The Valley of Dry Bones (Ezekiel, Part 2)

I recently heard a preacher say that one of the older members of his congregation told him that before his arrival, she had never heard a single sermon on any of the Old Testament prophets. And she had been a member of that church for over 40 years!

            Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising, though.  The prophets aren’t exactly known as “feel good” books, and they don’t seem to contain the kind of practical “news-you-can-use” that’s found in the New Testament and the book of Proverbs.  And if you’re just looking for a good story, the prophets don’t have much of interest.  And all of that is certainly true about the book of Ezekiel.

            Last week, we looked at the first half of Ezekiel and we saw that the focus was sin.  Ezekiel was called by God to be a watchman whose job was to stand in the tower, look for danger and then sound a warning for the people in Jerusalem.  But Ezekiel wasn’t warning people about enemies on the horizon.  His job was to warn the people about the sin that was in their lives.  But, the people of Judah didn’t really care to hear his warning, and let’s be honest, it wasn’t a very pleasant message.

            Ezekiel rebuked the Jews for their idolatry, their pride, their self-righteousness, and their unfaithfulness.  He refused to let the people minimize their sins or make excuses for what they had done.  In very blunt language, he helped Israel to see the painful truth of their condition before God.  But they didn’t want to listen to Ezekiel, and they refused to look into the mirror of God’s Word.

            And I get that.  None of us likes to look in the mirror and admit there’s something wrong with us.  We would much rather preach (and listen to) messages of how much God loves us, and what great plans he has for us (all of which is true).  We would rather search through God’s Word for practical wisdom to help us navigate the challenges of life (which it does).  

            But if we never see what’s wrong with us, then we’ll never take action to fix it.  And that was one of Ezekiel’s goals — to help Judah and to help us to see the true nature of our sin problem so that we will repent and turn to God for the forgiveness and the mercy we all need.  Because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

            But, last week, I promised you that this week’s lesson would be different.  While the focus in the first half of Ezekiel was “sin”, the focus in the second half is “hope”.  So, this morning, we want to see what hope God promised to the Jews who had sinned, and what hope he promises to those of us who have sinned today.

            Let’s take a look at this video which will give us an overview of the second half of Ezekiel, and then I’ll come back to share with you God’s message of hope.

            Show VIDEO (Ezekiel, part 2)

            The story is told about a door-to-door saleswoman who was selling some household products in a neighborhood.  She knocked on Joe’s door and asked to see his wife.  Joe was a quiet man of few words, and so he told her that his wife wasn’t home.  The saleswoman asked if she could wait for his wife to come home and Joe said that she could.  He gave her a seat in the living room and left her there for more than an hour.

            The saleswoman began to get a bit worried, so she called out to Joe and asked him, “Could you tell me where your wife is?”  He said, “She went to the cemetery.”  The saleswoman asked, “Do you know when she’s coming home?”  Joe said, “No, I really don’t know.  She’s been there eleven years now.”

            My guess is she won’t be coming home any time soon!  In fact, it would surprise us greatly to see someone who has been buried in a cemetery to be up walking around once again.  Which is why the story of the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37 is so incredible.

            Allow me to set the scene for this story.  When Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, it shocked everyone.   No one expected that Israel would ever fall.  They were the strongest, richest, most blessed nation on the face of the earth.  And God was on their side! 

            You may recall that when Jeremiah warned Judah about what might happen to them, people laughed at him.  Jeremiah was obviously suffering from delusions, or maybe he was a spy for the enemy, but any good patriotic citizen would know that Judah had nothing to worry about. 

            And yet, despite the fact that it couldn’t happen, it did.  The nation of Judah fell.  The city of Jerusalem fell.  The city was destroyed, the temple was destroyed, and the vast majority of the citizens were carried away into exile into the foreign country of Babylonia.

            The Jewish captives were stunned and asked themselves, “How did this happen?  How could it happen?  We believed in Yahweh God.  We had the temple.  We had the scriptures.  How could a nation who doesn’t even know God do this to us?”

            And so, the Jews were devastated, and many of them said, “There is nothing that God can do to help us now. We are never going to recover from this tragedy.  If God couldn’t help us when Jerusalem fell and the temple was destroyed, he certainly can’t do anything to help us now!”  From their human perspective, this was an impossible situation.

            But, in the midst of their discouragement, God sent a message of hope that began with these words.  Ezekiel said, “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.  And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry.” (Ezekiel 37:1-2)

            Ezekiel had a vision.  And in this vision, God took Ezekiel to a valley that was filled with dry human bones.  This was truly a Death Valley.  An interesting bit of trivia.  Death Valley in California wasn’t named that because a lot of people died there.  It was actually named that after only 13 people died.  But there were a lot more deaths where Ezekiel was standing.

            He was placed in the middle of an old battlefield.  For centuries, it was common for two armies to fight a war by confronting each other in a valley (you may remember how the armies of Israel and the Philistines were situated when David fought Goliath).  One army would camp in the hills on one side, and the other would camp in the hills on the other side.  They would meet in the valley and fight until one army won.

            Ezekiel was standing in the middle of this old battlefield where there had been so many casualties that the dead soldiers couldn’t be buried.  When the battle ended, the valley was full of dead bodies.  Before long. the vultures and scavengers came around.  Then after some time had passed, it turned from a valley of decaying bodies to a valley filled with dry, bleached bones.  It truly was a Death Valley.

            So, God set Ezekiel in this valley and then it says that God led him around through the bones.  Can you imagine walking around ankle-deep in the bones of dead men?  It might have been a dog’s dream come true; but most likely, this made Ezekiel extremely uncomfortable.  Keep in mind that Ezekiel was not only a prophet of God, but he was also a priest. To touch a dead body would render anybody unclean, but especially a priest. 

            In this valley, God had a conversation with Ezekiel.  He asked him, “Ezekiel, can these bones come back to life?”  And Ezekiel gave a rather noncommittal answer.  He said, “Sovereign LORD, only you can answer that!” (Ezekiel 37:3, GN).  Inside he may have been thinking, “There’s not a chance these bones will ever come back to life”, but he wasn’t about to tell that to God.  So, he simply said, “Lord, you’re the only one who can answer that question.” 

            God then told Ezekiel to preach to the bones.  “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.  Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.  And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.” (Ezekiel 37:4-6)

            Now God had asked Ezekiel to do a lot of strange things over the course of his ministry, but this had to be one of the strangest.  “Ezekiel, I want you to preach to these dry bones that are scattered on the ground around you.”  Now, I’ve preached to some audiences that weren’t very responsive, but to preach to a bunch of bones of dead people?  It would be a total waste of time, at least unless God had told him to do it.

            God told Ezekiel, “When you preach to these bones, I’m going to turn these bones back together into bodies, and then I’m going to put life back into those bodies.”

            And Ezekiel did exactly what God told him to do.  “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.  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.” (Ezekiel 37:7-8)

            Ezekiel started preaching to all those bones, and suddenly there was a loud rattling noise as all the bones began fitting back together into skeletons again.  And then, those skeletons started to be covered in flesh.

            At this point, all the body parts were in their proper place.  The bones, the muscle, the skin were all in position, but still wasn’t any life.  The brain was in the head, but it wasn’t thinking. The lungs were there, but they weren’t breathing.  The heart was in place, but it wasn’t beating.  It was like Adam before the Lord breathed into him the breath of life.  Each soldier was a perfect lifeless corpse.

            And so, God told Ezekiel to prophesy again.  “Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.’  So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.” (Ezekiel 37:9-10)

            That had to be a frightening sight!  But it was just a vision.  And then, God told Ezekiel what the vision meant.  He said, “Son of man, 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.’  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.  And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people.  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.” (Ezekiel 37:11-14)

            And God did exactly what he said he would do.  Despite the doubts of those who said that no harm could come to the nation of Judah, it came.  And then, despite the doubts of those who said that God couldn’t do anything to help them anymore, the Jews were restored to their homeland.  God brought them back to life again as a nation.

Application

            So, what’s the application of this Bible story for us today?  In this vision, God asked Ezekiel a question. He said, “Son of man, can these bones live?”  Keep in mind, God doesn’t ask people questions because he’s trying to figure out the answer.  He asks in order to get people to think.  Like he did with Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden when he asked, “Where are you?”  God knew good and well where they were, but Adam and Eve needed to think carefully about where they were and why they were there.

            And so, God asked Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?”  If Ezekiel had responded to God’s question based on the evidence at hand, he would have answered “no.”  Everyone knows that dry bones cannot come back to life.

            If you are the first person on the scene of an accident and you see somebody lying motionless on the ground, you might think, “Maybe there’s hope.” You might even try to do a little CPR to revive the person. But if you see a skeleton lying in the road, you’re not even going to think about giving it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.  You would immediately think, “It’s just dead bones. There’s no hope.”

            But God wants to Ezekiel to think about the fact that, with God, there’s always hope.  God wants us to learn that nothing is too hard for him. What may appear to be hopeless and dead to you and me, God still has the ability to bring life?  Have you known anyone that you thought was too far lost to be found?  Someone for whom it just seemed a waste of time to pray for?  God tells us there’s always hope.

            When Mary was told by the angel Gabriel that she was going to have a child, Gabriel told her, “Nothing is impossible with God.”  And when the disciples asked Jesus, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus said, “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible.” God never wants us to lose faith that he can bring life — even when it appears that a situation is hopeless.  We’ve all heard the proverb, “where there’s life, there’s hope”.  But with God there’s hope even when there appears to be no life!

            Ezekiel 37 is a beautiful vision of hope. It’s a wonderful message that God and His Spirit can bring life to any situation and to any soul – no matter how hopeless it may appear.

            This vision was given as a lesson not only for the nation of Israel, but also for us.  These dry bones represent people.  The Bible says, “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (1 John 5:12).  If a person doesn’t have Jesus, spiritually speaking, he has no life.  He’s dead.  He’s a pile of dry bones. 

            But just as water brings the parched earth back to life, the living water of God’s Spirit can bring dry souls new life. Isaiah 44:3 says, “For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.”

            Remember what the father of the prodigal son said?  “For this my son was dead, and is alive again.” (Luke 15:24).  When was he dead?  When he was out there living a wasteful life away from his father.  Spiritually, he was as dead as a dry mummy, but then God brought him to his knees and restored him to his senses.  And the son who once was dead was alive again.

            Perhaps one of the most difficult and demanding challenges we face as we strive to live a life of faith is to let go the past.  When I say that, I’m not talking about responsibly dealing with the consequences of our past.  Our past always produces consequences because we all make mistakes, and we all need to learn to deal responsibly with the consequences of those mistakes. 

            But someone who can’t let go of the past is someone who is enslaved to the past, someone who isn’t able to live in the present because his heart and his mind are consumed with what happened in the past.

            Let me give you a few examples of what I’m talking about.  Someone may say, “There’s no hope for me.  I had a child when I was 16 and unmarried.”  Or, “I stole a car when I was 18.”  Or, “I experimented with drugs extensively when I was in college.”  Or, “I was divorced when I was 30.”   Or, “I lost a business and lost everything I owned when I was 35.”  Or “I had a car wreck that killed my family when I was 40.” 

            And so, because of what’s happened to me in the past, there’s no hope.  Because of the mistakes that I’ve made in the past, there’s no hope.  My life has been messed up beyond repair.  There’s not even anything God can do for me at this point.  What’s the point in going on?

            We’ve all got some dry bones in our lives.  Areas of our life where the life has been sucked right out of us.  And it looks like there’s no hope.  It looks like nothing’s ever going to change.  There’s nothing anybody can do, not even God.  But Ezekiel’s vision reminds us that whatever the reason for the dry bones in our life, God has the power to bring life.  God has to power to restore what we’ve lost.  He has the power to make us whole again.  He has the power to revive us again.

            When God took Ezekiel out to that valley of dry, sun-bleached bones, he wanted Ezekiel (and Judah) to recognize that God is always in control — even over dry bones.  He wanted Ezekiel to be reminded that life comes from God — not from the past, not from favorable circumstances.  God has the power to take those dry, scattered bones and turn them into skeletons; and then turn those skeletons into bodies, and give those bodies alive.

            God did it to teach that he could deliver Israel from the grave of their captivity and put them back in their homeland again.  In fact, not only could he do it, but he would do it as well.  And when that happened, when God brought them back to life, he said, “Then you shall know that I am the Lord.” (Ezekiel 37:14).

            Whatever there is in your life right now, or in your past, that makes you feel like there’s no hope, may you draw comfort from the Valley of Dry Bones.  Be assured that God is able to revive, he is able to restore, he is able to bring life once again.  And if the Valley of Dry Bones doesn’t give us enough hope, we can find even more hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. 

            Because, “if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.” (Romans 8:11).

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