Continuing in G. K. Beale’s The Temple and the Church’s Mission, I read about his understanding of how Israel built its Temple as a miniature version of the heaven and earth. He sees Psalm 78:69 as the most explicate statement of this:
And He built His sanctuary like the heights,
Like the earth which He has founded forever (New American Standard Version–Beale’s preferred translation).
The Temple’s outer court represented the world as inhabited by humans. The great basin there was called the “sea” and that is what it stood for. The altar represented the earth and its roots go back to the early Torah requirements that the altar be made of earth or uncut stones. So the earth with its sea and its land are the outer court. The “sea” was supported by twelve bulls and its brim was decorated with lily blossoms. This represented the animal and plant life surrounding the oceans.
The holy place was the second section of the Temple. It held a seven-branched candle that represented the visible heavens. The seven lights may have stood for the sun, moon and the five visible planets. At any rate, seven lights probably represented the completeness of the heavens and God’s provision of them as signs marking the seasons (Genesis 1:14). The lamp stand was on the south side of the sanctuary probably because from Israel’s point of view in the northern hemisphere, the procession of the planets and constellations took place primarily in the southern sky.
The outer court and the holy place represented what you could see–earth, sea, and sky. But the holy of holies represented the transcendent, invisible world. There is the throne of God and its footstool, the ark, guarded by the cheribim. The ban on people entering the holy of holies (except for the high priest once a year to carry an incense offering) shows the hiddenness and holiness of God. The space above the ark was empty because God is invisible and cannot be represented by any human form.
The cloud that settled over the tabernacle to signal God’s presence and the cloud that accompanied the dedication of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 8:10-13) comes from the storm God imagery. It speaks of how God, although invisible, appears in certain awesome aspects of the visible world. Lightning was a part of the clouds (“lightning of his clouds” Job 37:11, 15). So the clouds were part of the visible heavens, but served as pointers to the invisible God above.
Beale says that the blue and purple coloring of the temple curtains and the priest’s attire stands for the heavens. He points to the imagery in Isaiah and the Psalms of the heavens as a curtain or a tent created by God.
The priestly garment also had three parts. The bottom part sewn with pomegranates and flowers stood for the fertile earth. The main part of the robe was blue with jewels embroidered in. It stood for the heavens with the stars. The square ephod holding the Urim and the Thumin resembled the holy of holies and contained emblems of the revelatory presence of God.
The use of precious metals and precious stones in both the Temple and the priest’s garments are associated with the heavenly lights and God’s glorious beauty which shines through the heavens from beyond.
Beale has several pages showing that Josephus and other Jewish commentators understood the Temple symbolism in a way similar to what he has outlined.
Beale admits that some symbols are more obvious than others, but in the end he thinks that the combined evidence points to the Temple being understood as a focused epitome of the whole universe.