Tonight we are reading just the first twelve verses of chapter 43. I said last time that I would take this last section of Ezekiel in large chunks, and I will. Next time we will take the remainder of chapter 43 and chapters 44 through 46. But emphasis is laid upon a central thought in these first 12 verses of chapter 43 and I want to consider that theme separately.
The noise and light that bombard Ezekiel’s senses overwhelm him. In the earlier visions we heard about the noise of the angels’ wings and of the sound like the movement of a great army and the glowing and fiery radiance that indicated the presence of God.
The fact that it is the east gate of the temple through which the glory of the Lord enters the temple is significant. It was through that same east gate that the glory of the Lord departed from the temple in Ezekiel’s vision in chapters 10 and 11 (10:18-19). So a great reversal is taking place. The glory of the Lord, that is, the complete manifestation of the divine majesty, is now returning to take its place among the people of God.
Remember that the glory of the Lord filled the temple upon its dedication in the time of Solomon (1 Kgs. 8:10-11) and also when Isaiah was given a vision of the glory of the Lord in the temple at the time of his call to the prophetic office (Isa. 6:4).
Now it is no longer the angelic guide who had given Ezekiel a tour of the temple who speaks, but Yahweh himself. “When the sun rises the stars grow pale.” [Zimmerli in Allen, ii, 256]
The NIV’s “I will live” translates the verb from which the noun “tabernacle” comes. It is a word with a history in the Bible and a word with a future. It recalls the place of the tabernacle and the temple as an embodiment of God’s presence among his people. In John 1 we read of the Lord Jesus that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Same idea: it is a way of saying that in Jesus Christ God was present among men.
The reference to the temple as the place for the soles of Yahweh’s feet, or his footstool, recollects the ark as the Lord’s footstool in earlier materials concerning the tabernacle and the temple (1 Chron. 28:2). It is interesting and perhaps important that while the ark of the covenant was the embodiment of the Lord’s presence in the old temple and viewed as Yahweh’s throne, the ark does not feature in this new visionary temple. The temple itself is the dwelling place or the throne of the Lord.
This is all the more interesting because of Jeremiah’s prophecy (3:16-17):
In those days…they shall no longer say, ‘The ark of the covenant of the Lord.’ It shall not come to mind or be remembered, or missed; nor shall another one be made. At that time Jerusalem shall be called the throne of the Lord, and all nations shall gather to it, to the presence of the Lord in Jerusalem.”
This fits nicely with the view of these chapters that we have been working out from the use made of these prophesies of Israel’s restoration in the New Testament. It is not a vision of a particularly Jewish future, but of the future of the worldwide kingdom of God.
“Prostitution” in Ezekiel refers to Israel’s “illicit affairs with other gods and political powers” (23:27; chapters 16, 23). [Block, ii, 582] The reference to their kings keeps the attention placed on the sins of the people.
The second phrase is much debated because the meaning of the words themselves is not certain. Many commentators think the reference is to the tombs of Israelite kings placed too close to the temple area and so defiled the Lord’s temple with their corpses. But there is no evidence that Israel’s kings were ever so buried, either biblical evidence or archaeological evidence. Others take the phrase to refer to some sort of cult or worship of the dead. Others take it to refer to memorial stelae that were placed in honor of the kings (by the kings themselves before their deaths no doubt) close to or in the temple courts and so detracting from the glory that is due to Yahweh alone. Whatever was involved, it was part of Israel’s thorough-going betrayal of God’s covenant and indifference to God’s holiness.
Even in this visionary description of the future consummation of salvation the people of God are summoned to live in holiness before the Lord. Even when all is complete there will be that for us to do in obedience and loyalty to the Lord and, still more, it may be said, as it is in several ways in the New Testament, that there is that for us to do to hasten the coming of the Lord. Preaching the gospel to the end of the earth is one such thing; praying for his return is another. Even the end of history is connected to the responsible actions of the Lord’s people. It is not something that simply comes; it is brought, by the Lord, of course, but making use of the obedient service of his people.
Once again, remember to whom this vision is being reported. These are people who witnessed the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and have lived for twenty years in exile far away from their homeland. The depiction of this renewed temple was an extraordinarily powerful encouragement. Imagine, if you can, someone coming back to earth from heaven with a snapshot of the Holy City, just one color picture of a scene in heaven and he gave you a copy to keep in your wallet. Whenever you were discouraged, or needed to be nerved or steeled to do your duty, you could take that picture out of your wallet and look at that scene and imagine yourself there very soon. What a difference that would make would it not! Well that is what is going on here. But the purpose of this announcement and its written form is that the people might be ashamed of what they did to cause the Lord’s judgment to fall upon his people. The vision that Ezekiel has seen is a “spiritual map of holiness” [Block, ii, 589] and it serves to put the people in their place as sinners before a holy God. They can come again to enjoy God’s presence only by his forgiving grace.
This verse probably belongs with what follows, not what precedes.
It is interesting to consider parallels to our text from other Ancient Near East sources. In these texts also the god or gods return(s) to their sanctuaries after some time away. The forms of thought we find in the Bible are often strikingly similar to those of other Ancient Near East cultures, but the differences are, for that reason, all the more striking and profound. The familiar forms are invested with new and very different meaning.
Here is the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal’s report of having completed the rebuilding of the temple of the god Sin at Harran.
“I grasped the hands of [Sin] and caused him to enter amid rejoicing and caused him to take up his abode.”
Or consider Nabonidus’ report when he rebuilt the same sanctuary many years later.
“I carefully executed the command of [Sin’s] great godhead… I built anew…the temple of Sin, and completed this work. I (then) led in procession, Sin, Ningal, Nusku, and Sadarnunna, from Shuanna (in Babylon), my royal city, and brought (them) in joy and happiness (into the temple), installing them on a permanent dais. I made abundant offerings before them and lavished gifts (on them). I filled [the temple] with happiness and made its personnel rejoice.”
In these cases, the god needs the king to make a temple suitable for him and the god is rejoicing because he is finally able to return to his temple. In Ezekiel, the Lord remakes the temple for himself and invites his people to join him there. The initiative is all with the Lord. He was not homesick for his house. He had destroyed it himself as an act of his holy judgment and he rebuilt it himself as an act of his grace and mercy. What did Jesus say? “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” That is, as we have been saying, the burden of these prophesies of restoration in Ezekiel 40-48.
Here is Esarhaddon reporting the rebuilding of the temple of Marduk, the divine patron of Babylon.
“The gods and goddesses who lived therein, who had caused the flood and the downpour, whose visage had become sad, I raised up out of their miserable condition; I had their dusty trains polished; I cleaned their dirty garments; and I caused them to dwell in their holy places forever.” [This material from Block, ii, 576-577]
Once again, Ezekiel never got near Yahweh to “dust his dirty train,” and Yahweh himself was never in a miserable condition. Nor did he need a king to help him return to his sanctuary. He raises up kings and casts them down. There is nothing in any of these pagan texts about the holiness of God or about the corresponding holiness of those who serve him. There is nothing about a sovereign God nor a gracious God. There is the faint echo of the knowledge of God, but it is a god of man’s own making that is being served here, not the God who made man, orders his life, judges his sin, and offers him salvation.
Now the gist of this section in Ezekiel 43 is clear enough. The presence of the Lord, as we have already been told repeatedly in Ezekiel, was lost on account of Israel’s faithlessness and her idolatry. She betrayed the covenant Yahweh had made with her and suffered his just wrath as a result. Jerusalem’s destruction with the destruction of the temple and Israel’s exile were brutal demonstrations that the people had forfeited Yahweh’s presence among them. But that temple is to be rebuilt – in the sense in which we have been taught to understand that rebuilding, which has been our theme over the past few Lord’s Day evenings – and God’s presence is to be restored to his people. As Israel lost that presence for sin, it will be restored as God returns to her and brings her to acknowledge her sin, repent, and worship and serve the Lord in faith and love.
But I want us to get beyond the surface and consider for a few moments what all of this means, what it really means to us. The presence of God, that is what is being promised here, a presence that brings with it and creates holiness among God’s people. Unholiness causes God’s presence to depart; God’s presence is the reward lavished upon a sinful people when they turn to the Lord and follow him in righteousness. You realize perhaps that few people really believe this. That is why they are not at all concerned about the presence of God. Few people in our culture, if asked, would say that their number one concern is that God be present in their lives. They would not say, because they don’t believe that God’s presence is life and joy and his absence is a very bad and harmful thing. They do not connect their own happiness and the fulfillment of their lives with God’s presence and they make no connection between God’s absence and the failure of their lives to rise to the significance, happiness, and fulfillment they know by instinct human lives ought to experience. They have deep longings; every human being does, but he does not connect those longings with the presence of God.
This is one of the chief reasons, of course, that people don’t want to let go of their sins. They look to their sins for their happiness – such as it is – and fear that if they let go of their sins they would cease to be happy. It is the Devil’s lie and it is everywhere believed. The result, as Christians have been pointing out these thousands of years, is that men continue to look for happiness in all the wrong places, find trouble and misery instead, and never find the deeper, higher, holier fulfillment that every human heart longs for. That can be found with God alone. The believer knows that the nearness of God is his good, but the unbeliever does not know that.
The other night Florence and I went to a movie. It was a romantic comedy appropriate to the week of Valentine’s day. Romance is, of course, one of the chief pleasures and joys of human life. But for a true and lasting romance, a romance that finally does not disappoint and sadden and leave a person bereft and alone, one needs a woman and a man; a woman and a real man. We were commenting after seeing the film on how pathetic the image of the American male has become in the movies. Pity the American women who have to content themselves with men such as these. And I’m talking about the heroes, not the villains. He is typically, at his best, childish, irresponsible, unkind, and weak. The strength of his character is the least significant thing about him. We both wondered if Hollywood even knew any more what a man ought to be and what a man could be. Maybe this is the best they can imagine, given the men the moviemakers know and are themselves. Even when the guy and girl get together at the end of the movie one can’t help but wonder how happy the poor woman will be once the initial thrill wears off and she has to make her life with this child of a man.
Sin eats away at everything fine and noble, even at everything truly fun in human life. Our pleasures become deadly, enervating, unmanning; wasting of the higher purposes and so the higher pleasures and satisfactions of human life. The sinner does not thrive. He misses the best that human beings were made to know, to experience, and to enjoy. The pleasures of sin, at the last, are all that is left to us – because we do not have God’s presence – but those pleasures very quickly begin to cloy and soon bring little pleasure and much more pain. Is that not the story of human life and of life in our culture at present? Sin will not take the human being up high and at last it takes him or her down very low.
But, despite his negative experience of life without God, despite his fear of death, and despite his unavoidable sense that there should be more, much more to his life than there is, man in sin, afraid of God as he is, afraid of God’s judgment as he must be, is sure that the presence of God, far from life affirming, will be dull, dark, cheerless, threatening and miserable. That is why they always imagine that serious Christians – that is, Christians who take sin and righteousness seriously – must be cheerless, heartless, miserable people themselves, living as they do under the oppressive regime of a God who demands thankless obedience or else. In their view the Puritan – which is to say, the serious, spiritually-minded Christian – is a person who, in H.L. Mencken’s memorable description, has a haunting fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy. Down deep they think that Christians condemn the promiscuous, or the actively homosexual, or supporters of abortion, or the acquisitive, or those who believe that all roads lead to God simply because Christians are small, narrow, judgmental people who must pull people down into their own misery so that they won’t be alone in it.
But no matter what unbelievers may say, the fact is they have no experience of the presence of God and that is why they are uninterested in it and why they tend to imagine that it would be something dark and oppressive. Let a person once experience that divine presence and his or her view of all of this and of human life itself is immediately and permanently transformed. Many of you know the experience of Blaise Pascal, justly and equally famous in the history of mathematics, physics, literature, philosophy, and Christian thought. He is one of the greatest minds ever to have graced this world. And seldom has such a towering intellect submitted with such perfect grace to the authority of Jesus Christ. And why? Because in the year 1654, when he was 31, on Monday the 23rd of November, from 10:30 p.m. to half an hour after midnight, he experienced the presence of God and felt the divine glory in his soul. In the years of his life that remained he wore, sewn into his clothes, a piece of parchment on which he had written:
The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.
Not of the philosophers and intellectuals.
Certainty! Feeling! Joy! Peace!
The God of Jesus Christ.
My God and your God.
I forget the world and everything but God!
One finds oneself only by way of the directions taught in the Gospel.
The grandeur of the human soul.
Righteous Father, the world hath
Not known Thee, but I have known Thee!
Joy, Joy, Joy! Tears of Joy!
This is eternal life, that they may know you the one true God and Jesus Christ. whom you have sent. Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ.
I separated myself from him; renounced and
They have forsaken ME, the fountain of living
I separated myself from HIM!
May I not be separated from Him eternally!
I submit myself absolutely to
Jesus Christ my Redeemer.
That is the presence of God and that is what it does to a person. It purifies him, it lifts him up, it brings him to feel love and joy as those beautiful things have never been felt by him before. It changes a man or woman and in every way for the better. It makes him realize, in a moment of stunning clarity, what it means to be a human being and what is possible for human beings if only they know God.
And that conviction, that encounter with the divine presence, is not experienced by any means only at the moment when one becomes a Christian. I have been reading a biography of William Grimshaw, the Great Awakening Preacher. Some six years after his conversion he had an experience of ecstasy in the presence of God very like Pascal’s. He referred to it very simply this way:
“Thou knowest, O Lord, I solemnly covenanted with thee in the year 1738; and before that wonderful manifestation of thyself unto me at church and in the clerk’s house between the hours of ten and two o’clock on Sunday, September 2nd, 1744, I had again solemnly devoted myself to thee on Aug. 8, 1744.”
“before that wonderful manifestation of thyself unto me at church and in the clerk’s house between the hours of ten and two o’clock on Sunday, September 2nd, 1744,”
He himself described it as being caught up into the third heaven, like the Apostle Paul says he was in 2 Cor. 12. It was an experience that overshadowed his life from that point onward. [Faith Cook, William Grimshaw of Haworth, 73-77]
Or take this reminiscence from Alexander Whyte, the Scottish pastor who died in 1921, who is describing an experience he had on a Christmas holiday.
Last week I became very miserable as I saw my time slipping away, and my vow not performed. I therefore one afternoon stole into my coat and hat, and took my staff, and slipped out of the house in secret. For two hours, for an hour and three-quarters, I walked alone and prayed; but pray as I would, I got not one step nearer God all these seven or eight cold miles. My guilty conscience mocked me to my face, and said to me: is it any wonder that God has cast off a minister and a father like thee? For two hours I struggled on, forsaken of God, and met neither God nor man all that chill afternoon. When, at last, standing still, and looking at Schiehallion clothed in white from top to bottom, this of David shot up into my heart: ‘Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow!’ In a moment I was with God. Or, rather, God, as I believe was with me. Till I walked home under the rising moon with my head waters and with my heart in a flame of prayer… [Lord, Teach us To Pray, 233-234]
I know of what Pascal, Grimshaw, and Whyte speak and I know that some of you do as well. When I was a young man I had such an experience of the presence of God. It also lasted for several hours and they were the best, the most remarkable hours of my life. I saw things more clearly, I felt the truest and best things more deeply than I ever had before or have since. I was the happiest I had ever been or have been since; I felt what Rabbi Duncan called “the thrill in theism.” I felt drawn up into God and drunk with God. I have often thought in remembering those hours what a human life would be, must be, if one felt always what I felt then, if one saw things always as I saw them then. If one woke up in the morning overwhelmed with God’s presence and fell asleep at night in the same state.
Most of us who are in love, really in love with our husband or wife, are taken aback by the statement of the Lord Jesus in Matthew 22 to the effect that there will not be this kind of love in heaven; the romantic love of man and woman will not be a part of our experience there. It is easy for lovers to fear that for that reason heaven would be in some important way less than earth, inferior to earth. But those who have had powerful experiences of the glorious presence of the Lord know that there is a still higher love, a still higher joy, a still more thrilling ecstasy, a still higher fulfillment and satisfaction than even the most beautiful of romantic loves. And when one has drunk deeply at that well, he knows – much as he enjoys that romantic love here – he knows he will miss nothing, he will lack nothing, when all his powers are drunk up by the presence of God and his glory. When the priests couldn’t minister in the temple on the day of its dedication because the temple was filled with the glory of the Lord, and when they were standing there awestruck, mesmerized, their hearts impossibly full of joy and devotion, they were not at that moment thinking about going home to their wives!
For in the presence of those radiant beams
One is so changed, that ‘tis impossible
To turn from it to any other sight –
Because the good, the object of the will,
Is all collected there.
How powerless is speech – how weak, compared
To my conception, which itself is trifling
Beside the mighty vision that I saw!
I don’t recollect these experiences that believers have had of the divine presence to say that every Christian will have them. Some have and some have not. Or, perhaps better, there will be experiences of God’s presence in varying degrees among the saints. Certainly I have had many experiences of God’s presence since those hours long ago, but never so powerful. I’ve sometimes wondered how similar to my own experience then was the experience Pascal had for those two hours that long ago night. But the Lord doesn’t deal with any two of his children in precisely the same way. I mention such experiences only to remind you of this simple and all-important point: that there is nothing more beautiful than the presence of the living God; nothing with such power to transform a heart and a life as that presence; nothing apart from the presence of God that has the power inevitably to draw a person up to those magnificent heights – morally, physically, spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally – for which human beings have been created and for which the Lord has implanted the longing in every human heart. When he comes near to us we become all that we ever have hoped to become, whether we understood our hopes or not, and human life becomes all that it should become.
What we have promised in Ezekiel 43:1-12 is a life dominated by the presence of the Lord and the glory that accompanies that presence. It is very like the promise we are given at the end of the Bible when heaven is described as the place where God will be with us. “Now the dwelling of God is with men…” we read in Revelation 21. We have anticipations of the glory of his presence in worship on the Lord’s Day and in the occasional experience the Holy Spirit grants us of the Lord’s nearness, but these are but the beginnings. These are only the raindrops that announce the coming of the floods.
My concern this evening has been to help you realize anew and afresh what an all-encompassing promise that is and what an extraordinary future that will be. You and I hardly know what is being said to us when the Lord says here, “This is where I will live among the Israelites forever.” You and I have been made for God. Our nature is made to thrive in the presence of God.
You may at some time have thought about this. It is an interesting and revealing observation, I think. We have the capacity to be awestruck. Some of us remember moments in our lives when we were awestruck. We stood before the Grand Canyon or the Swiss Alps; we watched the sunset over the ocean; or we were caught in a great storm; or we watched our baby being born; or we entered a great European cathedral. We were given the capacity to be overwhelmed by magnificent things. But we hardly ever use it. We are very rarely awestruck; struck dumb; only a few times in our lives do we encounter something so grand, so beautiful, so majestic that it overpowers us. But we have been given that capacity because we will one day employ it every day all day, at least we will who have a part in this glorious future with God. What will that be like? Wonderful beyond words.
When the Lord promises us here a future dominated by his presence, he is promising us everything: human life in its complete and perfect fulfillment; human happiness, joy, and satisfaction so complete that we can scarcely imagine it. And this one thing more, we will be holy. We will not sin. And we can scarcely imagine what it will be like to be a human being without sin, without sin in the heart, in the attitudes, in the thoughts, in the words, or in the deeds. Love, purity, goodness all the way down and all the way out. That, my friends, is something to look forward to!
And what better way to look forward to it and to have more anticipations of it now than simply to strive as hard as we can to live now the way we are going to live then. It is highly likely, it is law of God’s kingdom and of his mercy, that those who strive to do that will also experience more now of what they will experience then. And since that experience is going to be everything that we long for, every little bit of it we can enjoy now is worth whatever effort it requires.