In chapter one we are told that the hand of the LORD was on Ezekiel and from that moment on, Ezekiel has been directed by God to do and say as the LORD instructs. The overwhelming message has been that God is now pouring his wrath out on Israel for turning their backs on Him and worshipping the so-called gods of the other nations. By the Sovereignty of God, Babylon will lay siege on Jerusalem and totally wipe them out. Everybody will be killed either by the sword or by famine. The image we must have of Israel after the attack is like a scene from a post-apocalyptic film where there is no life and no hope.
In chapters 33-36, the message is of hope and God’s glory returning to Israel. Here’s a string of verses which capture this message:
- 34:12-13 “I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land”
- 34:16 ” will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy”
- 34:31 “You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, declares the Sovereign Lord”
- 36:8 “But you, mountains of Israel, will produce branches and fruit for my people Israel, for they will soon come home”
- 36:10 “The towns will be inhabited and the ruins rebuilt”
- 36:26 “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh”
- 36:27-28 “And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God”
- 36:35 “They will say, “This land that was laid waste has become like the garden of Eden; the cities that were lying in ruins, desolate and destroyed, are now fortified and inhabited”
Also in these chapters is the clear message that God is not repenting of his wrath but promising to restore for His name’s sake. Consider these two quotes from chapters 33 and 36.
- 33:31-32 “My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to hear your words, but they do not put them into practice. Their mouths speak of love, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice”
- 36: 20-21″And wherever they went among the nations they profaned my holy name, for it was said of them, ‘These are the Lord’s people, and yet they had to leave his land.’ I had concern for my holy name, which the people of Israel profaned among the nations where they had gone”
Before we get to chapter 37, we have a vision of Israel as dead and wiped out. A nation totally destroyed because of their unrighteousness. God has abandoned them because they abandoned their God. Yet, God promises to bring this nation back to life! He will give them a new heart and will put His Spirit in them so that they will be careful to listen and obey the LORD.
- Verses 1-3 – Can God undo desolation?
- Verses 4-8 – Speak to the bones!
- Verses 9-10 – Speak to the breath!
- Verses 11-14 – The vision explained.
The hand of the LORD was on Ezekiel just as described in 1:3 before he saw the great vision of God’s glory. The vision he is shown this time is of a valley full of dry bones. When the whole passage (1-14) is considered, it would appear that this is just a vision, although very real to Ezekiel. So real that he can be led to the valley and led back and forth through it.
The vision is like the aftermath of a great battle. Having the siege of Jerusalem and the promised slaughter in mind works – it’s not hard to think that these bones belong to the people of Israel.
The bones are many and they are very dry. This is quite literally a valley of death.
The problem in this short passage is not that there are dead people – this is clearly the result of the wrath of God. The problem is the question posed: can these bones live?
Ezekiel’s answer shows true wisdom: to God, nothing is impossible, so we’ll ask him!
Try and picture the scene from verses 1-8. Ezekiel is in a remote valley filled with bones and, supposedly, nobody else about. Then he is told, like many times before in Ezekiel, to prophesy and speak the words of the LORD. But he is told to speak to a valley of dry bones. Can you picture him speaking to the bones?
The promise given to the bones is that they will be given tendons, flesh and skin but the important ingredient is breath. Breath is the first thing promised in 5 and is the only ingredient not provided by verse 8.
There are many ways to define what a dead person is – it was an exercise I did in high school to try and work out when a person moves from life to death. A stopped heart? No brain activity? No breath? Maybe it’s all of the above and for a duration? I don’t remember what the conclusion of our class lesson was, but the bible here, without making the passage too scientific, reminds us that bones with tendons and flesh and skin does not make a person alive. Only when there is breath can we say that life has begun.
You’ll remember that in Genesis 2:7, “the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” The significance of leaving the breath till last and delaying it may be to emphasise the importance of the breath. God is not reforming empty shells but bringing a people back to life.
Again, try and picture the scene. At the end of verse 8, we don’t have a vision of zombies – the walking dead – but simply bones given tendons, flesh and skin. The valley is no longer a valley of dry bones but a valley of dead bodies.
Next, Ezekiel is told to speak the word of God to the breath! If speaking to dry bones seemed weird, speaking to thin air must have felt weirder?
The four winds mentioned here may speak of the fulness and force and deliberate power of the breath. Simply adding to the visual image of this act. Not a small breath, but a powerful force.
When the breath entered the bodies, they became alive and stood and were called: a vast army. They would be united – not for a social club but for battle. Strengthened bodies, full of life and energy and equipped for the fight. Ephesians 6 comes to mind here.
Now, it is important to talk about this breath…
The NIV footnote to verse 5 says, “The Hebrew for this word can also mean wind or spirit.” This means that one Hebrew word has these three definitions: breath, wind and spirit. So, the context tells us whether the word in English ought to be breath, wind or spirit. If we had one English word which means all three, we might see the one word launch out at us over and over and over. You might like to re-read the 14 verses and substitute all of the uses of breath, wind and spirit with one of those three. So, Ezekiel was brought out by the breath of the LORD(v1)! The LORD promises to make wind enter the bones (v5) and so on! At times, it seems clear which of the three to use such as verse 1 – the Spirit is needed. And verse 9 is difficult to understand if there are four spirits being winded or spirited into the slain. The NIV translaters have chosen which English word works best in the sentence. But remember what God had promised in 36:27 – he would put his Spirit in them. What is needed is more than wind or breath to enter the bodies but the Spirit that brings life!
“I will put my Spirit in you and you will live!” That’s the point of the passage. These fourteen verses are not primarily about Christian resurrection but about Spirit filled re-creation. The rebirth that Jesus spoke to Nicodemus about in John 3; the changed new creation spoken of in Colossians 2 and 3; and the celebration that anyone in Christ is a new creation in 2 Corinthians 5:17.
What is it that Ezekiel meant to the readers in his day? Surely it was not about eternal resurrection but about the restoration of the Kingdom of God. They had in mind, as it says in this section, that their hope is gone because they have been cut off from God (v11). But God promises to restore them and give them His Spirit. The audience of this story is not the slain victims of God’s wrath but the Jews in exile, scattered and who, although they were alive, were really dead – cut off from God.
As verse 11 states, “these bones are the people of Israel.” The nation and people of God are like dead people who are so dead and lost that their bones are bleaching in the sun. They have no hope and no future. But because of the grace of God, they will be restored and given the Spirit of God. Where is this promise fulfilled? Surely it is the very thing in Ephesians 1:3 which says that God has blessed us in the heavenly realm with every spiritual blessing in Christ. And again in Galatians 5:22-23 which lists the benefit and product of the Spirit’s work is being able to enjoy Christian virtues that were previously dead in us. And again in Romans 8 which compares the mortal life of the flesh with the life giving life of the Spirit! Without the breath of God, we have no future or hope.
Like a valley full of dried up bones has no life, hope or future; the people of Israel have been sent in exile and have no life left in them. But the LORD will bring the people of God back from an impossible situation and the people will know that it is the LORD who has done this.
A New Testament Perspective
The Spirit of God gives those who are dead, even though they are alive, new life. Christians are a new creation. Ephesians 2:1-3 describes our lives before coming to Christ as dead. Dead in our trespasses and sins. Dead because we did what we ought not to do and we failed to do what we ought to have done! We were not just imperfect as if to say, ‘nobody’s perfect’ but we were DEAD as if to say, ‘everybody’s lifeless like dried up bones.’ Ephesians 2:4-5 says that because of God’s great love, he has made us alive with Christ. God has done that! By the death and resurrection of Christ, God has done that.
Christianity is not about living better! It’s about admitting that we are dead without Christ! And confessing this with your heart and mouth is testimony to the work of the Spirit!
- Our sin means that everybody outside of Christ is dead. Not that we are naughty or wounded or struggling to do right – we are dead. Before anyone is made alive in Christ, even if they look like they are healthy and wealthy, they are dead, cut off from God and without hope. Do you see the world as this? The contrast between a follower of Christ and everybody else is as different as a living being and a dead, rotted corpse. The former is alive. The latter is helpless and lost.
- The promise of God is new life in Christ. Jesus died and was buried but on the third day, he became the first-fruit of the resurrection. He has unlocked the door of death that was locked since the first sin in Adam. People are now able to live – truly live – as God’s people because of his death. And when we are alive with Christ it is because we have first of all died with him (Colossians 2). By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are able to put to death the misdeeds of the body and put on love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.
- To cross from spiritual death to life is not by accident. It happens when we confess our desperate need for a saviour. There is the image of the Black Knight in the Monty Python movie: The Holy Grail. He was defeated in battle with his arms and legs hacked off but refused to admit that the battle was over. The world we live in is filled with Black Knights who will not admit that they are broken and the world they inhabit is too. At some point, we need to confess our sins, admit that we need Gods help and say goodbye to our old selves to embrace a new life in Christ.
- Even though this passage is not primarily about the resurrection, it is easy to spend some time meditating on it. Directly, the passage is about God restoring Israel as his possession full of blessing by His Spirit. Indirectly, it adds to the language in the Old Testament of God being able to raise from the grave. The question asked in verse 3 is can these bones live? The answer given in the rest of the verse is to the effect of, “of course he can, but will he?” We know that the answer in the New Testament is the same: of course he can but will he? Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even though he dies.” It’s not death that will separate us from God, it is the rejection of the Christ that will separate us. The acceptance and rejection into heaven occurs now as we choose to accept or reject Christ. Jesus also said, “this is eternal life: that they know God and Jesus Christ.” We don’t need anybody to tell us whether heaven is real or not – Jesus has told us. What we need is to wake up and see that Jesus is also the only way to eternal life!
The above four applications are awfully similar I confess. Recognise we are dead. Know that God is the giver of life. Do something about it. Put your hopes in Jesus, the resurrection and the life! On coming to Christ and entering our new life (recreated) we now go on in the Spirit to start living. This is exactly why we’ve titled our discipleship course, Start Living!
Prayer for the week
Lord of all creation, thank you for life and hope and joy that can only be truly found in the Lord Jesus Christ. Please show us how to live through the Spirit you give us. May we be sober minded when it comes to life and death and know that there is no life outside of Christ. Amen.