Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
Easter Sunday Sermon on Ezekiel 37:1-14
by Rev. Adrian Dieleman
"The Valley of Dry Bones"
Ezekiel was born just after the reforms of King Josiah. What a glorious time that was. King Josiah repaired the Temple. He rediscovered the Book of the Law, which Israel had forgotten and ignored for many years. After reading the Law Josiah cleansed Judah. He removed from the Temple of the Lord all the articles made for Baal and Asherah and the starry hosts and burned them outside Jerusalem. He took the Asherah pole from the Temple and ground it into dust. He tore down the living quarters of the male shrine prostitutes which were in the Temple. He did away with the pagan priests and their altars on the high places. He led the people in a time of covenant renewal.
In his 31st year as king, Josiah was killed in a battle against Pharaoh Neco, king of Egypt. Neco imprisoned Josiah's oldest son before 3 months of his reign were over; Eliakim, a brother, was made king in his place. Eliakim, whose name was changed to Jehoiakim, was an evil and ruthless king. He imposed huge taxes on the people in order to pay tribute to Neco and to build palaces for himself. He pursued other gods and put aside all the reforms established by his father, King Josiah. He tolerated no criticism and to enforce silence he killed the prophet Uriah and imprisoned the prophet Jeremiah.
When King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon defeated Pharaoh Neco of Egypt, Jehoiakim put himself under Babylonian rule as a vassal. After 3 years he rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar. Within 4 years Jerusalem was encircled and besieged. At the critical moment Jehoiakim died – whether from assassination or sickness we do not know. His 18 year old son, Jehoiachin, surrendered to Nebuchadnezzar. Plunder was taken but the city itself and its Temple were not harmed. Though it was now under Babylonian domination, Judah remained an independent nation with her own king. However, Jehoiachin, the officers, the fighting men, the craftsmen and artisans, and all the leading men of the land were deported to Babylon. Among this group of exiles was the prophet Ezekiel.
While in Babylon Ezekiel heard what happened next. Zedekiah, the next king of Judah, also rebelled against Babylon. In a desperate attempt at escape, Zedekiah led his army through a break in the wall at night and fled into the plain. The Babylonian army pursued and overtook them. The king's sons and a large part of his army were put to death. Jerusalem was laid waste, the Temple was burned down, and the remaining people were deported. Jerusalem and Judah were no more.
What a discouraging and disappointing time for the people of God.
I Ezekiel's Vision of Dry Bones
A It is against this background that "the hand of the LORD" once again fell upon Ezekiel (cf 1:3; 3:14; 3:22; 8:1; 33:33; 37:1; 40:1). This is Ezekiel's way of telling us that somehow and in someway the Lord appeared to him in a vision. Ezekiel was not really able to explain how it happened; but in some mysterious, mystical way the Lord communicated with and to Ezekiel.
In the vision Ezekiel is put in the middle of a valley. What a dismal place. The valley is full of human bones baked white and dry on the desert floor. Apparently a large army had been defeated here. Buzzards had done their work, and the sun had bleached the bones that remained. Could this be the same valley where King Zedekiah's sons and army were put to death? Is there where King Josiah lost to Pharaoh Neco? We aren't told, but it could very well be that Ezekiel was taken to a place where Judah had fought and lost. Perhaps Ezekiel was looking at the bones of his own countrymen.
Wherever the valley, the symbolism of the bones is clear: Israel is dead; she is as dead as all those dry, white bones. In fact, the people in the despair of the Exile identify themselves with the dry, white bones. They say to one another: "Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off" (Ezek 37:11). They felt like skeletons picked clean to the bone.
B As Ezekiel surveys this gruesome scene, God asks him a surprising question: "Son of man, can these bones live?" (vs 3). In the Hebrew the question is phrased in such a way that the only possible answer is "No." "No God. These bones cannot live." They are white and dry. The heat of the sun and the wind has long since sucked out all the moisture. The marrow is dried up and dead. The bones are old and chipped and cracked. "No God. These bones cannot live."
That's the answer we expect but that is not the answer Ezekiel gives. Ezekiel says, "O Sovereign LORD, you alone know" (vs 3). Ezekiel has seen so many strange and wonderful things that he can not dismiss the possibility of those old, dried up bones coming to life again. In previous visions he has seen things like:
-a windstorm, an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light (1:4)
-four living creatures with the form of a man; each of the living creatures had four faces – the face of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle; each had four wings; their appearance was like burning coals; each of the creatures was followed by a wheel intersected by a wheel whose high and awesome rims were full of eyes; over the living creatures was an expanse, sparkling like ice, and awesome (1:5f)
-a man who from the waist down was like fire and from the waist up was like glowing metal (8:2)
Having seen all of this – and more – Ezekiel gives a safe answer, a good answer to the Lord's question, "Son of man, can these bones live?" "Who knows?" says Ezekiel. "With You anything is possible."
Ezekiel knows that the power of God transcends the power of the grave. He knows how the Lord used Elijah to bring to life the widow of Zarephath's dead son. He knows how Elisha was empowered by God to raise from the dead the Shunammite woman's son. Ezekiel would agree with Hannah who said(1Sam 2:6) "The LORD brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up.
C God dramatically shows Ezekiel His power over life and death. He does so in a two stage act.
First, God tells Ezekiel to preach to the bones. I try to imagine myself in such a spot. I try to imagine myself behind this pulpit but in the pews in front of me are nothing but dry, old bones. And then God says to me, "Son of man, preach to those bones." "You got to be kidding, God. You want me to preach to dry bones!?
Ezekiel listens to God and he preaches. The results are amazing. The scattered bones beings to clank and clink and rattle. They move toward each other and are joined together, forming human skeletons. Miraculously, muscles and flesh are fitted to each skeleton, but they are still dead.
Second, God commands Ezekiel to speak to the wind. Addressing the four corners of the earth, the prophet calls for the "breath of God" to blow over the bodies and give them life. As he speaks, it happens. The bodies stand up, alive, a virtual army where moments before had been only dry, bleached bones.
Does this vision remind you of anything? It should. It reminds me of what we read in Genesis. There we read of a similar two stage act. First, we read of how the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground. Then we read of how the LORD God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. Only then does the man become a living being (Gen 2:7).
In the valley of dry bones Ezekiel witnesses God's creative power at work. What God does there in that valley is exactly the same as what He did on the last day of Creation when he made man.
II God's Promise of New Life
A What is the meaning of this vision? What is the Lord's message here?
A key to understanding the vision is Ezekiel's use of the Hebrew word ruah. This word is translated as "Spirit" in verses 1 and 14; as "breath" in verses 5,6,8,9, and 10; and as "winds" in verse 9. But in the Hebrew language the same word is used every single time.
Ruah describes the blowing of the wind. It speaks of breath or breathing. It tells us about the work of God's Spirit. We have to conclude that Ezekiel's strange vision points to the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit.
B What, then, is the purpose of the vision? To an Israel and an Ezekiel who are full of gloom and in a state of despair and depression the vision of the valley of dry bones is a message of hope. To an Israel and an Ezekiel who have watched the death and destruction of their land, their people, their city, and their Temple, the vision of the valley of dry bones is a message of encouragement. To an Israel and an Ezekiel who identify themselves with dry, white bones the vision of the valley of dry bones is a message of good cheer. God is telling a despondent people about new life, wonderful life that is coming their way.
The vision of the valley of dry bones is a promise to Israel of better things to come. Yes, right now the smoke is still rising from the remains of the Temple and the palace. Yes, Jerusalem's walls are in ruins. Yes, the skeletons of corpses – Israelite corpses – litter the countryside. Yet, new life will come and flourish. So don't be discouraged, don't be despondent, don't give up hope, don't let despair take over. That's the purpose of this vision.
III The Fulfilment of the Promise
A In the valley of dry bones Ezekiel and Judah were given a promise of new life. Fifty years later, in 538 B.C. the first group of exiles returned to Jerusalem. A second and a third group of exiles returned in 458 and 444 B.C. We can read about this in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. The people returned to the land of Israel. They rebuilt their cities and farms. They restored the Temple. They once again became prosperous. A people who were dead like dried bones were once again made alive through the power of the Spirit. That's the first fulfilment of Ezekiel's vision of dry bones.
B Today is Easter Sunday. Today we celebrate the raising of Jesus from the grave. Today we celebrate the power of God in restoring Jesus back to life.
I think we all see the connection between Easter and the valley of dry bones. The same God was at work in both places. And, He performed the same kind of miracle. In both places He took someone dead and made Him alive again. In both places He took someone given over to death and raised Him to life.
What I am saying is that Ezekiel's vision finds its second fulfilment in the raising of Christ.
C At the end of time we will see another fulfilment. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead will rise (1 Thess 4:16). The sea will give up the dead that are in it, and death and Hades will give up the dead that are in them. There will be a noise, a rattling sound, and bones will come together, bone to bone. Tendons and flesh will appear on them and skin will cover them. God will put into them the breath of life and they will come to life and stand up on their feet – a vast army of them. This is what we know as the resurrection of the body – the third fulfilment.
D There is one fulfilment I have yet to talk about. For you and me living today it is the most important one.
Before I say anything more, let me ask if you noticed how God brings life to the dry, white bones? He brings life by the Spirit and through the Word. The prophet speaks or prophesies, the ruah or Spirit blows and enters in, and the dry, white bones come to life.
"By the Spirit and through the Word." Do you realize what Ezekiel is describing? He is describing the process by which we are made born-again, he is describing regeneration, he is describing how we are made new or renewed, he is describing the method by which we come to faith and repentance and conversion.
"By the Spirit and through the Word." The Spirit of God uses the Word to make us born-again. We see this with Lydia. She was the first recorded European convert to Christ. She became a Christian when "the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul's message (Acts 16:14). No man, woman, or child has ever come to faith by another route: it was and always is the Spirit creating faith by means of the Word.
Something mysterious and beautiful happens when we place ourselves under the Word: the Spirit produces faith and makes us born again.
God's people must put themselves under the Word. They must come for worship services. They must involve themselves in Bible Study. They must set aside a regular time for family and personal devotions. That is what the Spirit uses to make us born-again.
Our God is so almighty. By the Holy Spirit and through the Word He is able to bring life to dry, white bones. And, by the Spirit and through the Word He is able to bring life to the deadest of sinners and the most fallen of saints.
Today is Easter Sunday. Today we celebrate new life. Today we celebrate what God, by His power, has done and will do at the grave.
But we also celebrate what God is doing by His Spirit and through the Word: He takes dry, white bones and gives them life. How we praise and thank God for His great and marvelous work.
The Rev. Adrian Dieleman is the pastor of Trinity Christian Reformed Church in Visalia, California, a congregation with over 150 children and teens. He is father of three college-aged sons and active in local clergy groups. He is also treasurer of The Genesis Project of Tulare County.