Lessons from Dry Bones

Ezekiel 37

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
May 2018

Today, we will be looking at one of the most famous chapters in Ezekiel.  It is one of the most famous chapters in the Bible.  Everyone who knows the Bible well has heard of this chapter. People who do not know any other chapter in the Book of Ezekiel know this chapter and they know it largely because of a famous African-American song from the Delta Rhyme Boys.  If you have not seen and heard them sing this, you need to watch it on YouTube.[1]

This chapter is extremely important.  Ezekiel sees some dead bones and they come to life right before his eyes. It is a powerful chapter.  Preachers love this chapter.  Many preachers have sermons on this chapter.  This passage is relevant to us today.  Some things in this this chapter have already been fulfilled.  What this chapter says is incredible.  What is says to us is also powerful.  We will look at both.  Not everyone believes what this chapter says.

Major Themes

Most commentators see two parts to this chapter.  They see two divisions, because there are two distinct images, the image of the dry bones and the sign of the two sticks coming together.  There are actually three distinct prophecies about Israel in this chapter.  This chapter can be summarized with three words. The three words are resurrection, revival and reunion.  Israel is RESURRECTED nationally.  Israel is REVIVED spiritually, and Israel is REUNITED politically.

This chapter is very important.  It is very relevant today, because the vast majority of churches believe in a doctrine called “replacement theology.”  They believe that Christians are the spiritual Israel.  We are the sons of Abraham by faith. Christians are the true Jews today.  The other Jews are false Jews.  Israel is the church.  They also believe that there is no future for Israel as a nation.

They teach that God is finished with Israel and that He has no plan for Israel today.  For those people, we ask this: What do you do with this chapter?  The whole point of this chapter is that ethnic Israel has a future.  It has a future politically.  It has a future spiritually.

The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. 2And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. (37:1-3 ESV)

What is going on here?  Ezekiel is in the Spirit.  He has a vision.  God takes him, transports him and places him and right in the middle of a valley.  There are mountains on one side and on the other side and a valley in the middle.  Ezekiel walks around and look at this valley.  Valleys were the place where battles often fought.   Ezekiel tells us what he saw.  He saw the remains of the army that lost, the ones who were slain (37:9).  This battlefield is full of dead warriors.  What is the message of these bones?  What do we know about these bones?

Description of the Bones

1) The bones were NUMEROUS

These bones are human bones. As he walked through the valley, there were so many of them that he had to step over bones.  Ezekiel saw leg bones, arm bones, thighbones, back bones.  He saw toe bones, and rib bones. Ezekiel 37:2 says that there were “very many” of these bones.  The valley was “full of bones” (37:1).

2) The bones were DEAD

It is a morbid picture.  Everywhere Ezekiel looks, he sees death. There were no signs of life. This is Death Valley.  We will see this is talking about the nation, not individuals.  Israel was a nation was dead.  It was dead in exile.

The Babylonian Captivity began the Times of the Gentiles.  Jews were dominated by Gentile powers.  They were dominated by the Babylonians and then the Persians and then the Greeks and then the Romans.  They returned but were kicked out if again in 70 AD by the Romans and stayed out of it for two thousand years.  They did not exist as a nation.  They were not reborn as a nation until 1948.

3) The bones were OLD

They were dry, dusty bones.  They had been out decomposing in the hot sun for a long time.  These bones were not only dry but “very dry” (37:2).

4) The bones were UNCONNECTED

We have had all kinds of horrific massacres in human history with bodies stacked on top of other dead bodies.  That is what Ezekiel sees, except he does not see dead bodies lying on the ground.  He only sees bones, bare bones and they were scattered. They are scattered all over the valley.  The bones are not connected.  This is not a picture of physical death.  It is a picture of political death in the form of exile and world-wide dispersion.

The bones were not together on one body and all the bodies are not together.  What does that tell us about the nation?  The Jews were scattered all over the world on every continent.  People used to say that they were in every continent, except Antarctica but Arnold Fruchtenbaum says that they are even there.  They are the Icebergs.

5) The bones were UNBURIED

Unburied bodies, decomposing in the open, was the ultimate degradation.  For a Jew, that was a terrible sign of disgrace and shame.  That is what happened to Jews when they were kicked out of their country and lived in other lands.  People always looked down on them.  They were the outsiders.  They were different.  No one trusted them.  They were persecuted and forced to live in ghettos.

6) The bones were SYMBOLIC

Then he said to me,Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel” (37:11 ESV).  The whole chapter is a symbolic chapter but God interprets the symbols.  We have the divine interpretation.  He tells us exactly what these symbols mean.  We do not have to guess what they mean.  These bones do NOT represent the church.  They represent Israel, the whole house of Israel.  They do not just represent Judah, the two tribes which went into the Babylonian Captivity.  They represent all twelve of the tribes of Israel.

These bones do not symbolize dead people.  They symbolize a dead nation.  The nation died in 586 BC.  The Babylonian Captivity began the Times of the Gentiles.  Jews were dominated by Gentile powers.  They were dominated by the Babylonians and then the Persians and then the Greeks and then the Romans.  They returned but were kicked out if again in 70 AD by the Romans and stayed out of it for two thousand years.  They did not exist as a nation.  They were not reborn as a nation until 1948.

A Strange Question

After taking Ezekiel to this valley, God then asks him a question.  And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” (37:3 ESV).  It is a rather strange question.  Ezekiel does not even try to answer the question.  He just said, “O Lord God, you know.  I do not know but you know’.  Ezekiel turns the question back to God.  He is the only one who can answer it.

The obvious answer to the question is, No.  It is impossible for these bones to live.  Not only are these bones lifeless and dead, they have been dead for a long time.  Humanly speaking, it is impossible for them to live. Ezekiel knew what God COULD do but he did not know what He WOULD do.  He didn’t know what God was planning to do, so he says, “O Lord God, you know.”  After a strange question, God gives Ezekiel a strange command.

A Strange Command

Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord (37:4 ESV).  Ezekiel is told to preach to the dry bones.  He is commanded to prophesy to some bones (37:4) and later he is commanded to prophecy to the wind (37:9).  God told Ezekiel to prophesy to the mountains earlier and now he tells him to prophesy to these bones and to the wind.

It is a strange command, because it does not seem to make any sense.  What good would that do to preach to some bones?  Bones do not have ears and they are not alive.  They cannot hear what you say.  It would make just as much sense going to some rock or bricks.  The purpose was not to teach the bones anything but to make a prediction about these bones.

There’s a difference between preaching and prophesy.  Ezekiel did not preach to these bones.  He predicted or prophesied what would happen to these bones.  God asked Ezekiel if the bones could live.  He turned the question back to God.  God put it back on Ezekiel.  They were going to live and he was going to play a role.  His role was to pronounced God’s Word on them and when he did it, something happened.  Ezekiel heard a noise and an earthquake.

A Nation Resurrected

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them. (37:7-8 ESV)

This is a picture of resurrection, not of individual resurrection but national resurrection. Remember, the bones stand for the house of Israel.  Israel is scattered all over the world but the bones suddenly come together, are restored to the land and form a nation.  They are no longer just bones.

This was fulfilled in 1948 when Israel became a nation after two thousand years of not being a nation.  Jews now had a homeland.  They had a nation.  On Friday, May 14, 1948, when David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, went on the radio and called the new state “Israel.”  God promised that he would bring His exiled people back into the Promised Land (37:12).  He promised to “gather them from all around, and bring them to their own land.” (37:21 ESV)

This part of the prophecy has been fulfilled and even Jews recognize this fact.  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, when he was speaking at Auschwitz, acknowledged in 2010 that this prophecy of Ezekiel has been fulfilled.[2]  Ezekiel speaks to the bones and they make a noise and come together but there is one problem.  They are dead.  They are just dead men walking and that brings us to the second part of the prophecy, which I entitled “a nation revived”.

A Nation Revived

Ezekiel gets to watch as he sees these bones, not only come together but come to life and stand up.  What does it mean?  The nation will not only be regathered and restored to the land, they will be regenerate.  They will get saved.  That hasn’t happened yet.

And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.” (37:14 ESV)

A Nation Reunited

15 The word of the Lord came to me: 16 “Son of man, take a stick and write on it, ‘For Judah, and the people of Israel associated with him’; then take another stick and write on it, ‘For Joseph (the stick of Ephraim) and all the house of Israel associated with him.’

17 And join them one to another into one stick, that they may become one in your hand. 18 And when your people say to you, ‘Will you not tell us what you mean by these?’ 19 say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I am about to take the stick of Joseph (that is in the hand of Ephraim) and the tribes of Israel associated with him. And I will join with it the stick of Judah, and make them one stick, that they may be one in my hand.

20 When the sticks on which you write are in your hand before their eyes, 21 then say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all around, and bring them to their own land.  (37:15-21 ESV)

God makes an amazing statement here.  He says, “I am not only going to bring Judeans back to the land.  I am going to bring the northern kingdom back as well and unite you into one kingdom.”  God predicts here that one day, there will be one Jewish kingdom, not two.

And I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. And one king shall be king over them all, and they shall be no longer two nations, and no longer divided into two kingdoms. (37:22 ESV)

Applications Today

How does this chapter apply to us?  One preacher commented that the chapter does not apply to the church today.  It is talking about Israel.  It may be talking about Israel but the whole Bible applies to us.  All of Scripture is inspired and profitable to the church, not just some of it.  I want to share with you three powerful applications from Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones.

1) God has the power to make dry bones live

The Jews in Ezekiel’s day were in a hopeless situation.  They were in exile in a foreign pagan land.  They lost their nation.  They lost their temple.  They lost their freedom.  The situation looked bleak.  The bones were too dry.  They were too dead.  They have been dead for too long.

Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. (37:11-12 ESV)

Ezekiel was a prophet of hope.  He had a message of hope to the hopeless.  Ezekiel had a word for them and he has a word for us.  God can do the impossible.  No matter how bad things look, God can intervene.   These bones were dry and dead.  We can’t bring them to life.  He can.  He can make dry, dead bones live again.  God can bring life where there is no life.

We may have an impossible situation in our life.  God can make dead bones come to life.  He can make a dead marriage come to life.  We may have a valley of dry bones.  Different people have different problems. Can there be any hope for us?  Does God have the ability to make dry bones live?  This chapter gives us the answer.  God can.  God can delivers us from impossible situations.   Nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:37).

2) God can do this not only for nations but for individuals and for churches.

God can do this for individuals.  What is true of a nation, is also true of individuals.  People are described as dead in the NT, dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1).  Paul says that some people are dead while they live (I Timothy 5:6). When we witness to people, we do call out to dead hearts to come alive, as Lauren Daigel says and only God can make the dead bones alive.[3]  He is the only one who can make new hearts (36:26).

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:4-6 ESV).

What is true of Israel is also true of the church.  Dry bones described the people of God in Ezekiel’s day.  It also describes some of the people of God today.    Many churches are also full of dry dead bones.  There are some Dry Bones Baptist churches and some Dry Bones Methodist Churches.

Some churches today are dead.  Some churches in NT times were also dead.  Jesus says of one church, “You have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1 NIV). Ezekiel 37 is talking about a nation but, what God can do for a nation, He can do for a church.  God can revive dead churches.  How does he do it?  That brings us to the next point.

3) We need both God’s Word and God’s Spirit.

How did these dry bones come to life?  Two things had to happen.  It was a two-staged process.  Ezekiel had to prophesy to the bones and God had to breathe life into the bones, just like the creation of Adam. What happened to Adam personally, will happen to Israel nationally, as Arnold Frutchtenbaum points out.  Adam’s body had to be made and then it came to life.  God formed his body from the ground (stage one) and then breathed into his nostrils (stage two) and he became alive.

We need those two things today.  We need God’s Word.  These dry bones had to first hear the word of the Lord. God’s Word has incredible power. It is sharper than any two-edged sword.  When it is preached, things happen.  It does not return void.  Ezekiel prophesies to the bones and it had an effect.  He heard a noise. The bones came together and attached together.  They snapped on.

We also need God’s Spirit.  In Hebrew, the word for “spirit,” “wind” and “breath” are the same word (ruach).  These bones did not come alive until God breathed on them.  Then, they stood up. They no longer lay on the ground.  They stood up and become a great army (37:10).  The army that died came alive.

What is the application to us?  There are two kinds of churches today.  There are liberal and conservative churches but among conservative bible-believing churches, there are two kinds.  There are Word Churches and Spirit Churches.  Some churches focus on one or the other.

Word Churches

These are my kind of churches.  Worship in these churches can be a little stale and dry.  The focus is on teaching and knowledge.  They focus on instruction and learning.  They focus on study of God’s Word.  All of these are important.   Does God want us to study His Word?  Yes.  Does He want us to meditate on it?  Yes.  Day and night.  It is important but it is not everything.

You can know the Bible and not know God.  You can know what the Bible says and not do what it says and be a complete hypocrite.  You can be a hearer of the Word and not a doer of the Word.

The danger of Word Churches is INTELLECTUALISM.  Bible study can become all academic and scholarly with no application.  There are some Bible teachers who do a phenomenal job telling what the text says but a terrible job of telling how it applies to us today.  We need to know what the text says.  We also need to know what it says to us.

Spirit Churches

Spirit Churches have a completely different emphasis.  Spirit churches are on fire.  They have passion and enthusiasm.   They lift their hands in worship.  They are rolling in the aisles.  They emphasize feelings and emotions. They are big on praise and worship.   They do not sing old songs but new songs.  The music is contemporary and fresh.  Worship is spontaneous.  It is informal.  Ties are not needed for this church.  They emphasize experience.

All of this is good.  We need to have passion and fire.  What good is knowing about God is you do not experience Him personally in your life?  We need a genuine experience but there is a danger.

The danger of Spirit Churches is EMOTIONALISM.  Many in these churches say that all we need is the Spirit.  Biblical illiteracy is common in these churches.  Many simply do not know the Word very well and have never been taught it.  Some in Spirit Churches actually mock the Bible.  They ridicule Bible study and doctrine, as it were a complete waste of time.

The truth is that if we are balanced, we will have the Word and the Spirit in our churches.  We need BOTH. We desperately needed God’s Word and we need God’s Spirit. When we talk to someone about Jesus, we can give them a hundred verses but if God’s Spirit is not working, those verses will fall on deaf ears.  God has to open hears to receive the Word.  We are commanded to preach to everyone.  We do not know whose heart God will open but to get saved, they need both.

There is a famous quote.  I do not know who first said it.   The quote says, “If you live by the Word ALONE you dry up, if you live by the Spirit ALONE, you blow up.  If you live by the Word AND the Spirit, you grow up.”[4]  That says it very well.  You can dry up, crack up or grow up.  Which describes you?

[1]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hYeQUXXYvK0.

[2] https://flashtrafficblog.wordpress.com/2010/01/29/netanyahu-at-auschwitz-says-prophecies-of-ezekiel-37-have-been-fulfilled/

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7XAeyFagceQ

[4] https://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/1996/july/195.html

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