7 Biblical Reasons for a Figurative Reading of Ezekiel 40-48

7 Biblical Reasons for a Figurative Reading of Ezekiel 40-48

Some, particularly of the dispensational persuasion, take the temple and the accompanying sacrifices revealed in Ezekiel 40-48 as a literal temple and sacrificial system which will be established at the time of the future millennium. My goal is to show how this understanding of Ezekiel 40ff cannot coexist with what is clearly set down in Hebrews 10. And my presupposition is that the epistle to the Hebrews should interpret the related texts of Ezekiel 40ff for us. The New Testament is, after all, an inspired commentary on the Old. I want to also note something about the language of literal interpretation. Much has been made of the literal or the normative interpretive method. Every text, it is thought, must be interpreted literally.

Instead, I propose that the Bible often communicates literal truths through other-than-literal means. For example, the shadows of the animal sacrifices. Were the shadows literal atoning sacrifices? Absolutely not. They did not literally atone for sin. They were typological sacrifices. Yet, is the literal atoning Sacrifice of Christ revealed by means of them? Absolutely! Another example is found in the New Testament, when the church is called a temple. “If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are (1 Cor. 3:17).” Does this mean that the church is a literal brick and mortar temple? No. But is this text true and thus literal? Absolutely. There is a literal meaning here communicated through figurative means. All the Bible is literal, but the means through which it communicates literal truths are not always literal, i.e. biblical metaphors always communicate literal (real) things, even though the metaphors themselves are not literal.

In many cases, God uses literal things to signify greater literal things, and this we call typology, e.g. David and Goliath, the temple, the priesthood, Solomon’s wisdom, etc. But in other cases, God will use literary word-pictures, usually given in visions or dreams, to signify literal things, e.g. Ezekiel’s temple, Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Dan. 2:24-45), etc.

In Ezekiel 40-48, there are several things mentioned which, if taken literally in themselves, will create great conflict with the New Testament, and will end up destroying the gospel altogether if consistently followed through. I want to survey some of the many things mentioned in Ezekiel 40ff which requires us to see it describing a figurative temple, which I believe to be the revelation of Christ and His people (but that’s another article). The following are reasons why Ezekiel 40-48 cannot, in no wise, be taken for a literal, future, brick and mortar temple—

Sin Offerings

“In the vestibule of the gateway were two tables on this side and two tables on that side, on which to slay the burnt offering, the sin offering, and the trespass offering (Ezek. 40:39).” Also see Ezekiel 46. However, Hebrews 10:18 tells us, “Now where there is remission of [sins], there is no longer an offering for sin.” One could make the argument that the “sin offerings” described in Ezekiel 40 are not actually offered for sins, but are only typological. However, that’s exactly what the Old Testament sacrifices were—typological. Hebrews 10:18 is telling us that typological sacrifices no longer exist since the fulfillment of those sacrifices are found in Christ Jesus.

The Levitical Priesthood

“The chamber which faces north is for the priests who have charge of the altar; these are the sons of Zadok, from the sons of Levi, who come near the LORD to minister to Him (Ezek. 40:46).” The majority of the epistle to the Hebrews has thus far belaboured the superiority of Christ’s priesthood over the Levitical priesthood. And it tells us, “We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man (Heb. 8:1-2).” If Ezekiel 40ff were taken literally, then it follows the Levitical priesthood is to be reestablished, even though we have a better priest in Christ.

Animal Blood of Consecration

“You shall take some of its blood and put it on the four horns of the altar, on the four corners of the ledge, and on the rim around it; thus you shall cleanse it and make atonement for it (Ezek. 43:20).” Thus, the altar in the Ezeklian temple, if taken literally, is consecrated by animal blood, something Hebrews expressly tells us is but a copy of the heavenly things. Christ came, “Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption (Heb. 9:12).” Was His blood not enough?

Fleshly Temple Restrictions

“No foreigner, uncircumcised in heart or uncircumcised in flesh, shall enter My sanctuary, including any foreigner who is among the children of Israel (Ezek. 44:9).” To enter the temple sanctuary, circumcision in the flesh is required. But, according to Acts 15:10, James calles circumcision a “yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear.” And in v. 11, asserts that salvation will take place in the same manner for all who are in Christ, no matter Jew or Gentile. If some are circumcised and others are not, this being a gospel necessity for some people but not others, then salvation is different for some than it is for others, i.e. not in the same manner.

The Ceremonial Feast Days

“In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, you shall observe the Passover, a feast of seven days; unleavened bread shall be eaten. And on that day the prince shall prepare for himself and for all the people of the land a bull for a sin offering (Ezek. 45:21-22).” The feast days, however, in the New Covenant, are abolished, “So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or Sabbaths (Col. 2:16).” And, if one were to say, “It’s only the Gentiles who are not to be judged, but the Jews will still keep these ordinances as a matter of conscience,” then they deny what comes after this text, that the new man—which all who are in Christ have put on—is “where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all (Col. 3:11).”

The Old Testament Sabbath

“The gateway of the inner court that faces toward the east shall be shut the six working days; but on the Sabbath it shall be opened, and on the day of the New Moon it shall be opened (Ezek. 46:1).” The Sabbath has been changed in the New Covenant, “For the priesthood being changed, of necessity there is also a change in the law (Heb. 7:12).” But this Old Testament Sabbath, where the people work in order to rest, has been abolished as we learn in Colossians 2:16 and in Hebrews 4.

The Living Water

“And it shall be that every living thing that moves, wherever the rivers go, will live. There will be a very great multitude of fish, because these waters go there; for they will be healed, and everything will live wherever the river goes (Ezek. 47:9).” The living water which comes from the right side of the temple must be figurative. For Christ has declared Himself to be the living water, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water (Jn. 4:10).” And because the people of God are the temple of God, it is from their hearts the living water flows, “He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water (Jn. 7:38).” In John 4:13-14, Jesus says, “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.” How does one receive the living water? John 6:35 tells us, “He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.”

The King & His Throne

The King & His Throne

It was May 14, 1948, just a few years after the end of the war, when David Ben-Gurion declared Palestine to be an Israeli nation-state. Then U. S. President, Harry Truman, joined Ben-Gurion in recognizing Israel’s sovereignty. Since that time, discussion surrounding the biblical significance of the reconstitution of “Israel” has erupted. Trying to describe the extent to which this geo-political development has been shoved into biblical interpretation would perhaps be the understatement of the millennium (pun intended). Political Zionism has been fused with Christian theology in a sometimes unhealthy and, I would argue, an altogether wrong way.

The advent of the political nation of Israel spurred an immediate materialism in terms of what Jesus’ kingdom actually was/is. What do I mean? I mean that Christ’s kingdom, as well as His kingship, became nigh entirely visible, which meant that it could in no wise obtain at present. Christ is not yet king because He does not yet rule in Israel. Dwight Pentecost writes:

David’s son, the Lord Jesus Christ, must return to the earth, bodily and literally, in order to reign over David’s covenanted kingdom. The allegation that Christ is seated on the Father’s throne reigning over a spiritual kingdom, the church, simply does not fulfill the promises of the covenant … A literal earthly kingdom must be constituted over which the returned Messiah reigns (Things to Come, pp. 114,115).

For Pentecost, Christ has a non-literal (?) kingdom now, and will have a literal kingdom later. There is an implied reduction going on here between the Father’s kingdom, i.e. throne, on the one hand, and the Son’s (Davidic) kingdom on the other. And there is a distinction made in places like Revelation 3:21, “To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne.” Christ’s throne, it is imagined, will be the throne established in political Israel, and the Father’s throne is the heavenly throne.

Some Clarity

It is fair to say Christ’s throne and the Father’s throne are distinguishable along the lines Revelation 3:21 distinguishes them. I believe it is also fair to understand a future element in the throne of Christ. The promise to the saints, after all, is, “I will grant the overcomers to sit with Me on My throne.” But to relegate the throne of Christ to some material and geographical thing is, in my estimation, to devalue the concept. Moreover, to make the throne of Christ entirely future neglects other texts found in Scripture which speaks to Christ’s throne. For example, “To the Son He says, ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever; A scepter of righteousness is the scepter of your kingdom (Heb. 1:8).’” This is Christ’s throne being spoken of here. This is confirmed by looking at Psalm 45:6, 7, from whence Hebrews 1:8 is taken— “You love righteousness and hate wickedness; Therefore God, Your God, has anointed You With the oil of gladness more than Your companions.” This throne, scepter, and kingdom are each part of a coextensive unit which came as a result of Christ’s finished work. Christ was victorious at His first coming, “Therefore God, Your God, has anointed You With the oil of gladness more than your companions.”

In John 1:49, Nathaniel declares Jesus to be the King of Israel. And in 12:13, on Palm Sunday, Jesus is announced, “The King of Israel!” In Matthew 2:2, the Wise Men came, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” In Zechariah 9:9, we read, “your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, Lowly and riding on a donkey, A colt, the foal of a donkey.” This prophecy was fulfilled in Matthew 21, where Jesus is consciously declaring Himself to be King through His very intentional fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9. When the Pharisees told Him to rebuke the disciples for declaring His royalty, He responded, “I tell you that if these should keep silent, the stones would immediately cry out,” signifying His kingship over, not only Israel, but all creation (Rom. 4:13).

The Good Confession

There are several places where Christ’s past, present, and future kingship are asserted. Yet one of the most striking places, perhaps one of the places less thought of as a “kingship” text, is 1 Timothy 6:13, “I urge you in the sight of God who gives life to all things, and before Christ Jesus who witnessed the good confession before Pontius Pilate.” In v. 12, Timothy is said to have also confessed the good confession. It’s not immediately clear what these two confessions are. Assumedly, they are the same confession, or at least, what Timothy confessed was something first confessed by Christ. Timothy, then, followed in Christ’s footsteps by making this same confession.

Paul gives us a hint as to where to find this good confession. He says Jesus witnessed it “before Pontius Pilate.” And he hints at the confession’s identity in v. 15, “which He will manifest in His own time, He who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords.” Not only does Paul clearly understand Jesus as a King presently, and presently ruling, i.e. “only Potentate,” but he is also referencing a place wherein Jesus declared Himself to actually and presently be King. In John 18:37, we read:

Pilate therefore said to Him, “Are You a king then?” Jesus answered, “You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.”

What was the “good confession” Christ made before Pontius Pilate? It was nothing less than His kingship. In fact, Jesus goes further by saying, “For this cause I was born.” And, of course, this cause was declared in Luke 1:32 by the angel Gabriel, “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David.” It is stated once more in Acts 2:30, “Therefore, being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that of the fruit of his body, according to the flesh, He would raise up the Christ to sit on his throne.”

Conclusion

I am perfectly fine with understanding a future, or consummative significance to Christ’s inherited throne, i.e. the throne of David. But what many in dispensational circles have done is move any and all of Christ’s kingly reality into the future—to the harm of the text of Scripture I might add. Instead, I think we should understand Christ’s kingship as having been inaugurated at His first coming, especially with the fulfillment of His work. Yet, we await the consummation, or completion, of that kingship upon His return.

I also do not see the need to locate Christ’s kingly rule in a political nation established through carnal means and built up by the hands of men. In fact, I believe that degrades the glory of Christ, and it also misunderstands the function of typology, e.g. that found in 2 Samuel 7 and elsewhere. Christ does not have to possess the throne of His father David as David possessed it. In fact, if David and His throne were typological of Christ and His throne, and they were, then the type necessitates Christ actually inherit something other and greater than what David had. Just as Christ hasn’t merely merited a return to the garden state, but something greater, so too Christ has merited a greater throne toward which David’s throne in historical Israel could only look.

Slaying the Nephilim

Slaying the Nephilim

This is a part 2 of 2 in my miniseries on giants.

In the last post, I focused on the immediate or historical sense of Genesis 6:4. In this post, I will look at the redemptive nature of the giant theme, which only just begins in Genesis 6:4, and then make application to our present day situation as Christians. Before I begin, let me first answer the charge of an “allegorical” or “spiritual interpretation” of the text, which is bound to be leveled at this post by some—

There is a difference between an unbridled and undisciplined or subjective allegorical interpretation of the text, where any conclusion goes on the one hand; and a historical text which lends itself to a deeper meaning or fuller sense on the other. Typology is like the latter. A type is often a historical person which looks past itself to something other and greater, the antitype. It is, in that sense, a historical substance being used by God as an allegory to teach something other and greater than itself. The New Testament authors assumed this manifold sense of Scripture when engaging Old Testament texts such as Psalm 110, 2 Samuel 7:14, and Hosea 11:1—Hebrews 1 making heavy use of the former two, and Matthew 2:15 making use of the latter. The scope of this article will not allow me to delve into a full-orbed defense of things like the historical-grammatical hermeneutic or the sensus plenior (fuller sense) of the text. These things will largely be assumed henceforth.

The assumption which will drive the following work is as follows: Every text of the Old Testament is applicable to the New Testament believer. I take this to be the meaning of Paul’s maxim set forth as such, “For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope (Rom. 15:4).”

Suffice it to say, I’m not doing anything different than what the apostles did in their interpretive work. Nor am I deviating from the hermeneutic utilized by our Baptist forerunners. I only hope to be consistent with their method.

Recapitulation of Previous Article

So that no one is lost, and so my last article is rightly understood—in it, I took the position that the giants were a people group. The sons of God were men, perhaps from Cain’s seed. The daughters of men were probably descended from Seth’s righteous line. Some understand the sons of God who mated with the human women to be angelic beings. I argued against this on the basis of Genesis 1. Each living thing begets its kind according to the creation narrative. It, therefore, would be non-sensical to suggest angels could produce human offspring, which no doubt occurred, i.e. the men of renown. The sons of God “married” the daughters of men and produced the men of renown who took on the wicked properties of the giants who were then living.

Some other reasons the sons of God and the Nephilim must be human—angels, per Matthew 22 do not marry. Dr. Peter Gentry discards this reason on the basis that only angels “in heaven” are said to not marry. Restriction on marriage, therefore, does not apply to those angels who have left. However, he continues to be faced with the rule set down in Genesis 1. Even if fallen angels could procreate, they would only be able to do so according to their kind.

Some would opine angels, while not able to marry, can nevertheless procreate, much like animals procreate yet never marry. However, exclusively spiritual substances cannot, by definition, procreate. Procreation is germane to bodies, not spirits. To suggest spirits procreate would be to suggest spirits are embodied beings.

Tracing the Giant Theme

Genesis 6:4 is the only place the term Nephilim is used until we get to Numbers 13:33. It is no mystery that the giants and the men of renown—who eventually joined with them in their folly—played a causal role in the judgment of God through the great flood. It is, after all, v. 4 which sets up vv. 5-8, culminating in God’s announcement of judgment, “I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping thing and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them. (v. 7)” The giants were evil and God judged their wickedness, which apparently had spread to all mankind by Noah’s day.

As mentioned above, we once again encounter the giants in Numbers 13:33, where the same term is used, Nephilim. The scene is one of anticipation and fear. The Lord has just instructed Moses to send out spies to perform reconnaissance on the land of Canaan. “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the children of Israel; from each tribe of their fathers you shall send a man, every one a leader among them (Num. 13:2).” In v. 22, the text notes “the descendants of Anak, were there.” In v. 31, after the spies returned, and after Caleb expressed desire to press forward with the conquest, the spies respond, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we.” And then in v. 33, we see the reason for the hesitancy, “There we saw the giants (the descendants of Anak came from the giants); and we were like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight.”

The people of Anak were historically tall men and, at the time, inhabited Philistia, which is the homeland of the Philistines—what is now modern Palestine.[1] The connection between Anak, the giants, and Philistia lends itself to a further connection between the Nephilim and Goliath. His stature is described in 1 Samuel 17:4, “Then a champion came out from the armies of the Philistines named Goliath, from Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span.” Goliath was, no doubt, a Philistine. And though he is never explicitly called Nephilim, the connection is made naturally based on his nation of origin and his recorded stature. First Chronicles 20:6 makes yet another connection, though using the term Rapha for giant, instead of Nephilim, “Again there was war at Gath, where there was a man of great stature who had twenty-four fingers and toes, six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot; and he also was descended from the giants.”

Goliath, then, is a descendant of the Nephilim, or at least a descendant of the sons of God who procreated with the daughters of men in Genesis 6:4. The David/Goliath narrative is the climactic head of the giant theme in the Old Testament. The giants had been a problematic force for the people of God since the days of the flood. And here, represented by David, the people of God win a decisive battle against the tyrannical Philistines and their oppressive, secret weapon, a giant.

Moving from the Historical to the Fuller Sense

Now that we’ve seen some thematic development of the giants, it’s time to tie the giants in with the broader redemptive narrative. In accordance with the Romans 15:4 maxim, what do these giants mean for us? If the giant theme appears in Scripture for our redemptive benefit, what is that benefit?

The giants were obviously formidable opponents for Israel, and they would have occupied a significant space in the Israelite mind. This is probably part of the reason Moses, in Genesis 6:4, doesn’t pain himself specifying details about the Nephilim. His audience would have been well-acquainted with them. Israel’s familiarity with the giants is not a kindred one. The giants always played the role of a major obstacle, standing between the people and the consummation of covenant promise. This is most clearly seen in Numbers 13:33, with the spies’ fearful and hesitant reaction at the sight of the Nephilim. Every time the Nephilim are mentioned, which is admittedly few and far between, they represent a threat to the purposes of God. In Genesis 6:4, they are tyrannical instigators and were one of the reasons for the flood judgment. In Numbers 13:33, they stood between Israel and the attainment of the land of promise.

The giant as obstacles before God’s people becomes redemptively significant, because the historical development of Israel’s place within the overall biblical narrative lends itself to a typological association between herself and Christ. In Matthew 2:15, the apostle quotes a text about Israel in Hosea 11:1, but applies it directly to Jesus as He and his parents were to return from their flight to Egypt after the death of Herod (Matt. 2:13-15, 19-21). Other themes in Matthew tie Israel and Jesus together into a typological relationship—the mass genocide of infants, the temptation in the wilderness, and even the situational context of the Sermon on the Mount to name a few. These and other situations are situations Israel and Christ share.

Israel, because of sin, was unable to defeat her enemies. She failed to expel them from the land of promise. Thus, the people hoped for someone who would finally subdue their enemies. God had indeed promised to do so in places like Hosea 2:18, “Bow and sword of battle I will shatter from the earth, To make them lie down safely.” Notice in Hosea, the twofold promise of defeated enemies and subsequent peace has a global, not local, scope. Isaiah 2 and Ezekiel 39 contain similar divine promises to subdue Israel’s enemies, not to mention the promise of Messianic dominion given in Psalm 110. And as we know, this global achievement of peace is brought by Christ alone (Matt. 5:5; Is. 6:3).

The giants were key in the development of Israel’s obstacle between her and her rest, and though the giant theme itself becomes less of an explicit factor as the Old Testament progresses, it sets an early tone for Israel’s burden—defeat the giants, inhabit the land; fail to defeat the giants, fail to properly inhabit the land. As we know, because of Israel’s disobedience, while Nephilim are less mentioned later on in the Old Testament, Philistia is a constant adversary of Israel’s enjoyment of peace. The antagonism of Philistia is made plain in the narrative of David and Goliath.

Here, another obvious typological relationship arises. Christ is the other and greater David. In Ezekiel 37, the renewed and restored kingdom of David is prophesied. “My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd; and they will walk in My ordinances and keep My statutes and observe them (v. 24).” We know this king isn’t going to be the literal David, because the true king is the Lord Jesus Christ, and this becomes all the more clear in the New Testament (Rev. 19:19). Christ is called the only sovereign in 1 Timothy 6:15. This is further strengthened by the eternality of “David’s” future rule. “They will live on the land that I gave to Jacob My servant, in which your fathers lived; and they will live on it, they, and their sons and their sons’ sons, forever; and David My servant will be their prince forever (Ezek. 37:25).”

Israel is a type of Christ. David is a type of Christ. Christ is the other and greater version of both. But what about the giants? Is it possible to make an appropriate typological connection between them and a more perennial adversary such as sin or death? I think so. Remember, the land promise entailed rest from enemies, “The LORD gave them rest all around, according to all that He had sworn to their fathers (Jos. 21:44).” But the rest from temporal, political foes only looked forward to an eternal rest from the perennial adversaries of sin, death, and Satan. This becomes abundantly clear in Hebrews 4, where true rest is fulfilled in Christ, “For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His (Heb. 4:10).”

There is then a direct typological connection between the penultimate giants, Philistines, etc., and the ultimate, perennial enemies of sin, death, and devil. In the earlier conquest narrative, giants were the preeminent obstacles in attaining a full-fledged enjoyment of the land rest, itself being only typical. So too, sin, death, and the devil must be defeated if God’s people are to enter ultimate and eternal rest. Giants and the Philistines would eventually give way to other adversaries that would essentially share the same typological purpose, to point toward the real enemy of sin and its birthchild, death (Jas. 1:15).

Conclusion

All things considered, there is ample application to be made from the historical account of giants. They were enemies of God’s people and enemies of God Himself. The people of God today have a similar yet more dreadful enemy which, unlike the giants of old, cannot be defeated by the sword. These ultimate and seemingly-invincible giants must be destroyed by God the Father, through the death of God the Son, and the application of that death by the ministry of God the Spirit.

Therefore, giants remain to this day. But they are even stronger than the descendants of Anak. We need someone to go before us and sign their death certificates. And Christ has done just that. Now, having grace sealed to us in the blood of Christ and continually poured out upon us by the Spirit, we can slay these giants (Rom. 8:13). But we do not slay them by the conventional means of warfare, we slay them through the due use of means appointed for the people of God within the context of the local church (Acts 2:42). We fight them and claim victory by Word and Spirit. And we shall not be put to shame. For Christ has inaugurated the death of death in His death, and we now look forward to the consummation of that decisive victory, which will ultimately prevail in the resurrection of the saints.

Resources

[1] Brown, F., Driver, S. R., & Briggs, C. A. (1977). Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (p. 814). Oxford: Clarendon Press.