Now descend and shake the earth,
Wake us into second birth;
Now Thy quickening influence give,
Blow—and these dry bones shall live!
—Charles Wesley (Hymns and Sacred Poems)
Ezekiel 37:1-14 is the best known passage in the book. The vision of dry bones is understood even by people who have no idea it was recorded in Ezekiel—let alone the Bible!
I wonder what gives these 14 verses such enduring power? The narrative is quite bare—almost simplistic. The imagery is particularly gruesome: talk about bones, sinews, and flesh all blown together by a strong wind. The metaphor is even militaristic: the bodies come together as a vast army.
I suppose its enduring power rests in the promise: no matter how dry, God can blow on our sin-bleached bodies and bring new life.
Since this passage is so famous, I would like to take it in smaller chunks (“chunks” being the technical term) than other passages. Let’s travel together with Ezekiel as God grabs him and transports him to the middle of a valley covered with bones.
. . .
There are three things that Ezekiel (the priest-turned-prophet) notices:
- The high number of bones. Whatever happened in this valley was a catastrophe on an almost incomprehensible scale. In order for Ezekiel to grasp the magnitude of the tragedy, the Spirit of God—God’s wind or breath—leads him back and forth through the bones. This scene could be lifted straight out of a horror movie! Imagine wandering for hours back and forth through a field of human bones, stumbling over the skulls that are so dry they break and turn to powder as you move.
- The bones rest on the surface of the valley. As a former priest, Ezekiel would have been painfully aware of the necessity of proper burial. Contact with dead bodies made an Israelite ritually unclean, and therefore unable to worship in the Temple. Now Ezekiel is stumbling in horror through a field of bones, experiencing uncleanness on an unbelievable level.
- The extreme dryness of the bones. The carrion birds have had time to pick the carcasses clean. The rain had time to wash the flesh and even sinew off the bones. The sun had time to bleach them white. It was as if God was saying, “not only are these people dead, they have been gone for so long, there is no natural chance for them to return from Sheol to the land of the living.”
. . .
God: “Can these bones live?”
Ezekiel: “Only you know.”
Good answer. Ezekiel’s gut would have told him no. He was probably too shell-shocked to string cogent thought together. He took the only option available to him: to submit himself to the wisdom of Yahweh. We would do well to follow his example.
. . .
Almighty God, the violence and depravity of our sin-soaked world can overwhelm us at times. Grant us enough wisdom to throw ourselves on your understanding. In Jesus’ name, Amen.