Literally Reading Ezekiel 40-48

templeAs I noted in my first post on the subject of Ezekiel’s temple, Christian interpreters are divided as to how we should understand Ezekiel’s prophetic visions. This is especially true regarding his vision of a temple in chapters 40-48.

Just to review:

There are typically three perspectives advanced by biblical interpreters as to how we should read Ezekiel’s temple vision. First is a symbolic/typological approach that believes the vision speaks to the final work of Christ and spiritual promises fulfilled in the NT church. Second is an idealized view of the prophecy that sees some aspects of the vision as being literal, but with the understanding that those “literal” elements speak to a greater spiritual reality which is fulfilled with God’s presence dwelling with the NT church. And then finally, the third view sees the vision telling of prophetic events that will be fulfilled in the future at the return of Jesus Christ when He establishes His millennial reign on the earth.

Those handful of divergent conclusions regarding Ezekiel’s temple reveal the impact one’s hermeneutics has upon interpreting prophetic literature as a whole.  I pointed out at the beginning of my series on eschatology (a long time ago now) that the principles of biblical interpretation a person brings to bear upon prophetic texts play a pivotal roll on how the passages in question will be interpreted and the theology one will derive from them.

But, as Jerry Hullinger notes: “…[T]he question is not really an issue of a strictly literal versus a strictly symbolic approach, because even the most extreme literalist takes some things as symbolic. And conversely, even the most stringent symbolist interprets some things as literal. The issue is a relative one involving the question as to which parts are to be taken in a given way” [Hullinger, 28, fn.29].

So in other words, those who treat the prophecy as literal do not dismiss that there exists some symbolism within the passage and those who view it as more spiritual do not dismiss the literal aspects. The question is: where is the literal/symbolic found and how are we to understand them as students of Scripture?

I take the prophecy of Ezekiel’s temple to be “literal.” Meaning, I believe Ezekiel is describing a real temple that is to be built and will function as a national worship center, not only for a restored Israel, but also for the entire world. Because the temple Ezekiel describes in scrutinizing detail has never been built, I believe the prophecy pertains to yet a future time. That future time, I believe, can only be the millennium in which Jesus Christ will reign for a thousand years from Jerusalem.

Now, just so I am clear. I don’t mean I read Ezekiel’s prophecy “literally” at the exclusion of recognizing any symbolic language that may be found in the text. When I say I take Ezekiel’s temple prophecy “literally,” I have in mind the idea that I take every word in its primary and ordinary meaning unless the exegesis of the text demands I understand those words differently.  Hence, any symbolism will be identifiable within the context as one studies the text.

I should also add that even though the prophet may at times paint symbolic word pictures with his use of language, those “pictures” still represents something that will really and tangibly come to pass.  For instance, Ezekiel 37 describes a valley of dry bones supernaturally coming to life. While I recognize that such a vivid image is symbolic, the image pictures something that will certainly happen, that being, the supernatural restoration of Israel to the promised land.

One further point. I don’t believe that because the book of Ezekiel is recognized as “prophetic literature” I, as an interpreter, am automatically required by default to interpret the book typologically and symbolically just because it’s “prophetic literature.” Again, while I recognize that symbolism is indeed present within the book, that symbolism will typically be explained or interpreted for us by the writer himself, or perhaps within the whole of Scripture. The symbolism will symbolize some historical person or events that will most certainly come to pass in the real world.

One of the primary reasons I read Ezekiel 40-48 literally is due in part to the grammatical-historical hermeneutic I utilize. Approaching the text with those rules of interpretation in place draws me to the conclusion that Ezekiel’s temple will be a real building. There is more I could mention, but let me lay out three reasons I believe these chapters describe a literal temple.

First, the text itself suggests this is a prophecy meant to be understood literally. For example, in the opening verses of Ezekiel 40, the prophet describes being taken in a vision to Jerusalem 14 years after the city was captured. In that vision, Ezekiel is guided by “a man,” – an angel – who revealed the “new” temple to him. That man directly tells Ezekiel to pay close attention to what he was about to see and hear so as to declare it to the house of Israel (Ezekiel 40:4).  Later, in chapter 43, when God begins announcing His intentions to dwell once again with His people Israel, Ezekiel is told to “make known to them” the design, arrangements, ordinances, and laws, and to write those things down so the people would perform them, (Ezekiel 43:11).

Considering that Ezekiel’s audience will be the people of Israel, how else would they understand the meaning of that vision? Why would they NOT understand it to mean God intended for them to build that temple in the fashion He reveals to Ezekiel? Am I to sincerely conclude that when they read Ezekiel’s plans, they understood them to merely be an “idealized” reality of God’s presence among His people, or that it was all “symbolic” of some spiritual body who will be known as “the Church” or “the New Israel” or whatever? If God intended for them to read Ezekiel’s description of the temple, I would expect God intended for them to really build it.

Some may object by pointing out that Ezekiel tells us it was “a vision” in 40:2. That would tell the reader that a “vision” is meant to be understood more symbolically than literally. However, I would point out Ezekiel 8-11, which is the description of God’s glory departing the temple in Jerusalem before it fell to Babylon. In 8:3, Ezekiel says he was carried there “in visions” and he saw the real temple in Jerusalem and the real glory of God leaving it. Chapters 8-11, where the glory of God is described leaving the temple is a bookend to chapters 40-48, where the glory of God returns. If the temple in 8-11 was a real, physical building, I should only expect the temple in 40-48 to be the same.

And one footnote to that point. In 1 Chronicles 28:11, David gives Solomon the plans to the temple he was to build. David tells Solomon in 28:19 that, the LORD made me understand in writing, by His hand upon me, all the works of these plans. David’s words to Solomon ring in a similar way as Ezekiel’s. Just as God showed David by a vision the real temple Solomon built in Jerusalem when he was king, so too God showed Ezekiel a real temple that will also be built in Jerusalem.

Second, the details of chapters 40-48 imply a literal interpretation, not a symbolic one. A second reason why I believe Ezekiel’s temple vision is literal has to do with the minute details described in the chapters. Such things as the measurements of walls, gateways, courtyards, and archways. Included is the exact number of steps leading up to the gateways, the landscaping of palm trees (assuming these are real palm trees and not decor), the geographic direction the doors and gateways are to face, and the calendar days sacrifices were to be prepared and offered.

If those details are meant to be “spiritual” or “typological” what possibly could be their referents? What would be the anti-types? Take for instance Ezekiel 34 and the comparison between good and bad shepherds who watch over God’s flock. Obviously the idea of shepherds is meant to symbolize the spiritual leadership in Israel and the “flock” is God’s people. But I make that interpretation because such is implied within the actual text.

Or again, Ezekiel 37, which is a vivid picture of a valley of dry, skeletal remains coming together and supernaturally returning to life as a living, flesh and bone army that is energized by the breath of God. The picture is of God’s gathering His people Israel who had been scattered throughout all the world and restoring them to their land and covenant faithfulness. Yet that symbol isn’t left to the whimsy of the interpreter. It’s explained within the very text of chapter 37.

Third, there are specific, unique details within the details that tell me Ezekiel’s vision is  literal. Expanding a little more on the idea of the minute details recorded in 40-48, is the description with particularly unique details.  For instance, in 40:26, Ezekiel records that 7 steps lead up to the southern gateway. In 40:31, with the gateways of the inner court there are 8 steps. This is also seen in 40:37 for another gateway in the inner court. What do 7 steps in one description mean as opposed to 8 in another if they are merely “spiritual?”

In chapter 41:23ff., Ezekiel describes wooden canopies covering the vestibules outside the sanctuary. The window frames were beveled. Why is it necessary to describe this detail in a vision that was never intended to be taken literally? What then is the point of describing canopies that were never meant to be fashioned?

One last example can be seen in the description of the river that flows out from under the temple threshold. According to Ezekiel, this river flows eastward toward the Dead Sea and “heals” its waters. The Dead Sea then becomes a “Living Sea” that supports an abundance of fish.  Moreover, fruit trees will grow up in the area surrounding the former “Dead” Sea and produce year around fruit.

The typical spiritual interpretation is to liken this river to the words of Jesus in John 7:38 where Jesus says that out of the hearts of those who believe upon Him “will flow rivers of living water.” Or Revelation 7:17 where it is written, for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

Daniel Block sums up the passage here in Ezekiel 47:1-12 by stating, “All these features suggest an impressionistic literary cartoon (a favorite expression Block uses throughout his commentary to describe the whole of Ezekiel’s temple prophecy) with an intentional ideological aim” [Block, 701].

The problem, however, with spiritualizing this river is Ezekiel 47:11 which states, But its swamps and marshes will not be healed; they will be given over to salt. What exactly is the point of noting how the swamps and marshes (positioned primarily at the south end of the Dead Sea) will still remain salty if this is a spiritual vision about a river of eternal life? Daniel Block cites Bishop Theodoret of Antioch (393-458 A.D.) who believed the temple stream is a picture of the saving grace of Christ and baptism through which that grace is received [ibid, 699, fn. 73]. Theodoret identifies the salt marshes with lukewarm Christians whose punishment is a useful warning to others. How it is exactly he finds lukewarm Christians in the text is left unexplained.

Honestly, I believe an appeal to “symbolism” and “typology” is often taken by commentators just because a supernatural event, like this river flowing from the temple, seems too fantastic for literal fulfillment.  It is as if commentators are defaulting to a spiritualized interpretation because it’s too hard to believe any such physical river could exist or that the land of Israel could change its geography. In spite of the fact Zechariah 14:4 suggests such a cataclysmic change does take place at the return of Christ.

That approach comes across as a hermeneutic of unbelief that doubts God’s supernatural intervention, similar to those skeptical scholars who attempt to explain away the parting of the Red Sea in Exodus or one man, Samson, single-handedly slaying an army.

Those are just three major reasons I take chapters 40-48 of Ezekiel as a literal description of a temple that will be built in the future. Obviously, I would be naive to think my position isn’t fraught with any difficulty. I recognize that it is. The most significant difficulty being the re-establishment of animal sacrifices in Ezekiel’s temple in worship.  Answering that objection is what I hope to take up next time.



3 thoughts on “Literally Reading Ezekiel 40-48

  1. Pingback: Animal Sacrifices in Ezekiel 40-48 | hipandthigh

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