And they were very dry. The vision that Ezekiel sees in his dream is one of hopelessness and desolation. Ezekiel has been caught up by the Spirit of the Lord, and that same Spirit has set him down in a valley that is littered with human bones that have been completely dried out and bleached out by the hot desert sun. As if to emphasize the hopelessness and desolation, the Spirit of the Lord gives him a grand tour of this ghastly valley, leading him in and through and around all of the strewn and scattered bones. And while he does not mention it specifically in this report of his vision, Ezekiel must have been horrified by what he saw. Hebrew tradition required a proper burial and a final resting place for the dead, and here he sees that the bodies of these dead have been treated with crass indifference. The bones have been dumped and strewn and scattered about. No respect has been afforded to them. There is no proper home for them. They have been laid to waste.
And even though he is prompted later on in this vision to understand the symbolic meaning of these bones, Ezekiel must already have been thinking of his own people. The people of God are, for the second time in their history, living as aliens and captives in a foreign land. The first captivity was in Egypt, where for many years they lived in a state of slavery and oppression. And while none of the people in Ezekiel’s day personally experienced God’s glorious deliverance during the time of the Exodus, that event lives very strong in their memories. They can look back on it with hearts that are convinced that God is powerful to deliver.
But now many years later, they are once again living as aliens and captives in a foreign land. This time it is in Babylon, and the people of God have once again been pressed into slave labor to build one of the most arrogant and oppressive and evil empires that the world has ever known. God’s people have no home, and like the bones in the vision, they are being treated with crass indifference.
After Ezekiel’s tour of this desolate valley, and after the awful reality of it has been etched into his heart, God asks him, “Mortal, can these bones live?” The obvious answer, of course, is absolutely not. It is too late. There is not even the slightest hint of life in them. The bones are dried up and strewn about. There is no hope. But Ezekiel has known the living God long enough to know that what he himself believes to be impossible, what he himself cannot even begin to imagine as a possibility, just might be possible with God. And so in what some have thought is a very safe and non-committal answer, Ezekiel says, “O Lord God, you know.” I don’t think that that’s a safe and non-committal answer at all. That answer is an answer of faith. It leaves wide open every divine initiative imaginable. It allows God to be God without any interference from Ezekiel at all. It echoes Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane when he cried out in heart felt agony, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” It is very difficult for us to respond to God in this way. More often than not, we have a plan for God to fulfill in our lives, rather than allowing God to fulfill his plan in our lives. More often than not our “No” to God is stronger than God’s “Yes” to us.
But Ezekiel will have none of that. Ezekiel will respond in faith. He will leave himself open to all of the divine possibilities that may present themselves.
And amazingly, when he does leave himself open to those divine possibilities, he finds himself a participant, and a very important participant in God’s plan. Ezekiel becomes the very one who calls these very dry bones to life. Ezekiel becomes the one who delivers the good news to these bones. Ezekiel becomes the voice of God.
And a very dramatic coming to life it is. The Hebrew says that there was a loud noise as Ezekiel prophesied. All over the valley there was a clacking and a rattling as bones found bones and came together in their proper places. And then sinews came onto the bones and then flesh and then skin. And suddenly there is a valley filled not with scattered and strewn bones but with corpses, because as Ezekiel notes, there was no breath in them.
In all of the Scriptures, in Hebrew and in Greek, the word for wind and for spirit and for breath is the same. And so in obedience to God, Ezekiel prophesies to the wind, and the breath of God re-animates the corpses. And thus, an entire people is recreated, and as Ezekiel says, they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
It was probably not necessary for Ezekiel to hear the rest of this prophecy which begins in verse eleven, but it is necessary for us to hear it and to understand it. After witnessing this vast resurrection in his vision, the very insightful Ezekiel must have understood that God was getting ready to bring his people to life once again and to bring them home from exile and to reestablish them in their own land. The dry and scattered bones, treated with indifference and left to languish alone in that desert valley have come to life as a whole people. What once was dead, is now alive. God is at work in the lives of his people.
God has heard their tired and anguished cries of loss and desolation, God has seen their oppression and slavery and he has become filled with compassion for them. Their sins have been forgiven, they have served the time of their punishment, and now, God will bring them home from exile.
Critical to our understanding of this passage is the phrase, “And you shall know that I am the Lord.” It occurs twice in this passage, once in verse six and again in verse thirteen. Before God’s people were defeated by the Babylonians, and before they were hauled off into exile, God’s people had forgotten this. They had been living their lives by their own wits rather than by God’s direction. They were living alone, depending on themselves, making their own choices rather than depending on God who had created them and given them life. And so they lost that life, and became as dead as the dried up and neglected bones that Ezekiel saw in his vision. And during the sixty years of their exile, their loss and desolation and hopelessness increased. They saw no possibility of redemption or new life. They were living in a world of “No”, while God was shouting “Yes” the whole time. But now God is going to bring them home and give them new life. And they shall know that God is the Lord.
This morning, some of us may be living in a world of disappointment and loss and hopelessness. We may feel as though we have been abandoned in a valley of dead and dry bones. Perhaps, like the people of God, we have forgotten that God is the Lord, and we’ve lost faith in God’s ability to save us or deliver us from our troubles, and so we have gone into a self imposed exile. We may feel as though there is no life in us. When God asks, “Can these bones live?” Our answer is no, probably not. Too much time has passed, too many disappointments have overwhelmed us, too many difficulties have assailed us.
But the strong message from this passage is that God says yes to our no. God says yes, these bones can live. And the good news is that we can walk away from our self imposed exile at any time that we choose. Just when we have convinced ourselves that there is no hope, no redemption and no salvation, God says to us “Come home”. Come home to life and peace and hope and redemption and salvation. There is no punishment to serve, nor any threat of punishment at all. Jesus took care of that for us when he died on the cross. And so, all that we have to do is come home. God says, come home, and know that I am the Lord.