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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Ezekiel 48






These closing chapters of Ezekiel form one continuous prophecy of a distinctly marked character. They present a vision of the Temple in minute detail, with careful measurements of its parts; various ordinances for the Temple, for the Levites, and the priests, and for the prince; a new and remarkable division of the land; and the vision of the life-giving waters issuing from the sanctuary. The whole passage differs too much from anything in the past to allow for a moment the supposition that it is historical in character; and uttered, as it was, at a time when the Temple lay in ashes, and the land desolate, it is equally clear that it cannot describe the present. It must, therefore, have been prophetic; but this fact alone will not decide whether it looked to a literal fulfilment, or was ideal in its character; although the à priori presumption must be in favour of the latter, since all was seen “in the visions of God” (Ezekiel 40:2)—an expression which Ezekiel always applies to a symbolic representation rather than to an actual image of things. Certainly the Temple was afterwards rebuilt, and the nation re-established in Palestine; but the second Temple was quite unlike the one described by Ezekiel, and no attempt was ever made to carry out his division of the land. The few interpreters who have supposed that he meant to foretell literally the sanctuary and the state of the restoration have been compelled to suppose that the returning exiles found themselves too feeble to carry out their designs, and hence that this prophecy remains as a monument of magnificent purposes which were never accomplished. If this were the correct view, it is inconceivable that there should be no allusion to the language of Ezekiel in the historical books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and in the prophecies of Haggai, which all relate to this period, and describe the return and settlement in the land, and the rebuilding of the Temple, with no reference to this prophecy, nor any trace of a desire to conform their work to its directions. Other objections to this view will be mentioned presently.

At the same time, it is to be remembered that a remnant of the people were restored to their land, and their Temple was rebuilt upon Mount Zion; it is but reasonable to suppose that these events, so often foretold, were present to the prophet’s mind, and that he looked out from them upon a more distant future, in the same way that near and typical events often with the other prophets form the basis of their foreshadowing of the future.

The only other way in which this prophecy can be literally understood is by supposing that its fulfilment is still in the future. In general, it is difficult to say that any state of things may not be realised in the future; but in this case there are features of the prophecy, and those not of a secondary or incidental character, but forming a part of its main delineations, which enable us to say unhesitatingly that their literal fulfilment would be in plain contradiction to the Divine revelation. For it is impossible to conceive, in view of the whole relations between the old and the new dispensations, as set forth in Scripture, that animal sacrifices can ever again be restored by Divine command, and find acceptance with God. And it may be added that it is equally impossible to conceive that the Church of the future, progressing in the liberty wherewith Christ has made it free, should ever return again to “the weak and beggarly elements” of Jewish bondage here set forth. But besides these obvious reasons, there are several indications in the detail of the prophecy that show it was never intended to be literally understood. These cannot all be seen without a careful examination of the details, but a few points may be presented which will make the fact sufficiently clear.

In the first place, the connection between the Temple and the city of Jerusalem is so deeply laid in all the sacred literature of the subject, as well as in the thought of every pious Israelite, that a prophecy incidentally separating them, without any distinct statement of the fact, or assignment of a reason for so doing, is scarcely conceivable. Yet in this portion of Ezekiel the Temple is described as at a distance of nearly nine and a half miles from the utmost bound of the city, or about fourteen and a quarter miles from its centre. This holds true, however the tribe portions of the land and the “oblation” be located (see the map in the Notes to Ezekiel 48); for the priests’ portion of the “oblation” (Ezekiel 48:10), in the midst of which the sanctuary is placed, is 10,000 reeds, or about nineteen miles broad; to the south of this (Ezekiel 48:15-17) is a strip of land of half the width, in which the city with its “suburbs” is situated. occupying its whole width.

A Temple in any other locality than Mount Moriah would hardly be the Temple of Jewish hope and association; but Ezekiel’s Temple, with its precincts, is a mile square, larger than the whole ancient city of Jerusalem. It is hardly possible that the precincts of any actual Temple could be intended to embrace such a variety of hill and valley as the country presents. However this may be, the prophet describes it as situated many miles north of the city, and the city itself as several miles north of the site of Jerusalem. This would place the Temple well on the road to Samaria.

But, still further, the description of the oblation itself is physically impossible. The boundaries of the land are the Jordan on the one side and the Mediterranean on the other (Ezekiel 47:15-21). The “oblation” could not have reached so far south as the mouth of the Jordan; but even at that point the whole breadth of the country is but fifty-five miles. Now measuring forty-seven and one-third miles north (the width of the oblation) a point is reached where the distance between the river and the sea is barely forty miles. It is impossible, therefore, that the oblation itself should be included between them, and the description requires that there should also be room left for the prince’s portion at either end.

Again, while the city of the vision is nowhere expressly said to be Jerusalem, it is yet described as the great city of the restored theocracy. It cannot, as already said, be placed geographically upon the site of Jerusalem. Either, then, this city must be understood ideally, or else a multitude of other prophecies, and notably many in Ezekiel which speak of the future of Zion and of Jerusalem, must be so interpreted. There is no good reason why both should not be interpreted figuratively, but it is impossible to understand both literally; for some of these prophecies make statements in regard to the future quite as literal in form as these of Ezekiel, and yet in direct conflict with them. To select a single instance from a prophecy not much noticed: Obadiah, who was probably a contemporary of Ezekiel, foretells (Ezekiel 39:19-20) that at the restoration “Benjamin shall possess Gilead;” but, according to Ezekiel, Gilead is not in the land of the restoration at all, and Benjamin’s territory is to be immediately south of the “oblation.” Again, Obadiah says, “The captivity of Jerusalem” (which, in distinction from “the captivity of the host of the children of Israel,” must refer to the two tribes) “shall possess the cities of the south;” but, according to Ezekiel, Judah and Benjamin are to adjoin the central “oblation,” and on the south four of the other tribes are to have their portion. Such instances might be multiplied if necessary.

The division of the land among the twelve tribes; the entire change in assigning to the priests and to the Levites large landed estates, and to the former as much as to the latter; the enormous size of the Temple precincts and of the city, with the comparatively small allotment of land for its support, are all so singular, and so entirely without historical precedent, that only the clearest evidence would justify the assumption that these things were intended to be literally carried out. No regard is paid to the differing numbers of the various tribes, but an equal strip of land is assigned to each of them; and, the trans-Jordanic territory being excluded and about one-fifth of the whole land set apart as an “oblation,” the portion remaining allows to each of the tribes but about two-thirds as much territory as, on the average, they had formerly possessed. The geographical order of the tribes is extremely singular: Judah and Benjamin are, indeed, placed on the two sides of the consecrated land, and the two eldest, Reuben and Simeon, are placed next to them, and Dan is put at the extreme north, where a part of the tribe had formerly lived; but the classification extends no further, and the remaining tribes are arranged neither in order of seniority nor of maternity, nor yet of ancient position. Moreover, nearly the whole territory assigned to Zebulon and Gad is habitable only by nomads, except on the supposition of physical changes in the land.

Another consequence of this division of the land is important: the Levites, being now provided for in the “oblation,” no longer have their cities among the tribes. But it had been expressly provided that the “cities of refuge” (which must be distributed through the land in order to fulfil their purpose) should be Levitical cities (Numbers 35:9-15). With this change, therefore, the provision for cities of refuge ceases, and a profound alteration is made in the whole Mosaic law in regard to manslaughter and murder.

In connection with the omission of the day of atonement, all mention of the high priest is carefully left out. That this is not accidental is shown by the fact that the laws of marriage and of mourning for all the priests are made more strict than in the legislation of Moses (Ezekiel 44:22-27), evidently as a sort of compensation for the omitted legislation in regard to the high priest. But the Levitical system without a high priest becomes a different institution in itself, and is also greatly changed in its symbolism.

It may be remarked in passing that the system here set forth is not at all of the nature of an intermediate or transitional ritual between that which we know existed under the monarchy, and that which is set forth in the Levitical law, and therefore affords no basis for the theory that the Levitical system was the outgrowth of the captivity. The absence of the high priest, so prominent both in the law and in the history, is alone a sufficient proof of this; and to this may be added the full regulations for the prince in Ezekiel, of which there is no trace in either the earlier or the subsequent history.

A further difficulty with the literal interpretation may be found in the description of the waters which issued from under the eastern threshold of the Temple (Ezekiel 47:1-12). These waters run to the “east country,” and go down “to the sea,” which can only be the Dead Sea; but such a course would be physically impossible without changes in the surface of the earth, since the location of the Temple of the vision is on the west of the watershed of the country. They had, moreover, the effect of “healing” the waters of the sea, an effect which could not be produced naturally without providing an outlet from the sea; no supply of fresh water could remove the saltness while this water was all disposed of by evaporation, and Ezekiel (in Ezekiel 47:11) excludes the idea of an outlet. But, above all, the character of the waters themselves is impossible without a perpetual miracle. Setting aside the difficulty of a spring of this magnitude upon the top of “a very high mountain” (Ezekiel 40:2) in this locality, at the distance of 1,000 cubits from their source, the waters have greatly increased in volume; and so with each successive 1,000 cubits, until at the end of 4,000 cubits (about a mile and a half) they have become a river no longer fordable, or, in other words, comparable to the Jordan. Such an increase, without accessory streams, is clearly not natural. But, beyond all this, the description of the waters themselves clearly marks them as ideal. They are life-giving and healing; trees of perennial foliage and fruit grow upon their banks, the leaves being for “medicine,” and the fruit, although for food, never wasting. The reader cannot fail to be reminded of “the pure river of water of life” in Revelation 22:1-2, “on either side” of which was “the tree of life” with “its twelve manner of fruits,” and its leaves “for the healing of the nations.” The author of the Apocalypse evidently had this passage in mind; and just as he has adopted the description of Gog and Magog as an ideal description, and applied it to the events of the future, so he has treated this as an ideal prophecy, and applied it to the Church triumphant.

It is to be remembered that this whole vision is essentially one, and that it would be unreasonable to give a literal interpretation to one part of it and a figurative to another. All the objections, therefore, which lie against the supposition of the restoration of animal sacrifices hold also against the supposition of the general restoration of the Jewish Temple and polity. This was felt at an early day, and such Christian commentators as Ephrem Syrus, Theodoret, and Jerome adopted throughout a symbolic or typical explanation. The changes in the Mosaic law are indeed great, but still are only of detail, and leave it open to the Apostolic description as a “bondage” to which we cannot suppose the providence of God would ever lead back the Church Christ has redeemed at the cost of the sacrifice of Himself. Either the whole argument of the Epistle to the Hebrews is a mistake, not to speak of those to the Romans and Galatians, nor of our Lord’s own discourses (as with the woman of Samaria), or else the Holy Spirit could not have intended a literal realisation in the future of this vision of Ezekiel.

We thus come to regard this prophecy as an ideal one on every ground, not looking for any literal and material fulfilment. If it should be asked, Why then is it given with such a wealth of minute material detail? the answer is obvious, that this is thoroughly characteristic of Ezekiel. The tendency, strongly marked in every part of his book, merely culminates in this closing vision. The two previous chapters, especially, have abounded in concrete and definite details of the attack of a great host upon the land of Israel, while yet these very details have given evidence upon examination that they could not have been meant to be literally understood, and that the whole prophecy was intended to shadow forth the great and final spiritual conflict, prolonged through ages, between the power of the world and the kingdom of God. So here, the prophet, wishing to set forth the glory, the purity, and the beneficent influence of the Church of the future, clothes his description in those terms of the past with which his hearers were familiar. The use of such terms was a necessity in making himself intelligible to his contemporaries, just as to the very close of the inspired volume it is still necessary to set forth the glory and joy of the Church triumphant under the figures of earthly and familiar things, while no one is misled thereby to imagine that the heavenly Jerusalem will be surrounded with a literal wall of jasper, “twelve thousand furlongs” = 1,500 miles (Revelation 21:16; Revelation 21:18), or that its twelve gates shall be each of an actual pearl. It is remarkable that in two instances, that of Gog and that of the river of life, the imagery is the same in Ezekiel and in Revelation. At the same time Ezekiel is careful to introduce among his details so many points that were impossible, or, at least, the literal fulfilment of which would have been strangely inconsistent with his main teaching, as to show that his description must be ideal, and that its realisation is to be sought for beneath the types and shadows in which it was clothed. It may be as impossible to find the symbolical meaning of each separate detail as it is to tell the typical meaning of the sockets for the boards of the tabernacle, although the tabernacle as a whole is expressly said to have been a type. This is the case with every vision, and parable, and type, and every form of setting forth truth by imagery; there must necessarily be much which has no independent signification, but is merely subsidiary to the main point. It is characteristic of Ezekiel that these subsidiary details should be elaborated with the utmost minuteness. His purpose was understood by his contemporaries, and by the generation immediately succeeding, so that they never made any attempt to carry out his descriptions in the rebuilding of the Temple and reconstitution of the State. The idea of a literal interpretation of his words was reserved for generations long distant from his time, from the forms of the Church under which he lived, and from the circumstances and habits of expression with which he was familiar, and under the influence of which he wrote.

Verses 1-11

Verse 14

(14) Shall not sell of it.—The Levites’ portion (Ezekiel 48:13) was of the same size as that of the priests, instead of their having (as under the law) nearly three times as many cities, and the restriction of Leviticus 25:34 that they might not even temporarily alienate the fields attached to their cities, is here extended to their whole land on the express ground that it is “first-fruits.”

Verse 15

(15) The five thousand that are left.—The two strips of territory for the Levites and the priests, each 10,000 reeds wide, being deducted from the whole width of the oblation, leaves a strip of 5,000 wide and 25,000 long which is here apportioned to the city and its suburbs. It is called “profane” in contrast to the “holy” possession of the Levites (Ezekiel 48:14), and the “most holy” of the priests (Ezekiel 48:12), though it was still a part of the oblation.

Verse 16

(16) The measures.—The city itself is to be an exact square of 4,500 reeds, and according to Ezekiel 48:17, was to have “suburbs,” or rather an open space on all sides of 250 reeds. The whole was, therefore, 5,000 reeds—a little less than ten miles—square, the exact width of the space that was left of the oblation, and leaving 10,000 reeds on each side of it.

Verse 18

(18) Shall be for food.—This piece of land, only four times the size of the city itself, would seem a very insufficient provision for raising all the food required for the labourers of the city. But here, as everywhere, it is to be remembered that the description is ideal

Verse 19

(19) Out of all the tribes of Israel.—The city itself is no longer, as of old, to belong to any particular tribe, but is to be situated on the common oblation, and its labourers are to be taken alike from all the tribes. Thus the old jealousies are to be extinguished, and in this, as in all other respects, each tribe is to be treated like every other.

Verse 21

(21) The residue shall be for the prince.—The length of the oblation from east to west is supposed to leave a strip at either end which is assigned to the prince. This strip is to extend from north to south, the whole width of the oblation. The expression “over against the portions for the prince” is somewhat obscure from its extreme brevity and want of punctuation in our version; it means that the part of the oblation over against the tribe portions shall be for the prince—i.e., he is to have all that is left of the oblation between it and the portions assigned to the tribes. As already said, this was geographically impossible on the estimate of the length of the cubit here adopted. Even if the cubit were reduced to eighteen inches, which is the smallest estimate that can well be made, the side of the oblation would still be 42î6ô miles long, or more than the distance between the Jordan and the Mediterranean at its northern end. It is quite idle, therefore, to attempt any calculation of the prince’s portion. The description is necessarily ideal, and no hint is given in the vision of how much was intended for the prince. If it be suggested that the prophet may have had in mind measures following the uneven surface of the ground and the sinuosities of the roads. it can only be replied that such a supposition at once destroys all possibility of following his measures, and is singularly opposed to the whole symmetry of his description, as well as inconsistent with the equality of the measure on the four sides.

Verse 23

(23) The rest of the tribes.—In Ezekiel 48:23-29 the remaining five tribes have their portions assigned on the south of the oblation in precisely the same way as the seven on the north.

Verse 30

(30) The goings out of the city.—In Ezekiel 48:30-34 the dimensions of the city are again given for the purpose of introducing the mention of the gates, three on each side, one for each of the tribes of Israel. In this enumeration Levi takes his place as a tribe, and Joseph is therefore reckoned as only one tribe; but the order of their names is neither that of their geographical arrangement nor of their seniority. It will be remembered that the symbolism of the twelve gates enters also into the vision of Revelation 21:12; Revelation 21:21.

Verse 35

(35) Round about eighteen thousand.—The circuit of the city, not including its “suburbs,” or open space, was 4 x 4,500 = 18,000 reeds, or something over thirty-four miles. Josephus reckoned the circuit of Jerusalem in his day at four miles.

Measures.—This word is rightly supplied from Ezekiel 48:30; Ezekiel 48:33. On the symmetry of the city and its gates and the names of the gates, comp. Revelation 21:12; Revelation 13:16.

The Lord is there.—With this name of the city Ezekiel closes his vision and his book. It is a most fitting close; for the object has been to depict, under the figures of the Jewish dispensation, the glories of the Church of the future. The culmination of this glory must ever be that the Lord, according to His promise (John 6:56), will dwell in the believer, and the believer in Him. Imperfectly as this may be carried out here on earth, the effect of the Gospel is to bring about ever more and more fully its realisation; and the closing book of the volume of Revelation, catching the echoes of Ezekiel’s prophecy, looks forward to the Holy City, the New Jerusalem “coming down from God out of heaven,” and declares, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be with them and be their God” (Revelation 21:2-3).


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Ezekiel 48:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.

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