Harry Whittaker
A Fresh Look at Ezekiel’s Temple

A Fresh Look at Ezekiel’s Temple

For many years it has been traditional among Christadelphians that the memorable temple described in Ezekiel 40-48 will function in the Holy Land during the millennial reign of Christ.

That a temple will exist during that time of blessedness would appear to be clear enough. But what kind of temple will it be?

Since the publication of a monumental work on the subject in 1892, by Henry Sulley of Nottingham, most Christadelphians have been accustomed to thinking of that temple as consisting essentially of three main parts:

It is the main point of the present study — a negative one, alas! — to suggest that such a view is altogether mistaken, that it is based on a large number of erroneous interpretations of detail in Ezekiel 40-48, and that a careful scrutiny of the exposition set out in the volume named raises so many doubts as to make it well-nigh impossible to accept the author’s thesis. To the present writer one of the most amazing features of this study is the fact that those numerous problems have not apparently been faced up to or at least have not been given wider publicity during the past seventy years. More positively, it may be possible later to suggest an alternative and less dubious interpretation of these enigmatic chapters.

For simplicity’s sake and ease of reference the criticisms to be advanced will be numbered. Page references are, of course, to the first edition of The Temple of Ezekiel’s Prophecy by Henry Sulley.

  1. Concerning the altar which is described as being “before the House” (40:47), the author, having already decided in favor of a square frame of buildings, cannot put this altar “before the House” without putting it outside the House altogether. So he asserts (very dubiously) that the Hebrew preposition really means “in the presence of,” and from this he infers that the altar will be at the center. But the word used is the ordinary Hebrew word for “before.” It is so translated scores and scores of times (Young’s Concordance does not attempt to list more than a few, and on this Strong’s is only bewildering to the student who has no Hebrew) in such phrases as “before the Lord”, “before the tabernacle”: e.g., Lev. 1:5 and 3:8. By contrast, the reconstruction of the temple on a pattern similar to that of Solomon’s temple — which is the kind of conclusion reached by practically all students of this prophecy except H. Sulley — puts the altar in the court of the temple, east of the Sanctuary and therefore literally and precisely “before the House.”
  2. A second argument for this central siting of the altar is put thus, on p. 51: “This altar is hypostatically representative of the divine presence” - therefore it must be at the center! but was not the altar of burnt offering in the Tabernacle and in the First Temple just as “hypostatically representative of the divine presence”? Yet neither of those was in the center of the Sanctuary. The argument is a poor one.
  3. A third argument is adduced: “this altar must of necessity be in the center, because those who approach to it in the performance of priestly duty enter the Most Holy for that purpose” (p.51). But does Ezekiel say so? The present writer has not been able to find any such statement. The author is surely assuming what he wants to prove.
  4. Finally on this point: “Ezekiel gives the detailed measurements of the altar when he is in the Most Holy” — and this is mentioned on p. l51 as “confirmation of this conclusion.” Again there is something suspiciously like carelessness. For Ezekiel does not say the altar is in the Most Holy (Eze. 43:12 is about the entire temple area; cp. 42:2; and RV rightly begins a new paragraph at v. 13). Nor is it true that Ezekiel went into the Most Holy. On the contrary, when the Most Holy is being measured, Ezekiel is careful to say: “Then went he (the angel) inward, and measured....” (41:3). As a priest who was not a High Priest, Ezekiel knew that he himself had no right to enter the Most Holy.
These four points, none of them at all satisfactory, constitute all the reasons advanced for the highly revolutionary theory that the altar must be in the center of the temple. But there are other features about this altar which raise doubts in the mind.

  1. Because “waters come down from under the right side of the house, at the south side of the altar” (47:1), it is inferred “that the altar must be considerably elevated.” But is one at liberty to deduce from the verb “come down” that the waters descend from the top of a mountain? The seven steps and eight steps (40: 22,31) by which the house was higher than its surroundings would be adequate to explain why the waters “come down.”
  2. Ezekiel 43:17 mentions “his stairs” on the eastward side of the altar. Our author rejects this translation in favor of another just as valid: “ascent” (p. 53b.) He then proceeds: “If we adopt ascent as the meaning, it would indicate that the altar would be difficult of approach, if not, humanly speaking, inaccessible from any other than the east side.” Does this really follow?The logic of this conclusion is not easy to grasp. Yet this becomes a ground for putting the altar on a mountain peak unclimbable on three sides! When, however, it is observed that the record about Israel’s altar in the wilderness and also the detail about the throne of Solomon has the same word translated “steps” (Exod. 20:26; I Kgs. 10:19), there seems to be little enough reason for disallowing “stairs” here. The same word occurs translated “steps” in 40: 22,26,31, and the AV reading here is accepted without demur. Then why not in 43:17?
  3. One is left wondering also how the priests would transport the hundreds of sacrifices to the altar-summit of this mountain. But perhaps the powers of immortality are to make light of this toil.
  4. The dimensions of the altar present further grievous difficulty. In height it appears to be 2 cubits (for the lower ‘settle”) plus 4 cubits (for the greater ‘settle’) plus 4 cubits (for the altar itself) = total 10 cubits. The length and breadth (over all) = 14 cubits (43:14-17). But in these latter dimensions the word “cubit” is supplied by the translators. Their common sense conclusion that all the units are cubits is curtly discarded by our author. “But this is not the case,” he asserts, though not without reason given. And the reason given is this. “The measure of 14 cubits does not even attain to the dimensions of the altar made by Solomon.” Such a state of affairs is, to his mind, unthinkable. Yet, why should it? Solomon’s temple had gold and silver and brass in abundance, almost beyond weight, whereas in this temple there is no hint of any use at all being made of any of them. One looks for more solid argument before changing cubits into reeds, six times as long. “We have far more reason for supplying the word ‘reed’ rather than cubit.” But what that reason may be is not apparent to this reader.
  5. The result of inflating the dimensions of the altar is that it is now at least 108 feet on each side — big enough to take hundreds of carcasses at once. But one is left wondering how the priest would succeed in arranging these sacrifices, at a distance of more than 50 feet away. Would he walk on the altar, or would he be equipped with modern mechanical handling plant?
  6. Again, according to this view, the “horns” of the altar are small square towers at its corners, each a nine-feet cube. Why these should be termed “horns” is not very apparent. But how is the height of 9 ft. (= 2 + 4 cubits) arrived at? The 4 cubits is derived from 43:15: “And the altar shall be four cubits; and from the altar and upward shall be four cubits.” In all this context, there is no word of “horns” at all. Surely our architect’s conclusions are, to put it mildly, somewhat intuitive.
  7. On p. 55a it is inferred that the altar has a trench filled with water all round it “to keep the whole structure cool and prevent fusion of the materials comprising it.” This round an altar with a great roaring fire burning hundreds of carcasses! The priest would surely be ministering in a perpetual cloud of steam. But in another place (p. 66a) it is suggested that divine fire will signify acceptance of the sacrifice. In that case the fire will surely be selective, burning sacrifices but not the altar; or else the altar itself will be unable to withstand this intense heat, even though water cooled. In the same category as this speculation is the highly imaginative and not too stimulating picture on p. 65 of the wicked being rejected and himself being “removed to the place of execution.” Yet the author writes with evident conviction on such details.
  8. The acceptance of the sacrifice by fire from heaven raises another practical problem. Since the altar would obviously take an enormous number of sacrifices, how could the waiting crowd know whose offering was being found acceptable? - especially, too, since they would be at least half a mile away at the foot of the mountain! Practical problems of this nature do not seem to have received sufficient attention. If the general picture formulated about the temple described by Ezekiel were correct, would so many snags become evident?
  9. One last point about the altar. Its name Ariel (43:16 mg) is accepted as meaning “the lion of God,” with this comment: “It (the altar) will typify the terror of Yahweh: and its existence in His House will be a warning to one and all not to perform the part of the wicked....” (p. 54a). But since only the priest would see it or come near to it (the rest being, as already mentioned, more than half a mile away), this does not seem wonderfully appropriate, the more so since the priest would need the warning least of all, being a “son of Zadok (righteousness)”. It seems to have been overlooked not only that “Lion of God” is condemned by its obvious unfitness as a name for an altar, but that Ariel may also mean “I will provide a ram,” with evident suitability and allusion to Gen. 22:13,14.
  10. It is now time to consider the Holy Place which is taken to be a circle of thirty self-contained and identical “cellae” (as the author is fond of calling them) round the foot of the hill. What are the grounds for concluding that these buildings are circular in arrangement? One is able to discover only two points of evidence, both of which — on examination — are palpably wrong. The first is 43:12: “Upon the top of the mountain the whole limit thereof round about shall be most holy. Behold this is the law of the House.” Apparently that phrase “round about” is taken to require a circular shape (p. 48). But the Hebrew word thus translated carries no suggestion whatever of circular shape. It is used (40:5 and 45:2) of the square enclosure of the Sanctuary, of the rectangular enclosure of the Tabernacle court (Exod. 27:17), of the circuit of the square altar (43:13). If more examples are needed: Ezek. 40:16,43 and 41:5-8,10-12; Exod. 38:16,20,31 and 40:8,33. As a point of evidence this “round about” is worthless. In any case 43:12 says: “At the top of the mountain the whole limit thereof round about shall be most holy,” whereas H.S. puts his circle of buildings at the foot of the hill.
  11. The only other point of evidence — what is called “the leading indication of a circular form” — is 41:1: “he brought me to the temple (i.e., the holy place), and measured the posts, six cubits broad on the one side and six cubits broad on the other side, the breadth of the tabernacle.” Here the RV mg. refers to Exod. 26:25, where the breadth of the Tabernacle in the wilderness is made up of eight “boards” of one and one half cubits each. By most students this would be considered satisfactory, even though it still leaves open the question why there should be in the entrance to the holy place (as it would seem) a width identical with the Tabernacle. However our author prefers a quite different approach. He first points out that the word “tabernacle” is really “tent” (true!). And then this: “Now most tents are, and all tents were originally, round or ring-shaped” (p. 39). Is this really true? The present writer has schoolboy memories of improvised tents vastly different in shape from that of a right circular cone! And is it not a fact that the vast majority of tents in lands of the Near East were and are usually constructed on anything but that pattern? However, p. 49 goes on to develop the notion by quoting Isa. 40:22: “He stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in.” The rather vague comment is added: “The simile gives indication of the nature of the type from which it is drawn: namely, of a covered circular enclosed space.” But even if this highly figurative passage were admissible as evidence (which it surely isn’t), is there any reader who gets the impression that the dome of heaven looks like a hollow cone? Yet here is all the evidence the book advances for the highly revolutionary idea it propounds of a conical mountain with a circle of buildings at its base! The question has to be asked in all seriousness: Is the evidence good enough?
  12. There are a number of other details about the reconstruction of this Holy Place which wrinkle the forehead: e.g., in 41:26 the word “porch” is taken to mean “porches”.
  13. The word for “side-chamber” (41: 5,6) is replaced by “rib”, although in Solomon’s Temple (which should be a fairly good guide) it clearly means “side-chamber” (1 Kings 6:5).
  14. On p. 38b “the cellae (chambers for singers and priests on duty: 40: 44-46) are undoubtedly the Temple mentioned in ch. 41.”
  15. Again, the outside wall of the House (41:9) is shown in the elaborate diagram opposite p. 41 as being really an inside wall - but it does not really answer to the description “wall” in-asmuch as it is pictured as a series of empty spaces interspersed by “pillars” and “posts”. Also the spaces called “gates” in this outside inside wall appear to serve no useful purpose since they open on to a straight drop too high to be negotiated, for there are no stairs to correspond to those on the other side of the building.
  16. On p. 42 the “winding about” (41:7) which is fairly obviously a spiral staircase to connect one floor of chambers with the next above, becomes a groined vaulting which has no “winding” — and this many centuries before groined vaulting was invented!
  17. In 41:4 the measures of the Most Holy are given as: “the length, twenty cubits; and the breadth, twenty cubits.” Without any hint from the text, our author first applies this to the Holy Place instead, then he repeats the measurement three times (p. 43a), but also turns the word “breadth” into “height”, thus transforming the Most Holy twenty by twenty (exactly the same as in Solomon’s temple) into a three-storied Holy Place with three avenues twenty-cubits wide in it. Also, on p. 48 the statement is renewed that twenty by twenty are not the dimensions of the Most Holy Place but “undoubtedly” they are “the measurements that take us up to the Most Holy.” The reader can look at 41:4 again and judge for himself.
  18. This turning of “breadth” into “height” crops up in several other places in the volume: e.g., from 41:14 a height of a hundred cubits for the Most Holy Place is inferred (pp. 45a and 47a); and since so far there has been only sixty cubits appropriated for the three stories, the remaining forty (or most of this) must be assigned to the foundation: “This foundation therefore, rises to a great height.” Yet 41:8 states specifically that the foundation is six cubits only! It is a comparatively easy matter to verify that the Hebrew word employed always means breadth, and never means height. If height were intended, the Hebrew language has several other words any of which would be more appropriate for the purpose than this one.
  19. Even if the general idea of this temple plan were to be conceded, it now turns out that the architect’s mathematics (pp. 44, 45) are at fault in no less than four places:
  20. In the second calculation on p. 44b, the outside porch (20 cubits) has been omitted. This error throws out the next calculation.
  21. At the top of p. 45a, the “thirty times 5 cubits” should be “sixty times 5 cubits”, because there are 30 chambers each with a 5-cubit wall at each end.
  22. The two calculations on p. 45a are in effect one and the same, the second simply being the first worked backwards. Naturally the same answer is arrived at both times, yet this is claimed as a neat check of accuracy!: “What can be more satisfactory than this?”
  23. In this second calculation on p. 45a it is impressively claimed that the inner circumference (less wall space) amounts to precisely 6,224 cubits which - miraculously! - is exactly divisible by 16, thus giving 389 spaces between the “posts”. But it is not explained how these 389 spaces are to be shared between 30 cellae. 30 into 389 goes how many times?
  24. The “separate place” is a part of the Temple which has, admittedly, given rise to some uncertainty. Yet it would at least appear to be clear from 41:13,14 that, wherever it might be sited, its dimensions are a hundred cubits each way. Yet in this volume it is identified with the space between the outer square and the inner circle of buildings. Could this, by any stretch of imagination, be described as “an hundred cubits long. Also the breadth....of the separate place toward the east, an hundred cubits”?
  25. According to 46:22, in each corner of the court there is a boiling house, for the sacrifices, “forty cubits long, and thirty broad.” But in this volume the dimensions already adopted for the outer court will not allow of anything so small. So (perhaps permissibly) the cubits are turned into reeds. Another difficulty is that the courts formed at the corners of this square frame must themselves necessarily be square, and not 40 by 30. So the word for “long” is turned into “high”, although in 37 other places in these nine chapters the same word plainly means “long.” The result is four “monster towers....360 feet square and 480 feet high” for the boiling of sacrifices! “Such a building defies description.” Here, at least, one is inclined to agree.
  26. The same tendency to make everything about the Temple as big as possible shows in quite a number of places: e.g., on p. 42, on the basis of a bit of dubious Hebrew etymology, the 20 by 20 cubits measure for the Most Holy (41:4) is blown up to something fantastically bigger — and is then applied to the Holy Place! Similarly it would appear to most readers of 47:2 that the prophet describes a trickle of water out of the sanctuary and later becoming a deepening river. Instead of this, one is invited to contemplate a complex of streams from the mountain making a circuit of the base and flowing out of a dozen gateways.
  27. There are also downright errors of fact of a rather elementary kind; e.g., on p. 52 the Tyropean valley is represented as passing through the Haram area instead of the south of it; and on the same page there is the common misreading of Zech. 14:2 that only half the city of Jerusalem will be captured in the last great conflict; and facing p. 46 is an entertaining picture of palm trees growing up lattice work for all the world as though they were ivy or grape vines!
  28. P. 48b: “Our business is to accept the logic of the facts, and frame our theories in harmony with them, rather than resist the evidence of the facts in order to fit a preconceived theory”!
It will be evident from the foregoing that Henry Sulley’s ideas of the pattern of the temple of Ezekiel’s prophecy are not shared by the present writer. Then what?

Briefly, and without reasons stated, it is believed that:

  1. the proper understanding of Ezekiel 40-48 makes the temple rather like that of Solomon, but with significant modifications;
  2. this temple will not be built in the Millennium; it was not so intended,
  3. but it was for Israel on their return from Babylon;
  4. it has value for saints of the present day comparable to that of Solomon’s temple and the tabernacle;
  5. there will be a temple in the future age.
It is hoped to develop these investigations in a series of studies.

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