I’ve been reading Ezekiel for my daily quiet time, and I’m on the part about the new temple. In Ezekiel 43:11, God tells Ezekiel to tell the people of Israel the dimensions and features of the proposed temple so that they will build it after their return from exile.
But why didn’t they build it? Here was a command, and they didn’t follow it. Why not?
I’ve not combed through the writings of modern biblical scholars on this issue, but I have a hunch about what they might say. I can picture them saying that Ezekiel was not necessarily seen as the infallible word of God immediately after the exile, at least not in the way that many Christians and Jews have traditionally viewed it. Rather, there were a variety of post-exilic voices with their own versions of what God wanted the Jews to do. Some expected God to restore the Davidic dynasty, while others called Cyrus the Messiah. Over time, their writings became authoritative within Jewish and Christian circles, but they were not necessarily accepted as such soon after they were written. So why didn’t the post-exilic community build Ezekiel’s temple? One proposed explanation is that not everyone believed in Ezekiel’s message.
Another possibility is that the post-exilic community did not see its restoration as the subject of Ezekiel’s prophecy. Ezekiel associated certain events with the Jews’ restoration, such as the renewal of the Davidic dynasty and the defeat of Israel’s enemies, most notably Gog of Asia Minor. These things did not happen under Cyrus of Persia, for Israel was “restored” to become a subjugated puppet of the Persians, without a Davidic monarch. As a result, many Jews probably concluded that the restoration predicted by Ezekiel was not what occurred under Cyrus, but was rather to be fulfilled in the future. So the Ezekiel temple was postponed until the time of real restoration.
Rashi has an interesting explanation of Ezekiel 43:11. He says: “The second aliyah [to the Holy Land] through Ezra was merited to be like the first entry through Joshua, to come about by force and through a miracle, as expounded (Ber. 4a, Exod. 15:16): ‘until… pass.’ This Building would then have been fit for them as of then, when they emerged from exile, to an everlasting redemption. But [their] sin caused [this not to happen] for their repentance was not suitable, [i.e.,] they did not resolve to stop sinning. [Therefore,] they emerged to freedom [only] through the sanction of Cyrus and his son. Some say that in Babylon they stumbled regarding gentile women.” For Rashi, God wanted to restore the Jews of the sixth-fifth centuries B.C.E. in a glorious fashion, which would have included Ezekiel’s temple, but the Jews hindered God’s plan through their sins.
I’m not sure if I buy this explanation entirely. The Jews’ sins were not a problem for God, since Ezekiel predicted that God would give them new hearts and turn them away from sin. At the same time, perhaps God expected them to make the first move through repentance before he circumcised their hearts. But that goes back to my Ezekiel and Monergism series.