“And they shall teach my people the difference between the holy and profane, and cause them to discern between the unclean and the clean.” — Ezekiel 44:23
Over the years, our family has had several tropical fish aquariums. Our children found the wide variety of fish shapes and colors intriguing, and we enjoyed the calming effect of watching the fish swim about in the tank. However, we learned that it takes a fair amount of work to properly maintain the tank environment and keep the fish healthy!
One of the most critical tasks was keeping the water and tank clean, and a number of steps were necessary to ensure that. The water had to be purified from any chemicals harmful to fish before the fish were added to the tank, so we installed a recirculation pump with filters: a sponge filter to remove impurities that could be seen, and a charcoal filter to remove impurities that could not be seen. We discovered that it is important to keep the chemical balance (pH) of the water correct for the particular species of fish. We carefully watched for signs of algae in the tank, and removed it whenever it appeared. When those steps were taken, we enjoyed an eye-catching scene of tranquility right in our living room. When the necessary steps were neglected, the results were cloudy water, algae growing on the tank walls, and eventually, dead fish. The difference between clean and unclean water was a life or death matter for the inhabitants of our tank!
In today’s text, Ezekiel outlined regulations regarding the Temple in restored Israel, and requirements for those who would serve as priests in it. Our focus verse summarizes the priests’ primary duty: to teach God’s people “the difference between the holy and profane, and cause them to discern between the unclean and the clean.”
Historically, God had intended that His people thrive in the land of promise as a separate and pure people. Before Judah’s destruction, one of His accusations against the house of Israel was that they had failed to preserve the sanctity of the Temple (see Ezekiel 8). Such neglect would not be tolerated in the new Temple. God gave instructions for proper worship and explicit directions regarding how to keep worship pure. These instructions included both obvious things that could be seen, and the less obvious attitudes of the heart.
The importance of maintaining holiness and purity before God is no less vital in our day. In our personal lives, this begins with salvation from sin, which removes the stain and guilt of committed sins. Entire sanctification is a second, definite work of grace that will cleanse and purify our unseen motives and attitudes. This state of heart cleanliness is sustained by taking careful note of the difference between the “clean and unclean” in the world around us, and asking for God’s help in avoiding any contaminating influences. Purity is not something that we can afford to overlook or neglect. It is a matter of spiritual life or death!
Chapter 44 outlines regulations for worship in the new Temple. The guidelines and restrictions primarily applied to four groups: the prince, strangers, Levites, and priests. Given directly by “the Lord God,” these guidelines closely paralleled what Ezekiel had learned about worship from the Law of Moses, though in some cases, the new requirements were even more exacting.
The restriction on usage of the eastern gate was a command not covered in the Law. Because the Lord had entered the Temple from the east (see chapter 43), that ground was sacred, and the gate was to remain closed. Only the prince could enter the outer court from that direction.
“The prince,” God’s appointed leader mentioned in verse 3, is alluded to many times in Ezekiel’s Temple vision. His actions correspond with historical functions of princes (tribal leaders or chieftains in Israel), as outlined in the instructions of Numbers 7. Bible scholars have differing views regarding the identity of the prince. Though not a king or a priest, he is a key figure in the restored Temple system of worship. His faithful discharge of duties is contrasted to the corrupt princes mentioned earlier in Ezekiel and in the history of Israel.1 Because he offered a sin offering for himself (Ezekiel 45:22), had sons (Ezekiel 46:16), and was warned about corruption (Ezekiel 46:18), most commentators agree that he cannot be the Messiah, though he is a descendant of David.
The designation of “stranger” and the entry restriction in verse 9 was not based on ethnicity. Jewish historians define a “stranger” as “one whose deeds have become alienated from his Father in Heaven; this is an apostate who worships idols. They are the ones of ‘uncircumcised heart.’”2 God’s holy sanctuary was a place set apart for worship; it was not to be an object of tourism or casual curiosity. The people of Israel had been taught monotheism (belief in one God) since the time of Moses, but this concept was exceptional among the nations of that era. Few “strangers” would have embraced such a belief.
Temple duties were assigned to the tribe of Levi in verses 10-16. However, many of the Levites were prohibited from performing priestly duties because they had been unfaithful in the past. Verse 10 states that they had “gone away far from me, when Israel went astray,” a reference to when Jeroboam set up alternative worship that divided Israel and turned the people from God (see 1 Kings 12). Since some of the Levites followed that apostasy, priestly duties in Ezekiel’s Temple were assigned to the Zadokites, who had remained faithful to God.
The detailed instructions in verses 17-31 reinforced what Ezekiel knew from study of the Torah. Proximity to God required great care and reverence, and certain outward indicators of holiness were required. For example, verse 20 mandated that priests were not to shave their heads or have long hair, as such extremes would emulate the worship customs of surrounding heathen nations.3 Requirements for priests were more strict than for other Israelites, as it was their duty to teach the people the difference between the holy and profane, and the clean and unclean.
The inheritance and provision for the priests described in verses 28-31 parallel those established by Moses under the Law. They were to have no land allotment as God Himself would be their inheritance, and the offerings brought by the people would be their food.
IV. The consolation of Israel
B. Prophecies of the millennial kingdom
1. The restoration of the Temple
d. The renewal of worship in the Temple
(2) The requirements for the Temple ministers (44:1-31)
(a) The regulations concerning the east gate (44:1-4)
(b) The restriction of some from the Temple (44:5-14)
 Strangers (44:5-9)
 Certain Levites (44:10-14)
(c) The regulations for the Zadokite priests (44:15-31)
The principle of taking care to discern between the holy and profane is still an important one. It is vital for believers to maintain purity before the world in their walks with the Lord.
1. See Ezekiel 7:27; 12:10; 21:25; 38:2, 3; 39:1
2.Rashi, “Rashi on Ezekiel,” Sefaria, December 28, 2021, https://www.sefaria.org
3. The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, Second edition, edited by J. H. Hertz (London: Soncino Press, 1960), 528.