Biblical Parallels for the Investigative Judgment

That’s a concept Adventists know well, for we believe that God is even now judging His people from the sanctuary in heaven.

Articles September 2, 2020

I. Introduction
II. Judgments From the Wilderness Tabernacle
III. Judgments From the Earthly Temple
IV. Ezekiel l-l0
V. Judgments From the Heavenly Temple
VI. Summary


A Judgment by God Issued from His Sanctuary?

That’s a concept Adventists know well, for we believe that God is even now judging His people from the sanctuary in heaven. It’s also a concept that appears numerous times in the Old Testament. Whether from the earthly tabernacle in the wilderness, the earthly temple in Jerusalem, or the temple in heaven, judgment in the Old Testament came from a sanctuary which God actively used at that time. Thus, God’s past judgments from His sanctuary provide a background for, a biblical link to, and a parallel with, our understanding of His judgment from the heavenly sanctuary now.

The following OT examples (not exhaustive) show just how common this notion, that of God judging from His temple, really is.

Judgments From the Wilderness Tabernacle

Leviticus 10. Shortly after being installed as priests, Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, “offered unholy fire before the Lord, such as he had not commanded them” (vs. 1). As a result, “fire came forth from the presence of the Lord and devoured them, and they died before the Lord” (vs. 2). That this took place by the altar in front of the earthly sanctuary is evident from Moses’ instructions for their burial: “Carry your brethren from before the sanctuary out of the camp” (vs. 4). In short, God’s judgment upon them came from the sanctuary.

Numbers 16. Korah, Dathan and Abiram believed that they, not Moses and Aaron, should lead Israel. A test was arranged to resolve this issue. “So every man took his censer, and they put fire in them and laid incense upon them, and they stood at the entrance of the tent of meeting with Moses and Aaron. Then Korah assembled all the congregation against them at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And the glory of the Lord appeared to all the congregation” (vss. 18-19).

The Lord rejected the claim of the rebels and they were swallowed by the earth (vs. 32). Their leading sympathizers among the elders were burned with fire (vs. 35). The congregation came back the next day blaming Moses and Aaron for causing the trouble. “And when the congregation had assembled against Moses and against Aaron, they turned toward the tent of meeting; and behold, the cloud covered it, and the glory of the Lord appeared. And Moses and Aaron came to the front of the tent of meeting.” (vss. 42-43), where judgment was issued against the people for their rebellious attitude. Again, judgment issued by God from the tabernacle.

Numbers 14. After the spies brought their report back from Canaan, the Israelites lamented that they had not died in the wilderness and wanted another leader to return them to Egypt. In response, “The glory of the Lord appeared at the tent of meeting to all the people of Israel. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘How long will this people despise me?’” (vss. 10-11). Though the Lord offered to disinherit the Israelites and make a great nation out of Moses, Moses interceded for His people and the Lord extended His pardon. Nevertheless the Israelites didn’t escape punishment for their rebellion (they were not to enter Canaan). Here, too, God from His earthly tabernacle, issued a judgment on His people.

Also, God’s judgments from His sanctuary are not always negative. In some cases the verdict is favorable.

Numbers 11. After Moses said, “I am not able to carry all this people alone, the burden is too heavy for me” (vs. 14), the Lord made arrangements to appoint assistants: “Gather for me seventy men of the elders of Israel, . . . and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. And I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit which is upon you and put it upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with you” (vss. 16-17).

Moses followed the Lord’s instruction: “He gathered seventy men of the elders of the people, and placed them round about the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him and took some of the spirit that was upon him and put it upon the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied” (vss. 24-25).

These men were accepted into office by the Lord, but at the sanctuary. He gave evidence of their acceptance, judging in their favor, as it were, by sending His spirit upon them. Here, too, judgment is issued from the sanctuary.

Numbers 17. A test was arranged to confirm Aaron as high priest after Korah’s death. Twelve rods were selected, one for each tribe. The name of the leader of each tribe was written on its rod. Aaron’s name was written on Levi’s rod. This case was settled not at the door of the sanctuary but in the sanctuary. “Then you shall deposit them in the tent of meeting before the testimony, where I meet with you” (vs. 4).

According to instructions, “Moses deposited the rods before the Lord in the tent of the testimony” (vs. 7). The Lord judged in Aaron’s favor and confirmed him in office. “Moses went into the tent of the testimony; and behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted” (vs. 8). Judgment, again, was from the sanctuary.

Numbers 27. Zelophehad had no sons and, thus, no male heirs, but he had five daughters who believed that they had been unfairly disfranchised from possessing land in Israel after his death. They presented their case at the door of the tent of meeting in the presence of Moses, the leaders, and the congregation (vs. 2). “Moses brought their case before the Lord. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘The daughters of Zelophehad are right; you shall give them possession of an inheritance among their father’s brethren and cause the inheritance of their father to pass to them’” (vss. 5-7). After there had been investigation of the case at the sanctuary, judgment was issued from there.

In each of these examples, the central point should be clear: God, from His earthly tabernacle, where He dwelt among His people, issued judgments upon them from this tabernacle. Thus, the idea of God judging His people from the sanctuary (tabernacle) certainly has biblical precedents.

Judgments From the Earthly Temple

The Bible also talks about God’s judgments being issued from the sanctuary in Jerusalem.

Psalm 60

This psalm is a communal lament, in which a national defeat is described and prayer is offered for victory over the nation’s foes, especially Edom. In the midst of this psalm, the psalmist writes, “God has spoken in his sanctuary” (vs. 6). Thus the future defeat of Israel’s foes described in this section comes as a judgment pronounced upon them by God, most likely from His earthly sanctuary.

Psalm 73

This is a wisdom psalm in which the justice of God and the problem of the prosperity of the wicked are examined. The psalmist could not understand this until he went “into the sanctuary of God”; then he “perceived their end” (vs. 17). This verse is the thematic and structural center of this psalm. From this point on his understanding about the final disposition of the cases of the wicked and the righteous develops. The wicked will perish like a breath of wind, but God has promised to receive the righteous into glory. On the basis of his development of this understanding, the psalmist became willing to trust in God. It was in the precincts of the earthly sanctuary, therefore, that he developed this understanding that God’s ultimate judgment would be righteous.

Isaiah 18

This reference to God judging from His dwelling place is interesting since its context is the series of prophecies against the nations, the particular prophecy being the oracle against Ethiopia. In the process of pronouncing judgment upon Ethiopia, God said He would look quietly from His “dwelling” (vs. 4), that is either His earthly or heavenly temple. The judgment pronounced upon Ethiopia was that its forces would be defeated: “They shall all of them be left to the birds of prey of the mountains and to the beasts of the earth” (vs. 6). In this case, judgment against a foreign power comes from the sanctuary.

Malachi 3

This prophecy is about the time when “the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple” (vs. 1). This action results in a day of judgment: “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap” (vs. 2). At that time “he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, till they present right offerings to the Lord” (vs. 3). The prophecy further identifies that time as one of judgment: “Then I will draw near to you for judgment” (vs. 5).

Ezekiel 1-10

An understanding of the investigative judgment of Judah in Ezekiel 1-10 sheds light on the views of the heavenly court referred to by other prophets, including the investigative judgment as depicted in Daniel 7. This earlier judgment from the temple in Jerusalem mirrors, in a small way, the massive judgment session to be convened in the temple in heaven (see Daniel 7).

Journey of God

In order to understand Ezekiel’s messages concerning Judah as recorded in the first 24 chapters of his book, it is important to notice the compact chronological space into which these messages were compressed. The siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians began in January 588 B.C., only three and one-half years after Ezekiel’s call, and the city fell in July 586 B.C., after two and one-half years. Thus the messages are dated to the final days of the kingdom of Judah, and represent God’s last warning message to His people. This portion of Ezekiel’s ministry was not spread out over two, three, or four decades as were the ministries of Isaiah and Jeremiah. Only when this chronological aspect of Ezekiel’s ministry is appreciated can his messages be put in proper perspective.

Referring to his call to the prophetic ministry, Ezekiel (a contemporary of Daniel) said that the heavens were opened and he saw visions of God (Ezek 1:1). Though vision is described in extensive detail, we will concentrate on a few salient points.

At the outset Ezekiel saw a great whirlwind coming out of the north. This storm cloud is described in more than natural terms: “A great cloud, with brightness round about it, and fire flashing forth continually, and in the midst of the fire, as it were gleaming bronze” (Ezek 1:4). The direction from which this cloud approaches, the north, is significant, and will be discussed later.

The first features to emerge from the storm cloud appeared as four living beings (Ezekiel 1:5-14), identified in Ezekiel 10 as “cherubim.” These four living beings reappear around the throne of God in Revelation 4. Although there are minor differences in their descriptions by Ezekiel and John, the same beings were seen by both men. These beings, as depicted here in Ezekiel, have wings (vss. 6, 8, 11, 14). Wings are used for flying; thus we see these creatures in motion (vss. 9, 12, 14).

No wonder, then, that the next section of the vision describes four wheels, one for each living being (vss.17, 19-21). Wheels, too, are used for motion, in particular on the ground; thus these wheels touch the ground from time to time (vss. 19, 21). The important thing to note from this passage is the intense description of motion, whether through the imagery of wings or wheels. Whatever Ezekiel is shown, it’s moving: “And when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them: and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up. Whithersoever the spirit was to go, they went, thither was their spirit to go; and the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels. When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood; and when those were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.” Ezekiel 1:19-21

The next section of the vision describes the firmament that was spread out above the heads and wings of the four living beings (Ezekiel 1: 22-25). This firmament was in motion, too, for the living beings travel with it (vs. 24) and on command (vs. 25) they bring the firmament to a stop. The firmament served the purpose of bearing the throne of God (vs. 26).

The final section of the vision (vss. 26-28) describes God Himself who is seated upon this movable throne, which is being carried by these beings. He is described as in the “likeness” of human form, but most of the description of God is taken up with a description of His glory “Such,” Ezekiel tells us, “was the appearance … of the glory of the Lord” (vs. 28). As a result of having this glory revealed to him, Ezekiel fell upon his face. God spoke to the exiled priest and gave him his charge and commission as a prophet to God’s people.

At the heart of this vision is God as He sits on His throne, which is supported by the firmament that is borne up by His attendants, the four living beings and the wheels underneath them.

The crucial point here, for our discussion, is that, according to the vision given Ezekiel—God is in motion. God is going somewhere, and that is the point of the vision. God is riding His celestial chariot, composed of the living beings with wings, the firmament, and the wheels, toward a particular destination.

All of which leads to the question, Where God was going when Ezekiel saw Him in vision by the river Chebar (Ezekiel 1:1-3)? To answer this question we should return to verse 4, where it is stated that the storm-cloud chariot bearing God was seen coming from the north. From Ezekiel’s point of view, a storm cloud coming out of the north could have traveled either to the southeast (to the exiles in Babylon), or to the southwest (to Judah and Jerusalem). Though the record of the vision itself doesn’t say where the Lord was going, from what follows in chapters 9-11, it’s clear that God was traveling southwest to His temple in Jerusalem in order to conduct the work of judgment upon His people. That the Lord was going to His temple become apparent from what follows, including this verse, when the Lord says, “Son of man, do you see what they are doing, the great abominations that the house of Israel are committing here, to drive me far from my sanctuary?” (Ezek 8:6). Thus, the Lord had now come to His temple, and that He had gone there to conduct a judgment is seen from what follows.

Judgment of God

First, the two chapters containing the prophet’s commission and charge (Ezek 2-3) are followed by three chapters (4- 7) that contain a series of indictments for Judah’s transgressions, as well as prophecies regarding her coming judgment. The indictment opens with a general statement concerning the rejection of God’s statutes and ordinances by the people (Ezek 5:6) and continues with specific indictments for various sins (6-7). Finally, it culminates with a vision depicting the idolatry in the very precincts of Yahweh’s temple ( chap. 8).

Ezekiel’s vision of the fourfold corruption of the temple precincts is dated in the sixth month of the sixth year of the exile, or September 591 B.C. (Ezek 8:1), which indicates that Yahweh had been at His temple for 14 months (see Ezekiel 1:1). This raises two questions:

Why did He come there in the first place, and what did He do while He was there?

The first question is relevant because it could be observed that Yahweh’s presence in His temple was already represented by the Shekinah glory resting over the Ark of the Covenant in the Most Holy Place before Ezekiel was given the vision of chapter 1. If Yahweh’s presence was already manifested in that place in this way, why did He need to come to “my sanctuary” in terms of the vision given to Ezekiel in chapter 1? The evident answer is that He came there to do a special work, and according to what’s found in the texts between chapters 1 and 8 (the chapters contain a series of indictments against Judah for a whole host of sins, violence, idolatry, and general disobedience to the Lord’s commands), it’s clear that this special work was of judgment. In other words, Yahweh came to His temple in order to execute judgment upon His people.

The position is strengthened by chapter 9. The people of Judah who professed to serve God were divided into two classes: those who really did serve Him (as evidenced by their sighing and crying for the abominations done in the land), and those who did not serve Him (as evidenced by the fact that they caused these abominations). The division between these two groups was to be made by the angel, outfitted as a scribe, who was instructed to pass among the people and write a mark (literally the Hebrew letter tāw) on the foreheads of those who belonged to the first group (Ezek 9:4).

In this particular instance the use of the letter tāw as a special marker may derive its importance from the fact that it was the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet. By selecting individuals in this manner, the angel marked them as the last of the righteous, that is, the righteous remnant to be saved from the destruction of Judah.

The significance of the symbolism is evident from the subsequent actions of the destroying angels who were to pass through the city to slay those who were not so marked. Historically this prophecy was fulfilled when Nebuchadnezzar’s army besieged and conquered Jerusalem a few years after this vision.

Thus a differentiation was made between the two classes of people in Judah at this time—the righteous and the wicked, the remnant to be saved and those not of the remnant to be destroyed. The implication of this division is that the distinction between the individuals in these two groups had been drawn up while Yahweh sat in judgment in His temple. The execution of the sentence was the result of decisions reached during the judgment. This judgment was investigative in the sense that a decision had been reached in each case and a division had been drawn between these two classes of people as a result.

The reality of the Lord’s presence at the sanctuary for this final work of judgment upon Judah becomes even clearer toward the end of this vision when the Lord leaves the earthly temple. When a decision had been reached in every case, there was no longer any need for Yahweh to remain there. During the vision of the idolatrous corruptions of the temple (chap. 8), Yahweh raised asked Ezekiel if he was what they were doing to “drive me far from my sanctuary?” (Ezek 8:6). Yahweh’s departure from His temple was not, then, an arbitrary action carried out on His part; His people had driven Him from His own house.

Ezekiel describes what that departure looked like, at least as it was shown to him in vision: “The glory of the Lord went up from the cherubim to the threshold of the house; and the house was filled with the cloud, and the court was full of the brightness of the glory of the Lord” (Ezek 10:4). Next the whole train moved to the east gate of the temple precincts. “The cherubim lifted up their wings and mounted up from the earth in my sight as they went forth, with the wheels beside them; and they stood at the door of the east gate of the house of the Lord; and the glory of the God of Israel was over them” (10:19). Finally it crossed the Kidron Valley, to rest for a fleeting moment over the Mount of Olives, as Yahweh, His judgment of His people now complete, takes final leave of His house, His people, and His city. “Then the cherubim lifted up their wings, with the wheels beside them; and the glory of the God of Israel was over them. And the glory of the Lord went up from the midst of the city, and stood upon the mountain which is on the east side of the city” (11:22-23).

The special work of judgment done, the Lord left His temple.

Judgments From the Heavenly Temple

This concept of judgment, however, isn’t limited only to the sanctuary in the wilderness or the temple in Jerusalem. On the contrary: the following examples (not exhaustive) show that God, from His sanctuary in heaven, issued judgments as well.

Psalm 11

This short psalm begins with a personal lament over the violence done to the righteous by the wicked. The psalmist then expresses trust in the justice of God, who from His Temple in heaven will judge justly:

The Lord is in his holy temple,
the Lord’s throne is in heaven;
his eyes behold, his eyelids test,
the children of men.
The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked. (vss. 4-5a)

From the temple come His judgments upon the wicked (vs. 6) and His judgment in favor of the righteous (vs. 7).

Micah 1

According to the introduction to the book of Micah, God’s judgments upon His rebellious people issue from His heavenly temple

Hear, you people, all of you;
hearken, O earth, and all that is in it;
and let the Lord God be a witness against you,
the Lord from his holy temple.
For behold, the Lord is coming forth out of his place,
and will come down and tread upon the high places of the earth.
And the mountains will melt under him and the valleys will be cleft,
like wax before the rife, like waters poured down a steep place.
All this is for the transgression of Jacob
and for the sins of the house of Israel. (vss. 2-5)

Psalm 102

This psalm is the cry of one whose sufferings are unexplained. The first 11 verses convey the psalmist’s lament about his personal condition. The lament is then extended to include his concern about Zion, even though the psalmist expresses his confidence that God will arise from His throne and judge in favor of Zion and against her enemies:

But thou, O Lord, art enthroned for ever;
thy name endures to all generations.
Thou wilt arise and have pity on Zion;
it is the time to favor her;
the appointed time has come. (vss. 12-13)

The throne from which God was to arise to judge on behalf of His people was located in heaven. This we know from Psalm 11:4, which reads, “The LORD is in his holy temple, the LORD’S throne is in heaven: his eyes behold, his eyelids try, the children of men.” Thus, the Psalmist continues in Psalm 102:

He looked down from his holy height,
from heaven the Lord looked at the earth,
to hear the groans of the prisoners,
to set free those who were doomed to die. (vss. 19-20)

Psalm 76

This psalm provides an interesting illustration of the connection between God’s work in the earthly temple and His work in the heavenly temple. The psalm opens by describing Jerusalem as His place of residence:

In Judah God is known,
his name is great in Israel.
His abode has been established in Salem,
his dwelling place in Zion. (vss. 1-2)

From this earthly residence God, according to the following five verses, defeated the enemies of His people. But this was not just a reflection of His activity from His temple in Jerusalem. This judgment on behalf of His oppressed people actually came down from heaven, from the Lord on his throne in the heavenly temple (see again Psalm 11:4).

From the heavens thou didst utter judgment;
the earth feared and was still,
when God arose to establish judgment
to save all the oppressed of the earth. (vss. 8-9).

Psalm 103

Gratitude to God is expressed all the way through this hymn of thanksgiving. Thanks are given for the fivefold blessing of the forgiveness of sins, the healing of illness, rescue from Sheol, admittance to a blessed afterlife, and the eternal enjoyment of God’s beauty in heaven. That these blessings flow from God’s faithfulness to His covenant promises because of His love, is a recurring theme through this psalm (compare vss. 4, 8, 11, 17).

It is in this context that God judges on behalf of His downtrodden people, “The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed” (vs. 6). This justice flows from His throne in heaven, from where He rules over His earthly kingdom, “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all” (vs. 19). That throne, we previously saw, was situated in the “heavenly temple.”


This survey, by no means exhaustive, illustrates the reality of God issuing judgments from His sanctuary, be it the heavenly or the earthly one (which was modeled after the heavenly) appears numerous times, and in various contexts, in the Old Testament.

The sanctuary, whether earthly or heavenly, was the place where God dwelt. Because He was the one who issued such judgments, it is only natural that they were issued from there. Thus the relationship between the sanctuary and judgment described in the passages discussed above is a natural one. God’s government centers in His sanctuary.

This is important because of the Adventist understanding of the pre-Advent, or investigative judgment; that is, His final end-time judgment executed from the heavenly sanctuary as depicted in, among other places, the book of Daniel. Though obviously much greater and comprehensive in scope and application than any of the ones discussed above, the idea is the same: God, from His temple, issues judgments upon the earth, either on His own people or the nations, and either in favor or against them. A more comprehensive study of this topic reveals that when one compares the judgment in Daniel with various aspects of judgments from the sanctuary elsewhere recorded in the OT, Daniel’s portrayal clearly contains essential elements of the latter.

Two significant differences, however, between OT judgments in general and the final judgment depicted in Daniel involve time and scope. The judgments from the sanctuary in the OT passages studied above refer to judgments upon persons, peoples, or nations that were contemporary with the prophet who announced the judgments. In Daniel, on the other hand, final judgment is located in the context of an end-time framework, after the rise and fall of a series of nations and at the end of a specified period of prophetic time. Thus the other judgments in the OT and the judgment in Daniel were qualitatively similar but set in different time dimensions.

Another major difference is that of scope. These other OT judgments were localized in scope, dealing with different individuals, groups of people, or nations of the ancient Near East. However, the judgment in Daniel is more far-reaching, for it brings present human history to a close. It is cosmic in scope. The OT judgment passages outside of Daniel are a series of mini-judgments on the microcosmic scale. These lead up to, point to, and provide an earlier reflection of and parallel to the great final judgment on the macrocosmic scale as is described in Daniel (and Revelation).

This material was condensed and adapted from Selected Studies on Prophetic Interpretation, by William H. Shea. “Biblical Parallels For the Investigative Judgment”; Daniel and Revelation Committee Series, Vol. 1. General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. 1982.