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No. 59: The Holy City Revisited

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 59
March, 1994
Copyright 1994, Biblical Horizons

In response to my article, "The Holy City" (in Biblical Horizons 55) James B. Jordan has made several suggestions about how I might expand on the ideas presented there. Several other readers have also contributed their insights. Below, I trace a few sketchy lines of thought.

1. The expansion of the concept of the "house" of God to include the entire city of Jerusalem is paralleled by the expansion of the concept of the "throne of the Lord."

The original throne of God is, of course, the heavenly one (cf. Ps. 11:4; 103:19; Is. 66:1; etc.). Throughout the Old Testament, however, the Lord also established a number of earthly thrones as focal points of His presence and reign among His people. Being places where God is present in glory, these were particularly holy places (cf. Ps. 47:8).

The first of the Lord’s earthly thrones was the ark of the covenant. Though the ark is never explicitly called the throne of the Lord, the Lord is several times said to be enthroned "above the cherubim" (Ps. 80:1; 99:1). Some of these references might, in isolation, be taken to refer to the Lord’s enthronement above the living cherubim in the heavenly glory, but 1 Samuel 4:4 indicates that the cherubim in question are those above the ark: the people of Shiloh "carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts who sits above the cherubim." The ark and its cherubim throne, where the glory of the Lord sat, was clearly the central and most holy object in the tabernacle complex. When the Philistines invaded the land and conquered Israel for a time, they took the ark into exile with them; after the Lord devastated the Philistines with Egyptian plagues, they wisely returned it (1 Sam. 4-6).

During the restoration period, the ark was replaced as the Lord’s throne. Jeremiah, prophesying of the restoration, said, "`And it shall be in those days when you are multiplied and increased in the land,’ declares the Lord, `they shall say no more, "The ark of the covenant of the Lord." And it shall not come to mind, nor shall they remember it, nor shall they miss it, nor shall it be made again. At that time they shall call Jerusalem "The Throne of the Lord," and all the nations will be gathered to it, to Jerusalem, for the name of the Lord’" (Jer. 3:16-17). In the restoration period, the entire city became the holy throne of the Lord, the gathering place for the nations.

In 1 Samuel, the Lord judged Israel’s sin by allowing the ark-throne of the Lord to be removed by the Philistines. After the restoration, when the throne encompassed the city, we would expect judgment to come upon the entire city-throne. This is exactly what happened in ad 70, in what we, more precisely than we might realize, call the "destruction of Jerusalem." The accent in prophecies of ad 70 is on the attack on and fall of the city (Dan. 9:26; Lk. 21:20-22; Rev. 17-18). The fall of the city was not, however, primarily a political event; it involved the transferral of the throne of the Lord to a new people (cf. Mt. 21:33-46).

Between these two endpoints, the ark-throne gradually became less and less central in Israel’s worship and life. Solomon built the temple to provide a permanent place for the ark to rest (1 Ki. 8:21), and the procession of the ark was clearly the climax of the temple-building project (cf. 2 Chron. 5:2-14). In Kings, however, there is no mention of the ark after it was placed in Solomon’s temple (1 Ki. 8:21). In Chronicles, we are informed that one of Josiah’s reforms was to relieve the Levites of the burden of carrying the ark (2 Chron. 35:3), who, according to J. Barton Payne’s interpretation, removed it from the temple for protection during the reigns of Manasseh and Amon ("1–2 Chronicles," The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Frank E. Gaebelein, gen. ed. [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988], vol. 4, p. 552). Otherwise, the ark is never mentioned after the time of Solomon.

What was the Lord’s throne during the time of the kings? The best clue we have comes at the end of the period. Nebuchadnezzar did not, like the Philistines, carry the ark into captivity; in fact, the ark is not even mentioned among the items that he removed from the temple. Instead, Nebuchadnezzar took all the temple furnishings into exile (2 Ki. 25:13-17); like the ark, these too were the cause of plagues among the Babylonians (Dan. 5). This suggests that the throne had expanded to include everything in the temple. Taking Jeremiah 3 into consideration, we seem justified in conclusion that after the building of Solomon’s temple, the temple itself functioned as the Lord’s throne.

We thus have these three stages in the development of the Lord’s throne: ark, temple, city. The New Covenant fulfillment is the church. All the Old Testament thrones symbolized the reality that has now come in fullness: the Lord is enthroned on the praises of His people.

2. The fact that the holiness of the temple expanded to encompass the whole city may help explain the "abomination of desolation . . . standing in the holy place" (Mt. 24:15). The phrase "holy place" itself (Gr. hagios topos) is used in the LXX to describe the first room of the tabernacle (e.g., Ex. 29:31; Lev. 6:26). If the entire city has become in some sense a "holy place," however, the abomination of desolation need not be understood as being in the temple proper; whatever the desolating abomination was, it could have been anywhere in the holy city. This insight eases the problem of harmonizing Matthew 24:15 ("abomination of desolation . . . standing in the holy place") with the Lukan parallel (21:20: "Jerusalem surrounded by armies").

3. Ezekiel’s visionary temple seems to be clearer if it is understood as a vision of the entire "house" of the Lord; that is, Ezekiel described a visionary Jerusalem. It is true that Ezekiel distinguishes between the city and the temple area (Ezk. 48:8-20). But for all that, it is also clear that the city is holy, albeit not as holy as the temple itself. This is indicated both by the fact that the city is included in the "oblation" set apart as the Lord’s own portion of the land (48:9, 15-18), and by the fact that the city is laid out as a holy square (48:16). The final verses of Ezekiel describe the gates of the city, and give Jerusalem a new name, Yahweh-shammah, "the Lord is there" (48:35). Fairbairn dismisses the obvious import of this name when he states that "it was in the temple, rather than in the city, that the Lord was represented as having his dwelling-place" (Commentary on Ezekiel [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1989], p. 508). It is far preferable to take the name at face value, as confirmation that the city has become a holy city, indwelt by the Lord. The Lord’s presence is no longer confined to the temple proper; He inhabits the entire city. Altogether, it seems most accurate to say that the city in Ezekiel’s vision is the forecourt of the temple.

If the above is accurate, Ezekiel’s attention to the elaborate gates of the Lord’s house begins to make sense (Ezk. 40:20-37). The gates of the visionary "house" are symbolically equivalent to the gates of the city. Nehemiah thus directly, perhaps even self-consciously, fulfilled Ezekiel’s vision in his rebuilding of Jerusalem’s gates and walls.