Sanctuary for the Exiles (Far From Home #7)

Sanctuary for the Exiles (Far From Home #7)

The next aspect of what it meant for Israel to be in exile relates to the temple. Throughout Israel’s history the tabernacle or temple played a critical role in the communal worship of the people of Israel. Recently, I have been reading Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. These books chart the journey of God’s people from Egypt towards their new home in the Promised Land. God gives them the 10 commandments and provides detail about how they were to relate to Him through a system of laws and offerings. Much of this revolved around the physical place where God would dwell amongst them.

Exile was therefore a really big deal because they were removed from the Promised Land away from the sanctuary which had been so central to their whole religious system. Furthermore that same temple was soon to be destroyed by the Babylonians leaving a deep sense of permanence. They had been displaced to another country against their will, cut off from their home and surrounded by pagan religion.

In this post we turn specifically to the book of Ezekiel. Chapter 1 tells us that it is 5 years into the exile and Ezekiel the priest is 30 years old. Numbers 4 tells us that priests were to serve between the ages of 30-50, but for Ezekiel his future was transformed by the arrival of exile. His ministry would be more as prophet than priest as he lives amongst the exiles. In this context God speaks to Ezekiel through a series of visions and He speaks profoundly to our topic ‘Sanctuary for the Exiles’:

Photo by Nick Scheerbart on Unsplash

The book of Ezekiel begins with an extraordinary vision of the glory of God which appears in a windstorm (whirlwind/tornado) coming our of the north. It comes out of an immense cloud with flashing lightning and brilliant light. At the centre, there is fire like glowing metal. Just listen to how Ezekiel describes it:

I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north—an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light. The centre of the fire looked like glowing metal, and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures. In appearance their form was human, but each of them had four faces and four wings. Their legs were straight; their feet were like those of a calf and gleamed like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. All four of them had faces and wings, and the wings of one touched the wings of another. Each one went straight ahead; they did not turn as they moved.

Ezekiel 1:4-9

Our attention in these verses is drawn to the 4 living creatures. They had a human likeness, but they were clearly not human. Each one had 4 faces, 4 wings, their legs were straight, they had hands under their wings and their wings touched each other. It is a pretty terrifying image and it is developed further in v10-21 as we read about the appearance and movement of the creatures and the wheels associated with them. At the end of chapter, we are told “…This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. When I saw it, I fell facedown, and I heard the voice of one speaking” (v28). This vision would have been deeply encouraging to Ezekiel as he faced the prospect of live in exile.

Then in chapters 2 and 3 we get an insight into what God was calling Ezekiel to do for Him. Specifically, God was sending him to speak to the Israelites and tell them what the Sovereign Lord says:

1 He said to me, “Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you.” As he spoke, the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet, and I heard him speaking to me. He said: “Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have been in revolt against me to this very day. The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says.’ And whether they listen or fail to listen—for they are a rebellious people—they will know that a prophet has been among them.

Ezekiel 2:1-5

God told Ezekiel not to be afraid of them and that He was to speak His words to them regardless of how they responded. In chapter 3 we read that the Spirit lifted him up and he heard a loud rumbling sound as the glory of the Lord rose. He heard the sound of the living creatures brushing up against each other and the sound of the wheels beside them. The Spirit took him away and he went in bitterness, anger of spirit and deep distress. This was a tough calling for Ezekiel and how he must have wished that he could have ministered outside of this time of exile. He was to be a watchman who would warn God’s people over their sin.

Photo by Rahul on

We now jump forward to ch.8-11 and we are now into the 6th year about a year and a half later. The hand of the Sovereign Lord came on Ezekiel while he was sitting in his house with the elders of Judah sitting before him. Ezekiel gets taken up by a figure like that of a man. He took hold of him by his hair and he was lifted up between earth and heaven. Ezekiel is taken to the temple in Jerusalem and shown the entrance of the north gate of the inner court. There he sees the idol of jealousy as well as the glory of the God of Israel. The focus here is on the idolatry that is happening in the temple:

17 He said to me, “Have you seen this, son of man? Is it a trivial matter for the people of Judah to do the detestable things they are doing here? Must they also fill the land with violence and continually arouse my anger? Look at them putting the branch to their nose! 18 Therefore I will deal with them in anger; I will not look on them with pity or spare them. Although they shout in my ears, I will not listen to them.”

Ezekiel 8:17-18

The result of all this is that the glory of the Lord departs from the temple. It travelled from the holy of holies to the threshold of the temple building, then across the court of the temple, and then stood at the door of the east gate. It was moving away from the temple and about to leave the temple courts. Significantly, the glory of the Lord was headed East. With God’s people also taken East into exile (to Babylon), this seems to indicate that God would remain a sanctuary to His people while in exile. Specifically, God told them (11:16) that though he sent them into exile, he had still been a sanctuary for them in those places. Despite all that had happened, God had not abandoned His people

18 “They will return to it and remove all its vile images and detestable idols. 19 I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. 20 Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God. 21 But as for those whose hearts are devoted to their vile images and detestable idols, I will bring down on their own heads what they have done, declares the Sovereign Lord.”

Ezekiel 11:18-21

Chapter 11 concludes with a message of hope that God would bring them back from the nations where they had been scattered and give them back the land of Israel. Then come the words quoted above which prophecy about a new covenant. No longer will God’s people have a heart of stone, but rather a heart of flesh. God promised to give us His Spirit so that we might follow His decrees and keep His laws. We will be His people and He will be our God.

Photo by Arto Marttinen on Unsplash

This final section comes in the 25th year after their exile some years after the fall of Jerusalem. By this time the temple was now destroyed (587BC) and Ezekiel has a vision of a new temple. The final 8 chapters of the book focus on this vision. Ezekiel is “set me on a very high mountain, on whose south side were some buildings that looked like a city” (40:2). This vision includes a vast array of details and measurements – far more than I can get my head around. Ezekiel’s job was to look and listen closely to all that he was shown and then tell the people everything.

Chapter 43 records Ezekiel seeing the glory of the Lord return to the temple. The glory returned from the same direction that it had departed. Ezekiel likens the vision to the one that he saw previously (ch.11). A voice from inside the temple declared that it was now the place of God’s throne and that here He would live among His people forever. Never again would they defile His holy name.

There are a number of differing views about these chapters, but it appears to me that these chapters are not so much a blueprint for a new temple, but more a prophecy of something symbolic. This vision describes a temple that has never been built. Interestingly, neither of the temples built after the return from exile, and then later the temple rebuilt by Herod, do not conform to this pattern. It seems more likely that it is more symbolic, referring to the New Testament church.

We know from John 1:14 that Jesus made His dwelling (literally tabernacled) among us. He also described His body as the temple which if destroyed, He would raise in three days (John 2:19-22). After Jesus the church then becomes the new temple. Quite a few New Testament passages describe the church as God’s temple or Spiritual house. In 1 Peter he says that this church is made up of living stones who are being assembled together into a spiritual house

Come to Him—the living stone—who was rejected by people but accepted by God as chosen and precious. Like living stones, let yourselves be assembled into a spiritual house, a holy order of priests who offer up spiritual sacrifices that will be acceptable to God through Jesus the Anointed.

1 Peter 2:4-5

Likewise Paul says that we are a temple for the Holy Spirit, who now lives within us:

16 Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives among you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.

19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies.

1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19-20

There is a lot more than could be said from Ezekiel not least from the vision of the river of life in chapter 47 (see my 2023 blog on this). What I hope that we’ve seen here that God is the true sanctuary for His people. He certainly was their sanctuary during their time of exile. Exile was rough for God’s people and yet He remained their sanctuary.

Today, as we also live as exiles, aliens and foreigners in a place that is not our true home, we can also be assured that God is a sanctuary for us also. Indeed, it is a deep mystery to understand just how God dwells in our hearts through His Spirit.

…Although I sent them far away among the nations and scattered them among the countries, yet for a little while I have been a sanctuary for them in the countries where they have gone.’

Ezekiel 11:16

See other posts in this series: Far From Home

  1. Living in Exile
  2. Refusing to Compromise
  3. Making a Home for ourselves
  4. Comfort for the Exiles
  5. Restoring a Broken World
  6. Where is God in Exile?
  7. Sanctuary for the Exiles
  8. Prayer and the Purposes of God

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