At least he’s honest. Ezekiel doesn’t know if the bones can live or not. What do we think? But he’s not taking any chances, either. He’s not about to admit, that in his mind, if there was ever anything that spoke “dead”, it was bones, and dry bones at that.
Ezekiel, the prophet, has been transported, in the Spirit, by the hand of the Lord, into the midst of a valley that is filled with very dry bones. Now that was pretty easy to say, wasn’t it? Ezekiel, the prophet, has been transported, in the Spirit, by the hand of the Lord, into the midst of a valley that is filled with very dry bones.
Was it real? Was it a real valley filled up with genuine human bones? Probably not in the sense that you or I would define real. We could say, that in his prophetic experience, that God caused Ezekiel to go into something that we might call a “holy trance”, and that what Ezekiel saw, he saw in his spirit. But who’s to say that that’s not real? Our definition of reality is very limited. It doesn’t go much beyond what we can see, feel, touch, hear, taste, or smell. It just might be that God’s sense of reality goes far beyond our own, and that Ezekiel’s vision was more real than anything we have ever seen or experienced in our lives! It may be, that in God’s realm, that things can happen that go ‘way beyond what we can think or imagine, in our human experience.
And that’s what that question is all about in verse three isn’t it? “Mortal, can these bones live?” Bones, dry bones, dead bones, lots of them scattered about in this valley of the holy trance. Can these bones live? God asks, Ezekiel, can I stretch your imagination, can I get you to think about something that you have never thought about before? Ezekiel, can you begin to believe that I am the Lord of all things, even of death and life?
And those are questions for us, too. Most of us have placed some pretty serious limits on what God can do and cannot do. Oh, we would never admit that out loud, we would never actually say that God has some limits, because we know better. We know that word, ‘omnipotence’, we’ve heard it before, it’s one of the attributes of God. It means all-powerful. It means that nothing is beyond the scope of God. It means that God can do anything.
But all of us have seen some things that God did not do. Things that we wanted God to do; things that we prayed that God would do, and still, whatever it was, it didn’t happen. And when we’re faced with a situation like that, we hurt. We hurt because our prayers seem to go unanswered, but most of all we hurt because we wonder if God cares about our difficulties. And then we can’t help but wonder if God isn’t limited somehow. If we keep thinking about that, we can begin to wonder if God might not even be there at all. Perhaps there is no God, or at least not one that cares about us.
And that’s just exactly the situation of God’s people when Ezekiel was alive. There had been a civil war. God’s people were divided into two separate nations, and eventually, each of those nations had been invaded, and defeated. Loss of life was very high, and God’s people had been scattered everywhere. If ever hope in God had been lost, this was the time. Probably even Ezekiel himself believed with all of his heart that his once proud, once powerful nation was as dead as the bones in this valley. And so as Ezekiel’s vision comes into focus, God leads him all around the valley. It’s a tour of sorts. But it isn’t a pleasant tour, it’s a tour of horrors; Ezekiel can see nothing but bones. And as he walks around he realizes that they are bones without hope. They are old bones, bones from a death a long time ago, picked clean by the birds and bleached by the sun. It is a completely desperate situation, and Ezekiel knows it. “Hopeless”, would certainly be an appropriate word, here.
And yet the question: “can these bones live?” Can there be a resurrection of life in this valley of dry bones? And very cautiously, but not hiding his doubt, Ezekiel replies, “O Lord God, you know.” What a marvelously and wonderfully safe and correct answer! God only knows! How often have we resorted to the safety and the correctness of that answer ourselves? It might be doubt all rolled up in faith, or it might be faith all rolled up in doubt, but it works, it is an easy answer, and best of all, it takes some of the responsibility away from us. We can sigh, and say, “Well, it’s all up to you, now God.”
Please notice, though, that Ezekiel receives no rebuke for his marvelously safe answer. God has got Ezekiel’s attention now. Ezekiel has seen the mess, he’s investigated the situation, he’s well acquainted with the hopelessness of it, and he knows and admits that there’s not a whole lot that he can do about it. And so now, God will act.
But God isn’t going to let Ezekiel off the hook. God is going to put Ezekiel to work. God is going to involve Ezekiel in the divine process and purpose. Ezekiel is going to be intimately involved in the re-creation process. And so God commands Ezekiel to speak to the bones. And God gives Ezekiel the words to speak. And the words that God gives to Ezekiel are words of life. Speaking words of life is a very important thing in the Bible. It goes all the way back to the moment of creation. God spoke. And the world came into being. And now Ezekiel is commanded to speak those same words of life.
The words that God gives to Ezekiel describe a process. They’re a one step at a time kind of thing. And the purpose of the words is so that Ezekiel and the bones will know that God is the Lord.
And so Ezekiel speaks the words that God has given to him. And suddenly, and possibly to Ezekiel’s great surprise and wonderment, things begin to happen. I want to quote Ezekiel here, because his description of what happened is so wonderful. “And as I prophesied, there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones, came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them, but there was no breath in them.”
When Ezekiel spoke, things started to come together, one step at a time. Things got better we could say. Things were looking good. But there was one more step, wasn’t there? Ezekiel didn’t have bones any more, but he did have corpses. And unfortunately corpses aren’t much better than bones. They’re just better looking.
And so God commands Ezekiel to speak once again, this time to the breath. And instantly we are reminded again of creation, when God breathed a life-giving spirit into the corpse of Adam, and Adam became a living being. Ezekiel obeyed God, and spoke to the wind, and again, in Ezekiel’s words, “I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”
What can God do? God can bring life where there is no life. God can bring life where there is no hope of life. We learn from this passage that God was about to bring life to the people of Israel; that God was about to renew them as a nation, and bring them back into the land that they had long ago received as an inheritance. And that’s great. It was a wonderful word and a wonderful promise to some long ago people who had been living in darkness and despair for a very long time.
But God’s creative and restorative work never ends, because darkness and despair continue to be an ever present part of the human experience. I thought some about our world this week. Globally it’s a mess, there are lit fuses in almost every corner of the World. Our nation is divided, perhaps in danger of a civil war. We are in the midst of a mysterious virus that is sweeping the entire planet with death and destruction. The privilege of worshiping together that means so much to us is in danger of being revoked because of the carelessness and selfishness of a couple of other congregations. A profound feeling of deadness and loss has settled over us. Hope is in short supply, and all of the inhabitants of the world know it. People are dying all around us, not so much because of the disease, but because we seek anything that will take that feeling of deadness away, and it kills us in the process. Addictions, suicides, and deaths from opioid abuse are at an all-time high in the midst of this pandemic. It is very difficult to live with hope in our hearts.
But we, we who are the followers of Jesus, are the keepers of the words of life. And now is the time to be speaking those words to one another, and to our neighbors. Because in speaking them to one another, we will be renewed and recreated and restored. And having been renewed, we will have the God-given power to speak those words of life abroad, into every valley of dead bones that we encounter. There is no place on the lips of the followers of Jesus for words of despair or death.
The purpose of Ezekiel’s vision was so that he and his people would know that God is the Lord; that God is the Lord of all creation and that God is the Lord of life. God says in verse 14, “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.” Can our bones live? Absolutely. We have the words of life, and we must be busy speaking them.