Notes on Ezekiel 40:1-4

Ezekiel 40:1‑4  •  15 min. read  •  grade level: 12
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The remaining chapters of the book present a vision of the most striking character, in which the prophet sees and communicates the pledge of more than restoration—of crowning glory—for Israel in their land. Such is its plain meaning, though there may be deep details, as indeed there are, most minute, and not without difficulty as is usual in all such descriptions. But there is scarce more of obscurity in Ezekiel 40-48 than in Exodus 25-40. It is a difficulty because of circumstantial detail outside our ordinary habits or even study. There is really none as to its general scope except to those who misapply the vision. That it is unfulfilled prophecy is very true, but that this is not the real source of its difficulty to us will appear from the parallel to which reference has been made. The details of the future temple in the land are not harder to understand than those of the past tabernacle in the wilderness.
It is well known that some consider that the vision applies to the church that now is. Those who think so should on their own showing find it easy to explain its figures and symbols, for such writers generally assume that we cannot have an accurate understanding of a prophecy till it be accomplished, and certainly the church has been in existence for more than 1800 years. On this score therefore they ought to have the amplest materials for illustration. But these are the very persons who find insuperable difficulty in interpreting the prophecy. Nor need we wonder; for the whole thought is a mistake. Jerome and Gregory can make nothing of it but ingenious accommodation. There is no real exposition: what is in their remarks can scarcely have satisfied even their own minds. As one of the most learned of the commentators that follow them says in respect of part, so we may say of all, “How it is to be understood, nobody explains, nor dare I conjecture.” Yet this man, Cornelius à Lapide, was not to be despised, but rather to be admired, because of the honest confession of their failure and his own. The whole of the allegorizing interpreters go on an evidently false track. It would be strange, if a symbolic vision of Christianity were to leave out the day of atonement, the feast of weeks, and the action of the high priest in the presence of God—its most essential features in type!
Scarcely better is the very large class of divines who have striven hard to appropriate the vision to the Jews who returned from the Babylonish captivity, for the facts then realized stand immeasurably below this prophetic pledge. The inevitable result therefore of such applications as of this and the preceding schools is to lower the character of the divine word.1 For to speak plainly there is more contrast than analogy between the glowing promises of the prophet and the very small installment that was paid under Zerubbabel as recorded in Ezra and Nehemiah. It is not only then that both those interpretations fail to meet the prophecy, but that they do not fail to depreciate scripture itself. For if the prophets be thus hyperbolical and untrustworthy, what is to save the Gospels and the Epistles any more than the Law and the Psalms? The tendency of both schools is unwittingly but none the less really to undermine inspiration.
Who can think that the modern attempt to save appearances for the latter view is at all successful? “Ezekiel,” says the late Dr. Henderson (p. 187), “was furnished with an ideal representation of the Jewish state as about to be restored after the captivity.” Was this “ideal” then realized? Did it or did it not differ immensely from the actual state of the Jews in Palestine after their return? Did the post-captivity temple correspond with the building here so carefully measured? Had they such priests? And what about the prince, to say nothing of the feasts and the sacrifices without a high priest—so marked a peculiarity in this prophecy? Had the Jews the glory returned to their land? Did the twelve tribes, with the special provision for the priests and the Levites and the prince, take up their position so carefully laid down by the prophet? Did healing waters flow from the temple towards the Dead Sea at that period, or in any sense whatsoever? Did the priests and Levites dwell no longer up and down Palestine, but only round about the sanctuary, both henceforth having land assigned to them? We know that not one of these things applies to the post-captivity interval.
No doubt it was the restoration of the material temple then in ruins that the prophet had in his eye, and a restoration not only of its worship but of the nation in full under the richest theocratic (and not only spiritual) privileges. No doubt a just and true interpretation supersedes all necessity of confounding the Christian and the church with the hopes of Israel; but no view is less satisfactory than that which points to the five centuries which preceded Christ, and denies a literal fulfillment in the future for Israel in their land. It is an unfounded assumption that a single feature in these visions was fulfilled by a single fact among the returned captives in their past history. Less than fifty thousand men, women, and children came up from Babylon: a little remnant of a remnant, and in no sense those twelve tribes, whom the prophet sees to take up their allotted portions in the land—seven in the north, five in the south, extending beyond the ancient bounds on this side of Jordan, with Jerusalem between.
Indeed there never was the very smallest semblance of the holy oblation any more than of the allotments of the land from east to west here predicted. It is ridiculous to say that there is no valid objection against such an interpretation because in many points the city, temple, services, etc., did not accord with the prophecy. The fact is that those who returned from Babylon fell back on the order as existing before the captivity, and in no respect made good the peculiar condition predicted by Ezekiel. Thus no one appeared answering to the prince, while the high priest was as before a notable personage; the land was not parcelled out to the remnent, still less to all Israel by lot, and no strangers held inheritance any more than in ancient times. Pentecost was still as of old one of the three great feasts of the Jews, whereas it will have no place according to the prophecy. Such differences are of the most decided character, and, at any rate to believers, demonstrate that the last vision is yet absolutely unaccomplished in the history of the Jews: to say that it is never to be is to confess oneself an unbeliever in prophecy at least.
It is quite true that the vision is not to be regarded as a description of what was remembered of Solomon's temple—a work of supererogation indeed for those who possessed the books of Kings and Chronicles. It was a divine disclosure of a new condition, when Israel shall be restored finally and forever. It is a material temple, a literal but in some grave respects unprecedented arrangement of feasts, sacrifices, rites, and priesthood, as well as of general polity for the new capital and the nation, under wholly novel circumstances crowned with the glory of Jehovah who deigns again to dwell in their land. Nor does it appear consistent to interpret the temple and its ordinances literally, but as a figure the waters that carry fertility and beauty into the Dead Sea and the barren wilderness. Why this should be a mere symbol and not a fact it would be hard to tell, except that men like Secker and Boothroyd with a certain following will have it so. But we need say no more as to all these things for the present. Ample opportunity will be afforded when we come to the chapters themselves in detail.
This however we must insist on, that it is altogether illegitimate to sever these chapters in an absolute manner from those we have already had before us. The closing series (Ezek. 40-48), is the glorious but fitting and most intelligible sequel to the prophecies immediately before: so much so that the previous series (Ezek. 33-39), prepares for it, announcing the judgment but happy return of the chosen nation in the last days, far beyond what was at hand. We have had the new ground laid of individual conduct before God in chapter 33, the leaders judged in chapter 34, and Edom in chapter 35; then the prediction of Israel's restoration to their own land with a new heart and a new spirit—yea, with God's Spirit within them—in chapter 36. We have seen the parabolic vision in chapter 37 of the dry bones suddenly invested with life and strength, which are expressly said to mean not Christians, nor men at large, but the house of Israel, under the figure of resurrection, caused to live and placed by Jehovah in their own land; and this too united as they have never been—Ephraim and Judah—since the days of Jeroboam, under one head, one king, in the land, on the mountains of Israel. We have had before us the last and most formidable attack to be made upon Israel whilst thus settling in peace in Canaan, when the great north-eastern chief with his myriads of followers shall be utterly exterminated by divine intervention (chaps. 38 and 39). No allegory this, as they shall then learn to their cost; and Israel shall know and the spared Gentiles too, for Jehovah shall be thus glorified in His people on earth. Most appropriately follows the last vision, where the polity of Israel is laid down with precision, both sacred and civil, and the descending Shechinah shall once more find its place in their midst, the seal of glory never to be broken, till means melt away before blessing complete and everlasting, and judgment sees no more evil to be judged.
Beyond a doubt, the main stumbling-block in this section to most Christians is the plain prediction of sacrifices, feasts, and other ordinances according to the Levitical law. These, they conceive, must be explained (that is, are really to be explained away), so as not to clash with the Epistle to the Hebrews. But the argument assumes that there can be no change of dispensation—that because we are Christians, those whom the prophecy contemplates must be in the same relationship. This however is nothing but error. For the Epistle to the Hebrews looks at believers since redemption while Christ is on high till He comes again in glory; the prophecy of Ezekiel, on the contrary, is occupied with the earthly people and supposes the glory of Jehovah dwelling once again in the land of Canaan. The truth is that to bless Israel as such and the Gentiles only mediately and subordinately to the Jews, as this prophecy and almost all others suppose and definitely declare, is a state of things in distinct contrast with Christianity, where there is neither Jew nor Gentile but all are one in Christ Jesus. Hence the whole ground and position here are quite different from what we see in the Epistle to the Hebrews.
Earthly priests distinct from the people, with a position quite peculiar to the prince, a material sanctuary and tangible sacrifices and offerings, are distinctly predicted by Ezekiel; but these are evidently wholly foreign to Christianity. One as much as the other would be inconsistent with the doctrine in the Epistle to the Hebrews for the “partakers of the heavenly calling (Heb. 3:11Wherefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our profession, Christ Jesus; (Hebrews 3:1));” but, will they therefore be out of place and season for those who have the earthly calling when Jehovah again makes choice of Jerusalem, and glory shall dwell in the land? This no one has proved, and few have even essayed to argue; but it is the real question. Entirely do we allow the incongruity of sacrifices with our faith in that one offering which has for ever perfected us. A temple on earth is a practical inconsistency with the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched and not man, into the holiest of which, now that for us the veil is rent, we are invited to come boldly. Further, the assertion of an earthly priesthood for Christians is in principle, if not effect, a denial not only of our nearness to God by the blood of Christ, but of the gospel itself as we know it.
But the coming of the Lord to reign over the earth will necessarily bring with it changes of immense import and magnitude. Yet this is the great object of all prophecy, which accordingly puts forward a new condition wherein Israel stands at the head of the nations under Messiah and the new covenant, the church having entirely disappeared from the earth, and, in fact, reigning over it with Christ, the Bridegroom of His then glorified bride.
Now the prophets, from Isaiah to Malachi, bring to light for that glorious day an earthly temple with sacrifices, priesthood, and rites appropriate to it. No doubt it is not Christianity; but who with such an array of inspired witnesses against him will dare to say that such a state of things will not be according to the truth, and for the glory of God in that day? It is in vain to plead the usual resource of unbelief—the cloud that overhangs unfulfilled prophecy. Not so. To unbelief all scripture is obscure; to faith it is the light of God through men empowered by the Holy Ghost to communicate it. And the particular difficulty in the present case is only, if we believe the Apostle Paul, Christendom's conceit, which assumes, or rather presumes, that the fall of the Jew is final and that the Gentile has supplanted him forever. The truth is that God will not spare the Gentiles in their present and growing unbelief, but will assuredly recall in His mercy Israel ere long about to repent. Those that now wait for Christ, with the risen saints, shall be caught up to Him, and the Deliverer will come out of Zion and turn away ungodliness from Jacob. If the King of kings and Lord of lords enter on so new a position, it would be singular indeed if all were not changed in accordance with it and in consequence of it. This is precisely what the prophets show in contradistinction from the Epistle to the Hebrews as well as all the rest of the apostolic Epistles. Our wisdom is to learn of God by His word and Spirit, not to judge of scripture by conclusions drawn from our own position, circumstances, or even relation to God. Let us leave room for the various evolutions and displays of His glory in the ages to come, instead of making His present ways (profound and blessed as they are) an exclusive standard: a snare natural enough to man's narrow and selfish mind, but withering to all growth in and by the knowledge of God. Christ, not the church, is His object; and the church is blessed in proportion as this is seen.
But we must turn to the opening words of the vision. “In the five and twentieth year of our captivity, in the beginning of the year, in the tenth day of the month, in the fourteenth year after that the city was smitten, in the selfsame day the hand of Jehovah was upon me, and brought me thither. In the visions of God brought He me into the land of Israel, and set me upon a very high mountain, and upon it was as it were a city on the south. And He brought me thither, and, behold, there was a man, whose appearance was like the appearance of brass, with a line of flax in his hand, and a measuring reed; and he stood in the gate. And the man said unto me, Son of man, behold with thine eyes, and hear with thine ears, and set thine heart upon all that I shall show thee; for to the intent that I might show them unto thee art thou brought hither: declare all that thou seest to the house of Israel” (vss. 1-4).
The declared aim of the vision is thus evident. God certainly did not reveal the mystery of Christ and the church to Israel or to any other, but kept it secret in Himself till the due moment came to make it known. Much of man's eventful trial yet remained. God had yet to send His one Son—the Heir, not to speak of prophets who followed Ezekiel and preceded John the Baptist. After Christ too He would add the final testimony to the risen and glorified Lord by the Spirit, besides His presence in humiliation in their midst. Accordingly the vision is of Israel's hopes when restored to their land, to show them how complete the work shall be in the last days, above all (spite of their past sins) in respect of God's presence in a new and suited sanctuary—a presence never more to be lost, least of all when time yields to eternity and to the new heavens and earth in their fullest meaning.
1. Listen to the words of one who did not always seem an enemy—"All the fulfillment is past, and nothing more is expected. The Jews returned to their country and rebuilt their temple. If their restoration took place in a different manner from what the prophet projected [for God is in none of these thoughts], and the circumstances attending it were a poor counterpart of his imaginings, if the reality were but a dwarfish fulfillment of the prophecy, the event shows the imperfection of Ezekiel's foreshadowing.” (Davidson's “Introduction to the Old Testament,” iii. 156.) It shows, as I should say, the folly of such an interpretation. Is Dr. D. a prophet to say that the vision is not to be fulfilled in the future? Let him beware of the character and doom of a false prophet. God is not mocked, though it be the day of grace and patience with man on the earth.