“My Dwelling Place Shall be with Them”: Ezekiel and the Temple

“My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” Ezekiel 37:27

In 587 the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and with it, the people of Israel are driven into exile in Babylon. The temple is gone and so is the center of worship life for the people of Israel. “worship life” is a bit misleading. The collapse of the temple signifies a loss of collective identity for the people–who they are and whose they are–their identity is under fire. Almost fifteen years later, Ezekiel (covered in chapters 36–48) has a vision in which the temple is rebuilt. The vision is highly detailed, the dimensions of the temple, it’s length and breadth, how everything is organized within the four walls. Twelve chapters. It is a vision of hope for a people who have been separated from their place of worship. This text and it’s part in the story, merits our attention, because it has quite a bit to say about God, what God wants for the people of Israel and for the world, and the prophetic task.

Let’s stop for a moment and consider this larger context of exile. In the Psalms, the people sing from Babylon: “How can we sing the Lord’s Song in a foreign land?” When the people are in exile, they wonder what it means to remain God’s people. At the time it was understood that being conquered by another people, signaled that one’s God was conquered too. The people of Israel had been overcome. The temple of God lay in ruins. So, the people must have doubted and wondered about the strength of their God. They must have wondered if they had it all wrong. Was YHWH really God over Israel and the whole world? “How can we sing the song of the Lord in a foreign land?” How can we be assured that God is God apart from where we have come from?

The chapters which cover the dimensions of the temple are no walk in the park, but neither are the first 30-something chapters of Ezekiel which include his prophetic oracles against Israel and predictions of destruction and exile. Go, Ezekiel claims, is still God, but the people have strayed and are under God’s judgement. See how this undermines the understanding above–God isn’t weaker than another God because the people of Israel are in exile. God judges Israel and has sent it into exile. The people who have hard hearts are being transformed through their experience of exile: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (ch. 36).

bergen_marienkirche_-_fresko_propheten_2a

By Wolfgang Sauber (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

After all that Ezekiel rails against, he still ends with the hopeful proclamation that God will make all things well. Consider the text below excerpted from this more hopeful section on rebuilding the temple:

Then he brought me back to the entrance of the temple; there, water was flowing from below the threshold of the temple toward the east (for the temple faced east); and the water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar. Then he brought me out by way of the north gate, and led me around on the outside to the outer gate that faces toward the east; and the water was coming out on the south side.

Going on eastward with a cord in his hand, the man measured one thousand cubits, and then led me through the water; and it was ankle-deep. Again he measured one thousand, and led me through the water; and it was knee-deep. Again he measured one thousand, and led me through the water; and it was up to the waist. Again he measured one thousand, and it was a river that I could not cross, for the water had risen; it was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be crossed. He said to me, “Mortal, have you seen this?”

Then he led me back along the bank of the river. As I came back, I saw on the bank of the river a great many trees on the one side and on the other. He said to me, “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah; and when it enters the sea, the sea of stagnant waters, the water will become fresh. Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish, once these waters reach there. It will become fresh; and everything will live where the river goes. People will stand fishing beside the sea from En-gedi to En-eglaim; it will be a place for the spreading of nets; its fish will be of a great many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea. But its swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they are to be left for salt. On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.

Ezekiel 47:1-12 (NRSV)

 

This vision of the temple takes on another layer of meaning for Christians later on. If one compares the description of the temple vision in Ezekiel to John’s vision of the New Jerusalem in Revelation, the similarities are striking. Indeed, John pretty clearly borrows from Ezekiel’s vision. A key difference is that John’s vision includes all of Jerusalem, a city for all people. Ezekiel’s vision is of the temple for the people of Israel in exile.

Read the last paragraph of the text excerpt above. Ezekiel’s vision–a river flowing under the throne of God, a river of life teeming with life emerges out of the rubble of the temple in Jerusalem. A river of life which gives life to trees which bear fruit for the healing of the nations. In the midst of exile, the hope of a vision of the temple rebuilt must have inspired hope. What hope does this story and the story of the New Jerusalem give us now?

Hear the Word

There is a lot you might focus on in this story, but don’t get bogged down or stuck in the details of the temple rebuilding–the people were far from God, God wanted them to be transformed and remember what kind of people they were supposed to be. The exile is supposed to teach them that and while they are in exile, they start to dream about everything being right again.

You could share a little bit about the history of exile with your class (simple. Similar to what I have done above). You could talk about how the people went into exile because God needed to get their attention. Their hearts were hard! God needed to make them soft (“hearts of flesh”) to open them up and make them the kind of people God wanted them to be.

You might choose to focus on the dreams the people had of returning home and building the temple. They wanted a special place where they could acknowledge and worship God together again. Perhaps you are most interested in the way one of these themes connects with what our kids know about church and how we worship God. Finally, you may be interested in how we are still waiting in some sense for Christ to come again and with him to bring the New Jerusalem. What might our dreams look like now? How might be get ready for such an incredible mystery.

Respond to the Word

  1. Saint John’s Bible Illumination: Like last week’s lesson, there is an illumination in the Saint John’s Bible for this text. We have the lovely (and quite large) book that I put out on the white table in the commons, but the image is linked above. This illumination panel shows a bird’s eye view of the temple. Spend some time with the image. What does the picture tell us about the temple (students might note it’s size, beauty, or if they notice the gold themes, they may mention how special it is). Discuss the function of a temple–a place to gather in community, sacrifice, give gifts to God or share gifts with the community. Your class might like to move from this conversation to creating your own temple illuminations. Use squares of tissue paper and small touches of gold acrylic paint. Ask students to create something beautiful, something they could only dream of, and something that reminds them of how beautiful God is.
  2. Rebuilding the temple: Younger children can focus on what it means that the temple was built and then destroyed. Use the cardboard blocks (in the supply closet nearest the nursery) to build a simple temple. You may also want to borrow a basket of play silks from the nursery to make the temple curtain and the holy of holies.In groups or as a class, build a temple (you can show pictures, or students can build a small square room with an altar in the middle. We have enough blocks for something simple like that) before knocking it over.
  3. A place dedicated to God: Ezekiel spends a great deal of time describing what the temple looks like. All of the dimensions are downright tedious. This text can help remind us of how the space in which we worship God is important and special. We give utmost care to creating and maintaining the space.
    1. Take a class field trip to the Nave. Walk around the Nave together and see if students can take note of all of the details in our worship space.
      1. Older students might enjoy taking notebooks, journals, or sketchbooks to the Nave and writing or sketching all that they see. Wonder together about what our space says about God, about us, and about our worship of God.
      2. Younger children may like to go up to the Nave and measure different parts of it in number of steps. How many steps does it take to make it across the back of the Nave? Down the aisle? About how many steps across is the front of the chancel? Please remember to ask the children to respect the space, avoid running around, and to be peaceful and reverent.
    2. Use art supplies to create a space in which the worship of God might happen. After learning about the temple in Ezekiel and the Nave in which we worship God, can students carefully design their own space? How is the space shaped? Where does everyone face? Are there leaders? Where do they sit? Are people still in the space? Do they move around a great deal? Where do they go? See what themes emerge from the account of Ezekiel and the liturgy.
  4. This coloring page on Ezekiel would make a fine opening activity as your class gathers. You may also choose to send it home with the students.
  5. Heart of Stone: Your class might like to play with this image and paint hearts on rocks. Perhaps Ezekiel could be painted on the side opposite the heart. What is a heart of stone anyway? What other “hard hearts” are in the Bible? (Pilate and Pharaoh were two I thought of that the students might know well).
  6. River of Life: Does the river from the text above intrigue you at all? I love that this same refrain, “leaves for the healing of the nations” shows up again in revelation. I also love that this theme of life out of death and destruction emerges again, just like our lesson last week. A stagnant and shallow puddle becomes a clear flowing stream that produces and supports life–vegetation, fish, and healing of a nation.
  7. Memorization: Ezekiel 37:27 repeats an important refrain in the Old Testament–the people belong to God. God dwells with them: “My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” Use memorization strategies that are appropriate for your age group and invite your class to learn this text together. What does it mean to belong to God?

Share a Feast and Closing Prayer

 

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