The most popular approach Ezekiel’s temple throughout Church history has been to spiritualize the text and make the temple represent the Church. The cause of this approach is an early influence of Origen from the Alexandrian school of thought. While the Second Council of Constantinople properly declared Origen a heretic, the Church failed to address his approach to Scriptures, such that elements of his hermeneutics would remain for centuries to come. Pavel Ivanovich Savvaitov, a 19th century professor at Vologda Spiritual Seminary, critiques Origen’s hermeneutic circle:
At first, he would briefly lag away from the literal meaning of the Scripture then he would adapt this meaning to the understanding of the people and finally he would offer a literal, moral and spiritual or mystical interpretation. All of these interpretations have several good individual remarks. But, he got carried away with Platonism and various other teachings. With the passions of his mind and hastiness in composition, Origen often left the literal meaning of Scriptures and pushed for excessive allegory.1
It was probably not his intention, but Savvaitov illuminates one of the great errors of Russian Orthodox hermeneutics. While recognizing the problems that come from leaving literal hermeneutics, the Eastern Orthodox Church embraces mystical interpretation so long as it does not cross the line and employ “excessive allegory.” A difficulty with this approach is in trying to decide where to draw the line between what is excessive allegory and reasonable allegory. Clarifying just how much allegory is acceptable is an incredibly difficult task, so, as a result, the hermeneutic becomes subjective and inconsistent. As is often the case, the story of a spiritual temple begins in ancient Alexandria and ends with modern-day conservatives.
One of the first examples of a spiritual hermeneutic applied to Ezekiel’s temple is an early 2nd century Alexandrian document called, “The Epistle of Barnabas,” which spiritualizes the Church as a Temple in a truly Alexandrian fashion:
Let us inquire, then, if there still is a temple of God. There is—where He himself declared He would make and finish it. For it is written, “And it shall come to pass, when the week is completed, the temple of God shall be built in glory in the name of the Lord.” I find, therefore, that a temple does exist. Learn, then, how it shall be built in the name of the Lord. Before we believed in God, the habitation of our heart was corrupt and weak, as being indeed like a temple made with hands. For it was full of idolatry, and was a habitation of demons, through our doing such things as were opposed to [the will of] God. But it shall be built, observe ye, in the name of the Lord, in order that the temple of the Lord may be built in glory. How? Learn [as follows]. Having received the forgiveness of sins, and placed our trust in the name of the Lord, we have become new creatures, formed again from the beginning. Wherefore in our habitation God truly dwells in us. How? His word of faith; His calling of promise; the wisdom of the statutes; the commands of the doctrine; He himself prophesying in us; He himself dwelling in us; opening to us who were enslaved by death the doors of the temple, that is, the mouth; and by giving us repentance introduced us into the incorruptible temple. He then, who wishes to be saved, looks not to man, but to Him who dwelleth in him, and speaketh in him, amazed at never having either heard him utter such words with his mouth, nor himself having ever desired to hear them. This is the spiritual temple built for the Lord.2
As the Alexandrian school of thought spread, other influential Church Fathers began to allegorize Scripture as well. Augustine, who began his theological career as a premillennialist,3 eventually commented on Haggai’s prophecy of the Millennial Temple in The City of God:
But this house which pertains to the new testament is just as much more glorious as the living stones, even believing, renewed men, of which it is constructed are better. But it was typified by the rebuilding of that temple for this reason, because the very renovation of that edifice typifies in the prophetic oracle another testament which is called the new. When, therefore, God said by the prophet just named, “And I will give peace in this place,” He is to be understood who is typified by that typical place; for since by that rebuilt place is typified the Church which was to be built by Christ, nothing else can be accepted as the meaning of the saying, “I will give peace in this place,” except I will give peace in the place which that place signifies. […] Therefore the glory of this new testament house is greater than the glory of the old testament house; and it will show itself as greater when it shall be dedicated. For then “shall come the desired of all nations,” as we read in the Hebrew. For before His advent He had not yet been desired by all nations. For they knew not Him whom they ought to desire, in whom they had not believed. Then, also, according to the Septuagint interpretation (for it also is a prophetic meaning), “shall come those who are elected of the Lord out of all nations.” For then indeed there shall come only those who are elected, whereof the apostle saith, “According as He hath chosen us in Him before the foundation of the world.” For the Master Builder who said, “Many are called, but few are chosen,” did not say this of those who, on being called, came in such a way as to be cast out from the feast, but would point out the house built up of the elect, which henceforth shall dread no ruin. Yet because the churches are also full of those who shall be separated by the winnowing as in the threshing-floor, the glory of this house is not so apparent now as it shall be when every one who is there shall be there always.4
It should come as no surprise that Jerome, who was a contemporary of Augustine, likewise spiritualized Ezekiel’s prophecy and even associated the river in Ezek 47 with the Church, rather than a future Millennial Temple:
For the house and the law of all the teachings of God and the city that is built on top of the mountain are to be believed from what is written; a city on a hill cannot be hid, and there is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, which clearly refers to the church of God.5
Even more unfortunate than Augustine’s allegorical influence on his contemporaries is that this became the standard method of interpretation throughout Christendom for centuries with few exceptions. Eventually, the Reformers brought about the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, which encouraged literalism, yet due to the Reformers neglect of eschatology, the spiritualized approach to prophecy carried over into early protestant commentaries. In the early 18th century, the Puritan commentator, Matthew Henry, wrote in his influential exposition:
God’s glory filled the house as it had filled the tabernacle which Moses set up and the temple of Solomon, Exod. xl. 34; 1 Kings viii. 10. Now we do not find that ever the Shechinah did in that manner take possession of the second temple, and therefore this was to have its accomplishment in that glory of the divine grace which shines so brightly in the gospel church, and fills it. Here is no mention of a cloud filling the house as formerly, for we now with open face behold the glory of the Lord, in the face of Christ, and not as of old through the cloud of types. […] God’s glory shining in the church, we must thence expect to receive divine oracles. The man stood by me; we could not bear to hear the voice of God any more than to see the face of God if Jesus Christ did not stand by us as Mediator […] he stood by the prophet, as a learner with him; for to the principalities and powers, to the angels themselves, who desire to look into these things, is known by the church the manifold wisdom of God, Eph. iii. 10.6
When a Biblical text is stripped of its plain meaning, the interpreter assumes the freedom to assign a new meaning, so it should be no surprise that there are multiple approaches to a spiritual temple. Other allegorists would agree that the Temple is not literal, but rather than restricting it to being a symbol of the Church, they allow it to be symbolic of Christ’s presence with His people including Israel:
Since no such temple as Ezekiel 40-43 describes has ever actually been built, many who urge a literal reading of the Bible insist that Ezekiel is providing the blueprint and specifications (cf. Ezek. 43:10-11) for a future temple that the citizens of modern Israel will build in Jerusalem. However, some elements of the prophet’s vision seem to go beyond a reasonable literal understanding (Ezek. 47:1-12). Since the entire passage (Ezek. 40-48) is a vision, it is better to respect the essentially symbolic character of that genre and to understand the entire vision as a symbolic portrayal of the way in which God would bless his people in the future. The temple preeminently represented the presence of God in the midst of his people. Under the form of vision and symbol (Ezek. 40:2; cf. Num. 12:6), the prophet describes a time when God’s presence in Israel would transcend anything in Israel’s historical experience, a time when Israel would enjoy order, peace, and just rule. For Christian readers, that transcending experience of God’s presence that brought with it peace and justice would occur when God incarnate would walk the streets of Jerusalem and build his church as a new temple. The presence of Immanuel would mark the day that “the LORD is there” (48:35).7
The above spiritualization finds its justification on the grounds that some elements are unreasonable (namely, Ezek 47:1-12) and that the prophecy is revealed through a vision and therefore non-literal. The conclusion is that the temple is symbolic of the experience of peace and joy in the Jewish and later Christian life. Despite their popularity, these objections and their conclusion are quite easy to dismantle.
Regarding the river in Ezek 47:1-12, God is capable of creating the entire universe, so putting another river on earth should be well within His capabilities. In fact Zechariah writes that when Christ stands on the Mount of Olives, He will split the mountain in two, forming a great valley (Zech 14:4), so significant topographical change will characterize the 2nd coming of Christ. Likewise, the massive size of the Millennial Temple does not pose a problem for its literal interpretation since Zech 6:12-13 indicates that Christ will be its builder. Regarding the claim that visions are inherently figurative, Paul Lee Tan responds:
Some interpreters affirm that prophecy being transmitted through visions and dreams must necessarily appear under figurative representations. This affirmation is based on the concept that things make more of an impression on the envisioned mind when seen as figurative imageries. […] This concept of prophecy allows interpreters to spiritualize almost any prophecy. […] But the prophetic state transcends that which is natural and belongs to the realm of the supranatural. In Scripture, perception, not imagination, is enjoined on the prophets during the projection of the visions. The prophets accurately wrote Scriptural revelation, not because of the workings of their impressionable minds, but because they were under divine inspiration. […] God used the mode of ecstatic vision in order to ensure supernatural concentration and in-depth perception. God did not choose the mode of vision to make prophecy unclear and ambiguous through figurative representations. […] it is not true that objects seen and concepts perceived in visions are necessarily all (or nearly all) figurative representations. Prophecy does contain figures and symbols, but these are not the necessary upshoots of ecstatic visions. Figurative representations are God-given signs and concepts which depict future events and details.8
The objections that the description of the Millennial setting is too great to be literal and that visions are inherently non-literal simply do not stand, so the conclusion that Ezekiel’s temple is symbolic of people’s experience has no consistent grounds for basis.
While the spiritualized view has been the most popular throughout history, textual criticism of the 19th century has popularized a revisionist approach. While the spiritualizer identifies Ezekiel’s temple with God’s spiritual relation to His people, the revisionist often ascribes Ezekiel’s temple to the restored post-exile temple, such that discrepancies between the two must be corruptions in the text. Walther Eichrodt takes the view that Ezekiel’s Temple is the post-exilic temple and immediately meets some problems:
The description of this portion of the temple [the side building of the temple in Ezek 41:5-12], paralleled in I Kings 6.5f, 8, 10, is hard to clarify in its details. It is enough to say here that we have a three-storyed annexe adjoining the side and back walls of the temple, containing thirty chambers the purpose of which is never stated. (Were they to hold vestments and utensils and perhaps also votive gifts, and to serve therefore as storechambers or something of the kind?) As II Chron. 3ff. does not mention any such part of the temple, it would seem no longer to have existed in the post-exilic temple.9
That the I Kings account contains more details of the wall chambers than the II Chron account is no cause of suspicion. The Law of Noncontradiction allows two error-free texts to contain different amounts of information, so long as the texts are not in disagreement with one another. It is problematic to this view that the temple in Ezekiel has different dimensions from the temple before the exile, but rather than accepting that Ezekiel is talking about a different temple, Eichrodt, concludes that there is an error in Ezekiel’s text:
The nature of the description shows plainly that here once more the prophet’s account of his tour has again been interrupted by an intrusive narrative: nowhere is the prophet said to be led. The earlier remarks about the measurements made by the ‘man’ in v. 5 have no influence over the following verses; here the phrases change, rather, into a bare description of the parts of the building and briefly catalogue the measurements. So, v. 5a, with its measuring of the temple wall may perhaps be regarded as belonging to the previous passage; but on the other hand, it may have been added to provide a quite superficial link between the preceding passage and the section which follows.10
Biblical inerrancy is an unfortunate price to pay in the defense of one’s views, yet many biblical scholars are willing to make this sacrifice. Assuming that there was indeed an editor who later added to Ezekiel’s original writing, he certainly would have access to the temple’s description in I Kings (as would Ezekiel, if that was the temple he was describing). In fact, if the editor was to rework Ezekiel after the temple’s restoration, he could have even measured it himself. Eichrodt’s persistent liberal interpretation of Ezekiel eventually results in a rather condemning confession:
when we begin to look more closely at this remarkable entity, it is seen to be anything but a figure cast in a single mould or a creation by a single writer free from self-contradiction and logically developed in all directions. Pieces of widely different origins are combined together within it. These pieces in turn have been enriched by additions and elaborations, the work of a whole series of different hands, which shape and develop them further in many different directions. This makes it difficult to determine the real significance of this set of chapters.11
Eichrodt essentially claims that Ezekiel’s alleged editors were incompetent scholars who concluded the final chapters of one of the Major Prophets in a state of absolute confusion.
Ezekiel’s Millennial prophecy gives details regarding the altar and regulations related to the service and servants in the Temple. The uniqueness of the Temple procedures has led another interpreter to conclude:
These verses show clear evidence of later reworking. They are an addition which is closely related to the Priestly material of Exod. 29:36f. Like Moses, the prophet is described as receiving instructions for purifying the altar of the sin that was believed to cling to all profane things. […] Chs. 44-6 contain a variety of laws governing the rites and personnel of the sanctuary. All have been added later to Ezekiel’s vision.12
As with most attacks against inerrancy, even the details of the rites and personnel of the sanctuary are explainable from a conservative point of view. In Ezek 44, God sets forth an ordinance that the loyal sons of Zadok are to carry out the services of the future temple, which include drawing near to God instead of the idolatrous Levites. Ezra’s account of the rededication of the temple shows that the Levitical priesthood was set according to the book of Moses, not Ezekiel, such that the Zadokite priesthood is a post-Mosaic convention. This is why the high priests since the exile have not been required to come from the Zadokite lineage. As for the altar, even conservative Jewish commentaries consistently interpret Ezekiel’s altar as being futuristic.13
These Jewish commentators are of special interest. While they have the baggage of denying Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry, they are still free to leave the yet-to-be-fulfilled Messianic prophecies open for a future Messianic reign (albeit their messiah is not Jesus). Messianic Kingdom promises in Ezekiel’s prophecy, as well as throughout the rest of the Bible, are a significant battleground for biblical inerrancy. The conservative Jew reads of God’s promises regarding the temple and land allocation in Ezekiel and concludes that since God has not fulfilled this promise yet, He will do so in the future.14 Meanwhile, liberal Jews apply the same hermeneutic principles as liberal Christians, such that if God has not fulfilled a promise by now, it is safe to assume that He cannot or will not:
While [Genesis’] material included myths and legends, these in time became incorporated into the consciousness of the people. For what people believe their past to mean assumes a dynamism of its own; the experience itself becomes creative. Thus, while Abraham’s vision of a God who promised him the land of Canaan will not pass as historic “fact,” its reality was accepted by generations of Abraham’s descendants and, for them, validated their possession of the land.15
Note that the above quote by Wolf Plaut refers to Abraham’s vision of “a” God whose promise “will not pass.” This is nothing short of an assault on the God of Abraham Himself.
Daniel Block’s commentary is especially astonishing as it shows that some scholars will even go as far as to assign biblical sources to paganism rather than to God:
While some elements of Ezekiel’s vision of the future derive from well-known physical realities, others are quite idealistic and even unimaginable. The high mountain on which he observes the new city is reminiscent of the high and holy mountain of Yahweh encountered earlier in 17:22 and 20:40, but also has affinities with the mythical Mount Zaphon of which dwelt Baal, the storm deity of the Canaanites, and with Mount Olympus, the home of the Greek gods. The river, whose source lies within the temple complex itself, flows through the Judean desert increasing dramatically in size, and turning the wasteland into an Edenic paradise, even healing (rāpā’) the Dead Sea (47:1-12). The plan of the city is idealized as a perfect square with three gates punctuating each side to provide admittance for the twelve tribes. The emphasis on the twelve tribes itself reverses five centuries of history. The apportionment of the land of Israel among the tribes to a large extent disregards topographic and historical realities. The dimensions of the temple and the city are dominated by multiples of five, with twenty-five being a particularly common number. All in all Ezekiel’s scheme appears highly contrived, casting doubt on any interpretation that expects a literal fulfillment of his plan.16
Block begins by affiliating the holy mountain of Yahweh with Zaphon and Olympus. One of the recurring abominations that brought Israel into exile was her establishment of high places and in Block’s interpretation, editors have made God commit this very act Himself and somehow none of the Jews who accepted Ezekiel as God’s Word noticed that Ezekiel’s God is actually Baal in disguise (not even Christ nor the New Testament authors). Block also finds the river to be unbelievable. John wrote of a similar river, which God will place on the New Earth with supernatural intention (Rev 22:1). These rivers are distinct from those today, which are limited to the laws of nature, but this is not at all a problem when considering the fact that God, who created the laws of nature, is able to do the supernatural. Nor, for that matter, is it a problem for Ezekiel’s topography to be different from ancient Israel. When Creator God comes to rule, He can change the landscape and put a new river in the dessert. Further, Block’s comment that “The emphasis on the twelve tribes itself reverses five centuries of history,” should be grounds for praising God, not doubting His Word. In fact, Ezekiel’s prophecy does not only reverse five centuries of history, but it reverses the entirety of Israel’s history by fulfilling it! If someone doubts Ezekiel because it emphasizes Israel’s role in the future, it is hard to imagine which biblical text he should not doubt. Lest all of these other proofs be insufficient (as they clearly are), Bock brings forth his final evidence against Ezekiel’s inerrancy, specifically that many dimensions are in multiples of five. Why this is so offensive is difficult to discern.
The popular opinion that Ezekiel’s prophecy has been subject to revisions typically leads to serious problems. The editors must have been incompetent to make these mistakes and those who accepted Ezekiel’s authority (including every biblical author since Ezekiel) must have been incompetent if they missed these glaring contradictions, and ultimately God must be less than what the Bible claims He is as He is unable to fulfill His promises. None of these problems occur from an inerrantist view, though, when the inerrantist interprets with a consistent grammatical-historical hermeneutic.
- Savvaitov, Pavel Ivanovich, Pravoslavnoe Uchenie o Sposobye Tolkovanie Svyashchenago Picaniya (St. Petersburg: Tipographii Yakova Treya, 1857), 131. Translation mine.
- The Epistle of Barnabas, ch. 16, “The spiritual temple of God,” available online here (accessed August 9, 2017).
- See David Anderson, “The Soteriological Impact of Augustine’s Change from Premillennialism to Amillennialism: Part One” in The Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, 15:28 (Spring 2002), pp. 25-36.
- Augustine, City of God, ch. 48 “That Haggai’s Prophecy, in Which He Said that the Glory of the House of God Would Be Greater Than that of the First Had Been, Was Really Fulfilled, Not in the Rebuilding of the Temple, But in the Church of Christ,” available online here (accessed August 9, 2017).
- Jerome, Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 75:629, cited by Kenneth Stevenson and Micahel Glerup, eds. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, vol. XIII Ezekiel, Daniel (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 140.
- Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Ezek. 43:1-6, available online here, accessed August 9, 2017.
- Temper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament 2nd ed., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 366.
- Paul Lee Tan, The Interpretation of Prophecy, (Bible Communications Inc., 2010), 89-91.
- Walther Eichrodt, Ezekiel: A Commentary, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1970), 546.
- Ibid., 546-547.
- Ibid., 530. Emphasis mine.
- Keith W. Carley, The Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, (London: Cambridge University Press, 1974), 290-92.
- Solomon Fisch, Soncino Books of the Bible: Ezekiel, second impression, A. Cohen, general editor, (London: Soncino Press: 1960), Ezek 43:13-17.
- See Rabbi Fisch’s commentary on Ezek 43:11, in which he cites the medieval Rabbi Kimchi, as well as his notes on the land promises in Ezek 45.
- Wolf Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, (New York: The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981), xxi.
- Daniel I. Block, The book of Ezekiel: Chapters 25-48, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 501-502.