My wife likes to keep a clean house, and God also likes to keep his house clean. If I track in grass and dirt from the yard, I’ll hear about it and things won’t be right until the house has been cleaned and all the dirt removed. Dirt belongs outside, not in the house. When our house is dirty, it reflects on what people think about my wife. This was the message of the prophet Ezekiel. God’s reputation was as stake. Ezekiel’s prophecy placed special attention on the destruction and restoration of the temple, which was also called the house of God. While Jeremiah addressed moral abuse in the streets of the city, Ezekiel brought it home, to God’s home, that is.
Several prophets were contemporary. Jeremiah began prophesying in 627 BC, in the days of Josiah, and continued for about 42 years. Daniel began about 605 BC and continued for about 70 years. Ezekiel was deported in 598 BC, but began prophesying five years later, in 593 BC, when he was 30. The ministries of these three overlapped during the seven years before the fall of Jerusalem. These were important years. Jeremiah remained in Jerusalem. Daniel went to Babylon, about 1500 miles to the East, in the first deportation. Ezekiel ended up about 60 miles south of Babylon with fellow expatriates, as a result of the 2nd deportation. The trip would have been like an Old West wagon train going from Kansas City, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, and yet Jeremiah was corresponding with elders in exile and Ezekiel was receiving news about Jerusalem. Interestingly, the motto of the US Postal Service, “Neither rain, nor snow…” is a quote that comes from the postal service of the Persian Empire. It’s a small world after all.
Ezekiel starts with a vision of the glory of God, then describes how the Jews had corrupted the temple, and ends with a vision of a magnificent still-future temple. His focus is on the office of the priest more than on the office of the king. In fact, he was a priest. He tells the Jews that the reason for the Captivity is “because you have defiled my sanctuary” (Ezek. 5:11). Ezekiel, chapter 8, speaks of an “image of jealousy, which provokes to jealousy” (vs. 5), “women weeping for Tammuz” (vs. 14), and twenty-five men “worshiping the sun” (vs. 16), all within the temple. This rebuke made sense to the Jews, whose worship revolved around the temple, but it raises questions for us. Why would an almighty God live in a house? Did the Jews just copy rituals from the nations around them? Why should we care?
The first Jewish temple was a huge tent, whose specifications were given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. It was a visual representation, a physical location where people could identify the true God. The tent traveled in the middle of the people. This was the place to meet with God. Moses challenged the people to research the questions, “For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?” (Deut. 4:7,8). The rhetorical answer was “none”. No other nation had a temple like this. No other nation had a God like this. The temple answered four questions:
- Is there only one God?
- What is his identity?
- What is his character?
- How should I live?
The temple explained God to the world, as long as it remained holy, or accurate.
We might be surprised that God would care what people think, or that they would make idols that misrepresented him. If God doesn’t exist, the it doesn’t matter. If God does exist, then He should be jealous of idols, as it says in the Ten Commandments. What does that even mean? Jealousy is disappointment that comes when a rival gets attention that belongs to us. Does that sound selfish? It depends on who it hurts. If misrepresenting God hurts society and individuals, then it’s adding injury to insult. First of all, slandering the good name of God would insult him, if He values his character. Then it encourages people to lie, steal, cheat, and kill, because that’s what other gods do. Of course it would matter. If the temple no longer accurately represented God, then it needed to be taken down until it could correctly portray God. That was Ezekiel’s message.
The eventual rebuilding of the temple began with teaching the exiles what they had done wrong. God had a captive audience, literally. They were stubborn and arrogant before the captivity. As they contemplated the seriousness of their actions, they developed resolve and determination. The words of Ezekiel, more than anything else, prepared the people of God for the next six hundred years. When Antiochus IV Epiphanes set up the abomination of desolation in the Jewish temple in 168 BC, it was the ultimate insult that resulted in the Maccabean revolt. The first and last acts of Jesus were to symbolically cleanse the temple. It mattered to him how people conducted themselves in the temple. He called it his father’s house. (John 2:13-22)