2022-08-20

Revelation 11 and the meaning of Measuring the Temple

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by Neil Godfrey

And there was given me a reed like unto a rod; and the angel stood, saying, “Rise, and measure the temple of God and the altar, and them that worship therein. But the court which is outside the temple, leave out, and measure it not, for it is given unto the Gentiles; and the Holy City shall they tread under foot for forty and two months. — Revelation 11:1-2 (21st C KJV)

Immediately following the above verses comes the account of the “Two Witnesses”. In Thomas Witulski’s view Revelation was composed in the time of Hadrian and the years of the Bar Kochba revolt, that is between 130 and 135 CE.  Previous posts have covered how he explains the trials of the seven churches, the four horsemen of the apocalypse, the emergence of two beasts, one of them identified by the number 666, in the context of major events in the eastern Mediterranean world during the times of Trajan and Hadrian. It’s time I covered Witulski’s analysis of Revelation 11.

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Questions arising:

  • Is the passage about the temple at the time Jerusalem was under siege in 69/70 CE?
  • Is the passage a depiction of a heavenly temple?
  • Is it an allegory of the church?
  • Is the measuring for the destruction or for the preservation of an existing temple or for plans for a future temple?

Before attempting to decide how a passage fits events around the time of writing, W takes a close look at what, exactly, the text appears to be saying.

A significant point that stands out in W’s discussion is the notice that the author who is given the command is never said to carry it out. He does not measure anything.

He is told not to measure the outer court because it is given to the gentiles. He is then told that the Holy City shall they tread under foot for forty and two months.

The treading down of the holy city is introduced as a future event. The measuring of the temple and the instruction to leave out the outer court is all present tense. The outer court is given to the gentiles — now, at the time of the instruction; but the news that the holy city is to be trodden down is introduced as something that is yet to happen. W concludes that the 42 months duration of the treading down of the holy city is not part of the present time in which the measurement is expected to take place and in which the outer court (only, not the entire temple or city) is given to the gentiles. Here is an adapted version of W’s explanatory table:

We do not read that all of the city except for the temple will be trampled underfoot by the gentiles for 42 months but that the city — implying the whole city — will be trodden under. The “holy city” is holy because the temple stands there. Without the temple it is not holy. W cites Dulk:

This sentence is unintelligible if the first part of the text is construed to mean that the temple will be preserved. If the holy city is trampled, that includes the temple. The text does not state that the rest of the city will be trampled, but simply that the city (without exception) will be trampled. Moreover, the city at issue is the ‘holy city’. What makes the ‘holy city’ holy is precisely the presence of the temple. It is hard to see how this sentence could be otherwise construed than with the implication that the whole city, with as its central element the temple, will be trampled. (Dulk, 441). — (in part cited by W, 26)

The reference is to the Septuagint (Greek) of Zechariah 12:3

And it shall come to pass in that day [that] I will make Jerusalem a trodden stone to all the nations: every one that tramples on it shall utterly mock at [it], and all the nations of the earth shall be gathered together against it.

By replacing “Jerusalem” with “holy city” the author of Revelation is reminding readers of the temple and emphasizing that the temple itself will be included in the destruction (W, 27). Compare Joel 3:17 (4:17 in LXX)

. . . ye know that I am the Lord your God dwelling in Zion, My holy mountain. Then shall Jerusalem be holy . . . 

W concludes that the measurement that is announced and whatever is implied by it will be overtaken by the fact that everything about it will be destroyed.

Further, . . .

It is hard to imagine that the author was expecting God’s true worshipers to be included in that destruction. Measurement can be a sign of destruction (e.g. 2 Samuel 8:2a, Isaiah 34:11, Amos 7:7-9, 2 Kings 21:13, Lamentations 2:8) but also a sign of preservation (e.g. 2 Samuel 8:2b, Ezekiel 40:1-6, 42:20, Zechariah 2:1-5). But there are no conceptual analogies in any of these passages with what we read in Rev 11:1-2. Given that the holy city is to be completely overrun we cannot think of the measuring here for the purpose of preservation; but nor can we imagine that the measuring of the worshipers is a pronouncement of their destruction. (There are other options W discusses, such as the idea of rulership or administration, but these are likewise rejected.)

W interprets Revelation 11:1-2 against the later scene of measuring in chapter 21:

15 The angel who talked with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city, its gates and its walls. 16 The city was laid out like a square, as long as it was wide. He measured the city with the rod and found it to be 12,000 stadia in length, and as wide and high as it is long. 17 The angel measured the wall using human measurement, and it was 144 cubits thick.

18 The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass. 19 The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, 20 the fifth onyx, the sixth ruby, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth turquoise, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst. 21 The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of gold, as pure as transparent glass.

Here it is an angel who measures, unlike the mortal who is commanded to measure in 11:1-2.

The measuring instrument in chapter 21 is a golden reed; in 11:1 a mere reed like a staff is to be used.

In Rev 21 the measurement is carried out and details of the measurements are announced. The angel measures out a city and its walls while the mortal was to measure only the temple and altar.

As the measuring is undertaken the visionary is taken further to see additional details of the glorious edifice.

It is very likely in W’s view that the author intended to play down the importance of the first measuring in chapter 11 compared with what is to be measured in the future and that is yet to (soon) become a reality.

What is hoped for in Revelation 11 will not eventuate: the gentiles will nullify the hopes of the one commissioned to measure by treading the entire city underfoot. The hope of the seer was fleeting. The hope of measuring was followed immediately by the pronouncement of total conquest and devastation.

The Touchstone: Ezekiel 40-46

I referred to W’s point above that there are no conceptual parallels between the measuring of Revelation 11 and Old Testament passages where measuring is a metaphor of either destruction or preservation. But both Revelation 21 and Revelation 11 can be compared meaningfully with the measuring activity in Ezekiel 40-46.

In the Septuagint version of Ezekiel we find the same lowly reed of Revelation 11:1 being used as the measuring instrument.

The objects set out to be measured or not form a brief summary of those in Ezekiel. In Ezekiel the temple itself is first measured; subsequently the outer courtyard; then an account is given of those who officiate in the sacrificial and worship activities.

Richard Bauckham notes a significant detail that further points to how to interpret Revelation 11:1-2:

The first of its two parts (11:1-2) is highly distinctive in that only here, in the whole book, is John commanded to perform a symbolic prophetic action. This shows that John’s fulfilment of his prophetic commission, given in 10:11, now begins. The pattern is again given by Ezekiel, whose prophetic commission (Ezek 3) was followed by the first of the symbolic actions in which he acted out his prophetic message (Ezek 4). By following this pattern, John indicates that in 11:1-2 he begins to divulge the contents of the scroll as prophecy. (Bauckham, 266f — in part cited by W, 36)

At this point I would like to illustrate what other scholars (Bauckham, Kowalski) have published by way of details of the links between Ezekiel and Revelation 21 and 10-11. To do so, however, I would prefer to make use of a much larger screen than my current laptop offers. Till that becomes an option, I will simply note the interpretative implications of that comparative study:

. . . the conclusion does not seem improbable that the apocalyptist also wanted to allude in this passage (11:1-2) neither to the destruction nor to the preservation, but to the new erection of a sanctuary in Jerusalem to be realised in the future. (Witulski, 36. translation)

That interpretation runs against a widely accepted view that Rev. 11:1 is about hopes for the survival of the temple during the Jewish War of 66-70 CE.

The measuring of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 imaginatively captures the same kinds of glorious details hoped for in the future; besides the details and grandeur of those visions, the measuring in Revelation 11 is extraordinarily meagre and superficial. We have already noted the contrast between the measuring done by an angel and one commanded of a mortal; and the fact that in Revelation the task is not even carried out. If Revelation 21 describes the fulfilment of God’s plan for history, the measuring commission of Revelation 11 describes nothing more than an aborted hope.

In Revelation 11:1-2 the author drew upon the vision of Ezekiel 40 where the measuring was an act of hope for a future reality; the same author drew upon Ezekiel 40 again in his 21st chapter. The contrast between the two references was likely meant to demonstrate that the realization of future hopes lay in the future and in a time beyond those of mortal efforts to establish a new Jewish kingdom. The present hopes (at the time of writing) for a new temple were not to be realized.

That is, the temple and altar would not be rebuilt. Instead, the nations would trample Jerusalem down and deny the Jewish people their hopes of a restored religious identity.

Some readers interpret the “temple of God” as a heavenly place. I will bypass W’s discussion of this view and note here only his conclusion: while the temple of God in Revelation is often situated in heaven the author makes it clear when he is referring to the temple of God on earth, even when it is a spiritual temple on earth; the distinctive terms used in Rev 11:1f (e.g. altar) suggest that the temple is meant literally and not as a symbol of the church; and elsewhere in Revelation the author speaks clearly about threats to Christians and Jews so it is unlikely that there is any point to speaking of them symbolically in Revelation 11.

Witulski’s conclusion: Revelation 11:1-2 has in mind a literal temple in Jerusalem. The commission to measure it is taken from Ezekiel 40-46 where the purpose of measuring is a sign of a promise of a new temple yet to be built. The command to measure in Revelation 11 is not carried out and even its anticipated measurements were paltry by comparison with the later measuring of a new city by the angel. The measuring of the temple in Revelation 11 was not to be realized because the entire city was about to be trodden underfoot by the gentiles.

Such is Witulski’s analysis of Revelation 11:1-2. In a later chapter he will see how this interpretation fits with events leading up to the Bar Kochba war.


Bauckham, Richard. The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993.

Dulk, Matthijs Den. “Measuring the Temple of God: Revelation 11.1–2 and the Destruction of Jerusalem.” New Testament Studies 54, no. 03 (July 2008): 436–49. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0028688508000222.

Witulski, Thomas. Apk 11 und der Bar Kokhba-Aufstand : eine zeitgeschichtliche Interpretation. Tübingen : Mohr Siebeck, 2012. http://archive.org/details/apk11undderbarko0000witu.


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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “Revelation 11 and the meaning of Measuring the Temple”

  1. Another take, “Breaking the Code”, Metzger…he does say “What follows in Chapter 11 has been generally acknowledged to be one of the most perplexing sections of the entire book.”
    Rev 11:1, to paraphrase, cannot refer to the Jewish temple because John was writing in the 90’s…John is using symbolic language speaking of the temple not as a building but as God’s people. “Measuring is done in order to build and repair, and John is given a measuring rod so that he can restore and revive the church.”
    Measure only the inner court, outside given over to the nations, outside are “the persecutors of the church” who will trample for 42 months…this period is the traditional apocalyptic term of Gentile domination derived from Daniel 9:27 and 12:7.

    His ref for symbolic temple as God’s people…

    1 Corinthians 3:16 (KJV 1900): Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?

    2 Corinthians 6:16 (KJV 1900): And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

    1 Peter 2:5 (KJV 1900): Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.

    1 Peter 2:5 (KJV 1900): Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.

    1. Last ref I screwed up copy and paste meant to be
      Ephesians 2:21–22 (KJV 1900): In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: 22 In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.

  2. Interesting new possibility that the measuring relates to plans for a new temple rather than measurements of an existing temple.

    However, while the temple measurements of both Ezekiel 40-43 and Rev. 21 are of a future temple, in both visions the ideal temple was fully constructed. The measurements helped to picture the grand dimensions, architectural features and layout of the future temple. A third example that closely parallels Ezekiel 40-43 is the New Jerusalem scroll from Qumran.

    Probably these are all based on a long tradition, going back to the Ancient Near East, of divinely revealed architectural building designs that were “shown” to the builders (sometimes in a dream) prior to construction. There are references to this sort of revealed technical wisdom in Assyrian building inscriptions, and it also surfaces in the (Mesopotamian-influenced) divine plans of the tabernacles and its furniture “shown” by God to Moses in Exodus.

    (1) I wonder if you would speculate about what “existing” (but possibly visionary) temple structure was measured in Rev. 11.

    (2) Do you have any thoughts as to why the author did not use the architect’s plumb-line in his imagery? This was a common OT image for measurements on-site by masons and builders prior to actual building construction. One sees it in connection with the divinely authorized rebuilding of the temple (Zech. 1:16) by Zerubbabel (Zech. 4:10) or Jerusalem (Jer. 31:38-40). [But, like the measuring stick, it can also mysteriously be a symbol of destruction.]

    My own thoughts is that a measuring line (used both for laying out straight lines and for leveling) was useful “on the ground” for the early horizontal phases of construction (especially foundations and layout of walls), while a reed was also useful for measuring heights. Hence there was a preference for measuring line imagery for the initiation of building projects, and reeds for completed projects (including vertical elevations of completed elements).

    In any case, an interesting posting.

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