I spent a large part of last week helping out on campus with the local Christian Unions annual Events Week. These weeks are always a helpful reminder of the reality on campus that most (though by no means all) are living without reference to the God who created them. With this in mind I am however always very encouraged to see the relative openness of students to talk about the things of God. Sure there are those who don’t want to know but I would still say that the majority (and especially those studying here as International students) are willing to engage in the conversation. If that really is true we should be encouraged because our University campuses, our acclaimed centres of learning, should indeed be places where ideas are openly discussed and explored!
As I continue in my series of blogs around the theme of Biblical Valleys I am (rather aptly in the context of last week) visiting the Valley of Dry Bones. This was part of the vision that God gave Ezekiel and is recorded in Ezekiel 37:1-14. This vision was designed to bring hope to the nation of Israel who at this point were still in exile away from the Promised Land. The vision pointed them to a brighter future, to their restoration to the land of Israel and to a broader sense of spiritual renewal. There is much for us to learn here from this broad valley that the Bible uses here to describe this process of transformation to a place of hope from a place of hopelessness. It would help them to develop an assured hope for the future and is a huge encouragement for us also.
1 He The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me to and fro among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ I said, ‘Sovereign Lord, you alone know.’Ezekiel 37:1-3 (NIVUK)
The Vision: Dry Bones
The vision begins with God showing Ezekiel a Valley which he describes as being “full of bones” (v1). These bones were lying on the floor of the valley and are said to be very dry (v2). Dry bones mean that a person has been dead for some time! After this God asks Ezekiel whether these bones can live (v3a)? I don’t know how you would answer that question but my first response would probably be something like “I don’t think there is much chance of that!” Whereas we might see in this vision the after-effects of death God sees something quite different. Instead of bones God saw the potential for life. Ezekiel’s response is fascinating as he says resists the temptation to give his opinion and turns it back to the LORD who really does know (3b).
4 Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones and say to them, “Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.”’ 7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.”’ 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet – a vast army.Ezekiel 37:4-8 (NIVUK)
God then tells Ezekiel to prophecy to these bones. Ezekiel hears a noise and the bones come together and are covered in tendons, flesh and skin. There was however no breath and so God tells him to prophecy again and breath entered them so that they could come to life and stand on their feet. Ezekiel records that there were a vast army of them. Where there was death God brings new life, new breath and new hope.
1. Spiritual Renewal
We don’t need to look too hard for the explanation because it is right here in verses 11-14. God says that these bones represent the people of Israel who had been complaining that their bones were dried up, that their hope was gone and that they were cut off. So God tells Ezekiel to prophecy a third time and to tell the people of Israel that the Sovereign Lord was going to open their graves and bring them back to their land (v12). Then God says that they will know that He is the LORD.
11 Then he said to me: ‘Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.” 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.”’Ezekiel 37:11-14 (NIVUK)
God also promises to put His Spirit in them. Spiritual renewal is always an outworking of the Holy Spirit. The truth is that all of us are spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1) and we need a work of the Spirit to bring new life. For the people of Israel this was about moving their hearts to obey God and was rooted in God’s promises that they would be His people, living in his place, experiencing His blessing. For us it is also about moving our hearts to be open to God and to have His Spirit living within us transforming us into the likeness of Christ. Our need for spiritual renewal as individuals, as community and as a nation is ongoing.
2. Learning to Pray
The second thing I see in this passage is about how God is teaching Ezekiel to pray. First God brought Ezekiel to the valley to see for himself the spiritual reality of the people of Israel. Secondly God asked him a question about whether these bones could live. Ezekiel knew that God can choose to do (or not do) as He pleases. Rather than trying to second guess God’s will he took the question back to God. It is not for us to decide what God wants to do. Rather it is for us to discern where God is at work and get on board with Him.
Then God asks Ezekiel to pray [to prophecy] in faith. This is where it gets quite challenging. Praying for life over a pile of dry bones sounds quite faith-stretching to me. Even then the results are not as he might have hoped for and God asks him to pray a second time. Perseverance in prayer is something that a number of Jesus’ parables encourage us to demonstrate. Persevering in prayer is rarely easy but here we see that Ezekiel’s persistence and faithfulness to what God had asked him to do is rewarded. God brings to completion all that he had begun in these dry bones. These lessons will help us to pray expectantly, faithfully and persistently as we seek to work with God to bring about the fulfilment of His purposes. Perhaps you have been praying for something that is on your heart (and you believe God’s heart also) for some time. Perhaps it feels a lot like it would feel to pray over a pile of dry bones. Perhaps you are still waiting for God to work or waiting for God to bring this work to completion. Be encouraged that God alone has the power to bring about such a transformation. God asks us to persevere and in some mind blowing way to engage with him and His purposes through prayer. We and our prayers are God’s appointed means to bring about God’s appointed ends.
3. Hope in the dry valley
What I like about this Valley is the sense of hope that pervades this whole vision. God is showing Ezekiel how He is going to turn things around for the people of Israel. Hopelessness would be replaced with a confident hope for God’s future blessing. God was going to transform their fortunes from punishment and exile to a time at a time when He would bring about spiritual renewal and blessing. Given that all of us face periods when we too are travelling through dry valleys this passage is a huge encouragement of how God can turn things around for us. God is eager to fill us with His Spirit, to bless us even during the hard times and enable us to become a source of blessing to others. I know for me that there have been plenty of times over the past 25 years of following Jesus when I have been journeying through dry valleys. During those times God has reached out and brought new life to me.
Ezekiel’s vision was in part fulfilled when the people of God returned to the land but ultimately this vision was about the outpouring of the Spirit of God: the Spirit who God has given to dwell within all those who trust in Him. This vision is still being worked out in the lives of those who God is drawing to Himself. Last week at CU Events week was a small taste of how God is awakening a new generation to follow Him. Whether you are a follower of Jesus or not my prayer is that God would give you a fresh experience of Him and His Spirit in the days and weeks ahead.
Experiencing God in the Valleys Series
- God of the Valleys – Hope for Life’s toughest moments
- The Valley of Eshkol – From faith to Fear
- The Valley of Baka – A place of Springs
- The Valley of Dry Bones – Hope out of Hopelessness
- The Darkest Valley – Safe in the Shepherd’s care
- The Valley of Achor – A door to hope
- The Valley of Elah – Finding Courage for the battle