We are considering Ezekiel’s prophesies of Israel’s restoration. We have pointed out so far that they are generalized accounts of the future glory and victory of the kingdom of God. There are certainly specific predictions of the Jews’ return to Jerusalem from Babylon. Jeremiah said that their exile would last 70 years. There are such predictions in Ezekiel. But we are now speaking of these prophesies of Israel’s glorious future, a restoration to greatness as the people and kingdom of God. We noticed that, according to the New Testament’s use of these prophesies, this restoration of Israel in the Promised Land began to be fulfilled in the Gentile mission – the building of the kingdom of God with believers from every tongue, tribe, and nation – and will be consummated in a future age of salvation for Jews and Gentiles alike at the end of history. The New Testament, in other words, does not take these prophesies of the restoration of Israel to greatness as the people of God as a forecast of the rebuilding of the ethnic nation of Israel in Palestine. By the express teaching of the New Testament we Gentile believers belong to the Israel that is being restored and our Promised Land is not Canaan but the kingdom of God into which the Lord Jesus has given us entrance by his Spirit. We pointed out how these chapters, especially 38 and 39, are taken up into the account of the history of God’s kingdom in the world and of its consummation that we are given in the book of Revelation and noted how in that last book of the Bible these geographically specific prophesies in Ezekiel had become cosmic and universal in their scope. No longer do we read about a few individual nations of the ancient Near East, as in Ezekiel 38-39, but all the kingdoms of this world ranged against the kingdom of God and the Lord winning a great victory over them all on behalf of his people. And yet the vision is clearly understood to be the same in Revelation as in Ezekiel.
We continue with this same theme in the text we take up tonight. Those of you who know the book of Ezekiel may have wondered if I were planning to work my way through this vision of a new temple verse by verse and paragraph by paragraph, considering in turn the walls, the courts, the gates, the rooms and so on. Not to worry. I plan to take the last section of Ezekiel, chapters 40-48 in large chunks and the first of those chunks tonight. I won’t read the entire text but give you instead an overview.
The final nine chapters of the book of Ezekiel are a great vision of the future of Jerusalem and Israel presented in terms of an idealized temple and Promised Land. We take up the three chapters describing the temple tonight.
- The date is April 28, 573 B.C. The vision given to Israel is dated fourteen years after the fall of Jerusalem. As to the reason why it should be given in the twenty-fifth year after the exile of Jehoiachin (and Ezekiel), some have suggested that we take note of two matters. First, you will find the number 25 and its multiples frequently in the description of the temple that follows. Second, 25 is half of fifty, the number of years in the Jubilee cycle. Remember, every 50th year, on the Day of Atonement, the horn was to be blown throughout the land proclaiming release for all enslaved Israelites. [Lev. 25:9-10] [Block, ii, 512] Ezekiel mentions this custom in 46:17. Twenty-five would then mark the turning point, the point at which one no longer looks back – in this case to the catastrophe of the exile – but forward to the people’s restoration to their homeland.
But the vision was also given at the beginning of the year which invites comparison with Exodus 12:2 where we read that the beginning of the year – rosh hashana – commemorated Israel’s deliverance from bondage in Egypt. It was also the time of an elaborate annual celebration in Babylon celebrating the enthronement of Marduk and ensuring success on the nation’s endeavors in the coming year. [Block, ii, 496] The Babylonians, of course, saw the events that had unfolded, their conquest of Israel, as a demonstration of Marduk’s superiority over Yahweh. The vision given to Ezekiel demonstrates the opposite. The Lord will accomplish his will for the sake of his covenant and his people and no false god can stand in his way. Further, Exodus 12:3 indicates that the tenth day of the first month was to be the beginning of the Passover week.
- Now, what follows is an elaborate description of the great temple of this city. When the Babylonians destroyed the temple in 586 B.C. they razed it to the bedrock. When it was rebuilt after the exile, so we read in Ezra 3, even a new foundation had to be laid. For the Jews, for whom the temple was such an important symbol of their identity and of God’s presence among them, its destruction was a catastrophe the extent of which we have great difficulty appreciating today. But it is not so hard for us to imagine what it would do to our sense of our place in the world if a foreign power conquered us and blew up and then bulldozed the White House, the Capital, the Lincoln and Washington Memorials, and the other prominent buildings that epitomize our national life, its history, and its institutions. We would feel, I’m sure, that our life as Americans had come to an end and in the future we would be something else. Remember too, as you read through this elaborate description – a description we can find quite boring – that this was the day before books with photographs, such as we take entirely for granted. You needed the detail to form the picture in your mind!
I was in New York City a few days ago and, standing at the top of the Empire State Building, what does a tourist do? He looks for the buildings that he recognizes: there is the Chrysler building, there is Madison Square Garden, there is Grand Central Station, there is the Brooklyn Bridge, there is the Statue of Liberty, and so on. All very impressive. Well something like that is going on here. A great building is being described, a building that would mean a great deal to this dispirited people, a building that would represent a magnificent reversal of their fortunes.
So the angel will show Ezekiel this magnificent complex, with its courts, outer and inner, its gates, its various rooms, and its sanctuary.
Now, one way to look at these chapters is as a prophecy of the rebuilding of an actual temple in Jerusalem at some point in the future. When I was a boy, we heard from time to time that the stones for the rebuilding of the temple had actually been ordered or that plans were being made to raze the Dome of the Rock, the Muslim mosque that now sits on the temple mount, so as to replace it with the new temple. That would be the sign, we were told, that prophecy was being fulfilled and the end of history was upon us because Ezekiel long ago prophesied that a new temple was to be built in Jerusalem. But there are many reasons arising from the biblical text itself not to understand these chapters in that way. Let me mention some of them to you.
- First, a point is made at the outset that this is a vision. These nine chapters, in fact, are the longest vision report we have in the Bible outside the book of Revelation. These chapters are, in that way, like the remarkable scenes of the divine glory that Ezekiel was given to see in the opening chapters of the book. They are, in other words, not a travel agent’s brochure of the city that someday will be, but a dramatic representation of reality. The valley of dry bones was a similar sort of revelation. The Lord took Ezekiel by the Spirit to see that valley and to see the dry bones lying there come alive. We are obviously not meant to suppose that there was a literal valley full of bones and that it became alive with a vast host of human beings who then went on to live ordinary lives. But that was the vision that Ezekiel was given to see; a vision that represented the future spiritual resurrection of the people of God accomplished by the power of God.
- This first point is then confirmed by the statement in v. 2 that Ezekiel was taken to a very high mountain in Israel. This is imagery common in the Old Testament. Every God had a mountain and the higher the better. The idea of a high mountain as the place where God dwells and from which his blessings flow has already been mentioned twice in Ezekiel (17:22; 20:40) and in the same figurative way. There was and is no very high mountain in Israel. But there was in Ezekiel’s vision. You’ll notice that the city is not named. We may assume that Ezekiel means us to understand that he is looking at Jerusalem, but he never says so. But there is no high mountain immediately to the north of Jerusalem.
- The design of the temple itself is highly stylized or idealized: its dimensions are dominated by multiples of five, with twenty-five a common number. Everything is exactly proportioned. It reminds us of the description of the heavenly Jerusalem given in Revelation 21, a description so fabulous it is really impossible for us to visualize.
- But as the description continues past the temple into that of the river that flows out from under the threshold of the temple itself – itself hard to visualize according to the description of the temple in chapters 40-43 (which description makes no provision for a river running through the courts and gates) – through the Judean desert, the river increasing dramatically in depth and width as it goes, turning the desert into a lush paradise and the waters of the Dead Sea into a fresh water lake teeming with fish, bordered by trees that never drop their leaves and bear fruit every month of the year; I say, as the description continues it become clearer and clearer that this is an idealized picture of unimaginable beauty, prosperity, and completeness. It is very like the description of heaven that we are given in Revelation 21 and 22, with much of the same imagery shared between them: fruit bearing trees, a beautiful river, a magnificent city, and twelve gates with a gate for each of the tribes of Israel, and so on.
Now if you were to depict a future time of triumph for the kingdom of God in the world, how would you do it? No doubt, given the fact that you had not been given a literal depiction of that situation – and, for whatever reason, the Lord never gives us that; perhaps because we could not really grasp it – you would use images that were known to you and those you were writing for. You would depict the future, in other words, in terms of the present. That is what everyone must do and that is what the biblical prophets did. Mountains were sacred symbols in the ancient world. Ezekiel’s audience understood that symbolism. The mountain symbolized God’s victory over the chaos – an important part of ancient mythology, the myth no doubt deriving from the historical fact of the Lord’s dividing the land from the water at creation and setting a boundary for the seas. This imagery is everywhere in the Bible too: we read of the Lord standing above the floods (e.g. Psalm 29:10) and that is the idea being communicated. It is the Lord’s control over nature. The mountain also symbolized access to heaven. In Egypt when the priests would open the gates of the temple, they would say, “the gates of heaven are opened.” That imagery lies behind the importance of such expressions in the Psalms and elsewhere, such as Isaiah 26:2: “Open the gates that the righteous nation may enter…” The mountain also symbolized God’s presence on earth. So we read in Psalm 48:1-3:
“Great is the Lord, and most worthy of praise, in the city of our God, his holy mountain. It is beautiful in its loftiness, the joy of the whole earth. Like the utmost heights of Siphon is Mount Zion, the city of the Great King.”
In other words, the biblical writers expressed spiritual states and described the people’s glorious future in the accepted terminology of their culture – purified from its pagan overtones – and by use of the symbols that contained and conveyed most powerful and emotively the impressions they wished to make on the hearts of the people. And it is interesting to me that, for all the changes from that culture to our own, it is not at all hard for us to understand how this works and how such symbols serve such purposes.
I mentioned the famous buildings of New York City. The buildings are much of what that city is famous for. They are what tourists want to see because they associate New York with its famous buildings. We went to an opera at the Met and stood next to the famous fountain in the courtyard, the fountain that you have seen in so many pictures and feature films. We walked through Grand Central Station, with its magnificent vaulted ceiling, the impression of space so dramatically conveyed by the architecture. We took a tour of Ellis Island a week ago Saturday and even the pedestrian functions of the immigration department were conducted in a splendid building. Why even the men’s room was adorned with marble! We associate power and prestige with grand buildings. They are some of the most evocative symbols of greatness that we know. That is why the terrorists targeted the World Trade Center. The twin towers stood as a symbol of the country and its business and culture. They expressed our nation’s pride and self-confidence. To bring them down was an enormous symbolic victory. No one would know about the Empire State Building except for its magnificent height, for some years the tallest building in the world. No more. It was surpassed many times in recent years because builders wanted to have built and cities wanted to own the tallest building of all; and the folk in Dubai are ensuring that their new building will be the tallest for a long time to come. It’s twice the height of the Empire State Building and, when finally completed, will be a thousand feet taller than the next highest building. I say again, buildings represent a people’s prestige, power, and greatness.
And it was so in the ancient world. Some of their constructions still leave us awestruck. The Pyramids in Egypt, for example, are still among the most amazing structures in the world. They are just graves. There was no need to make them so great, apart from the glory and prestige their size and complexity represent and convey. And among the great buildings of the ancient world, temples were first and foremost. The temple of Aton at Karnak was enormous; far, far larger than the Gothic cathedrals of medieval Europe. The pillars of that temple were so immense that it takes eleven adult men holding hands to encircle one of them. And though Solomon’s temple was nowhere near as large, when it was built it was unquestionably the most magnificent building in the world. It dominated the imagination of every loyal Israelite, in much the same way those Gothic cathedrals overwhelmed the ordinary citizen of the European towns and cities in which they were located, dominating the skyline and looming far above all the other buildings around it. Those cathedrals were the largest thing they had ever seen by far. And they were sanctuaries where God came to receive worship. Churches no longer have that active place in our culture, alas, but other buildings and even old churches do. Take the Eiffel tower, Notre Dame, and the Arc de Triumph out of Paris and the city would be dramatically diminished. Take the Coliseum, St. Peter’s, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, and the Pantheon out of Rome and you would cut the number of visitors to the city dramatically. Well think of the Jerusalem temple in the same way for the Jews. The temple was their great building and greater still because it was the sanctuary of Yahweh, the living God, the Creator of heaven and earth, the embodiment of his presence with his people.
And so when Ezekiel was given a vision of Israel’s restoration and of her glorious future, it was entirely natural that he should be shown a new temple, perfect in every way. Her greatest building is pictured as rebuilt and made still more magnificent. No Israelite would need to have explained to him the significance of that! The other features of the description are of the same type. In a dry land, as Palestine is – it is why, by the way, all the people’s worship in the ancient temple and in this idealized future temple is conducted out of doors. It doesn’t often rain in Palestine! – it is natural that a great river of cold, clear, fresh water would be a powerful way to picture a great measure of the Lord’s blessing. The fact that the river flows from under the threshold of the temple was a powerful and beautiful way of expressing the fact that this wonderful situation would be the Lord’s doing.
So prophecy takes its coloring from the historical circumstances of the writer. The future is depicted in terms of the time. Israel’s understanding of right worship is used to depict an age of right worship for the people of God. As it happens the specific forms of that worship will have changed, quite dramatically in fact, but it will be right worship and that fact was expressed in terms that would be meaningful to Ezekiel and to the people to whom he would report his vision. In his revelation God is always accommodating himself to the capacities of his audience; and that is what he is doing here. But since it was clear that the future would be far beyond anything they could imagine, they “supercharged” the symbols and forms in which they depicted the future. So the future temple is perfect and ideal in every way. The river that runs from Jerusalem is deep and wide, as if it would flow gradually down the 2000 feet or more in the few miles it would run from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea and the floor of the desert. That is not a geographically literal reality. The drop in elevation is too rapid and too extreme. It would be more a waterfall than a river. This is the kind of thing John does in Revelation. The city he describes is gold yet clear as crystal. We hardly know what that means or how to picture it. His point is to overwhelm our imagination and make us realize that the Lord has something in store for the world and for his people that is far beyond what we can imagine.
That is what we have before us tonight: the picture of a magnificent future, with the kingdom of God restored and triumphant, and the great host of God’s people offering him the glad worship of their hearts.
Alright; enough about the ideal temple with its courts, rooms, sanctuary, and altar. We get the point of the elaborate depiction of this great building, designed for the worship of the great God and to make real his presence among his people. How are we to apply this vision to our own situation today? That is the question?
And the answer is simple enough. In all the discouragements of our lives – for that matter, in all the happiest times of our lives – we are to have before us, beckoning us onward this grand vision of the impossibly great days that lie ahead for the people of God and the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ. Nothing remains the same; nothing has the same meaning when it is viewed sub specie aeternitatis, from the vantage point of the glorious consummation of the kingdom of God. The worst day of your life and the best day of your life all mean something very different when you understand them, really understand them, and in your heart you view them, as another day on your way to this glorious future. I have told you before many times that our worst problem, yours and mine, is our failure of faith, our failure really to believe, to be certain of the fulfillment of the promises that the Lord has made to us. And this is the greatest of all his promises: that a life of following Jesus Christ will eventually land us in a time and place where we will be badly bruised up and down each arm from the constant pinching of ourselves; “Can it be true that I am really here?”
You may say, but that future may not be realized for generations. How can it comfort, console, and inspire me now? How can it be a real balm in my sorrows and a real spur to higher things? But think. The fact that this glorious consummation may be long years distant – I don’t say that it is; only that it may be – should no more matter to you than that Christ’s death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead lie now nearly 2000 years in the past. The moral and spiritual weight of the sight of him upon his cross and of him ascending to heaven we all know are a living power in any Christian’s life. If events so far in the distant past can exercise that sort of power and command in our hearts, why not an event an equal distance, or even greater in the future? Indeed, as we contemplate the consummation, whether in the form it is described here in Ezekiel, or in Revelation, all sense of distance and remoteness should disappear, as they do when we look back to Christ’s incarnation, his ministry, his death, his resurrection, and his return to heaven.
I don’t actually think it’s the distance that defeats us. It is the want of consideration, meditation, and reflection on this glorious future that defeats us. We are mesmerized by the present – its good and its bad – and do not practice our faith in the future. So let me leave you with this advice and counsel, the advice and counsel that has been given by wise men from ages past. If you want the future prophesied in the Bible – your future – to be a living power in your heart and life, to raise you up when you are discouraged, to nerve you when you are tempted, to whet your appetite when you are apathetic, and to increase your joy in the Lord – which is to be our strength, remember – then you do this. Do what Ezekiel did and think of the future in terms of the most apposite images of human happiness and fulfillment that you know.
I’ll never forget this passage from Harry Blamires, a former student and colleague of C.S. Lewis.
“It is in fragmentary glimpses that the joys of the kingdom are flashed before our faces on our earthly pilgrimage. We all have our stores of memories that keep their power to blind us with the dazzle of the wonder and beauty they revealed. When you first took a hand that is now cold in the grave – when you first looked into eyes that imprinted their gaze forever on your mind – when you first caught sight of that remote village nestling in the elbow of a valley, all white and green in the sun – when you first saw your wife with your baby in her arms – when a lyric of Byron’s first throbbed through your brain in school days – when Toscanini revitalized the fabric of a Beethoven symphony – when Maria Callas released flooding waves of emotion upon a few syllables, “Alfin son tua,” in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor: we all have our store of such particular memories. If we wanted a single adjective to characterize what was common to them all, we should say quite naturally, quite unaffectedly, “It was heavenly.” We very often add those other words and say “It was heavenly while it lasted.” This most natural of expressions carries immense implications.” [Heaven and Hell, 126-127]
Blamires is doing what the Holy Spirit had Ezekiel do. He is describing the future in terms of the present. And we can do and should do the very same thing. An ancient Near Eastern temple may not move us, but you know very well the things that fill your heart with pride, with joy, with satisfaction, and with a sense of fulfillment in life. Two Thursday nights past I heard my daughter, Evangeline, play magnificently a beautiful organ in a beautiful church in uptown Manhattan. Life doesn’t get much better than that for a proud father. But, of course, it does; it gets much, much better than that. In fact the pews we were sitting on through the recital were some of the most uncomfortable seats I can remember ever sitting in. So take that out; just leave the organ and the daughter and the music and the church. Well, no; take out the church. I glanced through some of the literature and posters at the back of the sanctuary and that made for some sad, sad reading for a Bible believing Christian. So just the organ, the daughter, the music, and the physical setting of the church. Forget the traffic getting there, the problems finding a parking place, the sad state of the church, and remember only the happy and the beautiful parts of the evening. We are not at the consummation yet, but we have some images of it, and some taste of it given to us again and again. And your life has these images to use to help you do what Ezekiel has done for us here by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. And then remember, call to mind, argue those present pictures of the fullness of life to the front of your mind and remind yourself that this is but a foretaste, an anticipation of much, much more to come; so wonderful even the Almighty could not manage to describe it to us in any literal way, given our sinful and creaturely limitations.
You have a future that is impossibly wonderful. You are to remember that every day and every hour of every day. You are to feel it pulling you forward, the brilliant light at the end of your life’s tunnel. It is that happy anticipation of the splendor to come and the Lord standing amidst that splendor that ought to mark our lives. It ought to shape our attitudes, our words, and our conduct. It is the great reason why Peter thought people would come up to Christians and inquire as to the reason for the hope they have. Hope, the expectation of fabulously better things: there is every reason for more, much more of that in your life and mine.
As C.S. Lewis would have put it: your life has scarcely begun. Real life begins soon. Good as your life may be in some ways, it is the palest shadow of what it will become. You are never, never to forget that! You hardly know how great a gift Jesus Christ has given you when he granted you eternal life in his name.