Read: Ezekiel 2:3-7, Ezekiel 3:4-11
Ezekiel the prophet saw many strange visions during the course of his ministry, and one of them offers you a hope you might not have thought possible for yourself.
Ezekiel is one of those books that was included in the Bible to keep us humble. Ezekiel the prophet lived among the Jewish exiles in Babylon. His messages were accompanied by visions, signs, and acted-out parables, some of which are strange to the point of being bizarre. Maybe you have tried reading this cryptic book and concluded there is little value in it. But if you think that, you’re wrong!
Ezekiel ministered primarily among the community of Jewish captives in Babylon. It was there that he experienced God’s call in an especially dramatic fashion when he was thirty years old. Ezekiel tells us that three things happened when God called him to become a prophet: the word of the Lord came to him, the hand of the Lord was upon him, and the heavens were opened and he saw visions of God (see Ezekiel 1:1-3).
His initial vision (1:4-28) was especially overpowering. He saw four living creatures emerging from the center of a violent storm. They bore some resemblance to the angels in other Old Testament visions, but even more to the four living creatures described in Revelation 4. Ezekiel’s creatures were accompanied by four sets of intersecting wheels filled with eyes that moved everywhere with them. As he was looking at these awesome and mysterious figures, Ezekiel heard a voice coming from the vast space above the creatures. He looked up into a blaze of color and light, and saw the living God – almost. What he actually says (for no mortal can look directly upon the being of God) is that “This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.” When I saw it, I fell face down, and I heard the voice of one speaking” (1:28). That is the indescribable vision out of which emerged Ezekiel’s call (2:3-7).
He would be sent to speak to a people who were, in God’s words, “rebellious” (v. 3), “obstinate and stubborn” (v. 4), “not willing to listen” and “hardened” (3:7). God told Ezekiel he would live among them as if among briars, thorns and scorpions (v. 6). Not exactly a cheerful prospect for a young preacher accepting his first call! But never mind the resistant audience. Ezekiel’s business would be to speak God’s words to the people regardless of outcome or results (v. 7).
The Valley of Bones
The most famous of all Ezekiel’s visions comes in chapter 37. “The hand of the Lord was upon me,” Ezekiel said, “and he brought me out by the Spirit” (37:1). The sight that presented itself before the prophet was a valley, the scene of some ancient battle or calamity that had filled it with corpses. These had long since decayed, leaving only a vast multitude of bones in the sun (v. 2), bleached dry, dry as dust. There was absolutely no life anywhere in that whole scene. It was a vision of death, a vision of hopelessness and despair.
Then Ezekiel was asked a startling question: “Son of man,” God said, “can these bones live?” (v. 3). He didn’t ask him where they came from. He didn’t ask Ezekiel to guess what might have happened to them. God asked, “Can these bones live again? Do you see any future here, Ezekiel?” Ezekiel answered very wisely. He could see that humanly speaking there was no hope—his sight kept him from saying yes—but his faith kept him from saying no. He balanced the human impossibility of that scene over against the reality of the power of God, and answered, “Lord, you know” (v. 3). This is faith speaking. Faith refuses to say anything is impossible when you hope in the living Lord. What Ezekiel really was saying was, “If it is your will, God, you can do even this. I believe you can. Show me your power.”
Then God said to him, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord’” (v. 4). When Ezekiel did that, something incredible happened. The bones came flying together. They were clothed again with sinews and flesh. And God spoke once more: “Call for the breath, the wind of the Spirit, to come and fill them.” And the bones came to life again and stood up, a living, breathing crowd of people. Because God is stronger even than death, no situation is ever hopeless for those who trust in him. God speaks to the dry bones and the very dust is collected together again and comes to life. That is the vision Ezekiel saw in the valley of the dry bones.
The Meaning of the Vision
But then God adds an interpretation to the vision to explain its meaning. “Son of man,” he said, “these bones are the whole house of Israel” (v. 11). In its original setting this story was spoken to the people of Israel in exile in Babylon. What had happened to them was a calamity out of all proportion with anything they had ever experienced before, a tragedy of unparalleled dimensions. Their nation had been destroyed, their people carried off into a far country. For Israel this didn’t mean just political destruction. It meant spiritual destruction. As far as they were concerned, Jerusalem was the city of God. So when it was laid waste and destroyed, then as far as they could see, God had been destroyed. And if that was true, then all of their history, from the time of the patriarchs, to the Exodus, to the conquest of the Promised Land, to the kingdom of David and the building of the temple, was meaningless. All their beliefs, drawn from God’s revelation through the Law and the prophets, were false. In that hopeless setting they said, “Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost “ (v. 11).
If Israel’s history had ended there in Babylon, they would have been right. Then the God of Israel would be just another ancient tribal deity whose tribe was wiped out, and the only people interested in that God today would be archaeologists. But God was not dead, nor was he finished with his people, nor were they without hope. At the very moment when things looked completely hopeless, God said, “I will open your graves, and raise you from them, O my people; and I will bring you home” (v. 12), which is exactly what God did. He brought them home from Babylon, back to the land of Israel. What God’s promise means is this: “It’s true your life is finished. Your temple is a heap of rubble, your city is destroyed. But that doesn’t mean I have been defeated. I am going to give your life back to you. I am going to restore your hope. I’m going to bring you home once more.” This was the Lord’s promise to his captive people, and it was symbolized by those dry bones that came to life through the power of God’s Word.
Hope for Us
But does all this mean anything to us? Is this just an interesting story, a fascinating glimpse into the history of an ancient people? No, this is God’s promise to us today as well! Ezekiel’s vision means that we can have hope where, humanly speaking, it looks like things have reached a dead end. It means that the dry bones in our lives can live again because God is a God who has the power to renew, revive and restore.
It means, for example, that there is hope for our countries and communities. It’s not hard to see that society is in trouble. It looks as if everything around us is falling to pieces. Our nations, our societies, our cultures are in collapse. The world-view of secularism is dominant in western culture. As people increasingly reject God and his law, consequences multiply—urban decay, drugs, social violence, economic collapse, ethnic strife, moral anarchy, lawlessness. And in the meantime, while all that is going on, most people seem to be doing little besides sitting in front of their television sets. It’s difficult to see how Western culture can have any future.
Worse yet, the Christian church, the one institution meant to reform society, appears to be pathetically weak. The church is intended to be salt, preserving culture and society from corrupting influences, and light, showing the way to truth and wholeness. But many within the church no longer believe in the Bible or live according to Christian principles. And where they do, the church is hopelessly divided, fighting amongst itself. The valley of dry bones pictures many of our churches as well.
In many communities believing Christians are such a small minority it’s hard to see how they can matter at all. And even where our numbers are still significant (as in some parts of America), Christians seem to make appallingly little difference in their communities. Is it any wonder that we look at the church and ask, “Can these bones live again?”
Is Christianity out-moded, still going through worn-out motions but completely irrelevant as far as the modern world is concerned? Not while God rules! Even when things appear to be lost, the sovereign Lord can speak his Word, send forth his Spirit and bring new life! So there is hope, hope for our churches, no matter how dead they seem, hope for our nations , no matter how far gone we think they are, hope for our communities.
Hope for our families as well. Many of the same forces that are attacking society are also undermining families, with dreadful results. Values have changed. Ways of thinking have changed. Behavior has changed. As a result, the family has been so weakened that there is serious question whether it can survive.
Today in the United States, for example, half of all marriages end in divorce. Over a third of all births are to unmarried mothers, and almost one quarter of all children live in a household without a father. At the same time, people who believe there are such things as biblical norms for sexuality or family life are thought to be misguided. So all around us we see the evidence of the destruction of families. And the reason isn’t far to seek. It’s the abandonment of the beliefs and behaviors that most of us once agreed upon.
But maybe you’re not worried about families in general. You’re thinking about your own family, full of conflict, on the verge of breakdown. “Is there any hope for me?” you wonder. With God there is always hope, because he’s a God who can make even dry bones live again.
And that means in the end that there is also hope for you personally. There are so many casualties from the battles of everyday life. Maybe you’re one of them. Maybe you’re asking yourself after your marriage has ended, “Do I have any future?” Maybe you’ve lost your spouse or someone else close to you and you’re wondering, “Can I ever function again?”
The answer is: Yes! There is hope, hope for you from the God who raises the dead—including those who have died only on the inside. Someone once asked Robert Frost, the poet, what he had learned in life. “Life goes on,” he said. Well, sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes even if it does, it doesn’t seem to be worth it. Is this all there is for us really, just “Life goes on”? Is that the best we can come up with, grit your teeth, hang on, try to keep going, live until you die? And what about that? What is there to say when the time comes for you to face death?
That time is coming, you know; it’s coming to each one of us. We can’t stop it, we can’t escape it. What will happen to you when you’ve spent your life’s last day? What comes next, just the endless night of nothingness? Not if you know God. Our bodies, even if they have been turned to dust, will live again! God says, “Behold, I will raise you out of your graves, O my people, and I will bring you home.”
Hear that word of the Lord. Listen to his promise; it is true. Believe it, and hope in God!