The prophet Ezekiel shares in the sufferings of the Hebrew people in the generation after their devastating defeat at the hands of the ruthless Babylonian empire. Ezekiel helps to bring to the surface the Hebrews’ own responsibility for their fate, due to generation upon generation of injustice and idolatry.
Even more, though, Ezekiel’s vocation is to bring a word of hope — God’s promise to bless all the families of the earth through this people (Gen. 12:3) remains in effect.
Ezekiel, like most of the other core prophets we read in the Old Testament, follows his critique with a promise of God’s deliverance and the restoration of the community.
And, like the other prophets, Ezekiel challenges the people to return to faithfulness to the message of Torah. Trust in God, practice justice for all in the community, turn from idols, celebrate God’s deliverance.
Ezekiel’s unique perspective is to present the victory of God through the imagery of dry bones being restored to life (Ezekiel 37) — which symbolizes the people returning from exile in Babylon to be restored in the land (39:21-29).
Then comes another distinctive vision. The people being restored in the land are presented in terms of a glorious rebuilt temple starting at 40:1. The vision of the new temple goes into excruciating detail — which actually indicates it is purely symbolic. Ezekiel is not predicting a temple like the one he envisions actually being rebuilt by these specifications.
Ezekiel has something else in mind — the day-to-day life of the community as manifesting the glory of God, the “temple” as a metaphor for people living faithfully to Torah and returning to the plan God had for them when they were delivered from slavery in Egypt.
The people were unfaithful. They defiled God’s “holy name by their abominations.” These sins included idolatry and the abuse of power by their kings. And to these offenses we could add the exploitation of the poor and vulnerable, as the prophet Amos described. As a result, God’s wrath “consumed them.”
But now, within this new “temple,” God proclaims: “Let them put away their idolatry and the corpses of their kings far from me, and I will reside among them forever.”
As the dry bones come back to life, so too does Israel as a worshiping community, now restored in order to live in the land in justice and genuine shalom. God doesn’t only live inside the temple. God “will reside among the people.”
The shame the people feel due to past injustices and idolatries should now encourage them to welcome God’s return. They should recognize this return as God rebuilding them as a worshiping community (“the temple”). They should resolve to “observe and follow the entire plan and all its ordinances” — that is, to follow Torah as it was meant to be followed.
Perhaps we could say that Ezekiel anticipates the message the Apostle Paul will give many years later. Paul wrote: “We are the temple of the living God” (2 Cor. 6:16), followed by some quotes from Ezekiel.
Paul uses this image to challenge his readers to live in holy freedom in a world full of idols. The temple comes to be seen as very different from what it has become: the centralized power base for static religious and political institutions. (Note Ezekiel’s hostility toward the close ties between the old temple and the corrupt kings who used the temple for their own advantage.) Rather, the temple is an image that reflects God’s respect for the power of the people to live faithfully.
Ted Grimsrud is professor of theology and peace studies at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.
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