Where God Dwells: Understanding Temple (Part 3)

Redemptive history progresses with a series of “false peaks,” showing partial fulfillment of the expectation of restored sanctuary but never complete and always fleeting. Is the vision of temple dwindling? Or is it perhaps focusing?

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Photograph by K. Mitch Hodge. From unsplash.com

This is the third post in a short series on temples—what they are, why they matter to Christians, and how we’re still building them today. In the previous post, we noted several points of comparison and contrast between the typical ancient Near Eastern temple and Solomon’s temple. Most notably, Israel’s temple lacked an image of the Lord in its innermost chamber. To learn what happened to it, we began looking at the biblical theological theme of temple throughout redemptive history, starting in Genesis 1-2 where God creates humanity in his own image. Man and woman were meant to be the image of God in the world—not lifeless idols made of stone reflecting dead pagan gods, but living breathing humans reflecting the living God. Tragically, Adam and Eve sinned and hid from God, breaking his perfect sanctuary. 

We finished with a three-fold problem, each of which must be resolved to restore God’s vision for his temple. First, God’s image needs to be restored. His people’s hearts need to be renewed so they can truly reflect God. Second, his presence must again be with his people. The dwelling place of God must one day again be with man. Finally, his priests must resume the work of ministry unencumbered, offering perfect worship. This expectation drives the narrative of a biblical theology of sanctuary and temple. 

Returning to Sanctuary: Rebuilding the Temple

Redemptive history progresses with a series of “false peaks,” showing partial fulfillment of the expectation of restored sanctuary but never complete and always fleeting. God reveals himself to Abraham and promises to make him into a mighty nation where he will be their God in a promised land of plenty. But he and his heir Isaac and his heir Jacob never settle in Canaan; they sojourn throughout it their whole lives. Their descendants are led out of the promised land and enslaved in Egypt. Moses and Aaron free them from slavery and lead them back toward Canaan, but both sin and bar themselves from entering the land. They oversee the construction of the tabernacle—the portable temple where God’s presence rests—but Israel continues to be hardhearted and idolatrous. 

Then a new peak comes: Israel reenters the land under Joshua’s lead. Their reentry mirrors the consecration ceremony of entering into a temple. The ark goes before them to part the waters of the Jordan River, then joins them in the land (Joshua 3). The people are consecrated upon entry by circumcision (5:1-9) then observe Passover according to the law of Moses (5:10-12). Joshua comes face-to-face with an angel standing guard who commands Joshua to remove his sandals for he stands on holy ground (5:13-15). The rest of the book details the cleansing of the temple—the destruction of the wicked nations in the land, according to God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 15. Even still, the land is not fully purged—the rest Joshua achieves does not last. 

Nearly four hundred years of tumult follow. The twelve tribes devolve into civil war and pagan worship. At their lowest point, the tabernacle is lost (1 Sam 4). Then finally, a man after God’s own heart takes the throne over a united Israel. His son receives prophetic direction to construct a temple for the Lord, and upon its completion, Israel erupts in praise (1 Kings 8:62-66). God’s presence comes to rest in the Holy of Holies (1 Kings 8:10-11). The nation enjoys unparalleled peace, expansive borders, extravagant wealth, and leadership from the wisest man in their history. Kings of foreign nations bring their wealth into Jerusalem to sit at the feet of Solomon. The narrative gives a clear picture of rest and reunion—the highest peak in Israel’s history. 

Alas, this too proves to be a false peak. The author of Kings ominously interrupts the account of the temple’s construction with Solomon constructing his own palace, including a house for Pharaoh’s daughter (1 Kings 7:8). In his prayer of dedication, Solomon asks that God remember his people when they end up driven into exile for their sin (1 Kings 8:46-53). Solomon himself takes hundreds of wives and concubines and violates other guidelines for Israel’s kings as outlined in Deuteronomy 17:14-20. Upon Solomon’s death and his son Rehoboam’s coronation, the kingdom is divided within a year. The northern tribes abandon the temple and forget the ark; Jeroboam instead builds golden calves and new temples throughout his kingdom (1 Kings 12:25-33). Rehoboam establishes pagan worship in Judah’s high places and forfeits the wealth of the temple to Shishak (1 Kings 14:21-28). The rest of the book of Kings records the gradual dilapidation of the temple as Israel and Judah drift further and further into sin. 

Finally, after another four hundred years of decline, Babylon conquers Judah and destroys the temple—Israel’s lowest valley since slavery in Egypt. Jews offered songs like Psalm 74, 79, and 137 and wondered if they were still God’s chosen people. Was his presence still with them in exile? Could they be restored? The prophets answer affirmatively. Ezekiel especially gives words of comfort as he sees a vision of God on his chariot throne leaving the temple out the east gate and crossing the desert. Remarkably, God has not remained in Jerusalem. He has gone with his people into exile and he will return to Jerusalem with them. 

Ezekiel’s most spectacular imagery comes in his description of the new temple in Ezekiel 40-48. Upon measuring the dimensions of the new temple, the prophet sees the glory of God return from the east and settle in the inner temple. The Lord says to him “this is the place of my throne and the place of the soles of my feet, where I will dwell in the midst of the people of Israel forever. And the house of Israel shall no more defile my holy name, neither they, nor their kings” (Ezekiel 43:7). The prophet foresees and the people anticipate the eschatological and eternal peak. The second temple built under the leadership of Ezra is a far cry from such expectations. Those who were present at its dedication and remembered the first temple wept because it was far smaller and shabbier. Still, the people held onto their hope that Ezekiel’s vision would come to pass. 

The Narrowing of Sanctuary

One important feature of a biblical theology of temple is the gradual narrowing of the scope of God’s sanctuary. At the start of the biblical narrative, God’s sanctuary spans the whole cosmos. The entire world was made to be a temple and the garden of Eden was the Holy of Holies. Following the Fall, God presents the whole land of Canaan as a sanctuary for Abraham’s descendants. The tabernacle becomes God’s sacred place during Moses’ leadership, but the tabernacle was portable. Even upon entry into the promised land, the tabernacle frequently moved from tribe to tribe. During David’s reign, Jerusalem becomes the centerpoint of God’s presence. Then during Solomon’s reign, the tabernacle is succeeded by the permanently local temple. The northern tribes split away and are eventually erased. The southern tribe decays until Babylon destroys Jerusalem and deports the Jews. Ezra’s temple is far shabbier than Solomon’s even at its end. 

 

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Is the vision of temple dwindling? Or is it perhaps focusing? The next post in this series will show the latter. Ezekiel’s prophecy builds anticipation for a day when God’s vision will again broaden even to the ends of the earth. All the hope and expectation funnels to and climaxes with a singular Person, Jesus Christ. 

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