Measuring the temple

February 23, 2012

In the prophet Ezekiel’s description of a visionary temple in chapters 40-47, the words “measure,” “measured,” and “measures” are prominent. The frequency of the words is as follows: “measure,” 10 times; “measured,” 32 times; “measures,” 9 times. It is as if Ezekiel wanted to convey to the reader that everything in the temple is measured by God.

The instruments employed for measuring are a reed, which commentators say was probably about 10 feet long, and a line of flax. [Ezekiel 40:3]

When we consider what measurement is, it is comparing with a standard. The obvious spiritual meaning of the focus on measuring in Ezekiel’s prophecy must be that every part of the spiritual temple of God is compared with a standard, which of course, is God’s word.

The same principle is seen in Revelation 11:1. John was told to measure the temple. By his prophecies, he measures the church, the true temple, by comparing it against the standard of God’s word. There is obviously an allusion to Ezekiel’s prophecy in chapters 40-47 here, and the temple in each prophecy is the same; that is, the church.

Revelation 3:12 identifies believers who overcome as “pillars” in the temple of God: “Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name.”

One would think, that by his frequent use of the word “measure,” and by an explicit identification of the church with the temple of God in Ephesians 2:20 and several other NT scriptures, the spiritual meaning behind Ezekiel’s description of a temple would be as clear and as plain as the sun, but that is not so. Hävernick observed: [1]

The closing predictions of Ezekiel have in earlier times been usually understood typically, and referred directly to the person of Christ, the apostles and Christian affairs in general, and in this way the typical system in principle degenerated into a wild allegory. This mode of interpretation has called forth the other extreme, according to which the prophets are permitted to determine nothing else beforehand but the state of things as it was really to take place (but did not take place) after the exile, prophecy being thus transformed into a new legislation. Hence the prophetico-symbolical interpretation is most correct, according to which those representations are to be understood in the sense which they had already for one living under the Old Testament theocracy, viz. as symbols, whose true and full significance is to be realized only in the new Church.

John wrote in Revelation 20:8-9, deceived people come against the “camp of the saints,” and the “beloved city,” which also refers to the church. They want to interpret Ezekiel’s temple as a literal one, that is yet to be built.

Ezekiel nowhere tells the Jews to build the temple that he described in his prophecy; it is a temple built “without hands.” Jesus said: “I will build my church.” [Matthew 16:18] Stephen said that “the most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands.” [Acts 7:48] Paul preached the same thing to the men of Athens. [Acts 17:24] But Ezekiel’s temple is to be filled with the glory of God; [Ezekiel 43:5] therefore, it is not a temple built with human hands.

The statement in Ezekiel 40:15, “He made also posts of threescore cubits,” suggests that God is the builder of the temple, rather than man.

Another feature of the temple indicating that is not a literal one is that Ezekiel puts it upon the top of a high mountain. He wrote at the beginning of the vision, “In the visions of God brought he me into the land of Israel, and set me upon a very high mountain, by which was as the frame of a city on the south.” [Ezekiel 40:2] Then later, he says, “This is the law of the house; Upon the top of the mountain the whole limit thereof round about shall be most holy. Behold, this is the law of the house.” [Ezekiel 43:12]

In the discussion below by Prof. Frederic Gardiner, the presence of the temple on a mountain top is cited together with several other arguments against the notion that the later chapters of Ezekiel may be viewed as describing a literal temple. Gardiner wrote: [2]

It is scarcely necessary to speak of a literal fulfilment still in the future. Ordinarily it is difficult to say that any state of things may not possibly be realised in the future; but here there are features of the prophecy, and those neither of a secondary nor incidental character, which enable us to assert positively that their literal fulfilment would be a plain contradiction of the Divine revelation. It is impossible to conceive, in view of the whole relations between the old and new dispensations, that animal sacrifices can ever be restored by Divine command and with acceptance to God. And, it may be added, it is equally impossible to suppose that the church of the future, progressing in the liberty wherewith Christ has made it free, should ever return to “the weak and beggarly elements” of Jewish bondage here set forth.Having thus alluded to these general presumptions, we are prepared to look at those particular indications which have been introduced into the prophecy itself as if to show that it is to be understood ideally. I do not propose to speak of those more general indications, such as the regularity of proportions and forms, the symmetry of measurements &c., which here, as in the later chapters of the apocalypse, give to almost every reader a somewhat indefinable but very strong impression of the ideality of the whole description; but will confine myself to statements which admit of definite tests in regard to their literalness.In the first place, the connection between the temple and the city of Jerusalem in all the sacred literature of the subject, as well as in the thought of every pious Israelite, is so close that, a prophecy incidentally separating them, without any distinct statement of the fact or of the reason for so doing, could hardly have been intended, or have been understood literally. Yet in this passage the temple is described as at a distance of nearly nine and a half miles from the utmost bound of the city, or about fourteen and a quarter miles from its centre. A temple in any other locality than Mount Moriah could hardly be the temple of Jewish hope and association. The location of Ezekiel’s temple depends upon whether the equal portions of land assigned to each of the tribes in ch. xlviii. were actually equal in area, or were only strips of equal width. The latter view is, so far as I know, adopted by all commentators. On this supposition Ezekiel’s city would be several miles north of Jerusalem, and the temple, still north of that, would be well on the road to Samaria. On the other supposition, it would fall nearly in the latitude of Hebron. In either case, the temple, with its precincts, is described as a mile square, or larger than the whole ancient city of Jerusalem. In xliii. 12 it is expressly said “that the whole limit thereof round about” is “upon the top of the mountain.” But without pressing this, it is hardly possible that the precincts of any actual temple could be intended to embrace such a variety of hill and valley as would be involved.Moreover, the description of the “oblation” itself is physically impossible. The boundaries of the land are expressly said to be the Mediterranean on the one side and the Jordan on the other (xlvii. 15-2 1). The eastern boundary is not formed by an indefinite extension into the desert, but is distinctly declared to be the Jordan, and above that, the boundaries of Hauran and Damascus. It is substantially the same with that given in Num. xxxiv. 10-12, and in both cases excludes the trans-Jordanic territory which was not a part of Palestine proper, and in which, even after its conquest, the two and a half tribes had been allowed to settle with some reluctance (Num. xxxii. ). Now, if the portions of the tribes were of equal width, the “oblation” could not have been extended so far south as the mouth of the Jordan; but even at that point the whole breadth of the country, according to the English “exploration fund” maps, is only 55 miles. Measuring northwards from this point the width of the oblation, 47 1/3 miles, a point is reached where the distance between the river and the sea is only 40 miles. It is impossible therefore that the oblation itself should be included between them, and the description requires that there should also be room left for the prince’s portion at either end. It has been suggested that the prophet might have had in mind measurements made on the uneven surface of the soil or along the usual routes of travel; but both these suppositions are absolutely excluded by the symmetry and squareness of this description.

Again: the city of the vision is described as the great city of the restored theocracy; but, as already said, it cannot be placed geographically upon the site of Jerusalem. Either, then, this city must be understood ideally, or else a multitude of other prophecies, and notably many of Ezekiel which speak of Zion and of Jerusalem, must be so interpreted. There is no good reason why both may not be figurative, but it is impossible to take both literally; for some of them make statements in regard to the future quite as literal in form as these, and yet in direct conflict with them. Such prophecies, both in Ezekiel and in the other prophets, in regard to Jerusalem, are too familiar to need citation; yet one, on a similar point, from a prophet not much noticed, may be given as an illustration. Obadiah (according to some authorities, a contemporary of Ezekiel) foretells (ver. 19) that at the restoration “Benjamin shall possess Gilead”; but according to Ezekiel, Gilead is not in the land of the restoration at all, and Benjamin’s territory is to be immediately south of the “oblation.” Again, Obadiah (ver. 20) says, “The captivity of Jerusalem” (which in distinction from “the captivity of the host of the children of Israel,” must refer to the two tribes) “shall possess the cities of the south”; but according to Ezekiel, Judah and Benjamin are to adjoin the central “oblation,” and four other tribes are to have their portions south of them. Such instances might easily be multiplied. It must surely be a false exegesis which makes the prophets gratuitously contradict each other and even contradict themselves (as in this case of Obadiah) almost in the same sentence.

The prophet Isaiah had previously said that of mount Zion and Jerusalem that “the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.” [Isaiah 2:2] In the New Testament, this prophecy is fulfilled; Jerusalem and mount Zion are now located in “heavenly” places. The saints are “raised up together, and … sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” [Ephesians 2:6] This is not speaking of a post-mortem event, but Paul says this happens “when we were dead in sins,” in the previous verse.

The mountain on which the temple sits is spiritual and invisible; it is the “mount Sion” or Zion to which all believers come. [Hebrews 12:22] Gardiner showed that the river that Ezekiel described flowing from the temple must also be viewed figuratively; it corresponds to the “river of life” in Revelation 22:1-2. He wrote:

A further difficulty with the literal interpretation may be found in the description of the waters which issued from under the eastern threshold of the temple (xlvii. 1-1 2). This difficulty is so great that some commentators, who have adopted generally a literal interpretation, have found themselves constrained to resort here to the figurative; but on the whole, it has been recognized that the vision is essentially one, and that it would be unreasonable to give a literal interpretation to one part of it and a figurative to another. The waters of the vision run to the “east country,” and go down “to the sea,” which can only be the Dead Sea; but such a course would be physically impossible without changes in the surface of the earth, since the location of the temple of the vision is on the west of the water-shed of the country. They had, moreover, the effect of “healing” the waters of the sea, an effect which could not be produced naturally without providing an outlet from the sea, and Ezekiel (xlvii. 11) excludes the idea of an outlet. No supply of fresh water could remove the saltness, while this was all disposed of by evaporation. But, setting aside minor difficulties, the character of the waters themselves is impossible, except by a perpetual miracle. Without insisting upon the strangeness of a spring of this magnitude upon the top of “a very high mountain” (xl. 2; cf. also xliii. 12), at the distance of 1,000 cubits from their source, the waters have greatly increased in volume; and so with each successive 1,000 cubits, until at the end of 4,000 (about a mile and a half) they have become a river no longer fordable, or, in other words, comparable to the Jordan. Such an increase, without accessory streams, is clearly not natural. Beyond all this, the description of the waters themselves clearly marks them as ideal. They are life-giving and healing; trees of perennial foliage and fruit grow upon their banks, the leaves being for “medicine,” and the fruit, although for food, never wasting. The reader cannot fail to be reminded of “the pure river of water of life” in Rev. xxii. 1, 2. “on either side” of which was “the tree of life,” with “its twelve manner of fruits” and its leaves “for the healing of the nations.” The author of the Apocalypse evidently had this passage in mind; and just as he has seized upon the description of Gog and Magog in chaps. xxxviii., xxxix., as an ideal description, and applied it to the events of the future, so he has treated this as an ideal prophecy, and applied it to the Church triumphant.


1. H. A. C. Hävernick. Vortes. über die Theologie des A. T.  p. 165. Cited by Wilhelm Julius Schröder. The book of the prophet Ezekiel. Tr. by Patrick Fairbairn and William Findlay. [A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Ezekil, Daniel. Ser. Ed. Johann Peter Lange.]  C. Scribner & co., 1876. p. 28.

2. Frederic Gardiner. The Relation of Ezekiel to the Levitical Law. Journal of Biblical Literature 1 (1881) 172-205.

3. Ibid.