Ezekiel 37:1-14 is one of the best-known passages in this otherwise little-known book. The valley of the dry bones. It’s an eerie scene of death and despair. To understand what’s going on here, you have to know this is 587 B.C. – the lowest point in the history of God’s people. In that year the mighty Babylonians wiped out the Israelite army, desecrated the temple of the Lord, leveled the city of Jerusalem and dragged off most of the survivors (including Ezekiel) to captivity.
That’s what this valley of bones is all about. God’s people appear to be dead and dismembered, scattered like dry bones across the dreary landscape, cut off from any hope of a future. As Ezekiel gazes across this valley of death, God asks him, “Son of man, can these bones live?” The obvious answer, the realistic answer, is “No way.” But Ezekiel wisely says, “O Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”
Then comes what must have seemed like a bizarre command. God tells Ezekiel the prophet to do his job and prophesy to the bones – say to them, “Dry bones, hear the Word of the Lord.” In other words, God says, “Pretend you’re in church, Ezekiel, and make like this is your congregation. Preach to the bones. See what response you get.”
It didn’t take much imagination for Ezekiel to pretend he was in church. For years he’d been preaching to the exiles living around Babylon. For years they’d listened to his words. But nothing happened. For years they’d been stuck in a sense of hopelessness, frozen in a feeling of God-forsakenness.
Ezekiel obeyed. He preached to the bones. And to his amazement, they started coming together to form skeletons. Sinews appeared. Flesh began covering them. And right there, before his eyes, those dry bones become human bodies.
But not living bodies. Just corpses. (Sounds like a zombie movie: “I see dead people!”). God then tells Ezekiel to prophesy so that breath will come into them. To understand the text here, you need to know that the words breath and wind and spirit are all the same Hebrew word: ruach. This time when Ezekiel preaches the ruach, the breath or Spirit of the living God enters the lifeless bodies and they come alive. It’s like what happened back in Genesis, when God formed the first human body out of dust, and then breathed into it and it became a living being (Genesis 2:4-7). It’s like what Jesus says needs to happen to Nicodemus – being born again by the Spirit, the breath of God (John 3:1-8). It’s like what happened in the days after the first Easter, when the risen Christ brought together the scattered disciples to form a body of believers, and then on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit breathed life into them (see Acts 1 and 2).
“I prophesied as he commanded me,” says Ezekiel, “and ruach / breath / Spirit entered them,” and those dry bones “came to life and stood on their feet – a vast army.” And God said, “O my people, you say your hope is gone, you’re cut off. But I say I will put my Spirit in you and you will live.”
And the question we need to ask today is the same question God asked Ezekiel: “Son of man, can these bones live?” No matter what has happened in your life or in the lives of those you love, no matter what the disaster or defeat or death, can God breathe new life into that pile of dry bones?
In our spiritual life? In our marriages and families? In our political systems? In our world economy? Can God possibly breathe new life into these dry bones?
It wasn’t enough for Ezekiel just to preach at those dry bones. What had to happen was for Ezekiel to call out to God and ask his Spirit to bring life back into these broken bones. It was something he had to pray for, something that could only happen by the mighty re-creative power of the Spirit of God.
Through the prophet Ezekiel, God is telling us that YES, these bones can life… if God wills it to be so. All things are possible through Him. And God is telling us something else…
Through Ezekiel, God is pointing us to the One who can make all dry bones live: Jesus Christ, to the One who takes on the power of death and defeats it on the cross, to the One who rolls away the stone and rises from the tomb on Easter, the One who says, “I am the resurrection and the life; those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (John.11:25-26)
Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it is God’s Spirit that brings new life to the deadness in you and me. So we pray the Spirit of the living God will come and breathe life into us, today and tomorrow and on the final day. Even though your body will die, the promise of the Gospel is that the power of God that “raised Jesus from the dead will give life to [our] mortal bodies” as well (Romans 8:11).
Son of man, can these bones live? Yes, they can. Yes, they will – by the power of God.
*Adapted from a sermon preached at Lake Grove Presbyterian Church, Lake Oswego, OR