Can these bones live? Any hope?

Text Ezekiel 37:1-14 Time 30/09/07 Place Childs Hill Baptist ChurchThe first part of Ezekiel 37 is about the valley of dry bones and it is the most famous part in the whole book. Indeed this is one of the most famous stories in the Bible. Now those of you who have been following this series from the beginning have the advantage of seeing it against the background of all we have had so far.
Remember, the prophet Ezekiel is in exile – he is far away from the Promised Land in Babylon where he and others have been taken against their will. He has been prophesying that things are going to get worse again before they get any better and he has recently heard the terrible news of Jerusalem's overthrow.
Meanwhile, the people are still given over to idolatry and are still unwilling to humble themselves before God and turn from their sins. They listen to Ezekiel, yes, but they are unwilling to respond to him in the way that he wants. He is just like someone singing songs to them – 'yes, very peasant Ezekiel but I'm not going to change my life'.
It is all very depressing then. There seems little to be encouraged about. Now I would suggest to you that our own situation in this country at the present time is very similar. In general, people have given themselves up to idolatry. They live for things not for God. Church attendance is very low and even where people do attend they are often not hearing the gospel or if they do hear it, they reject it. It is generally felt that the exciting things in this world are all happening away from where Christ is exalted. People have no time for God's Word or for prayer or for thinking about their sins and how to turn from them, of heaven and the world to come.
We can then perhaps identify with Ezekiel as he must have been feeling at this point. Now it is at this point that God brings the amazing vision to Ezekiel that we see here. The story is in three parts. Firstly, Ezekiel is shown a valley full of dry bones. Secondly, as ludicrous as it may have seemed at the time, at God's command Ezekiel prophesies to these bones. Thirdly, an application is made. So let's consider these three elements together.
1. Realise just how bad things areEzekiel tells us that at this point that The hand of the LORD was upon him. We have had this expression before to explain how the Lord came to Ezekiel and granted him various visions. This time he tells us that God brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley. He does not tell us anything more about the geographical location of this valley. That clearly was not important. The important thing was that it was full of bones. It would seem that this was a defeated army somewhere - killed, stripped and plundered, then left to rot.
From the first moment he saw that valley Ezekiel could see it was full of bones but God wanted to really impress upon him exactly what was there. And so he does two things. First he gets Ezekiel to
1. Take a good look at the bones
He says (2) He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones he adds that were very dry. They had clearly been there for some time. Rates of decomposition vary but Ezekiel is not seeing dead bodies as such nor even skeletons but bones and very dry bones at that. These bones must have belonged to men who had died at least a year or two before.
Secondly, he has to
2. Hear God's question3 He asked me, Son of man, can these bones live? Now there's a question! Can mere bones live? Could these very dry bones whose owners had clearly died some while ago come together again so that they would live? Ezekiel knew that Elijah and Elisha had been used by God to raise people from the dead but these were people who had died only a short while before. He knew of many other miracles such as the crossing of the Red Sea and the other miracles in Moses's time, the lengthening of the day in the time of Joshua and later of Ahaz, the lengthening of Hezekiah's life and so on but just look at these bones – can they live? Can they be raised up? Surely not. And so Ezekiel gave what sounds like a very diplomatic answer. He says that he didn't full of optimism say 'Yes, of course' nor did he say pessimistically 'no way, that's impossible'. Rather, he tells us I said, O Sovereign LORD, you alone know.Now even before Ezekiel is told any more, no doubt certain things were running through his mind and perhaps we can make some early and obvious applications to ourselves too.
1. Take a good look at the bones. So imagine yourself in a valley of dry bones – very dry bones. Don't you feel as though you are in such a valley sometimes? Everything looks rather discouraging. You feel like your bones are all dried up and there's no hope. Now our inclination at such times is to run. We feel like we just want to get out and up on the hills somewhere. However, look what God makes Ezekiel do. He makes him take a good long hard look at the situation. He wants to impress on Ezekiel just how bad things are. Part of my task as a preacher is to walk back and for among the bones as it were and show you how many there are and how very dry they are. It's not pleasant work but it is necessary. We need to be desperate. We need to see how very bad indeed our plight is by nature. Superficial answers are not going to help us. There were prophets in Ezekiel's days, as in ours, who were very quick to say 'peace, peace' but there was no peace. But let's be realistic – about ourselves and our own spiritual state, which is often not good; about the church here – small and struggling is an honest description; about the nation in general – morally degenerate, drifting further and further from the truth. There is a shortage of ministers, of candidates for the ministry, of church planting efforts, of conversions, of holiness, etc.
2. Hear God's question. Then we need to hear the question that God asks Ezekiel. Can these bones live? Now when I was a younger man there were days when my answer to that sort of question would be a very positive 'Yes'. Can you improve spiritually? Yes! Can this person be converted? Yes! Can we fill this place? Yes! Will we see revival in this land? Yes! But these days I have to confess that some times I find myself thinking 'No'. I'm not going to grow any further in grace. This person and that are not going to be converted. We'll never fill the place. Revival will not come in my lifetime. Perhaps you can identify. Let's pray that God will give us the grace to say O Sovereign LORD, you alone know. Let's cast aside the often false optimism of youth and the shameful and negative pessimism that often accompanies old age and with faith let's say O Sovereign LORD, you alone know. I find it hard to believe that I can grow in grace, that people can be converted, the place filled and revival come but you know what will happen Sovereign Lord and so we look to you.
2. Understand what we need to doSo what is Ezekiel told to do here? It comes in two stages.
1. Consider the first command and what to do1 The first command
Well, where would you begin in a situation like that? Medicine is not the answer is it? First aid is no good! Entertainment is even less likely to work on them. 'Hey. Come on bones, we can laugh about this in a way, hey?'! Some sort of electric shock treatment? No - there is nothing that can be done.
But God says to Ezekiel Prophesy to these bones. Speak to them, he says. You are a prophet Ezekiel, so prophesy say to them, Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! Now we are not told how Ezekiel reacted to this idea but before he could raise any objections the Lord told him (5) This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 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. It is not that Ezekiel or his preaching can do anything as such. However, as he prophesies the bones are going to join up, the flesh is going to come onto them and the whole army is going to come alive.
God says something similar to us in our dry bone conditions too. When we 're all dried up and shrivelled he says to us 'Get your Bible out and start reading'. We object that it's not going to do any good and we've tried it before but he urges us to it. He calls on us to preach the Word. Again, we have our doubts, but that is what God calls on us to do. It is through the foolishness of preaching that the world can be turned upside down.
2 The first result
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. The word was having an effect. This is the verse that inspired the famous negro spiritual 'Dem bones, dem bones' - The foot bone connected to the leg bone, The leg bone connected to the knee bone, The knee bone connected to the thigh bone, etc. You know the sound your bones can make when they crack, and perhaps you've heard folk musicians playing the bones. Well, imagine the rattling sound as all these came together. Then (8) I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them. Amazing! What a change.
People are paying to go into the British Museum at the moment to see the famous Terracotta Army from China. I'm sure it's quite impressive – but this would have been far more impressive.
But having said that, like the terracotta army ... there was no breath in them. Oh yes, preaching is the answer, let's be in no doubt about that. It is as the word is preached and heard that changes come about. Who knows what preaching might not do. But we also need to see that preaching is not enough. Of itself, even though it is the Word of God, it cannot change people. Something more is needed.
2. Consider he second command and what to do1 The second command
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 from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live. It's prophecy again but, if you like, it is not preaching prophecy but praying prophecy. He is to speak to the breath and pray Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live. As you know, the word breath is the same as the word spirit and it is to the Holy Spirit here that Ezekiel is called on to cry out to, to come and make these people live. You know how important oxygen is to live. It can be a life saver. Well, it was a little like that for these people – the bones were re-assembled, the flesh was there but they had no oxygen, no breath.
It is a reminder to us that we must not only preach but also we must pray. Prayer is vital. I am set aside not only to preach to you but also to pray for you. We are not all called to preach in the formal way that I preach but we are all called to pray and prayer, it is clear from this passage, is an absolutely vital part of raising up dry bones from the dead. No raising up of dry bones without prayer. Listen to these words in an old hymn by Philip Doddridge

And can these mouldering corpses live?
And can these perished bones revive?
That, mighty God, to thee is known;
that wondrous work is all thine own.

Thy ministers are sent in vain
to prophesy upon the slain;
in vain they call, in vain they cry,
till thine almighty aid is nigh.

But if thy Spirit deign to breathe,
life spreads through all the realms of death;
dry bones obey thy powerful voice;
they move, they waken, they rejoice.

2 The second result
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. What a wonderful change. Now, not just skeletons clothed with flesh but an army standing, alive, and ready to fight. At Ezekiel's bidding the Spirit of God has come into them and he has brought them to life. Do you know the phrase 'the divine afflatus'? It's another way of speaking about inspiration. Afflatus is Latin but it comes from Plato I believe. When a poet, for example, wrote really well, they would speak in terms of the gods having breathed on him. Well, when God breathed on this army by his Spirit, when we might say the divine afflatus came, then they came alive.
And isn't that what we need most of all? For the Holy Spirit to come and breathe life into us. That's what you need if you're not a Christian. And if you are a Christian, it is that constant filling of the Holy Spirit that is so needed. Isn't that what our meetings need? Not necessarily better singing and better preaching, etc – but more of the Spirit of God. We need him to come and to enliven us and make us what we ought to be in Christ. Let's pray for this then. Let's call on the Spirit of God to come and to to do his work among us. Preaching, if you like, is a matter of hoisting the sails on a sailing ship – without the wind of God's Spirit, nothing will happen.
3. How all this applies to us todaySo I have tried to say something about the meaning of this vision as we have gone through but the actual application is only brought in at the end of the section in 11-14. Three things then to close
1. We often feel there is no hope11 Then he said to me: Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off. The valley of dry bones was a picture of Israel, the people of God, and how they felt at this particular time. They would actually say, some of them, Our bones are dried up. They felt so hopeless. They were supposed to be the people of God, the ones to whom Messiah would come in the Promised Land. But most of them were now in exile. They had been turned away from the Temple in Jerusalem, which itself had ceased to function. They had no real king to speak of. It all looked pretty bleak indeed.
And as I have said parallels can be drawn with our situation as a church and as a nation and may be personally you feel pretty dry too. We certainly have reason to. It is small comfort, I know, but we are not the first to feel like that. And further ....
2. But here is a message of hope12, 13 Therefore prophesy and say to them: This is what the Sovereign LORD says: O 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. Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. Here just when it was as bad as it could be comes a wonderful message of hope. We have seen how the burden of Ezekiel's message for much of the book has been to announce judgement on Israel, although along the way there have been hints of encouragement. But now he is saying 'Look, yes we are in exile, and that is bad news. But this isn't the end of the story. You're in your graves now but there is going to be a resurrection. I am going to bring you back to the land of promise and then you, my people, you will know that I am the LORD.'
And that's exactly what God did, didn't he? He brought them back after 70 year exile, under Ezra and Nehemiah, and the Temple was rebuilt and eventually many years later, there in Bethlehem, the Messiah was born, the one who is the Saviour of the World. And when they crucified him what happened? He was literally raised from the dead.
Now such facts ought to encourage us greatly, especially when we are feeling discouraged and down because of our sins. God will not forget us. If we go on preaching and praying then he will be gracious and rescue us and raise us up. There is hope.
3. And here is a promise of the SpiritWe close with verse 14. God says 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. That is a great promise. It is a promise of restoration and of the Spirit. It has been fulfilled in part in the return of the children of Israel to their land but it still stands as a promise of blessing for all dry bones. I will put my Spirit in you says God and you will live and you will know the joys of life in Christ, firstly here on earth and then in heaven above. Believe that promise and act on it.