NOTE: The footnotes are at the bottom of this document. One of these days, I'm going to figure out something better to do with them.
Chapters 40-48 of The Book of the Prophet Ezekiel comprise one of the most controversial passages in the entire Bible. Godly scholars throughout the centuries have differed on the interpretation of this passage. Interpretations vary over a broad spectrum from subjective allegorical interpretations to strict literal interpretations, and several time settings have been suggested as that to which the prophecy refers.
There are at least seven views which are held by scholars regarding this passage. Each of these seven will be examined in the hope of discovering that which is the most feasible.
Some hold that the temple described in these chapters is that which was built by Solomon. This temple was dostroyed by the Babylonians prior to the captivity, and the vision of Ezekiel is said to provide a memorial of the temple and a pattern for its reconstruction.
There are two difficulties with this interpretation which make it less than feasible. First, there are many differences in detail between the two temples, as is revealed in the books of Kings and Chronicles. Second, a memorial of the temple is not necessary since its details are recorded in these books.1,2,3
Some hold the view that these chapters are a prophetic description of the temple which was built in Jerusalem after the return from the seventy years in Babylon. In other words, they held that the return of the remnant from Babylon and their reconstruction of the temple was a fulfillment of Ezekiel's prophecy.4
However, the temple which was built by the returning remnant did not correspond to the one described by Ezekiel. As Gray puts it, "There are more marks of contrast than likeness between the temple here described and that."5 Furthermore, Gaebelein has pointed out that in Ezekiel's vision "the glory of the Lord returned to the temple and made His dwelling place there," whereas the glory cloud was lacking in the temple which was built by the returning remnant.6
Realizing the insufficiencies of this view, some put forth the proposition that these chapters describe the temple as it should have been built, but because of the disobedience and unbelief of the people it turned out to be less glorious. The chief difficulty with this approach is that it "bases all on a naturalistic foundation without due recognition to the supernatural features inherent in the chapters,"7 which, as Gray and Kelly add, "lowers the character of the divine Word."8
Some believe that Ezekiel's description of the temple and the ceremonies connected with it were intended as a pattern which the returning Jews were to follow. But there are no references to Ezekiel's temple in any of the post-Exilic books of the Old Testament. Surely we would expect to find reference to it in Ezra, Nehemiah or Haggai if Ezekiel's vision had been intended as a blueprint.9
Still others hold that Ezekiel's intent in these nine chapters was merely to present "a figure of the redeemed of all ages worshipping God in heaven.".10 But there are too many earthly details in the vision -- the sin offering, for example -- to allow the view that this is a portrayal of perfect worship in heaven.11
This was the view favored by the Church Fathers and the Reformers. They draw parallels between the various elements in the prophecy and elements within the relationship between Christ and the Church. According to Gaebelein, despite the fact that this is the weakest view, it is the most widely accepted.12
This view has much set against it. First, it is entirely too subjective. There is really no means of validating the interpretation. Second, this interpretation makes the passage irrelevant for Ezekiel and his contemporaries. Why bother to tell them a thing like this when they are longing to return to their land and be out from under the Babylonian yoke? Third, if this passage is symbolic, some of the important features of Christianity, such as the atonement and Christ's high-priestly intercession, are left out.
This interpretation has invited many biting remarks, and Kelly's is one of the most classic; "There is no real exposition: what is in their remarks can scarcely have satisfied even their own minds."13
Some see Ezekiel 40-48 as merely a prophetic parable. According to this view, Ezekiel's intent was to bring comfort and edification to his contemporaries in exile, and to the following generations. Ezekiel's contemporaries understood religious perfection to be achieved only through the Lord's personal presence among His people. To their minds, the temple worship system and dwelling in the promised land were all part of this concept of God dweliing among His people. Therefore, the prophecy of chapters 40-48 was given to illustrate the fact that at a future date God would dwell among them.14
This interpretation is a sincere attempt to pay homage to a large section of God's Word without going to the extreme of a literal interpretation, which would automatically bring the label of "dispensationalist" upon the interpreter (which is a cursed label in many circles). But this interpretation also is not without its problems.
First, this interpretation seems to ignore the abundant details of the passage. While it is true that many parables in Scripture contain details, all of the minute details in this passage would not be necessary to illustrate that which Ezekiel allegedly wants to illustrate.
Second, this passage covers nine chapters, some of which are very lengthy. If this is a parable, it's certainly longer than most.
Feinberg draws a parallel between the temple of Ezekiel and the tabernacle of Moses. While it is true that the tabernacle "embodied comprehensive spiritual and prophetic principles," it is mevertheless true that there was a literal tabernacle built to specifications.15
Some hold that this passage is to be interpreted literally. They believe that it has refereace to a literal temple where literal sacrifices are carried out through a literal priesthood, and that there is a literal stream issuing from the temple, etc. This view is held by such prominent scholars as Feinberg, Gray, Kelly, Pentecost and Scofield.
This interpretation also has its problems. But as Kelly points out, the preblems are based upon an assumption that there is no change of dispensation -- "that, because we are Christians, those whom the prophecy contemplates must be in the same relationship."16
Pearson16a lists six serious objections to this interpretation. These objections will each be dealt with to see if they are valid, or if they can be answered if a dispensational eschatology is accepted.
(1) "The atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ nulified Old Testament sacrifices forever."
This statement is acknowledged as true, and indeed those who hold this view do not intend to imply that these sacrifices actually provide redemption. In fact, the Old Testament sacrifices had no redemptive efficacy to begin with. However, since these Old Testament sacrifices did have value in pointing forward to the death of Christ, it is not at all unfeasible to assume that these future sacrifices will have value in pointing back to the death of Christ.17
(2) "The old system was of a provisional nature, to which believers in Christ are not to revert."
This statement also must be acknowledged as true, but those who use it as an objection to the literal interpretation of Ezekiel 40-48 fail to understand that the church age is not the only or last era in God's operation in time. If we understand that a different economy or dispensation will exist between the present one and the eternal state, and that these sacrifices could be a part of that economy, the objection loses its validity.18
(3) "All believers, whether Jew or Gentile, are Abraham's seed, and members of the `Israel of God,' a relationship based on faith, not on ancestry. Christ has broken down `the middle wall of partition,' so that the distinctions Jew-Greek, circumcision-uncircumcision, bond-free, male-female convey no superior merit."
While all believers are Abraham's seed in the spiritual realm, a Gentile believer never becomes Abraham's seed by nature. If this passage is interpreted literally, then the natural seed of Abraham is what is in view, and this objection loses its punch.19
(4) "The New Testament refers to the Church as the New Israel, in which adherents of old Israel may participate by accepting Christ. Promises to old Israel broaden out to include the world─wide Church."
This belief that the Church is the New Israel is part of certain theological systems and does not have Scriptural support. A further treatment of this controversy is beyond the scope of this discussion. Suffice it here to say that if this doctrine is not accepted, it is useless as an objection to the literal interpretation of Ezekiel 40-48.
(5) "Not a specific tribe or family, but all believers are priests and have direct access to God through the blood of Christ. It is spiritual worship not ritual that God acknowledges."
This objection is another result of the belief that the Church age is the consummating age in God's earthly program. Since there was an authorized priesthood in the past, why is it not possible that there could also be one in the future?20
(6) "When John employs these chapters to describe the Church of Christ, he removes the specifically Jewish elements (Rev. 21:9-22:5)"21
This objection is based on the assumption that John employed these chapters in his prophecy. Besides, as Feinberg points out, "it is precisely the Jewish elements used by Ezekiel that reveal he had something different in mind than the message of John."22
So we see that the objections to a literal interpretation of Ezekiel 40-48 are invalidated when the passage is viewed from a dispensational prospective.
In our examinations of these seven interpretations of Ezekiel 40-48, we have seen that all but the strict literal view have problems which cast a heavy shadow of doubt upon them, while the objections raised to the literal interpretation can be answered. Therefore, in answer to the question, "How literal should we be in our interpretation of Ezekiel 40-48?", our reply would be, "Very literal."
1Gray, J.M., Christian Worker's Commentary, p. 265
2Feinberg, C. L., The Prophecy of Ezekiel, p. 233
3Pearson, A. T., Ezekiel in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, p. 758.
4Gray, p. 265
6Gaebelein, A. C., The Prophet Ezekiel, p. 272.
7Feinberg, p. 236
8Gray, p. 265
9Pearson, p. 758
10Feinberg, p. 235
11Pearson, p. 759
12Gaebelein, pp. 272-273
13Kelly, W., Notes on Ezekiel, p. 212
14Pearson, p. 759
15Feinberg, p. 236
16Kelly, p. 217
16a The following 6 quotations are from Pearson, pp. 758─759
17Feinberg, p. 234
19Ibid., p. 235
21Pearson, pp. 758-759
22Feinberg, p. 235
Feinberg, Charles Lee. The Prophecy of Ezekiel. Chicago, Moody Press, 1969.
Gaebelein, Arno C. The Prophet Ezekiel. New York, Our Hope, 1918.
Kelly, William. Notes on Ezekiel. London, George Morrish, 1876.
Pearson, Anton T. Ezekiel in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary. Chicago, Moody Press, 1962.
Pentecost, J. Dwight. Things to Come. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1958.
Scofield, C. I. The New Scofield Reference Bible. New York, Oxford University Press, 1967.