Is the Temple Described in Ezekiel 40-46 to Be Taken Literally?

Manfred E. Kober, Th.D.


In Ezekiel 40-49 is recorded a remarkable vision of regathered, restored and redeemed Israel in the land during the Kingdom Age. The prophet Ezekiel envisions a millennial temple (ch. 40-42); millennial worship (ch. 43-46); and the millennial land (ch. 47-49). What is that temple described in Ezekiel 40? Various views have been offered by commentators: (1) an idealized replica or pattern of Solomon’s temple destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. This temple should have been built upon the return from Babylon 70 years later; (2) A description of the earthly kingdom in its ultimate earthly form; (3) the Christian church enjoying its earthly glory and divine blessings.

Merrill F. Unger is correct, in light of various allegorical interpretations of the passage, when he observes, “The view which seems to fit the context in Ezekiel, and the testimony of other Scripture, is that Ezekiel’s temple is a literal future sanctuary to be constructed in Palestine during the coming Kingdom Age” (Unger’s Bible Handbook, 1968, 379 [italics in the original]).

Old Testament scholar Charles Lee Feinberg notes:

The concluding chapters of Ezekiel form a kind of continental divide in the area of Biblical interpretation. It is one of the areas where the literal interpretation of the Bible and the spiritualizing or allegorizing method diverge widely. Here amillennialists and premillennialists are poles apart. When thirty-nine chapters of Ezekiel can be treated detailedly and seriously as well as literally, there is no valid reason a priori for treating this large division of the book in an entirely different manner (The Prophecy of Ezekiel, [1967], 233).


The purpose for a temple throughout Scripture has been to be a dwelling place of the physical presence of God. Their God reveals through ritual His great holiness to an earth under the curse. In the present dispensation, the church is God’s spiritual temple comprised of living stones (1 Cor. 3:16-17; Eph. 2:19-22). In the millennium Israel will be God’s mediatory people. Because sin will still be present upon the earth, God will teach the world through a new temple, a new priesthood and a new law that holiness is required to approach Him.

Our covenant theologian friends strongly object to the idea that there may be a future temple. We who take the Bible literally have no reason to apologize for our interpretation, since it squarely rests on biblical revelation.

The Reformed position practices a dual hermeneutic. Covenant theologians understand fulfilled prophecy to have been fulfilled literally but unfulfilled prophecy must be spiritualized. It is unthinkable for them that there would be a future millennium, a thousand year reign of Christ on earth. The denial of a literal millennium goes back to St. Augustine in the fourth and fifth century, who denied a literal millennium mainly because of the cults in his day who pictured the millennium as a time of carnal delight.

Ever since St. Augustine allegorized unfulfilled prophecy, the Catholic and the Protestant Church followed this influential church father. Unfortunately they never divorced themselves from St. Augustine’s spiritualizing of prophecies relating to a future kingdom.

A number of arguments can be proffered for a literal interpretation of Ezekiel 40-49.

A. A consistent interpretation demands it.

The normal, plain historical-grammatical or literal interpretation is to be preferred above spiritualizing the passage. After all, all agree that the temple of Ezekiel 8-11 was the literal temple of Ezekiel’s day, even though the prophet saw it “in the vision of God” (3:8), while the prophet himself was still in Babylon (8:1).

B. The amazing details demand it.

In the temple vision, hundreds of specific details of measurements, places, customs, objects, etc. argue for a literal interpretation.

C. Scriptural perspicuity demands it.

The Bible was written for man’s benefit and presupposes understandable language. The painstaking detail in Ezekiel 40-48 through the new temple is very similar to the instructions given to Moses for the building of the Tabernacle—a literal sanctuary—and instructions to build Solomon’s temple—likewise a literal structure.

D. The voluminous content demands it.

The information of Ezekiel 40-46 is almost seven times as extensive as the creation account in Genesis! After all, Ezekiel was given specific instructions to “declare all that thou seest to the house of Israel” (40:4), which seems strange indeed if the temple were to symbolize only general truths—truths which could be summarized in a very few verses.

E. Cross references in the other prophetic books demand it.

Ezekiel is not the only Old Testament prophet writing of an actual future temple for the nation of Israel in the Holy Land. There are numerous Old Testament references to a future temple: (Joel 3:18; Isaiah 2:1, Isaiah 60:13; Daniel 9:24; Haggai 2:7, 9.

F. Revelatory parsimony (“extreme frugality”) demands it.

The Scriptures do not contain extraneous material, making it unthinkable that seven chapters would be devoted to a beautiful for ambiguous Christian allegory. We need to be reminded of the Psalmist’s observation: “The words of the LORD are pure words, Like silver tried in a furnace of earth, Purified seven times” (12:6).

The Bible student should realize that God did not give us any portion of His inerrant Word to confuse us but rather to inform and enlighten us. The divine Author actually says what He means and means what He says!

G. The stylistic pattern of Ezekiel’s prophetic visions demands it.

The careful interpreter recognizes that Ezekiel generally discloses whether a vision is literal or symbolic. With a symbolic vision, Ezekiel gives the interpretive key indicating what the vision symbolizes. Thus the riveting vision of the Valley of Dry Bones (37:1-10) is explained as a reference to the house of Israel, returning from the worldwide dispersion, regathered in unbelief to their land (37:11, 19ff).

We may conclude that the millennial temple and its ritual will serve as a daily reminder for the need of sinful man before a holy God and lessons about how this same God graciously works to remove the obstacle of human sin from those who put their faith in Him.

© Manfred E Kober

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