Whether or not Ezekiel 40-48 is revelation about national Israel, the Church, or something else is an important theological and interpretational issue. I recently posted the following series of comments (with some minor edits here) on a thread on Sharper Iron that shows why Ezekiel 40-48 refers to national Israel and not to the Church or to something else.
To take the passage figuratively, 260 verses in 9 chapters would have to be treated consistently in a manner that is defensible. Trying to treat such a lengthy passage as figurative language and doing so consistently creates such serious problems that I believe it cannot be done legitimately.
To interpret Ezekiel 40-48 properly, we must allow the text itself to determine the answer to a question of primary importance—to whom was the passage originally directed?
At least three verses in the passage pertain directly to answering this question:
Ezekiel 40:4 And the man said unto me, Son of man, behold with thine eyes, and hear with thine ears, and set thine heart upon all that I shall shew thee; for to the intent that I might shew them unto thee art thou brought hither: declare all that thou seest to the house of Israel.
Ezekiel 43:10 Thou son of man, shew the house to the house of Israel, that they may be ashamed of their iniquities: and let them measure the pattern.
Ezekiel 44:6 And thou shalt say to the rebellious, even to the house of Israel, Thus saith the Lord GOD; O ye house of Israel, let it suffice you of all your abominations,
All three statements show that the passage was originally directed to the house of Israel. To determine who the house of Israel that God was commanding Ezekiel to make all this revelation known to was, we must carefully examine these statements within their original context.
Ezekiel 40-48 opens this way:
Ezekiel 40:1 In the five and twentieth year of our captivity, in the beginning of the year, in the tenth day of the month, in the fourteenth year after that the city was smitten, in the selfsame day the hand of the LORD was upon me, and brought me thither. 2 In the visions of God brought he me into the land of Israel, and set me upon a very high mountain, by which was as the frame of a city on the south. 3 And he brought me thither, and, behold, there was a man, whose appearance was like the appearance of brass, with a line of flax in his hand, and a measuring reed; and he stood in the gate. 4 And the man said unto me, Son of man, behold with thine eyes, and hear with thine ears, and set thine heart upon all that I shall shew thee; for to the intent that I might shew them unto thee art thou brought hither: declare all that thou seest to the house of Israel.
These opening verses reveal that whoever the house of Israel refers to in its original context in Ezekiel 40-48 has to be established by noting the divine directive that everything Ezekiel was shown in this vision had to be declared to it/them. The house of Israel, therefore, in its context were the original recipients of this revelation who were alive at that time in history and were in exile in Babylon for their sinfulness. They were people to whom all the details of the entire vision were divinely directed.
Any attempt to make Ezekiel 40-48 figurative language must explain how the entire vision and not just selected parts are relevant to whoever the house of Israel is asserted to be in this passage.
In the next occurrence of “house of Israel” in Ezekiel 40-48, God states who these people were to whom Ezekiel was commanded to declare and write all that he was shown:
Ezekiel 43:7 And he said unto me, Son of man, the place of my throne, and the place of the soles of my feet, where I will dwell in the midst of the children of Israel for ever, and my holy name, shall the house of Israel no more defile, neither they, nor their kings, by their whoredom, nor by the carcases of their kings in their high places. 8 In their setting of their threshold by my thresholds, and their post by my posts, and the wall between me and them, they have even defiled my holy name by their abominations that they have committed: wherefore I have consumed them in mine anger. 9 Now let them put away their whoredom, and the carcases of their kings, far from me, and I will dwell in the midst of them for ever.
The house of Israel in this passage were people who had defiled God’s holy name in the specific ways that God states here. Because they had done so, He had consumed them in His anger. In and through all the detailed revelation in Ezekiel 40-48, God was confronting the Israelites about their sins against Him and demanding them to repent and get right with Him.
To take the house of Israel in this passage as the Church would require holding that God is confronting the Church about its having defiled His holy name by committing the specific sins that He denounces here. Such a handling of the passage is plainly untenable because the Church has never committed these sins.
Furthermore, God directly confronts the kings of the house of Israel who had defiled His holy name. Again, to take this revelation as being figurative language for the Church does not make any sense because the Church never has had any kings, etc.
A proper handling of Ezekiel 43:7-9 shows that it is impossible to legitimately take Ezekiel 40-48 as figurative language for the Church. We must take the passage to be about those people whom God explicitly states it is about—national Israel who was in exile at that specific time for her wickedness in the ways that God specifies in this passage.
In Ezekiel 40-48, God specifies that the details of the visions about the Temple had to be given to the house of Israel for very specific purposes:
Ezekiel 43:10 Thou son of man, shew the house to the house of Israel, that they may be ashamed of their iniquities: and let them measure the pattern. 11 And if they be ashamed of all that they have done, shew them the form of the house, and the fashion thereof, and the goings out thereof, and the comings in thereof, and all the forms thereof, and all the ordinances thereof, and all the forms thereof, and all the laws thereof: and write it in their sight, that they may keep the whole form thereof, and all the ordinances thereof, and do them. 12 This is the law of the house; Upon the top of the mountain the whole limit thereof round about shall be most holy. Behold, this is the law of the house.
This passage profoundly emphasizes that all the details in this vision matter and were vital for the purpose of causing the Israelites to be ashamed of all their iniquities! Ezekiel had to show them all the following: “the form of the house, and the fashion thereof, and the goings out thereof, and the comings in thereof, and all the forms thereof, and all the ordinances thereof, and all the forms thereof, and all the laws thereof.” God explicitly asserts that every detail of the vision was significant and had to be shown to them!
Moreover, God commanded not just that the house of Israel be shown these things, but also that they had to measure the pattern of them, keep the entirety of what was shown, and do all the ordinances of it!
This passage thus has a profound explicit divine emphasis on all the details of the vision being vital in accomplishing two vital purposes for the house of Israel: (1) they would be ashamed of all their iniquities; and (2) they would fully obey everything that is commanded to them in the entire vision.
A Bible reader must allow what God explicitly says to determine what he is going to do with a passage. This passage shows that any attempt to take Ezekiel 40-48 figuratively as revelation about the Church must account for all the details of the passage in that handling. Moreover, the purposes of such figurative handling of all the details must be for the purposes of bringing the Church to repent of all the iniquities specified in the passage and to obey all the specific things commanded in the passage.
It is impossible to apply consistently a legitimate figurative handling of all the details of the passage and its stated purposes. To pick and choose what is literal and what is figurative would be to go against explicit, repeated divine statements in the passage that all the details matter.
We must allow the passage itself to direct us in how we are to interpret Ezekiel 40-48.
In addition to what the previous passages have shown, Ezekiel 44:5-6 reiterates why Ezekiel 40-48 is not an extended metaphor:
Ezekiel 44:5 And the LORD said unto me, Son of man, mark well, and behold with thine eyes, and hear with thine ears all that I say unto thee concerning all the ordinances of the house of the LORD, and all the laws thereof; and mark well the entering in of the house, with every going forth of the sanctuary. 6 And thou shalt say to the rebellious, even to the house of Israel, Thus saith the Lord GOD; O ye house of Israel, let it suffice you of all your abominations
This is the third passage in Ezekiel 40-48 that explicitly stresses that everything that God showed Ezekiel was important—all the details matter! Taking these 9 chapters as an extended metaphor for the Church or something else is directly contrary to the explicit divine emphasis on all the details that God declares repeatedly in these chapters.
Furthermore, what God says explicitly here again shows that a key purpose of these chapters was to bring the house of Israel to repent and turn from all their abominations. A legitimate figurative handling of these chapters would have to show how all the details pertain to the Church and would have to show how the Church is supposed to turn from all its abominations as a result of its receiving this revelation.
Finally, a legitimate figurative handling of these chapters would have to show specifically how the Church is supposed to obey all the specific directives given in the passage.
There are even more aspects of these chapters that show the impossibility of legitimately taking them as figurative language for the Church or something else. For the careful Bible reader, what the passages that I have already treated provide should be more than enough basis to reject any attempt to make the passage figurative language for the Church or something else.