DRY BONES LIVE Ezekiel 37–39
“I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord” (Ezek. 37:6). People who find it hard to believe warnings of divine judgment also find it hard to believe God’s good news.
Biblical scholars tend to take one of two views of passages like the one we explore today. They either see the passage as a visionary’s use of highly symbolic language to affirm some spiritual reality, or they see the passage as a literal, though often obscure, description of events which will actually take place in the future. One who takes the first approach will see these chapters in Ezekiel as a symbolic affirmation of God’s power over all the forces of evil throughout history, and an affirmation of His ultimate victory. In God’s time evil will be put away, and only good will reign. One who takes the second approach sees these chapters in Ezekiel as a preview of history. The timetable may be obscure, and the exact sequence of events uncertain, but what the prophet describes—a regathering of God’s Old Testament people to Israel, invasion of the Holy Land, direct divine intervention, a national conversion of Israel, the rule of earth by a Descendant of David—all this is understood to lie ahead, perhaps just beyond the headlines of tomorrow’s news. Whichever view a person may hold today, there is no doubt that Ezekiel and the other Old Testament prophets expected a literal fulfillment of their visions of the future. Their belief was rooted in the conviction that the God of the covenant would be utterly faithful to His promises to Abraham, which included possession of a Jewish homeland as well as the spiritual blessing of intimate relationship with the Lord. And the prophets speak with a unified voice when describing the earthly future of God’s Old Testament people. They may have misunderstood the meaning of what they foresaw. But each prophet, whether crying out about the destruction of Jerusalem, the fall of Nineveh, or the restoration of scattered Israel, expected his words to be literally fulfilled. I don’t want to come down too hard on the literalist side. But it is fascinating to note. Just 60 years ago if anyone had suggested that the Jewish people might have a nation of their own in Palestine, all would have scoffed. Yet today that nation is firmly established: struggling, yes, but there. The dry bones have begun to come back together. Perhaps even tendons and flesh have appeared. But again using Ezekiel’s words, we might well say there is yet “no breath in them.” Still a secular state, still relying on the arm of flesh rather than on God, Israel awaits the miracle that Ezekiel said would then surely come. And then the dry bones will live. And we too will live. For these events, which the flow of history suggests may lie just beyond tomorrow, mean that Christ, David’s Successor and Son, will appear. Then God’s time for celebration by the redeemed of every age will at last have come.
The vision of a valley of dry bones emphasized God’s power to revitalize and restore Israel and Judah (37:1–14). There will again be a united nation under a Davidic king (v. 28). But the restoration was linked with invasion by a great northern power (38:1–17), whose destruction by God Himself (v. 18–39:21) would precipitate lasting national conversion (vv. 22–29).
Understanding the Text
“These bones are the whole house of Israel” Ezek. 37:1–14.
The text interprets Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones that come together at his command, are fleshed out, and finally come to life. The bones in the vision represent Israel, whose people are scattered and hopeless among the nations. Though devoid of hope, God will “bring you back to the land of Israel” (reassemble the bones). The graves (representing the nations to which the Jews have been scattered) will be opened, permitting the return, and God’s Spirit will be given to His people. Whatever the prophetic meaning, the application to our lives is clear. All too often we too give up. We feel deadened, dried up. All seems bleak; we feel utterly doomed. When those emotions come, we need to remember the dry bones. God can take our dead and scattered hopes, pull them together, and breathe life into them again. Because we know the Lord, and because He loves us dearly, we do have hope and a future. “They will never again be two nations” Ezek. 37:15–27. This powerful messianic prophecy again looks forward to a return of the Jews to their homeland, and establishment of a nation ruled by a Davidic King. Once united under David and Solomon, the Hebrew nation split into Northern and Southern Kingdoms in 931B.C The population of the north (Israel) was deported by the Assyrians in 722B.C, and scattered through many cities. The south (Judah) was crushed by the Babylonians, and its population taken in a series of deportations ending in 586B.C Now Ezekiel said that God intends to unite the scattered tribes of Israel, bring them back to the homeland, and establish a united kingdom to be ruled by a Descendant of David. To date this has not happened. There have been partial returns, and a kind of semi-independence under the Maccabees. But no independent, united kingdom has emerged in the nearly 2,600 years since Ezekiel’s time. In fact, the only known lineal descendant of David who yet lives is Jesus Christ! Thus this prophecy, which links a restoration of Israel to the land (v. 21), spiritual renewal (vv. 23–24), rule by a Descendant of David (v. 24), and a rebuilt sanctuary (v. 26), is one of the many that makes those who take a literal view of prophecy to believe that what is described here still lies ahead, and will be fulfilled when Jesus returns. “Set your face against Gog, of the land of Magog” Ezek. 38:1–16. Now Ezekiel described an invasion force assembled from many nations about to strike a peaceful and unsuspecting Israel. Several Hebrew phrases woven into the message fix the time. What Ezekiel foresaw will happen “after many days” (v. 8), “in future years” (v. 8). Another phrase, translated “in days to come” (v. 16) helps locate the prophecy in the end times, near history’s end. Some see this as an attack to come just before the establishment of a Millennium of peace at Christ’s return; others place it after the Millennium and identify it with a Satan-stimulated, final rebellion of humanity against God (cf. Rev. 19:17–21). Etymologically “Gog” and “Magog”are impossible to identify, though many students of prophecy teach that these represent Russia. Of more significance is the fact that the enemy forces are drawn from nations at every point of the compass: the east (Persia), the southwest (Cush: Ethiopia), the west (Put: Libya, and the “islands of the sea”), the north (Gomer: Cimmerians?). You and I may at times feel, “Everybody’s against me.” What Ezekiel is saying is that at history’s end, “everybody” will be against God’s people. But the text shows something else. The Lord says to His enemies, “I will bring you against My land,” and then adds, “so that the nations may know Me when I show Myself holy through you.” God will use the evil intent of the wicked to bring them to a place where He can act openly against them. What a reminder for you and me. Everybody may actually be against us. But God isn’t against us. He has permitted our enemies to attack, only to put them in a position where they will be vulnerable to judgment. So the next time you feel a little persecuted, don’t feel sorry for yourself. Feel sorry for your persecutors! “In My zeal and fiery wrath” Ezek. 38:17–39:24. In a series of announcements (38:17–23; 39:1–16, 17–24) God told what He would do to the invading forces. He Himself would intervene and, with miracles that recall His acts for the Exodus generation, would utterly destroy the enemy. These acts will forever establish the Lord as God in the sight of both Israel and the nations (39:22). But is God fair to establish His identity at the cost of so many human lives? The text answers us. In all that God has done, to Israel and to the nations, He has “dealt with them according to their uncleanness and their offenses” (v. 24).
What to Forget(Ezek. 39)
My wife tells our nine-year-old that God has a video recorder focused on her. One day, when we meet the Lord, He’s going to show the tape, and give her her rewards. And, every once in a while when she does something especially nice, Sue tells her, “That’s on your video tape.” I like her emphasis. So many mom’s might turn this around, and when a child did something bad, shriek, “Now, that’s going on your video tape!” I couldn’t help thinking of Sue’s practice when I read Ezekiel 39. The passage so powerfully portrays God’s hatred of sin and the judgment that sin merits. Reading it, we almost cringe at the thought of our own faults and the memory of our failings. But then we read God’s summary, in the last paragraph. There, nestled in verses that express the compassion God will show when judgment is past, is a verse that says, “They will forget their shame and all the unfaithfulness they showed toward Me” (v. 26). What a wonderful promise! Yes, we’re weak. We stumble, and sometimes fall. And then what a burden of shame and guilt we bear. But God promises that when we see Him, when we truly “know that I am the Lord,” no shred of memory of our sins will remain to mar our joy.
Forgiven means forgotten! Even now we can put our past behind us, and live in joy.