Harry Whittaker
A Fresh Look at Ezekiel’s Temple

Ezekiel’s Temple not a Millennial Temple (2)

In an earlier study, the point was stressed that the New Testament completely disallows the possibility of there ever being a future temple and ritual of the kind detailed by Ezekiel. It is now submitted that what Ezekiel himself wrote about it likewise leaves no doubt that the temple was not intended for the millennium but for the time when the Jews would return to the Land of their fathers from captivity in Babylon.

  1. Who is the Prince of Ezekiel 45,46? Most assume that he is the Messiah. Others suggest that he is David. But what is stated concerning him rules out both of these possibilities. He is not a priest, certainly not a High Priest (46:2). He is to enter the Sanctuary no further than the gate of the court of the priests (46:2). He offers sacrifices for himself and for his sins (45:22 and 46:10-12). He is subject to death (46:17,18; note the word ‘inheritance’). He has a wife and sons (46:16). He is allowed to bestow gifts only from his own inheritance (46:17,18). He is warned against exercising oppression (45:8 and 46:18). A succession of princes seems to be implied (45:8). Such details require reference to a mortal prince of Israel.
  2. Again, if this temple is for the millennium, its priests are certainly immortal saints in Christ. But this cannot be true of Ezekiel’s priests. They are liable to sweat (44:18). They are to drink no wine when serving in the sanctuary (v. 21); what a contrast with Matt. 26: 29! They marry — but only into the house of Israel (v. 22). They die (v. 22). They are permitted to defile themselves by contact with the dead, if it be a near relation (v. 25). They have no inheritance (v. 28). Such a catalog of facts once again rules out all reference to immortal saints in the Kingdom. Any attempt to meet this fairly substantial difficulty has been made by arguing that the sacrificing priests are spoken of only in vv. 15,16 — the sons of Zadok. These two verses, it is claimed, form a parenthesis (introduced by the word “But”) concerning the sons of Zadok, whilst the rest of the chapter, before and after, relates to a subsidiary order — the Levites — who will be given the privilege of helping in the temple administration in a sub-ordinate capacity.
This argument is all too plainly an expedient to get away from an awkward set of facts, and a quite inadequate expedient at that, as the following considerations will demonstrate:

  1. This introduces a further difficulty in the way of a millennial interpretation. In 44:10-14, “the Levites that went far from me, when Israel went astray” are to be degraded to less honorable duties in the Lord’s House. But in the millennium such men will not be in the Lord’s House at all, but will be cast out as an “abominable branch”.
  2. What is the meaning of the exhortations and remonstrations addressed to “the house of Israel” except it be that this prophecy is specially for them and not for “saints” or “all nations”? The words speak for themselves: “declare all that thou seest to the house of Israel” (there is never any doubt about the words “these bones are the whole house of Israel”)! “And thou shalt say to the rebellious, even to the house of Israel, Thus saith the Lord God: O ye house of Israel, let it suffice you of all your abominations”. “Let it suffice you, O princes of Israel, remove violence and spoil” (40:4 and 44:6 and 45:9).
  3. In 47:22,23 there is explicit legislation to ensure that strangers in the Land shall not be dis-inherited but shall have their own portion alongside the children of Israel. This is difficult to reconcile with the many promises that, in the Kingdom Age, the Land is to be for Israel, ruled over by the twelve apostles. But as a solution of the inevitable difficulty that the Jews returning from Babylon would find people of other races already settled in their territory, it is eminently sensible and just.
  4. The maps that have been drawn to show how Ezekiel foretells the redivision of the Land are mostly packed with mistakes. The four most common are these:
    1. The size of the Holy Oblation — usually measured in reeds instead of in cubits. It is proposed to omit discussion of this point here because the conclusion reached in no way affects the main issue about time of fulfillment.
    2. 47:19: “And the south side southward, from Tamar even to the waters of strife in Kadesh, the river to the great sea.” Kadesh in the Negeb is unmistakable. The great sea is certainly the Mediterranean. But many identify “the river” as being the Nile, and thus proceed to appro-priate a big piece of the land of Egypt as part of Israel’s future inheritance. But this is certainly not the true interpretation, as is proved by the mention of Kadesh. Also, the southern limit of the Land promised to the Fathers is “the river of Egypt,” which is undeniably the wadi El Arish which enters the sea just south of Gaza. Also, the Hebrew word for “river” here is that which describes a torrent and is certainly not the correct word for a mighty flood of waters like the Nile.
    3. 47:18. “The east side...shall be Jordan, from the (north) border unto the east sea.” This “east sea” is often taken to mean the Persian Gulf; and maps are drawn showing strips of Israel’s territory stretching across Arabia to the Euphrates. This just will not do. Apart from the plain simple clear fact that Jordan is specified here as the boundary, all the Bible evidence points to “the east sea” being the Dead Sea: Num. 34:3; Josh. 12:3; Joel 2:20. On this point no other conclusion is possible.
    4. Regarding the northern boundary, it has to be remembered that “the border of Damascus” and “the border of Hamath” do not mean Damascus and Hamath but the southern borders of those territories. This, similarly, requires the drawing of an east-west line appreciably further south than where it is usually assigned, and certainly not so far north as to reach the Euphrates.
Once these points are clear, it is evident that the extent of the Land indicated by Ezekiel is considerably less than that promised to Abraham (Gen. 15:18). Then how can this be the Kingdom of God?

  1. There is a similar difference between the role of Jerusalem in Ezekiel’s scheme and in the rest of the prophets. The former pictures Jerusalem as one enormous Temple area a mile square, given over entirely to worship and sacrifice with a new city Jehovah-Shammah away to the south of it. But elsewhere there are pictures of “boys and girls playing in the streets of Jerusalem” (Zech. 8:4,5). “Jerusalem shall be inhabited as towns without walls, for the multitude of men and cattle therein” (Zech. 2:4).
  2. In 46:1 there is instruction that the east gate is to be shut on “the six working days” and open only on the sabbath and the day of new moon. How is this to be reconciled with Isaiah’s words: “Thy gates shall be open continually; they shall not be shut day nor night”?

The list of difficulties in the way of a millennial interpretation is by no means complete, but sufficient have been cataloged to make it evident that the easy assumption of a future fulfillment of this prophecy is scarcely warranted. Until problems of the kind mentioned have been tidied up there might at least be a little less dogmatism about millennial expositions.

And now, in fairness, it is necessary to consider the one big objection to the view that Ezekiel was propounding God’s scheme for Israel’s resettlement in the Land on the return from Babylon — a plan, be it noted, which was to be from the very first dependent on Israel’s repentance and willingness to obey: “if they be ashamed of all that they have done, show them the form of the house” (43:11). The difficulty alluded to is this: 47:1-12 describes a growing stream going forth from the Sanctuary, taking healing to the seas and to the nations. Nothing of this kind, it is urged, has happened in history or has been possible at any time in the past; the very nature of the vision requires fulfillment in the Future Age.

To this it is answered: The vision of the healing river of God is plainly symbolic, and would be so understood by Ezekiel. The following reasons for this conclusion are submitted:

  1. Springs do not emerge from the summit of “a very high mountain”. Occasionally they spring from fairly near the highest point of a mountain, but never from the top-most peak. Nor does a normal stream deepen at such a fantastically rapid rate as to be crossed only by swimming when a mere one and a half miles from its source. Nor does any river grow in volume except through the contributions made by tributaries, and this river has no tributaries. It may, of course, be urged in reply that these living waters are to be altogether miraculous. And to such an “argument” there can be no answer. Nevertheless it is surely significant that this river, if real and not symbolic, is the only miraculous element connected with Ezekiel’s temple.
  2. It is also significant that the similar prophecy in Joel 3:18 has a markedly symbolic element in it: “And it shall come to pass in that day that the mountains shall drop down new wine, and the hill shall flow with milk, and all the rivers of Judah shall flow with waters, and a fountain shall come forth of the house of the Lord, and shall water the valley of Shittim.”
  3. It is doubtful if even those who accept the view that there will be a literal river out of the temple would go so far as to accept all this part of the prophecy in a perfectly literal fashion. Is it believed that the ills of the nations will cured by the mastication of leaves from the trees on the bank of the river? Here, surely, is a detail which shouts for symbolic interpretation — a thing which can hardly be said with confidence about other details concerning priestly defilement, princely offering, the dimensions of porches and chambers.
  4. The symbolic use of this very passage in Revelation 22:2 indicates expressly what is being argued for here as almost self-evident: “On either side of the river was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” He would be a bold man who would maintain the literal intention of these words in this context!
  5. Again, if this portion of Ezekiel 47 is to be taken literally, what is to be made of its self-contradictory character? This river of life goes to the Dead Sea and its waters are healed, so that they swarm with fish. Nevertheless “the miry places thereof and the marshes thereof shall not be healed; they shall be given to salt” (v.11). Literally the words are really difficult. Symbolically they suggest easily enough that whilst this rebuilt temple of an Israel returned from captivity will have wondrous possibilities of carrying divine influence and blessing to the most unlikely quarters, it was not to be expected that in that age a perfect and complete reformation would be accomplished.
  6. The special mention of abundant fish and a thriving fishing industry is difficult to understand, if intended literally. But the spiritual meaning of these words is too obvious to require elucidation. “As the fish of the Great Sea” certainly suggests the blessing of the Gentile nations through the godly influence of this new House of God.
  7. The force of the angel’s words to Ezekiel has been missed by many: “Son of man, hast thou seen this?” If this simply means: “Have you seen this growing river descending from the House?” the question borders on the ludicrous; for apparently it was put to the prophet in the vision whilst he was standing in the water, having just abandoned the attempt to cross because he couldn’t swim. “Hast thou seen this?” Of course he had — and felt it! In these circumstances the question could surely only mean: “Do you perceive the meaning of all this?” In other words: “Ezekiel, take care to consider the spiritual truth expressed by this which you now see.”
The evidence for a symbolic interpretation of this part of the prophecy is thus not inconsiderable, and there is more of a like character. The recognition of this element removes, it is claimed, the last obstacle in the way of acceptance of Ezekiel’s temple as a temple for the time of King Cyrus, not for the time of King Jesus. In a further study, it is hoped to show that there are reasons for believing that the Jews in the days of Cyrus themselves understood the prophecy in this way.

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