Can These Bones Live (Ezekiel 37)
And He said to me, "Son of man, can these bones live?" And I answered, "O Lord GOD, You know." (Ezekiel 37:3)
"Can these bones live?" God asks the prophet Ezekiel. It's a profound question, but Ezekiel's answer is the only answer man can give: "O Lord GOD, You know" (v3). Only God knows whether these bones will live. But God presents the question in order to help Ezekiel and us understand the resurrection of the dead.
Ezekiel is taken by the Holy Spirit and set in the middle of the valley of the shadow of death. A valley filled with dead, dry bones. As far as Ezekiel could see in the valley, there was nothing to see but bones scattered throughout. God calls us to remember through this vision that death surrounds us. Death surrounds us, but we are not afraid of it. "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me" (Psalm 23:4). Although we confess this line from the most famous Psalm on a regular basis, it doesn't always stand in practice.
We are surrounded by death. We can't avoid it. It's always looming before our sinful eyes. A fourteenth-century hymn that we use in the Committal liturgy reminds us, "In the midst of life we are in death; from whom can we seek help?" Death surrounds us and threatens to choke the faithful assurance of the Psalm out of us. And as we continue to look at the bones, we lean away from the assurance and towards the uncertainty and doubt of life surrounded by death.
We examine the bones and find that there is no breath of life in them (v9). Throughout the Bible, the breath of life is synonymous with the Holy Spirit. "The Lord and giver of life" has left the fallen house of Israel. Israel and Judah had both been destroyed by their enemies. They have been taken into exile as the Holy Spirit has left them to fend for themselves. They had it just as they wanted. They wanted to be without God. They were now without God. No breath of life left in them. They would come to understand the words of our typical Offertory: "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from Thy presence, and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation, and uphold me with Thy free spirit" (Psalm 51:10-12). They had dirty, filthy hearts. They had the wrong spirit. They were scattered throughout the world, away from God's presence. The Holy Spirit was no longer with them. They wanted to be restored, but there was no hope.
There was no hope because the bones weren't just dead. They had been slain. They were slaughtered decisively in battle. The same battle you and I fight every day. They lost. As the Psalmist cries out in his despair, "If You, O Lord, kept a record of sin, O LORD, who could stand?" (Psalm 130:3). If God kept a record of every sin you've ever committed, would you be able to stand under its weight? No. You'd crumble under the weight if you had to bear it alone. Battling against your own sin, you lose every time. You battle and you end up like the army in the valley. Nothing but dead, dry bones.
Dead, dry bones with all the skin and flesh picked off. Picked cleaner than a barbecue chicken wing. All their hope was destroyed. They had no chance of rescue because they were completely cut off from the land of the living. They had no chance of rescue (v11). No voice to ever cry out with the Psalm: "Out of the depths I cry to You, O LORD, O Lord, hear my voice" (130:1-2). They are desperate to find some way out of the mess they have made for themselves.
They were stuck in the valley, scattered all over the ground. Not one bone lay next to another. In our sin, we are disconnected from ourselves and from each other. Our sense of community has been ripped away from us. We've gone off after ourselves and our own desires. As we sang earlier, "Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love" (LSB #686.3). Wandering off, we find ourselves so disconnected that we have nothing but despair in this life because we are so disconnected.
But God will not have us be disconnected from him. Earlier, he had already told Ezekiel, "I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live" (33:11). God doesn't want you scattered along the ground, disconnected from yourself and your neighbors. And especially your God. God asked Ezekiel, "Can these bones live?" (v3). To make them live, God gives Ezekiel the prophetic Word to reattach the bones:
- 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" (vv4-6).
At the sound of God's Word, the valley shook as the bones reattached to each other. Bringing a sense of understanding to Jesus' words when He heard of Lazarus' death, we also see here, "This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it" (John 11:4). Even though Jesus knew that Lazarus would die, possibly even that same day, his death would not be the end. It would be for His glory, as He knew He would bring his friend back from the grave just as He brought the dead bones back together in the valley. Because of His mercy, we are able to sing, "Here might I stay and sing, no story so divine! Never was love, dear King, never was grief like Thine. This is my friend, in whose sweet praise I all my days could gladly spend" (LSB #430.7). The reconnected bones were ready to offer their breathless praise to their Creator. But the praise is still breathless and void because they're still dead. They're still nothing but skeletons. As Ezekiel prophesied, sinews, skin and flesh came upon the bones. Bones that had, just a moment before, been so dry and blanched. Now, they were covered with flesh. Flesh that was brought about by God's Word. Flesh that would wrap around God's Word as He was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the Virgin Mary's womb. This same flesh would come upon God's Word as He "became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). Flesh that would not see corruption (Psalm 16:10). The resurrection and enfleshment of the dry bones show us the glory of Jesus' enfleshment, death and resurrection. In these and every event of His earthly life, Jesus shows that He is the great enfleshed army that fought in the place of the house of Israel (God's Old Testament people) (v11) and also those who would believe in the testimony of the Apostles (1 John 5:9-12) (God's New Testament people). This is the great army that God has raised up through the enfleshment of His Son Jesus Christ. That is the testimony to believe. And, by believing, we find our victory in and through Jesus Christ.
By faith in Jesus as God's Word, we are the victorious army. This faith must be active and living in order to receive the endless day of Heaven (LSB #686.4). It must not be dead like the immobile, enfleshed bones that stood before God without the breath of life in them. You must understand and believe in God's unknown love to the loveless. Without this vibrant and living faith, you are just a connection of dead bones covered with flesh, sinews and skin. We must believe in that day when we will be free from sinning. When we will not only be clothed with flesh but also the robe of righteousness washed clean in the blood of the Lamb (LSB #686.4; Revelation 7:14). The blood that was shed on the Cross for the forgiveness of sin. Through this faith, we can pray, "Come, my Lord, no longer tarry; take my ransom'd soul away; send Thine angels soon to carry me to realms of endless day" (LSB #686.4). Faith in Jesus' resurrection brings us the forgiveness of sin and leads to our own resurrection.
After Ezekiel's first prophecy, the breath of life was still not in the bones. Ezekiel must prophesy once again for the breath of life to enter the enfleshed dead bones and reanimate them: "Come from the four winds, O Breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live" (v9). This Breath is the Holy Spirit that fills the entire earth, as it is written: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters" (Genesis 1:1-2). The Holy Spirit, "the Lord and giver of life", must come from the four winds to animate the dead bones. The dead bones become alive as the Holy Spirit fills them with the breath of life. This animation is the exact same as God's animation of Adam in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:7). Adam became a living soul only AFTER the Holy Spirit came to dwell in him.
This is the Christian's true life. St. Paul reminds us through the Romans, "If Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness" (8:10). The resurrected Christ's indwelling in you through the Holy Spirit makes you alive. That life leads through this mortal life into the life everlasting: "If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit, who lives in you" (Romans 8:11). Your mortal body will die, but the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead on Easter morning will raise you up on the Last Day for the eternal morning of Heaven.
With the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, we truly are the Church militant. The Church struggling through the world, battling against the devil, the world and our sinful flesh. We are the Lord's great army of reanimated bones. We are the army of those who are living who were once dead (Ephesians 2:5). We are the army whose hope is in the Lord, "for with the LORD is unfailing love and with Him is full redemption" (Psalm 130:7). We are the army of redeemed, forgiven soldiers who take heart in Jesus being "the Resurrection and the Life." Knowing that "he who believes in [Jesus] will live even though he dies" (John 11:25).
We are the army of the redeemed. We are the army that cannot be condemned because "there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:1). Being without condemnation doesn't mean we cannot sin. It means we have the forgiveness of sin that Jesus purchased with His blood on the cross. Here is our Ebenezer. Our monument to remember that God has helped us (1 Samuel 7:12; LSB #686.2). Not only has Jesus helped us in the past by bringing us salvation. He continues to help us as we fight among the saints in the Church militant. He continues to strengthen us for the battle as we daily remember our Baptism into His death and resurrection. As we daily remember His animation of our dead bones for His glory.
So we may sing: "And I hope, by Thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home" (LSB #686.2). Home is Heaven. Home is the assurance of God's grace and favor which allows us to answer faithfully alongside Ezekiel, "O Lord GOD, You know" (v3). God knows our every weakness. God knows that we are dead bones scattered throughout the valley of the shadow of death without Him. But with Him, we are the living, mighty, redeemed army of God. The army of God who follows the orders of Jesus, our general, who tells us to spread the Good News of His resurrection and the resurrection of all flesh to all the world. To proclaim His powerful Word that brings life to the dead as we look forward to the celebration of that great event two weeks from today. Amen.