Ezekiel is an unusual book. A mixture, which includes a call that reads like an extract from a science fiction novel, the usual prophecies declaring judgement and the future restoration of Jerusalem, an inspiring vision of the dry bones becoming a living army and then a long, detailed description of a Temple yet to be built.
The vision of God, at the beginning, is out of this world but appears to be full of the sort of vivid symbolism one finds in Revelation. Ezekiel’s call is to prophesy lament and mourning and woe (2:9), to point out that Israel/Judah had not kept God’s laws but rather conformed to the standards of the nations around them (11:12) and to foretell a time when the scattered people of Jerusalem would return and receive a new spirit within them – a heart of flesh to replace the heart of stone (11:19 & 36:26).
It strikes me that that is what should happen when the Christian receives the Spirit of God. A revolution, a transformation from the inside out. I once heard someone put it this way: Our lives are like a bowling ball with a bias that tends to take us in our own direction, governed by our own will. When God’s Spirit indwells us it is if the bowling bowl was turned over so that the bias takes us the opposite way, towards God and his will for our lives. The heart of flesh has a new sensitivity to the promptings of the Spirit.
The renewal image is expanded with the shoot taken from the top of the cedar (the Davidic line (17:1-3) and planted so that birds find shelter in its branches (an image of the Kingdom of God picked up by Jesus in Matthew 4:32). It is further expanded by the vision of the Valley of Dry Bones in chapter 37. When hope is completely lost, God breathes new life into the situation. It is interesting that he enlists Ezekiel’s cooperation in the revival. “Prophesy to these bones and say to them…”
God’s spokespeople are saddled with great responsibility then. Ezekiel is also enlisted as a watchman in chapters 3 and 33. If he does not speak out he is accountable for the fate of those who might have heard the warning. It instantly reminds me of Romans 10:14-15, “How then can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?” Christians have a calling by virtue of the Great Commission (Matthew 28). We should be capable of giving a reason for the hope that lies within us (1 Peter 3:15).
Ezekiel’s message of judgement went beyond the People of God. Chapters are given over to the destruction of Tyre for example. But it seems probable to me that the message would not have been presented directly to the inhabitants of those nation’s and may rather have been for the benefit of the Jews with Ezekiel in Exile in Babylon. And I might add, to bolster the faith of the Exiles in God’s overarching control of history, rather than to satisfy their emotions of vengeance or triumphalism. We must remember that chapter 18 tells us that God responds to those who repent and takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. “Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?”
It has been suggested, with some good reason, that chapters 38 and 39 are a separate unit. Certainly we seem to be projected beyond the immediate return of the Exiles to Jerusalem, and the style of writing has changed to distinctly apocalyptic (similar to Revelation, where Gog is also mentioned in a great battle after the millennial period of peace).
Gog (not readily identified) appears to be an enemy leader from Israel’s north who gathers other nations to fight Israel in a huge battle which ends (as in Revelation) with a comprehensive defeat of those forces of evil.
If taken literally then this would appear to take place somewhere near the end of time prior to the Judgement Day. If understood spiritually this could refer to the death and resurrection of Christ and the victory over sin and death (which is the way some people interpret the Battle of Armageddon mentioned in Revelation). Or once again it could refer to some spiritual end-time battle.
I am conscious that, when Israel was reconstituted as a nation after the Second World War, many saw a fulfilment of these chapters in the huge return of Jews to the land, and are therefore expecting a rising of nations for a final battle against Israel. It could be, but since the apocalyptic style carries a great deal of symbolic imagery we have to approach interpretation with care and with the recognition that a good deal of speculation abounds on the subject.
Best then to at least see that the overall thrust of these chapters is to affirm that God has control of the nations, both to raise up and destroy, and that the victory belongs to him. Whatever else is happening around God’s people, they are with God and can stay calm in the knowledge that they are on the winning side. The overthrow of evil will come to fruition. That is the message here and it is the message of Revelation.
Chapter 40 of Ezekiel seems to pick up from the end chapter 37 and deals with the restoration of the Temple and the re-division of the Promised land amongst the tribes of Israel.
Since we have chapters of detailed dimensions of a Temple that has not been built, what should we make of it? Three broad possibilities occur to me.
- I grew up with the idea that one day an earthquake would demolish the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and Israel would build a fourth temple on the site, after the design given to Ezekiel.
- God gave instructions to Ezekiel which were not carried out, as historically so many instructions weren’t. It’s another case of people not really listening to the prophets. What they finished up with were inferior buildings.
- Ezekiel’s Temple represents an ideal couched in concrete pictorial terms. Rather like the end-times pictures we have of the Kingdom of God in writings such as Isaiah and again in the symbolic language of the final chapters of Revelation.
The first two theories are not impossible but I think I favour the third. I can’t imagine why God would mandate a sacrificial system in our future, given that Jesus Christ is portrayed as the once-for-all sacrifice that is effective for dealing with the problem of human sin in a way that animal sacrifice could never be.
The way the Land is divided in chapter 48 is in strips one above the other, quite differently from the original division of the Land under Joshua. Here again may be the portrayal of a future ideal where the divisions are set out neatly with a comparatively huge central area set apart, where the sanctuary is just on the north side of Jerusalem.
In the final chapters of Revelation we also see the imagery of the New Jerusalem, which contains no Temple. This New Jerusalem is obviously a symbol of the People of God and there is no Temple because God and Jesus Christ are the Temple – God dwells amongst his people.
Whatever else Ezekiel’s Temple may indicate, that is where the People of God are heading. God amongst his people is the reassuring reality.