Ezekiel’s Temple Vision: Literal, Figurative, or Both?

Ezekiel’s temple vision in chapters 40-48 should be interpreted literally as a prophecy describing an eschatological third temple during the Millennial reign of Christ, however, not so dogmatically as to rule out major figurative elements. This broad classification can be reached through a process of elimination. If one studies scripture with a historical-grammatical approach they will rule out the idealistic remembrance of the first temple and the plan for a second temple as realistic options for interpretation. The only alternate interpretation that holds water is that Ezekiel’s vision is symbolic of a future spiritual reality. This theory contains some validity in that symbolism does play a significant role in the prophecy’s New Testament fulfillment, but ultimately fails as a wholesale interpretation. Given the brevity of this paper, we will focus almost entirely on arguments for the literal third temple approach (with some figurative elements), only discussing other interpretations when necessary.

A Literal Temple

So, why the literal approach? First, because Ezekiel’s temple vision directly correlates to the rest of Ezekiel’s prophecy. In chapter 1, significant time and emphasis is placed on the glory of the Lord, later resulting in God’s glory leaving the temple (chap. 10). Likewise, Ezekiel’s temple vision centers around the glory of the Lord and resolves with God’s glory filling the temple (chap. 43). The form and nature of Ezekiel’s “visions” are consonant throughout the book (see Ezekiel 1:1, 8:2-3, 40:2-3).[1] Ezekiel’s prophecy is linear—it is going somewhere—and without chapters 40-48 there is no destination. Chapter 4 details the temple’s destruction, chapters 33-39 Israel’s return and restoration, and chapters 40-48 the rebuilding and return of God’s presence.[2] If the other events in Ezekiel’s prophecy literally occurred, wouldn’t that suggest its resolution is also to literally occur? Specifically, if the literal First Temple was met with actual destruction and desecration (which historical record confirms), wouldn’t one expect the Third Temple described at the prophecy’s close to be literally constructed? Price asks, “would Ezekiel as a like-minded prophet have attempted to comfort his people’s physical and spiritual loss with anything other than the literal restoration of a Temple to which the Divine Presence could return?”[3]

It appears much of the controversy surrounding the meaning of Ezekiel’s temple vision arises from further revelation in the New Testament.

Second, the very precise description regarding the temple’s construction and rules suggest a literal interpretation. The greater portion of chapters 40-48 offers exhaustive detail about the proportions and material of each gate, chamber, and vestibule; rules for priests and feasts; instructions for use, divisions of the land, etc. While some of the content has definite symbolic meaning, it smacks of inadequacy to assume that all the nuts-and-bolts details are figurative, or as Daniel Block writes, “designed to shame the exilic audience for past abuses.”[4] Elsewhere in scripture, similarly exhaustive instructions are indeed followed by literal construction. Moses received ample instruction for building the tabernacle (Exodus 25-31, 36-40). Solomon built the First Temple of the Lord (1 Kings 6-8). To this point, some arguments have been levelled against the literal view, namely that the prophecy’s categorization as a “vision” lends itself to a figurative interpretation[5] and also that no one is ever specifically commanded to build the structure.[6] But, it was also in “visions of God” that Ezekiel witnessed the desecration in Jerusalem earlier in the prophecy (Ezekiel 8:3) and expositors uniformly hold to a literal view regarding that event. And while it is true that no one specifically is commanded to build the temple, Ezekiel is, in fact, instructed to deliver the message of his vision to “the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 40:4). As Price notes, this point is further reiterated in 43:10-11 as Ezekiel is again instructed to “describe to the house of Israel the temple … they shall measure the plan … its whole design and all its laws … and carry them out.” In verse 18, the altar of the temple is described and predicted to be “erected.”[7] The literal view that Ezekiel provided specific direction for the building of the temple is also further confirmed by Ezekiel’s identity as not only a prophet, but a priest (Ezekiel 1:3).[8] As a compound to this line of thinking, Feingold argues that explicit mentions of “proper names serve to tie the revelation to historic reality and validity, calling for literal interpretation.”[9] One example would be the frequent mentions of the sons of Zadok.

Third, Old Testament prophecy outside Ezekiel suggests a literal Third Temple. Borrowing from the same passage above (43:10-11), Price directs attention to a national “shame,” in which Israel is made aware of the temple prophecy and becomes “ashamed of all that they have done.” The idea is not, as Block contends, that the minute details of the temple were solely “designed to shame” the exilic audience, but more likely points to a greater eschatological truth—the national repentance of Israel.[10] The idea that a future spiritual repentance precludes the building of the temple “accords with numerous references in the Prophets (Isaiah 55:3-5; 66:7-9; Jeremiah 31:34; Hosea 3:4-5; Zechariah 12:10-13:2),” Price writes.

Influence of The New Testament

It appears much of the controversy surrounding the meaning of Ezekiel’s temple vision arises from further revelation in the New Testament. There is great urgency, especially on behalf of the Reformers, to thrust the Church into Ezekiel’s prophecy, declaring the temple either “the Christian Church or the heavenly paradise that awaits all believers.”[11] Luther said the temple could be “nothing else” but the equivalent.[12] This urgency, on one hand has enlightened very real symbolic connections between Israel’s future hope and humanity’s blessing through Christ’s redemptive work, yet on the other has wrongfully equated the universal church with the “house of Israel.” Feinburg aptly responds to this type of Covenantal Theology by clarifying his own mold for interpreting scripture, that “the church age is not the only or last era of God’s operation in time … wrongly mak[ing] our age the last one before the eternal day … necessitates some strange handling of Scripture to fit all the remaining parts of it into our epoch of world history.”[13]

Jesus ends once and for all the utility of the sacrificial system by offering himself the final sacrifice for all sin.

Cast aside human theological arguments (not to say that they are not necessary and beneficial), and God’s revealed Word in the New Testament still has much to inspire the reader in regards to Ezekiel 40-48. Foremost, the incarnation of Jesus Christ transcended the necessity of a temple in that Jesus became “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). Dr. Gary Yates contends that the Transfiguration accounts prove that “the glory of God is now associated with the person of Jesus apart from the edifice of the temple (cf. Matt 17:1-3; Mark 9:2-13; Luke 9:28-36).”[14] Jesus ends once and for all the utility of the sacrificial system by offering himself the final sacrifice for all sin. When the veil was torn (Mark 15:38) God was pronouncing that all humanity has direct access to Him through Jesus Christ, rather than a temple. With the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in believer, the Church has also in effect replaced the temple.[15] Furthermore, prophecy in the book of Revelation shows that New Jerusalem will also replace the need for a physical temple in that God’s Presence will ultimately fill the cosmos—a dramatic and wonderful resolution to the biblical story. It is easy to see, even from this brief excerpt, how expositors throughout the church age have been tempted to embrace a figurative approach to Ezekiel’s temple vision. Yet while the necessity for a temple in the church age is undone, the function of a temple in the context of the Millennial reign is by no means proven obsolete.  And it would do well for expositors to remember that Jesus himself said in Mark 11:17, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations?’” At the same time he was casting judgment on the current temple. It can therefore be naturally inferred that a future temple would play an important role in the eschatological kingdom.[16]

The Offering of Sacrifices

One particular point of criticism for the literal interpretation is the referencing of the offering of sacrifices at the future temple (Ezekiel 40:38-43, 42:13-14 ), which of course seems to discount Christ’s once and for all atonement for sin. The Reformers all but unanimously resolved the sacrifices to be pictures of Christ prophesied about to the exilic community. William Greenhill called the offerings “types of Christ, who is our true meat offering, the bread of life, the nourishment of every hungry and thirsty soul.”[17] Jesus would indeed later call on followers to eat of his flesh and drink of his blood (John 6:53). But, he later instructed the disciples to drink wine and eat bread in remembrance of him (1 Cor. 11:24).

Feinburg answers the seeming dilemma this way: “sacrifices will have no more redemptive efficacy in the Millennial period than they had in the ages before Calvary.” Which is to say that sacrifices have always been ritualistic and commemorative, not effective. Hebrews 10:4 states “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Thus, in the same fashion that taking The Lord’s Supper serves as a constant memorial, the function of sacrifices can serve to memorialize Christ’s sacrifice, as well. This would obviously be especially commemorative for the Jewish people given their history. Chisolm suggests that Ezekiel’s prophecy was contextualized to influence his audience (hence the temple, altar, sacrifices, etc.) and so the prophecy should be viewed idealistically to some extent; readers should look for “essential” but not “exact” fulfillment.[18] Perhaps that is more fitting in regards to the offering of sacrifices. I personally find Feinberg’s explanation satisfactory, but would not be dogmatic about it.

Reflections

Any study of Ezekiel’s temple vision will quickly demonstrate to the student their human limitations. God’s thoughts are truly above our thoughts and His ways are above our ways. We can and should labor and study to know Him and understand His will, but much will remain a mystery until God reveals it to us. The secret things belong to God (Deut. 29:29). With that said, it is important to begin with a literal interpretation of scripture and only move from there if the context and language give definitive reason to. Certainly there are symbolic elements in much of biblical prophecy, but that fact in and of itself does not necessitate an entirely figurative interpretation. Often symbolic fulfillment of prophecy is used to supplement literal fulfillment. I also happen to agree with Feinburg’s notion that all too often expositors funnel biblical prophecy through their current understanding in time, but the church age is not the only age. Surely, many Old Testament readers, though knowing the scriptures deeply, misunderstood their meaning (one not need to look further than the Jewish people missing Christ as the Messiah). We ought to read prophecy humbly, willing to admit where we may not be seeing the whole picture.


[1] See ESV footnote on Ezekiel 40:1-4: “The phrase visions of God links this vision with 1:1 and 8:3 … His guide, with an appearance like bronze, is reminiscent of the guide in 8:2.”

[2] Randall Price, “Ezekiel’s Prophecy of the Temple,” World of the Bible, http://www.worldofthebible.com/Bible%20Studies/Ezekiel’s%20Prophecy%20of%20the%20Temple.pdf.

[3] Price, Ezekiel’s Prophecy of the Temple

[4] Daniel Isaac Block, The Book of Ezekiel (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1997), 505

[5] Charles Lee Feinberg, The prophecy of Ezekiel; the glory of the Lord (Chicago: Moody Press, 1969), 237

[6] Block, 505

[7] Price, Ezekiel’s Prophecy of the Temple

[8] Feinberg, 237

[9] Ibid., 243

[10] Price, Ezekiel’s Prophecy of the Temple

[11] Carl Beckwith, Reformation Commentary on Scripture: Ezekiel, Daniel (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2012), 196

[12] Beckwith, 196

[13] Feinberg, 234-35

[14] Gary Yates, “The Temple in the New Testament,” Tohu vabohu, January 01, 1970, , accessed February 03, 2017, http://garyeyates.blogspot.com/2009/12/temple-in-new-testament.html.

[15] Yates, “The Temple in the New Testament”

[16] Gary Yates, “The New Temple in the OT Prophets: Literal or Figurative,” Tohu vabohu, January 01, 1970, accessed February 04, 2017, http://garyeyates.blogspot.com/2009/09/new-temple-in-ot-prophets-literal-or.html

[17] Beckwith, 209

[18] Gary Yates, “Future Temple and Future Kingdom,” Tohu vabohu, January 01, 1970, accessed February 02, 2017, http://garyeyates.blogspot.com/2009/12/future-temple-and-future-kingdom.html.

Phil Shiver

A seminary student living in Greenville, SC.

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