Take a moment to pray. Ask God to speak to you through his word—for his Spirit to convict you of sin, teach you the truth, and lead you in walking by faith.
Setting the Scene
It’s hard for us to understand the degree of spiritual depression Israel experienced when the Babylonians destroyed the Temple in 586 BC. That event, coupled with three waves of exile to Babylon, was the judgement of God for the sin of Israel. The sense of loss, abandonment, and failure caused a crisis of faith in Israel. Their hope was lost.
Hopelessness hurts. We lose energy, we lose sleep, we lose passion. We might lose hope due to a work situation, or a family crisis, or a financial disaster, or physical sickness. Whatever the cause, loss of hope can be devastating.
Perhaps the most brutal variety of hopelessness is spiritual hopelessness. We might see it in the culture around us, where spiritually dead people struggle to make sense of life. We might see it in friends and loved ones we desperately wish would embrace the gospel, but they just won’t. We might see it in ourselves—in a moment of honesty when we come face to face with our unbelief.
Even though we experience spiritual hopelessness in a variety of ways, in the Bible we learn that in those moments we also see God’s faithfulness. One of the most dramatic articulations of this principle is in Ezekiel’s third vision, one of the most famous visions in the Bible.
In this vision Ezekiel sees a valley full of dead bodies that have decomposed to the point of being just a pile of bones. God gave Ezekiel the vision sometime after the description of the Temple in 586 BC, when the spiritual deadness of the nation would have been obvious to everyone. These dry bones are a dramatic picture of the spiritual state of Israel that reflects both the individual reality for most people and the collective result for the nation. But in the midst of this spiritual tragedy, God had a message of hope for his people.
Ezek. 37:1 The hand of the LORD was on me, and he brought me out by his Spirit and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me all around them. There were a great many of them on the surface of the valley, and they were very dry. 3 Then he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I replied, “Lord GOD, only you know.”
Ezekiel understands that the Lord’s question is rhetorical. The long version of his answer is, “No, not according to the natural laws of the universe, but I can sense you’re trying to show me something.” Specifically, God was about to show Ezekiel something about spiritual life and death. Don’t underestimate how God can work even in the midst of great trials in our lives. When you survey the landscape of your family, your friends, or even yourself, it might look like a pile of dead bones. But what can God do?
Ezek. 37:4 He said to me, “Prophesy concerning these bones and say to them: Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! 5 This is what the Lord GOD says to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you will live. 6 I will put tendons on you, make flesh grow on you, and cover you with skin. I will put breath in you so that you come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.”
God commands the prophet Ezekiel to speak to the dead bones. That alone is a weird command, but recall that the job of a prophet is to speak the Word of God. What’s the message? God says he will resurrect these bones. He will give them flesh again, and he will give them life. Why? So that Israel would know that the Lord is God.
It’s an ugly view, but we have to acknowledge it: sin always leads to rotting carcasses. Sin leaves behind a path of carnage and destruction. We see in our families. We see it in hospitals. We see it in rehab centers and mass shootings. Can these bones live? No. No? Not usually. Can they?
God is teaching Ezekiel that spiritual hopelessness isn’t theologically accurate. What a glorious truth! God encourages Ezekiel to doubt the finality of spiritual death. Israel’s hopelessness, even in exile after the destruction of the Temple, was a drastic underestimation of the power of God. Perhaps we need to be reminded of the power of God. What happens when God speaks?
Ezek. 37:7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded. While I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 As I looked, tendons appeared on them, flesh grew, and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. 9 He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man. Say to it: This is what the Lord GOD says: Breath, come from the four winds and breathe into these slain so that they may live!” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me; the breath entered them, and they came to life and stood on their feet, a vast army.
It’s not Ezekiel’s word, it’s God’s Word that brings life. It’s always been his Word. “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’” (Gen. 1:3). It’s how Adam first came to life: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness’” (Gen. 1:26). God speaks, and his Word accomplishes what he intends.
The word “breath” in verses 8 and 9 can also mean “spirit.” This isn’t an accident. It’s not just breath, but it’s his Spirit that brings life. Think about that for a moment: God’s message, empowered by God’s Spirit, brings the dead to life.
Why could Israel hope in exile? Why can we hope? Because God’s Word is effective. He is active, and he’s not just talking. Look at what his Word accomplished…
Ezek. 37:11 Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Look how they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished; we are cut off.’
Note the despair in Israel’s appraisal of their situation in exile. They were feeling utterly hopeless.
12 Therefore, prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Lord GOD says: I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them, my people, and lead you into the land of Israel. 13 You will know that I am the LORD, my people, 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 am the LORD. I have spoken, and I will do it. This is the declaration of the LORD.’”
The vision is a picture of what God will do with his people: he will spiritually resurrect them by his Spirit, using his Word. They will return to the land promised to them. This is what God promises to do.
Israel didn’t just need to return to the land, they needed the ability to respond to God with faith. That means they needed the Spirit of God to raise them from the dead. Ezekiel himself detailed this in the previous chapter (Ezek. 36:26-27). God grants spiritual life. His Spirit regenerates sinners and gives them a sure hope for the future.
The Big Picture
When we consider the rest of the storyline of the Bible, we learn that Jesus is the Word, God incarnate: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” (John 1:1). It’s no accident that in John 20:22 Jesus “breathes” the Spirit onto the apostles. In Acts 2 the Spirit of God empowers the apostles to preach the gospel, and the dead come to life. This is the initial fulfillment of this prophecy, and it’s still going on. The Word of God is the expression of his will. Who is this that even the wind and sea obey him? It’s Jesus, the Word.
The remarkable way this vision fits into the rest of the Bible is that the miracle isn’t limited to ethnic Jews. God’s life-giving Spirit is at work among Gentiles too. One of great mysteries of our existence is the unity of Jews and Gentiles in the body of Christ.
Any person regenerated by the Spirit of God is now a son or daughter of Abraham, grafted into Israel, and heir of Abraham’s blessings. The church, this combination of Spirit awakened Jews and Gentiles, is the fulfillment of this promise.
But what about the land? Some commentators will insist that this promise has to be limited to the land of Israel, and therefore the fulfillment to ethnic Jews. There are three problems with this view. First, this promise applies to Jews who have come to life spiritually. They are the ones who will inherit the land. Second, in Ezekiel’s last vision, found in chapters 40-48, he sees Israel restored to a bigger, better, land, which did not happen in the 6th century BC. Third, as we saw above, this promise finds its initial fulfillment in Jesus’ ministry and the outpouring of the Spirit in Acts 2. That work was not limited to Gentiles. The land in view is the New Earth, the place where God’s people (Jew and Gentile) dwell with him forever.
Taking It Home
When we are faced with the carnage of spiritual death, we can have hope. Why? Because God’s Spirit gives us life and a future. God uses his Word to bring the dead to life. Paul said it this way, “For God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).
Yes, we were dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1), but God has made us alive with Jesus (Eph. 2:4-5). Where does spiritual life come from? Often we act as if we believe spiritual life comes from ourselves. We think, “I have to get more spiritual.” We try to do more “religious” things (attend worship services, do good deeds, give money to good causes, etc.). We might even treat people as if we believe they should be more spiritually alive than they are.
If we rightly understand sin, we realize that we are helpless to save ourselves from it. Take a few minutes and consider reasons you may have lost hope. Ask yourself, how have you underestimated what God can do in that situation?
- Think about people you know who are spiritually “hopeless.” Ask God to graciously intervene, to shine the light of the gospel in their hearts, and to bring them to spiritual life.
- Praise God that he brings the dead to life by the power of his Word. Ask him to give you courage to deliver his message of good news to the dry bones in your life.
- Praise him that because of regeneration by the Spirit, we look forward to experience the blessings of dwelling with him forever. Ask him to help you value your future more than your present, and to help you live in light of your coming inheritance.