Wednesday, February 03, 2021

Ezekiel and the Future of Palestine

To whom does Palestine really belong?

The student of history encounters arguments for both sides, most of which transparently serve the agendas of their writers and pass themselves off as factual while trading largely on sentiment. But any careful reader of scripture understands that the Jewish claim to the land of Palestine goes back a whole lot further than May 15, 1948.

Having been unilaterally gifted the land then called Canaan via God’s covenant with their forefather Abraham around 2000 BC, Israel has spent more time in exile from the land of promise than actually living there.

But beginning with the words, “Now I will restore the fortunes of Jacob and have mercy on the whole house of Israel,” the prophet Ezekiel takes up the subject of the restoration of Israel to the land of Canaan and the worship of Jehovah, a mind-boggling 9-1/2 chapters of holy writ.

This is no simplistic, easily dismissed fantasy from a would-be nationalist hero. Ezekiel was a draftsman, an architect, a politician, a theologian, a mystic and a worldbuilder unequaled in human history. That, or else the Holy Spirit simply told him things nobody could otherwise know.

I favor the second option. Like you couldn’t guess.

What Ezekiel Saw

To give us some idea what we’re dealing with here, a short summary of what Ezekiel saw when he peered into Israel’s future:
  1. A third temple, long before the second temple had even been built, specified down to its last architectural detail (Ezekiel 40:1–43:12).
  2. Rules for the new priesthood (Ezekiel 43:13–44:31).
  3. The divisions of the holy precincts of future Israel, and the sacrificial rules for the prince thereof (Ezekiel 45:1–46:24).
  4. The distribution of the land geographically between the twelve tribes, the priesthood and the prince (Ezekiel 47:1–48:29).
  5. The twelve gates of the new capital city, and their names (Ezekiel 48:30-35).
Admittedly there are plenty of scholars who have broken that down better than I have, many of them orthodox Jews. Amazingly, they actually care about this stuff while Christians remain largely indifferent.

The modern reader has at least five options for coming to grips with these last few prophetic chapters of Ezekiel. Here are a few of the more popular choices for your consideration:

1.  Disbelieve Them

This is the preferred strategy of most of the modern world, at least the portion of it that is aware God made promises to his people through Ezekiel. Most of those who do know this dismiss them as mere patriotic Jewish propaganda.

For example, the so-called “higher” critics maintain the book of Ezekiel was written by a number of different men possibly as late as 100 years before the coming of the Christ, and in Jerusalem rather than in exile. The rationale for this is that they deem Ezekiel too “nationalistic” to have been an exile. Such is the logic of secular criticism.

Following this theory, presumably Ezekiel and his co-writers conspired to backdate a “prophecy” to inspire in their fellow Jews a false hope of relief from oppression, perhaps with the intent of fomenting insurrection against the great powers of the day (which would have been different powers, depending on the critic and the arbitrary date they have assigned to the book of Ezekiel).

The higher critics, from what I have seen, are neither consistent nor terribly logical. Their modus operandi seems to be to use literary analysis to formulate whatever historical theories serve their agendas, however mutually contradictory such theories may be. Basically, throw mud at the wall and hope something sticks.

Theirs is one way to approach the final chapters of Ezekiel. Not a great way, but it’s certainly one way.

2.  Ignore Them

A significant subset of Christians does nothing whatsoever with these chapters. If you mention the words “millennial temple” they look at you in perplexity. Attempts to summarize for them what these chapters contain produce only greater confusion, and the confession that “My pastor has never preached from that book.” At this point it is probably fruitless to inquire whether your Christian friend has bothered to read it for himself; the answer is evident.

A second subset of Christians has read or heard these chapters preached on, but has concluded the contents are simply too esoteric, irrelevant to their lives or otherwise inconsequential to bother with.

3.  Claim They Have Been Fulfilled Already

Some believers take these chapters literally but lightly, suggesting this part of Ezekiel’s prophecy has already been fulfilled historically. The problem is that the most cursory study demonstrates this to be impossible, the evidence being that even the United Church comes down on the right side of the question. The Beyond Today online commentary on Ezekiel says this:
“The historical fulfillments do not fit the details of the passage. The temples of Solomon, Zerubbabel, or Herod do not share the design and dimensions of the temple described in Ezekiel 40-42. The worship procedure set forth in chapters 43-46, though Mosaic in nature, has not been followed in history in exactly the manner described in these chapters. The river that flows forth from the temple in 47:1-12 has never flowed from any of the three historical temples mentioned above. The only comparisons to this river are seen in Genesis 2:8-14 and Revelation 22:1-2 (cf. Isa 35:6-7; Joel 3:18; Zech 14:8). The geographical dimensions and tribal allotments of the land are certainly not feasible today, nor have they ever been followed in times past. Geographical changes will be necessary prior to the fulfillment of chapters 45, 47-48 [of Ezekiel]. Therefore one would not look to historical (past or present) fulfillments of these chapters but to the future.”
In short, no serious student of Ezekiel takes this position — at least, not for long.

4.  Spiritualize Them

This is tough sledding, but a large portion of Christendom takes this interpretive tack. Having decided the blessings promised to Israel have been forfeited by that nation and subsequently fulfilled spiritually in the Church, the responsibility devolves upon those who believe such things to explain what it is these chapters mean to them. Few are quick to leap at the opportunity.

In theory, spiritualizing things should not be particularly tough. We look, for instance, at the example of the Lord’s parable of the seed and find that “a sower went out to sow”. Later, the Lord explains to his disciples that the seed sown is “the word of the kingdom”. That’s a very simple, clear allegory. Something literal is used to illustrate spiritual truth to make it more understandable.

Finding a spiritual meaning ought to be easy (or at least easier) when, as in the case of many of the Lord’s parables, the passage in question contains five to ten specific elements in need of explanation (though it should be noted that the majority of the Lord’s original audience failed even at this comparatively simple task of assigning one-to-one correspondence). Unfortunately, attempting the same thing with longer passages requires more ingenuity and necessitates making a few things up as you go along. But spiritualizing chapter after chapter of very specific measurements, details and instructions is the task of decades, perhaps lifetimes. Ezekiel’s final chapters defy such interpretation.

Rusty Sword sums up the problems with the allegorical view of these chapters:
“This view has much set against it. First, it is entirely too subjective. There is really no means of validating the interpretation. Second, this interpretation makes the passage irrelevant for Ezekiel and his contemporaries. Why bother to tell them a thing like this when they are longing to return to their land and be out from under the Babylonian yoke? Third, if this passage is symbolic, some of the important features of Christianity, such as the atonement and Christ’s high-priestly intercession, are left out.

This interpretation has invited many biting remarks, and Kelly’s is one of the most classic; ‘There is no real exposition: what is in their remarks can scarcely have satisfied even their own minds.’ ”
While it may be the most widely held, the allegorical view of Ezekiel 40-48 is so hard to explain clearly and consistently that few attempt it in any detail. One notable exception is Matthew Henry, whose gloriously elaborate exposition of Ezekiel’s vision as a “gospel temple” offers such hard-won chestnuts as “The chambers were very many; for in our Father’s house there are many mansions” and “Here were windows to the little chambers, and windows to the posts and arches (that is, to the cloisters below), and windows round about, to signify the light from heaven with which the church is illuminated”, and my personal favorite, “[The engraven palm trees] likewise intimate[s] the saints’ victory and triumph over their spiritual enemies; they have palms in their hands; but lest they should drop these, or have them snatched out of their hands, they are here engraven upon the posts of the temple as perpetual monuments of their honour.”

It is a worthy effort and often poetic to boot, but nine chapters wears thin quickly and many a reader is left wondering if everything (or anything) Henry fancies about the church is really there in the text to be found. Henry’s work is the interpretive equivalent of the square peg being insistently mashed into the round hole.

Such a view of Ezekiel is the natural product of an internalized conviction that everything in scripture is about us; the modern, Christian readers. The apostle Paul, I think, would disagree.

In any case, others who interpret these chapters symbolically do not follow the Henry line and disagree as to what is symbolized generally as well as specifically:
“Some writers have seen in those chapters a ‘gospel temple, erected by Jesus and the apostles’. Some others have claimed that they refer to ‘the Christian church in its earthly glory and blessing’. Then, others have claimed that Ezekiel 40–48 ‘symbolically describes the kingdom of God in its final form.’ ”
A theological system that yields less-than-satisfying interpretations of a few verses of scripture may be substantially correct and merely require a tweak or two in the ‘uncontested assumption’ department. But a theological system that cannot offer a satisfying explanation for more than nine chapters of scripture is built on a faulty foundation and needs wholesale revision.

5.  Take Them Literally

For these reasons and others, it seems necessary for Christians to adopt another view of these chapters, one that is considerably more literal and admits the possibility of future blessing for Israel, something of which all the prophets consistently speak. I will have more to say on this subject in an upcoming post, as the word “literal” is much misunderstood.

As for the political question, we can debate until we are blue in the face whether the events following WWII justified granting Jews a homeland in Palestine, but that ship has sailed long ago. Whether or not a Christian believes that the Jew has a moral right to be in the historical land of Israel today, any unprejudiced reading of the last nine chapters of Ezekiel demands that we acknowledge he will most assuredly be there one day, with all the right in the world. God has promised it.

And as I have pointed out elsewhere, if the rate at which Jews are returning to Israel in the face of worldwide anti-Semitism continues, that day may be very soon indeed.

1 comment :

  1. Nice summary Tom - prior to 1948, the views that God's promises to Israel should be spiritualized or that they were already fulfilled seemed more tenable and defensible than the literal understanding of Ezekiel - indeed, they seemed the ONLY realistic possibilities. Poor Matthew Henry wrote his explanations hundreds of years ago and could not understand either the coming World Wars, the rise of Zionism or the final establishment of a Jewish state in the Promised Land. The current undeniable existence (despite Iran's best efforts) of a literal Israel really sounded the death knell for symbolic or historic interpretation of these passages - at least for most rational and objective observers.