It sounds like a scene from a horror movie. The prophet Ezekiel is airlifted by the Lord into a valley - but it is no ordinary valley. It’s a place of death and destruction. The scene of a heavy defeat, full of confusion and disorder. Ezekiel is in the valley of dry bones. In fact, they’re not just dry, but, as Ezekiel is given a guided tour, he notices that they are ‘very dry’ (2).
It’s here that the LORD asks Ezekiel a very important question: ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ (3) Is it possible to find life in the place of death? Could the valley of dry bones be the scene of victory?
Before we go any further, it might be helpful for us to get our bearings. You see, just as Ezekiel has been airlifted into strange surroundings, so we too have landed in the middle of very strange surroundings. We’re in the Old Testament, in the middle of a book, so we need to work out what’s going on before we can understand what God is saying in this chapter.
It’s always helpful to try and figure out where the passage you’re reading fits into the big picture of the Bible, as well as the structure of the Bible book. In this case, the prophet Ezekiel is in the land of Babylon during the time of the exile - when the land of Judah and the city of Jerusalem was captured by the Babylonians and some of the people were taken into exile.
For the first 24 chapters of Ezekiel, he has declared God’s just judgement on the people. Judah has forsaken God and turned to idols. It’s not easy reading, as God exposes their sin and brings about punishment. If you can imagine turning the brightness button and the contrast button down on your TV remote, so that everything is just grey, this is the effect of Ezekiel 1-24.
Did you hear of the snooker commentator who once said that for the benefit of those watching in black and white, the pink ball was next to the green? Well it’s a bit like that here in Ezekiel’s day. There’s no hope, no reprieve, just doom and gloom. After chapter 24, Ezekiel speaks to the surrounding nations, and declares God’s judgement on them too. But then in chapter 33, there’s a hint of brightness, a glimmer of hope, like the first promise of dawn. Jerusalem has fallen, but could there yet be some hope for the people of God?
Can these bones live? Even though the people of Judah are in exile, far away from the land God had promised them, scattered among the nations under the judgement of God, can these bones live?
It’s a question we continue to ask to this day? We see the weakness of the church in the face of a confident secular state, with the government seeking to move forward with same sex marriage. Can these bones live?
We see ministers who deny the cross and the resurrection; who spend their time in the pulpit talking about a poem or something they read in a magazine; the mood seems to be that we’re in decline; things aren’t what they used to be. Can these bones live?
And Ezekiel gives the only right answer. ‘O Lord GOD, you know.’ (4) Humanly speaking, the bones are beyond hope. But if we are depending on ourselves and our own strength and resources, then we are above all men to be pitied. O Lord God, you know.
It’s when Ezekiel submits to God, that God demonstrates that he is the one who can give life to the dead (Heb 11:19) as he gives the instructions to Ezekiel. He commands Ezekiel to prophesy over the bones, so that they may live.
And so we see in verse 7, Ezekiel does it, and the bones do it. Do you know the wee song: ‘The foot bone’s connected to the leg bone, the leg bone’s connected to the knee bone’ and so on... The bones rattle together, then the sinews, then the flesh. The bodies lie on the ground, whole, but there’s still something missing.
You remember when God created Adam from the dust and breathed into his nostrils (Gen 2:7)? This is what the re-formed bone bodies are lacking. ‘There was no breath in them’ (8). So Ezekiel prophesies again, to bring the breath on them, to bring them to life. Look at verse 10: ‘and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.’
Now what is this all about? In verse 11, God gives the explanation of this strange event. Here we have the key to understanding the whole thing. ‘these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’
The people of Israel (both Israel and Judah) had lost all hope. They were picturing themselves as the dry bones. They had given up. But God gives them a message that he will raise the people up; that he is the God who raises the dead. No one else can do this. No other god could do anything like it. And he does it so that they will know that ‘I am the LORD’. (6, 13, 14).
Whenever we see that word LORD in capital letters, it’s the covenant name of God. And the LORD is saying here that they will know he is the covenant keeping God when he keeps his covenant with his people, and raises them from death, and gives them his Spirit.
The work of raising the dead is something only God can do, and so it’s something that we must pray to him, that he would do it. When we look at the village around us, or this county, or this country, or indeed the world, we see everywhere men and women, boys and girls who are dead spiritually. As Paul writes to the Ephesians, ‘And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked... by nature, children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.’ (Eph 2:1-3).
No one can make themselves alive to spiritual things. It would be like expecting the dry bones of the valley to perform CPR on themselves. No, by nature, by ourselves, we are dead in our sins.
We need the power of God, the covenant LORD, to give us life, and to breathe his Spirit into us. Just as Jesus died and was raised to new life, so we need to be born anew, raised to new life in Jesus, the sentence of death that we deserved having been paid by him.
On this day of Pentecost, we remember that God kept the promise he made to bring new life by the giving of his Spirit, as the Spirit was given to the church, and 3000 were added on that day. As we long to see people saved, as we earnestly desire people to be brought from darkness to light; so we recognise that it must be a work of God - we cannot bring life. Won’t you pray with me, that God will mightily move in our land, that many will be raised to life as they trust in Jesus and receive the Spirit of God; a great miracle that only God can do. Can these bones live? O Lord GOD, you know.
This sermon was preached in the Brooke Memorial Hall on Sunday 19th May 2013.