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Does Ezekiel describe a literal temple?

February 23, 2012

Those who support a literal interpretation of Ezekiel’s temple in chapters 40-47 point to the remarkable amount of detail in Ezekiel’s account, supposing that such detail can only mean that everything described must be taken literally.  Dispensationalist John C. Whitcomb wrote: [1]

A careful reading of Ezekiel 40-42 gives one the clear impression of a future literal Temple for Israel because of the immense number of details concerning its dimensions, its parts and its contents (see Erich Sauer, From Eternity To Eternity, chapter 34). Surely, if so much space in the Holy Scriptures is given to a detailed description of this Temple, we are safe in assuming that it will be as literal as the Tabernacle and the Temple of Solomon. The fact that its structure and ceremonies will have a definite symbolical and spiritual significance cannot be used as an argument against its literal existence. For the Tabernacle was a literal structure in spite of the fact that it was filled with symbolic and typical significance. Such reasoning might easily deny the literalness of Christ’s glorious Second Coming on the basis that the passages which describe His coming are filled with symbolical expressions (see Matthew 24 and Revelation 19).

Whitcomb must have misunderstood the significance of all the detail provided in Ezekiel’s description. Ezekiel’s attention to detail does not necessarily mean a literal temple was in view. He was describing a vision, and like dreams, visions can be detailed, and realistic.

What was the reason for Ezekiel’s attention to detail? Perhaps it was intended to show, not that a literal temple was in view, but that everything in the spiritual temple is to be “measured,” and compared against the standard of God’s word. Ezekiel gave the dimensions of the various parts of the temple in order to show that the temple of God, the church, is designed, and prepared, according to God’s purpose; it is well suited for its purpose, in every age. Nothing in it is out of proportion. Everything has its proper place. This spiritual meaning can be appreciated only if one’s mind has been freed from the chains and shackles of literalism. How could Whitcomb, along with other dispensationalists, who view the temple of Ezekiel’s prophecy as a literal one, have missed noticing how frequently Ezekiel mentioned the word “measured,” and words related to it? That the temple of God, which is the church, and everything in it will be “measured,” is the key concept in Ezekiel’s prophecy. By a very simple interpretation, it means the saints, and their beliefs, and their works, will be compared against God’s word, which is the standard represented by the “reed,” and the “line,” and by which we will all stand or fall. To be opposed to God’s word is to be found “naked.” That is, unclothed with the spiritual clothing that is provided for us by Christ.

In his commentary on Ezekiel, Frederic Gardiner mentioned some of the reasons why the prophecies in the last few chapters should not be applied to ethnic Jews, as the literalist approach insists, but rather, they apply to the church. When viewed literally, the prophecies frequently contradict one another. Gardiner wrote: [2]

So much has been said in the interpretation of this chapter of the high spiritual view which can alone explain these prophecies consistently with themselves, that it may be unnecessary to add anything further; yet as correct views upon this point are absolutely essential to the right understanding of the remaining parts of this book, and as much misapprehension exists in regard to them, it may be well very briefly to mention some of the reasons why it is impossible to understand the language of Ezekiel in regard to the future as referring only to the Israelites after the flesh, and to the land in which they once lived.

Every one who compares the general scope and purpose of the two dispensations must see that they are essentially one, that the end was foreseen from the beginning, and that the earlier was distinctly preparatory for the later. The “Gospel was preached before unto Abraham,” and then “the law was added because of transgressions, until the promised seed should come” (Gal. iii. 8, 19); and this preparatory character of the old dispensation, recognised even by Moses (Deut. xviii. 15—18, &c.), was more and more insisted upon by the prophets (e.g., Jer. xxxi. 31—34; Hag. ii. 6—9, &c.). At the same time, they describe the future continually by means of already familiar events in their history (see Isa. xl.—lxvi. throughout, especially chaps. lxii., lxiii.), even going to the extent of promising again the reign of David (Jer. xxx. 9; Ezek. xxxiv. 23, 24; xxxvii. 24, 25; Hos. iii. 5), and the coming in the last days of the prophet Elijah (Mai. iv. 5). These prophecies are repeatedly and expressly interpreted of Christ and His forerunner, while the promised “new covenant” is explained of the Christian dispensation; and the description of the wonders accompanying its introduction (Joel ii. 28—32, &c.) is applied to the circumstances connected with the first promulgation of the Gospel (Acts ii. 16, &c.). Moreover, it was from the first expected that the “seed of Abraham” should embrace far more than his descendants after the flesh, and the promise that he should be “the father of many nations” is shown by St. Paul to mean that all who embraced his faith should be recognised as his children (Rom. iv. 16); while the correlated promise, “To thy seed will I give this land,” is extended in the same connection (ib. verse 13) to a promise “that he should be the heir of the world.” When these facts are joined (1) with our Lord’s teaching that the types and shadows of the old economy were fulfilled in Himself; that the time had come when Jerusalem should no longer be the place where the Father should be worshipped (John iv. 21); and (2) with the apostle’s declaration that all earthly distinctions between Jew and Greek, or of whatever other kind, are passed away: that “if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed” (Gal. iii. 28, 29); and also (3) with the whole argument in the Epistle to the Hebrews that the Aaronic priesthood culminated and was absorbed in the higher priesthood of Christ, and that the whole sacrificial and Temple arrangements of old were typical and temporary, and were superseded by the realities of the Christian dispensation—there seems no longer room for doubt that the Jewish Church and nationality are things of the past, and have been merged for ever in the Church of Christ. At the same time, it is never to be forgotten that the prophets foretold, and history has fulfilled, that “salvation is of the Jews” (John iv. 22), and that the law should “go forth from Sion,” and the “new covenant” be made with God’s chosen people; for it is abundantly evident that our Lord, after the flesh, was a Jew, and all His immediate followers were Jews. His Church was cradled among them, and it was not until some years after it had entered upon its career for tho salvation of the world that its doors were thrown open to the Gentiles.

If, however, it were still urged that, all this being admitted, many prophecies, and notably those of Ezekiel, still seem, over and above these things, to look forward to a future restoration of the Jews to their own land, in a condition of great prosperity and power, it must be replied that the above considerations of the absolute removal in Christ of all distinctions among those who believe in Him are inconsistent with the future revival of these distinctions in His Church; and that even such an explicit prophecy of the restoration of the fallen “tabernacle of David” as is contained in Amos ix. 11, 12 is expressly applied by the apostles (Acts xv. 16) to the union of Gentiles and Jews in the Christian Church.

Besides all this, in predicting the future under the figures of what has gone before, the prophets frequently foretell what would be contradictory if it were to be understood literally. Thus Zechariah (chap. xiv. 16—19) declares that all nations shall come up to Jerusalem to keep the Feast of Tabernacles: an evident physical impossibility. So also there is continual mention of the restoration of animal sacrifices with acceptance to God, which is inconceivable in the light in which those sacrifices are viewed in tho New Testament. The offering of the “one sacrifice for sins for ever” (Heb. x. 12) by Him who was the Antitype of all sacrifice necessarily brought to an end the whole typical system.

Finally, it is to be considered that the very representations of the old prophets are sometimes repeated in the New Testament as a means of describing a state of things which no one would dream of interpreting literally. This is particularly noticeable in the present passage. Ezekiel has been describing a spiritual resurrection of the people (comp. John v. 21), and then goes on to foretell an assault by their enemies which shall be frustrated by the power of God (chaps, xxxviii., xxxix.). The same thing is foretold in Rev. xx.: the power of evil is restrained for a time, and there is a resurrection of the believers in Christ, with a period of blessing and prosperity; then the enemies of God (under the very same names of Gog and Magog) are gathered to battle, and destroyed by the power of God; and finally, the Church of the future, tho heavenly Jerusalem, is revealed in its power and glory, in much the same way as in this passage of Ezekiel.

It can scarcely be necessary to add that the figurative interpretation of these prophecies does not affect the important question in regard to the purpose of Divine Providence in the continued preservation of the Jews as a distinct people, and the intimations in regard to their future, given in the Epistle to the Romans and elsewhere. Whatever may be the future designed for Israel, the question here is simply, What was the instruction intended to be conveyed in this chapter? And the reasons above given seem sufficiently to indicate the interpretation adopted.

References

1. John C. Whitcomb. The Millennial Temple of Ezekiel 40-48

2. Frederic Gardiner. Ezekiel, Excursus F: on Chapter xxxvii. In: Charles John Ellicott, ed, An Old Testament commentary for English readers, by various writers. Vol. v. Cassell & Co. 1884. pp. 351-352.

 

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