophecy of a new temple found in Ezekiel 40-48 ESV must be juxtaposed with the words of Yahweh in Numbers 12:6-8. To understand the prophecy of the new temple in Ezekiel, a presupposed enigmatic quality to the prophecy must buttress our contemporary interpretation. According to Walter C. Kaiser Jr., a starting position for our understanding is to take prophecy as it was intended by the author “in its natural, straightforward sense.” This approach constitutes a literal interpretation however, it does not preclude the author from using figurative language to convey meaning. This study reveals that the temple prophesied in Ezekiel 40-48 is to be understood in its literal meaning.
Literal Understanding of the Temple
Yahweh is a master architect who operates in time and space (Gen 1:1; Ps 127:1; Mt 16:18). The prophecy of a new temple in Ezekiel 40-48 is replete with architectural designs. Exodus 25-40 contains architectural language for the construction of the tabernacle. The same motif of architectural language was used in 1 Kings 6-8 and 2 Chronicles 2-7 to describe the temple built by Solomon. The importance of the physical nature of the tabernacle/temple in scripture cannot be understated. T. Desmond Alexander argues that an important theme in the Old Testament is “God’s intention to dwell among the people.” This is not a symbolic dwelling but a literal dwelling.
If the new temple is meant to be viewed symbolically only, then why would Yahweh command Ezekiel to document the minute details with the expectation that they are fulfilled (Ez 40:4; 43:10-11; 44:5)? According to Randall Price, the vision given to Ezekiel finds its best understanding to be a “literal construction.” Furthermore, Yahweh spoke to the prophets in visions that pertained to literal events, persons, and places. In Exodus 40 the Israelites erected a literal tabernacle where Yahweh’s presence would dwell (Ex 40:34). In 1 Kings 6, the Israelites constructed a literal temple and it was filled with “the glory of the Lord” (1 Kings 8:11). Drawing a comparison to the Garden of Eden, the tabernacle/temple was intended for literal use, “the place where divinity and man can commune together.” The presence of Yahweh with man in the Ancient Near East necessitated a literal meeting place. The unified message of the prophets was that Yahweh’s presence would eventually depart the tabernacle/temple and bring judgement upon Israel.
Theologians agree that the actual presence of Yahweh departed from the temple in Ezekiel 10. According to Ralph H. Alexander, “God’s glory is a most important feature of Ezekiel’s prophecy.” The literal return of Yahweh’s glory is the climax of the book. The book of Ezekiel is structured around three visions (1-3; 8-11; 40-48). According to Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, it shows the same “literary macrostructure” as other prophetic books. This lends support to a literal reading of the text in Ezekiel; a departure would be inconsistent from treatments of other prophetic texts, as well as the literal interpretation of the tabernacle in Exodus 25-40 and the temple in 1 Kings 6-8. In addition, Price elucidates the discussion by asking why Ezekiel would try to comfort the people with anything other than a literal restoration of the temple. If we are to interpret a literal departure of the glory of Yahweh from Israel in chapter 10, then we should interpret a future literal return of the glory of Yahweh to Israel in chapters 40-48.
The message of a literal departure of Yahweh is spoken to a people in exile trying to make sense of their situation. The contemporary view of the day was that so long as Yahweh resided in the midst of the people, they were essentially free of culpability and invincible. Jeremiah reminded the people that Yahweh’s presence was with them based upon adherence to Mosaic Law (Jer 7:8-11). In Jeremiah 7:12-15, Yahweh spoke of impending destruction to the temple as a result of the sin in the midst of the people. The Israelites violated the Mosaic covenant and as a result, lost the presence of Yahweh due to their sinfulness. Alexander suggests that Ezekiel is trying to show the presence of Yahweh’s glory in the historical Jerusalem and the future return of his glory in the new temple. The message of a new temple is a message of hope. The presence of Yahweh will return to Israel to govern after the fullness of salvation to the Gentiles (Rom 11:25-27).
The future fulfillment is referred to by Millard Erickson as the “premillennialist view.” This view of the restoration of Israel is maintained in the New Testament. In Romans 11, Paul speaks of a remnant that will experience future restoration. It is to the Israelites that belong the covenants of Yahweh. Jesus says “Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the time of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Luke 21:24). At the completion of the Gentile salvation and at the beginning of the thousand year reign of Christ (Rev 20:4-6), the literal rebuilding of the temple in Ezekiel 40-48 will commence. This view seems to offer the most plausible explanation and provides cogency with the divisions of the land found in Ezekiel 47-48. A lingering question is found in the mode of worship (Ez 43) that is described in the new temple.
Regression to Old Testament Worship
According to Moises Silva, “we must not confuse the divine message itself with the human means God used to proclaim it.” Yahweh operates in existent cultures and reveals himself through the same existent cultures. Ezekiel was a priest and it can be expected that he would look at things from a priestly perspective. The new temple reflects the Mosaic system for worship which is expected, however Ezekiel’s prophecy omits several items. There is no mention of the Day of Atonement. Absent is the Ark of the covenant, Feast of Weeks, and a High Priest. These omissions reflect the finished work of Christ on the cross.
Apart from Yahweh, the sacrificial system in the Old Testament was never efficacious to forgive sins (Heb 10:1-4; 11). It was not the shedding of the animal’s blood that brought about forgiveness, it was Yahweh alone who brought about forgiveness. Furthermore, The Mosaic sacrifices were not given to bring one into a relationship with Yahweh. They were not efficacious in delivering one from sin. Instead, the sacrifices were a “picture lesson” intended to point to the Messiah’s work. They were reminders of the inherent sin and guilt in each person.
By design, the animal sacrifices were intended to remind each person of their need for cleansing through the shedding of innocent blood. Alexander compares it to the confession of sin in the lives of believers today (1 Jn 1:9). The author of Hebrews calls the sacrificial system a shadow and a copy of reality (Heb 10:1). It is suggested by Alexander that the sacrifices of the new temple will serve as a memorial, in much the same way that we memorialize the Lord’s Table. Neither are a substitute for the atoning work of Christ on the cross, rather they are done in celebration of Christ and can coexist in the new temple.
This study shed light to understanding what Kaiser and Silva define as “prophetic perspective”. It is a misconception to view the new temple of Ezekiel 40-48 as synonymous with Revelation 21-22. Kaiser suggests that a near and far fulfillment occurs frequently in the Old Testament, positing the term “inaugurated eschatology”. However, this approach is buttressed with “organic unity.” There may be multiple fulfillments to a prophecy, but they are joined in unison to convey one sense and meaning. Dr. Yates argues against reading a far fulfillment of Ezekiel 40-48 into Revelation 21-22. Perhaps a key to understanding the third vision of Ezekiel can be found in the final verse of the book, “And the name of the city from that time on shall be, The Lord Is There” (Ez 48:35). According to Robert Jenson, the “final and irrevocable” presence of Yahweh among his people is a central message to the book. And this presence is not merely “inward” in a modern sense, but will be a literal house.
When teaching biblical prophecy, it is imperative to interpret from the entire canon. A further emphasis is to interpret using a literal interpretation and avoid “spiritualizing” problematic passages in scripture. According to Alexander, the logical consequence of abandoning a literal interpretation is that “aspects of a passage mean whatever the interpreter desires.” Perhaps the best tool to hedge against interpretive regress is to validate from the thoughts of those who came before us.