This essay addresses a question about Ezekiel’s Temple raised both by Christians and Jews. Secular Jews, and liberal religious Jews seem fairly uninterested in it, but at least an ultra-Orthodox minority either expects this Temple to descend to the Temple Mount from heaven in a future Messianic Age, or otherwise that their beginning its construction may usher in that age, with Messiah himself arriving to resolve many issues raised by Ezekiel’s text. Liberal or “mainline” Christians also seem to have little interest, but the question is much debated in evangelical circles, especially dispensational ones like in the Left Behind books and movies. They believe biblical prophecy requires the Jews to construct a Third Temple as soon as political conditions on the Temple Mount permit it. They do not all agree, however, that this Third Temple will be Ezekiel’s. Some see the Third Temple more as a reconstruction of the Second Temple that was destroyed by the Romans—one that doesn’t satisfy all of Ezekiel’s design requirements for an “eternal” Temple, since according to their view of prophecy, the Antichrist must defile it. For those Christians, Ezekiel’s Temple would essentially be a “Fourth” Temple.
The essay is written from a conservative Reformed (non-dispensational) perspective, with its own interpretation of what Ezekiel’s Temple being built means. It is hoped this may be considered as an “iron sharpening iron” offering for the debate that prayerfully may encourage new thinking by people of good will open to discussing it from the Scriptures. Strictly speaking this will relate only to views explicitly involving the temple of Ezekiel’s chapters 40-48—i.e., “When will Ezekiel’s Temple be built?” Its relevance to a “Third Temple” not based on Ezekiel is limited to such general principles as may apply.
INTEREST IN THE TEMPLE VISION of Ezekiel 40-48 has led scholars and artists to attempt to depict it. Usually they show a grand complex of courtyards accented with soaring, highly ornamented towers—the one above the temple’s inner sanctuary rising above all the others. A variety of architectural styles are represented, reflecting the taste or imagination of the artists. Some renderings take as a starting point what Solomon’s and Herod’s temples are thought to have looked like, based on the Bible, the historian Josephus, and the tractate Middot of the Talmud. Other renditions have soaring Gothic towers along the lines of Riverside Church rising above the Hudson River in New York City, Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago, or Duke University Chapel in Durham, North Carolina. The assumption seems to be that since David said the temple his son Solomon would build had to be “exceeding magnificent, of fame and glory throughout all lands” (I Chron. 22:5), and Josephus says the later Temple of Herod was toweringly high and dazzlingly beautiful in form, materials, and ornamentation, then the place Ezekiel describes as God’s eternal dwelling place among men can be no less imposing and magnificent.
Ezekiel’s text, however, includes not a single subjective expression about the aesthetic effect or beauty of the temple he sees in his vision, in marked contrast to the highly charged descriptions in his famous chapter 1 “chariot” vision. As will be seen, whether he records any instruction to “build” anything in his last nine chapters—be it magnificent or not—is anything but certain. Of course, numerous interpreters believe Ezekiel’s Temple must be built, based substantially on Scriptures from other books of the Bible. This understanding will be discussed later in this article, after some internal evidence bearing on this question from within the book of Ezekiel itself has been considered.
The logical place to begin would be God’s commission to Ezekiel (43:6–12) to communicate his vision to his Hebrew brethren in captivity in Babylon. Ezekiel was told to describe the temple to make the people ashamed for their iniquities, and to let them “measure” what is variously translated as its pattern or plan or design. If they humbled themselves, he was then to make known to them the design (or plan) of its whole design (or entire plan or form.) This somewhat circular set of instructions may mean that he would first give them an overview of the temple’s design, going into more detail if they showed signs of repenting. Thus far, nothing has been said even vaguely about building anything, but the commission goes on to say that if the people repented, he was to “write down in their sight” all the temple’s statutes, its whole design (or entire plan), and its laws so they might carry them out (or do or perform or follow) them. The question is, is this “carrying out” (or doing, or performing, or following) a call to “build” something?
On the most literal level, the command to “carry out” strictly applies to the “statutes,” the “whole design,” and the “laws.” In that translation, the “whole design” sounds like it could involve a set of blueprints, but in his Ezekiel commentary, Daniel I. Block (Vol. 2, p. 589) says these three Hebrew expressions most closely mean ordinances, instructions, and laws, and that the verse means that the temple’s plan or pattern should be made known “so they may observe all [God’s] rulings and all [His] ordinances by executing them.” Ezekiel 40–48 contains many rulings and ordinances that are not directly related to a temple building. In Ezekiel’s chapter 11, before the first hint of a new temple is given, the prophet records God’s promise to put a “new spirit within [Israel]...that they may walk in My statutes and keep My judgments and do them”—virtually what Ezekiel 43 says, without mention of a temple. So the language about “doing” rulings and ordinances is in itself inconclusive in regard to temple-building. If “doing” God’s ordinances in chapter 43 was meant to include physically constructing the visionary temple, the words at least do not make that explicit.
This is in marked contrast to God’s instructions for the desert Tabernacle. Moses was told to “raise up” or “erect” it according to the “pattern” shown him on the mountain (Ex. 26:30). The phrase “you shall make” (or equivalents) occurs twenty-three times in Exodus chapter 25, twenty times in chapter 26, and ten times in chapter 27—over fifty times in just three chapters of divine instructions. Then in chapter 28, Moses is told to “make” holy garments for Aaron the priest “for glory and for beauty.” Bezalel and Oholiab were commissioned by name to “make” the tabernacle’s furnishings of gold and silver, and the priestly garments and hanging curtains of colorfully dyed and “artistically woven” fabrics. Ezekiel, on the other hand, mentions in passing some cherubim and palm trees carved as decoration on gateposts and the doors and interior walls of his main sanctuary, but there is nothing about gold, dyed fabrics, artistic craftsmanship, or craftsmen. He does not even say the plain wooden table—the only thing he even sees in the Holy Place—is gold plated. In contrast to the Tabernacle, Ezekiel does not say that anything is to be “made” or “erected,” much less that anything should be artistic or beautiful.
For another thing, Ezekiel’s temple vision comes at the end of his book, but his earlier chapters 4, 5, 6, 12, 21, and 24 have “visual sermons” where he was instructed to use various props or perform various “sign-acts” to make points for the exiles. In the first verses of Chapter 4, Ezekiel was told to “engrave” or “portray” or “draw” the city of Jerusalem, from which the captives had been taken to Babylon, on a clay tablet of the sort used for building plans, and then to act out, like a skit, enemy forces laying siege against the tablet bearing the city’s image. Ezekiel was told to perform his sign-acts before the people “in their sight” (4:12, 12:3–7), just as he was told to write out his temple vision “in their sight” (43:11). The temple vision is vastly longer and more detailed than these earlier sign-acts, but the fact that Ezekiel routinely prophesied that way begs the question to what degree this final section could also have been for a teaching purpose, and that the “carrying out” referred to in chapter 43 may have meant grasping and conforming to the spiritual truths his temple illustrates rather than turning it into a construction project. In those earlier chapters, the purpose in every case was to point beyond the details in the demonstration to a higher spiritual lesson.
And there are other reasons to think that is the case in regard to Ezekiel 40–48. One is the virtual lack of vertical heights in Ezekiel’s “plan” of the sort a builder needs to construct anything from a doghouse to a skyscraper. What Ezekiel provides is basically just a two-dimensional ground-plan, like orientation maps visitors see at universities, hospitals, or museums, showing where academic or medical departments or museum exhibits are located on the main level of the buildings or wings, but not always what is on upper floors, or what the buildings look like on the outside. If Ezekiel “saw” in his mind’s eye impressive structures rising above his ground-plan as God gave him the vision, or if he consciously thought what he was recording should serve as a blueprint for future architects to elaborate upon, as have campus planners at Duke, the University of Chicago, and elsewhere in their master plans, he does not clearly say so.
He does say that a low, ten-and-a-half-foot wall surrounds the square temple complex. A height is given for the central altar, and the inner sanctuary is said to have three “stories,” but of uncertain heights. There are a total of eighteen one-foot-high vertical steps within the area defined by the outer wall, rising from the outer gates to the inner sanctuary, but in relation to the temple’s great size—500 “long” cubits, or about 850 feet across (nearly three football fields!)—that only averages out to a two percent overall slope, the bare minimum needed for a nominally “flat” roof, lawn, or parking lot to shed rainwater adequately. Only Ezekiel 40:14 looks (in some translations) like it might conceivably give a significant height for one gatehouse (and thus by implication the plan’s five others)—the traditional Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT) seeming to say it is 60 cubits (105 feet) high. But the ancient Greek translation, the Septuagint (sometimes quoted by Jesus and the Apostles, along with the Hebrew, as God’s Word) says just 20 cubits there, and apparently as a horizontal, not vertical measurement. (Measurements in adjacent MT verses are clearly horizontal.) Leslie C. Allen’s Ezekiel commentary (Vol. 2, p. 220) suggests that the MT’s Hebrew text in 40:14 was so difficult to make out that a scribe borrowed the number “60” from the 1 Kings 6 description of the destroyed First (Solomon’s) Temple—where, however, it was definitely a horizontal measurement.
The Talmudic rabbis were not unanimous about these heights, either. The foremost commentator, Rashi (1040–1105) held that the gatehouses were 50 cubits high and the pillars at their ends 60 cubits, but to do so he had to argue that a common Hebrew word used in 40:14 means “height” just in that one verse, despite its normal meaning of “length.” But another leading Jewish sage, David A. Kimhi (or “Radak,” 1160–1235) said he was “amazed” at Rashi’s understanding of the gatehouse height. Kimhi, whose horizontal interpretation in this verse is reflected in NJPS Tanakh, said in his own Ezekiel commentary that “nowhere in the narrative is a measure for the height of the gateways mentioned.”
Even if the gatehouses were meant to be 105 feet tall, why give just that one height? Would it justify showing a much higher tower over the main sanctuary on renderings or models for artistic effect, on the assumption that temple architects would have freedom to express themselves beyond what Moses and his artisans Bezalel and Oholiab had in the desert Tabernacle—where Nadab and Abihu died (Lev. 10:1–3) for “expressing themselves”? If heights are important, why not include them for every part of the temple complex that is unique to Ezekiel’s plan, and would need to be determined somehow if it was to be built, or even just portrayed correctly in a rendering or model?
When Israel returned from Babylon, and actually built a second temple, there is no biblical evidence that they seriously considered trying to implement the prophet’s plan. (For a discussion of some suggestions to the contrary in the Mishnah, see Part 3 of the author’s “Christian midrash” articles on this Free Articles page.) In terms of the Bible, Ezra 3:2 and 6:18 seem to suggest that the returnees looked back to what was “written in the Law of Moses, the man of God” for authoritative guidance, not to Ezekiel. But whether they gave any thought to Ezekiel or not, they could scarcely have attempted anything magnificent, or even just as expansive as Ezekiel’s plan, because the Bible says that men who remembered Solomon’s temple wept at the comparatively meager sight of the new one as it emerged (Ezra 3:12).
But God also said that in the “latter days,” the glory of that same temple would surpass Solomon’s, not in gold and silver, but that in it He would “give peace” (Haggai 2:9). That prophecy was fulfilled in Luke 2, when Mary carried the baby Jesus into Herod’s temple and Simeon saw the “light for revelation to the Gentiles” and “glory” of Israel arriving there—the “radiance of the glory of God” (Heb. 1:3). Herod did lavish physical beauty on it for a few brief years before its destruction in A.D. 70, but as the historian Josephus abundantly testified, shalom never came to it, other than what Simeon saw in that divine Infant that let him depart “in peace,” and the Way of peace that the grown-up Jesus later proclaimed in its courts (John 7 and 8).
The case for a future Ezekiel’s Temple and its era is argued by some from Old Testament prophecies that can be understood at least as well as being of Christ’s first or second coming, His Spirit in the church, or the New Creation, often in overlapping ways. In the author’s opinion, many interpreters give the veiled revelation of the Old Testament unwarranted priority over the New. But Jesus said that although many prophets had prophesied before John the Baptist, John was “more than a prophet,” in coming to prepare His way (Matt. 11, 17). At the Transfiguration, Peter wanted to honor Moses (for the law) and Elijah (for the prophets) along with Jesus, but was rebuked by God for elevating them to Jesus’ level (Luke 9). Hebrews 1 says the prophets spoke “in times past in various ways” (like Ezekiel’s sign-acts) but now God has spoken definitively “by His Son.” 1 Peter 1:10–13 says the Old Testament prophets prophesied to show those of us in the church what Jesus has accomplished on the cross. Peter, in Acts 2, applied the “future” prophecy of Joel 2 to Pentecost, and James in Acts 15 applied the “future” prophecy of Amos 9 about David’s fallen tabernacle being rebuilt not to some restored Davidic dynasty or temple, but to the gentiles coming to faith. Jesus Himself told the woman at the well (John 4) that the day was then arriving when God’s true worshipers would worship Him neither in apostate Samaria nor in Jerusalem, but “in spirit and truth.” The Apostle Paul said the Mosaic law—including by implication the Tabernacle sacrifices—was “a tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (Gal. 4:24–5).
The Apostolic understanding of “the temple” is that it is Christ Himself (Matt. 12:6, 26:61), the church (1 Cor. 3:16-17, 2 Cor. 6:16, Eph. 2:19-22, 2 Thess. 2:4, Rev. 11:1-2), and the individual Christian (1 Cor. 6:19). The New Testament’s only clear reference to a future temple structure is in Rev. 21:22, which says that in the New Jerusalem to come, there will be “no temple.” Whoever believes that the Bible requires another Jerusalem temple must pick it out of the matrix of prophecy using some humanly derived system of interpretation.
At the very least, so-called “literal” arguments giving veiled Old Testament prophecy priority over clearer teachings of Christ and the Apostles are debatable, and come with their own theological challenges. A 732-page book promoting the soon building of a physical temple has a whole chapter attempting a theological defense of renewed animal sacrifices in it. At the climax of his argument, the book’s author attempts to nail down his case by appealing to two unpublished theses by seminary students that elevate the temple’s atonement for “ritual impurity” at the expense of atonement for “sin.” Reconciling that view of the sacrifices with Apostolic doctrine (Heb. 6–10) is an unenviable task.
Another such challenge is Ezekiel’s strict requirement of circumcision for entering his temple. The purpose of his gatehouses in chapter 40 is evidently to correct the laxity of the former priests and Levites (see 44:4ff) who let unclean Jews and foreigners enter and even work in Solomon’s temple, contributing to its abandonment by God and its subsequent destruction in the years of the captivity in Babylon. Ezekiel’s temple therefore admits no one “uncircumcised in heart and flesh” (44:7). This is restated (v.9) for emphasis, lest anyone think circumcision of the heart alone is enough. Reconciling that with Paul’s teaching on circumcision in Galatians is a problem for those who would “literally” construct Ezekiel’s temple, if they think uncircumcised gentiles can commune with their Lord Jesus as He dwells inside—not merely for a thousand years, but for all eternity (Ezek. 43:7). Or does a “literal” reading of Ezekiel trump Paul?
In his 2015 book Jesus the Evangelist, Richard D. Phillips observes (p. 63) that when Nicodemus—a “teacher of the law” in Israel—came to Him in the third chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus criticized him for not knowing the prophecies of Ezekiel. He had been befuddled by Jesus’ saying he had to be “born of water and the Spirit,” which Ezekiel says in his chapter 36 would become the spiritual reality for Israel. If he had known that, he should have understood Jesus’ statement—and who He was. That comes in Ezekiel at the doorstep of the temple vision, and is presupposed in it. Ezekiel 36:7 says that God in that latter day would cause Israel, with its new heart and spirit, to walk in His “statutes” and obey His “rules”—just as He tells Ezekiel in 43:11 to tell the people that they would “carry out” or “do” his temple’s laws and rules (as was pointed out earlier.) Nicodemus missing Jesus’ saying because he missed Ezekiel’s prophecy of the Spirit should alert us that Ezekiel’s temple vision is a spiritual reality that might be missed by a latter day Pharisee ignoring the bigger picture of the Bible.
Still another hint that “carrying out” Ezekiel’s vision is not “building” is Revelation’s vision of the New Jerusalem, which clearly invokes Ezekiel. John’s city is also square with multiple gates and a life-giving stream, but no one can “carry out” its design, which comes down from heaven, already “constructed” by God. Revelation 1:3 calls “blessed” the person who “keeps” that vision, but that cannot mean building it with earthly materials. “Carrying out” or “keeping” John’s vision means living in Christ, “building” his temple with “living stones” and “pillars” (1 Peter 2:5, Rev. 3:12). And it cannot be said with certainty whether the city of John’s vision will have physical attributes in some way answering to his precise measurements, or is a symbol for something beyond human comprehension, where those who enter by faith will understand it as having been true in a way light-years beyond anything their finite minds could have pictured. The ideal abstraction of Ezekiel’s square plan, in comparison to the tabernacle or Solomon’s temple, links it to Rev. 21–22 as something more than a “building.” And like the entire book of Revelation, the single most “literal” thing one can say about Ezekiel 40–48 is that it is a vision.
One final observation about so-called “depictions” of this temple vision—actually a question for literal-minded readers—may help underscore this last point. Diagrams of Ezekiel’s temple (like some in the author’s Ezekiel’s Temple book and his four “Christian midrash” articles) that merely attempt to highlight themes and relationships in the biblical text, cannot by their two-dimensional nature be called “realistic depictions.” For the covers of the 2013 and 2016 editions of his book, the author did attempt at least a “semi-realistic” sketch that is admittedly anything but “magnificent.” The gatehouse walls terminate at the 10.5 foot level—the highest point that can be proved from the text. The inner court in the background is veiled in fog, and shows no architectural details of the altar or inner sanctuary. Instead, it blazes with the fire of the divine wrath at sin that the sacrificial system represented. The idea was to show some hint of the brimstone of hell being poured out on Jesus in His self-offering that completed that system forever. I find it a disturbing image, not at all pleasant to look at, and no doubt it has hurt sales of the book. Yet I am comforted to think of my Savior’s having had “no form or majesty...no beauty that any should desire him” (Isa. 53:2 ESV) and how He became as “a worm, and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people” (Ps.22:6) as He was wounded by God for my transgressions and crushed for my iniquities (Isa. 53:5). He became sin for me on the cross (2 Cor. 5:21). That may not be what the world calls “magnificent,” but to me it is what makes Ezekiel’s Temple “glorious.”
To return to the observation and question, today besides the various “magnificent” painted artist’s renderings mentioned at the beginning of this essay, there are three-dimensional scale models, and computerized models with animated walk-throughs that do purport to be realistic depictions, and people who believe most firmly in the future construction of Ezekiel’s “plans” seem the most dedicated to creating and utilizing them to promote and facilitate construction. The question regarding these 3-D “depictions” is this: Where in them is the Divine Presence that Ezekiel sees entering the inner court in 43:11, just as God tells him this temple would be the place of His throne forever?
Please think about this. Is God’s Glory—the divine theophany Ezekiel described with fear and trembling in his chapter 1 chariot vision, and which entered the temple in chapter 43—eternally confined to Ezekiel’s windowless 20 by 20 by 20 cubit Holy of Holies, where no high priest or other human is ever said to go? If that is the case, it would certainly relieve the human artist of the unenviable task of having to concoct a blatantly idolatrous image of God standing in the temple’s inner court in his rendering or model, even if they are arrogant enough to think they would know how to do that. (I feel like my only partly realistic sketch is excused from this, since it did not attempt to depict anything in the inner court.) It is easy to draw, by hand or computer, the exterior of a Holy of Holies inside of which an unseen Jesus is asserted to be sitting on a throne, but is the notion of an eternally hidden away God really compatible with His being Immanuel, God with man forever? Or should we take the Bible at its word when it says the Divine Presence “filled” the temple, and that all its chambers and courts and the walls around and between them became subsumed into God’s Glory—its walls and spaces becoming indistinguishable from the Person and Work of Jesus, the “express image” and “radiance” of God?
If there is no unambiguous evidence that “carrying out” Ezekiel’s vision means constructing a building, and some that it does not, then it might seem wise to put the “blueprints” on hold for a moment and examine more closely what it is that Ezekiel’s audience was to be shown, and what they were to do about it. The author has striven as a believing architect and Bible student to trumpet that message abroad. He believes that Ezekiel’s Temple is about the kingdom of Christ, and that it has already been “built” in principle in His completed work, and will be fully “built-out” in fact when the last elect soul has been saved, and Jesus turns His kingdom over to His Father (1 Cor. 15:24–28). This is the “plan” or “pattern” of Ezekiel’s Temple, a pattern that still presents a glorious picture—a picture of God’s amazing grace—that has palpable reality that people can experience today, whoever and wherever they are.
Somehow I don’t think I’ll need to stand with millions or billions in line for eons at the door of some building for a brief glimpse of my Savior inside. But if it turns out that God does mean for Ezekiel’s pattern to be incorporated some day into a physical building, I hope that in His great mercy I may be allowed to polish some paving stone close enough to “the action” in the temple at least to hear an echo of its sounds and sense its distant glory, consoled with the sure knowledge that no polished stone or priestly ceremony can be more beautiful to contemplate than God’s beautiful plan of salvation.
Copyright 2018 by Emil H. Henning III. Permission is granted to quote or reproduce this article, in whole or part, for non-commercial purposes, with proper attribution. It may not be copied or incorporated into any print, film, or electronic publication or media product offered for sale, in whole or part, without express written permission of the author.