Uniform 11.09.2014: Sacred Space in a Chaotic World

Ezekiel 43:13-21

If you’re like me—and I have a hunch that you are—your heart and mind are running wild from the moment you swing your legs over the side of the bed and get up. In fact, I’d wager that the thoughts started earlier, during your fitful night of sleep, waking you over and over again as you turned to your other side or stumbled your way to the bathroom after midnight.

As you first pulled up the covers last night, set your book aside, and turned off the bedside lamp, maybe you tried to pray. You attempted to still your mind long enough to approach that sacred space where you and God could meet. You kept getting distracted by what had happened earlier that day, by to-do lists for the day ahead, or by dark concerns that shattered your peace.

And then you fell asleep.

Sacred space is hard to find, even in church. We sit and stand, listen and sing and pray, but our hearts and minds are all over the place. Perhaps there’s an altar, and the worship leader or pastor says we’re free to come and pray there. But it’s probably tiny. And public. And not always as sacred as it should be.

In our text, Ezekiel shares a grand vision with a desperate, exiled people. The Israelites are far from their sacred space—the temple. It’s actually been destroyed. But the prophet tells them what God has shown him: an enormous altar, a sacred space big enough to rival the one that Solomon built. There’s room for everyone to come and meet with God, to confess their sins, to express their regret, and to receive the hope that only comes from the Lord.

If we allow it to, church can be this kind of place for us. But there are other sacred spaces in our lives too. Mine is often in my car. Whether I’m driving home from dropping the kids off at school, heading out on an errand, or going to work, I always tune in to a contemporary Christian radio station. I’m not in my car for long periods, but God never fails to meet me there, especially when I actively seek God. And that’s easy to do with the inspiration of other believers like me filling that small space with melodies and harmonies and words that praise, question, lament, and hope. During those brief times, the interior of my car is a sacred space. I am there, and God is there, and we meet together.


1. What is your typical day like? How often do you think of God?
2. What is your worship experience usually like? Are you able to focus on meeting with God, or are you distracted by your thoughts?
3. When has the church provided a sacred space for you like the altar provided for ancient Israelites?
4. How do you think Ezekiel’s vision of the grand altar of God gave hope to the exiled people?
5. Where is your sacred space? What happens when you are there? How do you know that you have met with God?

Resource Shelf

In the tour of the temple, the altar and its location in front of the house were mentioned in passing (40:47); the present unit focuses more fully on its dimensions as well as its use. The unit specifies the altar’s proportions (vv. 13-17), and then provides instructions for its purification and consecration (vv. 18-23). By including both measurements and provisions for human ritual, the section underscores the proleptic character of Ezekiel’s vision. Like the other structures in the temple, the altar is already built; consequently, these instructions contain neither a description of building materials nor instructions for its construction. Nevertheless, the altar is not ready for use until it is purified and consecrated, and for this Yahweh needs human beings. Once the altar is consecrated, the priests will bring the people’s offerings, and by accepting the gifts Yahweh will accept the people. The promise, “I will accept you” in v. 27 links this outcome to 20:40-44 and suggests that the consecration of the altar signifies the completion of restoration.

The altar measurements in 43:13-17 indicate its height as well as its width and breadth. Although the reference to height disrupts the pattern established in chapters 40–42, which apart from the outer wall speak only of the width and breadth of the structures, Assyrian building accounts provide corroborating evidence for this variation. NRSV’s “base” in v. 13a should be construed as a trench around the altar (Heb. heq, v. 13; “base on the ground,” heq hå’åres, v. 14). Moving from the ground up, vv. 13-15 give the height of the altar in successive stages and also delineate a partially stepped structure decreasing in width from bottom to top; the shape of the altar is thus rather like that of a ziggurat. NRSV’s “height” (Heb. gab) in v. 13b, better translated “platform,” is the broad base on which the altar is built; this base extends one cubit around the circumference of the altar and stands two cubits high. Four cubits up from the platform is a “small ledge”; the wall upward from the ledge is set in one cubit and extends for another four cubits. At the top of this wall is another ledge. Even though it is called the “great ledge” to distinguish it from the ledge below, the two ledges are of the same dimension. From the bottom edge of the platform to the top ledge, the altar is 10 cubits high. Moving from the hearth back down again, vv. 16-17 provide the total width: 12 by 12 cubits for the hearth, and 14 by 14 cubits for the topmost ledge. Although no other measurements are given for the first ledge, platform, or trench, the total area taken up by the altar is 20 by 20 cubits, exactly twice its height.

The unusual terminology for the base and altar, which Michael Fishbane renders as “bosom of the earth” (heq hå’åres, v. 14) and “mountain of god” (har’el), may indicate that the altar had at one time been regarded as an axis mundi, or intersection between heaven and earth. On the other hand, if Yahweh dwells in the temple, then it is no longer appropriate to think of Yahweh as “coming down” to the altar to accept the offerings, which “go up” to God (Heb. ôlah, “go up”). The altar remains the meeting place between deity and people; in Ezekiel’s temple, however, the intersection is worked out on a horizontal, not vertical plane, as offerings are brought in to the altar and Yahweh moves out from the temple to accept them there.

Almost as an aside, the account concludes with the description of steps ascending to the top of the altar from the east. In marked contrast with Ezekiel’s first temple vision, in which the crowning abomination consisted of worshipers bowing to the east (8:16-18), the location of these steps makes it impossible for any priest to turn his back on Yahweh. But the steps may serve another function. As the instructions for performing the ritual in chapter 46 indicate, the nåsî stands and the people bow at the inner east gate as they watch the sacrifices being offered on the altar. The placement of the altar steps allows the worshipers to observe every aspect of the ritual, including Yahweh’s acceptance of their offerings (cf. Lev 9:22-24).

The altar is massive but not uniquely large for that time. The Chronicler gives the same dimensions for Solomon’s altar (2 Chr 4:1), and archaeological evidence from Megiddo and Mt. Ebal corroborate these dimensions. Even so, its monumental size strains the imaginations of modern readers accustomed to private, spiritual forms of worship. Reckoning Ezekiel’s unit of measurement, the long cubit (i.e., one cubit and one hand-width) in inches at 20.5 inches, the total area is approximately 34 feet by 34 feet, with a height of approximately 17 feet. The size of the hearth, the area on which the offerings would be burned, is approximately 400 square feet—an ample size for the continuous offering of sacrifices. The altar’s size in comparison with other elements in the temple also indicates its importance. At its base, its width is only slightly smaller than that of the gate structures (at 25 cubits), and it is as wide as the opening to the temple. In area, it equals that of the holy of holies (41:4).


Margaret S. Odell, Ezekiel, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2005) 500-03.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum since 2001. She is a member of West Highland Baptist Church in Macon, Georgia. She enjoys reading and writing fiction, spending time with her husband and two daughters, and watching British television shows. Her goal for 2014 is to learn to play the piano.


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