The concluding chapters of the prophetic book of Ezekiel are among the
most hotly debated in all of Scripture. Many
conflicting interpretations have been proposed by scholars, each
according to his own school of eschatological thought. Are
chapters, which describe a great temple, speaking figuratively or
literally? Do they refer to a time now past, or to a future
state? The opportunities for controversy are manifold, and a
consideration of the chapters themselves, in isolation, is insufficient
to provide all the answers. For instance, this temple
occurs at the end of a book heavy with symbolism, yet contains precise
details and measurements suggesting a more literal approach.
There are mysteries in chapters 40-48, as well -- who is the "prince"
or leader involved in the temple worship?
Neither the figurative nor the literal approach to these chapters is
adequate to explain every detail, unravel every mystery.
it is not necessary for us to know all the answers in order to
understand the passage properly. Despite the potential for
controversy, Scripture does supply us with enough information to answer
the main questions associated with the passage, which are as
1. Is the temple and its worship literal,
2. Do these things take place at a time
past, or at some point in the future?
If the time
is future, does it involve the millenial kingdom of Christ on earth, or
the heavenly state?
4. In any case, what is the
the sacrifices described?
This paper will briefly consider
issues and attempt to provide some sound and scriptural answers.
Literal or Figurative?
Though this temple appears in a highly symbolic book, there is much
reason to believe that it is an actual, physical reality, and not a
merely spiritual phenomenon. Firstly, this temple building is
described in precise detail, rather than loose symbolic
The exact measurements of the wall (40:5), the court (40:47) and the
sanctuary (41:4), as well as all the other elements of the
construction, are provided for the reader. What would be the
point of such an exercise, if the place does not actually
Furthermore, the description is intensely visual (41:6-7).
painstaking, point-by-point consideration invites comparison, not to
purely symbolic visions such as the four beasts seen by Daniel (Dan. 7)
or the scarlet woman of John's apocalypse (Rev. 17), but to the
Pentateuchal pattern for the Tabernacle (Ex. 25:8ff) -- an inarguably
literal building. Most importantly, Ezekiel is told to
the temple he has seen to the people of Israel, and if they are ashamed
and repent, to show them the exact plans and measurements -- why? --
"so that they may be faithful to its design" (43:10-11).
If the temple is only figurative, this is a nonsensical statement. But
if it is literal, all difficulty is removed. It would seem
the main reason some scholars assume Ezekiel's temple to be symbolic is
that the literal view seems to present theological problems, making it
more convenient to spiritualize the building and all it
But spiritualizing cannot answer the logical and textual objections
listed above. Nor can it provide a clear interpretation of all the
supposed symbols involved in the dimensions and features of the temple,
only subjective speculation. On this basis a literal
interpretation is preferable even though it may not supply all the
Historical or Future?
For reasons of architecture, topology and theology, it would appear
that Ezekiel's vision of the temple concerned the future, not any past
or contemporary edifice. Architecturally, the dimensions
in chapters 40-48 do not correspond to any of the pre- or post-exilic
temples -- Solomon's, Zerubbabel's, nor even Herod's.
Furthermore, the overall design is markedly different from those of the
historical temples. Topologically, Ezekiel's temple features
river flowing eastward from the threshold of the temple out to the
Jordan Valley (47:1ff), whereas no river flowed from, through, or even
past the temples of Biblical times. Also, the surrounding
geography described by Ezekiel is different from that of Israel today
or at any point in the past. Great changes have taken place,
consistent with the topological alterations associated with the Lord's
second coming (Is. 40:4, Zech. 14:4ff.). Theologically, the
of worship and priestly service followed in Ezekiel's temple, though it
parallels that of the Mosaic economy in numerous details, has never
been carried out by Israel at any time in the past. The
described in the land is an idyllic theocracy never before
experienced by the nation. Most significantly, this temple
contains the glory of God (43:2-5). Jewish rabbis agree that
glory of God departed from Solomon's temple just before it was
destroyed, and that neither Zerubbabel's temple nor Herod's expansion
ever contained such glory before the destruction of 70 A.D.
Therefore, if the glory of God will return as Ezekiel prophesied, it
must be to some other, future temple.
Millenium or Eternity?
Having established Ezekiel's temple as both literal and future, we are
then faced with the question of precisely when this temple comes into
existence. Admittedly, this is at first a difficult issue to
resolve, for there are many similarities between the millenial kingdom
and the eternal state, and the prophets of old did not always make a
clear distinction between them. Ezekiel's writings by
are therefore insufficient to address the question -- but when his
description of the temple is compared to the last chapters of the book
of Revelation, it appears that Ezekiel's vision concerned a millenial,
not eternal, state. The reasons for this are again
topological and theological. Architecturally, the dimensions
Ezekiel's temple differ from those of the eternal city (Rev. 21:15-17).
Topologically, the sea is described as bordering Israel in Ezekiel
(47:15), but in eternity there is no longer any sea (Rev. 21:1).
Theologically, Ezekiel describes a physical Jerusalem temple in great
detail, but according to John, in the eternal state no such place
exists: in the new Jerusalem the only temple is the triune
Himself (Rev. 21:22).
What About the
One may well ask, if Ezekiel's temple is indeed literal, future, and
millenial in nature, what purpose the temple sacrifices (44:15)
serve. Since Christ has already provided a once-for-all
sacrifice for sin (Heb. 7:27, 9:12,26-27), is it not blasphemy to
suggest that in His earthly kingdom any blood sacrifices would be
necessary? Does the presence of sacrifices therefore not
a symbolic or historical interpretation of the passage? The
answer to both questions is no. There is no reason to believe
that a future sacrificial system could not be perfectly within the will
of God for His people. Firstly, the emphasis in Ezekiel's
is on holiness. By faithfully following the Lord's
regarding worship and sacrifice, the nation of Israel will demonstrate
to the world the transforming power of God in their once-stubborn and
idolatrous hearts, and their unique relationship to Him.
Secondly, the sacrifices offered are symbolic, not
This was also true even of the Mosaic sacrifices (Heb. 9:9, 10:1-4) --
the only difference here is that the millenium looks back at Christ's
death as a historical reality, whereas the Israelites of the Old
Testament economy looked forward to a Messianic promise of cleansing
and atonement in the shadowy future.
If at first the suggestion that the blood sacrifices in Ezekiel's
temple serve a purely commemorative purpose seems bizarre, one may well
consider the ordinance of the Lord's Supper. At this present
the church, composed of Jew and Gentile united in Christ, is in focus.
Though the reality -- the suffering and death of Christ -- has already
taken place, the church today still partakes of bread and wine in
remembrance of His past work (1 Cor. 11:23-26). This
was set up by the Lord Jesus Himself. However, in the
kingdom restored Israel, not the church, is the focus. In
with the Mosaic covenant unique to Israel, animal sacrifices will
remind the believing Jews of Christ's finished work. Note,
however, that in the millenium there is no Day of Atonement, and
numerous other distinctions serve to remind us that Christ's death
forever altered God's dealings with mankind. Also, Ezekiel's
temple and its unique sacrificial system come into play after Israel
has recognized Jesus as the Messiah they pierced (Zech.
There can be no danger that these Jews will forget His death on their
In light of these evidences, then, there seems no reason to believe
that Ezekiel's temple is any less than it seems to be from the text
itself -- a literal building constructed by a truly repentant and
restored nation of Israel, and in which they will worship the Lord by
offering and sacrifice.
Rebecca J. Anderson 1994