Isaiah 66, Ezekiel’s Temple Vision and Torah Observance

I probably get asked more often about Isaiah 66 than any other text when it comes to Torah Observance and Hebrew Roots. Not only in emails, but even when I was interviewed recently by Caleb Hegg. It really seems a lot of folks think this is really convincing. Below is an email response I sent on this question, as well as Ezekiel’s temple vision, which often gets asked in the same breath. Enjoy.

***Isaiah 66, Ezekiel’s temple vision, and Torah Observance***

Thank you for the questions. I hope I can help in some way. I apologize in advance for the monster email. Hopefully it isn’t too overwhelming.

You probably realize that the questions you’re asking, and the passages you’re looking at, open up a huge field of theology. How we approach these kinds of passages depends heavily on how we approach prophecy and eschatology. I’ll try to briefly explain where I’m coming from on this stuff here, but I’ll leave some links to resources from myself and others to try to help you see the different views out there. These two texts, especially, I see people come to them with a conclusion already in mind, as opposed to drawing the meaning from the texts themselves. 

Part of this is actually to be expected, and is a good thing, believe it or not. The reason is that these are both predictive prophecy. The Isaiah passage is also poetry. The Bible has many different literary genres in it. There’s historical narrative, poetry, apocalyptic visions, letters, etc. Each of these should be read according to the genre. We shouldn’t necessarily read a psalm that is full of symbolism and figures of speech as literally as we read history, for example. Also, predictive prophecy is a type of writing that is not fully understandable until the fulfillment. For example, while there are hundreds of prophecies concerning the Messiah, no one could paint a full picture of who Jesus is based only on the prophecies. They all pointed to Him, but only when He actually came did certain things become fully known.

For example, there are Old Testament passages about John the Baptist that the New Testament clearly interprets as fulfilled by him, but that you wouldn’t necessarily know were supposed to be fulfilled that way. Two come to mind. The one John specifically points to as referring to himself is the one about the “voice crying in the wilderness”. But consider what that text actually says in Isaiah 40.

A voice is calling,

“Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness;

Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.

“Let every valley be lifted up,

And every mountain and hill be made low;

And let the rough ground become a plain,

And the rugged terrain a broad valley;

Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed,

And all flesh will see it together;

For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

A voice says, “Call out.”

Then he answered, “What shall I call out?”

All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.

The grass withers, the flower fades,

When the breath of the Lord blows upon it;

Surely the people are grass.

The grass withers, the flower fades,

But the word of our God stands forever.

Isaiah 40:3-8

Now, when you just read the passage, what comes to mind literally? I see a voice calling on someone to clear a path for God in the wilderness, followed by dramatic upheaval of the land, the death of the plant life, and the application of that death to people. If this was considered predictive, it looks like the final judgment. 

But that’s not what happened, at least not literally. John prepared the way for the LORD. For Jesus. And Jesus did come. So the fulfillment looks different than what we would think just reading the prophecy on its own. Another passage that talks about John is the one predicting the coming of Elijah in Malachi 4.

“Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse.”

Malachi 4:5-6

Read literally, this says “Elijah the prophet” will come before Christ. But did Elijah literally come? Let’s look at the answers given in the New Testament. First, John himself is asked if he is Elijah.

19 This is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 And he confessed and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 They asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” And he *said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you, so that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.”

John 1:19-23

John says he is not Elijah. But of course, Jesus says he is.

10 And His disciples asked Him, “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” 11 And He answered and said, “Elijah is coming and will restore all things; 12 but I say to you that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wished. So also the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that He had spoken to them about John the Baptist.

Matthew 17:10-13

This is no contradiction. John wasn’t literally Elijah born a second time as Jesus’ cousin. Remember, Elijah didn’t die, but went straight to heaven. For him to come back would seem to have to happen like it does earlier in this chapter at the transfiguration, in a short, temporary way as a heavenly visitor. But John was born and grew up knowing Jesus and as a part of the community. He wasn’t literally Elijah, but he was the fulfillment of the prophecy, because he came in the “spirit and power” of Elijah (Luke 1:17). 

These are just a couple of examples to show that when it comes to prophecy, we should not be looking for literal fulfillment. What we should also not be looking for is the foundation of our theology. When we ask theological questions about the nature of God, or the Law or salvation, there are much clearer passages to look to than prophecy. That is why I said above that it’s kind of a good thing that people bring their theological perspectives into their interpretation of these texts. Not because we are supposed to impose theology on the text, but because we should be building our theology on passages that clearly teach it, not on extrapolations from prophetic poetry.

Sadly, my experience with many different theological views, not just Torah Observance, is that there is far too much dependence on predictive prophecy in building the theological system, which is then made to dominate other, clearer texts that might contradict that theological system.

At this point I also want to address a term you used in your email: spiritualizing. In my experience, that is a term unique to one particular view of prophecy and eschatology, dispensationalism. I don’t know your view, but if you’re using a term like that, I can guess that you likely have a dispensationalist background. Now if it bothers you at all that I say that, then I can guess a couple other things based on what I’ve experienced in talking to lots of people of different backgrounds. 

Here in America, and through much of Christianity that it influences, dispensationalism is the default view. It is so prevalent that many who believe it have never even heard of it. And when they talk about different views of the end times, their discussions are limited to views within dispensationalism. They talk about pre-trib versus post-trib rapture, for example, but never really talk about amillennialism or postmillennialism, since these views are so far outside their experience that they just label them as “spiritualizing” and “replacement theology” and then ignore them as preposterous.

Historically, most teachers in the Hebrew Roots and Torah movements come out of dispensationalist churches, and so their entire experience is with that view. Now, having left those churches for their newfound Torah beliefs, they reject dispensationalism as a system, but are not aware of how much it still influences how they think. They still see other views of eschatology and prophecy as preposterous for the same reasons they did as dispensationalists, not knowing how many beliefs they have that are unique to dispensationalism, which is a theological system that can be traced back to the 18th century in its earliest roots, but didn’t get any traction until the early 20th century after World War I.

Now, like I said, I don’t know your background, but if any of this resonates, please understand that I’m going to be coming to these prophetic texts from a very different perspective than dispensationalist and post-dispensationalist Torah movement people.

I’ll start with Isaiah 66.

I do agree that this text appears to be referring to a future judgment. It could be speaking of the final judgment, but it also appears to be about a judgment within “Jerusalem”, which could be referring to God’s people and judgment within. I say that because of the language in verse 19 about scattering them among other nations. For this reason, it could be about captivity for the nation, but it really is hard to say for sure. It does seem to be mixing lots of images and ideas, such that it could be something that is coming very soon to Isaiah’s readers, or the final judgment, or both. Prophecy is difficult to fully understand when not yet fulfilled, as we have seen.

That being said, I don’t think this passage necessitates the literal keeping of these laws mentioned in the text (eating swine’s flesh, sabbaths and new moons). I believe, based not on prophetic poetry like this, but on clearer texts, that the physical nation of Israel, under the Sinai covenant, was a symbolic picture of God’s true people, who are those who believe in Jesus, regardless of lineage. So when I see prophetic passages about “Zion” and “Jerusalem” and “Israel”, I make the necessary shifts in thinking to apply them to God’s people today. This does not mean I “do away with” the ceremonial laws, but that I look at how they are fulfilled. Generally, the dietary laws were meant to set the nation of Israel apart from other nations. God’s people are still to be set apart, but it is no longer in a national context. Now all the nations are being made disciples, so cultural practices no longer serve that function. However, the principle still applies. We are still to be set apart from the unbelieving world, but that is usually expressed in terms of loving one another, and keeping ourselves from idols themselves. Incidentally, the eating of swine in this passage is not set by itself, but as part of some pagan ritual. Such things are not for believers. But note that we aren’t forbidden from going into gardens, or standing in a circle while someone in leadership talks to a group. In general, these aren’t even religious things, but in Isaiah, these details are all tied to the real sin, the idolatry.

So, the prophecy is expressed in language familiar to the original readers, but it doesn’t mean that all the details will literally turn out that way, just like John wasn’t literally Elijah.

Turning to the Ezekiel passage, I don’t think it a stretch at all to consider this as referring, not to a physical temple in the future, but to the kingdom of God as expressed in the church, now and into the future with Jesus’ second coming. I’ll give you some reasons, which are both against the literal physical building, as well as looking at the New Testament and how it speaks of the Temple of God.

In Ezekiel, some details point away from this being a physical, end-times temple.

  • This is a prophetic vision, and Ezekiel is given many symbolic visions and instructions throughout the book
  • Ezekiel is not told that this temple is “future” or “to be built”. Nor is there any command to build
  • The river flowing and getting deeper seems symbolic
  • There seems to be a contingency on the building of the temple. It isn’t guaranteed. (43:10-11)
  • The “prince” would seem to have to be Christ if it is an end-times temple, but he offers sacrifices “for himself” as well as the people, which could not describe Jesus (45:22)

On the other hand, the New Testament frequently speaks of the church as being the Temple of God or the Holy Spirit.

16 Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? 17 If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are.

1 Cor 3:16-17

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.

1 Cor. 6:19-20

Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, “I will dwell in them and walk among them; And I will be their God, and they shall be My people.

2 Cor. 6:16

19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, 20 having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.

Eph. 2:19-22

Whether the Ezekiel temple was to be built if Israel fully repented, but wasn’t, or else was a prophetic description of the church today, It seems the New Testament sees God’s temple as the church. And the New Testament doesn’t contain any prophecies of a future physical temple on earth. Revelation speaks of there being “no temple” because everything is temple. The Temple always defined God’s “dwelling” in the world, which has been limited since the world is fallen, and still is limited today, but the future promise is that it will no longer be limited when all has been made right.

Now, as these passages are used in the Torah movements, they are seen as evidence of future Torah keeping. But as I hope I’ve explained well enough, there is good reason not to see them that way. There is good reason to interpret predictive prophecy in light of clearer passages, and I believe much of the Bible is clear on the fact that the Sinai covenant is no longer in effect, having been replaced by the New Covenant. Because of this, we read the Law differently than an Israelite before Christ who was a member of that covenant should read it. This doesn’t mean the whole Law is done away with, just that we should look at the commandments in a new light. Some commandments are clearly still in effect in the same way that they were then. These are what people have called the “moral laws”. They were in effect before Moses, and they were in effect for other nations at the time of Sinai covenant, even though those nations were not members of that covenant. And they are still in effect now. Laws that clearly concern justice and loving one’s neighbor fall into this category, as well as commandments restricting worship to the one God, so no idolatry.

Other laws were meant only for members of that covenant, just as there are New Covenant commandments only intended for the church. We are commanded to baptize believers, partake of the Lord’s supper, appoint elders in the churches, and many other things. These are not commanded of unbelievers. Unbelievers are still under judgment for breaking God’s moral laws, but they are never judged for breaking New Covenant ceremonial laws, just as other nations were not judged for breaking Sinai Covenant ceremonial laws, like Sabbath observance and dietary restrictions.

Here are some links to things that I think might assist you in your studies.

My recent video series on Old/New Testament interpretation:

My recent video series on distinctions of kinds of Law:

My series on distinguishing the covenants

An Eschatological discussion with different views other than dispensational

Article on Ezekiel’s Temple, outlining problems with dispensational view

I hope this helps, and I’m open to other questions as well.