Study Series Note: This study is the ninth in a series that examines the Bible’s sacred places (tabernacle, temple, etc.). The previous study discussed the prophet Jeremiah’s warnings that empty ritual in the temple would bring about its destruction. This post discusses the rebuilding of the temple and the role of God’s Spirit presence in the restoration.
As the prophet Jeremiah predicted, the Babylonians destroyed the temple and deported the people of Jerusalem. This time in captivity was known as the “Exile.” The Exile had a profound effect on how the Jewish people viewed God’s presence and the temple. In particular, the concept of God’s Spirit gained greater prominence when describing God’s active presence among his people. Moreover, God’s Spirit would bring the needed heart restoration so that God’s glory could dwell closely with his people again.[i]
The Exile ended when the ascendant Persian empire allowed the Jewish people to return and rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. The Old Testament books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Haggai describe this rebuilding. The rebuilt temple is often referred to as the “second temple.” The second temple was much more modest than Solomon’s temple and the Holy of Holies lacked the Ark of the Covenant. For this and other reasons, many Jews maintained an emphasis on the Spirit as God’s presence among his people, even though the temple (the traditional place of God’s special presence) was rebuilt.[ii]
God’s Presence among his People
The Exile culminated with the destruction of the temple, but even before this event some Jews like Ezekiel were exiled to Babylon. From exile, Ezekiel predicted that the temple would be destroyed and the remaining Jews also would be sent into exile. Ezekiel (like Jeremiah) also spoke against those in Jerusalem who thought that they had a superior status because of their closeness to God’s presence in the temple. Ezekiel (chapter 11) would proclaim that the Jerusalemites had nothing to boast over the exiles.[iii] In fact, Ezekiel was granted a vision of God’s glory leaving the temple in response to Israel’s apostasy. Whether in exile or in Jerusalem, God would choose to be near those who followed him and stayed true to the covenant.
Scripture study and Discussion:
Ezekiel 11:14-16: 14 Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying, 15 “Son of man, your brothers, your relatives, your fellow exiles and the whole house of Israel, all of them, are those to whom the inhabitants of Jerusalem have said, ‘Go far from the LORD; this land has been given us as a possession.’ 16 Therefore say, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, Though I had removed them far away among the nations and though I had scattered them among the countries, yet I was a sanctuary for them a little while in the countries where they had gone.”‘
These verses describe how those living in Jerusalem felt that God had removed the exiles from his presence (in the temple) to give the land to those whom he allowed to remain. But God’s presence was not confined to the temple nor was God done judging the nation. Ezekiel’s vision of God’s glory leaving the temple, and the temple’s eventual destruction, confirmed these truths.
How does the Lord respond in verse 16 to those who would say that the exiles were away from the sanctuary so that they were away from the Lord? (Suggested answer: By saying, “though I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a while in the countries where they have gone” the Lord confirms that his presence has been with the exiles. The Lord, therefore, has been a sanctuary for them because the temple is really about God’s presence. The Jerusalemites can’t boast that they have the temple, especially since the temple was about to be destroyed anyway. The Lord was not done judging the nation, nor was he done bringing about an eventual restoration.)
Ezekiel 11:17-21: 17 “Therefore say, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “I will gather you from the peoples and assemble you out of the countries among which you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel.”‘ 18 “When they come there, they will remove all its detestable things and all its abominations from it. 19 “And I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them. And I will take the heart of stone out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, 20 that they may walk in My statutes and keep My ordinances and do them. Then they will be My people, and I shall be their God. 21 “But as for those whose hearts go after their detestable things and abominations, I will bring their conduct down on their heads,” declares the Lord GOD.
God’s plan is eventually to restore his people to the land. As these verses describe, however, the Lord is less concerned with the temple rituals and more concerned with a people that follow him from the heart.
What does God promise to do for his people in this restoration? (Suggested answer: He will give them a new spirit so that they live out covenant faithfulness from the heart. Note verses 19-20, “And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.”)
Despite God’s presence in the temple, his people are unfaithful to him and profane his holiness. Mere rituals in a temple do not honor God, but faithfulness from the heart is what God desires from his people. For true restoration to happen, God’s people need a heart transforming Spirit. God must work inside people and not merely inside the temple. This reality is highlighted in Ezekiel’s vision of the glory leaving the temple in the next verses.
Ezekiel 11:22-25: 22 Then the cherubim lifted up their wings with the wheels beside them, and the glory of the God of Israel hovered over them. 23 The glory of the LORD went up from the midst of the city and stood over the mountain which is east of the city. 24 And the Spirit lifted me up and brought me in a vision by the Spirit of God to the exiles in Chaldea. So the vision that I had seen left me. 25 Then I told the exiles all the things that the LORD had shown me.
The cherubim are part of the great throne chariot that carries God’s glory. Before his vision ends, Ezekiel sees God’s glory presence depart from the temple and the city.
In verse 16 God is a sanctuary to his people in a far-away land, but in these verses God’s glory presence leaves the sanctuary in Jerusalem. What do these contrasting verses reveal about God? (Suggested answer: God can choose to manifest his presence wherever and however he wants. God is more concerned with faithfulness than ritual, so God can be with Ezekiel in Babylon while departing from the sacred sanctuary in Jerusalem.)
This passage in Ezekiel further demonstrates that Yahweh’s presence is connected to, but not dependent on, the temple. Yahweh’s presence is not confined to his house, especially in the midst of a sinful people. This thought also leads into the future promise that Yahweh would again gather the people and restore the covenant relationship. This promise includes an implicit assurance of the return of the glory and an explicit promise of a new spirit within God’s people. When God’s Spirit of holiness indwells his people, the glory presence of the Lord will return. Ezekiel 43 predicts the return of the glory presence to a future temple.
Rebuilding the Temple
After 70 years the exile ended, but the people were still weak and discouraged when they returned to a ruined capital and temple. The concept that God could be present with his people apart from the temple actually encouraged the people to finish rebuilding. God was not impotent and absent without the temple; he was with them and continuing to work out his sovereign plan.
Haggai 2:1-9 On the twenty-first of the seventh month, the word of the LORD came by Haggai the prophet saying, 2 “Speak now to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people saying, 3 ‘Who is left among you who saw this temple in its former glory? And how do you see it now? Does it not seem to you like nothing in comparison? 4 ‘But now take courage, Zerubbabel,’ declares the LORD, ‘take courage also, Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and all you people of the land take courage,’ declares the LORD, ‘and work; for I am with you,’ declares the LORD of hosts. 5 ‘As for the promise which I made you when you came out of Egypt, My Spirit is abiding in your midst; do not fear!’ 6 “For thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘Once more in a little while, I am going to shake the heavens and the earth, the sea also and the dry land. 7 ‘I will shake all the nations; and they will come with the wealth of all nations, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the LORD of hosts. 8 ‘The silver is Mine and the gold is Mine,’ declares the LORD of hosts. 9 ‘The latter glory of this house will be greater than the former,’ says the LORD of hosts, ‘and in this place I will give peace,’ declares the LORD of hosts.”
How is Haggai encouraging the people? (Suggested answer: He tells them that God is with them and that although things look bad now, greater things are yet to come.)
Through the prophet Haggai, the Lord encourages the exiles that he is with them. God doesn’t need a fully refurbished house to do his work, so the exiles are not separated from God during this difficult rebuild. Instead God has providentially set the stage for their return and he calls his people to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple knowing that God has a plan for a brilliant future where his glory will be manifested in an unprecedented manner. Notice the association in these verses between God’s presence, his Spirit, and his glory. God can be present with his people by way of his Spirit, and it is by his Spirit (remember Jeremiah and Ezekiel) that the inner heart restoration will take place. God’s glory presence in the temple and his Spirit presence among his people were both manifestations of the one true God. These concepts would develop in the following years and find full flowering in the teachings of Jesus.
Through the Exile, the Jewish people were reminded that God was not confined to a holy place. In fact, even in the midst of a prisoner of war camp or a ruined city, God could be a sanctuary for the exiles. How could this fact help you in a time of trouble? How could this spur you on to live all of life in God’s presence? (Possible answers: God is accessible to his people even in the midst of trouble, not just in sacred places. Because God is not confined to his house, we should not confine him to certain compartments of our lives. God desires a heart faithfulness that affects all of life. His Spirit is meant to permeate all that we do.)
Epilogue and Christ Connection
Did God’s glory presence return to the second temple? Some later Jewish writings show that many had their doubts.[iv] What is certain is that inasmuch as the temple was the central sacred place of God’s people, God was there. In the centuries following the temple’s rebuilding, the priesthood became entangled in political intrigue and foreign influence. The corruption of the priesthood caused some Jewish sects (like those in Qumran who wrote the Dead Sea scrolls) to withdraw from temple worship. Other Jews never returned from exile. They remained dispersed throughout the world and distance prevented them from worshiping at the temple. Because of prophets like Ezekiel, these groups knew that God’s Spirit would dwell with those who were faithful. They chose, therefore, to follow Torah and seek God’s Spirit to bring the long awaited restoration for their community.
A couple decades before the birth of Jesus Christ, King Herod led a massive rebuilding project that increased the size and splendor of the temple so that it was even greater than the first temple. Nevertheless, the Holy of Holies remained empty and the ruling priests were largely puppets of the ruling Roman authorities. For these reasons many Jews still awaited the restoration of God’s people. Many believed that a Spirit-anointed Messiah would begin this restoration. In the midst of these hopes, Jesus began his ministry proclaiming that the kingdom of God had arrived (Mark 1:15).
[i] A more thorough examination of the Spirit in the Old Testament can be found in Hildebrandt, Wilf. An Old Testament Theology of the Spirit of God. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1995. An enlightening (even more academic) work on the Spirit in the OT is Presence, Power and Promise: The Role of the Spirit of God in the Old Testament (Eds. David Firth and Paul Wegner; Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011).
[ii] For an in-depth examination of how God’s presence both in the temple and with his people became associated with the Holy Spirit, see Joseph R. Greene “The Spirit in the Temple: Bridging the Gap between Old Testament Absence and New Testament Assumption,” JETS 55 (2012): 717-742.
[iii] Daniel L Block, The Book of Ezekiel; Chapters 1–24 (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 350.
[iv] The second temple literature is divided with some passages suggesting that Yahweh’s presence was no longer in the second temple (1 Macc 2:7–8; Sib. Or. 4:6–31; 2 Bar. 8:2; 64:7; Josephus J.W. 6:300, Tacitus Hist. 5.13; CD 1:3; b. Yoma 21b) and other passages suggesting that he was present (2 Macc 2:5–8; 14:35–36; Sir 50:1; 3 Macc 2:16; Jub. 1:17). Davies gives further evidence of both in, G. I. Davies, “The Presence of God in the Second Temple and Rabbinic Doctrine” in Templum Amicitiae (ed. William Horbury; JSNTSup 48; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1991): 32–36.