Theology from Pictures: Observe and Do…But Don’t!

I only meant to plug Fred Butler’s series on Interpreting Ezekiel’s Temple, but I annoyed Steve Hays because I alluded to our online debate, wherein, among other contrivances, he argued against my views by telling us what the Bible doesn’t mean.  Anyhow, if he thinks I misrepresented him he has a right to correct me.

Because of my “indiscretion” in referring to our debate and my basic assessment of his procedure I am now labelled a “proud self-congratulatory bigot.” (And that’s only some of my good points!).  He’d already compared me to Don Quixote’s nag.  He follows up with a bit of psychology by suggesting I would lose my faith if God didn’t fulfill the temple vision by causing a temple to be erected.  I may return to this matter later.

It’s a shame he gets personal because the man is clever and often seeks to represent the truth to those who read his blog.

That aside, Steve is going to try to sort me out again.  I am okay with people disagreeing with me.  I’m not the Fount of all knowledge.  But I don’t think Steve has come anywhere near to presenting a convincing argument against the view that Ezekiel was depicting an actual temple, and that was how the vision was to be understood.

Nowhere in our previous correspondence did Steve explain what he thought Ezekiel 40-48 actually meant.  He tried to tell me what it wasn’t, without explaining any verse in the nine chapters in question.  And now he informs us that Ezekiel 40-48 is “a word-picture” representing, in some form, “the end of the church age, and the onset of the eternal age.”  Fine, but does he present any exegetical evidence for this opinion?  Does he interact with these chapters and explain how temple dimensions, materials, rituals, priestly orders, prohibitions, tribal allotments and rivers add up to “the end of the church age” and “the consummation.”  Has he explained how he knows they mean this?  No, no and no.

And I don’t think he will.  Nor will he explain how he could find out about the church age from only utilizing the OT (he doesn’t believe the church is in the OT).  I believe he will create a diversion and reroute the discussion away from the Bible.

Steve begins, (His words are in brown.  Underlining is mine):

let’s take his [Henebury’s] questions in reverse ordr:

c) why on earth did God not simply say what He meant?

 i) That’s not a real question. That’s a loaded question. An accusation couched as a faux question. A question that builds a tendentious premise into the formulation. As if those who dare to differ with Henebury don’t think God said what he meant.

Some questions about God and the Bible are out of order for Steve.  Anyone with experience with dealing with those who hold covenant eschatology know that it is excruciating getting them to just tell you what the Bible says.  Try this passage or Jer. 33:14-26 on them and see.  I supposedly asked a loaded question (his inner psychologist again).  But no, it really is a question, and a good one.  And it’s one Hays doesn’t answer.  By fiat he declares. “That’s not a question.”

But to many Christians it is a crucial question.  Steve ought to realize that.  Look, does God mean what He says and say what He means when He tells us we are justified by faith in Christ (Rom. 5:1)?  Yes!  Does He mean what He says when He describes Hell as a place of fire (Matt. 25)?  Yes!  Okay then, does He mean what He says when He describes a temple to a priest in minute detail and tells him to fix his attention on it?

There, you see, it is a question.  Now Steve might want to counter with aline like, “God meant to describe a temple and priests and sacrifices and the whole nine yards, but He intended it as a figure of something different”  But that would mean God didn’t say what He really meant (He prevaricated), nor mean what He said – He meant something else.  But the burden of proof is on Steve as I have shown and shall show.

ii) Moreover, Henebury’s way of framing the issue is foolish and silly. One might as well ask, Why on earth didn’t God simply say what he meant in Ezk 37:1-14, instead of that strange business about reassembling and reanimating skeletons?

He did!  He tells us what He means right in the context!  Read it:

Ezek. 37:11 tells us that “these bones are the whole house of Israel.”  God tells the prophet what He means by the figure.  This is not what happens anywhere in chs. 40-48.

Why on earth didn’t God simply say what he meant in Ezk 29:3-4, instead of comparing Pharaoh to a Nile crocodile?

Well He did!  Read Ezek 29:2-3.  The explanation is in the context.  Nowhere in chs.40-48 are we told that the details mean anything other than what they describe.

Why on earth didn’t God simply say what he meant in Ezk 4:2, instead of directing the prophet to play with a clay model of Jerusalem (Ezk 4:1-2)?

Once again, He did.  Read Ezek. 4:3, 5, 6, 13, 16; 5:5, etc.  The explanation is right in the context.  Can anyone show me a similar phenomenon in Ezek. 40-48?  You see, Steve is equating the temple vision with these other interpreted symbols because he wants the temple to be figurative.  The prophet gives him no help with his “word-picture” project.  I have easily answered Steve’s counter examples by pointing to what the Bible says.

b) what sort of hermeneutical practice is involved?

i) The grammatico-historical method. One element of that hermeneutic is audiencial meaning. Bible writers (and speakers) generally intend to be understandable to their immediate audience. So meaning is to that degree anchored in the potential understanding of the original audience. What the audience would be able to grasp.

As I said in a footnote to one post, “the Grammatico-historical method” means different things today than it used to.  But Steve’s description of it will do for present purposes.  You see, I have proved several times to him that the audience understood it to be a real temple, including citing OT scholar Richard Hess‘s opinion that “the fact that every example we have until after the New Testament was written believed in a literal fulfillment of a restored temple.”  Steve offered no counter evidence.  Twice previously I referred to the efforts of Hananiah ben Hezekiah to reconcile Ezekiel with the Mosaic cultus.  See this article for more on that.  I do not see how the G-H method transforms these descriptions into “the end of the church age”.  I have given evidence that the early audiences didn’t see things Steve’s way.

How or when we apply that distinction depends on the context.

It sure does!  And nothing in the context encourages us to endorse Steve’s assertions.  We’ll be looking at the context below.

a) what they are supposed to really mean?

Before we answer that question, we need to lay down some ground rules.

Translation: “I’m going to condition the reader by giving qualifications which rule out Henebury’s interpretation before we even read Ezekiel.”

i) We need to distinguish between literal events and literal depictions.  Why, unless you’ve decided in advance it doesn’t describe literal events (like building, sacrificing, obeying codes)?

For instance, Ezk 37:1-14 depicts a literal event in symbolic terms. Which is given a literal interpretation in the context.  It depicts the restoration of Israel. That’s a literal event. But the depiction is symbolic.

True, and he’s referred us to the context.  But the question is how does Steve know this is what is happening in the last 9 chapters of the Book?

ii) We need to distinguish between pictures and propositions. Images aren’t meaningful in the same way that sentences are meaningful. Unlike sentences, images don’t make assertions.

I’m sorry?  I rather thought I was reading sentences, not looking at a picture.  Some propositions in the passage will be listed below.

a) An image needn’t mean anything. For instance, an artist can paint a scene from his imagination.

This is not a picture by an artist.  It is a description of a “temple.”

The scene doesn’t stand for anything. It doesn’t represent something he saw. Rather, he paints the imaginary scene because he finds it pleasant or interesting.

Did he get this from anything said in Ezekiel?  Where is G-H hermeneutics?  No, he has simply asserted it without warrant.

b) Of course, some images are referential. They stand for something else. Ezk 40-48 contains prophetic images.

He’s got you thinking of a painting, but Ezekiel 40-48 isn’t a painting; no more than the tabernacle in Exodus is a painting.  It’s a clear description: a floorplan and commands and such

c) Ezk 40-48 is an extended word-picture. A series of images.

Voila!  Hermeneutics by assertion.  Does Ezekiel say it is a word picture?  Where?

Suppose you’re shown a picture of a river valley…

He’s talking about pictures when Ezekiel isn’t.

e) Ezekiel is addressing the exilic community. What could this mean to them?  A temple maybe?  That’s where all the evidence points (cf. Hess above).

I think chaps. 40-48 present pictorially what Ezk 36:22-38 & 37:26-27 present more prosaically. Same message, different medium.

I know he thinks that, but where’s his evidence?

Likewise, I think Ezk 37:1-14 and Ezk 40-48 are different imaginative depictions of the same reality.

The regathering of the diaspora.  Repatriation to the land of Israel. In that respect, the vision had reference to the near future.

Notice he’s ignoring the new covenant details in these passages.

That’s why Revelation can see parts of Ezk 40-48 fulfilled in a different setting than the postexilic restoration of Israel.

And just where. exactly, does Revelation do that?  E.g. New Jerusalem is different in a multitude of ways from Ezekiel’s temple; dimensionally for one thing.   

Here the themes of God’s compresence with his people, shalom, and the Davidic messiah, take place in the world to come…

Steve is all about themes, motifs, and types.  I pressed him on the subjectivity of this approach before and, true to form, he ignored it.  Steve’s “theme” is different than one of his betters.

Here’s John Owen’s interpretation:

In a sermon on Ezek. 47:11, which he will use as an allegory of spiritual barrenness, the great Puritan writes,

“First.  The house, or temple, from whence these waters issue, may be taken two ways:-

1. Mystically, to denote only the presence of God.  God dwelt in his temple; thence come these waters – from his presence.  He sends out the word of the gospel for the conversion and healing of the nations, Psa. Cx. 2,  Or,-

2. Figuratively; and that either for the place where the temple of old stood (that is, Jerusalem), as the preaching of the gospel was to go forth from Jerusalem, and the sound of it from thence to proceed unto all the world, as Isa. Xli. 27, lii. 7; Acts i.4, 8; or for the church of Christ and his apostles, the first glorious, spiritual temple unto God, whence these waters issued.” – Works of John Owen, IX. 180.

Notice Owen’s interpretation is not that of Hays.  Once we drift from the natural meaning of the words in context we are on a sea of subjectivity.

I’ll close by listing 10 reasons for holding my view:

Some Lines of Evidence for Interpreting Ezekiel 40-48 as Depicting a Temple, etc.

1. Ezekiel calls it a temple over and over (e.g. 40:5, 45 – where the priestly function is mentioned; 41:6-10 – where its chambers are described in pedantic detail; 42:8 – where the length of the chambers depends on their position relative to the sanctuary;  43:11 – where God declares: make known to them the design of the house, its structure, its exits, its entrances, all its designs, all its statutes, and all its laws. And write it in their sight, so that they may observe its whole design and all its statutes, and do them.”  I honestly don’t know what all that has to do with the NT church!  Then in 43:21 a bull is to be offered as a sin-offering outside the house; 45:20 – an atonement is made for the simple on the seventh day of the month; 46:24 – sacrifices are boiled at designated places; 48:21 – the huge allotment for the sanctuary is measured (it is very different to New Jerusalem in Rev.21!). 

2. It has laws to perform (43:11-12).  Quite how one can perform “the close of the church age and the age to come” is beyond my imagining.

3. It stipulates two divisions of priests, only one of whom (Zadokites) can approach the Lord (44:15), and who are given land separate from other Levites (48:11).  I have asked Hays about this distinction and he ignored it. 

4. It refers to New Moons and sacrifices (46:1, 6).  New Jerusalem has no need of moonlight (Rev. 21:23).

5. The tribes of Israel are given specific allotments of land all around the temple (ch. 48)

6.  The two temples at the beginning and the end of the Book form a structural arc.  The first one is literal.  Nothing is said about the more detailed one being a mere symbol.  In fact, in 8:3ff. “the visions of God” recorded what really did occur (cf. 40:2).  

7. In ch. 10 the Shekinah leaves the actual temple in Jerusalem by the East Gate.  In ch. 43 it returns via the East Gate and remains.

8. A sanctuary is mentioned in the new covenant chapters (36 & 37).  For example, after Israel has been cleansed, God declares: I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will place them and multiply them, and will set My sanctuary in their midst forever. (Ezek. 37:26. Cf. 43:7).  This indicates the timing of the fulfillment of the temple prophecy.  This agrees with the timing indicated in the last verse of Ezekiel: “the name of the city from that day shall be, ‘The LORD is there” (Ezek. 48:35)

9. At least three times Ezekiel is commanded to pay close attention to specifics: 40:4; 43:10-11; 44:5.  The symbolic interpretation ignores these details when seeking to explain the meaning of the vision.

10. A future temple is necessary in light of God’s everlasting covenant with the Zadokites’ ancestor Phinehas (Num. 25:10-13; Psa. 106:30-31. Cf. Jer. 33:14f., Mal. 3:1-4).  Zech. 6:12-13; 14:8-9, 16f., which contra Steve are not angelic messages, describe temple conditions in Israel which have never yet existed, but which match Ezekiel 36-48.

Please look those references up and see if I have distorted what the verses say.  I have not shipped in a bunch of unproven and question-begging hermeneutical preconditions like Steve has.  I have simply allowed the Bible to speak.  If someone doesn’t believe these evidences and instead wants to interpret a portion of the Bible longer than 1 Corinthians as some “word-picture” which is “mere imagery”, with “no intrinsic interpretation,” then let them explain why from the text.  I think that’s a reasonable position. 

To me at least, Steve Hays’s interpretation of Ezekiel 40-48 is not an interpretation, but an attempt to divert the reader from attending to Ezekiel’s words. 

I’ll be out of town for a week and may not have time to write much until I get back.      

Follow up: Verbal Overkill   




  1. Nice work Paul. Not only have you responded like a scholar and a gentlemen, you have responded like a Christian! At times I find Hays to be less than charitable in his selection of adjectives to describe the views of those with whom he disagrees.

  2. I see it as a critical issue, and am so pained at heart that these folks who are DEAD-right in so many areas of theology because of their careful application of grammatical-historical exegesis completely lose their minds when it comes to prophetic passages because of dogmatic eisegesis.

    As I’ve often said, if Calvinists did prophetic passages like they do soteriological or theological passages, they’d be dispensationalists. (And vice-versa.)

    But let me add: if they did theological passages like they do prophetic passages, they’d be Christian Scientists or Religious Scientists.

    I know this for a fact. I was one, and that was what we did with texts that said what we didn’t want to hear. There was always a “deeper meaning” that fit our dogmas better.

    1. Dan, you are sounding like Tim LaHaye, horrors! We must read this theologically because we can’t be like Hal Lindsey and LaHaye! ;-p

      (honestly, this is what the non-Calvinist dispensationalists like LaHaye etc have been saying about the amillennial oats and postmillennialists for years. There was a quote from LaHaye’s The Rapture Question in 1991 when he said something like your words verbatim)

  3. Here is my final comments that I posted to Steve Hays on the link that you left to that article where he replied to you on.

    Here is one of my comments to Steve Hays >>> I was taught by Reformed mentors in the faith to follow the literal grammatical historical method of interpretation of Scripture. I follow this through out the entire Bible or I try to. 🙂 We can not invent one line of interpretation for one part of Scripture to use and then change to a different one when it comes to the area of Bible prophecy. Otherwise the Bible can be turned to mean anything from a subjective stand point. Those who deny Ezek 40 to 48 is a future temple with animal sacrifices basically violate the principle of the historical context of which that was written. People who first read this would have understood it as a future actual temple with animal sacrifices if we follow the historical context . If we followed your manner of it a person would never really know what Ezek 40 to 48 is teaching at all and left to the subjective perspective of the person rather than from an exegesis of it. When we formulate positions of passages it must be backed up by proper exposition or exegesis of Scripture otherwise we end up forcing ones own theological mold in to Scripture rather than drawing it from Scripture itself. Thats a real danger all too often found in cults like Jehovah Wittnesses like what they do in their translation of John 1:1 as an example. We all should avoid falling in to one error such as the late Dr. George Ladd who claimed that Isa. 53 in it’s historical context was NOT a prophecy of Jesus Christ and was made in to one by the New Testament as an example of one wants to claim the NT is the interpreter of the OT or supreme over it or even reinterpretes the OT. Yet the OT and NT are equally Scripture and of equal authority one another.

      1. Paul I even seen Dr. Charles Hodge in Volume 3 of his systematic theology deny a literal interpretation is to be followed in passages like Ezek 40-48 and other millennial kingdom passages which teaches animal sacrifices as taking place in it in the future. Very inconsistant at times Reformed scholars can be at times.

      2. Daniel Block says outright “to unlock its meaning [Ezek.40ff.] one needs to employ several different hermeneutical keys.” – Book of Ezekiel, NICOT, vol. 2.494

      3. Block implies that such an approach unlocks a singular meaning. The hard evidence from numerous commentators of this persuasion reveals otherwise: they unlock a veritable pandora’s box containing a plethora of interpretations. So much for unlocking anything of value.

      4. Yes Tony. Unfortunately I am away from home till next Friday so I will not be able to prove this until after I get back. Thus, my reply to Steve’s latest effort will have to wait. Notice though I did show how John Owen’s interpretation did not match Hays’s. Hays characteristically did not address the Owen citation. I do not answer Steve for his sake, but for my own growth in understanding and for my readers, who I hope will read both men and will themselves grow.

  4. Hey Paul. It appears that Steve Hay has directed an Article to me on his blog now. Triablogue: Hindsight masquerading as foresight

    On blogs I post under the user name Chafer DTS. 🙂

      1. I meant, “Bryan” not Joel.

        Now it’s early morning and I’ve only had one cup of coffee 😉

        I didn’t follow Steve’s logic too well. But I suppose one needs to look at the context of the earlier discussions.

      2. I looked at it briefly too. Looks to me like his main beef is with the idea of progressive revelation–since he seems to be upset that we would take what was written in Ezekiel and combine it with revelation given in the NT to see a correlation with Revelation 20. This, of course, is exactly what God hopes we would do and one of the reasons why the NT was given: to add information not given in the OT, but which dovetails with what we find therein.

        Although I would agree with his view that the OT reader of Ezekiel 40ff would not associate it with Revelation 20 (how could he?!!) his inference that the original recipients would have taken it in a spiritual or allegorical sense simply because it was never realized after the Babylonian captivity doesn’t follow. That is pure speculation on his part.

  5. I don’t understand the reference to Owen. Actually, I barely understand Owen’s own point from that quote. It seems at least in my perception that Owen saw the temple figuratively too. Is that what you’re trying to say (i.e. that Owen saw the temple figuratively)?

    1. Thanks for the question,

      Owen did indeed take the temple in Ezek 40ff. figuratively (actually allegorically). My point is that Owen’s interpretation differs from Steve’s (e.g. Owen sets it in the time of the start of the church). This shows that departing from the plain normal sense introduces subjectivity into the interpretation. Notice also that it is pointless claiming Owen was pre-critical and didn’t have the advantage of late 20th/early 21st century exegesis to help him. That only proves my point more. Saying that is an open admission that those chapters could not be accurately interpreted until these past 50 years or so. A daft conclusion.

      I shall drive this point home when I can get access to my books.

      God bless,

      Paul H

  6. Hi Tony. I believe the doctrine of the millennial reign of Christ on the earth is first taught in the Old Testament. It was on that basis that I linked it with Ezek 40-48 as relating to the millennial kingdom. I hold that passages such as in Isa. 2, 11 and 65 for example teaches about the millennial reign of Christ.

    1. Hi Bryan,

      I completely agree.

      It wasn’t my intention to infer that the millennial reign of Christ is without support from the OT. (The fact that it lasts 1,000 years is not found in the OT of course.) I discuss this in my Revelation Commentary in the section concerning the
      Millennial Kingdom, and
      especially the subsection on Millennial Passages (from the OT).

      I think what Steve is objecting to is associating with the Revelation 20–and of course the few verses there concerning the nature of that period are necessarily brief leaving a lot to be inferred. As many have noted, the conditions of the Messianic reign described in the OT cannot be fit into the present age (universal peace, tremendous fruitfulness, long age presently lacking) nor the eternal state (due to the continued presence of sin and death, Isa. 65:17-25). This, along with the timing of the Messianic reign set forth in the OT (after Israel’s tribulation and arrival at faith) lead to the logical conclusion that those passages relate to the 1,000 period described within Revelation 20 which follow upon the return of Messiah.

      I big topic, no doubt! 🙂

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