Sunday, September 27, 2009

The New Temple in the OT Prophets: Literal or Figurative

The restoration of Jerusalem and the temple as the center of worship for all peoples is a central feature of the eschatological vision of the Old Testament prophets.

Isaiah 2:2-4 It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.

Isaiah 56:6-7 And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant -these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples."

Zechariah 8:20-23 "Thus says the LORD of hosts: Peoples shall yet come, even the inhabitants of many cities. The inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, 'Let us go at once to entreat the favor of the LORD and to seek the LORD of hosts; I myself am going.' Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem and to entreat the favor of the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts: In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, 'Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.'"

Zechariah 14:16-19 Then everyone who survives of all the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Booths. And if any of the families of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, there will be no rain on them. And if the family of Egypt does not go up and present themselves, then on them there shall be no rain; there shall be the plague with which the LORD afflicts the nations that do not go up to keep the Feast of Booths. This shall be the punishment to Egypt and the punishment to all the nations that do not go up to keep the Feast of Booths.

Ezekiel 40-48 offers an extended vision of the future temple, but interpreters continue to debate whether the passage should be interpreted literally or figuratively. In his commentary on Ezekiel in the NICOT, Daniel Block adopts an idealized view of the vision that sees Ezekiel’s temple pointing to the restored relationship between the Lord and his people and the fact that Yahweh will take up permanent residence among his people rather than the building of a physical temple. In support of this interpretation, Block points to symbolic, ideal, and non-literal elements in the description of the temple and the nation of Israel in Ezek 40-48:

1. the dimensions of the temple and the temple mount in 42:15-20 are roughly equivalent to the ancient city of Jerusalem from the second temple period.

2. the city forms a perfect square with three gates on each side for the entrance of the 12 tribes (48:16)

3. the emphasis on the twelve tribes reverses the loss of the tribes in history

4. the territorial allotments for the Israelite tribes run in straight lines from east to west without consideration of the geographical peculiarities of the land

5. the dimensions of the city are given with recurring multiples of five and twenty-five

6. the only recorded dimensions are horizontal

7. the water flowing out from the temple in ch. 47 becomes deeper as it flows out of Jerusalem without tributaries, and the fresh water of this river transforms the salinity of the Dead Sea.

Block concludes: “All in all Ezekiel’s scheme appears highly contrived, casting doubt on any interpretation that expects a literal fulfillment of his plan.” (p. 502)

There is no question that there are idealized elements in Ezekiel 40-48 and that Ezekiel’s prophecy envisions far more than the building of a physical temple. However, Richard Hess’ recent essay, “The Future Written in the Past: The Old Testament and the Millennium” (in A Case for Historical Premillennialism), in my opinion provides a more compelling argument for the view that Ezekiel is prophesying a literal future temple. He makes four key points:

1. Prophets appeared in the ancient Near East outside of Israel, and their prophecies clearly refer to specific events and literal persons and places. For example, the neo-Assyrian prophets speak of the future destruction of the Elamites, an enemy nation. There is no doubt that the people who spoke and heard them would have expected a literal fulfillment.

2. The description of the temple in Ezek 40-43 is quite detailed and calls to mind other passages in the OT that describe the construction of an actual sanctuary. There is the tabernacle description and construction in Exodus 25-40, and similar passages dealing with Solomon’s temple in 1 Kings 6-8 and 2 Chronicles 2-7. Hess notes, “Indeed, of all the temple descriptions in the OT, Ezekiel’s description is the most detailed in terms of measurements and specifics of the rooms.” Since these other passages deal with real buildings, we would expect the same in Ezek 40-43.

3. The book of Ezekiel is built around Ezekiel’s 3 visions of God, and the vision of 40-48 provides the mirror image of the vision found in Ezek 8-11. In Ezek 8-11, the glory of the Lord departs Jerusalem because of the sin and idolatry of the people. The prophet Ezekiel, who was in Babylon, clearly wishes to convey that he saw a vision of the real temple in its last days before its destruction by the Babylonians. If this first vision is realistic, then it seems most likely that the vision of the new temple and the glory of the Lord returning to Jerusalem (Ezek 43:1-9) should be read in the same way.

4. Various specifics of temple architecture found only in Ezek 40ff are found in the Persian-period temple on Mount Gerazim, in Josephus’ description of the second temple, in the area of the Herodian temple mount, and in the future temple envisioned in various writings of the DSS. Throughout the Second Temple period, there was an understanding among the Samaritans, mainstream Jews, and the Qumran community that the Ezekiel prophecy referred to an actual physical temple.

If a literal temple is in view, then the question arises as to when this prophecy was fulfilled. Was it the second temple built by Zerubbabel in the post-exilic period that was expanded and remodeled by Herod at the beginning of the NT era? Hess correctly observes that this temple could hardly match what is envisioned in Ezekiel’s prophecy: “It is clear that the pure and magnificent temple of Ezekiel was not fulfilled by the construction of the second temple, whether we consider the one constructed immediately after the return from exile or the one that Herod the Great began building and that was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. Herod built a temple that could perhaps be compared to the one in Ezekiel in terms of its splendor but hardly in terms of its purity” (p. 34) Additionally, the Book of Revelation clarifies that there will not be a temple in the New Jerusalem because God and the Lamb will be the temple in that eternal city (Rev 21:22). Taken together, these details suggest that the construction of the temple envisioned by Ezekiel “must take place sometime in the future before the appearance of the new heavens and the new earth” (p. 34). This future time best fits with the millennial era when the kingdom of God comes to earth in fulfillment of the promises made by the Old Testament prophets (cf. Rev 20:1-10).

The various issues associated with the fulfillment of the temple promise in the prophets will be addressed in future blogs, but we will begin with the starting point that Ezekiel’s prophecy most naturally infers that a literal future temple is part of God’s plan for the eschatological future. When Jesus cleansed the temple at the end of his earthly ministry, he reminded the people of the words of Isaiah 56:7—“Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations?’” (Mark 11:17). Jesus had announced that the kingdom of God promised by the Old Testament prophets had arrived in its inaugural form (Mark 1:14-15). In quoting Isaiah 56:7, Jesus endorsed the idea of the temple playing a vital role in the eschatological kingdom as a place of worship for all nations. However, Jesus denounced the present temple and warned of its impending destruction, because even though the kingdom had broken into human history through his coming as Messiah, the temple was not fulfilling its divinely-appointed function.

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