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No. 55: The Holy City

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 55
November, 1993
Copyright 1993, Biblical Horizons

Calling Jerusalem the "holy city" comes so naturally to Christians that it comes as something of a surprise to realize how infrequently the phrase is used in Scripture. Not only is Jerusalem rarely called holy, but in the Old Testament this classification is found only in texts that refer to or were written in the exilic and post-exilic periods.

Joel 3:17 asserts, for example, that "Jerusalem will be holy." Joel 3 is evidently a promise concerning the restoration period: It begins with a promise that the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem would be restored (3:1), and the entire chapter follows a pattern of restoration, judgment and war against the nations, and the Lord’s return to Jerusalem that is found in other prophecies of the return from exile (e.g., Ezk. 37-48; Zech. 9-14?). Regardless of the dating of Joel’s prophecy, 3:17 is concerned with the return from the Babylonian exile. Three texts in Isaiah are relevant: 48:2, 52:1, and 64:10. Though these were written prior to the exile, they are in a section of Isaiah that concerns the restoration. The other Old Testament references to "holy" Jerusalem are Nehemiah 11:1, 18 and Daniel 9:24.

In her 1988 study, In An Age of Prose: A Literary Approach to Ezra-Nehemiah (Atlanta: Scholars Press), Tamara Cohn Eskenazi argues that Ezra and Nehemiah both assume that, after the return from exile, the holiness of the temple expanded to include the entire city of Jerusalem. Many bits of evidence support this interpretation. Most directly, Nehemiah twice called Jerusalem the "holy city" (Neh. 11:1, 18). Eliashib the high priest, moreover, "consecrated" the wall at the beginning of the building project (Neh. 3:1), and Levites were stationed at the gates of the city (Neh. 7:1; 13:22).

Once it is recognized that the restoration city participated in the holiness of the temple, certain odd events in Nehemiah begin to make more sense. Nehemiah’s attention to the broken walls of the city takes on a religious, not only a military, coloration; his survey of the walls parallels the priest’s inspection of the temple. Genealogies of the people who volunteered to return to the city are provided, just as genealogies were earlier required for Levites who wished to participate in the temple services (Neh 11:4-9; cf. 7:61-65). Jerusalem, being a holy city, required a demonstrably holy seed.

As Eskenazi points out, Ezra and Nehemiah distinguish between the temple proper and the wider notion of the "house of God," which, in these books at least, includes both temple and city. This usage is evident in Ezra 3:8, which begins, "Now in the second year of their coming to the house of God at Jerusalem in the second month." Note first that "Jerusalem" may be read as an apposition to "house of God" (the Hebrew can be translated, "to (‘el) the house of God, to (le) Jerusalem"). More importantly, Ezra 3 describes events that occurred several years before the completion of the temple (cf. Ezra 6:15); only the altar had been erected (3:3). It might be argued that the building of the altar established a house of God. But I am persuaded that Eskenazi’s interpretation is more plausible; returning to the city of Jerusalem was equivalent to returning to the house of God.

In several passages outside Ezra-Nehemiah, "temple" refers to a more restricted area than "house." Daniel 5:3 refers to the "temple of the house of God in Jerusalem." (The NASB translates "the temple, the house of God," but the Aramaic particle di, frequently used to mark a genitive, separates the two.) Ezekiel 41:1 uses a word frequently translated as temple (heykal) to refer to the main hall of the temple, not the whole temple. The NASB rightly translates heykal as "nave," but botches the rest of the chapter by randomly translating bayit now as "house," now as "temple." In any case, in Ezekiel 41 the heykal is an area within a larger structure called the "house."

Recognizing that the term "house" has a broader referent than "temple" helps explain features of Ezra 4:7-24 that have been the subject of considerable debate. The crux of the problem is that the context speaks of "building the house of God" (4:3), but Rehum and Shimshai’s letter to Artaxerxes says nothing about the temple but concentrates exclusively on the building of the city walls. Many commentators have seen verses 7-24 as a dischronologized digression, but the purpose of citing the correspondence is clearly to explain why the "work on the house of God ceased" (4:24). Everything fits perfectly together, however, if "house" equals "city." In fact, Ezra 4:7-24 provides strong confirmation of this conclusion.

The equivalence of the house and the city explains other details of Ezra-Nehemiah as well. The dedication service for the temple is only briefly described (6:16-18); compared with the dedication service for Solomon’s temple, this feast seems meager indeed. Whatever practical reasons there might have been for limiting the celebration, the theological rationale seems to be that the completion of the temple was not yet the completion of the "house." When we come to the service for the dedication of the city walls, Nehemiah takes several chapters to describe the activities. Significantly, the covenant renewal ceremony after the completion of the wall occurred in the seventh month (Neh. 8:2), connecting with the completion of the temple of Solomon (1 Ki. 8:2). Both events were associated with the celebration of the feast of booths. After completing the house, moreover, the people commit the sin of Solomon (Neh. 13:26). The restoration analogue to the completion of Solomon’s temple is the completion of the city walls.

Further, the dedication service described in Nehemiah 12 is difficult if one assumes that "house" means "temple." First, could all these people fit into the temple court at one time? Second, 12:31-39 describes a double procession around the top of the city wall, the second stopping at the "Gate of the Guard," but in verse 40 the two choirs are suddenly and inexplicably taking their stand in the "house of God." This is a jarring transition. Either Nehemiah, who has been so careful to describe the procession almost step by step up through verse 39, makes an awkward leap, or something has been dropped from the text, or taking a stand in the "house of God" means standing on the city walls.

The expansion of the holiness of the house parallels the more intense holiness of the whole nation in the restoration period. In the background are prophetic promises of a "new covenant" and the outpouring of the Spirit on all flesh (Jer. 31:31-34; Ezk. 36:22-32; Joel 2:28-32), which were initially fulfilled in post-exilic Israel. In Ezra and Nehemiah, this point is confirmed more by what is absent than by what is present. The first temple was built by a king, but there is no king in the restoration community. Far from being highlighted, Zerubbabel’s Davidic ancestry is not even mentioned in Ezra or Nehemiah. Instead, the main builders are the people; every Israelite has a hand in building the temple, an activity normally reserved to kings in the Ancient Near East and in Israel.

Moses was aided in the construction of the tabernacle by the Spirit-anointed Bezalel and Oholiab (Ex. 31:1-6), and Solomon by Hiram of Tyre (1 Ki. 7:13-14), but there is no master architect in Ezra or Nehemiah. Instead the Lord stirred up the spirits of the whole people to build (Ez. 1:5); we have here a nation of Bezalels, all equipped by the Spirit to build the house of God. When the house of the Lord is finished, the people pray, not the king (compare Neh. 9; 2 Chron. 6); what we have, again, is a nation of Solomons. The people bow to the ground when Ezra blesses the Lord and read the Torah, but no cloud appears (Neh. 8:6). The people are the glory-canopy, and their shouts of praise resound through the land (Neh. 12:43).

Thus, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which were originally a single book, are from beginning to end about the building of the house of the Lord. The books may be organized according to the four stages in the completion of the house. First the altar; then the temple; then the reformation of the people-house; finally, the city walls are finished and dedicated. Cyrus’s decree permitting the Jews to rebuild the Lord’s house, quoted at the beginning of Ezra, was not fulfilled until the end of Nehemiah.

This interpretation of the house-building of Ezra and Nehemiah throws fresh light on several contemporary prophetic passages. Zechariah 2:1-5, the third of Zechariah’s night visions, presents a man measuring the boundaries of Jerusalem. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, only holy places are measured (Ex. 27:9-19; Nu. 35:4-8; 1 Ki. 6:14-7:8; Ezk. 40-43). To "set a measuring line over Jerusalem" (Zech. 1:16) is to consecrate it as holy space. Zechariah ends with a prediction that the holiness of the temple would expand to the entire city (Zech. 14:20-21), a prophecy whose fulfillment is implied in Ezra and Nehemiah.

The holy city theme of Ezra-Nehemiah may also suggest a refinement of traditional interpretations of the promises of Haggai 2:1-9 and the vision of Ezekiel 40-48. Both prophetic passages promise that the restoration "house" would be more glorious than Solomon’s temple. The notion that these prophecies refer to the spiritual reality of the restoration, not to the physical temple, suffers from the fact that glory nearly always refers to an empirical and visible reality. If these prophecies are taken as promises about the "house" of Jerusalem, then they might be taken in more literal fashion: They promise that the glory of the holy city would exceed the glory of the temple of Solomon.