Tuesdays with Ezekiel (Chapters 40-42)

The final nine chapters (40-48) provide a climactic vision to the book—a vision of a restored, united Israel back in its land, with a glorious Temple, a godly prince in leadership, and the Lord at the centre of all things.  The opening three chapters provide a detailed picture of the inside of the Temple grounds and buildings (40-42). 

Ezekiel opens the vision by time-stamping it:  this magnificent, grand-finale vision was given to him in the twenty-fifth year of the exile, fourteen years after the fall of Jerusalem (40:1).  The “hand of the Lord” transported him to a high mountain overlooking “the city” (40:1).  Ezekiel’s eyes are drawn to a man with an “appearance like bronze”, holding a linen cord and a long measuring rod (six long cubits or about 10.5 feet).  Ezekiel is instructed to “look with your eyes, and hear with your ears and set your heart upon all that I shall show you” in order to be able to communicate this vision to “the house of Israel” (40:4).

In chapter 40, Ezekiel is given a close look at the three gates (east, south, north) leading into the outer court and the corresponding gates leading into the inner court. Each of these gates, containing six interior rooms for guards, is described in considerable detail.  The gates are impressive in size, especially the height (43.75 feet).  Mention is made of thirty cambers around the outer court (40:17), though we are not told the purpose of these rooms.   Directly across the outer courtyard from the exterior gates are corresponding interior gates of identical size (40:28-29).

One feature that gets specific mention are the eight stone tables inside and outside of the north inner gate (40:41-42).  These tables are to be used to hold the “instruments” with which “the burnt offerings and the sacrifices were slaughtered” (40:42).  Speaking of the priests, Ezekiel is told that only the Levites who come from the “sons of Zadok” are going to be allowed to “come near to the Lord to minister to him” (40:46).

Chapter 40 ends by transitioning to a description of the Temple building proper, which is the focus of chapter 41.  As the guide tour of the Temple grounds continues, Ezekiel is brought in to the actual Temple building.  As Ezekiel observes (41:1-4), the man with the measuring read marks off the horizontal dimensions of the “nave” (holy place) and then the “inner room” (Most Holy Place).  Several things strike me as strange, even stunning about this part of the tour.  First, the only furniture in the Temple (Holy Place and Most Holy Place) is a single table—an altar of wood—in front of the entrance to the Most Holy Place (21-22).  There is no lampstand or ark.  Second, there is no special fanfare described when Ezekiel and his guide enter the Most Holy Place.  Knowing how sacred and off-limits this spot was, I would have expected a change in the narrative’s mood when Ezekiel is given a look into the Most Holy Place.

The tour of the inside of the temple is interrupted by a description of the three-story chambers that flank the north, south and west sides of the building (41:6-7) and of a large one story building to the west of the temple (41:11-12), a building Ezekiel is not taken into or told its use.  Interestingly, this unvisited building has a larger footprint than the Temple itself.

The Temple tour resumes with a rather detailed description of the inner décor on the walls—an alternating pattern of wooden cherubim and palm trees (41:17-20).  Each cherub is said to have “a human face” and a “face of a young lion” (41:19).  Ezekiel is also shown “something resembling an altar of wood” (41:21-22) standing in the nave in front of the Most Holy Place.  Finally, his attention is directed to the “double doors” in both the nave and Most Holy Place (41:23-24), once again adorned with “carved cherubim and palm trees” (41:25).

Chapter 42 continues the tour of the Temple grounds by drawing attention to three-story chambers opposite the north and south walls of the Temple (???). (42:1-12).  Ezekiel is told these chambers are for the priests who “approach the Lord” (42:13; sons of Zadok—40:46).  Here they are to store the holy offerings as well as eat their portion of the offerings (42:13).  Ezekiel’s guide emphasizes that the priests must change their clothes before leaving these holy quarters and returning to the people gathered to worship (42:14).

The tour concludes with an inspection of the outer wall that encompasses the Temple grounds in a perfect square (500 cubits on each side—42:15-20).  This wall, about 850 feet long (almost three football fields) on each side, is intended to “make a separation between the holy and the common” (42:20).  Again, the emphasis is on guarding the holy place. 

Summary Observations and Interpretations

Earlier in the book, Ezekiel was given a vision of the abominations taking place in the temple in Jerusalem before the fall of the city (8:1-18).  Horrific details are given of scrawling images of idols on the wall, leaders burning incense to pagan gods.  The scene is dark and disgusting.  Not surprisingly, Ezekiel watches the glory of God leave the temple area and head east. Now at the end of the book, we are given the opposite vision.  The temple is pictured as orderly.  Only the faithful priests (“sons of Zadok”) serve in its courts.  The sacrifices are those prescribed by God in the Law of Moses (thank, burnt, sin offering).  Order is restored.  Wondrously, Ezekiel sees the glory of God re-enter the Temple from the east.  The vision ends with the comforting words, “The Lord is There” (48:35).

Great detail is given about the various structures in the Temple complex, similar to the details given to Moses of the Tabernacle when he was on a “high mountain” (Ezekiel 40:2; Exodus 19:20).  However, unlike the vision given to Moses (Exodus 25-27, Ezekiel is never told to instruct the Israelites to build according to the blueprint he is shown. 

Historically, none of the versions of the Temple built to this point in history match the specifications given Ezekiel.  Some have concluded Israel failed to obey in reconstructing the temple.  Others look to a future day (Tribulation, Millennium) when this temple will be constructed.  It is also possible that God never intended to have this model built in Jerusalem.  Instead, this vision of a gloriously ordered (proportionate, symmetrical) Temple and grounds, could be picturing the reordering of the nation of Israel under the proper worship of God.  In this reading of the text, this vision is not meant to give a building blueprint for a future temple grounds.  Rather, it is meant to picture the nation back in their land, with the Lord at the center of life and worship.  The detailed description of physical buildings helps underscore the earthly reality of this spiritual blessing. 

Other visions recorded in the book of Ezekiel are also graphic and detailed but still not meant to be understood as indicating a literal, physical reality.  For example, the vision of dry bones conveys a spiritual reality (the re-gathering and rebuilding of Israel), but is not meant to speak of literal bones in a valley reforming into skeletons.  Perhaps, this is also true of the way Ezekiel pictures the battle with the global coalition (Ezekiel 38-39).  Ezekiel uses military weaponry of his day to speak of a future battle that will likely not be fought on horses with bows and arrows.  Similarly, Ezekiel may have used the worship language of his day (Temple, Levitical priests, animal sacrifices) to speak of a glorious future that will have a different look to it when it comes (New Jerusalem).

I understand John’s vision of the New Jerusalem to be part of the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s Temple vision.  John sees the people of God (now expanded to include those from every tribe and tongue) gathered in the New Jerusalem.  The Lord Himself is the Temple and the sacrifices come in the form of songs and service.  Similar to Ezekiel, John sees a river flowing from the Lamb as well as trees lining the riverbanks (Rev. 22:1-2).  The vision given Ezekiel—a vision for the restoration of the nation of Israel—is not replaced but augmented and upgraded.  Israel is indeed back in its land and capital city.  But the sons of Abraham include all who are of the faith of Abraham.  The nation of Israel is the firstborn of a family of faith including some from every tribe, tongue and nation.  The Temple building is replaced by God Himself:  “And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev. 21:22).

Visions of God

The Lord is a holy God who values order, beauty, and function. God’s character and His priorities are built into the Temple complex.  God is a God of order—the grounds and buildings display a great deal of symmetry, with classic geometric shapes for building footprints and layouts.  God is a God of beauty—the inside walls of the Temple reveal an uncluttered aesthetic featuring a pattern of stylized wood carvings (palm trees, cherubim).  He is a God of function—the Temple is designed to accommodate the needs and responsibilities of the priests who carry out the sacrifices.  Most of all, He is a holy God.  The Temple construction emphasizes the guarding of God’s glory in the imposing outer and inner gates, the enclosing, external wall that separates the “holy and the common” (43:20), and the specific instructions given to the priests:  only Zadok’s line can offer sacrifices (40:46) and they must change clothes before returning to the worshippers (42:14).

Ezekiel’s guide only speaks to him a few times during the tour:  first, to point out the chambers used only by the priests, specifically, the sons of Zadok (40:45-46), to identify the Most Holy Place (41:4); to highlight the “table that is before the Lord” (41:22); to indicate the chambers where the priests will eat the most holy offerings (42:13-14).  These brief comments serve to further emphasize God’s holiness.

The Lord sees worship as central to the glorious future He has for His people.  When God pictures a re-gathered, restored nation, He pictures them as a people who worship.  The Temple vision points to the truth that God’s people are a worshipping people.  His presence in our midst leads us to structure our lives around His worship.  When John uses imagery from Ezekiel’s Temple (though without an actual Temple building), the Bible is reinforcing the truth that worship is central to the glorious future God has in store for His people—worship continues throughout eternity.

Words to Watchmen

Watchmen pay close attention to what God shows and tells.  Ezekiel is given an extensive, detailed look at God’s Temple.  He carefully records what he sees—including the measurements and verbal instructions.  He faithfully communicates what he was shown and told to the people of Israel (and to all of us reading his book).  Watchmen still must play close heed to what God shows in His Word, communicating it accurately to all who hear.

Watchmen communicate the holiness of God to His people.  Throughout the vision, we see an emphasis on God’s holiness.  The gates and walls guard intrusion into the holy place.  The priests who administer the sacrifices are holy unto the Lord, wearing holy clothes and eating in holy chambers.  The exterior wall is said to separate the holy from the common (42:20).  The unmistakable message is that God is holy, separate from sin and defilement.  The companion message presented in this vision is that holiness is beautiful—orderly, balanced, appropriate.  Watchmen highlight the glorious holiness of God and the importance of worshipping him in the splendor or beauty of holiness (Psalm 96:9).

The Old Testament points to a day when the separation between the holy and common will be removed. Zechariah speaks of a coming day when holiness is inscribed on the “bells of the horses” (14:20), when “every pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be holy to the Lord of hosts” (14:21).  The distinction between the unclean and clean (defiled/pure) is never removed.  However, when God comes to dwell in His people under the New Covenant—when we become His Temple as believers and as the church—then all “common” things in life become separated to His use and purposes (see 1 Cor. 6:19; Eph. 2:19-22).  What was once common is now consecrated to the Lord and His glory.

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