THE EMPTIED TEMPLE Ezekiel 8–11
“Then the glory of the Lord departed from over the threshold of the temple and stopped above the cherubim” (Ezek. 10:18).No church building, however spectacular, has any value at all unless God’s presence is there. Churches, like Judah’s temple, are vacant unless the Lord is honored, and His presence felt there.
Definition of Key Terms
The Hebrew word translated “glory” means “heavy” or “weighty.” Figuratively it suggests impressiveness: the social weight of a rich man, or the symbols of a ruler’s majesty, are both identified as “glory.” When the Old Testament speaks of the “glory of God” the term is typically linked with powerful images. God is seen in blazing splendor. Raw power and burning holiness are impressed on those permitted to glimpse His revelations of His essential nature. But the “glory of God” is most of all associated with God’s intrusions into our world of space and time. The fabric of the universe is torn, and for a moment God’s elemental power is seen—as lightning flashing at Sinai, in the cloudy-fiery pillar that guided Israel in the wilderness, as an unknown brilliance settling down on the tabernacle as God took up unique residence among His Old Testament people (cf. Ex. 29:43). It is this, the unique presence of God which originally filled Solomon’s temple and then located itself in the holy of holies, the temple’s inner room (2 Chron. 7:1–3), that Ezekiel describes in these chapters. There is a tragic significance in Ezekiel’s vision of the glory of God leaving the temple. Those who had looked to that consecrated building for protection would from now on depend on what was merely an empty shell. With the glory of God withdrawn, the temple was nothing more than gilded stone, stripped of meaning and power.
Ezekiel saw a vision of idolatry in the Jerusalem temple itself (8:1–18). In the vision he witnessed the death of the idolaters (9:1–11) and the gradual withdrawal of God’s glory from the temple (10:1–22). The people inhabiting Jerusalem would be punished (11:1–15), yet in the future the exiles’ hearts would be changed, and they would be restored to their land (vv. 16–25).
Understanding the Text
“The elders of Judah were sitting before me” Ezek. 8:1–4. The vision reported in these chapters was given just 14 months after Ezekiel’s call. In that time he had been recognized as a prophet, so that the elders of the exiled Jewish community came to consult with him. There is no indication they welcomed his words, or that they responded. But they knew that a prophet was among them. As a new convert in the Navy, I began to talk to other sailors about the Lord. One day our commanding officer was holding a court martial, but couldn’t find a Bible to swear in witnesses. Immediately one of the officers said, “Go see Richards. He’ll have a Bible at his desk.” The earnest Christian, like Ezekiel, may not win converts immediately. But how quickly others realize that God has placed a spokesman among them! “Do you see what they are doing?” Ezek. 8:5–18 While the elders of Judah were present Ezekiel was transported to Jerusalem in a vision, where he observed worship in the temple. The things he witnessed demonstrated the complete religious corruption of the people, and served as the basis of God’s announcement that “I will deal with them in anger; I will not look on them with pity or spare them” (v. 18). An idol and altar to a pagan deity had been erected within the temple court at the north gate (vv. 5–6). This gate led to the royal palace, and so suggests the active participation of the king in pagan rites. Within one of the temple storerooms some 70 of Judah’s elders were gathered to worship images of animals (vv. 7–13). This was not an official group, like the Sanhedrin. Yet it’s very size, and the fact that it was composed of acknowledged leaders who also practiced idolatry in the privacy of their homes (v. 12), suggests how pervasive the apostasy in Judah had become. Ezekiel also saw women “mourning for Tammuz” (vv. 14–15). Tammuz was a Summerian agricultural deity, who “died” with winter and “came alive” again each spring, and was the forerunner of a host of pagan nature gods. Both mourning and fertility rituals were associated with the worship of Tammuz. Finally Ezekiel was shown 25 men in the temple’s inner court worshiping the sun (vv. 16–18). What is so significant about this? First, their backs were to the temple. It was the practice in Judaism to pray toward the temple, the site of the Divine Presence. Second, being in the inner court marks these men off as priests and Levites, who alone would have had access to its confines! Not just the royal house, not just the elders, not just the women, but the very religious leaders of Judah were corrupt, practicing idolatry in Judah’s only and most holy shrine. Yet what strikes us most as we read the chapter is that as Ezekiel was carried toward the Holy City and its temple, he noted that “the glory of the God of Israel” was still there! (v. 4) Despite every provocation, God had not yet abandoned His people. God is so gracious to us. He continues to exercise kindness long after we deserve punishment. Yet even as gracious a God as ours cannot be impudently treated with contempt forever. God will judge when human actions force Him to deal with our sins. “Those who grieve and lament” Ezek. 9:1–11. Ezekiel saw a mark placed on all in Jerusalem who had a heart for God, and grieved over the spiritual condition in Judah. In his vision Ezekiel saw the rest of the population slaughtered. The bloodshed was so great that Ezekiel despaired of any surviving. Two thoughts are of note here. First, the mark placed on true believers reminds us that God is able to care for His own even when there is devastation all around. Second, God told the destroying angels, “Begin at My sanctuary” (v. 6). Christianity is not to be used as a cloak for sin. Those who misuse religion for personal gain or merit will receive greater condemnation. “The radiance of the glory of the Lord” Ezek. 10:1–22. In his vision Ezekiel saw the visible glory of the Lord, which rested as in his earlier vision on a vehicle propelled by guardian angels, here identified as cherubim. As Ezekiel watched, the glory of God rose from the temple and moved beyond its threshold, preparing to leave the city itself (cf. 11:23). As it departed, burning coals from its red-hot center were scattered over Jerusalem. Hot coals, representing divine judgment, are frequently found in apocalyptic passages of Scripture that describe history’s end (see Rev. 8–9). Utter devastation is a biblical mark of God’s judgment, a reminder that a day of recompense awaits all who refuse to heed or to worship the Lord. “Leaders of the people” Ezek. 11:1–12. The 25 men described in this chapter represent the aristocracy, which served as Judah’s leaders. Comparison with Jeremiah 37 shows that even King Zedekiah lacked the power to overrule their political decisions. While their comment in Ezekiel 11:3 is obscure, it’s best to understand it as a consensus for war rather than peace, and an arrogant affirmation that they themselves are the worthy members of the nation (the “meat”) and the exiles merely offal. They say this despite the fact that Jeremiah had faithfully spoken God’s word in Jerusalem and counseled surrender to Babylon rather than resistance! Through Ezekiel God announced that those Jews the leaders had wickedly slain were the true worthy members of the nation (v. 7). In Judah of that day, the “only good Jew was a dead Jew!” But, God told Ezekiel that since the leaders liked to think of themselves as Judah’s “flesh,” He would humor them. He would make Jerusalem a pot, and as the fires of judgment burned around her, they—the flesh within the caldron of judgment—could seethe in anguish! A Robert Burns poem describes a woman sitting proudly in church, head held high, so all can see her new bonnet. Burns wryly observes that what the congregation noted was a louse, clinging to one of its bright ribbons. “O that God the gift would ge [give] us,” the poem concludes, “to see ourselves as others see us.” Burns’ poem stops just short of the point made by Ezekiel. The ultimate gift is to see ourselves as God sees us! Stripped of pretense, stripped of self-deceit and shared delusions, we, like the people of Jerusalem, need to realize the true nature of what we are, and what we do. Like the leaders of Judah, some people today tell each other, “We are the flesh.” They insist on protection for alternate lifestyles in the name of tolerance; they wrap media immorality in the mantle of free speech; and they accuse those calling for public standards of decency of censorship. And then arrogantly they tell one another, “We are the flesh.” What they fail to do is to see themselves as God sees them. And what they fail to realize is that they too will be placed in the caldron of divine judgment. “As I was prophesying, Pelatiah . . . died” Ezek. 11:13. Ezekiel apparently described his visions out loud as he experienced them. As he spoke in Babylon Pelatiah, in Jerusalem, fell dead. The event unnerved Ezekiel, and he cried out, asking if the remnant of Judah would be completely destroyed. The death of Pelatiah served another purpose besides drawing out Ezekiel’s anguished query. Later, when word arrived from Jerusalem that Pelatiah had died, the community in exile would realize it happened at the exact moment it was observed by the prophet. Ezekiel’s message would thus be authenticated as a true vision from the Lord. “I will . . . give them a heart of flesh” Ezek. 11:16–25. The heart of flesh is contrasted with a heart of stone. The one is responsive, the other unresponsive. The ultimate and only solution to Judah’s problem was inner transformation. And God, whose supreme attribute is grace, would give the remnant of His people a new heart despite their centuries-old tradition of straying from His ways. But all this lay in the distant future. Ezekiel was jolted back to his present by a final vision of the glory of God, going up from within the city, and hesitating above the mountains to the east, where the coming devastation of Jerusalem might be easily viewed.
You Will Know(Ezek. 10–11)
Devotionals are supposed to be warm and fuzzy. At least, I always thought so. There’s supposed to be some positive bit of Scripture at the top, then a happy little story, followed by a one or two-line prayer. We read them, feel good, and then can go on our way complacent because we’ve shared a little time with God and received our daily spiritual shot in the arm. The trouble is, so much of Scripture just isn’t warm and fuzzy. It doesn’t even make us feel good, much less complacent. Look at these chapters of Ezekiel, for instance. Chapter 10 describes the glory of God, His vital presence, departing from the temple. And the people of Judah didn’t even know! They went to the temple, worshiped at what was now just a heap of polished stones, and never realized that God wasn’t around anymore. Now, what kind of fodder is that for a devotional? Who wants to be warned to watch out for superficiality in religion? Who wants to be challenged to examine whether or not their own practices are merely going through motions that have no impact on their relationship with God at all? The next chapter is even worse! Who wants to be told that what he or she thinks of himself, and what others think, is meaningless? Who wants to be reminded that what God thinks of him is all that counts? And who wants to be warned that, if her opinion is way off base, and she is unwilling to change, God’s judgment will strip away all illusions and leave her crushed and exposed? Those words of threat and warning, “You will know [then] that I am the Lord,” simply aren’t the kind of words you expect to find in a devotional book! No warm fuzzies in them! Only a certain gruesome chill. Perhaps though it would be better if our devotionals featured fewer fuzzies and, like Scripture itself, called us to confront the truly critical issues of life. That’s what these chapters of Ezekiel do. They confront us, and make demands. Is God real in your life? Is He really there, or are you fooling yourself going through empty rituals in great, empty rooms. And, are you honest with yourself? Do you see yourself as God does, and evaluate your acts by His standards of love and goodness? Not many warm fuzzies in that, are there? Of course there might be something even more important. There might be a real meeting with God.
Use devotions to explore the whole counsel of God, and to expose yourself to God.