1-3. (a) Why might Ezekiel have found comfort in the vision of an imposing temple complex? (See opening picture.) (b) What will we consider in this chapter?
PICTURE Ezekiel at 50 years of age. He can now look back on a quarter of a century spent in exile. The temple in Jerusalem has long since been in ruins. If Ezekiel ever cherished hopes of serving as a priest there, those dreams lie in ruins too. Some 56 years must yet pass before the exile will end, so Ezekiel knows that it is unlikely that he will live long enough to see Jehovah’s people restored to their homeland, let alone to see the temple rebuilt. (Jer. 25:11) Do such thoughts bring him a measure of sadness?
2 How kind of Jehovah to choose this time to give Ezekiel a most extensive vision, one that will surely bring that faithful man a great deal of comfort and hope! By means of that vision, the prophet is transported back to his homeland and set down on a very high mountain. In this lofty setting, he is met by “a man whose appearance was like that of copper.” That angelic guide takes him on a thorough tour of an imposing temple complex. (Read Ezekiel 40:1-4.) It all seems so real! For Ezekiel, the experience must be faith-strengthening, overwhelming, and perhaps a bit puzzling. Though the temple that he sees has many familiar features, it is also vastly different from the one he knew back in Jerusalem.
3 This intriguing vision fills the last nine chapters of Ezekiel’s book. Let us now discuss the attitude that we need to adopt as we approach this vision and seek understanding. Then we will consider whether what Ezekiel saw was the great spiritual temple that the apostle Paul discussed at length centuries later. Finally, we will examine what the vision meant to Ezekiel and to his fellow exiles.
The Need for a Different Approach
4. Regarding the temple vision, what approach has been taken in the past, but what is called for now?
4 In the past, our publications have stated that Ezekiel saw Jehovah’s great spiritual temple, the one that the apostle Paul was inspired to write about in his letter to the Hebrews.a Based on that conclusion, it seemed to follow logically that we could assign symbolic, or antitypical, meanings to many of the features of Ezekiel’s visionary temple, using Paul’s explanation of the tabernacle as a starting point. However, further prayerful study and meditation suggest that a simpler approach is called for in explaining Ezekiel’s temple vision.
5, 6. (a) How did the apostle Paul show humility in his discussion of the tabernacle? (b) What did Paul say about some details of the tabernacle, and how might we, in principle, apply his thought to our understanding of Ezekiel’s temple vision?
5 It seems wise that we do not look for a prophetic or symbolic meaning in every feature of Ezekiel’s visionary temple. Why not? Consider an interesting example. When Paul discussed the tabernacle and the spiritual temple, he mentioned details of the tabernacle, such as the golden censer, the cover of the ark, and the golden jar that contained the manna. Did he then assign some prophetic meaning to those details? Evidently, the holy spirit did not move him to do so. Instead, Paul wrote: “Now is not the time to speak of these things in detail.” (Heb. 9:4, 5) Paul was willing to yield to the leading of the holy spirit and to wait humbly on Jehovah.—Heb. 9:8.
6 A similar point might be made in principle in connection with Ezekiel’s temple vision. It too is rich in details. And it seems best to wait on Jehovah to clarify matters if further clarification is needed. (Read Micah 7:7.) Should we conclude, though, that Jehovah’s spirit has shed no further light on this vision? Far from it!
Did Ezekiel See the Great Spiritual Temple?
7, 8. (a) What understanding has now been adjusted? (b) How did the visionary temple differ from the spiritual temple that Paul described?
7 As mentioned earlier, for many years our publications have explained that Ezekiel saw Jehovah’s great spiritual temple, the one that Paul was inspired to write about in his letter to the Hebrews. However, further study leads us to conclude that Ezekiel could not have seen the great spiritual temple. Why not?
8 First, the temple that Ezekiel saw does not fit Paul’s inspired explanation. Consider this: The apostle Paul made it clear that the tabernacle of Moses’ day was a shadow and a pattern of something greater. The tabernacle, like the temples of Solomon and Zerubbabel, which were designed in the same basic pattern, included a “Most Holy” compartment. Paul called that compartment “a holy place made with hands,” explaining that it was “a copy of the reality,” not the reality itself. What was the reality? Paul explained: “Heaven itself.” (Heb. 9:3, 24) Is that what Ezekiel saw—heaven? No. Ezekiel’s vision contains no suggestion that he was beholding heavenly things.—Compare Daniel 7:9, 10, 13, 14.
9, 10. When it comes to sacrifices, how did Ezekiel’s visionary temple differ from the great spiritual temple that Paul described?
9 An even more convincing difference between Ezekiel’s vision and Paul’s description involves sacrifices. Ezekiel heard extensive directions being given to the people, to the chieftains, and to the priesthood about the offering of sacrifices. They were to offer sacrifices for their own sins. They were also to offer communion sacrifices, which they could likely share in eating in the temple’s dining rooms. (Ezek. 43:18, 19; 44:11, 15, 27; 45:15-20, 22-25) Are such repeated sacrifices offered up in the great spiritual temple?
Ezekiel’s visionary temple is not the great spiritual temple
10 The answer is clear and simple. Paul explained: “When Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have already taken place, he passed through the greater and more perfect tent not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. He entered into the holy place, not with the blood of goats and of young bulls, but with his own blood, once for all time, and obtained an everlasting deliverance for us.” (Heb. 9:11, 12) So in the great spiritual temple, only one sacrifice is offered—ever. It is the ransom sacrifice, and it is offered by the Greater High Priest himself, Jesus Christ. Clearly, Ezekiel’s visionary temple with its many sacrifices of goats and of bulls was not the great spiritual temple.
11. In Ezekiel’s day, why was it not God’s time to reveal truths about the great spiritual temple?
11 That leads us to a second reason why Ezekiel could not have seen the great spiritual temple: It was not God’s time to reveal such truths. Remember, Ezekiel’s vision was addressed first to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. They were under the Mosaic Law. Once the exile ended, they were to return to Jerusalem and apply that Law regarding pure worship by rebuilding the temple with its altar. Then they would continue to offer sacrifices there, as it turned out, for nearly six centuries. Imagine how the Jews would have been affected if Ezekiel’s vision had showed them the spiritual temple—a temple in which the high priest offered up his own life as a sacrifice, after which all other sacrifices were abolished! How could they have grasped such a vision? Might their resolve to obey the Mosaic Law have been undermined? As always, Jehovah reveals truths only at the right time and when his people are ready.
12-14. What is the relationship between the temple that Ezekiel saw and Paul’s explanation of the spiritual temple? (See the box “Different Temples, Different Lessons.”)
12 What, then, is the relationship between Ezekiel’s temple vision and Paul’s explanation of the spiritual temple? Keep in mind that Paul did not base his discussion on Ezekiel’s temple vision; rather, he based it on the tabernacle of Moses’ day. Granted, Paul did mention several features that also existed in the temples of Solomon and Zerubbabel and that likewise appeared in Ezekiel’s temple vision. In general, though, Ezekiel and Paul covered different ground in their writings.b Rather than echo one another, their writings complement one another. In what way?
13 We might think of the relationship between the two Bible passages in this way: From Paul, we learn about Jehovah’s arrangement for worship, but from Ezekiel, we learn about Jehovah’s standards for worship. To teach us about Jehovah’s arrangement for pure worship, Paul reveals the meanings of such features of the spiritual temple as the high priest, the sacrifices, the altar, and the Most Holy. But to emphasize Jehovah’s high standards for pure worship, Ezekiel’s temple vision gives us a detailed picture that impresses on our mind and heart many lessons about Jehovah’s standards.
14 Where, then, does our adjusted understanding leave us? It certainly does not mean that Ezekiel’s vision conveys less meaning for us today. In order to see how the vision benefits us, let us take a closer look at how it must have benefited the faithful Jews back in Ezekiel’s day and thereafter.
What Did the Vision Mean to the Jewish Exiles?
15 In order to find the Bible’s answer to that question, let us consider a series of related questions that will help us to see a full and complete picture. First, what was the overall prophetic message of the vision? Simply put, the overall message was that pure worship would be restored! This was surely clear to Ezekiel. He had already written what is now chapter 8 of Ezekiel, in which Jehovah graphically illustrated the deplorable condition of the temple in Jerusalem. And Ezekiel must have been delighted to write in detail about a stunning contrast, as now found in chapters 40 to 48. Here we see, not pure worship corrupted, but pure worship as it should have been—a glorious ideal of worshipping Jehovah according to the Mosaic Law.
16. How did Ezekiel’s temple vision confirm what Isaiah had foretold a century earlier?
16 To restore the worship of Jehovah to its rightful state, it would have to be elevated. Over a century earlier, the prophet Isaiah was inspired to write: “In the final part of the days, the mountain of the house of Jehovah will become firmly established above the top of the mountains, and it will be raised up above the hills.” (Isa. 2:2) Isaiah clearly foresaw that Jehovah’s pure worship would be restored and elevated, as if placed on the loftiest of mountains. And now, where did Ezekiel find himself in this divine vision? He was “on a very high mountain,” looking at the house of Jehovah! (Ezek. 40:2) Ezekiel’s vision thus confirmed that pure worship would be restored.
17. Provide an overview of Ezekiel chapters 40 to 48.
17 Consider a brief overview of what Ezekiel saw and heard, as recorded in Ezekiel chapters 40 to 48. He watched as the angel measured the gates, the wall, the courtyards, and the sanctuary of the temple. (Ezek. 40-42) Then came a thrilling event: Jehovah’s glorious arrival at the temple! Jehovah gave counsel to his wayward people, to the priests, and to the chieftains. (Ezek. 43:1-12; 44:10-31; 45:9-12) Ezekiel saw a river flowing from the sanctuary, bringing life and blessings as it emptied into the Dead Sea. (Ezek. 47:1-12) And he saw the land itself divided into precise parcels, with pure worship taking its place near the center of the land. (Ezek. 45:1-8; 47:13–48:35) What was the overall impression? Clearly, Jehovah was reassuring his people that pure worship would be restored and exalted. He would bless his house of worship with his presence, and he would cause blessings to flow from that temple, bringing healing, life, and order to the restored land.
18. Was the temple vision meant to be taken literally? Explain.
18 Second, was the vision meant to be taken literally? No. Ezekiel and his fellow exiles to whom he described his vision likely saw immediately that it was not meant to be taken literally. Why not? Recall that Ezekiel saw this temple on “a very high mountain.” While that tied in nicely with Isaiah’s prophecy, it did not fit the physical location of the temple. Solomon’s temple had been situated on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem, and that was where it would one day be rebuilt. But was that “a very high mountain”? No. In fact, Mount Moriah is ringed by other summits that are of equal or greater height. Also, the temple complex that Ezekiel saw was huge. With its broad perimeter enclosed by a wall, it was too large to fit on top of Mount Moriah. It would not even have fit within the city limits of the Jerusalem of Solomon’s day! Then, too, the exiles surely did not expect that a literal river would flow from the temple sanctuary and then empty into the Dead Sea, where it would heal those lifeless waters. Finally, the mountainous terrain of the Promised Land did not allow for straight, parallel borders between the tribes, as described in the vision. So the vision did not suggest a literal interpretation.
19-21. Jehovah meant for Ezekiel’s vision to have what effect on the people, and why might it move them in that way?
19 Third, what effect was the vision meant to have on Ezekiel’s people? When contemplating Jehovah’s lofty standards for pure worship, the people should have been moved to shame. Jehovah told Ezekiel to “describe the temple to the house of Israel.” Ezekiel’s description of this temple was to be so thorough that the Israelites could, in effect, “study its plan.” Why were the people to ponder over that temple? As we have seen, it was not in order to build it. Rather, it was, as Jehovah said, “so that they will feel ashamed because of their errors.”—Read Ezekiel 43:10-12.
20 Why might this vision touch the consciences of righthearted people and move them to shame? Note what Ezekiel was told: “Son of man, pay attention, watch, and listen carefully to everything I tell you about the statutes and the laws of the temple of Jehovah.” (Ezek. 44:5) Again and again, Ezekiel heard about statutes and laws. (Ezek. 43:11, 12; 44:24; 46:14) Ezekiel was often reminded, too, about Jehovah’s standards—even the standard for the length of a cubit and the standard for accurate weights. (Ezek. 40:5; 45:10-12; compare Proverbs 16:11.) Why, over 50 times in this one vision, Ezekiel records the original-language words for “measure” and “measurement”!
21 Measurements, weights, laws, statutes—what was Jehovah telling his people? It seems that he was reminding them, in powerful language, of this vital truth: Jehovah alone sets the standards for pure worship. Those who had departed from those standards needed to feel ashamed! In what ways, though, did the vision teach the Jews such lessons? In the following chapter, we will consider some specific examples. That will help us to see more clearly what this remarkable vision means for us today.
a The spiritual temple is Jehovah’s arrangement for pure worship based on the ransom sacrifice of Jesus Christ. We understand that it came into existence in 29 C.E.