PRELIMINARY NOTE ON CHAPTERS 40-48.
These closing chapters of Ezekiel form one continuous prophecy of a distinctly marked character. They present a vision of the Temple in minute detail, with careful measurements of its parts; various ordinances for the Temple, for the Levites, and the priests, and for the prince; a new and remarkable division of the land; and the vision of the life-giving waters issuing from the sanctuary. The whole passage differs too much from anything in the past to allow for a moment the supposition that it is historical in character; and uttered, as it was, at a time when the Temple lay in ashes, and the land desolate, it is equally clear that it cannot describe the present. It must, therefore, have been prophetic; but this fact alone will not decide whether it looked to a literal fulfilment, or was ideal in its character; although the à priori presumption must be in favour of the latter, since all was seen “in the visions of God” (Ezekiel 40:2)—an expression which Ezekiel always applies to a symbolic representation rather than to an actual image of things. Certainly the Temple was afterwards rebuilt, and the nation re-established in Palestine; but the second Temple was quite unlike the one described by Ezekiel, and no attempt was ever made to carry out his division of the land. The few interpreters who have supposed that he meant to foretell literally the sanctuary and the state of the restoration have been compelled to suppose that the returning exiles found themselves too feeble to carry out their designs, and hence that this prophecy remains as a monument of magnificent purposes which were never accomplished. If this were the correct view, it is inconceivable that there should be no allusion to the language of Ezekiel in the historical books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and in the prophecies of Haggai, which all relate to this period, and describe the return and settlement in the land, and the rebuilding of the Temple, with no reference to this prophecy, nor any trace of a desire to conform their work to its directions. Other objections to this view will be mentioned presently.
At the same time, it is to be remembered that a remnant of the people were restored to their land, and their Temple was rebuilt upon Mount Zion; it is but reasonable to suppose that these events, so often foretold, were present to the prophet’s mind, and that he looked out from them upon a more distant future, in the same way that near and typical events often with the other prophets form the basis of their foreshadowing of the future.
The only other way in which this prophecy can be literally understood is by supposing that its fulfilment is still in the future. In general, it is difficult to say that any state of things may not be realised in the future; but in this case there are features of the prophecy, and those not of a secondary or incidental character, but forming a part of its main delineations, which enable us to say unhesitatingly that their literal fulfilment would be in plain contradiction to the Divine revelation. For it is impossible to conceive, in view of the whole relations between the old and the new dispensations, as set forth in Scripture, that animal sacrifices can ever again be restored by Divine command, and find acceptance with God. And it may be added that it is equally impossible to conceive that the Church of the future, progressing in the liberty wherewith Christ has made it free, should ever return again to “the weak and beggarly elements” of Jewish bondage here set forth. But besides these obvious reasons, there are several indications in the detail of the prophecy that show it was never intended to be literally understood. These cannot all be seen without a careful examination of the details, but a few points may be presented which will make the fact sufficiently clear.
In the first place, the connection between the Temple and the city of Jerusalem is so deeply laid in all the sacred literature of the subject, as well as in the thought of every pious Israelite, that a prophecy incidentally separating them, without any distinct statement of the fact, or assignment of a reason for so doing, is scarcely conceivable. Yet in this portion of Ezekiel the Temple is described as at a distance of nearly nine and a half miles from the utmost bound of the city, or about fourteen and a quarter miles from its centre. This holds true, however the tribe portions of the land and the “oblation” be located (see the map in the Notes to Ezekiel 48); for the priests’ portion of the “oblation” (Ezekiel 48:10), in the midst of which the sanctuary is placed, is 10,000 reeds, or about nineteen miles broad; to the south of this (Ezekiel 48:15-17) is a strip of land of half the width, in which the city with its “suburbs” is situated. occupying its whole width.
A Temple in any other locality than Mount Moriah would hardly be the Temple of Jewish hope and association; but Ezekiel’s Temple, with its precincts, is a mile square, larger than the whole ancient city of Jerusalem. It is hardly possible that the precincts of any actual Temple could be intended to embrace such a variety of hill and valley as the country presents. However this may be, the prophet describes it as situated many miles north of the city, and the city itself as several miles north of the site of Jerusalem. This would place the Temple well on the road to Samaria.
But, still further, the description of the oblation itself is physically impossible. The boundaries of the land are the Jordan on the one side and the Mediterranean on the other (Ezekiel 47:15-21). The “oblation” could not have reached so far south as the mouth of the Jordan; but even at that point the whole breadth of the country is but fifty-five miles. Now measuring forty-seven and one-third miles north (the width of the oblation) a point is reached where the distance between the river and the sea is barely forty miles. It is impossible, therefore, that the oblation itself should be included between them, and the description requires that there should also be room left for the prince’s portion at either end.
Again, while the city of the vision is nowhere expressly said to be Jerusalem, it is yet described as the great city of the restored theocracy. It cannot, as already said, be placed geographically upon the site of Jerusalem. Either, then, this city must be understood ideally, or else a multitude of other prophecies, and notably many in Ezekiel which speak of the future of Zion and of Jerusalem, must be so interpreted. There is no good reason why both should not be interpreted figuratively, but it is impossible to understand both literally; for some of these prophecies make statements in regard to the future quite as literal in form as these of Ezekiel, and yet in direct conflict with them. To select a single instance from a prophecy not much noticed: Obadiah, who was probably a contemporary of Ezekiel, foretells (Ezekiel 39:19-20) that at the restoration “Benjamin shall possess Gilead;” but, according to Ezekiel, Gilead is not in the land of the restoration at all, and Benjamin’s territory is to be immediately south of the “oblation.” Again, Obadiah says, “The captivity of Jerusalem” (which, in distinction from “the captivity of the host of the children of Israel,” must refer to the two tribes) “shall possess the cities of the south;” but, according to Ezekiel, Judah and Benjamin are to adjoin the central “oblation,” and on the south four of the other tribes are to have their portion. Such instances might be multiplied if necessary.
The division of the land among the twelve tribes; the entire change in assigning to the priests and to the Levites large landed estates, and to the former as much as to the latter; the enormous size of the Temple precincts and of the city, with the comparatively small allotment of land for its support, are all so singular, and so entirely without historical precedent, that only the clearest evidence would justify the assumption that these things were intended to be literally carried out. No regard is paid to the differing numbers of the various tribes, but an equal strip of land is assigned to each of them; and, the trans-Jordanic territory being excluded and about one-fifth of the whole land set apart as an “oblation,” the portion remaining allows to each of the tribes but about two-thirds as much territory as, on the average, they had formerly possessed. The geographical order of the tribes is extremely singular: Judah and Benjamin are, indeed, placed on the two sides of the consecrated land, and the two eldest, Reuben and Simeon, are placed next to them, and Dan is put at the extreme north, where a part of the tribe had formerly lived; but the classification extends no further, and the remaining tribes are arranged neither in order of seniority nor of maternity, nor yet of ancient position. Moreover, nearly the whole territory assigned to Zebulon and Gad is habitable only by nomads, except on the supposition of physical changes in the land.
Another consequence of this division of the land is important: the Levites, being now provided for in the “oblation,” no longer have their cities among the tribes. But it had been expressly provided that the “cities of refuge” (which must be distributed through the land in order to fulfil their purpose) should be Levitical cities (Numbers 35:9-15). With this change, therefore, the provision for cities of refuge ceases, and a profound alteration is made in the whole Mosaic law in regard to manslaughter and murder.
In connection with the omission of the day of atonement, all mention of the high priest is carefully left out. That this is not accidental is shown by the fact that the laws of marriage and of mourning for all the priests are made more strict than in the legislation of Moses (Ezekiel 44:22-27), evidently as a sort of compensation for the omitted legislation in regard to the high priest. But the Levitical system without a high priest becomes a different institution in itself, and is also greatly changed in its symbolism.
It may be remarked in passing that the system here set forth is not at all of the nature of an intermediate or transitional ritual between that which we know existed under the monarchy, and that which is set forth in the Levitical law, and therefore affords no basis for the theory that the Levitical system was the outgrowth of the captivity. The absence of the high priest, so prominent both in the law and in the history, is alone a sufficient proof of this; and to this may be added the full regulations for the prince in Ezekiel, of which there is no trace in either the earlier or the subsequent history.
A further difficulty with the literal interpretation may be found in the description of the waters which issued from under the eastern threshold of the Temple (Ezekiel 47:1-12). These waters run to the “east country,” and go down “to the sea,” which can only be the Dead Sea; but such a course would be physically impossible without changes in the surface of the earth, since the location of the Temple of the vision is on the west of the watershed of the country. They had, moreover, the effect of “healing” the waters of the sea, an effect which could not be produced naturally without providing an outlet from the sea; no supply of fresh water could remove the saltness while this water was all disposed of by evaporation, and Ezekiel (in Ezekiel 47:11) excludes the idea of an outlet. But, above all, the character of the waters themselves is impossible without a perpetual miracle. Setting aside the difficulty of a spring of this magnitude upon the top of “a very high mountain” (Ezekiel 40:2) in this locality, at the distance of 1,000 cubits from their source, the waters have greatly increased in volume; and so with each successive 1,000 cubits, until at the end of 4,000 cubits (about a mile and a half) they have become a river no longer fordable, or, in other words, comparable to the Jordan. Such an increase, without accessory streams, is clearly not natural. But, beyond all this, the description of the waters themselves clearly marks them as ideal. They are life-giving and healing; trees of perennial foliage and fruit grow upon their banks, the leaves being for “medicine,” and the fruit, although for food, never wasting. The reader cannot fail to be reminded of “the pure river of water of life” in Revelation 22:1-2, “on either side” of which was “the tree of life” with “its twelve manner of fruits,” and its leaves “for the healing of the nations.” The author of the Apocalypse evidently had this passage in mind; and just as he has adopted the description of Gog and Magog as an ideal description, and applied it to the events of the future, so he has treated this as an ideal prophecy, and applied it to the Church triumphant.
It is to be remembered that this whole vision is essentially one, and that it would be unreasonable to give a literal interpretation to one part of it and a figurative to another. All the objections, therefore, which lie against the supposition of the restoration of animal sacrifices hold also against the supposition of the general restoration of the Jewish Temple and polity. This was felt at an early day, and such Christian commentators as Ephrem Syrus, Theodoret, and Jerome adopted throughout a symbolic or typical explanation. The changes in the Mosaic law are indeed great, but still are only of detail, and leave it open to the Apostolic description as a “bondage” to which we cannot suppose the providence of God would ever lead back the Church Christ has redeemed at the cost of the sacrifice of Himself. Either the whole argument of the Epistle to the Hebrews is a mistake, not to speak of those to the Romans and Galatians, nor of our Lord’s own discourses (as with the woman of Samaria), or else the Holy Spirit could not have intended a literal realisation in the future of this vision of Ezekiel.
We thus come to regard this prophecy as an ideal one on every ground, not looking for any literal and material fulfilment. If it should be asked, Why then is it given with such a wealth of minute material detail? the answer is obvious, that this is thoroughly characteristic of Ezekiel. The tendency, strongly marked in every part of his book, merely culminates in this closing vision. The two previous chapters, especially, have abounded in concrete and definite details of the attack of a great host upon the land of Israel, while yet these very details have given evidence upon examination that they could not have been meant to be literally understood, and that the whole prophecy was intended to shadow forth the great and final spiritual conflict, prolonged through ages, between the power of the world and the kingdom of God. So here, the prophet, wishing to set forth the glory, the purity, and the beneficent influence of the Church of the future, clothes his description in those terms of the past with which his hearers were familiar. The use of such terms was a necessity in making himself intelligible to his contemporaries, just as to the very close of the inspired volume it is still necessary to set forth the glory and joy of the Church triumphant under the figures of earthly and familiar things, while no one is misled thereby to imagine that the heavenly Jerusalem will be surrounded with a literal wall of jasper, “twelve thousand furlongs” = 1,500 miles (Revelation 21:16; Revelation 21:18), or that its twelve gates shall be each of an actual pearl. It is remarkable that in two instances, that of Gog and that of the river of life, the imagery is the same in Ezekiel and in Revelation. At the same time Ezekiel is careful to introduce among his details so many points that were impossible, or, at least, the literal fulfilment of which would have been strangely inconsistent with his main teaching, as to show that his description must be ideal, and that its realisation is to be sought for beneath the types and shadows in which it was clothed. It may be as impossible to find the symbolical meaning of each separate detail as it is to tell the typical meaning of the sockets for the boards of the tabernacle, although the tabernacle as a whole is expressly said to have been a type. This is the case with every vision, and parable, and type, and every form of setting forth truth by imagery; there must necessarily be much which has no independent signification, but is merely subsidiary to the main point. It is characteristic of Ezekiel that these subsidiary details should be elaborated with the utmost minuteness. His purpose was understood by his contemporaries, and by the generation immediately succeeding, so that they never made any attempt to carry out his descriptions in the rebuilding of the Temple and reconstitution of the State. The idea of a literal interpretation of his words was reserved for generations long distant from his time, from the forms of the Church under which he lived, and from the circumstances and habits of expression with which he was familiar, and under the influence of which he wrote.
The altar being consecrated, the next thing is to provide for the purity of the worship of which it is the centre. The pollutions of former times had been largely introduced by the princes, and by the Levites and priests; and these classes are therefore treated of in this chapter. Only three verses are here given to the prince, since he is to be spoken of at greater length hereafter, and the rest of the chapter is occupied with directions as to the exclusion of strangers, and the duties of the Levites and priests.
(1) The gate of the outward sanctuary.—This is better rendered, the outer gate of the sanctuary. The prophet had been in the inner court, or court of the priests, where the altar stood, and is now brought back to the eastern gate of the outer court. He finds it shut, as it was ordinarily to remain; but with the exceptions mentioned in Ezekiel 44:3, and in Ezekiel 46
(2) Hath entered in by it.—See Ezekiel 43:1-2. The thought is, that the gate which had been sanctified by such a manifestation of the Divine presence, should not afterwards be used for the ordinary purposes of the entrance of the people.
(3) The prince.—The Rabbis understood this to refer to the Messiah, and unquestionably the same person must be meant as by David in Ezekiel 34:23-24; Ezekiel 37:24. This gives another and a conclusive reason for regarding the sacrificial worship of Ezekiel 46 as symbolical.
To eat bread before the Lord.—This is the common scriptural expression for partaking of the sacrifices (see Genesis 31:54; Exodus 18:12), and there is no reason for restricting it to the shew-bread and other unbloody offerings. The eating of the latter was an exclusively priestly prerogative, and the “prince” of Ezekiel, though greatly distinguished, is not in any way endued with priestly functions. He is to partake of his sacrificial meals within this highly-honoured gate, while the people eat in the outer court. There has been much discussion as to whether the prince was to go in and out by this gateway, or only, having entered by one of the others, to eat in this. The language here seems sufficiently plain, and if there could be any doubt, it would be removed by Ezekiel 46:1-2; Ezekiel 46:8; Ezekiel 46:10; Ezekiel 46:12. It appears there that the prince is always to enter and leave by this gate except “in the solemn feasts;” then he is to enter in the midst of the people, by either the north or the south gate, and go out by the opposite one.
(4) The north gate.—The prophet is now carried to the north gate, and since this is described as “before the house” and was in full view of it, it must have been the gate of the inner court, the appointed place for the killing of the sacrifices, and therefore especially fitting for the announcement of the ordinances of the priests. There he saw the “glory of the Lord” filling the house, and was commanded to give the utmost attention to the laws now to be announced.
(7) Strangers, uncircumcised in heart.—The heathen living in Israel, or coining to worship at the Temple, were allowed, and even in some cases required, to offer sacrifices (Leviticus 17:10; Leviticus 17:12; Numbers 15:14; Numbers 15:26; Numbers 15:29). This seems also to have been recognised in Solomon’s prayer at the consecration of the Temple (1 Kings 8:41-43); but the ground on which the Israelites are here censured for the licence given to strangers is, that they allowed those to draw near in worship who were uncircumcised in heart as well as in flesh, i.e., ungodly men who had no real purpose to worship God.
(8) For yourselves.—Comp. 1 Kings 12:31.
(9) Shall enter into my sanctuary.—To guard against the evils of the past, the command is now given that none of the strangers described shall even enter the sanctuary; but our version gives a wrong impression of this prohibition by rendering, “nor uncircumcised in flesh.” It should be, as in Ezekiel 44:7, and. The command is not that no uncircumcised person should be allowed to enter the sanctuary, for the residence of strangers among the Israelites is expressly provided for in Ezekiel 47:22-23; but the emphasis here, as before, is upon the “uncircumcised in heart.” No godless heathen should be allowed to enter in to profane the Divine worship.
(10) And the Levites that are gone away.—The connection between this and the preceding verse is made clearer by translating the first words, “Yea, even;” not only the uncircumcised in heart among the heathen are to be excluded from the sanctuary, but even the Levites who had apostatised are to bear their guilt. Levites is here used (see Ezekiel 44:13), as often, emphatically of the Levitical priests. At the great schism of the northern kingdom these had remained true to the worship of Jehovah (2 Chronicles 11:13); but in the subsequent general religious declension many of them, as has appeared from Ezekiel 8, had fallen into idolatry. Such priests are to be allowed, like the priests under the law who had any physical blemish (Leviticus 21:17-23), to minister in the more menial offices of the priesthood, but not to approach the altar (Ezekiel 44:11-14).
(15) The sons of Zadok.—See Note on Ezekiel 40:46. They are here described as those who continued faithful in the general apostasy, and it is probable that Ezekiel uses the term in this sense. As Zadok had continued faithful in the rebellion of Adonijah, when even the high priest and life-long friend of David went astray (1 Kings 1:7-8), so all the faithful priests in the time of apostasy were called “sons of Zadok.”
(17) Clothed with linen garments.—The rest of the chapter is occupied with directions for the clothing and conduct of the priests. The dress (Ezekiel 44:17-19) is the same as that prescribed in Lev. 28, only a few special points being mentioned partly for emphasis, and partly as recalling to mind the whole.
(19) They shall put off their garments.—The requirement that the priests shall wear their official dress only when engaged in official duty, putting it on when they entered the inner court, and putting it off when they went out, which is only implied in Exodus and Leviticus, is here expressly enjoined. Utter here, as elsewhere, means outer.
(20) Their locks to grow long.—The law forbade the shaving of the head (Leviticus 21:5), but only condemned letting the hair grow long by implication, providing for it in the exceptional case of the vow of the Nazarite. The prohibition of Ezekiel 44:21 is given in Leviticus 10:9.
(22) A widow that had a priest before.—In regard both to marriage and to mourning (Ezekiel 44:25-27) the Levitical law made a broad distinction between the ordinary priest and the high priest. The former was only forbidden to marry a divorced woman (Leviticus 21:7), but was allowed to marry a widow; the latter could marry only a virgin of Israel (ib. 14). So also in the law of mourning; the high priest might not be “defiled” nor make any sign of mourning even for his nearest of kin (Leviticus 21:11-14). Ezekiel does not recognise this distinction, and in fact nowhere mentions the high priest at all; but, instead, gives a general law for all priests, somewhat between the two.
(26) Reckon unto him seven days.—In Ezekiel 44:23-24, the general duties of the priests are prescribed in terms taken from the Mosaic law, and in Ezekiel 44:25-27 special instructions are given about the defilement from a dead body. These are in general an exact repetition of Leviticus 21:1-4; but, in accordance with the principle mentioned in the last Note, there is added to the ordinary cleansing of seven days (Numbers 19:11-17) another period of seven days, after which Ezekiel requires (Ezekiel 44:27) the priest to offer a sin offering before entering again on his duties.
(28) I am their inheritance.—This is a simple repetition of the frequent declarations in the law (Numbers 18:20; Deuteronomy 10:9; Deuteronomy 18:2); the priests were to be supported by the tithes given to God, and by their portion of the offerings made to Him. These are here summarily mentioned in Ezekiel 44:28-29, and may be found more particularly described, as regards the priests’ share of the meat, sin, and trespass offerings, in Leviticus 2:3; Leviticus 6:25; Leviticus 6:29; Leviticus 7:6-7; the devoted field, Leviticus 27:21; the first-fruits, Exodus 23:19; Exodus 34:26; Numbers 18:13; Deuteronomy 18:4; and for the special heave offerings, Numbers 15:19-21; Numbers 18:19. As it was not inconsistent with these provisions that the priests should also have assigned to them cities for residence, with their suburbs for pasturage, so these gifts are not now excluded by the fact that the priests should possess the “oblation” of land (Ezekiel 45:1-5), although their portion is thereby greatly increased.
(31) Dead of itself, or torn.—Comp. Leviticus 22:8. The same law was binding upon all the Israelites. (Leviticus 17:15.) In the wilderness they were required to “cast it to the dogs” (Exodus 23:31); afterwards they might give it to a stranger or sell it to an alien. (Deuteronomy 14:21.)
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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Ezekiel 44". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany