A Biblical Theology of the Temple: The Presence of God in the Babylonian Exile (Part 4)
Last time, we observed God’s continued faithfulness to his people in his overseeing of Solomon’s construction of the temple at Jerusalem, a place wherein his presence would dwell and where all his people, even foreigners, could come to seek him and find him in prayer. Furthermore, we also noted that the temple’s creation—together with David’s becoming king over all Israel, God’s issuing of the Davidic covenant, the establishing of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city, and the retrieving of the Ark to remain there—signified the fulfilling of God’s promise to establish the children of Abraham in the land of Canaan and to give them rest from their enemies on every side, and was thus a symbol of his enduring commitment to Israel, to uphold them and bless them as his uniquely chosen people. Finally, we saw that the future preservation of this temple—and all of its interrelated covenant blessings—is directly dependent upon the nation’s remaining faithful to the law covenant given by God at Sinai by keeping its statutes and walking according to them.
Agonizingly however, the time following Solomon sees several hundred years of spiritual decay for God’s people Israel as they turn toward the worship of false gods. From the least to the greatest, with each generation the nation progressively turns away from faith and forsakes their Lord and his covenant. Graciously, God sends his Prophets to the people and the kings to warn them to repent and turn their hearts back to Yahweh, but they will not listen. Finally, he then declares by Jeremiah that king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon will overtake Jerusalem and the Jews will be carried off into exile for 70 years as punishment for their sin (Jer 25:1-14).
The Babylonian king first attacks Jerusalem in 597 BC and cannot overtake it, but he brings back with him a large group of exiles among whom is the prophet Ezekiel. On the banks of the Chebar River in Babylon, God shows Ezekiel Israel’s detestable sins of idolatry by bringing him to Jerusalem in a vision. He then shows him a terrible slaughter that is to come upon all the people except for a faithful remnant who are weeping and lamenting Israel’s sin (Ezek 8:1-9:11). Following this, he is shown a vision of a great mobile throne chariot with massive cherubim-driven wheels. Then, Ezekiel sees the glory of Yahweh leave the temple and reside over the mobile throne chariot which then departs from the city and comes to rest on a mountain to the east (Ezek 10:1-22; 11:22-23). This imagery of God leaving the city, together with his pronouncement of the wickedness of Israel’s leadership (Ezek 11:1-13), is a clear representation that he is standing in judgment over the nation and now regards her as a condemned enemy, cut off from his sight (cf. 1 Kgs 9:6-9).
Finally, in fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy, Nebuchadnezzar returns in 586 BC and completely annihilates the city, knocking down its walls and destroying the temple (2 Kgs 25:1-21; Jer 39:1-10). The scene is unthinkable. Whereas Jerusalem and its temple were enduring symbols to the watching world of God’s commitment to Israel, their destruction signifies that God has rejected the nation and is showing himself faithful according to his word by bringing to pass the covenantal curses that he had sworn should Israel forsake him (Deut 27:15-26; 28:15 ff.; 1 Kgs 9:4-9).
It is perhaps helpful to here place ourselves in the shoes of those exiled Jews who were receiving news along with Ezekiel that Jerusalem had fallen. Surely, in light of the significance of the event, the most urgent and desperate question that everyone would have been asking is, “Has Yahweh abandoned us?” It is in this relation that we must marvel at God’s gracious words of comfort to them, “I have been a sanctuary [i.e. temple] to [my people in their exile]” (Ezek 11:16).
As pertains the theme of temple, this signifies that, whereas God’s presence had departed from Jerusalem, he nonetheless remained present with his people in their affliction and grief in Babylon. This serves as a rock solid testimony also to us who trust in him today: God always remains near to those who are his, even in our greatest desperation when it seems like his blessing has left us. But this declaration on the part of God also raises a perplexing question, “How can it still be said God has a people [cf. Ezek 11:20] apart from Jerusalem and its Davidic king and temple, that is, apart from Israel whom he has rejected and relegated to the same status as the Gentiles?” This is an important question for us to ask along with the exiled Jews, but we must await its ultimate answer until the coming forth of Jesus Christ.
Following these words of comfort, God begins to speak great words of hope to the exiled Jews through Ezekiel. He promises them that he is about to act on their behalf to vindicate his holy Name which they have profaned (Ezek 36:22-23). He announces that he will do so by restoring them to the land of Canaan, cleansing the land and the people of their defilement, and by giving them a new heart and putting his Spirit in them that they might no longer depart from him, but live out his statutes in faith and be his people forever (Ezek 11:17-20; 36:24-28). To this end, God will establish with them a new covenant of peace by which they shall be delivered from all their oppressors, the ruined and desolate cities of Israel will be rebuilt, and the land will flourish and thrive with abundant harvests as never before (Ezek 34:25-31; 36:33-35). What is more, this glorious work of restoration will take place before the watching nations such that they will all know the Name of Yahweh (Ezek 36:36).
Concerning the fate of the ruined temple at Jerusalem, Ezekiel receives yet another vision, this time of a newly restored Jerusalem and temple that far exceeds the glory of anything prior and to which the nations flood to worship (Ezek 40:1-48:35). The awesome splendor and elegant beauty of this future city is elaborately described by Ezekiel across nine chapters, but we may comprehend it more simply and succinctly merely by the name by which it will be known: “Yahweh Is There” (Ezek 48:35). Indeed, the glory of God will come forth and fill this newly created temple and he will dwell there in the city with his people forever (Ezek 43:4-7).
With these incredible promises in hand, the exiled Jews are returned to the land after 70 years—just as the Lord had promised—whereupon they proceed with great anticipation to begin to rebuild Jerusalem, construct a new temple, and initiate a time of national teaching, prayer, and repentance. However, it becomes quickly apparent to all that the state of things in Israel following the exile falls impossibly short of the restoration promises given by the Prophets such that there is great mourning amongst the people and a general sense that their repentance had fallen short of what God required. Where they had expected abundance, they had lack; a regained national sovereignty, vassal servitude; a renewed spirituality, continued sin and radio silence from God as new prophets stopped coming forth.
Concerning the rebuilt temple, when compared to what existed prior, it is so meager that the elderly in Israel who had seen the first temple cannot help but weep at the sight of it (Ez 3:12-13). Thus it is clear that this temple and city are not what Ezekiel had described, but rather, the prophet’s vision—together with its highly symbol-laden descriptions—continues to point forward to a glorious future city that is still to come and which the people of Israel, returned from exile, await in hope.
Up Next: With the prophetic restoration promises still unfulfilled, Messianic anticipation in Israel began to grow widely over the next several centuries as the Jews, impoverished and oppressed, anxiously looked for the coming of the promised Messiah whom God would send for their deliverance and renewal. Next time, we will have arrived at this climax toward which our study—and the entire OT—has been building, the climax of all human history: the visible, bodily presence of God walking among us, that is, the eternal Son of God made incarnate for our salvation.
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