There is little agreement among Bible scholars regarding interpretation of the last nine chapters of Ezekiel. It is, after all, a vision (40:2). How much of it is symbolic? Is any of it to be taken literally? Bob Utley at Bible.org gives five possible interpretations of what this temple is:
1. It was never meant to be literally fulfilled, but was a literary way to reverse chapters 8-11. It was written to encourage the exiles.
2. It was conditional prophecy to which the Jews did not respond appropriately (i.e., sin of the post-exilic period, cf. Ezra, Nehemiah, and Malachi).
3. It was to be fulfilled in the return from the Exile under Zerubbabel (prince of Judah, seed of David) and Joshua (seed of the last high priest before the exile).
4. It was fulfilled in Herod’s temple.
5. It will be fulfilled in an eschatological temple.
Interpretation #5 might also be subdivided into two further possibilities: a) it is a temple in Israel during the Millennium (Rev. 20), what some would call the Third Temple, or b) it is a symbolic (visionary) representation of the eternal state (Rev. 21-22). A lot depends on how literally we take the features of Ezekiel’s vision of the temple. There are difficulties with every interpretation. I personally lean towards #5b.
I’d like to call attention to the last verse of Ezekiel: “The circumference of the city shall be 18,000 cubits. And the name of the city from that time on shall be, The LORD Is There” (48:35). The City to come will be called “Adonai [lit., YHWH] Shammah.”
One of the greatest promises from God that echoes throughout the Bible is, “I will dwell among them” (Ex. 29:45). Ever since the expulsion of our first parents from Eden for their sin humankind has been in exile, on the run from God, but many having a deep longing for a return of the presence of God. Our Lord Jesus Christ is the central figure in the drama of salvation that brings the return of God’s presence to all who believe (Heb. 12:24). He dwells by his Spirit now within his people (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19). But the final dwelling place for God and his people is known as “Mount Zion… the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. 12:22-24), the “New Jerusalem” (Rev. 3:12; 21:2), and the “Holy City” (Rev. 21:10, 19). Over and over again, God promises his people, “I will dwell in your midst,” bringing all the righteousness, joy, and security that comes with his presence.
“God will be in the midst of her forever” is a theme in the Psalms (Psalm 46:5; 48:1-2; 68:16; 132:13-14). And the prophets: “Jerusalem shall be called the throne of the Lord” (Jer. 3:17). “I will dwell in their midst forever…” (Ezek. 43:7, 9; Zech. 2:10-11; 8:3) Ezekiel says the city will be called, “The Lord is there.” And finally, in the last book of the Bible: “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God'” (Revelation 21:3 ESV). He will dwell among us in a glorious City in a new creation!
The book of Hebrews highlights that men and women of faith are those who long for this City, and seek for it… “For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God… they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city… For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” (Heb. 11:10, 16; 13:14 ESV)
What a beautiful picture! Do you long for the City of God? Do you seek the city that is to come? Will you delight to live in God’s holy presence in a glorious community of righteousness (no more sin and evil!) and joy and everlasting security? Because of Christ’s death for our sins, for all our sins, we need not flee the presence of God anymore (Gen. 3:8). He calls us to come in faith and repentance, and to become as little children, and to enjoy his presence forever. In his presence we will find mercy, forgiveness, eternal life, covenant love, everlasting joy, peace, security and protection forever. He has prepared a city for us, and it shall be called, “The Lord is there.”
Image above: “The Second Temple, Pilgrims Painting” by Aryeh Weiss.