(Written on January 31, 2012, as a Commentary on Ezekiel 37)
There is hope for those who have been knocked down, oppressed and left gasping for air. There is hope in the dry and desolate places of life. And yes, dry bones can live again. In Ezekiel 37, God took the prophet Ezekiel to the valley of dry bones. He showed the prophet a vision of dead bones which represented the spiritual condition of the Israelites. God used the valley of dry bones to show the exiled Jewish people that He had chosen to redeem them, restore them and ultimately send them back to their own land. This message is appropriate for dead churches and stagnant Christians today as well. It is a message that God can bring dead bones back to life today. It is a message that as long as there is a God in heaven, even insurmountable odds can be overcome.
During Ezekiel’s time, the great and mighty Judah was brought down by the powerful Babylonian Empire. Jerusalem was sacked in 586 BC by the Babylonians. (2 Kings 24) The Bible notes that the kings of Judah had done “evil in the sight of God”; this is repeated several times in 2 Kings 24. Verse 20 states that “…because of the anger of the Lord this (the captivity) happened in Jerusalem and Judah … (God) finally cast them out from His presence.” The Babylonian annihilation sent the majority of people of Judah into captivity. (This was actually the second wave of Babylonian captives; some had been exiled in 597 BC.)
The young Ezekiel was among the people who had been led away in the first captivity. Thus, Ezekiel had grown up among the oppressed Jewish people in Babylon. So, here in this vast valley of dried, bleach bones was Ezekiel with God, according to Ezekiel 37. There is no doubt that the piles and piles of bones symbolized a once massive army of robust soldiers. One can envision that this valley of dry bones, the once mighty army, had had dreams of conquering their enemy, and yet, for some fateful reason, they were cut down and slaughtered in that immense valley.
God asked Ezekiel if the bones could live. Ezekiel replied, “Master God, only you know that.” (v. 3) God tells Ezekiel to prophesy the following over the bones, “Dry bones listen to the Message of God!” (v. 7)
God wanted to reveal something to the people of Judah, but just what was the lesson that God was showing Ezekiel on behalf of the people of Judah, and what is the lesson for the church today? Firstly, God showed Ezekiel the condition of the people’s hearts. Their hearts were like dry, dead bones. In other words, they were in a desolate and hopeless place. They had no hope for the present and no vision for the future. The Jewish people had been stripped of their resources and culture, alienated from their God (or so they thought) and then transplanted into another culture; they were no more than “dead bones.” How could they possibly envision a future for themselves? After all, they had disobeyed God and were now being punished for their sins.
Secondly, God tested the faith of Ezekiel by asking him a question. God’s question was designed to show Ezekiel that he had the faith that was needed to prophesy to a “dead” people. (God already knew what kind of faith Ezekiel had; He always knows everything about His people. It was important for Ezekiel to know.) God asked Ezekiel, “Son of Man, can these bones live?” (v. 3) Ezekiel may not have had great faith, but he demonstrated to God that unlike the people of Judah, his faith was not totally dead. Even though he had grown up in captivity amidst the exiles, he showed that he had a modicum of faith.
Ezekiel, in answering God, stated, “O, Lord God, You know.” (v. 3) Ezekiel had enough faith so as not to rule out that the dead bones could live again. His answer noted that if anyone could do it, it would be God. Ezekiel surmised that surely God could bring the bones back to life.
Thirdly, God had Ezekiel manifest his faith with an action. God told Ezekiel to “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord!’” (v. 4) God was probably thinking, (writer’s interpretation) “Okay, Ezekiel, my boy (He actually called him Son of Man), you have shown that you still have some faith in Me. I can use you to speak to My people.” So then, perhaps to bolster Ezekiel’s faith, God states to the bones, “Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. I will put sinews on you and bring flesh upon you, cover you with skin and put breath in you; and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am the Lord.” (v. 5-6)
Ezekiel saw this and he then prophesied (to the bones) as God had commanded. He noted that as he prophesied, “there was a noise, and suddenly a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to bone.” He goes on to say, “Indeed as I looked, the sinews and the flesh came upon them, and the skin covered them over; but there was no breath in them.” (v. 7-8)
Then God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath. He tells him to say, “Thus says the Lord God: ‘Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.’”
Ezekiel obeyed and commanded breath into the slain. “The dead arose, standing on their feet; they were “an exceedingly great army.” (v. 10)
At this point, God revealed His purpose and vision for His people and that He wanted to use Ezekiel to speak to them. God expressed to Ezekiel that the bones represented the house of Israel, a lost people who had been cut off. He wanted Ezekiel to prophesy to the people that their graves would be opened and they would be taken out of captivity and sent back to the Promise Land. God ended by revealing (in v. 14) that He wanted the people to know that He will:
“put My Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken it and performed it…”
Even though God punished the Jewish people for their sins by sending them into exile, He was now going to restore them by reviving their dead bones, putting sinews, flesh and skin on those bones and then breathing His breath of life into them. In addition to that, God was going to send His people back to Judah. Those who eventually returned home received a new birth/life in God. There are both scriptural and historical references to their leaving Babylonian captivity. The Persians defeated the Babylonians in 537 BC. Cyrus the Great, the Persian ruler, then allowed the exiles to return to their native land. Ezra and Nehemiah chronicled the Israelites’ return to Judah.
The symbolism of the dry bones and open valley is just as relevant in understanding the church today as it was for the captive Israelites in Babylon. The wide span of land that was the valley of dry bones was enormous in size. Bones upon bones were piled up in this large expansion of land mass. They were bones without marrow—their most essential and vital part. Without marrow, the bones could not produce blood cells (the life-giving substance) and those blood cells could no longer carry oxygen to the cells and tissues of the body. The dry, dead bones had no connective tissue to fill their cavities. The dry bleached bones no longer had a reservoir of mineral deposits to protect the body. (en.wiktionary.org/wiki/marrow)
For the church, Ezekiel 37 is saying that, even though there is no life in many of the edifices, there is still hope. Even though some denominations are virtually dead spiritually, there is still hope. There is still hope for those who are struggling with their Christian faith. God did not give up on Israel and He is not giving up on His church. He is not giving up on each individual member of His Body. God has a plan for His church and for His people if they have “ears to hear and eyes to see.”
The bones were the only thing that remained of that vast army and the symbolic bones are in some ways analogous to Christian with souls devoid of a life in God. The soul of an individual remains after the flesh is gone. There is a natural body and a spiritual body. (1 Cor. 15:44) Jesus likened the scribes and Pharisees to dead souls/lifeless beings. He said that they were “full of dead men’s bones (lifeless souls).” The Jewish leaders during Jesus’ time on earth looked great on the outside, but on the inside where no one could see, their souls had no life-giving substance. One can go across the United States and see great and beautiful church buildings, but they are soul-less and the Spirit of God is nowhere within. These churches are represented by leaders who are dead to the things of God—they bring no life to their congregations. Likewise, there are individual believers who are the walking dead—they, too, are without life-giving substance and the Spirit of God either has not been with them or He has departed from them.
God has been prophesying to His church, the spiritual Israel—and for those who believe; He is ready to breathe life into those dead bones. God is prepared to cause sinews, flesh, muscles, and skin to come upon the dead bones of His Body and their leadership. God is ready to place His Holy Spirit in these lifeless people and edifices. Just as He told Ezekiel, “I will put My Spirit (ruah) in you, and you shall live…” (Ezek. 37:14) He is telling the church that He will bring spiritual revival to them so that they may flourish in the things of God.
The vision of God prophesying to dead bones and breathing life into the newly-formed bodies speaks volumes to the church today. Surely, God’s heart is grieving because some churches are desolate places for believers. Their leaders continue to preach dead doctrines, doctrines that prevent people from serving God to their fullest and realizing their kingdom purposes. As God said in Rev. 3:1, “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.”
Unlike the Jewish captives, many lifeless believers and churches have not experienced a catastrophic event that has left them without hope; they are dead because they have failed to tap into the Life-giver, Jesus, who sent the Holy Spirit to breathe life into His Body, the Church. This has left many church members with little hope or vision for the future—dead bones (dead souls) cannot bring life. Leaders with dead bones cannot make other people’s bones healthy. (Prov. 15:30) Leaders with dead bones cannot bring hope to sick hearts. (Prov. 13:12) People without the Life-giver can never minister hope to others. Thus, people are perishing. (Hosea 4:6) In Revelation, Jesus spoke of this when He told the angel of the church in Sardis (the dead church) to write to that church that He was not pleased with their works because they had defiled garments. He wanted the church at Sardis to remember what they had been taught, to hold fast to it and to repent. He noted that they must watch (a time when one is on alert). Jesus said that He would come upon them (the dead church) like a thief and they would be unaware of the hour if they did not watch (remain alert).
Churches, their leadership, and even their members must begin to heed the Word of God. It is often impossible to maintain and hold fast to what has been taught in a place where the Spirit of God does not reign. In addition, the things of God cannot be the priority of people who continue to remain in a dead spiritual state or a dead spiritual church. The Body of Christ must not be captives, caught up in the things of the world—money, position, religion (which is not Christianity)—and a number of other things. These things control the lives of stagnant Christians who have themselves become dry bones without the Spirit of God. However, when dead churches and stagnant believers shake off the grave clothes, they will become vibrant and alive with the Holy Spirit; they will then begin to see their dead bones come alive and yes, they, too, like the Israelites, who were set free from Babylon, will live again!