Ezekiel 41
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
Holiness is an idea which admits of gradual precision and elevation. There is a very simple and primitive meaning of the term, which it would ill become us to despise and ridicule, inasmuch as it was preliminary and preparatory to a more spiritual conception. At the same time, we should do discredit to our Christian training did we not strive to rise to a higher and nobler conception of holiness than that which obtained among, and was sufficient for, a people in an early. stage of spiritual culture. In the temple at Jerusalem there was a holy place, and a holy of holies, or, in the language of Ezekiel, the most holy place. An effort may be made to reach and to explain the several ideas which together made up the peculiar sanctity of the adytum of the Jewish temple.

I. THE PRIMITIVE SIGNIFICATION OF HOLINESS IS SEPARATION, AND THE MOST HOLY PLACE WAS ONE MARKED OFF AND SET APART FROM ALL AROUND. A purpose was served by the distinction between the sacred and the profane - a distinction which may, in the highest stage of spiritual culture, be transcended. Men have to be taught by their senses; and the separation of a certain spot, a certain building, a certain portion of a building, from all around, contributes to the formation of the idea of sanctity. This might not be necessary in a world where no sin exists; but in this world, where sin has reigned, and where sin still so largely prevails, the evil has impressed itself on men's minds as normal, and the pure and Divine as exceptional. Hence the consecration of sites, and temples, oracles, and holy places.

II. THE MOST HOLY PLACE SERVED TO EDUCATE THE JEWISH PEOPLE IN MORALITY AND IN TRUE RELIGION. The whole ceremonial and sacrificial dispensation established by Moses, with all the observances of the Levitical Law, may justly be regarded as instructive and disciplinary, in the first place for Israel, and then for all mankind. Those who looked upon the temple and its sanctuary could not but be reminded that here was the peculiar dwelling-place of a holy God. The degrees of holiness attaching to the several parts of the sacred edifice, culminating in the sanctity of the most holy place, were fitted to elicit the spiritual apprehensions, the reverence, the devotion, the penitence, of those who felt themselves in the presence and under the training of the all-holy God. To a certain extent every Israelite not specially disqualified might draw near to Jehovah; the priests were suffered and required to approach still nearer to the shrine; but the high priest alone was permitted, and that only upon a special occasion, to enter the most holy place. Such arrangements and provisions were admirably adapted to educate the Jewish people in the idea and in the practice of holiness.

III. RECONCILIATION BETWEEN A SINFUL NATION AND A JUST AND PURE GOD WAS EFFECTED THROUGH THE MEDIUM OF THE MOST HOLY PLACE. In the holy of holies was performed the especially solemn and sacred service in which, upon the Day of Atonement, the high priest alone was suffered to take part as the representative of the people of the covenant. On that occasion the federal relation of Israel was conspicuously set forth. To the pious Jew the contents of the holy of holies, the vestments of the officiating high priest, the blood of atonement, must all have possessed a very special and very sacred interest. And that interest centered in the idea of reconciliation between Jehovah and the chosen nation - reconciliation rendered necessary by the sins of the people, and by the perfectly holy character, the perfectly righteous government, of God. Consecrated to this use, the inmost sanctuary was naturally invested with a sacredness altogether unique.

IV. THE MOST HOLY PLACE BECAME ASSOCIATED WITH COMMUNION BETWEEN ISRAEL AND ISRAEL'S GOD. Reconciliation naturally led to fellowship. The enlightened Jews doubtless took a spiritual view of the Divine presence, and sympathized with the sublime language of Solomon at the dedication of the temple: "Will God in very deed dwell with men on the earth? Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have built!" Still, it was by means of this temple, its priesthood and its services, that the Jewish nation generally were, by Divine appointment and intention, made familiar with the possibility and privilege of fellowship with the Eternal. It was inculcated upon them that such communion was only possible in virtue of the condescension and compassion of the Most High, and that there was needed on their part, in order to the enjoyment of the privilege, a peculiar preparation, a spiritual cleansing. The thoughtful and devout Jew learned, by means of the temple services, to form such an idea of God as led him to seek a spiritual discipline. He knew that the sacrifices in themselves were insufficient, and that the sacrifices required by the Searcher of hearts were spiritual, consisting in humility, penitence, faith, and obedience. Those thus prepared might draw near unto God, and God would draw near unto them.

V. THE MOST HOLY PLACE, AS THE SCENE OF HIGH PRIESTLY MEDIATION, SYMBOLIZES THE MEDIATORIAL WORK OF CHRIST. In order to understand the symbolical, and indeed typical, character of the holy of holies, and of the ministration therein performed by the Jewish high priest, it is important to study the ninth chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews. In that portion of Scripture is as authoritative and lucid explanation of the spiritual meaning of the central scenes and observances of the Jewish economy. It is shown that the shadow was in Christ superseded by the substance, and that in the new and spiritual dispensation we have the fulfillment of ancient promise. The transactions which, on the great Day of Atonement, took place within the holy of holies prefigured and adumbrated the great events by which, not Israel only, but humanity as a whole, was reconciled to God. For when Christ expired upon the cross the veil of the temple was rent in twain; and thenceforth, through the rent veil of Christ's humanity, the way into the holiest of all was opened up; the alienation of the human race from God was abolished; and perpetual communion was provided between a gracious Father and his restored and accepted children. The most holy place into which through Christ we have access is nothing else than the favor, the fellowship, the love of God. - T.

This is the most holy place. There has always dwelt in the minds of men a feeling that some places are peculiarly sacred. Unfortunately, there has been no small amount of superstition connected with this feeling, which should be discouraged in others and should be resisted in our own ease. We should strongly insist upon the truth, and carefully cultivate the conviction, that if some places have a peculiar sanctity, it is that "ever, place may be holy ground "to us; that we may find God everywhere and in everything; that we may worship and serve him in every sphere and on all occasions whatsoever. Still, the feeling rests on a basis of truth. We know that there was a "most holy place" -

I. IN THE ANCIENT TEMPLE. Within the veil was "the holy of holies," into which none but the high priest might enter, and he only once a year, and then only with the blood of the slain goat. God might only be approached by men as they were purified from sin; and this the careful graduation of access to him clearly symbolized. That inner chamber of the temple was the most sacred spot on earth, because there God manifested his presence as nowhere else. But there were very holy places indeed -

II. IN THE LIFE OF OUR LORD. He was the living Temple when he was with us; for was not God manifest in him far more truly and importantly than he was present "between the cherubim" in the luminous cloud? There were three places which, in the experience of Jesus Christ, may be said to be "most holy" - the upper room in Jerusalem, where he "sat down with the twelve" to that sacred meal, and delivered that discourse of priceless value to mankind (John 14.); the garden of Gethsemane, where he passed through the great agony; and the "place which is called Calvary," where the great sacrifice was offered for the sins of the world.

III. IN OUR OWN BUILDINGS NOW. We find such in those sanctuaries or in those chambers which are closely associated with our converse with the Most High. Apart from and independent of any act of formal "consecration," the place where we gather together to worship God, the place where we hold holy and happy fellowship with Christ, the place where we listen with eager mind and fervent spirit to his Divine truth, - this is hallowed ground to us; these are sacred spots which we tread reverently, where we feel near to God, which will always be peculiarly dear to our hearts.

IV. IN OUR PERSONAL EXPERIENCE. There are certain very solemn and sacred experiences through which the God of our life "makes us to pass, of which we may truly say that they are "most holy." Of these we have instances in:

1. The time of separation, of loneliness, when we first find ourselves cast upon God for guidance and for fellowship.

2. The day of desperate grief, of overwhelming sorrow, when men can do nothing for us, but God everything.

3. The hour of very special privilege, when we feel the nearness of Christ, the excellency of his salvation, the power of the world to come, the influence of the Holy Spirit; when we feel that we stand before the open gate of the kingdom of God.

4. The occasion of great opportunity, when it is in our power to make some great sacrifice for others or to render some valuable service to them or to speak faithfully and effectively for Jesus Christ. - C.

Among the difficulties that attend this question, it seems clear that these composite forms were intended either to represent the human or the angelic, not the Divine. The idea of any artistic representation of the Divine Being in a Hebrew temple is surely quite inadmissible (see Deuteronomy 4:15-17). Making our choice, then, between the human and the angelic, we distinctly prefer the former, and think that the general idea is that man, when raised to the highest conceivable condition, when possessed of the greatest variety of powers, should bring everything he has and is to the worship and service of God. The fact that, in Ezekiel's vision, the cherubim had so large a share in the ornamentation, "made through all the house round about," suggests the very close connection there should be between the finest and highest powers of man and the worship of God. In other places (see Ezekiel 1.) we have a far fuller description of these "living ones," and there we have the idea not only of "peerless strength and majesty" suggested by the "face of a young lion" (ver. 19), but also of patient, productive labor (the ox), and of penetrating vision (the eagle); while the thought of swift motion is conveyed both by the wings and the wheels of the prophet's former vision. Conceive man at his very best, endowed generally with such powers as he is never or rarely possessed of now; add to those capacities which he does enjoy those which are borrowed from other nonhuman spheres; and as he would then be, thus invested, thus enlarged and crowned, the fitting thing would be for him to be found in the temple, blessing and praising God. This is so, in several aspects and for many reasons.

I. IT IS HIS MOST SACRED AND BOUNDEN DUTY. For however high in dignity man may rise, and to whatever commanding faculty he may attain, it is certain that:

1. He will always owe everything he may be or may possess to the creative power of God, and that:

2. He will be dependent on the providential goodness of God for their continuance. Thus gratitude and hope should bring him to the sanctuary, to bless God for bestowing them upon him, and to ask him to sustain and to enlarge them.

II. IT IS HIS TRUEST AND HIGHEST HONOR. There are many engagements by which man does some honor to his human nature; e.g. conversing, reading, discussing, meditating, planning, learning, executing works of art, composing works of literature, etc. But never does he confer such honor on himself as when he is worshipping God; then the life of the "living one" reaches its very highest point. To come consciously into the near presence of God, to hold communion with the Eternal, to hymn his praise, to dwell in thought upon his nature and his high purposes, to speak his Divine truth or hear it, to work with him toward the gracious and glorious end he has in view, - there is nothing we can do, here or perhaps hereafter, so worthy of, so honorable to, our human nature. Man reaches the very summit of his manhood when he is engaged in worshipping God.

III. IT IS THE SOURCE OF THE PUREST AND MOST EXALTING JOY. Of all sources of delight, beginning with the sensuous and rising to the spiritual, there can be none purer or more ennobling than this.


The cherubim and the palm trees were closely associated; both were largely represented, and they were found in close conjunction: "a palm tree was between a cherub and a cherub." Both of them pictured the righteous man in the sanctuary of God, but while the cherub signified the good man at his best bringing himself and all that he had as an offering to God, the palm tree stood for the good man as one who had been made what he was by the services of the sanctuary; the one was enlarged and ennobled humanity brining its offering to God, the other was that same humanity gaining its goodness and worth from God and from his house. "The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree," said the psalmist (Psalm 92:12). And there is very good reason why that tree should be taken as a type or picture of the righteous man; there is also excellent reason why the prominence of the palm tree in the prophet's vision should picture the truth that man's goodness is the fair and excellent result of much communion with God. Among the resemblances are these -

I. ITS UPRIGHTNESS. Some trees are irregular, they are twisted and tortuous in their growth; some hug the ground before they rise; but the palm rises straight toward heaven, it stands upright among the trees. "Like some tall palm the noiseless fabric grew." The good man is well figured here; he is the man who does not stoop, who does not bend and bow earthward, who stands erect, who moves in one heavenward direction, who is governed constantly by true and abiding principles. And these he gains from God and from his house. There, in the sanctuary, he is sustained in his principles, is reminded of them, gains fresh inspiration to illustrate and adorn them.

II. ITS FRUITFULNESS. The palm, as a fruit-bearing tree, bearing a fruit which is remarkably nutritious - for the date will sustain life for a long time, without any other kind of food - is an admirable picture of the righteous man. He bears fruit; he is expected to "bear much fruit," and fruit of many kinds: excellency of spirit, - love, joy, peace, long-suffering, etc.; worthiness of life, - consistency, blamelessness, practical kindness, etc.; earnest effort to do good, - patient, prayerful endeavor to awaken the slumbering, to elevate the fallen, to comfort the sorrowful, to encourage the feeble, etc. And if he does this, it can only be by having much to do with Jesus Christ his Lord. He must be a branch abiding in the vine; he must maintain a very close spiritual connection with Christ; and how shall he do this without the ordinances of his house?

III. ITS BEAUTY. The palm tree lends a great charm to the landscape when seen standing in clusters upon the heights against the sky; and its evergreen foliage makes each particular tree an object of beauty. The righteous man is he whose character is fair, excellent, admirable. When he is what his Master calls on him to be, and what he actually becomes when he seeks the strength and refreshment to be found in communion with God, then the more he is observed the more he is admired. Those qualities are found in him which are "lovely and of good report;" he is unselfish, pure, considerate, open-handed, patient, brave, loyal, loving. His goodness, like the foliage of the palm, grows not near the ground, where it can easily be soiled and lost, but high up, where lower things cannot damage or destroy it.

IV. ITS ELASTICITY. The fiber of the palm is so elastic that, even when loaded with considerable weights, it still grows determinately upwards (see Smith's 'Dictionary of the Bible'). The good man may have much to depress him and to hamper his growth, but if he "dwells in the house of the Lord," he will rise, notwithstanding all that would otherwise check him, to a noble height of virtue and of piety.

V. ITS ULTIMATE TRIUMPH. It does not promise much at the beginning. "It is rough to the touch and enveloped in dry bark, but above it is adorned with fruit... so is the life of the elect, despised below, beautiful above;... down below straitened by innumerable afflictions, but on high it is expanded into a foliage... of beautiful greenness" (see 2 Corinthians 4:17; Hebrews 12:11). - C.

There can be no question that by this table Ezekiel intends the altar of incense, which stood in the holy place, but which, on account of its sacredness and value, is mentioned by the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews as part of the furniture of the holy of holies. This altar in the tabernacle was of acacia wood covered with gold; that in the temple of Solomon was of cedar wood covered with the same pure and costly metal. Upon this table was burned, every morning and evening, the incense which represented the devotions of Israel. Upon the day of atonement the horns of the altar of incense were touched with the blood of sacrifice. But as no sacrifice, in the strict meaning of that term, was offered upon it, it seems appropriately designated "the table that is before the Lord." Remembering the symbolical intention of the offering of incense as described in the Apocalypse, we cannot fail to understand by this table the appointment that prayer and praise, as an acceptable offering to God, should ever be presented by the Church through the priestly mediation of the Lord Jesus Christ.

I. A SPIRITUAL OFFERING. The costly and fragrant incense had value in the sight of God, as representing the spiritual sacrifices with which he is ever well pleased. Prayer is not only natural to man as a needy and dependent being; it is enjoined by God as an exercise profitable to man and as the wisely ordained means of securing spiritual and promised blessings. Thanksgiving and praise are becoming to those who are ever receiving from Heaven more than they desire or deserve. We are not to understand merely verbal offerings, but those which proceed from a devout, grateful, confiding, and affectionate heart.

II. AN APPOINTED OFFERING. In the thirtieth chapter of Exodus we find minute directions concerning the presentation as well as the preparation of incense. This service was not an invention of man; it was prescribed by Divine authority. In the Church it is God's will that there should be constant presentation of devotion - " incense and a pure offering." From the altar of Christian hearts such sacrifices are to ascend to heaven. God will be "inquired of" by his people. "Whoso offereth praise glorifieth God."

III. AN ACCEPTABLE OFFERING. We have abundant testimony in Scripture to the Lord's indifference to the merely material gifts of men. If such gifts are not the expression of faith and loyalty, he disdains and rejects them. But, on the other hand, nothing is more clearly revealed in Scripture than the delight of the Supreme in the offering of true and loving and reverent hearts. This is a "sweet-smelling savor" to him.

"Vainly we offer each ample oblation, Vainly with gifts would his favor secure; Sweeter by far is the heart's adoration, Dearer to God are the prayers of the poor."

IV. A PERPETUAL OFFERING. Incense was offered by the Jewish priest daily - every morning and every evening. Not leas frequent should be the offering of prayer and praise by God's people-in the Church and in the home, above all in the heart. There is no cessation of God's favors; there should be no cessation of our thanksgivings. There is no intermission of our needs; there should be no interruption of our prayers. "Pray without ceasing."

V. A HEAVENLY OFFERING. It is observable that the one altar mentioned in the Book of the Revelation as existing in the celestial temple is the altar of incense. The purpose of sacrifice is answered and accomplished upon earth. There remains no more offering for sin. In heaven, accordingly, is no altar of sacrifice. But the altar of incense is imperishable. From it ascend immortally the praises and the prayers of the redeemed and glorified. In heaven fellowship with God is never suspended; there harps are never unstrung and voices are never silent. - T.

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