Bible Commentary: Ezekiel 40

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Ezekiel 40

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Ezekiel's Detailed Vision of the Future

Fourteen years have passed since Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed (verse 1). But beginning with chapter 40, Ezekiel relates a vision of a future temple, city and nation, which must have given hope to those in captivity. Indeed, with the Jerusalem temple in ashes, Ezekiel does not only say there will be a new one.

He gives extraordinary details of a coming temple complex and a new arrangement of the Holy Land that was quite different than what they knew from the past.This no doubt gave those who heard it great confidence in the truth of it—for how could Ezekiel have come up with all this on his own?

Gateways of the Outer Court Ground Level Floor
Gateways of the Outer Court


The Millennial Temple Complex As Shown To
The Millennial Temple Comple


An Artist's Impression of the Millennial Temple
3D Rendering of Millennial Temple Complex


Some have argued for a historical fulfillment of this passage, either through the reconstructed temple by Zerubbabel after the ancient Jewish return from Babylonian captivity or through Herod's later expansion on this second temple. Others see the prophecy as an allegorical representation of God's spiritual temple, His Church. And there are other ideas. The Expositor's Bible Commentary has this to say on the matter:

"These chapters have been interpreted as referring to Solomon's temple, the temple of Zerubabbel (either real or proposed), Herod's temple, or a future temple in the Millennium or in the eternal state. Some, having difficulty understanding the passage when taken literally, interpret the section allegorically as teaching about the church and its earthly blessings and glories, while others understand the passage to symbolize the reality of the heavenly temple where Christ ministers today.

"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.

"The figurative or 'spiritualizing' interpretative approach does not seem to solve any of the problems of Ezekiel 40-48; it tends to create new ones. When the interpreter abandons a normal [literal interpretation] because the passage does not seem to make sense taken that way and opts for an interpretative procedure by which he can allegorize, symbolize, or 'spiritualize,' the interpretations become subjective. Different aspects of a passage mean whatever the interpreter desires. There are no governing interpretative principles [in that case] except the interpreter's mind (though there is appeal to the...[New Testament's revelation of spiritual meaning behind many facets of the Old Testament]). Even apocalyptic visions such as found in these chapters [at the end of Ezekiel] require a normal [literal method of interpretation]. To interpret these chapters in any manner other than a normal, literal approach would appear to contradict the interpretative guide in the vision who warns Ezekiel that he is to write down all the minute details concerning the plan for the temple and its regulations so that these details might be considered carefully and followed in every aspect (40:4; 43:10-11; 44:5; cf. Exod 25:9; 1 Chronicles 28:19). Therefore a figurative approach does not adequately treat the issues of Ezekiel 40-48.

"In order to determine the general time-frame of these chapters, they will be examined in light of the development and flow of Ezekiel's argument in the entire book. He has shown the presence of God's glory in the historical Jerusalem temple and its departure from that temple because of Israel's sin of breaking the Mosaic covenant. The Fall of Jerusalem and the Captivity in Babylon were the consequence (chs. 4-24). After declaring how the nations would also be judged (25:1-33:20), Ezekiel encouraged the Jewish captives through six...messages of hope (33:21-39:29). In these he informed them that the Messiah would restore them to their Promised Land in the future and become a true shepherd to them. They would be cleansed and all their covenants would be fulfilled. Even in the end times, after the land prospers and Israel dwells securely in it, some will try to take the Promised Land away from Israel and profane the Lord's name; but the Lord will not permit it (chs. 38-39). It would seem logical, therefore, that Ezekiel would conclude the logical and chronological development of his prophecy by describing the messianic kingdom and the return of God's glory to govern his people (chs. 40-48) rather than suddenly reverting back to some historical period, whether immediately following the Captivity or during Herod's temple, or to describe an idealistic temple.

"Ezekiel appears to have been contrasting the past and contemporary desecration of the temple and its regulations with the future holiness and righteousness of the temple and its functions. Ezekiel also used this format in chapters 33-39. The correct fixture procedure would bring shame and conviction on Ezekiel's contemporaries (43:6-12; 44:5-16; 45:9-12). This would again point to a future fulfillment of these chapters.

"God's glory is a most important feature of Ezekiel's prophecy. The return of God's glory to the new temple in 43:1-12 is the climax of the book. The context implies that this could only occur after Israel has been restored to her Promised Land and cleansed. The stress is on holiness. Holiness had not characterized Israel as a people heretofore; and, according to Ezekiel 36, Israel would not be a holy people in accord with God's standard till after they had been restored to the Promised Land and cleansed in the Messianic Age. When God's glory returns, it will remain in Israel's midst forever (43:6-7). The development of this unifying factor in Ezekiel's prophecy would argue strongly for a future fulfillment of chapters 40-48.

"Finally, the entire context and argument of the Scriptures concerning God's outworking of his redemptive plan in history would seem to place these chapters and the aspects mentioned above in the time of the consummation of all history. This is perhaps best seen in the river of life that flows from the temple to bring healing to the land (47:1-12). This concept is first seen in Genesis 2:8-14 in the Garden of Eden, the perfect environment of God's holiness. With sin, this garden and its river were removed. When God concludes his redemptive program and brings full salvation to mankind with eternal life through the passion of Jesus Christ his Son, it is most appropriate that the river of eternal life would again flow to demonstrate full healing on the earth. This conclusion to the full circle of God's redemptive program is also shown in Revelation 22:1-6 in God's description of the eternal state. Such is also conveyed by other O[ld] T[estament] prophets (cf. Isa 35:5-6; Joel 3:18; Zech 14:8).

"Therefore, the context and argument of the Book of Ezekiel as well as the development of God's redemptive program argue strongly for a future fulfillment of the events of Ezekiel 40-48 in the end times" (introductory notes on chapters 40-48).

Expositor's next takes up the issue of whether the vision is of the 1,000-year reign of Christ (the Millennium) or the eternal state beyond it. As it explains, the obvious differences between the descriptions in Ezekiel and those of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21-22 make it clear that Ezekiel's vision is of Jerusalem and the Promised Land during the Millennium.

Many have great difficulty with the concept of a sacrificial system being reinstituted in the future. The book of Hebrews explains regarding the Old Testament system that "in those sacrifices there is [only] a reminder of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins" (10:4). Rather, Jesus Christ has "once...appeared to put away sins by the sacrifice of Himself" and "we have been sacrificed through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all" (9:26; 10:10). Israel's ritual system, we are told, "was symbolic for the present time...imposed until the time of reformation" (9:9)—meaning the Church age. This is why many try to interpret these chapters at the end of Ezekiel allegorically.

Expositor's notes: "The writer of Hebrews goes on to say that where sins have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin. Understood in the context of Hebrews described above, there is no longer the need for the picture lessons and reminders now that the reality of Christ's efficacious blood sacrifice has been offered once and for all. No other efficacious sacrifice could be offered because only Christ's sacrifice of himself is efficacious. However, the writer of Hebrews does not declare that pictorial sacrifices and festivals absolutely can no longer be observed as reminders and picture lessons of what Christ did after his singularly efficacious sacrifice has been completed. Since the sacrifices and festivals in the O[ld] T[estament] system were only pictures, they could never conflict with the sacrifice of the Messiah. They never were and never could be efficacious. Likewise, the sacrifices in the millennial system described by Ezekiel are only picture lessons and reminders of the sin of man and of the only efficacious sacrifice for sin once and for all made by Christ. The millennial sacrifices will be both reminders to believers in millennial worship and picture lessons to unbelievers born in the Millennium. (These 'unbelievers' could be born from the Jews who enter the Millennium from the tribulation period.) On the basis of the O[ld] T[estament] role of the sacrifices and the argument of the writer of Hebrews, it does not appear that the pictorial sacrifices of the Mosaic system nor the memorial sacrifices of the millennial worship conflict with the finished and complete work of Jesus' sacrifice for all sins once and for all on the cross. Consequently, the sacrifices in the millennial sacrificial system of Ezekiel appear to be only memorials of Christ's finished work and pictorial reminders that mankind by nature is sinful and in need of redemption from sin. Not only is this view substantiated by comparison with the Mosaic covenant in which the sacrifices were picture lessons and types, but it is also confirmed by the writer of Hebrews as observed above" (emphasis added).

Today, Christians can and should gain a great deal of insight into the reconciling and saving work of Jesus Christ through studying the Old Testament tabernacle and temple and its sacrificial system. Yet that insight is certainly limited by having to construct in mental pictures, based on complex and detailed passages, what it was like. Just imagine the establishment of a living, functioning model at the world's capital. What a wonderful teaching tool this will provide for the Israelites living in the Promised Land and, as there will likely still be mass communications at that time, for all mankind.

The Millennial Temple Complex

Ezekiel's vision was received on the tenth day of the first month. "If it is correct to designate the month as Nisan [the first month on the religious calendar], then this apocalyptic vision would have been received on the tenth day of Nisan, the very day the people may have begun to prepare for the Passover four days later. Whether they actually observed the Passover or not in exile, surely they would be contemplating Israel's redemption out of Egypt and the creation of their nation. This vision, then, would be an encouragement that the Lord would complete his purposes for the nation in the messianic kingdom" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on verse 1-4).

We then get into the specifics of what Ezekiel saw. The details often make the reading of this section tedious and incomprehensible. Also, there is a great deal of dispute about what all of the measurements are, and what they refer to. Nevertheless, with the information provided here and historical details we have of the past Jerusalem temples, we can get a good idea of what the magnificent temple to be built at the return of Jesus Christ will probably look like.

Ezekiel is first taken to a "very high mountain" (verse 2), perhaps signifying the nation of Israel in a figurative sense, as it will be the chief nation of the Millennium. It could also represent the Kingdom of God, the ultimate peak of which will be the heavenly "mount of the congregation in the farthest sides of the north" (Isaiah 14:13)—for despite the fact that Jesus Christ will rule from the earthly Jerusalem over all nations, heaven will, during the Millennium, remain the seat of God the Father and thus the pinnacle of the Kingdom. In any case, the prophet is able to see on the southern part of this mountain what appears to him to be something like a city. Indeed, when we reconstruct the temple complex according to the measurements given, this is just what it looks like. Ezekiel was probably familiar with the city of Babylon with its thick walls and gates, and he probably found some similarity. Yet as a future city, we could perhaps expect some things Ezekiel saw to be more like one of our modern cities than what he himself was accustomed to.

The complex of buildings occupies a square, 500 cubits on each side, covering about 25 acres. Carefully arranged within the complex are variously sized open courtyards surrounded by buildings, many of which are several stories tall. A number of "towers" can be seen (see Psalm 48:13). One structure in the middle of the complex apparently reaches to the height of a modern 25-story building. And surrounding the square of buildings there is a large open parkland that is enclosed by a wall, defining the outer perimeter of the grounds of this "city."

There is some confusion as to exactly where the millennial temple complex will be located. The question centers on the meaning of Zion or Mount Zion in other passages. The Bible elsewhere makes it clear that Jesus Christ will reign from Zion (Psalm 132:13-14; Isaiah 2:3; 8:18; 18:7; Micah 4:2, 7). Zion was the area of David's Jerusalem. The Temple Mount, a higher hill just north of the City of David where Solomon's and the later temple complexes sat, is Mount Moriah (2 Chronicles 3:1). When Solomon's temple was built, the Ark of the Covenant was brought up to the Temple Mount from “the city of David, which is Zion" (1 Kings 8:1).

This has led some to conclude that Zion is restricted to the area of David's city. If that is the case, then the millennial temple will be located here, south of the present Temple Mount. This southern area, however, is a rather narrow hilltop with higher hills surrounding it, so the topography of the area would have to be drastically altered. This could well be as Zion is to be exalted and built up (see Isaiah 2:2; 40:9; Micah 4:1; Psalm 102:16). Indeed, the whole area around Jerusalem is going to become a plain (Zechariah 14:10). Why might the temple be moved? Perhaps to symbolize that God's throne is no longer high above Jerusalem in a heavenly place but has rather come down to the earthly capital—where sits the throne of David that Jesus will assume.

But that's only if the temple really is to be moved. It could well be that Zion applies to all of Jerusalem. Indeed, the name Jerusalem originally applied to the City of David. The Temple Mount was then incorporated into Jerusalem. If Zion was simply synonymous with Jerusalem, then the Temple Mount would have been part of Zion. The city later came to encompass a larger area to the west, which all became part of Jerusalem—and perhaps of Zion. Today, the hill to the west of David's city is referred to as Zion. Yet it seems quite possible that the biblical designation of Zion applies to the entire city of Jerusalem. Indeed, in Isaiah 2:3, the two seem to mean exactly the same place. Ezekiel's temple complex could easily fit on the current Temple Mount—yet even in that case, major topographical changes will still be made to the area.

After seeing an overview of the complex, Ezekiel is brought down to it, where he meets his tour guide standing at a gate. This "man" is holding a measuring rod and a line of flax (apparently a measuring tape of unspecified length, used for especially long measurements). He tells Ezekiel to record what he sees for the benefit of the house of Israel, and ultimately for our instruction (Ezekiel 40:3-4).

The length of the measuring rod is given as six cubits. There is some dispute about the size of a cubit. Many consider a cubit to have been 18 inches. Others claim a standard cubit was about 21 inches, or some other length. Since the cubit being used here is defined as one handbreadth longer than the standard cubit of the day (verse 5), we could expect something longer than the standard by about 4 inches. (Four inches is the current measure of a "hand," as used in measuring horses). Without going into all of the supporting evidence, there is some indication that the Hebrew cubit was based on "handbreadths" or palms, and that a palm was 3.6 inches. This would make an 18-inch cubit equal to five palms, and a 21.6-inch cubit six palms (perhaps this was the "cubit of a man" after the number of man—see Deuteronomy 3:11 KJV; Revelation 13:18). We are proceeding on the assumption of a seven-palm, 25.2-inch cubit, as described in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition, article "Weights and Measures." Some may insist this is too long, but the relative proportions of the buildings remain the same regardless of which cubit size is used. And with the seven-palm cubit, rooms that appear to be bed-chambers turn out to have the square footage of modern college dormitory rooms; rooms used for private dining are just over 12 feet square; the tables used for holding the instruments for sacrifice come to a reasonable work table height and the tables for the showbread (Exodus 25:23) would have been as a normal countertop or buffet table in height. Using a much smaller cubit would yield some uncomfortably small rooms and furnishings.

With the seven-palm, 25.2-inch cubit, the measuring rod used by Ezekiel's guide is 12.6 feet long. The tour begins with the measuring of an outer wall, which is one rod high, and one rod thick (Ezekiel 40:5). It is often assumed that this first wall Ezekiel encounters surrounds the "outer court" of the temple (verse 17). There are problems with this, however, as this wall is described as being "all around the outside of the temple," and yet there are a number of other structures that clearly occupy some of the space that this wall would have to occupy if it were there. While it could perhaps be an outer building wall in places, discrepancies in building height and other features make even this resolution awkward. And in verse 6, it says they went to the east gate and went up the stairs (giving the impression of approaching it) after measuring this wall. This seems to imply that the six-cubit wall was behind them, outside of the gate they were approaching. And indeed, as described in chapter 42, there is a freestanding wall much further out to enclose an open parkland around the temple complex. Perhaps it was in one of the gates of this outer park wall that the man with the measuring instruments was standing to greet Ezekiel and show him through this "city" of the future.

In any case, they enter the eastern gate of the building complex after climbing some steps. The actual number of steps for the eastern gate is not given, but the northern and southern gates each have seven steps (40:22, 26). The eastern gate may have the same number, or there may be more, considering that the eastern side of the temple complex may sit above a steeper slope than the other sides. There is a valley, the Kidron Valley, running just below the east side of both the current Temple Mount and the City of David. So there could well be a need for additional steps.

Next we are given the dimensions of the gates. Each gateway comprises a narrow, 50-cubit-long (105-foot) passageway through a large building complex. In the middle of the gateway is a small open-air courtyard (25 cubits wide, verse 13, and at least as long) with three six-cubit (12.6-foot) square rooms on either side. These rooms may at times be used as dining rooms for leaders (as alluded to in Ezekiel 44:3). And they may also be used by the priests as counseling rooms for judging private disputes (see Deuteronomy 16:18; 17:8-9; Ezekiel 44:24).

The thresholds at the outer entrance of the gateway corridor are fairly narrow (only 12.6 feet wide), symbolically picturing the constricted nature of the gate into the Kingdom of God (Matthew 7:14). The entrance gates will be attended by gatekeepers (as in former days, 1 Chronicles 9:22-24; 2 Chronicles 23:19; Ezekiel 44:11), who will have the responsibility of restricting entrance into the main courtyards of the temple to those who fit the scriptural requirements of being clean, both spiritually and physically—circumcised in mind and body (see 44:9, 23).

Other details about these gates are given, but the exact application of each measurement is not always clear. The accompanying diagram provides the basic outline and one interpretation of Ezekiel's description. Controversy especially surrounds the height of these gates. Ezekiel 40:14 describes "gateposts" that are 60 cubits (126 feet) high—or about 12 stories tall. While some reject the idea that this is a vertical dimension, there is no reason to believe it is not. Most feel it applies at least to the "vestibule" or "porch" (KJV) located on the inner side of the gate (verses 8-9), but whether it is a narrow tower over just the entrance, or whether it stretches across the entire 50-cubit face of the gate is not clear. If it did, it would give the gate some design similarity to the temple itself. Another view applies this measurement to the entire gate complex (to all its vertical support members), in a design that Ezekiel would have recognized as being similar to most ancient city gates.

Many of the "walls" Ezekiel encounters are five or six cubits thick (10.5-12.6 feet), and quite capable of containing small rooms. Since it was common in ancient times for rooms or passageways to be built into and on the city walls (as was the house of Rahab in Jericho, Joshua 2:15), we must not assume that everything Ezekiel refers to as a "wall" was a completely solid structure throughout. While these walls could be primarily for insulation, one could also speculate on what functional use might be made of this space, including perhaps closets, restrooms, utility rooms, and, considering the height of some of these buildings, even elevators and stairwells.

Passing through the eastern gate, Ezekiel and his guide enter the outer court, move on to the northern gate, and then to the southern gate, which are said to all be of the same design. The outer court is 100 cubits wide (210 feet), between the outer and inner gates (Ezekiel 40:19, 23, 27). And, in the area adjacent to the outer gates are 30 chambers, perhaps five chambers on each side of the three gates, each of them located in the center of their respective 500-cubit span. In front of these chambers is a pavement, or walkway, to provide access to them (verses 17-18).

Ezekiel states that these 30 chambers "faced the pavement," which he defined as the "lower pavement." This may mean he was giving only the number of chambers on the ground floor. As we will see, certain other chamber-bearing structures have at least three stories, and there is reason to believe these outer court buildings are multilevel structures as well. For example, Ezekiel 42:6 describes a three-story building which did not need pillars "like the pillars of the courts" because it was built with a terraced design so that upper floors could have front patios built on the rooftops of the lower floors. This implies that there were pillars in the courts being used as the structural means of supporting multilevel patios or walkway pavements.

The Inner Gates and Court

From the outer south gate, Ezekiel is brought across the outer court to the inner south gate. These inner gates are basically mirror images of the outer gates, so that the "vestibules" or "archways" of the outer gates (verses 31, 34, 37, apparently the main entryways of each gate) face the corresponding "archways" of the inner gates. One difference is that there are eight steps leading up to the inner gates, instead of seven (verse 31). After going through, and measuring, the inner south gate, they move on to the east inner gate, and then the north inner gate, all mirror images of the outer gates, and directly across from them.

At the north gate, Ezekiel sees several items directly related to the offering of sacrifices, including tables and utensils, and the entrance to a room for washing the meat for the burnt offering (verses 38-43; Leviticus 1:9, 13). In Solomon's time the burnt offerings were washed using elaborate open-air lavers (water tanks) situated in the inner courtyard around the temple. Ezekiel describes no such lavers in the millennial temple, nor any lavers for the priests to wash themselves in (as used at the tabernacle, Exodus 30:18-21), nor any cast bronze "sea" (the 21-foot diameter water tank, that Solomon had set up at the southeast corner of the temple for the priests' washing, see 2 Chronicles 4:2-6, 10). Since Ezekiel describes an indoor facility northeast of the temple for the washing of the burnt offerings, we might expect to find additional space there (and especially in the parallel location southeast of the temple) with washrooms for the priests. And we might also expect that all of these rooms will be fully equipped with modern indoor plumbing.

After touring the north inner court gate, Ezekiel is shown rooms for the priests (now limited to the sons of Zadok, see Ezekiel 40:46; 44:15-31), apparently on the east side of the north and south gates, facing each other. They are described as "chambers for the singers" (40:44-46), so they are likely to be used as rehearsal rooms for priests who will undoubtedly once again be "employed in that work [making music in praise to God and doing other temple and altar work] day and night" in rotating shifts throughout the year (1 Chronicles 9:25-33). These gates and rooms surround a 100-cubit square courtyard located in front of the temple sanctuary. This inner courtyard is in the center of the entire temple complex, with the altar of burnt offering (Ezekiel 40:47) as the focal point in the very middle of everything.

With the last two verses (48-49), Ezekiel completes his counterclockwise tour of the inner court by arriving at the vestibule (porch) of the temple itself, on the west side of the courtyard. Two pillars are briefly mentioned in verse 49, probably identical to the ancient temple pillars described in some detail in 1 Kings 7:15-22 and 2 Chronicles 3:15-17. Comparing the design of the pillars of the temple of Solomon with extra-biblical records about similar pillars in the court of the second temple, we can surmise that they may have been used as enormous torches—oil lamps on a grand scale. (The Herodian temple had four such courtyard lamps.)