Middleton’s Further Thoughts on the Empty Temple

This is a guest post by J. Richard Middleton, in response to issues raised by Jon Garvey in a post called Middleton on the empty temple. A native of Jamaica, Richard is currently Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis at Northeastern Seminary, in Rochester, NY, USA. Trained in both philosophy and Old Testament studies, his writing and research have focused on the biblical worldview, creation theology, Hebrew narratives, lament literature, and eschatology. His most recent book A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology will be published by Baker Academic in November.

I’m delighted to respond Jon’s post, which reflects on a previous post of mine  where I suggested that a priestly/liturgical read of the imago Dei can unify the entire biblical story. Jon raises very good questions in his post, questions I myself have wondered about.

Jon was intrigued with my suggestion that whereas the wilderness tabernacle and the Jerusalem temple are filled with God’s glory/Spirit/presence when they are completed (Exodus 40:34-35; 1 Kings 8:10-11; 2 Chronicles 7:1-3), there is no reference to the cosmic temple of creation being filled with God’s presence upon its completion (Genesis 2:1-3). Instead, I suggested that God intends humanity, as God’s authorized image in the temple of creation, to mediate that presence from heaven to earth, thus filling the earth not just with progeny (Genesis 1:28), but with progeny who manifest God’s glory, until (to use a Pauline phrase) God is “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28).

Does Genesis intend to teach that God has not yet filled the cosmic temple?

But Jon wonders if we can really attribute this idea to the author/editor of the Pentateuch. Particularly, he wonders if God’s rest on the seventh day, which just happens to omit reference to cosmic filling, could be intentional or is just a “fortuitously omitted detail of one stand-alone creation myth.”

In response, Jon quotes Numbers 14:21, a later Pentateuchal text that I myself would have mentioned if he hadn’t. There God promises that even the disobedience of Israel won’t thwart his purpose, but that “all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD.” Although some translations (notably the NIV) render the imperfect of māle‘ as present tense here, the context supports the future (as Jon notes); and the LXX uses the future of epiplēmi here.

But there is another “fortuitously omitted detail” in the opening creation account of the Bible, which may suggest that neither omission is fortuitous. Whereas every “day” of creation from 1 through 6 concludes with the formula “and it was evening and morning, day X” there is no such formula associated with the seventh day (Augustine himself noted the absence of this concluding formula in the Confessions). This omission suggests that the seventh day has no conclusion and that everything that follows in Genesis (indeed, the entire Bible) may be read as occurring on the seventh day.

This intriguing possibility gains more credibility when we realize that among the polemical points of contact between Genesis 1 and Mesopotamian creation myths is precisely the notion of divine rest. In Mespotamian myths (Enuma Elish; Atrahasis; Enki and Ninmah; KAR 4) the gods are able to rest because they have created humans to do the manual labour that they disdained to do; so in these myths the gods’ rest is their abdication from a burdensome task.

By contrast, the biblical account suggests a different purpose for God’s rest, because of its more exalted view of human dignity and status. In Genesis 1 humans are created to share in God’s own rule of the world; they have been delegated the power and authority to administer the earth on God’s behalf.

This suggests that the creator’s rest on the seventh day represents God handing over the reins of power to humanity; the seventh day inaugurates the time of human historical agency.

So both forms of incompleteness in Genesis 2:1-3—the lack of reference to God filling the cosmic temple and the absence of the evening and morning formula—fit very well with the notion that humans are tasked with representing God’s rule and mediating God’s presence on earth.

What about biblical texts that suggest that God’s presence already fills creation?

But then Jon raises Isaiah 6 as a potential problem for the “future glory” theme, since verse 3 states that “the whole earth is full of his glory.” Although this is a legitimate translation of the Hebrew, there is actually no verb for “is full” here; instead there is the noun for “fullness.” So a more literal translation would be “the fullness of the whole earth is his glory,” which is quite compatible with the interpretation I was proposing.

Jon also mentions Ezekiel’s vision of YHWH on a chariot throne by the river Chebar in Babylon (Ezekiel 1-3). And he wonders if this indicates that God is omnipresent, dwelling in the Jerusalem temple and available to the exiles in Babylon (thus the cosmic temple is not empty of divine presence). Here it is crucial to read Ezekiel 1-3 in concert with the flashback the prophet is granted in chapters 10-11, where he sees YHWH’s glory exiting the east gate of the Jerusalem temple (10:18-19) and heading further eastward (11:22-23); he twice mentions that what he sees in this vision is the same as what he saw by the river Chebar (10:15, 20).

This journey eastward is completed when YHWH arrives in Babylon (Ezekiel 1) to accompany his people in their exile. So the point of the vision at the start of Ezekiel is not that God is omnipresent, but rather that this stern book of mostly judgment (oracles of restoration do not begin until chapter 34) nevertheless opens with the amazing grace of a God who himself goes into exile with his people (thus profoundly foreshadowing Christ’s identification with us in incarnation and atonement).

My own problem text—Jeremiah 23:23-24
Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1-3 aren’t that hard to deal with. The more difficult passage is Jeremiah 23, where God critiques the false prophets in Jerusalem who have claimed to speak on his behalf (23:15-22). The critique culminates in a series of rhetorical questions that challenge the prophets’ assumption of God’s immanence and availability:

“Am I a God near by, says the LORD, and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? says the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the LORD.” (23:23-24)

I have to admit that I have often wondered how this passage fit with the future filling theme; if it intends to affirm that God already fills the cosmic temple it would be stand out as quite distinct in the Old Testament.

I have therefore wondered it if is polemical hyperbole, to make the point that God is not only located nearby (in the Jerusalem temple) as these prophets thought, but is also far off or transcendent (in heaven)—and then earth is added for good measure.

This contrast between heaven and Jerusalem seems supported by the earlier point God makes in Jeremiah 23:18 and 22 that a true prophet stands in the council of YHWH (that is, he has access to the decisions made in the gathering of angels in heaven). But these false prophets are earthbound and so have no genuine word from God.

The motif of God in heaven is often associated in the Old Testament with omniscience, since from heaven God can observe all activity on earth (see Psalm 11:4; 14:2; 28:24 33:13; 53:2; 102:19; Lamentations 3:50; cf. 2 Chronicles 16:9; Proverbs 15:3). So the false prophets cannot hope to escape judgment.

It is also associated with universal dominion: “The LORD has established his throne in the heavens,/ and his kingdom rules over all.” (Psalm 103:19) This motif of the God of heaven is especially prominent in Daniel 2-7, where the point is that even Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon has to submit to the universal ruler of the world.

Here it is important to note that immanence and transcendence are not two polar opposites as in much Christian theology today. Rather, in the Old Testament God’s transcendence (in heaven) grounds his immanence (on earth), in the sense of his intimate involvement in earthly affairs.

Jon had asked for clarification of this very point. And here it is appropriate to note the exodus story, where Israel’s cry “rose up to God” in heaven (Exodus 2:23) and God tells Moses, “I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians” (Exodus 3:8).

Precisely because YHWH rules from heaven, outside the oppressive system of human evil (including Egyptian bondage), this God can be appealed to in a situation of injustice, and can be expected to care about human suffering (whereas appeals to Pharaoh, who is implicated in the oppressive system, are ineffectual; see Exodus 5:15-16). And as ruler and creator of all God has the power to change the situation of oppression.

In the Bible, therefore, God’s transcendence is not in contrast to God’s involvement (or immanence), as it sometimes is in our theological systems. Rather, God’s transcendence is precisely the condition of his involvement.

But, admittedly, the wording of Jeremiah 23:24 goes beyond saying that God is in heaven; it implies (through a rhetorical question) that God does indeed fill both heaven and earth.

At that point, I would simply say that there are diverse perspectives in Scripture (the Bible is a coherent, yet complex, unity). And yet the dominant tenor of the Old Testament is to affirm, with Isaiah 66:1-2a, that God’s throne is in heaven (the locus of his presence) and the earth is his footstool—until that climactic day when God’s dwelling/ throne shift decisively to earth (Revelation 21:3; 22:3).

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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7 Responses to Middleton’s Further Thoughts on the Empty Temple

  1. Cal says:

    Wouldn’t Jeremiah’s statement coinhere with Paul’s quotation of a Greek poet that God is He “in whom we live, move, and have our being”. Maybe the problem is not when considering omnipotence, but His covenantal relationship. Or in less cultic terms, He is Lord but has yet to be received in His rightful domain. It’s how God is God over Assyria and the Nations, but He is especially King over Israel.

    The prophetic future was not that Israel would be diffused into the world, but that the Nations of the World would throw down their idols and find a home in the Temple.

    I appreciate your insights on Ezekiel, where the Lord goes further East, towards His people in captivity. The Temple, in brick and mortar, is not needed. God will be with His People, even in exile. If this is neglected for some general omnipotence, than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is slowly lost for some God of philosophers and general theistic inclination. From there one easily slides into German liberal theologies.


  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Cal – Richard’s internet connection is intermittent this week, so it may be a day or two before he’s able to reply.

  3. Hi Cal,

    I think that the basic point of Jeremiah 23 is that the Jerusalem priests think that God is only immanent (accessible to them) and not transcendent (to hold them accountable). Given that context, the notion of God filling heaven and earth is making the point that they can’t hide from his judgment.

    I would take Paul’s Acts 17 quotation as affirming a somewhat different point, namely that God is creator and sustainer. But the ideas are certainly compatible.

    I’m not quite sure what you’re getting at with the distinction between omnipotence and covenantal relationship, or between God’s lordship over the nations versus over Israel. At least I’m not sure how it relates to Jeremiah 23. Can you clarify what you were thinking?

    You’re right that there isn’t a vision of Israel being “diffused into the world,” but the Old Testament ideal is that the worship of the true God would spread even the islands (the ends of the earth), which would come to acknowledge YHWH’s rule. While sometimes that means that the nations come to Zion to be taught of God, Isaiah 19:18-25 envisions Egypt and Assyria serving YHWH in their own lands. Verse 19 notes that “there will be an altar to the LORD in the heart of Egypt” and verse 23 mentions a highway linking Egypt and Assyria so that “the Assyrians will go to Egypt and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together.” This does not seem to take place in the Jerusalem temple (so there are different visions of what it looks like when the nations acknowledge YHWH as the true God.)

    And your point about Ezekiel is right on; I think that a general notion of omnipotence or even omnipresence is an abstraction from the concrete notion of God’s cultic presence that the Scriptures teach. It is neither Deism nor German Idealism.


  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    And as ruler and creator of all God has the power to change the situation of oppression.

    Richard, I’d like to push you a bit further with your “science-faith” hat on. In the situation of Israel in Egypt, “changing the situation of oppression” involved several notable signs involving the natural world, not to mention his oversight, by one means or another, of human decisions. Indeed, the very situation was of his making both through his involvement in the story of Joseph and his brothers, and in his fulfilment of part of his promise by the rapid growth of Israel into a nation (their divinely-ordered fecundity being greatly stressed at the beginning of Exodus).

    Furthermore his words to Abraham in Gen 15 13ff, predicting all this, show that it was subsumed in his government of the general history of the area.

    This seems to me to show that the common division amongst TEs between God’s dealings with individuals (personal) and his dealings with nature (through natural laws) is difficult to maintain – and indeed a view that only makes sense within a very particular variant of Enlightenment philosophy of nature.

    Would you agree that we ought to see God’s “immanence through transcendence” as applying universally through his creation, just as (as I understand things) the final coming of his glory to fill his cosmic temple will transform the inanimate creation as much as it will the human?

  5. Jon,

    The short answer is yes; I think good biblical theology would see a basic similarity in how God relates to and works with humans and the non-human world.

    Although I haven’t devoted a lot of thinking to this, my basic intuition is to say that the various sciences describe different aspects of reality, beginning with empirical study, but also addressing patterns and law-like behaviour that we can observe (often with finely-tuned instruments) and infer (based on theories), and is thus open to falsification and modification. By contrast Scripture (and good theology) addresses the ultimate meaning of reality, while often drawing on empirical aspects of the world that are observable to make particular points; the purpose of Scripture (and good theology) is to help us (including scientists) live well in God’s world (including grounding our science well).

    The point of making the above distinction is that biblical theology focuses not on empirical or theoretical description, but on ultimate meaning.

    So what does Scripture say about how God works in the world?

    The revelation of God’s ways in Scripture suggests that while God is certainly focused on humanity (our purpose or role in God’s world, and our salvation and flourishing in this world), God has an analogous concern for the entire cosmos. The Bible often portrays God in intimate relationship with all reality, calling it into existence, sustaining it by his gracious power, calling on non-human creatures to glorify him (Psalm 148), calling the stars by name (Psalm 147), promising cosmic redemption (Psalm 96; Romans 8), and interacting with the world (human and non-human) in both law-like and unusual ways. It seems right to me to say that in all this, God is both transcendent and intimately involved in the world.

    Those are my basic intuitions from trying to immerse myself in Scripture’s worldiew. I believe that immersion in the “thick description” of biblical texts is the foundation of developing a more conceptual and theoretical account of the God-creation relationship and divine action in the world. Based on that foundation, I am open to grow in my understanding of these matters.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      What I like most in your reply is the idea of “immersion in Scripture’s worldview”. That to me is the bedrock of the Christian mind, preceding any arguments one might make (and any frustrations one might feel over common ideas).

      I’m especially sensitive to this currently having read Lovejoy’s book on the “Great Chain of Being”, my overwhelming impression being the sheer fickleness of the human intellect in following fashions in ideas (maybe just one more post to come from me on that).

      Needless to say we’re all conditioned by our cultures, even in our understanding of Scripture, but I remain convinced that the Bible’s main purpose is to expose us to the mind of God and so reform our worldview, whatever it may be.

      Thanks for this stimulating piece, and the earlier one on which I posted.

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