What are we to make of this section of the book of Ezekiel? No such temple was built following the return from the Babylonian captivity, and some, therefore, understand it to be a description of a temple which will be rebuilt in Jerusalem at some future stage.

The non-literal interpretation

However, there are considerable difficulties with such an interpretation, as Fausset, himself in all other respects a literalist, has made clear:

“There are things in it so improbable physically as to preclude a purely literal interpretation. …The very fact that the whole is a vision (Eze 40:2), not an oral face-to-face communication such as that granted to Moses (Nu 12:6-8), implies that the directions are not to be understood so precisely literally as those given to the Jewish lawgiver. The description involves things which, taken literally, almost involve natural impossibilities. The square of the temple, in Eze 42:20, is six times as large as the circuit of the wall enclosing the old temple, and larger than all the earthly Jerusalem. Ezekiel gives three and a half miles and one hundred forty yards to his temple square. The boundaries of the ancient city were two and a half miles. Again, the city in Ezekiel has an area between three or four thousand square miles, including the holy ground set apart for the prince, priests, and Levites. This is nearly as large as the whole of Judea west of the Jordan. As Zion lay in the centre of the ideal city, the one-half of the sacred portion extended to nearly thirty miles south of Jerusalem, that is, covered nearly the whole southern territory, which reached only to the Dead Sea (Eze 47:19), and yet five tribes were to have their inheritance on that side of Jerusalem, beyond the sacred portion (Eze 48:23-28). Where was land to be found for them there? A breadth of but four or five miles apiece would be left. As the boundaries of the land are given the same as under Moses, these incongruities cannot be explained away by supposing physical changes about to be effected in the land such as will meet the difficulties of the purely literal interpretation. The distribution of the land is in equal portions among the twelve tribes, without respect to their relative numbers, and the parallel sections running from east to west. There is a difficulty also in the supposed separate existence of the twelve tribes, such separate tribeship no longer existing, and it being hard to imagine how they could be restored as distinct tribes, mingled as they now are. …Lastly, the catholicity of the Christian dispensation, and the spirituality of its worship, seem incompatible with a return to the local narrowness and ‘beggarly elements’ of the Jewish ritual and carnal ordinances, disannulled ‘because of the unprofitableness thereof’ [FAIRBURN], (Ga 4:3, 9; 5:1; Heb 9:10; 10:18). ‘A temple with sacrifices now would be a denial of the all-sufficiency of the sacrifice of Christ. He who sacrificed before confessed the Messiah. He who should sacrifice now would solemnly deny him’ [DOUGLAS].”

Fausset’s objections are not insuperable, as his own cautious wording makes clear. The vision is “improbable”, not impossible, “physically”. The fact that “the whole is a vision, not an oral face-to-face communication”, “implies”, but does not demand, that “the directions are not to be understood so precisely literally”. The description involves things which, taken literally, “almost”, but not completely, “involve natural impossibilities”. The catholicity of the Christian dispensation, and the spirituality of its worship, “seem”, rather than “are”, “incompatible with a return to the local narrowness and ‘beggarly elements’ of the Jewish ritual and carnal ordinances”.

Those who reject the literal interpretation of this passage say that it is to be understood as describing symbolically the future glories of the gospel Church, or as describing, in forms which would have been familiar to Ezekiel, the kingdom of God. But if there are problems with the former interpretation, equally so are there with the latter. Principally, if it is indeed the purpose of this passage to describe the gospel Church or the kingdom of God, it is difficult to see why this should be done in a such a lengthy passage which gives details concerning the precise dimensions of this temple and which any reader coming to it without any theological presuppositions would understand to be the blueprint of an actual building. And if such be its purpose, I, for one, must confess that it leaves me feeling singularly unexcited about the Church’s glories or the kingdom of God!

The literal interpretation

Commenting on this passage, the eighteenth century Methodist expositor, Adam Clarke, writes:

“The temple here described by Ezekiel is, in all probability, the same which he saw before his captivity, and which had been burned by the Chaldeans fourteen years before this vision. On comparing the Books of Kings and Chronicles with this prophet, we shall find the same dimensions in the parts described by both; for instance, the temple, or place which comprehended the sanctuary, the holy place, and the vestibule or porch before the temple, is found to measure equally the same both in Ezekiel and the Kings. Compare 1 Kings vi. 3-16, with chap. xli. 2, &c. The inside ornaments of the temple are entirely the same; in both we see two courts; an inner one for the priests, and an outer one for the people. Compare 1 Kings vi. 29-36; 2 Chron. iv.9; and chap. xli. 16, 17, and xlviii. 7-10. So that there is room to suppose that, in all the rest, the temple of Ezekiel resembled the old one; and that God’s design in retracing these ideas in the prophet’s memory was to preserve the remembrance of the plan, the dimensions, the ornaments, and whole structure of this Divine edifice; and that at the return from captivity the people might more easily repair it, agreeably to this model. The prophet’s applying himself to describe this edifice was a motive of hope to the Jews of seeing themselves one day delivered from captivity, the temple rebuilt, and their nation restored to its ancient inheritance. Ezekiel touches very slightly upon the description of the temple or house of the Lord, which comprehended the holy place or sanctuary, and which are so exactly described in the Books of Kings. He dwells more largely upon the gates, the galleries, and apartments, of the temple, concerning which the history of the kings had not spoken, or only just taken notice of by the way.”

That the temple which Ezekiel saw was that of Solomon is supported by the Talmud. Concerning the size of its outer court, which were not given in 1 Kings or 2 Chronicles, the Talmud states:

“The Temple Mount measured five hundred cubits by five hundred cubits. Its largest (open) space was to the south, the next largest to the east, the thirds largest to the north, and its smallest (open space) was to the west. …The free space to the south was 265 by 500 cubit, to the east of the inner rectangle was a space of 115 cubit; to the north was a space of 100 cubits; while west of the Temple structure there was only 63 cubits.”

This corresponds exactly to the dimensions of the outer court of the Temple in Ezekiel’s vision.

Concerning the purpose of the vision, Clarke writes:

“The Temple of Jerusalem lying in ruins when Ezekiel had this vision, …the Jews needed consolation. If they were not promised a restoration of the temple, they would not feel so great an interest in returning home. It is thought by some that no model of Solomon’s Temple had remained. To direct them, therefore, in the dimensions, parts, order, and rules of their new temple might be one reason why Ezekiel is so particular in the description of the old; to which the new was conformable in figure and parts, though inferior in magnificence, on account of the poverty of the nation at the time. Whatever was august or illustrious in the prophetic figures, and not literally fulfilled in or near their own times, the ancient Jews properly considered as belonging to the time of the Messiah. Accordingly, upon finding that the latter temple fell short of the model of the temple here described by Ezekiel, they supposed the prophecy to refer, at least in part, to the period now mentioned.”

The views of a present-day student of this passage from Ezekiel are also worth examining. In his article, “Solomon’s Temple was Ezekiel’s Vision”, Michael S. Young asks:

“Can the cubits of Ezekiel correctly dovetail into the cubits of I Kings and II Chronicles? This difficult puzzle of correctly placing the cubits so that all fit has been an extremely complex mystery. This model of Solomon’s Temple uses every verse found in I Kings, II Chronicles and Ezekiel which apply to the 500 x 500 cubit square Temple Mount area. It is the opinion of this patent holder that Ezekiel contains the remaining measurements of Solomon’s Temple.”

Drawing on the above-quoted passage from the Talmud, he continues:

“The original outer courtyard of Solomon’s Temple measured 500 cubits square as is documented by the exhiles [sic] in the Mishna. The Jewish exhiles [sic] who were freed by the Persians returned to Israel to rebuild a Second Temple. When the exhiles [sic] returned they measured the outer courtyard as being 500 cubits square. They did not build the outer courtyard [. T]he 500 cubit square was the remains of the First Temple. This fact dovetails with Ezekiel’s measurements as being Solomon’s Temple [. E]ach had a 500 square outer courtyard. So this means that the original Temple had a courtyard of such dimensions. The only contemporary scholar who recorded that was Ezekiel.”

Concerning the purpose of Ezekiel’s vision, he writes:

“Solomon’s Temple was destroyed in 586 BC. About 13 years later Ezekiel was given the vision of rebuilding the exact same temple which had been destroyed. This vision of rebuilding Solomon’s Temple gave the captives hope during their remaining 50 years of slavery.”

He then conjectures:

“At the end of their captivity the Jews were given their freedom by the Persians. They were stunned to learn that King Cyrus decreed that they could only build a Temple 60 cubits tall. As they were building the 2nd Temple they knew that it would some day be destroyed. That destruction would pave the way so that the Temple of Solomon could stand majestically once again as Ezekiel had promised.”1

Final verdict

Of these two interpretations of Ezekiel’s vision, which are we to choose? For reasons which I will now give, it is my personal belief that only a literal interpretation makes sense of this passage.

Firstly, it is placed directly after the description of what I understand to be that final “war to end all wars” which is popularly referred to as Armageddon, and which would suggest that it describes a situation during that period of human history which immediately follows. This corresponds exactly to the sequence of events as outlined in Haggai. Speaking through the prophet, the LORD of hosts first declares: “Yet once, it is a little while, and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land; and I will shake all nations…” (Hag. 2:6, 7a, AV). Here Haggai describes that end-time invasion of Israel by Gog and his coalition armies as described in Ezekiel 38 and 39. The LORD of hosts then declares: “…and the precious things of all nations shall come; and I will fill this house with glory… . The silver is mine, and the gold is mine… . The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, …and in this place will I give peace… .” (Hag. 2:7b-9, ASV) Here Haggai speaks of the temple which is described in greater detail in Ezekiel chapters 40 to 46.

Secondly, the LORD, through the prophet Haggai, promises the Jews that the glory of their Temple would be greater than that of Solomon. Hitherto, this promise has never been fulfilled, for the simple reason that no temple which has stood on Temple Mount, even that of Herod, has outshone that of Solomon in glory. For the Divine promise recorded in Haggai 2:7-8 to be fulfilled, a Temple, more splendid that than that built by Solomon, must one day be built. Ezekiel describes just such a Temple. The Divine promise recorded in Haggai 2:7-9 cannot be spiritualised. To interpret it in any sense other than in its plain literal sense would render it meaningless to those to whom it was given.

Although I am not a dispensationalist, I happily subscribe to what dispensationalist commentators call “the single hermeneutic principal”. Simply stated, this is as follows: “If the plain literal sense of a passage of Scripture makes obvious sense, interpret it in that literal sense.” Applied consistently, this principle means that we cannot “spiritualise” those passages of Scripture which do not fit in with our preconceived theological presuppositions or which, to use an American expression, we do not “feel comfortable with”, while interpreting all other passages of Scripture which admit of a literal interpretation in their plain literal sense. If we are to interpret Ezekiel chapters 40 to 46 in their literal sense—and, if we are consistently to apply this principle, we must—then what Ezekiel is describing in this passage is a future rebuilt emple in Jerusalem.

It is important at this point to state my belief that the sacrifices which, according to this interpretation, will be offered once again on Temple Mount can have no saving power, the one and only sacrifice which can provide satisfaction for sin having been offered once and for all upon the cross at Calvary, and will be purely memorial in nature, just as those of the Old Testament were anticipatory.

Lastly, it should perhaps be emphasized that there is no mention in Scripture of translated and resurrected saints participating in sacrifices in a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem. Participation in the sacrifices will probably be limited to those inhabitants of the earth who survive the events of the last days of the present dispensation and who go on in their natural bodies to repopulate the earth during the millennium.

Those commentators who subscribe to a literal interpretation of this portion of the book of Ezekiel point to Christ’s words recorded in Luke 22:15-18 in support of the view that the Passover will be observed following the establishment of Christ’s kingdom on earth at his Second Coming. Those who reject this interpretation “spiritualise” Christ’s words as they do the present passage.

1. He also observes: “Along the Eastern Wall of the Temple Mount near the Northern end of the wall there is an underlying layer of pre-Herodian stone which displays a corner of a very old wall protruding out. Archaeologist Leen Ritmeyer has called this unique corner spot the ‘offset’. It is clearly an older protrusion of an existing wall and corner upon which King Herod had his masons built [sic] a new wall. Could this ‘offset’ have been the original NE corner of the outer courtyard of Solomon’s Temple?” Commenting on a picture of Solomon’s Temple which, with its inner and outer courts fits snugly onto the present-day Temple Mount, he says: “In this picture the Northeast corner of the outer courtyard of Solomon’s Temple is placed at the ‘offset’. The results of this is, the Rock (which is in the Dome of the Rock Mosque) fits smack dab in the center of the Main Temple of the model. Using any other location North or South on the Eastern Wall the Rock under the Mosque does not fit in the Main Hall of the Temple where it probably once sat. So possibly this ‘offset’ might have served as the original NE corner of Solomon’s Temple. “Furthermore when the North East corner of Solomon’s Temple is placed at this ‘offset’ location the Laver (Molten Sea or Brass Sea) where the priest’s [sic] wash their hands, lines up directly above the largest underground cistern # 5 as noted by Charles Warren in his ‘Plans, Elevations, Sections for the Palestine Exploration Fund’. Possibly the Molten Sea wash basin was located directly above the long cistern # 5 so that water could have been drawn directly above and into the Molten Laver.”He also observes: “An often over looked [sic] fact when the Second Temple was built it was not erected on the original foundation stones of the First Temple. A new set of foundation stones was laid for the Second Temple which were to the North of the original Temple. Unlike the First Temple the Mishna confirms that the Second Temple was built off-centred to the square by at least 35-50 cubits to the North West. Which means the old foundation stones might have remained in order to some day rebuild the Temple which Ezekiel promised that they would. Both Temples were located upon the raised platform of the inner courtyard, which was centered within the original 500-cubit courtyard. But approximately 35-50 cubits apart. Because the Second Temple was not built on the original foundation this created uneven spaces in the outer courtyard. Historians have noted this fact.”

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