Ezekiel’s Vision of the World to Come (Ezekiel 40-48)
Note: This article is an excerpt from my book, The High King of Heaven: Discovering the Master Keys to the Great End Time Debate (Redemption Press, 2014). Its purpose is to give an amillennial interpretation of what I consider to be the single most difficult OT Kingdom prophecy in all of Scripture: Ezekiel’s vision to the World to Come (Ezekiel 40-48).
As you will soon discover, the article is quite LONG. Alas, that could well be because I am longwinded. I would like to think, however, that in truth it is long because it had to be; because some stubborn modern amillennarian simply had to expend the necessary time and energy to make good, NT sense of this profoundly mysterious OT prophecy; to show that in point of fact it is a marvelous asset to amillennial eschatology, rather than an indictment of it, as so many today have been led to assume.
Whether or not I have succeed in this endeavor is for you to judge. I do, however, hope, pray, and trust that if you elect to venture with me into this dense prophetic thicket, you will indeed come out the other side feeling that your (considerable) labors have not been in vain.
For further–and shorter–studies of various Old Testament Kingdom Prophecies (OTKP), including others in Ezekiel, please visit my blog here.
This is the capstone, the last of Ezekiel’s three Oracles of Good News.
In the first, God promised his people a final restoration to the land, the coming of the Messiah, the gift of Spirit, and the fullness of his covenant blessings (Ezekiel 36-37). In the second, he promised to rescue them from the Last Battle, and to destroy, once and for all, all their surrounding enemies (Ezekiel 38-39). Here in the third oracle, he completes his words of encouragement, giving them a vision of life together with him in the eternal World to Come (Ezekiel 40-48).
In essence, this vision is an elaboration of the great promise previously given in Ezekiel 37:24-28. To re-read that text is to see immediately that the word “forever” is both prominent and crucial. Israel will dwell in the land forever (25a). The Messianic son of David will be their Prince forever (25b). God will enter into a covenant of peace with them forever (26a). And he will set his sanctuary in their midst forever (26b, 27, 28).
Here, then, is what life will be like in the eschaton, in the World to Come. Here, at long last, the promise of the Eternal Covenant will be fully realized. Here the LORD will be “Israel’s” God, and they his people. Here, every impediment to their union will be removed, and every blessing of that union enjoyed—forever (v. 27).
This is the message of Ezekiel 40-48, as well. Here, however, the promise comes less by way of divine utterance, and more by way of divine vision (40:2).
It is indeed a vast, extended vision, but with a definite structure. Incorporating ideas and images familiar to every godly Israelite, it depicts life in the World to Come under seven memorable motifs: the everlasting Mountain of God (41:1-4), the everlasting Temple of God (40:5-42:20), the everlasting glory of God (43:1-2), the everlasting worship of God (43:13-46:24), and the everlasting River of God (47:1-12), bringing perfect wholeness to the everlasting Homeland of God (47:13-48:29) and to the everlasting City of God (48: 30-35). In a moment we will examine each one.
But first, how is the vision to be interpreted? History helps us to answer. Confronted with an unavoidable decision to interpret it literally or figuratively, the vast majority of Christian commentators, from the Church fathers on, have opted for the figurative approach. Writes Biederwolf:
The prevailing view has been that it presents in grand outline the good in store for God’s people during the times of the Gospel; that it is a vision of spiritual realities pictorially presented . . . thus expressing under well-known (OT) symbols certain fundamental and eternal ideas with regard to the true worship of God.
The reasons for this longstanding consensus are many, and well worth a brief discussion.
The Case for Figurative Interpretation
To begin with, this is a vision, a medium of revelation that, in both Old and New Testament times, is often, if not always, couched in symbols (Daniel 2, 4, 7, 8; Zechariah 1-6; Revelation 4-22). The fact that the returning exiles of Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s day—and also the Jews of Herod’s day—never attempted to erect Ezekiel’s temple, or to re-apportion the land along the lines mentioned in his prophecy, may well indicate that they themselves regarded the vision as symbolic.
Secondly, both the contents of the vision and its placement as the capstone of Ezekiel’s Oracles of Good News clearly identify the subject matter as the everlasting World to Come. For those steeped in NT eschatology, this means that the prophet must be giving us a “covenantally conditioned” revelation of the New Heavens and the New Earth (2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1f). If so, the vision cannot be fulfilled in a temporary millennial era. More on this in a moment.
Thirdly, the World here envisioned is—covenantally speaking— neither fish nor foul: It is governed neither by the Law of Moses (as other OTKP’s say it will be: Isaiah 2:3; Micah 4:21), nor by the Law of Christ contained in the NT (1 Corinthians 9:21). Yes, there are certain similarities with the Mosaic Law: A temple, an altar, various offerings, feast days, new moons, Sabbaths, etc. Yet there are also dramatic differences, both in the form of changes and deletions. Much of the tabernacle furniture is gone (e.g., the Ark, the Golden Candlestick, the Table of Showbread, etc.). There is no High Priest or Day of Atonement. Most of the Levites have been barred from their traditional privileges. The faithful sons of Zadok do indeed continue to serve at the altar and in the Holy Place, but they no longer enter the Holy of Holies. The boundaries of the land are redrawn, the tribal allotments are radically restructured, and the City of God receives a new name, etc.
Such discrepancies vis-à-vis the Law of Moses were deeply troubling to subsequent Jewish leaders, who in time refused even to read Ezekiel 40-48 in public, for fear of confusing the people. However, had they understood the typological character of OT revelation, they would have realized that Ezekiel—and indeed Moses himself—spoke “mystically” of the things of Christ and the Covenant to come.
Fourthly, there are a number of phenomena within the vision itself indicating that the prophet spoke symbolically. This is particularly true of 47:1-12, where we read of a River that will flow from beneath the Temple threshold south of the altar; a river that not only grows without the help of tributaries, but also brings healing to whatever it touches, as do the mysterious trees situated on either side of its banks. It is true that other parts of the vision lend themselves to a more literal interpretation. However, upon reading this portion, we immediately begin to wonder if both it—and the vision as a whole—are not meant symbolically.
Finally, and most importantly, we have the positive testimony of the NT. As we have seen, because of its teaching on the progress of Salvation History, the finality of the New Covenant in Christ, and the obsolescence of all the OT institutions that temporarily pictured that Covenant in type and shadow, the majority opinion of the Church has been that we must indeed interpret this text figuratively. Moreover, the NT explicitly encourages us to do so, referring at least six times to Ezekiel’s vision in that portion of the Revelation designed to describe the experience of the Church in the New Heavens and the New Earth (21:10, 11, 12, 27, 22:1, 2). The implications of this could hardly be clearer: Ezekiel’s vision does not pertain to the thousand year reign of Christ (Revelation 20), but rather to the eternal life of all God’s saints in the New World that will follow it (Revelation 21-22).
This, by the way, was the conclusion of the great German commentator, C. F. Keil. Summarizing his interpretation of Ezekiel’s vision, Biederwolf writes:
The vision of Ezekiel he understands not as depicting the rise and development of the new Kingdom of God (i.e., the Church of Christ), but—since Ezekiel sees the temple as a finished building—(as) the Kingdom of God established by Christ in its perfect form. It is the Old Testament outline of the New Testament picture of the heavenly Jerusalem of the New Earth, as set forth in Rev. 21-22. It is the Father’s house of many mansions, heaven itself, the city of God coming down from heaven upon the new earth, built of gold, precious stones and pearls, and illumined with the light of the glory of the Lord, all of which takes place after the final judgment has been consummated.
Despite the historic consensus in favor of a figurative, New Covenant interpretation of this text, many modern evangelicals dissent. They include such notable premillennarians as D. Brown, A. Bonar, A. Gaebelein, A. Saphir, G. Morgan, C. Scofield, C. Feinberg, D. Pentecost, M. Unger, J. Walvoord, C. Ryrie, and J. MacArthur. Though differences exist among them, all would agree with Gaebelein when he writes:
The true interpretation is the literal one, which looks upon these chapters as a prophecy yet unfulfilled and to be fulfilled when Israel has been restored by the Shepherd and when His glory is once more manifested in the midst of His people. This great building seen in his prophetic vision will then come into existence and will be accomplished.
Merrill Unger is equally dogmatic, asserting that, “Ezekiel’s temple is a literal future sanctuary to be constructed in Palestine as outlined during the Millennium.”
Walvoord, likewise assuming that literalism is the only lawful approach to OTKP, goes so far as to say, “The only (view) which provides any intelligent explanation of this portion of Scripture is that which assigns Ezekiel’s temple to the future millennial period.”
We have already seen, however, that there are a great many reasons for believing that it is, in fact, the literalism of the premillennarians that is unlawful; that Ezekiel himself, the whole edifice of NT eschatology, and a great many texts found in the Revelation, all concur in urging upon us a figurative, New Covenant interpretation of this “mysterious” vision.
I will not, then, devote a great deal of time to a critique of the premillennial view. Nevertheless, a few further observations are definitely in order.
First, the passage gives no indication whatsoever that the conditions described therein will last only for a thousand years. To the contrary, God explicitly states that the Temple envisioned here will remain the seat of his throne and the footstool of his feet forever (43:7). It is in this Temple, this Land, and this City that he will dwell among his people forever (43:9). But even if God had not so spoken (both here and in Ezekiel 37:24-28), who can read the text without concluding that it is indeed designed to encourage God’s people with a vision of the eternal World to Come: a world from which all foreign enemies have been disbarred, a world in which God himself dwells among them, and a world into which he continually sends forth healing waters so as to accomplish the ultimate restoration all things?
Secondly, on the assumption that our text does indeed speak of the World to Come, a literal interpretation requires us to believe that sin and death will endure forever (42:13,19, 44:27, 43:18, 27, 44:25, 45:15). Yet the NT assures us that in the New Heavens and the New Earth, they shall be no more (Rev. 21:4).
Thirdly, even if we dodged these reasonable conclusions by allowing that the vision describes a temporary, millennial phase of the Kingdom, the literal method of interpretation would still require us to affirm that in the Millennium God will once again command his Jewish priests to offer animal sacrifices in order to make atonement for sin(s) (43:26, 45:17, 45:20). This is, of course, scandalous to a mind saturated in NT truth. Every student of apostolic teaching understands that OT animal sacrifcies had no intrinsic redemptive power, but were instead mere types and shadows of the one true sacrifice for sin: Christ crucified (John 1:29, 36, Mt. 20:28, Heb. 10:1-18). Indeed, in order to underscore the omni-sufficiency of this sacrifice, the writer to the Hebrews asserts on at least four separate occasions that it was “once for all”: once for all God’s people (whether OT saints or New), once for all their sins (past, present, and future), and therefore once for all time (Heb. 7:27, 9:12, 26, 10:12).
Moreover, to highlight still further the finality and eternal efficacy of Christ’s one sacrifice for sin, the same writer repeatedly associates it with his heavenly priesthood. Having died, risen, and ascended into the Holiest of All (i.e., heaven), our Great High Priest and Sacrifice now appears in the presence of God the Father for us, and will do so forever, pleading the legal merits of his righteous life and atoning death on behalf of his own (Heb. 7:11-28, 9:24). Just as the OT foretold, Christ is an eternal High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek (Psalm 110:4, Heb. 7:1f). Is it, then, even possible, let alone tolerable, to think that God will once again ordain a thousand year regime of animal sacrifices—Mosaic or otherwise—in a future millennium?
“Yes,” answer the premillennarians, “it is, since those sacrifices will serve Israel as a temporary memorial of Christ’s sacrifice, in much the same way as the Lord’s Supper served the Church as a temporary memorial of his death on our behalf.”
But for many reasons, this “solution” is deeply problematic. First, the text itself says nothing whatsoever about temporary memorial sacrifices. Secondly, why would Israel even need a memorial, when, according to the usual premillennial scenario, the glorified Christ himself will be ever present before them, ruling in their very midst? Thirdly, while the NT does indeed represent the Lord’s Supper as a memorial (Luke 22:19, 1 Cor. 11:24-25), it ascribes to the Supper no power to atone for sin. But in Ezekiel’s vision, God explicitly states that these sacrifices DO atone, both for sinful objects and sinful persons (43:26, 45:17, 45:20). This in turn raises the question of how millennial Jews will be justified. Will it be by simple faith in the finished work of Christ, as the premillennarians insist, or will it be by faith in the efficacy of animal sacrifices, as the text itself states?
But again, the weightiest objection to the idea of future animal sacrifices is found in the positive teaching of the NT, where we learn that Christ, having fulfilled the typology of animal sacrifices by his atoning death, made those sacrifices forever obsolete, with the result that they have forever passed away (Heb. 8:13, 10:12). Would God, then, break his own Word by ordaining a needlessly painful thousand year return to the weak, beggarly, and useless elements of the OT service of worship (Psalm 145:9, Prov. 12:10, Gal. 4:8-11, Heb. 7:18)?
For all these reasons, we conclude that a literal interpretation of Ezekiel’s vision of Israel’s sacerdotal worship in the World to Come is impossible.
An Overview of Ezekiel 40-48
How then should we understand these chapters? Along with the amillennial interpreters of the past, I believe there is only route open to us: We must apply the NCH so as to uncover the NT truth here embedded in OT language and imagery. While limitations of space preclude anything like a thorough commentary, I think it only fair to my premillennial brethren that I make an honest effort to open up this text at least a little, especially since it is certainly among the two or three most difficult OTKP’s in all the Bible.
My approach will be to offer a few remarks about each of the seven sections mentioned above. Following Lange, my thesis will be that these nine chapters do indeed describe the life of God’s people in the eschaton, in the New Heavens and the New Earth. I will argue that in giving this climactic vision to Ezekiel, the Spirit of God, was using ideas and imagery drawn from the entire corpus of OT revelation (but especially the Law) to picture the Church in World to Come as: 1) the Israel of God, 2) now returned to the Paradise of God, through, 3) the Person and Work of the Christ of God.
Keys in hand, we are ready to begin!
The Everlasting Mountain (40:1-4)
These four introductory verses set the stage for Ezekiel’s grand tour of Life in the Promised Land of the World to Come. In a vision, the prophet is transported to the land of Israel, where he is set atop a very high Mountain. Upon its southern slopes he sees a structure like a city (1-2). Suddenly an angel appears, who takes him to the structure and urges him to listen carefully so that he (Ezekiel) may relate all he hears to the Israel of God, and so encourage their hearts (3-5). The tour is about to begin.
Again, this is a vision. As such, it is only natural to expect that its contents are symbolic (cf., Daniel 2, 4, 7, 8, Zech. 1-6, Rev. 4-22). And indeed, we have already seen that the NT attaches rich symbolic meaning to each and every one of the fundamental elements of Ezekiel’s vision: The Mountain, the Temple, the Service of Worship, the City, and the Promised Land. Therefore, like Ezekiel’s angel, it (the NT) must be our guide.
In these introductory verses, the central symbol is the very high Mountain. Its significance is illuminated by Israel’s history. As Moses beheld the pattern of ethnic Israel’s ceremonial worship on Mt. Sinai, so Ezekiel beholds—in modified OT imagery—the pattern of eschatological Israel’s ceremonial worship on this Mountain (Ex. 24-31). As Moses surveyed ethnic Israel’s temporary Promised Land from the heights of Mt. Nebo, so Ezekiel surveys eschatological Israel’s eternal Promised Land from the heights of this Mountain (Deut. 32:48-52). And as ethnic Israel worshiped God in his temple situated atop Mt. Zion, so—according to Ezekiel—eschatological Israel will worship God in his Temple atop this High Mountain, this eschatological Zion (2 Chron. 5:1ff).
But what exactly does the Mountain represent? As we saw earlier, even the OT prophets used this particular symbol to represent the New Heavens and the New Earth of the World to Come; a transformed world from which every trace of moral and natural evil has been removed, so that the glory of God may fully dwell therein (Isaiah 11:9, 25:6-8, 57:13, 65:25, Joel 3:14-17).
This interpretation is confirmed by Revelation 21:1-11. There we learn that John, just like Ezekiel, was carried away in the Spirit to a great and high Mountain. What did he see? The Holy City—New Jerusalem —coming down out of heaven from God (21:10-11). And where, in fact, did the Holy City land and forever settle? Upon a New Earth, for the former heaven and earth had passed away (vv. 21:1-2). Thus, John, in accordance with the principle of Progressive Revelation, was given to see what Ezekiel could not: The Mountain of God is none other than the New Earth, the glorious home of Christ’s glorified Bride and God’s glorified people (21:3). For the present, the Church shines like a City on a Hill (Mt. 5:14). However, in that day—according to Ezekiel and John—she will shine like a City on a very high Mountain!
The Everlasting Temple (40:5-42:20)
This portion of the vision describes the Temple Area and its contents. Ezekiel’s journey begins here because in the World to Come the Temple will be of first importance. Also, as he learns later in his tour, the Temple Area will be situated in the absolute center of the Land. Thus, both chronological priority and geographical centrality signify the supreme importance of the Temple for the eternal life of God’s people.
If we limit ourselves to the essentials, the plan of the Temple Area is fairly easy to describe. (Note: See the NIV Study Bible for extremely helpful drawings). It is a perfect square (42:15-20). At the exact center of all is the altar (43:13-17). Behind the altar, to the West, stands the Sanctuary (or Temple) itself. Elevated upon its base, it is comprised of the Most Holy Place (another perfect square), the Holy Place, and a portico. The whole structure is enclosed on the North, South, and West by three galleries of some 90 side rooms (40:48-41:8). The Sanctuary and the altar are enclosed by a small rectangular court (40:47). On either side of the Sanctuary, just outside this court, are buildings with more chambers for the priests (42:1-10). Behind the Sanctuary to the West are three separate buildings, two of which contain utensils for the preparation of various sacrifices (46:19-20). On the North, East, and South sides of the Temple court there are gateways, each containing chambers for the Temple guards (40:28-38). Surrounding the entire Temple Area is a large outer court, bounded by four high walls each measuring 500 cubits in length. Again, the Temple Area is a perfect square. In the midst of the Northern, Eastern, and Southern walls there are large gates, each with chambers for the Temple guards (40:5, 16-20). Ezekiel’s tour was “outside-in” and “inside-out,” proceeding from the Eastern Gate of the outer court, towards the Most Holy Place of the Temple (which he did not enter), and out again through the Eastern Gate.
While it is undoubtedly true that each element of this vision contains rich typological significance, we cannot understand the trees unless we first behold the forest. In other words, we must first ask ourselves, “What does the Temple Area as a whole symbolize?” The NT answers in no uncertain terms. Jesus said, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days” (John 2:18). For Christ, the Temple of God was—and would be—his body. The apostle Paul elaborates, declaring that God the Father gave Christ to be head over all things to the Church, which is His Body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all (Eph. 1:22-23). So then, the Temple is not simply Jesus’ physical body, but rather his mystical Body, the Church, of which he is head. Paul states this explicitly, affirming that Christ’s ever-expanding Church is a “holy Temple in the Lord, in whom (the saints) are being built together into a dwelling-place of God by the Spirit” (Eph. 2:21-21).
These passages reveal the true sphere of fulfillment of Ezekiel’s vision of the Temple Area. In other words, God was using OT ideas and images to give him a glimpse of the Church—the Body of Christ—as she will exist in the eschaton. That the vision was indeed symbolic is confirmed by John the Revelator. In a vision much influenced by Ezekiel’s he describes the New Earth. But he sees no temple there, “ . . . for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its Temple” (Rev. 21:22). In the World to Come (the very theme of Ezekiel’s prophecy) there will be no Temple of wood or stone. Instead, the glorified Body of the Lamb of God—the glorious Church of God—will be the glorious Temple of God the Father.
We conclude, then, that Ezekiel’s vision of the Temple Area is (as Duguid aptly expresses it) “architectural theology”; that it uses OT temple imagery to set forth important theological truths about Christ and the Church. In particular, we may say that it in type and shadow this early portion of the vision pictures the completed Body of Christ, enjoying the Life of Christ, based on the merits of the Work of Christ, as it awaits the gift of the glory of God the Father at the Coming of Christ.
Understanding all this, we are ready to take up the details of the vision. Let us briefly survey a few of the most important.
The outer walls—which are very high, thick, and strong—are “walls of salvation” (40:5, 16-20; Isaiah 60:18). They represent the mighty power of the Person and Work of Christ “to separate the holy from the common;” to deliver and preserve his Body from the presence, power, and penalty of sin (42:20). Even today, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, the High King of Heaven has erected a legal and spiritual barrier between his Church on the one hand, and the world, the flesh, the devil, and the judgments of God on the other (Ex. 14:19-20, John 17:15, 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1, 1 Pet. 1:1-2, Rev. 18:4). In the Age to Come, that barrier will be perfect and complete. The sin and defilement that entered Israel’s former temple will never enter her eschatological (Ezek. 8-9, Rev. 22:15). The God who abandoned Israel’s earthly sanctuary will never abandon her heavenly (Ezek. 10). The World to Come will be a “Paradise with Walls”—walls of salvation that mightily keep evil out and God in. Therefore, it will be a world that can never fall again,
The three gates in the walls surrounding the outer court, and the three gateways to the inner court, all symbolize spiritual access, access made possible by the redemptive work of the triune God. Because of that work, God the Father, by the Holy Spirit, can henceforth access the Body of Christ, as he did on the Day of Pentecost, and as he has ever since, whenever he calls a saint to newness of life in his Son (John 14:15-24, Acts 2:1f). Because of that work, the saints now have access in one Spirit to the Father (Eph. 2:18), and to the everlasting grace in which they now stand (Rom. 5:1-2, NKJV). Also, because of that same work, the God of glory will gain consummate access to the Body of Christ at the Parousia on the Last Day (Ezek. 43:1-4, Rev. 21:3, 11, 23).
Notably, the spiritual access seen in Ezekiel’s vision is not unlimited: None but the priests may enter the Sanctuary, the Eastern Gate must remain closed except on Sabbaths and New Moons, etc. Such restrictions are fitting in a distinctly Old Testament revelation of the Kingdom, a revelation given at a time when the way into the Holiest of All was not yet made manifest (Heb. 9:8). Nevertheless, they are not without significance for NT saints since they serve to remind us that apart from the priestly work of Christ we have no access to God whatsoever. Happily, because of its infinite sufficiency, that work does indeed give God and (redeemed) man complete, unrestricted access to one another, as the Revelation picturesquely affirms (Rev. 21:25)
Next we have the two courts, both outer and inner. More than any other element of the Temple Area, they bring to mind the idea of “holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). It is ground created by the walls of salvation, and therefore suitable as a meeting-place for God and (redeemed) man (Psalm 65:4). For the OT saints, the temple courts were a place of spiritual satisfaction (Psalm 84:2, 10), flourishing (Psalm 92:13), gratitude, joy,\ and praise (Psalm 100:4, 135:2-3). In his vision of the eschatological courts, Ezekiel is therefore telling us that in that Day the LORD’s holy people/royal priesthood will be able to meet with God on the ground of Christ, and so enjoy all these blessings forever.
The Temple Area contains a great abundance of chambers. Embedded in walls and buildings, they are mostly for the use of the (Zadokite) priests, but also for singers and (Levitical) gatekeepers (40:39-45, 42:1-10, 46:19-24). This calls to mind how Christ has strategically “set” each of his charismatically gifted children into his Body, so they may become vital, functioning members thereof (1 Cor. 12:18). Each of his “royal priests” occupies an appointed niche, and has an appointed ministry to fulfill (1 Peter 2:9, 4:10-11). The prophet’s vision also reminds us of the words of Christ, who said that in his Father’s house there are many dwelling-places (John 14:2; NIV, “rooms”). These are not physical structures, but spiritual spheres of service. The chambers in Ezekiel’s Temple vision depict the eternal gifts and callings of the saints (Luke 19:17).
As for the Sanctuary itself, it too represents the Body of Christ, albeit in a microcosm. The three galleries of side-rooms, totaling 90 (3x3x10) chambers, speak loudly of the mystical union of Christ and his Body, a union made possible by the work of the Holy Trinity (41:5-7). In this Sanctuary the glory of God will dwell forever (43:1-7). But observe again from John’s prophetic interpretation of Ezekiel’s vision that in the World to Come there will be no Temple (Rev. 21:22); or rather, that the Holy City itself—surrounded by its four great walls of salvation—will be the Temple, having the glory of God, and being forever illumined by it (John 17:22, Rev. 21:11, 23). Thus, the NT explains all: Ezekiel’s Temple is the Holy City; the Holy City is the glorified Bride of Christ, and his Body as well (Eph. 5:22-33, Rev. 21:2).
In passing, it is well worth noting that on the walls and door jambs of the Sanctuary Ezekiel saw carved images of palm trees and cherubim, situated one between the other. Each cherub had two faces, one of a man, the other of a lion, with each face looking towards an adjacent palm tree (15-20). Here the vision begins to incorporate inspiring reminiscences of Paradise regained. The palm trees remind us of Eden’s lush vegetation; indeed, of the Tree of Life itself. The cherubim recall Adam and Eve’s expulsion and exile from the Garden (Gen. 3:24). Here, however, the holy angels—just like the walls of salvation—are not keeping God’s people out, but keeping them in. In the eschaton, the world will become a Temple-Garden for God’s people. The mighty cherubim, whose faces embody the compassion of the Son of Man (Heb. 4:14-15) and the royal power of the Lion of the Tribe of Judah (Rev. 5:5), will stand watch, this time guaranteeing perpetual access to the Tree of Life.
The Everlasting Glory (43:1-12)
For all its brevity, this is surely the high point of Ezekiel’s vision, the climactic Oracle of Good News. Years prior, he had seen the glory of the God of Israel depart from Solomon’s Temple (Ezek. 8-11). Now, however, by way of divine promise, he beholds that same glory returning to the eschatological Temple. It will remain there forever, for in that Day Israel will become holy forever.
What does the vision signify? As I suggested earlier, and as the details indicate, it points to nothing less than the gift of the fullness of the glory of God upon both man and nature at the coming again of Christ. Yes, the glory of the LORD had indeed departed from Solomon’s temple because of Israel’s many sins. But that was emblematic a far greater departure: the departure of the glory of God—and the hope of the glory of God in its fullness—from man and nature, because of the sin of Adam in Eden. Here, however, under OT type and shadow, Ezekiel gives us great good news: These tragic Departures will be answered with a glorious, redemptive Return. The NT explains how: When at last Christ’s Temple—his Church—is complete, he will come again in glory to consummate his redemptive work; to bestow upon his resurrected people and their world the fullness of the glory of God the Father (John 17:22, Phil. 2:11, Rev. 21:11, 23).
The details of the vision richly support this interpretation.
Ezekiel sees the glory of the LORD coming from the way of the East (v. 2). This is the place of the sun’s rising, whence the glorified Christ will appear to all at the dawning of the Age to Come (Mt. 24:27, 2 Peter 1:19).
The prophet also hears the voice of the LORD, which is as the sound of many waters (v. 2). Thus did John describe the voice of the glorified Christ, when he appeared to him on Patmos and spoke to him of his coming again (Rev. 1:7-8, 15). Note also the astonishing declaration of the apostle Paul, that Christ, at his coming, will descend from heaven with a shout (1 Thess. 4:16)!
When the LORD appeared to Ezekiel, the earth shone with his glory (v. 2). This too recalls John’s vision of the glory of Christ, whose face shone like the sun in its strength, and at whose Parousia the earth will be illumined by that same glory (Rev. 1:16, 18:1).
Ezekiel records that the glory of the LORD entered the Sanctuary through the East Gate(s) of the Temple Area (v. 5). In the days of his flesh, on Palm Sunday, Jesus entered Jerusalem by the East Gate. That, however, was but a type and harbinger of a far greater entering to come; and entering that will occur at his Parousia, when, through the resurrection, his holy Bride and City will be fully adorned with the glory of God the Father (Eph. 2:2, Rev. 21:3, 11).
Ezekiel also records that the glory of the LORD filled the house (v. 5). Doubtless this was partially fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost, when the Spirit arrived on earth to fill the nascent Church (Acts 2:1f). Yet even then the saints were not fully filled, owing to residual sin in their members; nor can the Church—Christ’s holy Temple— be fully filled until, at the end of the age, the last stone set in place (Mt. 24:14, 1 Peter 2:5). Here, then, we have the final and complete infilling of God’s Temple; the infilling that renders his people perfectly holy, and so a fit House where the Great King may sit forever enthroned (v.7, Rev. 21:11).
Finally, observe from v. 12 that when the Temple is at last filled with God’s glory, the whole area atop the Mountain will be most holy. This, in a type, is exactly what the apostle taught the Romans, declaring that when Christ returns to resurrect the saints to eternal life, all creation will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Rom. 8:20-21). The glorification of the Church ushers in the glorification of the world where she will live with God forever (Rev. 21:1-4). All the earth will become the High Mountain of the LORD.
The Everlasting Worship (43:13-46:24)
This long and detailed section is designed to portray the manner of life and worship by which restored Israel may—and surely will—maintain the perfect holiness of God’s eschatological Temple, thereby securing his presence and blessing in the Land throughout the eternal Age to Come.
How will this be accomplished? Broadly, by two notable modifications of the Mosaic Law. First, the Prince, the priests, and the people will continually offer a full spectrum of sacrifices, more than ever before. And secondly, there will be, as Duguid has it, “a tightening of the holiness code.” Whether by restricted access to the temple precincts, or by new safeguards against spiritual defilements of any kind, there will never again be a recurrence of the desecration of the House of God, by which Israel of old went into exile beneath the covenant curses.
How is the Christian interpreter to understand these detailed regulations? What practical relevance do they have for our faith? In the paragraphs ahead, I will try to suggest some answers. In doing so, my premise will be that in this section the Holy Spirit gave God’s OT saints a veiled revelation of the Church in her glory. Using familiar ideas and images drawn from the OT ceremonial law, he sought to inspire them with the hope of complete redemption and perpetual holiness—gifts that one day soon he would bestow upon his people through the Person and Work of his Son.
In 43:13-27 we learn of the dimensions and consecration of the altar of sacrifice. It is a perfect square—a shape associated with holiness— situated not only at the absolute center of the Temple Area, but of the Land itself. The message here is clear: The eternal holiness (and blessedness) of God’s people will be based upon—centered around—the eternal efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice, whether his active or passive obedience (Heb. 7:27, Rev. 5:6ff). Under the Law, as here, the altar had to be consecrated, cleansed, and atoned for by means of sacrifice, a sign of its defilement and intrinsic “uselessness” (v. 26, Exodus 29:36-7, Heb. 7:18). The NT illumines this: Jesus, by his willingness to die upon the Cross, consecrates it, transforming a tree of cursing into a Tree of Life, with the result that henceforth and forever his people—a royal priesthood—may offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God (Gal. 3:13, 1 Peter 2:5, 9, 24).
In 44:1-3 we have the first of many new restrictions: The Prince (and his royal successors) are indeed privileged to sit and eat in the Eastern Gate, but they may not enter the Temple Area by it, for the glory of the LORD has entered there. This law recalls the ways of Israel’s former kings, who had presumptuously violated the holy precincts (43:7-8). But never again. Why? First, because in that Day, God alone will be King, and the royal household mere princes! And secondly, because the princes’ access to the Temple Area will be limited to the outer court. What is the NT “translation” of these mysteries? For reasons that will become clear below, I lean to the view that the princes typify the Church as a whole; the Church as a royal priesthood, as the everlasting dynasty of the greater King David, ruling and reigning in life by Christ (2 Sam. 7:12-16, Rom. 5:17,1 Peter 2:9, Rev. 5:10). In that Day, says the NT, they will each serve the Great King within their proper sphere, in accordance with the nature and limits of the authority given to them, and will therefore never violate, but rather beautify, the good order of the Temple of God (Luke 19:11-27, 1 Cor. 14:40).
In 44:4-9, God issues a second restriction, and it is absolute: No foreigner, uncircumcised in heart or flesh, shall ever enter his sanctuary. The NT explains: Only those circumcised in heart by regeneration, and in the flesh by the resurrection and glorification of their bodies, will inherit the (perfected) Kingdom of God (John 3:5, Col. 2:11, 1 Cor. 15:50f, Rev. 22:15).
In 44:10-31, Ezekiel learns of the eschatological priesthood. Two main revelations are involved. First, the great bulk of Levites—who, along with the nation as a whole, strayed into idolatry—will bear their iniquity and shame by forfeiting some of their former privileges, some of their former access to God’s “holy things.” The sons of Zadok, on the other hand, will be granted to offer sacrifices at God’s altar, enter the Holy Place, and minister at his table, since they alone among all the Levites remained faithful amidst the widespread rebellion. Secondly, in the World to Come, God will hold the Zadokite priesthood to a new and higher standard of ceremonial holiness. In particular, they will follow new rules pertaining to attire, appearance, diet, married life, ministerial duties, and purification from limited contacts with the dead. Corresponding to this greater holiness and ministerial privilege, there will be a greater inheritance: The LORD himself will be their treasured possession, and they will have as their food all the varied offerings that a worshipful people bring to their God.
What NT truths lies hidden beneath this elaborate OT typology? Duguid argues that here the vision depicts the condition of the saints in the World to Come from two different angles. On the one hand, the great bulk of Levites live and serve in the Temple, not because of their own faithfulness (which faded away like a morning cloud, Hosea 6:4), but because of God’s, manifested in his gracious covenant with Levi and his children (Mal. 2:5). This corresponds to NT teaching about the ground of the saints presence in the Kingdom: They will be there owing solely to the gift of the miracle of (new) birth into the priestly family of the Greater Levi, and also to the divine imputation his righteousness to God’s chosen and believing seed (1 Cor. 1:30-31, Heb. 2:17, 9:24). On the other hand, the Zadokites enjoy the special privileges they do based upon their extraordinary level of faithfulness amidst widespread apostasy. This corresponds to NT teaching about the ground of the saint’s status in the Kingdom: Higher levels of covenant obedience, labor, and self-sacrifice will result in higher levels of intimacy with God and priestly service in his eternal Temple, the Church (Mt. 19:21, 28, 1 Cor. 3:11-15, 2 Cor. 9:6, Heb. 6:10). In short, for Duguid, the Zadokites are the cream of the Christian crop.
While this approach definitely draws upon solid NT truth, I believe there is another interpretation that better fits the text, more highly exalts Christ, and less sharply divides his Church into successes and failures. Here, the Zadokites stand for Christ himself. The OT offers strong support for this idea. In the days of Samuel, God told unfaithful Eli that he would raise up “ . . . a faithful priest, who will do according to what is in my heart and in my mind” (2 Sam. 2:35). Within the framework of OT history, “ . . . the fulfillment came in the person of Zadok, who served as High Priest alongside Abiathar under David, and came to preeminence under Solomon. The descendants of Zadok held the high priesthood from the time of Solomon to the time of Antiochus Epiphanes and the Maccabees.” (RSB) As for NT teaching, it takes us a giant step forward, revealing the Messianic import of God’s word to Eli: It is Christ—and Christ alone—who is the faithful High Priest of his people (Heb. 2:17). It appears, then, that in Ezekiel’s vision, the Zadokite priesthood stands as a familiar and time-honored OT emblem of the faithful Messianic Priest whom God promised in the days of Samuel, and whom he finally sent in the person of his incarnate Son.
There is much in the text itself to confirm this thesis, much to cause us to think of Christ. First, God will call the Zadokites to serve under unprecedented standards of ceremonial holiness: They must be dressed in white linen, untainted by the “sweat” of fleshly human works (17-18; Luke 1:35, John 8:29, Heb. 7:26, Rev. 1:9ff); their appearance must conform to God’s creation norm, with no nods to pagan fashion, faith, or practice (20, Rom. 5:12ff, Heb. 7:26); God alone must be their delight, their sole source of holy intoxication (21; Mt. 27:34, Luke 10:21f, John 4:32); in marriage, they must be equally yoked, bound to a wife made in their own image and likeness (22; John 3:29, Eph. 5:22ff, Col. 3:8-11); they shall have no contact with death, save in the service of their near and dear relatives (25; Isaiah 53:4-6, Mark 10:45, John 10:11, 15); and when the effects of such contact are cleansed away, they shall enter the sanctuary with a sin offering, to minister there because of the dead (26, 27; Acts 2:22-36, 1 Peter 1:21, Heb. 7:25, 9:12, 24). By reading the NT texts just cited, you will see the astonishing ways in which Jesus of Nazareth fulfills all these criteria!
Secondly, God will call Zadokites to privileged positions of ministry: to teach (23; Mt. 23:8, 10), to judge (24; John 5:22, Eph. 1:22), to preside over all God’s feasts and Sabbaths (24; Mark 2:28, Luke 22:15, 1 Cor. 5:8), to draw near to God, to minister to God, and to serve God in behalf of his people for the forgiveness of their sins (15-16; John 14:2, 6, 1 Tim. 2:5, Heb. 7:25, 9:12, 24).
Finally, God (the Father) will bestow upon them extraordinary honor and blessing: He himself will be their inheritance, their exceeding great reward for faithfully keeping the charge of God’s sanctuary, even when the people strayed far from him (28, 15; Isaiah 59:16, John 5:23, Phil. 2:9f); they shall savor and draw strength from all the good things that the people of God offer through them (29-30; Heb. 13:15, Rev. 5:8-14); and they shall never taste of death, save the sacrificial death by which God gives life to his own (31; Heb. 2:14-15, 1 Peter 1:18ff).
But what of the rest of the Levites, what do they signify? Here I would largely concur with Duguid, arguing that they picture Christ’s Church as a whole. In the completed Kingdom, they will indeed bear their iniquity and shame, for like their father Adam, and like Israel’s unfaithful Levites, they abandoned their glorious priestly calling by creation—to draw near to God and minister to him and one another—but fell instead into abominable idolatries, religious or otherwise (10, 12, 13; Rom. 1:18-25, 1 Peter 4:3).
But how exactly will they bear their iniquity and shame? Certainly not by undergoing eternal punishment, for here Ezekiel sees that the merciful and gracious God will not only grant them access to his sanctuary, but also give them “charge over the house and all that shall be done in it” (11, 14; Rom. 5:2, Eph. 3:12, 1 Peter 2:5). So then, they will remain a holy and eternal priesthood, but their “punishment” will consist in this: They will minister to God at one remove from Zadok; they will serve God by serving Zadok; Zadok will become, as it were, the one mediator between God and Levi (13; John 14:6, 1 Tim. 2:5). The NT illumines all this. Looking upon Christ’s “rich wounds,” believers in Jesus will indeed be eternally reminded of the dreadful sins that put him to such a dreadful death (Rev. 5:6, 9ff). But strange to tell, in this “shame” there will be no admixture of sorrow; only of joy and gratitude to a loving Savior who so mercifully and graciously qualified his people to be a kingdom and priests to his God (Col. 1:12, Jude 1:24, Rev. 1:6, 5:10, 21:4).
In 45:1-8, God begins to show Ezekiel the new division of the Land in the World to Come (cf., 48:8-22). His concern here is exclusively with the LORD’s portion, a Holy District that belongs to no tribe, but to God alone. Situated in the midst of the Land, it is a perfect square, 25,000 cubits by 25,000 cubits. In the midst of the Holy District is the Temple Area, another perfect square. To the South of the Temple Area is the City, yet another perfect square. Notably, every sector of the eschatological nation is represented as living in, or dwelling adjacent to, the Holy District: the Prince, the Zadokite priests, the Levites, and “the whole house of Israel” (i.e., those who possess and maintain the City and its environs).
This is the beginning of Ezekiel’s “theological geography lesson.” The angel is not giving him a map of the World to Come, but is instead disclosing profound truths about spiritual conditions in that World. The main message is that the life of God’s people will be centered around the Temple; that in all their diverse activities, there will be one essential activity: the worship of God through Christ on the ground of Christ’s priestly work (Eph. 3:20-21, 1 Peter 2:5, Rev. 7:9-17). Another message, strikingly communicated by the presence of so many perfect squares, is that life that world will be perfect: perfectly holy, and therefore perfectly harmonious. All of God’s people will be squarely bundled together in the (square) bundle of the living (1 Sam. 25:29)! In the Revelation, the Spirit takes up this beautiful motif one final time, presenting the Church as a City foursquare—and as a Temple foursquare—situated in the New Heavens and the New Earth (Rev. 21:1-3,16).
In 45:9-46:24, God continues his revelation of the Temple-centered life of the World to Come, focusing here on various ordinances of worship. Having just described the new spiritual leaders of the eschatological nation, he now turns his attention to the new temporal leaders. Importantly, he does not refer to them as kings, but as princes, thus signaling to Israel that in the eschaton God’s original purpose for his holy nation will indeed be fulfilled: The royal dynasty will remain, but God alone will be King (1 Sam. 8:7, 1 Cor. 15:28).
A close examination of the ordinances here unveiled reveals a striking fact: The primary duties of the Prince (and his dynasty) pertain to the worship of God in the Temple. To be sure, he must faithfully administer justice and righteousness in the Land (45:9-12, 46:16-18). But even more importantly, he must co-labor with the priests and the people in the full round of Temple worship. Indeed, along with the priests, he will serve as a kind of mediator between God and the people. For example, he must receive the sin offerings of the people and present them to the priests, who in turn will present them to God (45:9-12). Out of his own means he must supply the offerings for the various Feasts, such as the Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles (45:18-25). According to a very strict regime, he and the people must worship together on the Sabbath and at the New Moons, gathering just outside the Eastern Gate of the inner court to present a great abundance of sacrifices and offerings (46:1-8). And on the Feast Days, both he and the people must enter and exit the Temple together (46:9-12). Does the prince have a role in the daily offerings (46:13-15)? If not, they appear to be the only ones left altogether in the hands of the priests. What then is the conclusion of the matter? Simply this: The Prince—or rather the royal dynasty serving under Yahweh as King—is, in the manner of David, Solomon, and other godly kings of Israel, a royal priesthood.
How are we to understand all this? One way is to begin by asking how this entire section of Ezekiel’s vision might impress godly Jews prior to the time of Christ. To be sure, they would have puzzled over its many departures from the traditional ceremonial Law. Yet in the end, they would doubtless have affirmed it to be, not simply a modification of the Law, but rather a final manifestation of the Law in its ideal form. Why? Because everything about it will serve to fulfill the ancient purpose of God in the covenant, and so to address their greatest fear and their greatest need. Whether they pondered their new Temple-centered homeland, their new and faithful priesthood, the greater number of sacrifices to be offered, the diminished access of all parties to the most sacred precincts, the heightened sense of the holy (46:19-20), or the everlasting dynasty of princes with a priestly calling, they would quickly realize that all such ordinances tended towards one glorious end: the safeguarding of the holiness of the nation, lest ever again they should forfeit God’s presence, lose his blessings, fall under his judgments, and go away into captivity. In short, they would have gladly welcomed this new, ideal ceremonial Law, seeing that it was clearly God’s gracious provision for guaranteeing that Israel will live forever with him in the Promised Land.
As Christians living under a New Covenant that has fulfilled the Old, we are privileged to understand exactly how God has accomplished—and will accomplish—this great end. We are privileged to be the custodians of the NT truth that enables us to look beyond the types and shadows of Ezekiel’s “Theological Law” to the spiritual realities they represent. For example, we have just seen that the Temple-centeredness of Israel in the Land pictures the God-centeredness and Christ-centeredness of the worshiping Church in the New Heavens and the New Earth. The Zadokite priesthood pictures Christ himself, whose faithful work on our behalf will eternally keep God in us, and us in God (Heb. 7:25, 9:24, 1 John 2:1). The greater number of sacrifices and offerings pictures the greater efficacy—indeed, the sole efficacy—of Christ’s one righteous life and atoning death (Heb. 9:12, 10:10,12). The diminished access of all parties to the most sacred precincts, and the heightened sense of (the danger) of the holy, all picture the absolute alienation of a sinful people from their holy God apart from the reconciling work of Christ (Eph. 2:1f, 4:17-19, Col. 1:21-23). And yet, because the NT declares the Temple to be a type of the Body of Christ, even in Ezekiel we see how completely Christ’s substitutionary life and death gives the spotlessly holy God access to us, and us to him (Ezek. 43:1-5, Eph. 2:22, Heb. 9:8, 10:19-23).
What then of Ezekiel’s eternal dynasty of princes? In light of what we have just seen, it seems to me that they picture the Church as a royal priesthood. It was first embodied in king David, later promised by God under the terms of the Davidic covenant, pictured here in Ezekiel, and finally realized in the Church, which is the spiritual seed of God’s greater Royal High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Sam. 7:8-17, Psalm 89:19-37, Psalm 110:1-3, Peter 2:9, Rev. 1:6, 5:10). On this view, Ezekiel’s princely dynasty pictures the glorified saints of the eschaton devoting whatever gifts and authority they may have received from God to facilitating and enhancing—to mediating—the eternal worship of God through Christ (Luke 19:17, Heb. 13:15, Rev. 5:10, 22:5). Because of Christ, the Church as royal priesthood will team up with the Church as Levitical priesthood to worship God—to offer spiritual gifts and sacrifices through Christ—that she may forever enjoy his presence and his manifold blessings in the New Heavens and the New Earth (1 Peter 2:5, Rev. 4, 5).
The Everlasting Wholeness (47:1-12)
This short but beloved portion of Ezekiel’s vision might aptly be called the Restoration of All Things (Mt. 19:28, Acts 3:21). Under rich types, it depicts God, through Christ, by the Spirit, bestowing everlasting wholeness upon his creation; transforming our present sin-cursed world (Paradise Lost) into the Land of Promise; into the New Heavens and the New Earth (Paradise Found), (Rom. 8:18-25).
The story is well worth a brief re-telling. The prophet is brought to the door of the Temple. There he sees a little stream of water welling up from beneath the threshold, flowing just south of the altar (where, in former times, the Laver or the Sea were situated), and then out the two East gates of the Temple District (1-2, 1 Kings 7:23f). Mysteriously, the further the stream flows, the deeper and wider it becomes, until at last it becomes an unfordable River (3-5). The prophet notices that on its two banks there are a great many trees (6-7). At this, the angel explains the course and mission of the River: It will first go east, then south, then through the desert, until at last it empties into (something like) the Dead Sea, whose (salty) waters will be healed (8). Indeed, everywhere the River goes it will bring life, so much so that the Dead Sea will now be filled with fish; and fishermen, with nets in hand, will station themselves all along its shores, even from En Gedi to En Eglaim (10). However, its swamps and marshes will be left for salt (11). All kinds of trees will grow along the banks of the River, trees whose leaves never wither and whose fruit never fails. The water continually flowing from the Sanctuary will give them eternal life, so that their fruit may ever serve for food, and their leaves for healing (12).
Again, this is a vision of the Restoration of All Things. Very importantly, it pictures not only the final result of God’s redemptive work—the everlasting wholeness of the Land—but also the historical process by which that result is to be achieved. The NT richly illumines all the symbols involved. The waters are the life-giving Spirit of God, long promised by his OT prophets (Psalm 46:6, Isaiah 44:3, Ezek. 39:29, Joel 2:28, 3:18, Zech. 14:8). They flow forth from the Temple of God, which typifies both the Person of Christ (John 2:19, 4:10-14, 7:37-39, Acts 2:33), and the Body of Christ, his Church (Eph. 1:23, 2:22). Thus, as faithful Christians (fishers of men) proclaim the Gospel from Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth, Christ, by the Spirit, gives new life to all who hear and obey (Mt. 4:19, John 20:22-23, Acts 2, 10). The waters pass by the altar, signifying that they are given solely on the grounds of Christ’s substitutionary life and death. They pass over the place historically reserved for the Laver, indicating that they provide spiritual cleansing from the guilt and stain of sin (John 13:10, 1 Cor. 6:11, Titus 3:5). As they flow outward, they grow from a trickle to a mighty River, thus picturing the infallible advance of the Kingdom of God in the earth. This accords with the teaching of Christ, who likened the Kingdom to a tiny mustard seed that will eventually grow into to a giant sheltering tree (Mt. 13:31-32); or to a little dollop of leaven that will eventually permeate the whole lump (Mt. 13:33). When at last Christ returns to raise the dead and renew the creation, the River of Life will entirely transform the Promised Land, even to the extent of healing the Dead Sea itself (Rom. 8:18-25, Phil. 3:21, 1 Cor. 15:51ff). Only the swamps and marshes—situated upon the ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah, and so typifying hell—will be left in salt; that is, under the judgment of God (Deut. 29:23; Jude 1:7, Rev. 18:2).
More than any other portion of Ezekiel’s vision, this section takes up the pervasive biblical motif of Paradise Lost and Regained. The waters flowing from beneath the Temple threshold remind us of the great River that flowed out of Eden (Gen. 2:10-14). The trees on either side of the River—trees that nourish and heal—remind us of the Tree of Life in the midst of the Garden (Gen. 2:9, 3:22, 24). Yes, here Paradise is largely represented under the image of the Promised Land. This is only natural: Since Ezekiel and his contemporaries lived under the Law, we would expect the Spirit to frame the promise of the Eternal Covenant in terms drawn from the Mosaic Covenant; in terms of an eternal restoration to life with God the Land (Deut. 30:1-10). In the Revelation, however, the “true truth” comes out. In the eschaton, the River of Life will vivify all creation: the New Heavens and the New Earth. And the Tree of Life will be for the City of God, the people of God, and the Bride of Christ (Rev. 21:1-2, 22:1-2, 14).
Thus, from slightly different angles, both Ezekiel and John depict the great Promise of the Eternal Covenant: Eternal life—and everlasting wholeness—with God, through Christ, by the Spirit, under New Heavens and in a New Earth that Christ himself will create at his glorious coming again.
The Everlasting Homeland (47:13-48:29)
Having spoken to the prophet about the Temple at the heart of the Holy District, and the Holy District at the heart of the Land, God here brings Ezekiel’s grand tour to a close by unveiling the boundaries and distribution of the Promised Land itself. The central theme is inheritance. This is the Land that God will cause his people to inherit, and this is the place where he will cause them to inherit an everlasting life of God-centered, Christ-centered worship. Thus, as in the Revelation, so here: The Spirit is giving us a picture of the eschatological Church worshiping God in the New Heavens and the New Earth.
In 47:15-23, Ezekiel learns of the borders of Israel’s eschatological homeland. They are patterned after the ideal given to Moses (Num. 34:1-12). Thus, the great message of this section is that in the eschaton the LORD will bring to pass what Joshua could not, but what God’s Greater Joshua could and did: At long last, his people will enter his rest; they will fully occupy the Land of Promise (Heb. 3:7-4:10). Moreover, God himself explicitly tells us that this is the Land he promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the same land that the apostles identified as the World to Come and the New Heavens and the New Earth (Gen. 12:7, 15:18-21, 22:17, 28:4, Psalm 37:11; Mt. 5:5, Rom. 4:13, 8:18f, 2 Peter 3:13).
Some of the details involved are quite significant. It appears, for example, that the eastern boundaries of the five northern tribes reach almost to the Euphrates River (47:15-17, 48:1-5). This recalls the glory days of the United Kingdom, days that pictured the universal dominion of Solomon’s greater Son—the Lord Jesus Christ—in the Age to Come (Psalm 72, I Kings 4:20-21). Also, here there are no longer any tribes living across the Jordan. This tells us that in the Age to Come all Israel, being bound together in Immanuel himself, will gladly dwell together in Immanuel’s Land (Josh. 22:19, Isaiah 8:8, John 10:16, Rom. 8:16-17, Heb. 12:22). Finally, le learn that the right of inheritance is given not only to Israelites, but also to resident aliens (21-23). This depicts NT teaching to the effect that citizenship in God’s Kingdom is not based upon physical birth or descent, but solely upon a God-given, faith-filled desire to live with Immanuel himself, and so—at his Second Coming—in his everlasting Land (Isaiah 8:8). Whether Jews or Gentiles, all such persons are the true sons of Abraham, who, along with father Abraham himself, will inherit the Promised Land (Rom. 4:9-25, 8:12-17, Mt. 8:11, Gal. 3:28, Eph. 2:11-22).
In 48:1-29 the theme of inheritance comes to the fore. The new homeland was indeed promised in days of old, but forfeited by sin, yet now finally inherited because of the grace of God. The passage—which discusses the territory allotted to each of Israel’s twelve tribes—displays a remarkable symmetry. In essence, God divides the Land into 13 rectangular strips, the length of each rectangle running west to east. First, he allots the seven northern strips: the northern-most to Dan, after whom comes Asher, Naphtali, Manasseh, Ephraim, and Judah (48:1-7). Then—at considerable length, so as to emphasize its importance—he allots the territories within the holy strip (48:8-22). In its midst lies the perfectly square Holy District, containing, from north to south, the territories of the Levites, the Temple (and the Zadokites), and the City (and the people who will maintain it). Outside the Holy District is the territory of the Princes. Finally, God allots the territories of the five southern tribes: Benjamin (closest to the Holy District), followed by Simeon, Issachar, Zebulun, and Gad (48:23-29).
This is, as Duguid puts it, “theology in geographical form.” The picture Ezekiel gives us is loaded theological significance, a significance that should expand the mind and rejoice the heart of believers in Jesus.
We have already seen, for example, that the Temple-centeredness of Israel’s eschatological homeland depicts, under OT type and shadow, the God-centered and Christ-centered worship of the Church in the World to Come (Rev. 4-5, 7).
So too does the orientation of the tribal territories, which, like the door of the Temple itself, is towards the East. Here we glimpse the spiritual orientation of God’s eschatological people, who, through all eternity, will gaze eastward, looking expectantly for fresh dawnings of the glory of the LORD over the Land, and fresh entrances of his glory through the Temple Gates. According to a slightly different metaphor, this orientation of the tribal allotments pictures the Bride of Christ, who, through all eternity, will watch for fresh visitations of her Beloved; of the One who, at the close of her arduous pilgrimage upon the earth, suddenly arose rose like the Morning Star, and—in power and great glory—circled the Earth from east to west, gathering her to his side, so that in the end he might bring her to his everlasting home (Ezek. 43:1-5, Mt. 2:1, 24:27, 25:1f, John 14:1f, 2 Peter 1:19, Rev. 2:28, 7:2, 22:16).
According to 47:13-14, each tribe will receive an equal allotment of land for a permanent possession. This recalls Jesus’ Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, wherein we find the compassionate landowner giving each laborer a denarius, irrespective of how long he worked (Mt. 20:1-16). It also reminds us of his Parable of the Wedding Feast, where entrance to the Feast is said to be dependent, not upon what one has done, but simply upon one’s possession of a proper wedding garment (Mt. 22:1-14). All three texts teach the same glorious NT truth: While the saints standing in the Kingdom may indeed be a reward for their own good works, their presence in the Kingdom is an inheritance, a gracious gift of God, bequeathed to them through the Christ who so lovingly and effectually worked on their behalf (Mt. 25:34, Gal. 3:26-4:7, Rom. 8:12-17, Rev. 21:7).
The precise arrangement of the twelve tribes also seems to convey NT truth. For example, in the new order, Benjamin will be situated south of the Holy District, while Judah will lie to its north. Under the Divided Monarchy these two tribes constituted the entire Southern Kingdom. The message, then, is that the eschatological division of the Land into northern and southern regions will in no way imply a sinful spiritual division among the people. To the contrary, here all former divisions have been overcome, for now all the tribes are perfectly united around the Sanctuary and under the Prince. This pictures the perfect spiritual unity of the Church around and under Christ, her High Priest and King. In eschatological “Israel,” the blood of Christ will have broken down every dividing wall, with the result that to all eternity there will be one flock, one kingdom, and one holy nation living in the Land (Ezek. 34:23, 37:24, Zech. 14:9, John 10:16, Gal. 3:28, Eph. 2:11-22, 4:1f, 1 Peter 2:9).
We observe also that the eight tribes closest to the Temple are the descendants of Jacob’s wives (Leah and Rachel), while the four tribes situated at the extremities of the Land are the descendants of their “handmaids,” Bilhah and Zilpah (Gen. 30:1-13). Since the OT prophets often represented the Gentiles as (blessed) servants of eschatological Israel, Ezekiel may well have portrayed this familiar promise here (Isaiah 49:22-23, 60:1-14). If so, the lesson is not that in the eschaton the Gentiles will be second-class citizens dwelling at maximal distance from Christ, but rather that God, in the Last Days, prior to the Consummation, graciously grafted them into the vine of Israel, making them “handmaids” of the (Jewish) heirs of the Kingdom, but also co-heirs with them of the glorious covenant promises given to Abraham and his seed (John 10:16, Rom. 4:1f, 11:11-24, Gal. 3:1-14, Eph. 2:11-22).
The Everlasting City (48:30-35)
Fascinatingly, the final words of Ezekiel’s vision are devoted to a subject almost completely overlooked in all that has gone before: The City. For the exiles—and indeed for godly Jews of all subsequent generations— “the City” could be none other than Jerusalem, the very same Jerusalem whose eschatological restoration is sung by OT prophet after prophet. It is, then, quite understandable that the Spirit of God, having devoted 95% of Ezekiel’s vision to a description of Israel’s Temple-Centered life in her eschatological homeland, should bring the prophecy to a close with a few words about the future of the Holy City, Jerusalem. In thus aligning Ezekiel’s message with the rest of the OT prophets, the Spirit would only strengthen Israel’s ancient hope of eternal life in the Land with their faithful, covenant-keeping God.
And yet with the benefit of NT hindsight we can see clearly that the “City” which God actually had in mind was far different than the one OT Israel envisioned. This is apparent from certain curiosities within the text itself, and also from explicit NT teaching, especially as it is found in the Revelation.
Concerning the former, we observe that in chapters 40-48 the word “Jerusalem” does not appear once. Also, in Ezekiel’s vision the City is geographically separate from the Temple Area, whereas in historical times the Temple was always situated inside the walls of Jerusalem. Similarly, Ezekiel’s City is clearly subordinate to the Temple, since the Temple alone is situated in the midst of the Holy District. Note also that the tribal names of the twelve territorial allotments differ from the tribal names of the twelve gates of the City, with the latter including Levi and Joseph, but excluding Ephraim and Manasseh. Finally, and most tellingly, God assigns the City a completely new name: The LORD is there. We conclude, then, that the text loudly and repeatedly hints at a great eschatological mystery: The Eternal City of God will be different from the Jerusalem of old; it will have a new nature, a new identity, and therefore a new name.
As we have seen, in the NT the mystery is finally unveiled: The true and everlasting City is not made of brick and mortar, but of living stones; the saints themselves are not only the Temple of God, but also the Jerusalem of God (John 4:21, Gal. 4:26, Heb. 12:22, 1 Peter 2:5, Rev. 3:12). Knowing this, they steadfastly persevere in their pilgrimage through this fallen world, eagerly awaiting their Lord’s return and the manifestation—in glory—of the eternal City whose Builder and Maker is God (Col. 3:1-3, Heb. 11:10, 16, 13:14).
Notably, this theme is especially prominent in the Revelation, where God’s elect hear the Spirit calling them out of “the Great City” (Babylon) and into “the Holy City” (New Jerusalem), (Rev. 11:8, 16:19, 18:1ff). Neither is a physical structure, both are spiritual populations; they are distinct realms with distinct rulers, whether Satan or Christ. As Ezekiel himself saw, just prior to the Consummation, Satan’s forces will attack the Beloved City (Ezek. 38-39, Rev. 20:9). But God—in Christ—will intervene to destroy the Great City and to glorify the Holy City; a City that will be without stain or wrinkle or any such thing; a City that will be worthy to be called the Bride and the Wife of the Lamb (Eph. 5:27, Rev. 18:1f, 21:1-2, 9). This is the City that all God’s people—from Abraham on—have seen, sang, and faithfully striven to enter by the narrow gate (Luke 13:24).
NOTE: In preparing this study, I have profited greatly from Iain Duguid’s commentary on Ezekiel, which you may read about here. Though I part company with him on a few points, his marvelous labors were a continual source of light and encouragement. I could not have reached the finish line without them, and heartily commend his fine book to one and all.