The concluding chapters of the book of Ezekiel are among the most controversial in all of Scripture. They detail a great temple and a sacrificial system that shows enough differences to the one described in the Law of Moses to warrant the thought that this is a new building in a different time period. The result is that many conflicting interpretations have been proposed both by Jewish and Christian scholars. In this article, we will critically look at these interpretations and show why a literal exegesis of Ezekiel 40–48 is possible.
I. THE PROBLEM(S) OF THE EZEKIEL TEMPLE AND SACRIFICES
A. THE PROBLEM FOR JUDAISM
An Orthodox Jewish commentary makes the following two observations:
The text of the concluding chapters, dealing with this temple and the future, presents almost insurmountable difficulties. The types, numbers, and sacrifices prescribed there differ from those mentioned in the Pentateuch; and there are many innovations, which, according to the accepted law, are normally beyond the authority of a prophet to institute (Shabbat 104a). With reference to these difficulties, the rabbis said that only Elijah, the prophet who is to herald the final redemption, will be able to explain them satisfactorily (Menachot 45a).1
These closing chapters present almost insuperable difficulties. They contain discrepancies, contradictions with Pentateuchal laws and terms which do not occur elsewhere.2
The root of the problem for Judaism is twofold: first, the rabbis assume that the Law of Moses is eternal; second, they fail to recognize the Messiahship of Yeshua. Orthodox Judaism takes Ezekiel 40–48 literally, but because there are a number of contradictions between the Mosaic system and the Ezekiel system, the early rabbis had a difficulty in accepting Ezekiel into the Hebrew Canon. Finally one rabbi, Rabbi Hananiah ben Hezekiah, is said to have burned three hundred barrels of oil rectifying all the discrepancies, and only then was Ezekiel accepted into the Hebrew Canon.3
B. THE PROBLEM FOR AMILLENNIALISM
Amillennialists simply dismiss the literal view as untenable without providing any exegetical grounds for doing so. It is enough to state that Yeshua was the final sacrifice, and that alone becomes the grounds for Amillennialists simply dismiss the literal view as untenable without providing any exegetical grounds for doing so. It is enough to state that Yeshua was the final sacrifice, and that alone becomes the grounds for allegorizing these chapters of Ezekiel.
However, even they have to admit that it is “an unjustifiable inconsistency”4 to take the prophecies of Israel’s final restoration literally, but then to allegorize the prophecies of the Ezekiel Temple and sacrifices, and so, the problem for amillennialists is also twofold: first, they presuppose that these chapters cannot be literal; second, they assume that these sacrifices are the Levitical sacrifices, which is not the case as will be shown later.
While amillennialists such as Daniel Block agree that Ezekiel would have understood his own prophecy quite literally, they insist that it must be reinterpreted in light of the New Testament, which they see as teaching replacement theology.5 They argue that since the vision of the dry bones is symbolic, then the vision of the Temple and sacrifices must also be symbolic. The fallacy of this reasoning is obvious: Ezekiel tells us that the vision of the dry bones is symbolic and interprets the symbols for us; however, he makes no such statement in chapters 40–48. If these chapters are symbolic, then Ezekiel does not interpret the symbols. In fact, throughout his book, Ezekiel has symbolic actions and visions, and when they are symbolic, he tells us so and interprets them all for us. He makes no such statement or interpretation of the Temple or sacrifices. Finally, some amillennialists claim that Ezekiel “does not offer a clear chronology of latter-day occurrences.”6 This ignores the chronology the book clearly gives. The only possible reason to draw such an obvious faulty conclusion is based on a simple presupposition that these chapters cannot be understood literally.
C. THE PROBLEM FOR DISPENSATIONALISTS
For dispensationalists, the problem is not the understanding of what the text states. When taken literally, there is no confusion as to the meaning of the text, and there is unanimity among dispensationalists as to what it says and means. However, the problem for dispensationalists has been in the area of what role the Millennial Temple and sacrifices actually play in the messianic kingdom and how they do not contradict or demean the final sacrifice of the Messiah on the cross. The differing interpretations will be presented below, but perhaps one observation is in order. Do we really have to fully understand all the whys and wherefores in order to take the passage literally? Our critics claim that since we cannot justify millennial sacrifices in light of Messiah’s sacrifice, these chapters cannot be taken literally. But is such a presupposition valid? I suspect that an Old Testament saint who understood Isaiah 53 literally would have concluded that the Messiah would be the final sacrifice for sin. But how would that correlate with the Law of Moses that prohibited human sacrifices? He may not have been able to answer all the questions Isaiah 53 raised in light of the Law of Moses, but that would not have justified to allegorize the prophecies of Isaiah. In the course of progressive revelation and the coming of the Messiah, the apparent contradiction becomes clear. The same may be true with the millennial sacrifices. We may not be able to answer all the questions that the book of Hebrews raises concerning the prophecies of the book of Ezekiel, but that is not a good reason to automatically resort to interpreting Ezekiel allegorically. The final and complete answer may only present itself with further progressive revelation that will come with the return of the Messiah. As will be shown later, we do have answers to the questions raised over the literal Temple and sacrifices, but even these answers may not answer all the questions and issues. A lack of complete understanding regarding all the issues raised never justifies the dismissal of the literal interpretation. It is for the critic to explain exegetically from the passage itself, why it is not literal.
Ultimately, for the dispensationalist, as Dr. John C. Whitcomb has pointed out, these chapters of Ezekiel are “not a burden to the Bible student, but a delight. What joy God brings to the heart of the believer when he realizes, perhaps for the first time, that God did not give us any portion of His Word to confuse us, but rather to enlighten us. God really does mean what He says!”7 It gives us, who take the Bible literally, more details about the messianic kingdom and God’s future program. As with all Scripture, it gives us the opportunity to engage ourselves with the Word of God in all its details, while dismissing the idea that such a large portion of Scripture could be symbolic, thus rendering the details of the Word of God as being irrelevant.