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PRELIMINARY NOTE ON CHAPTERS 40-48.
These closing chapters of Ezekiel form one continuous prophecy of a distinctly marked character. They present a vision of the Temple in minute detail, with careful measurements of its parts; various ordinances for the Temple, for the Levites, and the priests, and for the prince; a new and remarkable division of the land; and the vision of the life-giving waters issuing from the sanctuary. The whole passage differs too much from anything in the past to allow for a moment the supposition that it is historical in character; and uttered, as it was, at a time when the Temple lay in ashes, and the land desolate, it is equally clear that it cannot describe the present. It must, therefore, have been prophetic; but this fact alone will not decide whether it looked to a literal fulfilment, or was ideal in its character; although the à priori presumption must be in favour of the latter, since all was seen “in the visions of God” (Ezekiel 40:2)—an expression which Ezekiel always applies to a symbolic representation rather than to an actual image of things. Certainly the Temple was afterwards rebuilt, and the nation re-established in Palestine; but the second Temple was quite unlike the one described by Ezekiel, and no attempt was ever made to carry out his division of the land. The few interpreters who have supposed that he meant to foretell literally the sanctuary and the state of the restoration have been compelled to suppose that the returning exiles found themselves too feeble to carry out their designs, and hence that this prophecy remains as a monument of magnificent purposes which were never accomplished. If this were the correct view, it is inconceivable that there should be no allusion to the language of Ezekiel in the historical books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and in the prophecies of Haggai, which all relate to this period, and describe the return and settlement in the land, and the rebuilding of the Temple, with no reference to this prophecy, nor any trace of a desire to conform their work to its directions. Other objections to this view will be mentioned presently.
At the same time, it is to be remembered that a remnant of the people were restored to their land, and their Temple was rebuilt upon Mount Zion; it is but reasonable to suppose that these events, so often foretold, were present to the prophet’s mind, and that he looked out from them upon a more distant future, in the same way that near and typical events often with the other prophets form the basis of their foreshadowing of the future.
The only other way in which this prophecy can be literally understood is by supposing that its fulfilment is still in the future. In general, it is difficult to say that any state of things may not be realised in the future; but in this case there are features of the prophecy, and those not of a secondary or incidental character, but forming a part of its main delineations, which enable us to say unhesitatingly that their literal fulfilment would be in plain contradiction to the Divine revelation. For it is impossible to conceive, in view of the whole relations between the old and the new dispensations, as set forth in Scripture, that animal sacrifices can ever again be restored by Divine command, and find acceptance with God. And it may be added that it is equally impossible to conceive that the Church of the future, progressing in the liberty wherewith Christ has made it free, should ever return again to “the weak and beggarly elements” of Jewish bondage here set forth. But besides these obvious reasons, there are several indications in the detail of the prophecy that show it was never intended to be literally understood. These cannot all be seen without a careful examination of the details, but a few points may be presented which will make the fact sufficiently clear.
In the first place, the connection between the Temple and the city of Jerusalem is so deeply laid in all the sacred literature of the subject, as well as in the thought of every pious Israelite, that a prophecy incidentally separating them, without any distinct statement of the fact, or assignment of a reason for so doing, is scarcely conceivable. Yet in this portion of Ezekiel the Temple is described as at a distance of nearly nine and a half miles from the utmost bound of the city, or about fourteen and a quarter miles from its centre. This holds true, however the tribe portions of the land and the “oblation” be located (see the map in the Notes to Ezekiel 48:0); for the priests’ portion of the “oblation” (Ezekiel 48:10), in the midst of which the sanctuary is placed, is 10,000 reeds, or about nineteen miles broad; to the south of this (Ezekiel 48:15-17) is a strip of land of half the width, in which the city with its “suburbs” is situated. occupying its whole width.
A Temple in any other locality than Mount Moriah would hardly be the Temple of Jewish hope and association; but Ezekiel’s Temple, with its precincts, is a mile square, larger than the whole ancient city of Jerusalem. It is hardly possible that the precincts of any actual Temple could be intended to embrace such a variety of hill and valley as the country presents. However this may be, the prophet describes it as situated many miles north of the city, and the city itself as several miles north of the site of Jerusalem. This would place the Temple well on the road to Samaria.
But, still further, the description of the oblation itself is physically impossible. The boundaries of the land are the Jordan on the one side and the Mediterranean on the other (Ezekiel 47:15-21). The “oblation” could not have reached so far south as the mouth of the Jordan; but even at that point the whole breadth of the country is but fifty-five miles. Now measuring forty-seven and one-third miles north (the width of the oblation) a point is reached where the distance between the river and the sea is barely forty miles. It is impossible, therefore, that the oblation itself should be included between them, and the description requires that there should also be room left for the prince’s portion at either end.
Again, while the city of the vision is nowhere expressly said to be Jerusalem, it is yet described as the great city of the restored theocracy. It cannot, as already said, be placed geographically upon the site of Jerusalem. Either, then, this city must be understood ideally, or else a multitude of other prophecies, and notably many in Ezekiel which speak of the future of Zion and of Jerusalem, must be so interpreted. There is no good reason why both should not be interpreted figuratively, but it is impossible to understand both literally; for some of these prophecies make statements in regard to the future quite as literal in form as these of Ezekiel, and yet in direct conflict with them. To select a single instance from a prophecy not much noticed: Obadiah, who was probably a contemporary of Ezekiel, foretells (Ezekiel 39:19-20) that at the restoration “Benjamin shall possess Gilead;” but, according to Ezekiel, Gilead is not in the land of the restoration at all, and Benjamin’s territory is to be immediately south of the “oblation.” Again, Obadiah says, “The captivity of Jerusalem” (which, in distinction from “the captivity of the host of the children of Israel,” must refer to the two tribes) “shall possess the cities of the south;” but, according to Ezekiel, Judah and Benjamin are to adjoin the central “oblation,” and on the south four of the other tribes are to have their portion. Such instances might be multiplied if necessary.
The division of the land among the twelve tribes; the entire change in assigning to the priests and to the Levites large landed estates, and to the former as much as to the latter; the enormous size of the Temple precincts and of the city, with the comparatively small allotment of land for its support, are all so singular, and so entirely without historical precedent, that only the clearest evidence would justify the assumption that these things were intended to be literally carried out. No regard is paid to the differing numbers of the various tribes, but an equal strip of land is assigned to each of them; and, the trans-Jordanic territory being excluded and about one-fifth of the whole land set apart as an “oblation,” the portion remaining allows to each of the tribes but about two-thirds as much territory as, on the average, they had formerly possessed. The geographical order of the tribes is extremely singular: Judah and Benjamin are, indeed, placed on the two sides of the consecrated land, and the two eldest, Reuben and Simeon, are placed next to them, and Dan is put at the extreme north, where a part of the tribe had formerly lived; but the classification extends no further, and the remaining tribes are arranged neither in order of seniority nor of maternity, nor yet of ancient position. Moreover, nearly the whole territory assigned to Zebulon and Gad is habitable only by nomads, except on the supposition of physical changes in the land.
Another consequence of this division of the land is important: the Levites, being now provided for in the “oblation,” no longer have their cities among the tribes. But it had been expressly provided that the “cities of refuge” (which must be distributed through the land in order to fulfil their purpose) should be Levitical cities (Numbers 35:9-15). With this change, therefore, the provision for cities of refuge ceases, and a profound alteration is made in the whole Mosaic law in regard to manslaughter and murder.
The ordinances for the sacrifices and feasts, as given in Ezekiel 45, 46, differ greatly from those of the Mosaic law, as will be pointed out in the commentary. For the variation in the amount of the “meat offering,” and of the number and character of the victims on various occasions, it is difficult to assign any other reason than that they were intended as indications that the prophet’s scheme was not to be taken literally; it is certain that no attempt was made at the restoration thus to modify the Mosaic ritual, although this could have been done without difficulty if it had been understood that it was intended. The ample provision for the prince, and the regulations for his conduct, were politically wise and useful additions to the Mosaic economy, if literally understood, but which no attempt was ever made to carry out in practice. But in the ordering of the great cycle of feasts and fasts, the modification of the Mosaic system is so profound as quite to change its symbolic value. The “feast of weeks” and the great day of atonement are altogether omitted; and also the “new moons,” except that of the first month, which is enhanced in value. The fact that the men who received these teachings from Ezekiel’s own lips and had charge of the ordering of the services in the restored Temple, paid no attention to these changes, is strong evidence that they did not consider them as meant to be literally carried out.
 This prophecy was given in the twenty-fifth year of the captivity, and was, therefore, forty-five years before the restoration. The elderly men of the restoration must have been of full age to appreciate this prophecy at the time it was uttered, and in the immediately subsequent years of its perusal and discussion. There can be no reasonable doubt, also, that the prophecies of Ezekiel were carried back to Judæa by the returning exiles, and from their very nature they must have been made generally known to those who were in the captivity.
In connection with the omission of the day of atonement, all mention of the high priest is carefully left out. That this is not accidental is shown by the fact that the laws of marriage and of mourning for all the priests are made more strict than in the legislation of Moses (Ezekiel 44:22-27), evidently as a sort of compensation for the omitted legislation in regard to the high priest. But the Levitical system without a high priest becomes a different institution in itself, and is also greatly changed in its symbolism.
It may be remarked in passing that the system here set forth is not at all of the nature of an intermediate or transitional ritual between that which we know existed under the monarchy, and that which is set forth in the Levitical law, and therefore affords no basis for the theory that the Levitical system was the outgrowth of the captivity. The absence of the high priest, so prominent both in the law and in the history, is alone a sufficient proof of this; and to this may be added the full regulations for the prince in Ezekiel, of which there is no trace in either the earlier or the subsequent history.
A further difficulty with the literal interpretation may be found in the description of the waters which issued from under the eastern threshold of the Temple (Ezekiel 47:1-12). These waters run to the “east country,” and go down “to the sea,” which can only be the Dead Sea; but such a course would be physically impossible without changes in the surface of the earth, since the location of the Temple of the vision is on the west of the watershed of the country. They had, moreover, the effect of “healing” the waters of the sea, an effect which could not be produced naturally without providing an outlet from the sea; no supply of fresh water could remove the saltness while this water was all disposed of by evaporation, and Ezekiel (in Ezekiel 47:11) excludes the idea of an outlet. But, above all, the character of the waters themselves is impossible without a perpetual miracle. Setting aside the difficulty of a spring of this magnitude upon the top of “a very high mountain” (Ezekiel 40:2) in this locality, at the distance of 1,000 cubits from their source, the waters have greatly increased in volume; and so with each successive 1,000 cubits, until at the end of 4,000 cubits (about a mile and a half) they have become a river no longer fordable, or, in other words, comparable to the Jordan. Such an increase, without accessory streams, is clearly not natural. But, beyond all this, the description of the waters themselves clearly marks them as ideal. They are life-giving and healing; trees of perennial foliage and fruit grow upon their banks, the leaves being for “medicine,” and the fruit, although for food, never wasting. The reader cannot fail to be reminded of “the pure river of water of life” in Revelation 22:1-2, “on either side” of which was “the tree of life” with “its twelve manner of fruits,” and its leaves “for the healing of the nations.” The author of the Apocalypse evidently had this passage in mind; and just as he has adopted the description of Gog and Magog as an ideal description, and applied it to the events of the future, so he has treated this as an ideal prophecy, and applied it to the Church triumphant.
It is to be remembered that this whole vision is essentially one, and that it would be unreasonable to give a literal interpretation to one part of it and a figurative to another. All the objections, therefore, which lie against the supposition of the restoration of animal sacrifices hold also against the supposition of the general restoration of the Jewish Temple and polity. This was felt at an early day, and such Christian commentators as Ephrem Syrus, Theodoret, and Jerome adopted throughout a symbolic or typical explanation. The changes in the Mosaic law are indeed great, but still are only of detail, and leave it open to the Apostolic description as a “bondage” to which we cannot suppose the providence of God would ever lead back the Church Christ has redeemed at the cost of the sacrifice of Himself. Either the whole argument of the Epistle to the Hebrews is a mistake, not to speak of those to the Romans and Galatians, nor of our Lord’s own discourses (as with the woman of Samaria), or else the Holy Spirit could not have intended a literal realisation in the future of this vision of Ezekiel.
We thus come to regard this prophecy as an ideal one on every ground, not looking for any literal and material fulfilment. If it should be asked, Why then is it given with such a wealth of minute material detail? the answer is obvious, that this is thoroughly characteristic of Ezekiel. The tendency, strongly marked in every part of his book, merely culminates in this closing vision. The two previous chapters, especially, have abounded in concrete and definite details of the attack of a great host upon the land of Israel, while yet these very details have given evidence upon examination that they could not have been meant to be literally understood, and that the whole prophecy was intended to shadow forth the great and final spiritual conflict, prolonged through ages, between the power of the world and the kingdom of God. So here, the prophet, wishing to set forth the glory, the purity, and the beneficent influence of the Church of the future, clothes his description in those terms of the past with which his hearers were familiar. The use of such terms was a necessity in making himself intelligible to his contemporaries, just as to the very close of the inspired volume it is still necessary to set forth the glory and joy of the Church triumphant under the figures of earthly and familiar things, while no one is misled thereby to imagine that the heavenly Jerusalem will be surrounded with a literal wall of jasper, “twelve thousand furlongs” = 1,500 miles (Revelation 21:16; Revelation 21:18), or that its twelve gates shall be each of an actual pearl. It is remarkable that in two instances, that of Gog and that of the river of life, the imagery is the same in Ezekiel and in Revelation. At the same time Ezekiel is careful to introduce among his details so many points that were impossible, or, at least, the literal fulfilment of which would have been strangely inconsistent with his main teaching, as to show that his description must be ideal, and that its realisation is to be sought for beneath the types and shadows in which it was clothed. It may be as impossible to find the symbolical meaning of each separate detail as it is to tell the typical meaning of the sockets for the boards of the tabernacle, although the tabernacle as a whole is expressly said to have been a type. This is the case with every vision, and parable, and type, and every form of setting forth truth by imagery; there must necessarily be much which has no independent signification, but is merely subsidiary to the main point. It is characteristic of Ezekiel that these subsidiary details should be elaborated with the utmost minuteness. His purpose was understood by his contemporaries, and by the generation immediately succeeding, so that they never made any attempt to carry out his descriptions in the rebuilding of the Temple and reconstitution of the State. The idea of a literal interpretation of his words was reserved for generations long distant from his time, from the forms of the Church under which he lived, and from the circumstances and habits of expression with which he was familiar, and under the influence of which he wrote.
The first fifteen verses of this chapter belong to Ezekiel 45:0. The prince was required to provide and bring the sacrifices for himself and for the people (Ezekiel 45:17); therefore, as soon as the yearly festivals have been described, directions are given (Ezekiel 46:1-3) for the conduct of the prince at these sacrifices. He was required to be always present, while attendance on the part of the people was obligatory only at the yearly festivals. The prophet then goes on to provide for the sacrifices for the Sabbaths and new moons, for free-will offerings, and for the daily sacrifices.
(1) The gate of the inner court.—It has already been provided (Ezekiel 44:1-3) that the outer gate on the east should be kept closed, except for the prince. The same thing is now commanded for the east gate of the inner court also; and, further, the days are specified, the Sabbaths and new moons, on which it shall be used by the prince.
(2) Stand by the post of the gate.—The prince shall enter the sanctuary by the east gate of the outer court, pass through that court to the inner gate, and “worship at the threshold of the gate” immediately adjoining the inner court, while the priests make ready his sacrifices. But he is not to enter the inner court, or to assume any priestly functions. Afterwards he is to go forth by the same way (Ezekiel 46:8, and Ezekiel 44:3), and the gate stands open until evening, though no one else is to enter thereby.
(3) Worship at the door.—The people, in so far as they might be present on the Sabbaths and new moons, are not to worship in the same place with the prince; but in the outer court, at the entrance of the east gate to the inner court.
(4) Six lambs . . . and a ram.—The burnt offering for the Sabbath, according to the Mosaic law (Numbers 28:9), was two lambs. This is greatly increased here, and the “meat offering” for the ram is also made larger, while that for the lambs (Ezekiel 46:5) is left to the prince’s generosity.
(6) A young bullock . . . and six lambs, and a ram.—The law required for the new moons, for a burnt offering, two bullocks, seven lambs, and a ram (Numbers 28:11), so that this sacrifice is here diminished; it also required a he-goat for a sin offering, of which no mention is here made.
(9) In the solemn feasts.—Different arrangements were required for the great or “solemn” feasts, because at these all the males of Israel were commanded to be present, and therefore the numbers were very large. This affects both the people and (Ezekiel 46:10) the prince. The first provision is one for securing order in the vast concourse of people: by whichever (outer) gate any one enters (the north or the south), he shall pass out by the opposite one.
(10) The prince in the midst of them.—On occasion of these yearly feasts, it was no longer necessary that the prince should represent the people, they being themselves present. He, therefore, now worships in their midst, entering with them at the north or south gate, and going out by the opposite one.
(11) And in the solemnities.—The new rules for the proportion of the meat offering, as laid down in Ezekiel 46:5; Ezekiel 46:7, Ezekiel 45:24, are here repeated for the feast days; and it is added that the same is to hold for all established seasons, a different proportion being prescribed only for the daily sacrifice (Ezekiel 46:14).
(12) A voluntary burnt offering.—One case in which the prince might present a sacrifice is yet unprovided for. He might offer, like any of the people, a voluntary sacrifice at any time, either a burnt offering or a peace offering. In this case he is still to enter by the east gate; but the gate, instead of standing open until evening, as on the Sabbaths and new moons, is to be immediately shut as soon as he retires after the completion of the sacrifice.
(13) Daily prepare a burnt offering.—Ezekiel 46:13-15 contain regulations for the daily sacrifice. The victim is the same as under the Mosaic law; but instead of being offered every morning and evening (Numbers 28:3-5), it is here provided only for the morning. On the other hand, the accompanying meat offering is increased from the tenth to the sixth of an ephah of flour, and from a fourth to a third of a hin of oil.
The rest of the chapter is occupied with the rights of the prince in regard to the conveyance of his land (Ezekiel 46:16-18), and a short description of the sacrificial kitchens for the priests and the people (Ezekiel 46:19-24).
(16) If the prince give a gift.—Ezekiel 46:15-18 contain provisions in regard to the prince’s alienation of his domain. According to Ezekiel 45:7-8, he was to have a portion of land on each side of the “oblation,” which should be sufficiently ample to prevent any attempts on his part at violence and exaction. For the same purpose, it was necessary that this territory should remain inalienably in his family. He might therefore convey any portion of it to his sons in fee simple, for they would naturally inherit it; but a conveyance to any one else came under the Mosaic law (Leviticus 25:0), and reverted to him or his heirs in the year of Jubile, here called “the year of liberty.”
(18) Shall not take of the people’s inheritance.—Fresh warning is here given against oppression on the part of the prince, and he is reminded that the territory given inalienably to him and his heirs is to provide for his sons’ inheritance.
(19) At the side of the gate.—The concluding verses of the chapter are occupied with the arrangements for cooking the sacrificial food of the priests and the people. The latter could partake only of the peace offerings, but the priests, in addition to their portion of these, were required to consume the flesh of the sin and trespass offerings, and the greater part of the “meat offerings.” The prophet is first shown the rooms for the priests’ cooking. He was taken along the walk (Plan II., K) mentioned in Ezekiel 42:4, which led from the steps of the gate of the inner court to the priests’ chambers. There he saw “a place on the two sides westward,” i.e., two places, one at the west of each building of priests’ chambers. Nothing is said of their size, and they may be assumed to have had the same dimensions (40 cubits by 30—Ezekiel 46:22) as those of the people’s kitchens. They are marked F on Plan II.
(20) Shall boil . . . shall bake.—The flesh of all sacrifices except the Passover was by the law required to be boiled, and the unbloody “meat offering,” when not already cooked, was to be baked.
Bear them not out into the utter court.—In one sense the priestly chambers and also these cooking rooms were themselves in the outer court; but as already remarked, these, with the walk that led to them, although within the enclosure of the outer, were considered as appurtenances of, and therefore belonging to, the inner court. The reason given for not bearing the flesh of the sin and trespass offering into the outer court is, lest they should thereby “sanctify the people,” and the same reason is given in Ezekiel 44:19 for not allowing the priests’ garments to come into the outer court. Under the law all those offerings which it was the duty of the priests to consume are called “most holy,” and whoever touched them or the sacred vessels of the sanctuary became “holy” in the sense of set apart to God (Leviticus 6:18; also Exodus 29:37; Exodus 30:29). The object of the command is therefore to prevent that ceremonial sanctification of the people which would interfere with their ordinary life.
(21) The utter court.—The prophet had just been in those chambers which, although they stood within the area of the outer court, were considered as belonging to the inner. He is now brought into the outer court, properly so called.
In every corner of the court there was a court.—In each of the angles of the outer court a place was set apart for the boiling of the flesh of the peace offerings. These were of considerable size—40 cubits by 30 (Ezekiel 46:22), and appear to have been enclosed by a wall but not covered above. The word translated joined is of very uncertain meaning, but its most probable sense is enclosed. These courts are marked E on Plan II.
(23) A row of building.—Around the walls of these enclosures were fixed tables of masonry with boiling places underneath.
(24) Ministers of the house.—Not priests, but Temple servants, who were usually Levites.
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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Ezekiel 46". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://studylight.org/
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