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Chapter 43 The Glory of Yahweh Returns to the Land.
Having completed his tour of the measurement of the heavenly temple, Ezekiel once again has a vision of the glory of God. This relates directly to the vision he saw when he was first called (chapter 1) and to the vision which he had when he witnessed in vision the destruction of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 8:4; Ezekiel 9-10). In this vision Yahweh takes His throne in the heavenly sanctuary and takes up His dwelling there in glory. The measurement had been in preparation for this appearance, This again confirms that we are dealing with a temple that was current in the time of Ezekiel.
This is then to be followed by the depicting of the heavenly altar. But the altar is not measured, rather its measurements are declared and it is then stated that an earthly copy must be made. It is the earthly copy which is now central, as a means by which His people might reach up to Him in His heavenly temple. But the earthly altar will need to be thoroughly ‘de-sinned’ in order to be acceptable, and the method of doing it is described.
There were, however, two aspects of the heavenly temple that had not yet been finally dealt with. The first will come in Ezekiel 44:1-4 and the second in Ezekiel 46:19 to Ezekiel 47:12. Meanwhile various instructions have to be given, and both aspects not dealt with (no measurement is involved) relate directly to these practical instructions, firstly to the Princes and their duties, and secondly to the rituals that must be fulfilled.
The Return of Yahweh to the Land in His Heavenly Temple. His Throne Enters the Heavenly Holy of Holies (Ezekiel 43:1-12 ).
‘Afterwards he brought me to the gate, even the gate that looks towards the east, and behold the glory of the God of Israel came from the way of the east, and his voice was like the sound of many waters, and the earth shone with his glory. And it was according to the appearance of the vision which I saw, even according to the vision that I saw when I came to destroy the city, and the visions were like the vision that I saw by the River Chebar, and I fell on my face.’
Ezekiel was now brought back to the East Gate, (having followed his visitant as he measured the externals), the temple and its environs having been fully measured in order to demonstrate that God was about to act again in relation to it. And there he saw again the vision of the glory of God. Especial stress is laid on the massive volume of sound (‘as the voice of many waters’ like the thunder of the mighty Niagara or Victoria falls - Ezekiel 1:24; Revelation 1:15) and the greatness of the glory (the earth shone with His glory, reflecting the glory of God - Isaiah 60:1-3; Habakkuk 3:3-4 see also Deuteronomy 33:2; Exodus 34:29-30; Exodus 34:35; Mark 9:3; 2 Corinthians 4:6; Revelation 1:16; Revelation 18:1). ). The heavenly temple now having been established, the heavenly chariot throne of Yahweh in all its majesty, the great reality behind the symbolic ark of the covenant, now comes to enter the ‘real’ holy of holies in the heavenly temple. God is here in earnest.
‘Came from the way of the east.’ Previously it was from the north (Ezekiel 1:4). God can come from anywhere. We must not limit Him to one place, and it was towards the east that He had previously departed. See Ezekiel 11:23.
‘When I came to destroy the city.’ Ezekiel felt so involved with his visions that he saw himself as having had a part in the destruction of Jerusalem. His words of prophecy had, as it were, brought it about.
‘And I fell on my face.’ His reaction was the same as before. A response of awe and worship. Before the glory of Yahweh none could stand. All had to hide their eyes.
The New Temple (Ezekiel 40:1 to Ezekiel 48:35 ).
The book of Ezekiel began with a vision of the glory of God and the coming of the heavenly chariot throne of God in order to speak directly to His people through Ezekiel (chapter 1). He then recorded the departure of God's glory from Jerusalem and the Temple because of the sins of Israel (chapters 8 - 11). This was followed by the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. Now it ends with another vision, the return of God's glory to the land and to His people (chapters 40 -48) depicted in the form of a heavenly temple established on the mountains of Israel to which the glory of God returns, resulting in the final restoration of ‘the city’ as ‘Yahweh is there’. Thus this part of the book follows both chronologically and logically from what has gone before.
Furthermore at the commencement of the book Ezekiel received his divine commission as a prophet (chapters 1 - 3), then he pronounced oracles of judgment against Judah and Jerusalem for their sins, declaring that Jerusalem must be destroyed (chapters 4 - 24). He followed this up with oracles of judgment against the foreign nations who had opposed Israel (chapters 25 - 32). Then on hearing of Jerusalem's fall (Ezekiel 33:21), the prophet proclaimed messages of hope for Israel, declaring that God would fulfil His promises to deliver and bless His people Israel, and would restore them to the land of their fathers and establish them in the land.
Yes, more, that they would be established there everlastingly under a new David, with an everlasting sanctuary set up in their midst (stressed twice - Ezekiel 37:26; Ezekiel 37:28) (chapters 34 - 39). And now he declares the presence of that new Temple, even now present in the land, invisible to all but him and yet nevertheless real in so much that it can be measured. It is ‘the icing on the cake’, the final touch to what has gone before (40-48). God is back in His land. For such an invisible presence, a glimpse of another world, present but unseen except by those with eyes to see, compare Genesis 28:12; 2 Kings 2:11-12; 2 Kings 6:17; Zechariah 1:7-11. Indeed without that heavenly temple the glory could not return, for it had to be guarded from the eyes of man.
The heavenly temple can be compared directly with the heavenly throne with its accompanying heavenly escort which Ezekiel saw earlier (chapter 1). That too was the heavenly equivalent of the earthly ark of the covenant, and huge in comparison. So Ezekiel was very much aware of the heavenly realm and its presence in different ways on earth, for he was a man of spiritual vision.
But there is one remarkable fact that we should notice here, and that is that having been made aware of the destruction of Jerusalem, and looking forward to the restoration of Israel and its cities and the Satanic opposition they will face, and even speaking of the building of a new Temple, Ezekiel never once refers directly by name to Jerusalem in any way (in Ezekiel 36:38 it is referred to in an illustration). This seems quite remarkable. It seems to me that this could only arise from a studied determination not to do so. He wants to take men’s eyes off Jerusalem.
Here was a man who was a priest, who had constantly revealed his awareness of the requirements of the cult, who had been almost totally absorbed with Jerusalem, who now looked forward to the restoration of the land and the people, and yet who ignored what was surely central in every Israelite’s thinking, the restoration of Jerusalem. Surely after his earlier prophecies against Jerusalem his ardent listeners must have asked him the question, again and again, what about Jerusalem? And yet he seemingly gave them no answer. Why?
It seems to me that there can only be two parallel answers to that question. The first is that Jerusalem had sinned so badly that as far as God and Ezekiel were concerned its restoration as the holy city was not in the long run to be desired or even considered. What was to be restored was the people and the land, which was his continual emphasis. Jerusalem was very secondary and not a vital part of that restoration. And secondly that in the final analysis the earthly Jerusalem was not important in the final purposes of God. Jerusalem had been superseded. His eternal sanctuary would be set up, but it would not be in the earthly Jerusalem (chapter 45 makes this clear). Rather it would be set up in such a way that it could more be compared to Jacob’s ladder, as providing access to and from the heavenlies (Genesis 28:12) and a way to God, and yet be invisible to man. It is a vision of another world in its relationships with man (compare 2 Kings 6:17). It was the beginnings of a more spiritual view of reality. And it would result in an eternal city, the city of ‘Yahweh is there’ (Ezekiel 48:30-35).
Now that is not the view of Jerusalem and the temple of men like Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1:4) and Daniel (Daniel 9:2; Daniel 9:16; Daniel 9:19), but they were God-inspired politicians thinking of the nearer political and religious future not the everlasting kingdom. (Daniel does of course deal with the everlasting kingdom, but he never relates Jerusalem to it. He relates the everlasting kingdom to Heaven). Nor do the other prophets avoid mentioning Jerusalem, and they do see in ‘Jerusalem’ a place for the forwarding of the purposes of God (e.g. Isaiah 2:3; Isaiah 4:3-5; Isaiah 24:23; Isaiah 27:13; Isaiah 30:19; Isaiah 31:5; Isaiah 33:20-21; Isaiah 40:2; Isaiah 40:9; Isaiah 44:26-28; Isaiah 52:1-2; Isaiah 52:9; Isaiah 62:1-7; Isaiah 65:18-19; Isaiah 66:10-20; Jeremiah 3:17-18; Jeremiah 33:11-18; Joel 2:32; Joel 3:1; Joel 3:16-20; Obadiah 1:17-21; Micah 4:2-8; Zephaniah 3:14-16; Zechariah 2:2-4; Zechariah 2:12; Zechariah 3:2; Zechariah 8:3-8; Zechariah 8:15; Zechariah 8:22; Zechariah 9:9-10; Zechariah 12:6 to Zechariah 13:1; Zechariah 14:11-21; Malachi 3:4), although some of these verses too have the ‘new Jerusalem’ firmly in mind. And certainly God would in the short term encourage the building of a literal Temple in Jerusalem (Haggai and Zechariah). Thus all saw the literal Jerusalem as having at least a limited function in the forward going of God’s purposes, simply because it was central in the thinking of the people of Israel. Although how far is another question. However, Ezekiel’s vision went beyond that. It seems to be suggesting that in the major purposes of God the earthly Jerusalem was now of little significance. It was not even worthy of mention. It is now just ‘the city’.
Yet we find him here suddenly speaking of the presence of a new Temple in the land of Israel. But even here, although it is referred to under the anonymous phrase ‘the city’ (Ezekiel 40:1), Jerusalem remains unmentioned by name. And the temple is not sited in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is simply a place called anonymously ‘the city’, whose future name, once it is redeemed and purified, is ‘Yahweh is there’ (Ezekiel 48:35). What Ezekiel is far more concerned to demonstrate is that the glory of Yahweh, and His accessibility to His own, has returned to His people in a new heavenly Temple, which has replaced the old, and is established on a mysterious and anonymous mountain, rather than to stress His presence in an earthly Jerusalem. Indeed he will stress that this temple is outside the environs of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 45:1-6).
This should then awaken us to the fact that Ezekiel is in fact here speaking of an everlasting sanctuary (Ezekiel 37:26; Ezekiel 37:28). This is no earthly Temple with earthly functions. There is no suggestion anywhere that it should be built, indeed it was already there and could be measured. It is an everlasting heavenly Temple of which the earthly was, and will be, but a shadow.
It is true that a physical temple would be built, and they are specifically told that the altar described (but pointedly not directly ‘measured’) is to be made (Ezekiel 43:18), for physical sacrifices would require a physical altar, and that will be the point of contact with the heavenly temple, but the important thing would be, not the physical temple, but the invisible heavenly temple, present in the land, of which the physical was but a representation. The ancients regularly saw their physical religious artefacts as in some way representing an invisible reality, and so it is here. A fuller picture of the heavenly temple is given throughout the Book of Revelation. And this temple was now ‘seen’ to be established in the land even before a physical temple was built. God had again taken possession of His land, and awaited the return of His people for the ongoing of His purposes.
But a further point, putting these verses firmly in its context, is that this will make them realise that once they have come through the trials brought on them by Gog and his forces, fortified by the presence of God in their midst, they will be able to enter the eternal rest promised them by God, for His heavenly, everlasting temple was here so that He could dwell among them in an everlasting sanctuary. This was thus putting in terms that they could understand the heavenly future that awaited His people. It was a fuller and more perfect sanctuary (Ezekiel 37:26-28; Hebrews 9:11). And it had relevance from the beginning as the sign that God had returned to His land.
This section about the ‘heavenly’ temple can be split into five parts. The first is a brief introduction in terms of the vision that Ezekiel experienced (Ezekiel 40:1-4). This is followed by a detailed description of the new temple complex with the lessons that it conveyed (Ezekiel 40:5 to Ezekiel 42:20), the return of Yahweh to His temple (Ezekiel 43:1-9), the worship that would follow as a result of that temple (Ezekiel 43:10 to Ezekiel 46:24), and the accompanying changes that would take place with regard to His people as they ‘repossessed the land’ with the final establishment of a heavenly city (chapters 47-48), all expressed in terms of what they themselves were expecting, but improved on. To them ‘the land’ was the ultimate of their aspirations, a land in which Yahweh had promised them that they would dwell in safety and blessing for ever. So the promises were put in terms of that land to meet with their aspirations. But there are clear indications that something even more splendid was in mind as we shall see. The land could never finally give them the fullness of what God was promising them, and once the temple moved into Heaven, ‘the land’ would move there too.
But we should perhaps here, in fairness to other commentators, pause to recognise that there are actually a number of main views (with variations) with regard to these chapters, which we ought to all too briefly consider for the sake of completeness, so as to present a full picture. As we consider them readers must judge for themselves which one best fits all the facts, remembering what we have already seen in Ezekiel the details of a vision that reaches beyond the confines of an earthly land. We must recognise too that accepting one does not necessarily mean that we have to fully reject the others, for prophecy is not limited to a single event, but to the ongoing action and purposes of God. Nevertheless we cannot avoid the fact that one view must be predominant
1) Some have considered that what Ezekiel predicted was fulfilled when the exiles returned and re-established themselves in the land, rebuilding the physical temple and restoring the priesthood. However nothing that actually took place after the return from Babylon matches the full details of these predictions. Neither the temple built under Zerubbabel's supervision, nor the temple erected by Herod the Great, bore any resemblance to what Ezekiel describes here. In fact, there has been no literal fulfilment of these predictions. And there does not seem to have been a desire for it. Thus this view disregards many of the main facts outlined and dismisses them as unimportant. It sees them as mainly misguided optimism or permissible exaggeration.
2) Others have interpreted this section spiritually. They have seen these predictions as fulfilled in a spiritual sense in the church, and certainly the New Testament to a certain extent confirms this view. Consider for example the use of the idea in chapter 47 in John 7:38. But many consider that this approach fails to explain the multitude of details given, such as the dimensions of the various rooms in the temple complex. They point out that Ezekiel's guide was careful to make sure that the prophet recorded these details exactly (Ezekiel 40:4). The reply would be that what they indicate symbolically is God’s detailed concern for His people. This view presupposes that the church supersedes the old Israel in God's programme (as many believe that the New Testament teaches) and that many of God's promises concerning a future for Israel find part of their actual fulfilment in the church as God’s temple and as the new Israel, symbolically rather than literally. There is certainly some truth in this position.
3) Still others believe that these chapters describe a yet future, eschatological temple and everlasting kingdom in line with Ezekiel 37:24-28, and following 38-39, but that they again do so only symbolically. These interpreters believe that the measurements, for example, represent symbolic truth concerning the coming everlasting kingdom, including the dwelling of God among His people, the establishing of true and pure worship, and the reception by His people of all that He has promised them in fuller measure than they can ever have expected, but they do not look for a literal temple complex and the establishment of temple worship. Indeed they consider that such would be a backward step in the progress of God’s purposes.
It is claimed by those who disagree with them that this view also overlooks the amount of detail given, so much detail, they would claim, that one could almost use these chapters as general blueprints to build the structures in view. To this the reply is partly that the detail is in fact not sufficient to prepare efficient blueprints, and partly that they bear their own message. Indeed they argue that all the many attempts to make a reliable blueprint have failed. If taken literally, they argue, there are problems with the detail that cannot be surmounted. They are therefore far better seen as depictions of the concern of God for perfection for His people.
4) Still others also take this passage as a an apocalyptic prophecy but anticipate a literal fulfilment in the future. While they accept that some of the descriptions have symbolic significance as well as literal reality, and that some teach important spiritual lessons, and can also be applied to the eternal state, nevertheless, they argue, the revelation finally concerns details of a literal future temple to be built to these specifications, details of a system of worship and priesthood which will be literally established, and actual physical changes in the promised land, which will occur when a people identifying themselves specifically as Israel, not the church, dwell there securely (i.e. during what they call the Millennium).
Those who disagree with them point among other things to the impracticality of the plans for the temple, the impossibility of now establishing a genuine Zadokite priesthood, the contradiction of establishing a system of sacrifices when the New Testament points to a better sacrifice, made once for all, which has replaced all others, the discrepancies and difficulties with regard to the siting of the temple, and the unfeasability of dividing the land in the way described.
5) And finally there is the view that we are proposing here, that the Temple of Ezekiel was never intended to be built by man, but was rather a genuine and real presence of the heavenly temple which was from this time present invisibly on earth (invisible to all but Ezekiel, as the armies of God were present but invisible to all but Elisha -2 Kings 6:17). It is saying that God has established Himself in His own invisible temple in the land ready to carry out His campaign into the future. This can then be seen as connected with the temple seen in Revelation in heaven, with the earthly temples to be built as but a shadow of the heavenly, and with the final temple in the everlasting kingdom. The strength of this position will appear throughout the commentary. Suffice to say at this point that there is nowhere in the chapters any suggestion that the temple should be built from the description presented (in complete contrast with the tabernacle - Exodus 25:40). And this is even more emphatically so because instructions are given to build an altar for worship. Given Ezekiel’s visionary insight this fact in itself should make us hesitate in seeing this as any but a visionary temple already present in Israel at the time of measuring.
Whatever view we take we cannot deny that the New Testament does see God’s temple as being present on earth in His people (Ephesians 2:20-22; 1Co 3:16-17 ; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Revelation 11:1), and that John in Revelation refers throughout to a temple in Heaven, and to a new Jerusalem, clearly related to some of the things described in these chapters. Furthermore his description of the eternal state, of life in ‘the new earth’ after the destruction of the present earth, is partly based on chapter 47-48 (Revelation 21-22). And we might see that as suggesting that once the Messiah had been rejected God’s heavenly temple was thought of as having deserted Israel, and as having gone up into Heaven where it was seen by John, although still being represented on earth, no longer by a building, but by His new people.
Bearing all this in mind we will now consider the text.
‘And the glory of Yahweh came into the house by way of the gate whose prospect is towards the east.’
The glory of Yahweh now entered the heavenly temple situated ‘on a very high mountain somewhere in the land’ (Ezekiel 40:2), through the East Gate. It was nineteen years since Ezekiel had seen Yahweh leave the land. Now He had returned (compare Ezekiel 10:4; Ezekiel 44:4; Exodus 40:34-35 1 Kings 8:10-11; Isaiah 6:1-3), but to His own temple, not one built by man. That made Israel’s future for the present secure. Again this demonstrates that this heavenly temple was an actuality at the time that Ezekiel was speaking.
Patterned on this the glory of Yahweh would also enter the second temple when it was built under Zerubbabel as a foretaste of the glory in the everlasting kingdom under the everlasting king (Haggai 2:7 with 21-23).
‘And the Spirit took me up and brought me into the inner court, and behold the glory of Yahweh filled the house.’
Ezekiel was not allowed to enter by the gate through which Yahweh had entered (compare Ezekiel 44:2). Instead he was lifted up by the Spirit Who carried him to the inner court. And there he saw the glory of Yahweh filling the sanctuary. But the main glory was revealed in the holy of holies where none could go or see. That he could not look on.
‘And I heard one speaking to me out of the house, and a man stood by me.’
As Ezekiel watched, with the heavenly visitant beside him, he heard from the sanctuary the voice of One Who was speaking to him. The main reason for mention of the man is so that we would not think it was he who spoke from the temple. The voice was that of God Himself, not of an intermediary
‘And he said to me, “Son of man, this is the place of my throne, and the place of the soles of my feet, where I will dwell in the midst of the children of Israel for ever. And the house of Israel will no more defile my holy name, neither they nor their kings, by their whoredom and by the carcasses of their kings in their high places, in the setting of their threshold by my threshold, and their door post beside my door post, and there was but the wall between me and them. And they defiled my holy name by their abominations which they committed, which is why I have consumed them in my anger.”
Here Yahweh speaks to Ezekiel and confirms that the heavenly sanctuary is His throne room and is where He treads and is present. There may also be the thought that it is there that He places His feet on His footstool (Psalms 99:5; Psalms 132:7). It is the everlasting sanctuary promised in Ezekiel 37:24-28. The earthly sanctuary that Israel will subsequently build, while very important to them, would be but a shadow of this, as Solomon himself previously recognised, ‘Will God in very deed dwell on earth? Behold, Heaven and the Heaven of Heavens cannot contain you, how much less this house that I have built’ (1 Kings 8:27). Compare also the words of Isaiah 66:1, ‘The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool, what manner of house will you build for me?’ There was no temple that could hold Yahweh, only the heavenly temple.
He points out that they will not be able to defile this heavenly sanctuary, whatever they may do with their earthly copy, and indeed had done previously. Even Solomon, in all his supposed wisdom, had not had the wit to recognise the insult to God there was in his building his house next to God’s house so that there was no clear distinction. (There was no walled in outer court in his temple). He had put himself just at ‘the other side of the wall’ from God’s sanctuary, and had built his house ‘threshold to threshold and door to door’, as though he were somehow semi-divine, and his successors had done likewise. They had taken His adoption of them too literally. They had thus drawn to themselves some of the glory of God. But as mortal kings they had died, and death had thus contaminated His house, and then they had arranged for themselves to be buried in the vicinity of the temple. But there was to be no more of that. The ‘carcasses’ of their kings (the term is derisive) should be put far from Him.
There is a message too here for us. We too can overplay the wonderful gifts that God has given us and make of ourselves more than we are. Sons we may be, and joint heirs with Christ, but this must humble us, not exalt us. We must not presume on God as Solomon had done.
Furthermore they had defiled His house by their abominations; actual idolatry in the temple, sexual misbehaviour and sinfulness. All proved that men had dealt lightly with God. They would not be able to do this in His heavenly temple. Only what was holy could enter there. So let them also beware lest they do it in the earthly. They must put away idolatry, rebellion and sin. This was the condition of His dwelling in the midst of them for ever. Otherwise His heavenly temple would leave their land, (and their earthly temple would be destroyed).
And yet there would always be a remnant. God would continue to dwell with His true people, for He would be in them by His Spirit (Ezekiel 39:29; Ezekiel 36:26) and they would be His temple, prepared for the temple that was in Heaven, and that even greater day when there would be no temple, because God Himself would be their temple (Revelation 21:22).
“You, son of man, show the house to the house of Israel, that they may be ashamed of their iniquities, and let them measure the pattern (or ‘the sum’).”
The details of the heavenly temple were to be explained to the exiles. The idea was that as they assessed the sum total of its significance (‘measure the sum’ - for the idea compare Ezekiel 28:12) and recognised the holiness and perfection of the One against Whom they had been rebelling as it was revealed there, they would be ashamed of all their evil behaviour and idolatry.
“And if they are ashamed of all that they have done, make the form of the house known to them and its fashion, and its goings out and its comings in, and all its forms and all its ordinances, and all its forms and all its laws, and write it in their sight that they may keep all its forms and all its ordinances, and do them.”
If they were expected to build a temple like this, surely this would be the point at which it would have been expressed clearly as it was of the tabernacle (Exodus 25:9; Exodus 25:40; Exodus 26:30; Exodus 27:8). But there is no such thought. Rather they are to be given the details of the heavenly temple and recognise the lessons that they are to learn from them. And its main lesson is ‘holiness’ (Ezekiel 43:12).
The word translated ‘form’ occurs only in this verse (four times) and nowhere else, and in each case it is paralleled with another noun, ‘and its fashion’, ‘and all its ordinances’, ‘and all its laws’. Thus while referring to the make up of something it here indicated the make up of the fashion of the temple, and the way of entry and exit, the make up of its ordinances (mentioned twice) and the make up of its laws, because it had important lessons to teach. It was a command to understand, not a command to build or even a suggestion that it should be built. The next verse amplifies it.
“This is the law of the house on top of the mountain. Its whole limit around it shall be most holy. Behold this is the law of the house.”
Note the vague description, ‘the house on the top of the mountain’. The mountain was described in Ezekiel 40:2 as ‘a very high mountain’. It is a special place whose whereabouts is not revealed. Ezekiel does not want to connect it directly with any specific earthly site. And its law is the awful holiness of it, holy because the Holy One will be there, Whose holiness is revealed by every detail of the house. And its ordinances are holy. They must be scrupulously observed, very important words to exiles in a far country where detail may have tended to become blurred. And its laws are holy. Not one of God’s laws revealed in the covenants must be overlooked. They must be obeyed to the glory of God.
Sadly many in Israel took this in the wrong way. They made the laws an end in themselves rather than a means of showing their faith and trust in God. They overlooked the fact that in the end all was intended to bring them to God in love and trust, not to keep them away.
We shall see shortly in Ezekiel 45:1-5 how it was proposed that this heavenly temple would be preserved from ever again being contaminated by man, but first it was necessary that the way still open to God must be revealed. God was in His sanctuary, but how were they to reach Him? The key lies in the sacrificial altar.
“And these are the measures of the altar by cubits, the cubit is a cubit and a handbreadth. The bosom shall be a cubit, and the breadth a cubit, and its border by its edge round about, a span. And this shall be the back (platform) of the altar. And from the bosom on the ground (or of the earth) to the lower settle shall be two cubits, and the breadth one cubit, and from the lesser settle to the greater settle shall be four cubits, and the breadth a cubit. And the upper altar (the harel) shall be four cubits, and from the Ariel and upwards there shall be four horns.
That the brazen altar was ‘most holy’ we are told in Exodus 40:10, which again demonstrates that its pointed non-measurement by the man with the measuring reed (Ezekiel 40:47) must have been significant. Now we are told the measurements of the altar by God Himself. Its importance is thus emphasised and it is the only part of the heavenly structure which was specifically to be built by man as a direct copy of the heavenly. It is to be the direct link between the earthly and the heavenly.
(There is a specific distinction between something being measured and measurements being given. The former was to indicate that it was there and being brought into use, the latter was to indicate that it should be built to these measurements).
It is interesting in this regard that in the description of the building of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6-7) the brazen altar was also ignored, although it was clearly assumed to be there (1 Kings 8:22; 1Ki 8:54 ; 1 Kings 8:64; 1 Kings 9:25 - and compare 2 Chronicles 4:1). And indeed that was where Solomon knelt with his hands spread towards Heaven (1 Kings 8:54). This may well suggest that such an altar was seen generally, not as part of the heavenward side of the temple, but as part of its earthward side. When man wanted to approach God in worship the first thing he did was to erect an altar (Genesis 12:8 and often; Ezra 3:2). Where God ‘revealed His name’, that is His very nature, an altar was to be built (Exodus 20:24). It was the link between earth and Heaven. It brought man in touch with the heavenly.
The description in these verses is full of interesting problems due simply to problems as to the meaning of certain words. The word translated ‘bosom’ means ‘that which is enclosed’. Thus a woman enfolds her children to her bosom. It possibly here refers to the channel at the bottom of the altar going along its length into which any residue went and was there ‘grasped to its bosom’, (consider ‘the place of the ashes’ - Leviticus 1:16, and the place where the spare blood of sin and guilt offerings was thrown - Leviticus 4:18; Leviticus 4:25; Leviticus 4:30; Leviticus 5:9) and thus it was the equivalent of the ‘length’. The measurement of a cubit refers to the exposed part of the platform after the next stage is built on it. The ‘back’ refers to the platform. The border by its edge probably refers to a rim or boundary going all round.
Some have read ‘the bosom of the earth’ (cheq ha arets) in 14a literally and have seen in ‘bosom’ a reference to the Akkadian irat ersiti (bosom of the earth), which was the name given to the foundation platform of the temple of Marduk in Babylon. This may well have become a regular technical description among some nations for the platform on which an altar was erected, and the parallel might seem to be more than a coincidence. As the platform was probably mainly buried in the ground it would be appropriate. But the use of ‘bosom’ to indicate length in Ezekiel 43:13 counts against stress on this meaning here. It may be that this is simply to be seen as the more prosaic, ‘the channel in the ground’, described by its technical term.
The next smaller stage of the altar was two cubits in height up to ‘the lower settle’, with a one cubit surround (the ‘breadth’ of the top surface left showing) revealed, and the next even smaller stage four cubits in height to the ‘greater settle’, again with the one cubit surround revealed. This was then followed by a further stage four cubits in height, all reaching to an impressive ten cubits.
(A ‘settle’ would appear to indicate an area on which something else would be ‘settled’).
The upper altar (har’el - which could mean ‘mountain of God’) and the altar hearth (’ari’el) have also been connected with Babylonian ideas. The Akkadian arallu means either the ‘underworld of the gods’ or ‘mountain of the gods’. Compare the use of Ariel in Isaiah to mean Mount Zion (Isaiah 29:1-2; Isaiah 29:7), which confirms that this idea was present in Israel. Thus the top of the altar might be seen as intended to be connected with the ‘mountain of God’, which Ezekiel seemingly saw as making this the link to the heavenly temple.
However, it is possible that by then these were simply technical names for the top part of the altar, or upper altar, which was called the harel (or ‘mountain of God’), with the Ariel, which was therefore probably the altar hearth, in the top of the altar.
On the other hand the whole altar here was clearly built like a Ziggurat (stepped temple). There the fact that it rose up and was stepped was to indicate ascent to the gods. It represented a mountain, indeed possibly being seen as almost a stairway up to Heaven (compare Genesis 11:4). So the idea here of the stepped altar may well be to reveal that by use of the altar Israel would be able to ‘reach’ the heavenly temple which had descended on the unknown high mountain, which thereby had become the mountain of God.
The ‘horns’ are protrusions from the four corners of the altar, which were a regular feature of altars elsewhere, the purpose for which is uncertain. They may have symbolised power (as ‘horns’ regularly do), or have been pointers up to Heaven. The horns were regarded as being an essential part of the altar and had to be ‘cleansed’ (Ezekiel 43:20; Exodus 29:12).
A large sacrificial altar with protrusions at its four corners dated to the 8th century BC has been discovered at Beersheba (it had been used to repair the wall of a storehouse). 9th century altars discovered at Megiddo with such protrusions were small and probably incense altars, but they do demonstrate that the protrusions were not simply for securing the sacrifice but had deeper significance.
The Altar Of Sacrifice Is To Be The Connection Between the Heavenly Temple and the Earthly Temple Yet To Be Built And Is To Be Copied For That Purpose (Ezekiel 43:13-17 ).
The heavenly visitant had now finished his measuring. But note that he was not ever told, and is not now, to measure the altar. Although the altar was mentioned for completeness in Ezekiel 40:47, it was pointedly not measured. It was basically almost ignored as not being an important part of the heavenly temple from the point of view of its message. This was very significant. As demonstrated by its non-measurement the heavenly altar was not to be brought into use. For the brazen altar spoke of what man was, and of man’s approach to God, and not of what God was.
But the altar is now described as a pattern for an altar to be built by man (Ezekiel 43:18) and Ezekiel is told its details for this specific purpose. Then it is to be used as a means of approach to God and His heavenly temple. Any measuring is thus to be done by man, for man will bring it into use. It is in absolute contrast to what has gone before.
We can compare this with Jacob at Bethel. There too he had witnessed ‘the house of God, the gate of Heaven’, a heavenly conception. Then he too erected a means of worship, a pillar, an earthly symbol of what he had seen. And it was there that he offered his worship (Genesis 27:17-18). And like that pillar so with the altar here. It is to be the connection between the earthly and the heavenly.
“And the altar hearth (’ari’el) shall be shall be twelve long by twelve broad, square in its four sides.”
The whole altar was to be foursquare indicating its perfection but it is only as regards the altar hearth that we are specifically told this. It is a large altar, twelve cubits by twelve cubits at the top (contrast Exodus 27:1 where the altar was five cubits by five cubits and 2 Chronicles 4:1 where Solomon’s altar was twenty cubits by twenty cubits but not said to be stepped.).
“And the settle shall be fourteen long by fourteen wide in its four sides. And the border about it shall be half a cubit, and its bosom shall be a cubit about, and its steps shall look towards the east.”
The next stage down, the ‘higher settle’, was to be fourteen cubits by fourteen. There would be a one cubit surround with a half cubit rim. Thus the next step down was sixteen cubits, but this is not mentioned. This draws attention to the measurements of the top two sections, twelve by twelve representing the official number of the tribes of Israel, fourteen by fourteen representing twice seven, intensified divine perfection. The main interest of the ancients in numbers was in their significance.
There were to be steps up to the altar. Previously steps had been forbidden (Exodus 20:24-26), but they were essential with an altar of this size. The stepped shape of the altar and the steps leading up to it were both an indication that the altar was the means by which they reached heavenward.
The Altar Is To Be Built and Sanctified (Ezekiel 43:18-27).
Instructions were now given for the building and cleansing of the earthly altar. The very fact that an altar was to be built was indirect confirmation of God’s willingness for them to build a new temple for themselves, although actually, as long as they had an altar, worship could function without a temple, as Ezra 3:2-3 makes clear. Thus it was not the direct equivalent of a command to build the temple. The first essential was that man should have his approach to God made possible by the shedding of blood, and that required an altar. But by making it according to the pattern of the heavenly altar they ensured its spiritual connection with the heavenly temple. An earthly temple could follow.
The Building of the Altar (Ezekiel 43:18 ).
‘And he said to me, “Son of man, thus says the Lord Yahweh, These are the ordinances of the altar in the day that they shall make it, to offer burnt offerings on it and to sprinkle blood on it.” ’
The altar described had to be made as a means by which ‘burnt offerings’ could be offered to God (this in fact covers the whole range of sacrifices, the burnt offering being the oldest, the most general and the most important). It was also the means by which the blood could be applied before God. This would make possible access to Him.
“You will give to the priests, the Levites, who are of the seed of Zadok, who are near to me, to minister to me,” says the Lord Yahweh, “a young bullock for a sin offering, and you will take of its blood, and put it on the four horns of it, and on the four corners of the settle, and on the border round about. Thus you will cleanse it and make atonement for it. You will also take the bullock of the sin offering, and he will burn it in the appointed place of the house, outside the sanctuary.”
Once again we have confirmed the fact that the sons of Zadok now have a privileged position before God. This confirms that we are here dealing with a situation immediately after the exile when such ‘sons of Zadok’ could be identified. There would be no grounds for such special privilege in any supposed millennium, for the sons of Zadok were equally responsible for the crucifixion of Christ (see further on Ezekiel 44:15 onwards). The partial rejection of a large part of the priesthood from the central sacred tasks was a preparation for the time which would later result in the rejection of the whole of the priesthood when it was replaced by Jesus Christ, God’s own High Priest. After that there are no grounds for any restoration of a levitical priesthood. God’s people are His priests, and their offering is one of praise, thanksgiving, dedication and good lives, ‘spiritual sacrifices’ (1 Peter 2:5; Hebrews 13:15; Romans 12:1; Philippians 2:17; Hebrews 13:16)
Their responsibility here was to officiate in the overall sacrificial ordinances of Israel, which would begin here by offering a young bullock provided by Ezekiel (or his representative) as a sin offering. The fact that the offering was a sin offering stresses the defilement brought on the earth by the past failure of Israel. The first step to restoration of worship was admission of the depths of their sin, and the need for it to be atoned for.
The blood of the sin offering was then to be applied to the horns of the altar (with the finger) and the corners of the higher settle, together with its surround. The place in which future sacrifices were to be offered must be freed from all taint of sin. For the procedures see Leviticus 16:18-19 where the altar had to be cleansed on the Day of Atonement. Compare also procedures in Exodus 29:12; Leviticus 4:7; Leviticus 4:18; Leviticus 4:25; Leviticus 4:30; Leviticus 4:34; Leviticus 8:15; Leviticus 9:9.
‘Thus you will cleanse it and make atonement for it. You will also take the bullock of the sin offering, and he will burn it in the appointed place of the house, outside the sanctuary.’ Thus cleansing and atonement (the ‘covering’ of sin) was made. The altar was now pure. The burning of the remains outside the sanctuary was because the remains were now fully tainted with sin. Had it been because of their holiness they would have been burned in the sanctuary. This was done previously for major sin offerings which were for the whole people or for the priests and those offered on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 4:12; Leviticus 4:21; Leviticus 16:27 see also Ezekiel 8:17). This emphasis on this severe treatment militates against any suggestion of a memorial offering. The reference to ‘the house’ does not necessarily refer to a specific temple, but to whatever place housed the sanctuary and the altar (compare Genesis 28:22; Judges 20:18; Jdg 21:2 ; 1 Samuel 1:7; 1 Samuel 3:15 and contrast 2 Samuel 7:6).
‘The seed of Zadok.’ This refers primarily to those descended from Zadok (1 Chronicles 6:8), and the high priesthood would in future be Zadokite. However, ‘seed of’ does not necessarily demand a blood relationship. It could include priests who had opted to be one with the Zadokites in their faithfulness to Yahweh, and exclude those who by their blatant misbehaviour had shown themselves not ‘true’ Zadokites. In the same way Israel were the ‘seed of Jacob’ (Psalms 22:23; Isaiah 45:19; Jeremiah 33:26) but the large proportion of them were not directly descended from Jacob, they were his ‘seed’ by opting in and by adoption.
The Sanctifying and Cleansing of the Altar and Reinstitution Of Sacrificial Worship (Ezekiel 43:19-27 ).
This process would take seven days. This was unlike the case of the sanctifying of the tabernacle, accomplished through the anointing oil (Exodus 30:22-29; Exodus 40:10), but like the sanctifying of the temple of Solomon, although there the offerings were whole burnt offerings and peace-offerings (2 Chronicles 7:1-9), and therefore not having the same significance.
However, the consecration of the priesthood did take seven days (Leviticus 8:33) and required sin offerings. The idea here might be that the altar had been defiled by Israel’s previous behaviour and treatment of it. Or more likely it may have in mind its special function as the ‘entry’ to the heavenly temple, needing therefore to be totally purified, just as the priesthood who provided access to God had had to be totally purified.
“And on the second day you will offer a he-goat without blemish for a sin offering, and they will cleanse the altar as they cleansed it with the bullock. When you have made an end of cleansing it, you will offer a young bullock without blemish, and a ram out of the flock without blemish, and you will bring them near before Yahweh, and the priests shall cast salt on them, and they shall offer them up as a whole burnt offering to Yahweh.”
Note again the emphasis on cleansing (literally ‘de-sinning’). Until that was accomplished no whole burnt offering could be offered up, an offering wholly consumed in fire. But then a young bull and a ram, both without blemish, could be offered as a whole (burnt) offering, an act of total self-giving, of worship, love and gratitude. But it would require seven days, the period of divine perfection, to thoroughly cleanse the altar. This sounds like something very intense and necessary, not at all like a memorial offering.
‘And the priests shall cast salt on them.’ Compare Leviticus 2:13; Numbers 18:19; Mark 9:49. The idea seems to be of a preservative function and a countering of corruption. It was closely linked with the covenant and was continually required (Leviticus 2:13) as a sign of the preserving of the covenant relationship without corruption.
“For seven days you will prepare every day a goat for a sin offering, they will also prepare a young bullock and a ram out of the flock without blemish. For seven days they will make atonement for the altar and purify it. So will they consecrate it (fill its hands). And when they have accomplished the days it shall be that on the eighth day, and from then on, the priests will make your burnt offerings on the altar and your peace offerings, and I will accept you,” says the Lord Yahweh.’
The process was to go on for seven days, with a sin offering, followed by whole (burnt) offerings, every day. This would thoroughly purify the altar, and consecrate it. From then on it would be clean for the purpose of offering whole offerings and peace offerings to Yahweh. The peace offerings included parts that could be eaten by the priests, and in many cases by the people. This would not have been possible had the altar not been fully clean. This speaks strongly of Old Testament sacrifice.
Note that all the offerings are to be made by the priests. In earlier times the people themselves in many cases participated in the acts of sacrifice, but now it was limited to the priests. ‘And I will accept you.’ Once the proper rites had been gone through and the continuing sacrifices offered, the people could be confident of God’s acceptance of them through it.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Ezekiel 43". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25