Studies in Ezekiel No. 34


Ezekiel 43:13-46:24

After what amounts to something of an interruption in the narrative of Ezekiel’s tour of the eschatological temple – remember, he was taken by the angel to see its various gates, courts, rooms, and the sanctuary itself – an interruption to behold the glory of the Lord returning to the temple, the tour is then resumed. Next Ezekiel is shown the altar, but not merely given to see it, as before he was given to see the various parts of the temple. He is also told how the priests are to consecrate this altar. What is the point of having a temple if it cannot be used for the worship of the Lord and to foster the holiness of the people? The Lord is not, like the pagan gods, interested in his temple as a place where he will enjoy basking in the glory of his surroundings. What he desires is fellowship with his people and their purity and holiness. And, again unlike the pagan peoples around them, Israel is not guessing what the gods will look upon with favor. The divine expectations are made clear. [Block, ii, 612] Once again, we are taking this material in large blocks. There is a great deal of fascinating detail in these chapters, but we are taking them as a whole with a view to their great interest.

Text Comment:

I will read only a few representative verses, especially those that begin new sections.

v.13

“If the presence of Yahweh is the sine qua non for the temple to function, another essential premise is a properly dedicated altar, on which the regular rites of worship may be carried out.” [Allen, ii, 258] This paragraph forms a transition to the next section in which the emphasis falls not so much on the appearance of things but on the regulations that will govern the worship of this new temple.

44:3

This is the first mention of “the prince,” who will be mentioned frequently in the material that follows, primarily in connection with his role in the worship of the temple.

v. 5

The verses that follow concern Israel’s past failures to respect the holiness and glory of God by their violations of the regulations governing its worship.

44:10

The rest of chapter 44 deals with the personnel of the temple: the Levites (the non-priestly temple attendants) and the priests themselves.

v.17

What follows are various regulations governing the priests; these regulations are concerned with the holiness of the priests. Interestingly, there is no mention of a high priest in any of this material.

v.24

The ministry of the priests as preacher/teachers and as rulers of the people is described.

45:1

The first eight verses of chapter 45 provide a summary of the material given in greater detail in 48:1-22. These verses concern the maintenance of the priesthood and so the worship of the temple.

v.8

There will be justice in the land: private land will be protected from royal confiscation. The king will rule justly and for the sake of the people, not himself. The verses that follow continue this theme of honest dealing.

v.13

The next section, to the end of the chapter specifies the offerings to be made and the feasts to be celebrated in the new temple. These are similar to but not identical to the regulations in the Law of Moses.

46:1

The same theme continues in the first eight verses of chapter 46. While in the second half of chapter 45 the annual celebrations were listed, now we come to the more regular ones: the Sabbath and the new moon.

v.12

Now are listed some other public services and then the daily offerings.

It is not difficult to understand where the dispensationalist interpreters got their idea that in the millennium, in their view, the thousand year reign of Christ on earth following his Second Coming, the temple would be rebuilt, the Jewish priesthood reconstituted, and the worship of temple and sacrifice reinstituted under the direct authority of the Prince, namely, Jesus himself.

Mainstream Protestants often poured scorn on this scheme for the wrong reason. They argued that since Christ had already shed his blood for our sin the revival of an altar and blood sacrifice in the millennium would be an affront to the finished work of Christ, an affront not unlike that of the Roman Catholic mass in which Christ’s sacrifice is said to be repeated over and over again. But the sacrificial ritual of the temple service was and had always been, in fact, evangelical worship and nothing else. The fact that the apostles, including the apostle Paul, continued to participate in that worship years after the death and resurrection of the Lord indicates as powerfully as can be imagined that there was nothing incompatible between true faith in Christ and his finished work and that temple worship. Indeed, we must say that only the true Christian could participate in that worship with sincerity, understanding, and conviction. Fact is, the Lord removed the worship of that temple in A.D. 70, but not because there was something wrong with it. It may no longer have suited the life of the church, largely Gentile and international as it became, but there was never anything wrong with that worship when rightly practiced.

But there are any number of reasons to think that what is being described here is not a renewal of Jewish temple worship in the millennium.

  1. We have already said that the New Testament understands such prophesies of Israel’s renewal in terms of the future of the world-wide church, Jew and Gentile alike. We Gentiles are included in the vision of the future reported here in terms familiar to Ezekiel’s Jewish audience. It is not part of a prophecy of the nation of Israel’s eventual physical and spiritual prosperity to be experienced in Palestine. The vision is much larger than that.
  2. The theological reason asserted by dispensationalists for a peculiarly Jewish millennium and a peculiarly Jewish worship in the millennium – such as they claim Ezekiel is prophesying here – is that God has separate and distinct programs for the Jews and the Gentile church. The distinction between Israel and the church is the lynchpin of their theological system. The dispensationalist doctrine of the rapture of the church is founded on this assumption. The church must be removed from the scene so as to leave the way clear for the Lord to begin dealing again with the Jews according to that way distinctive to them (Promised Land, Jerusalem, temple, sacrifice, and king). But such a distinction seems impossible to maintain given the evidence of the New Testament. There is one olive tree, one kingdom of God, one church, and one future for the church, the Israel of God.
  3. What is more the use of the imagery of Ezekiel 40-48 in the book of Revelation very much does not support the dispensational distinction between the future of the Jews in the salvation of God and the future of the Gentile church. All of that imagery taken up into the vision that John was given is used to describe a single future for all the people of God.
  4. As with the temple itself, there are features of these regulations that suggest that what we are being given here is an idealized picture of the future, not a literal description of future events in a future temple.

But if these elaborate descriptions of temple worship, of priestly service, of sacrifice, tithes and offerings are not a prophecy of such a reconstitution of Jewish worship in the Promised Land at some future time, what are they? How are we to understand all of this material?

We said last time that the temple, as it appears in Ezekiel’s vision, is a “map of holiness.” Or we might say it is a material embodiment of holiness or a picture of holiness. Every detail – and there are a host of very interesting details in this account – serves this purpose. The palace could not stand next door to the temple any longer. The temple could no longer stand in the center of the city. This temple is not placed in the center of the city as was the old temple. Pagans may no longer do guard duty at the temple, as if it were merely an extension of the palace. The inner court was to be reserved to the priesthood; the people careful to remain in the outer court. The priests were to reflect in their public work and in their personal lives the holiness of God. They were to take care to keep the needs of the people’s relationship with God in the forefront of their concern. The empty temple complex of chapters 40-42 now becomes alive with the action of worship and of the concourse between Yahweh and his people, conducted in just that way appropriate to their approach to a holy God. The glory of the Lord has invested in the temple and its activity a vitalizing force. To keep all of this going, care is taken to ensure that the temple is properly staffed, its personnel are provided all necessary support, and that the acts of worship performed in the temple are performed precisely as they ought to be. All day long and all through the year the temple bustles with just the right activity. It is all supported, and willingly, by the people’s tithes and offerings and those of the prince.

As we said before, what we have here is an ideal worship depicted in the forms that were understandable and meaningful to Ezekiel’s contemporaries. The service of the temple was the center of their life as the people of God; it stood for their relationship with God and all the blessing of that. That was what made the loss of the temple so catastrophic and what made the vision of its renewal so powerful and full of hope for the people. As I said last time, Americans would feel similarly about the catastrophic destruction of her great buildings in Washington D.C. and about their being rebuilt better than ever.

And so what is the overarching impression of this material? It is very clearly this: Yahweh will have drawn near to his people, but in accepting this great privilege they must be reverent, respectful of his holiness. Even the kitchens in the four corners of the outer court, where Ezekiel’s tour of the temple ends, betray this double interest. These kitchens in the outer court, by the way, are not mentioned with respect to the design of the tabernacle or Solomon’s temple. In dramatic contrast to the temple services of Ancient Near East paganism, where the table was set primarily for the deity, Yahweh invited his people to eat at his own table. When you came to Yahweh’s house, you feasted with the living God. At the same time, however, you had to revere the Lord and acknowledge his great holiness. The people could eat at the temple, but only in the outer court. [Block, ii, 686] The priests who came still closer to the Lord had to take further steps to ensure that they did not in any way transgress the divine holiness.

The Lord draws near; he invites his people to come near to him; but he does not cease to be the God of terrible holiness and his people must revere him and look to their own holiness accordingly. This map of holiness we have been given reveals at one and the same time the transcendence and the immanence of Yahweh; reveals that the Lord is both near us and remains far above us and beyond us.

Finding our place both near to God and far from him is one way to describe the great challenge of your life and mine. On the one hand, terrific forces nowadays work against our maintaining in our hearts any living sense of God’s holiness. Perhaps no line in all of Holy Scripture more perfectly describes the culture in which we live than that “there is no fear of God before their eyes.” Listen to this from David Wells, who you may remember preaching here some years ago, long-time associate first of John Stott, then of Francis Schaeffer and L’abri, and for years now a professor of theology.

It is…the holiness of God…without which the Cross of Christ is incomprehensible, that provides the light that exposes modernity’s darkness for what it is. For modernity has emptied life of serious moral purpose. Indeed, it empties people of the capacity to see the world in moral terms, and this, in turn, closes their access to reality, for reality is fundamentally moral. God’s holiness is fundamental to who he is and what he has done. And the key to it all has been the loss of God’s otherness, not least in his holiness, beneath the forms of modern piety. Evangelicals turned from focusing on God’s transcendence to focusing on his immanence – and then they took the further step of interpreting his immanence as friendliness with modernity.

The loss of the traditional vision of God as holy is now manifested everywhere in the evangelical world. It is the key to understanding why sin and grace have become such empty terms. What depth or meaning…can these terms have except in relation to the holiness of God? Divorced fro the holiness of God, sin is merely self-defeating behavior or a breach in etiquette. Divorced from the holiness of God, grace is merely empty rhetoric, pious window dressing for the modern techniques by which sinners work out their own salvation. Divorced from the holiness of God, our Gospel becomes indistinguishable from any of a host of alternative self-help doctrines. Divorced from the holiness of God our public morality is reduced to little more than an accumulation of trade-offs between competing private interests. Divorced from the holiness of God, our worship becomes mere entertainment. The holiness of God is the very cornerstone of Christian faith, for it is the foundation of reality. Sin is defiance of God’s holiness, the Cross is the outworking and victory of God’s holiness, and faith is the recognition of God’s holiness. Knowing that God is holy is therefore the key to knowing life as it truly is, knowing Christ as he truly is, knowing why he came, and knowing how life will end.

It is this God, majestic and holy in his being, this God whose love knows no bounds because his holiness knows no limits, who has disappeared from the modern evangelical mind. [No Place for Truth, 300]

You know very well, don’t you, how true that is; how accurate a description of the modern mind, the modern evangelical mind, and far too much of your mind and mine. We would never admit this, but we think of God far too much as a kindly uncle and imagine that he isn’t really all that offended by the things we say and do that contradict his holiness. Very few people nowadays really fear his wrath or revere his holiness. Most people believe in God but few people fear him. People are always saying what God would and would not do, as if God were somehow subject to their ethics, their whims, their wants. There is no sense that God is to be feared and that we must submit to him or else. We live in a world that has made such fears seem preposterous. But Ezekiel is reminding us here how carefully even the people of God must serve the Lord; how circumspectly they must live before him; how constantly attuned they must be to the divine holiness. That is the burden of all of this detail in the chapters of Ezekiel that we have read.

Think of this. Our view of Jesus Christ has, understandably, been shaped primarily by the account of his life and work that we are given in the Gospels. We think of him as accessible, approachable, friendly, and he is all of those things. We think of John leaning his head on the Savior’s chest at the Last Supper, an image that has burned itself into the Christian mind through Christian art and hymnody. And so we sing, in John Keble’s matchless hymn, Son of My Soul, Thou Savior Dear

When the soft dews of kindly sleep
my weary eyelids gently steep,
Be my last thought, how sweet to rest
forever on my Savior’s breast.

But will we repeat John’s experience? Will we ever know Jesus in the way in which he is revealed to us in the Gospels? It does not seem so. When he was in the world the Lord’s glory was hidden. It was so completely hidden that he was not only not recognized as God the Son, he was not finally thought to be even a good man by the largest number of people who knew him or knew of him. But when we see him next, in Revelation 1, revealed in his fullness as the God-Man, his glory is on display and John tells us that at the sight of him, far from running to put his head on his chest once again, “I fell at his feet as though dead.” He did not love the Lord Jesus any less, but he feared him more. That is inevitable. Such is God and his majesty and holiness and such are we, mere creatures. No man can see God and live. The Bible says that many different ways. It is a truth all of us should roll around in our minds from time to time. No man can even see God and live! The Lord’s humiliation is behind him. He is the exalted Son of God. We will never be with Jesus or near him in heaven when we are not under the strong impressions of his majesty. We will see him, because he is a man, but his divine glory will somehow, to some degree be visible to us and that will leave us always under powerful impressions: fear, amazement, intoxication, fascination, attraction and repulsion at one and the same time. We will never grow “familiar” with the Lord, any more than a man can become “familiar” with the heat of the sun. We do not think about this often enough! We find it easy to see John leaning against the Lord. We find ourselves remembering less often his falling to his face as though dead before the exalted Christ.

And it is only when we realize that, when we take to heart the glory and holiness and majesty of God, that we can begin to appreciate what an extraordinary thing it is that the living God should deign to invite us into his presence and how carefully and circumspectly we ought to enter that presence.

We said last time that most people do not long for the presence of God. They do not think about it at all as the be all and end all of life. Quite the contrary. They imagine that God’s presence would be dark and foreboding. In the same way most people do not have a positive view of holiness, even God’s holiness. Holiness is for prudes, for sticklers, for the uptight, the judgmental. Holiness is boring! Heaven, where everyone is holy all the time, Somerset Maugham said, “is apt to be dull.” But that is because, as with the presence of God, they have never seen it or experienced its power. Holiness is, in fact, the most beautiful thing in the world.

You have had experience of this; I certainly have. You have encountered holiness and been mesmerized by it, attracted to it, beguiled by it. Perhaps you encountered a very kind person, generous in speech and in action. Or you had occasion to witness someone respond to a real temptation with grace, courage, and fortitude. Or you had the opportunity to see someone’s humility on display. You can perhaps remember how impressed you have sometimes been by a person’s character, his or her manner, the goodness of his or her life. You have perhaps even wondered if that person is that good all the time; surely he must lose his temper; surely she must gossip sometimes; and so on. But there is no doubt that you admired what you saw in that person. You thought to yourself that you would like to be more like him or her.

And it will be far, far more the case when we see more fully the holiness of God, or, better, when we are made conscious of it. It is exquisitely beautiful this holiness. It is everything we have ever admired or loved to the nth degree. We will be moved by it in every wonderful way. We won’t want to take our eyes away from it, but we will also be conscious of how far, far beyond us God is in his very nature as well as in his character and his essential qualities. We will admire it but stand amazed before it. We will find ourselves drawn to it and unable to approach it at one and the same time. We fear and we rejoice at once, like the women leaving the tomb Easter Sunday morning.

There is everywhere and always people’s idea – the Devil implants it in our hearts – that holiness makes you less valuable to others, less loving, less concerned and sympathetic. But, of course, it is the reverse. God’s holiness led him to reach out to the unworthy and to secure their life at terrible cost to himself. And it is a fact of biblical history and church history that when people come face to face with the holiness of God and begin to thirst for that holiness themselves, they immediately and inevitably become concerned to bring others to the same experience and the same knowledge. They become other-centered to an unusual degree.

I told you last time that I have been reading a biography of William Grimshaw, the Great Awakening pastor of Haworth in Yorkshire. As the Holy Spirit in the opening years of the Great Awakening fell on Grimshaw’s ministry in Haworth men and women were awakened for the first time suddenly in large numbers without any apparent change in the means God was employing before and after but they were awakened first and foremost to the realization of “the offensiveness of sin to a holy God…” [Cook, William Grimshaw, 60.] Before they even came to a real conviction about the grace and mercy of God in Jesus Christ they came in large numbers first to a realization of the offensiveness of their lives to a holy God. One farmer attended the suddenly crowded services out of curiosity and he found himself and God in that service. But he was suddenly, as a result, concerned for his wife, whom he loved, and whom he knew did not know God or take seriously her sin against God or his holiness. He reasoned with her and pled with her, but much as she noticed the change that had come over her husband, she remained unmoved. One Sunday morning, after a number of Sundays pleading with her to attend church with him and she refusing, he announced to her that he would not go without her and told her that if she wouldn’t agree to go he would force her to go. She adamantly refused.

So he dressed her against her will, took a rod and promised to smack her on the backside every time she hesitated to walk beside him to church. They lived six miles from the church and walked all the way there. She later described the morning walk this way: “He drove me as men drive a beast to market; I went calling and abusing Mr. Grimshaw all the way.” Yet the service undid her spirit of rebellion, she fell under the conviction of her sin and the holiness of God, and the next Sunday went to church readily on her own initiative. Her home would eventually be used by Mr. Grimshaw as a preaching post in that outer neighborhood and she became one of his longest and most loyal hearers. Her bitterness toward God and man was replaced with happy love and an eager interest that others should come to know the reality of human sin and divine holiness and divine grace as she had. [61-62]

Nowadays we’re are likely to hear a story like that and think of it as an instance of abuse, or a husband battering his wife. But the wife never saw it that way. She loved her husband for what he had done because she came to see God as her husband had first seen him, holy and gracious. To people who know of the holiness of God and of his just judgment of sin in the world to come, this is a beautiful story of a man who loved his wife too much to allow her to remain in the dark about reality as he now knew that reality. Seeing the greatness and holiness of God, fearing him but also attracted to the wonder of his grace and mercy to sinners, had made him a different man and made him care about others in a way he had never before. Taking God seriously, taking his holiness seriously changes human beings in every good way and makes them bolder and more loving at one and the same time.

We find it difficult to take in this vision of a renewed temple and its worship because it is so alien to us. If, however, the prophet Ezekiel had forecast the future in terms of a church service like the church services familiar to us and had talked about the feelings we would all have in the presence of the Lord, and what it would be like to be overcome by the knowledge of his nearness, and the exuberant way in which we would sing our hymns to God and the joy we would feel in being shoulder to shoulder with other believers who felt as we did, and how our lives would be renewed by the grace of God; how we would see our entire life, as it were, compressed in a magnificent, powerful service of worship and the sacrament and the word, we would understand that very well. We are our very best when at worship and we see our lives most clearly there. Our lives are compressed in a well-ordered church service and when we are really participating in that worship life is clear to us in a way it often otherwise is not. It would be very easy for us to sort out what Ezekiel was telling us about the future. This vision was, in that very way, not at all alien to the Jews to whom Ezekiel reported his vision. Ezekiel’s readers I’m sure read this as he intended them to read it as a picture of a new world, a world that is finally put right; a world in which God is both loved and revered, in which he is both near to us and far above us; and in which we rejoice in both realities, in which his holiness is found to be the captivating thing it really is and so his people try in every way to reflect that holiness in their own lives, becoming more beautiful as they do. It is a map of reality as reality ought to be and as it some day will be. It is supposed to encourage us – this vision – encourage us in the recognition of things to come; to challenge us with its vision of God in his holiness; and to draw us up into that reality of holiness and beauty.