A Literal Reading
The structure of Ezekiel reaches its crescendo in the theme of the returning Glory to the Temple in Ezekiel 43:1-7. This return must be linked with the abandonment of Solomon’s Temple by the Glory-cloud in chapter 11. There is a narrative-theological arc extending from Ezekiel 8 and 11 over to Ezekiel 43.
This arc from a literal temple to what is often taken to be a spiritual temple at the end of the book, looks hermeneutically unbalanced and forced upon the prophet’s words. But if this arc and the other details in this section can be adequately accounted for by not spiritualizing them, then the theological fallout is immense. The strongly covenantal connections involved would, for example, stimulate a long overdue examination of God’s eternal covenant of peace with Phinehas (Num. 25:10-13) and his descendants the Zadokites (cf. 1 Chron. 6:4-8).
The whole section moves logically from the command to Ezekiel to describe the temple (Ezek. 40:4), to a guided tour of the premises, with measurements related at each step (Ezek. 40:6-42:20). We get a description of the altar and offerings (Ezek. 43:13-27), followed by rules on who can and who cannot enter the sanctuary (Ezek. 44:1-9). The two-tier priest system, consisting of Zadokites and Levites, is delineated (Ezek. 44:10-16). Then basic duties are described (Ezek. 44:17-31). In Ezekiel 45:1-8 the division of the land around the sanctuary is prescribed, beginning with a large “holy” area for the Zadokites, in which the sanctuary itself sits in its own acreage, situated in the center (cf. Ezek. 48:10). There will also be a smaller area “adjacent to the holy area” given to “the whole house of Israel” who live in the city (Jerusalem). The “prince,” receives a portion next to the city portion and the holy portion. A separate large area is for the other Levites. Several ordinances and offerings finish off the chapter and continue to Ezekiel 46:15. Then the gifts of the “prince” are mentioned (Ezek. 46:16-18). This includes a passage about how the prince is not to take other people’s property (Ezek. 46:18). Whoever this “prince” is then, he is not divine.
More descriptions close chapter 46, and then there is the description of the healing waters which flow out from the door of the temple (Ezek. 47:1-11). This is followed by an outline of the land inheritance (Ezek. 47:12-23). The prophet even includes Yahweh’s recollection of His covenant of land:
Thus says the Lord GOD: “These are the borders by which you shall divide the land as an inheritance among the twelve tribes of Israel. Joseph shall have two portions.
You shall inherit it equally with one another; for I raised My hand in an oath to give it to your fathers, and this land shall fall to you as your inheritance.” – Ezekiel 47:13-14 (my emphasis)
To those who place the whole last section of Ezekiel in the past, this is still a late reminder that God has not rescinded the land promise to the nation of Israel. The reason given for this is the oath He pledged to the Fathers centuries before: To repeat, covenant oaths are hermeneutically fixed points in Scripture.
If the prophetic context is kept in view then the establishment of the nation of Israel around this glorious temple will come to pass in the future in exactly the way the prophet described it. There has certainly been no such river as is here described in the history of the world until now! It is not for us to quibble at place names or future sacrifices or sin offerings. That is not our problem, and the One whose problem it is, is more than capable of resolving any apparent conflicts with our theology.
Ezekiel 48 is remarkable for its two lists of the tribes of Israel. In Ezekiel 48:1-8, 23-29 lists the borders of each tribe’s inheritance. Then Ezekiel 48:30-34 the gates of the city are named after the tribes. But the lists differ! The list of tribes who are given land is as follows:
Dan, Asher, Naphtali, Manasseh, Ephraim, Reuben, Judah, Benjamin, Simeon, Issachar, Zebulun, and Gad.
Levi is omitted and Joseph is represented by his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. When we compare the names on the gates of the city, we get the original brothers:
Reuben, Judah, Levi, Joseph, Benjamin, Dan, Simeon, Issachar, Zebulun, Gad, Asher, and Naphtali.
There is no contradiction here. Obviously, the reasons for the two lists differ. Because Levi is given land around the temple, the tribe of Joseph is divided between his sons to make up the twelve.
The last verse in Ezekiel puts a time-stamp on the whole section (Ezek. 48:35). God is present in the new temple (Ezek. 43:1-5). The tribes of Israel are around it north and south, and Jerusalem is called Yahweh Shammah (“Yahweh is there”). This is the coming Kingdom. (more…)