The twentieth century is too familiar with valleys of dry bones. The images of stacked bodies from Nazi concentration camps, churches filled with the bones of those who sought sanctuary in Rwanda, or the killing fields of Cambodia. Unfortunately, with the help of media and the horrific inhumanity of recent times, we can all too easily imagine what Ezekiel sees in this vision. We don’t even have to imagine it; our eyes have seen the photos!
Ezekiel’s valley is a metaphor for a moment in Israel’s history. After a thirty month siege, Jerusalem fell in 587 BCE to the Babylonian Emperor Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 25:3). Judah became a Babylonian province and ceased to exist as an independent nation. The devastation is likened to a valley of dry bones. These are the bones of a slain nation. Israel was dead.
Ezekiel, living in Babylon, records the lament of an exiled people: “We have become old, dry bones—all hope is gone. Our nation is finished” (Ezekiel 37:11). Bones are a vivid image and a relatively common metaphor. Living bones represent life and vibrancy, but bones that lie in the dust are crushed and broken (cf. Job 20:11; Psalms 32:3; 53:5; 141:7). Dry bones are powerless.
This is Israel’s position before the imperial power of Babylon. They are hopeless. The nation will never live again. Defeated and now exiled, they are scattered among the nations like dry bones scattered in a valley.
Can these bones live again? All human experience answers with a resounding “No!” Dry bones do not come back to life. Even modern medical miracles cannot restore life to dry bones. Humanity is powerless before death just as Israel was powerless under the thumb of an imperial power.
Ezekiel’s response to Yahweh’s question is perhaps evasive and probably faith-filled. “O Lord God, you know.” It is probably the wise answer. Who could imagine that dry bones could live again? But Ezekiel leaves it with God. Only God knows whether these bones—or any dry bones—can live again.
“Dry bones,” Ezekiel proclaims, “listen to the word of the Lord!” This is quite an image itself—a prophet speaking to dry bones. You might wonder what had happened to my psyche if you saw me preaching to graves in the local cemetery. The image is absurd and preposterous, even comical. What does one say to a grave?
“What does one say to a grave?” rings in my ears. I am, as many others, all too familiar with graves. I don’t enjoy cemeteries. Unlike some, I don’t find much comfort there. Graves are too permanent; they are cold, lifeless pieces of earth. What do you say to the grave?
Yahweh, however, has a message for dry bones—a message for graves. Yahweh is not powerless before graves. He announces that these dry bones will live again because he will breathe new life into them. This is probably the most crucial element of the vision. The term ruach (breath, wind, Spirit) occurs ten times in these fourteen verses. It is the central image of life, and it is the breath of God that has power over the graves. God breathes and dry bones live again.
The image obviously echoes the creation of humanity in Genesis 2. God created bones, sinews and skin, but there was no life until God breathed life into that body. Only then did Adam (humanity) become a “living soul.” God’s created life out of lifeless bones. If God did it once, God can do it again. Dry bones are no problem for the living God. His breath transforms death into life.
Can these bones live again? Can Judah rise again as a nation? Yes, Yahweh promises to “open [Israel’s] graves of exile and cause [them] to rise again.” Yahweh promises that “I will put my Spirit in you, and you will live again and return home to your own land.” Yahweh is God, and Yahweh is faithful to Israel. They will live again.
The vision, however, extends beyond Israel. God still speaks to dry bones and brings life out of death.
It seems our lives are too often filled with examples of dryness. We often live in barren wastelands. There are wastelands of addictions, failing marriages and dry churches. We sometimes, perhaps often, feel empty, powerless and lifeless.
Yahweh’s question for Ezekiel is also addressed to us. Can these bones live? Can addicts destroyed by the powerlessness of their compulsions live again? Can marriages whose love has been extinguished by selfishness and broken promises live again? Can churches devastated by scandal, rendered comatose by traditionalism or killed by unbelief live again?
Yes, but they will only live again by the power of God’s breath or Spirit. We are powerless. We cannot revive ourselves. We cannot think positively long enough or hard enough to bring life to dry bones. We cannot simply “try harder.” Rather, we must surrender our wills and trust God’s power. When we return to God, we return to life.
“What does one say to a grave” still rings in my ears. Death is real and seems so permanent. Dry bones cannot live again, can they?
Graves are places where we, because of God’s Spirit and the resurrection of Jesus, speak a word of hope. We proclaim the reality that God raised Jesus from the dead by the power of the Spirit. God breathed life into the bones of Jesus. God conquered the grave; it is the grave that is powerless. It holds no power over us.
When we visit graves, it is still painful. We feel the loss. We feel the absence of the ones we love. But we have a message for the graves—we have a word from the Lord. God promises “I will put breath into you, and you will come to life.”
We say to graves—you will not win! Death is not the final word. In Jesus, God has spoken the final word in Jesus.
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
Death has lost its sting, and “thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:55-56).
The audio version of this presentation is available here under the date 1/20/13.