You can’t go out that way

I’ve never just blogged about a verse or passage that’s struck me before, but this time I am. Maybe I will again. Maybe I won’t. It’s anyone’s guess.

I’ve been reading Ezekiel recently. I’ll be honest with you – I find Ezekiel a bit hard… The declarations of judgment are long, the visions hard to picture, and the whole thing a little confusing. And then there’s chapters 40–46, which are visions of the restored temple and descriptions of what proper worship would look like. I found it tough going, I didn’t understand a lot of what I read. One verse, in particular perplexed me. It left me asking, “Why?”

“When the people of the land come before the LORD at the appointed festivals, whoever enters by the north gate to worship is to go out the south gate; and whoever enters by the south gate is to go out the north gate. No one is to return through the gate by which he entered, but each is to go out the opposite gate.” (Ezekiel 46:9)

There are two gates into the temple. One north. One south. Whichever you come in through, you have to go out through the other one. Again: why? Why would God give such an instruction?

One answer I came across was that it was to establish and maintain order in worship, keeping it calm and straightforward. But if we think about this practically, it would do anything but that! The way to have order would be to have everyone come in one door and go out the other so everyone’s moving the same way. Or everyone leaving the way they came which is presumably the door they are sitting or standing closest to. The system God gives means you have two huge groups of people (this is all of Israel!) all trying to barge past each other to get out. It’s a scrum!

So. Why?

This changes everything

I chatted about this with one of my colleagues at work. One thought we had (which I was pleased a couple of commentators also suggested) was that this is part of the symbolism of Israel’s worship. An encounter with God – and revelation of who He is – mustn’t leave you unchanged.

It would be wrong for the whole nation to come together for one of the few annual festivals to worship God and leave the same way they arrived. They have been reminded of God’s grace and provision, the redemption they received from Him. How can they go out the same way?

Even the directions for coming and going point to that. You don’t turn around and go back out the same way. No. There is forward motion, moving onwards and leaving a different way than you came in. This may seem farfetched, but the instructions for Israel’s worship was SO full of symbolism that I find it easy to believe there was a spiritual intent to this very practical command.

Worship – or an encounter with God – should not leave us unchanged. We need to be ready to leave in a different state than we entered.

The journey home

But there might be more. Maybe the walk home is impacted. Let me explain. The temple was HUGE, and people lived all around it  in their tribes (at least this is the ideal given by God). The natural thing to do when going to the temple would be to go to the gate nearest where you live. So if you leave through the other gate, you are being forced to take the long way home.

Perhaps there is an intent that people do not just get back home and into the routine of things so quickly, but have time for what they have seen and heard to impact them. If they have been changed – as they should – then this needs time to sink in. It would do a disservice to God simply to get home, put the kettle on and carry on. Those were my thoughts, and I thought they made sense.

My colleague, though, took it one step further. For a society so clearly divided into different tribes, all living in their tribal region and with no reason to venture out, this walk home would be quite significant. It would force them not just to walk for longer, but through parts of the city they would never otherwise see. It’s like deciding to drive home from a church service by going through the neighbourhood on the other side of town, the one you never go to because you don’t live, shop, or go to work there.

He suggested this would unite the whole community and increase their love of neighbour. I think he might be onto something with that.

Should we care?

So, my question may not be “Why?” anymore. Instead, if any of what I’ve just suggested is true, should it affect us? Should we be doing anything differently to encourage ourselves to be changed, to invest in that change and to increase our awareness of the community around us?

Any thoughts? Please comment below if you do – I’d love to get your take on all this.

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  • Graham Criddle

    Hi David

    Some fascinating thoughts there – and I absolutely agree that our encounters with God as we worship together should change us and we shouldn’t just go back to what we were doing before we arrived.

    Your idea about how this command to “go out a different way” relates to the tribes is interesting but we do need to take into account the different distribution of land which Ezekiel sees in his vision (Ezekiel 47). Also the temple itself is 500 cubits in each direction which is about 230 metres so it’s big but I’m not sure its big enough to cause the effect you are thinking of. (You could presumably come out the opposing gate and then just slip around the side and go home!)

    I wonder if there is some significance in what is present at the north and south gates. Ezekiel 40:44-46 tells us that there were to be rooms for the priests (later on we find that these rooms were identical in layout and size and were to be used for storing the offerings – Ezekiel 42). But the rooms at the north was for the priests who had “charge of the temple” while the rooms at the south were for the priests who “had charge of the altar”. Maybe the idea was that the worshipper had to recognise the reality of both temple and altar – and the God whose glory filled the temple (Ezekiel 43:1-5) and who was to be worshipped at its altar (Ezekiel 43:13-27). Maybe those who entered in at the north started with a realisation of God and were called to worship in response and those who entered in at the south were called to worship which increased their appreciation of the God of the temple.

  • Dave Criddle

    Hi Dad,

    Love this comment! Thanks for reading and giving your usual thought-out response.

    You’re not wrong about the dimensions of the temple – I think we may have been over-estimating the cubit. With the digital age, it’s just been so long since I’ve got my 5-cubit-ruler out that I think I’ve lost perspective.

    I like your thoughts about the north and south gate. I may have to look into that a little further – I feel as though there is something cool going on and I want to know what it is!

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