Ezekiel 37: Dry Bones or New Life
We've all heard, and probably sung, the song 'Dem bones Dem bones Dem dry bones'. Its a lot of fun. 'The toe bone's connected to the foot bone, the foot bone's connected to the ankle bone'...and so on. But what's it actually all about? What is the meaning of this ancient story of Ezekiel's vision there for? Why has it been passed on to us, down the centuries?
Let's think a little about the context in which it was written. Now forgive me if I tell you things you already know - but I usually find that there are at least some people in every congregation whose knowledge of Jewish history is a little vague! And why shouldn't it be? It's not something that we are taught very often nowadays.
The book of Ezekiel was written during the period known as the Exile. About 600 years before Christ, the nation was conquered by the Babylonians, and most of the leadership, the wealthier Jews, royalty and the priesthood were taken to Babylon - in modern day Iraq. According to the Scriptures of the time, this was a punishment from God, for a nation that had stopped worshipping the true God, and turned instead to other Gods. For about 70 years, the cream of Jewish society languished in Babylon - slaves to the Babylonians.
It's from that period that we get the great laments like Psalm 137..."By the rivers of Babylon we sat down, and we wept when we remembered Zion" (Zion is of course the name of the mountain on which the city of Jerusalem is built.) It's also from that period that we get books like Daniel - with its tales of Jewish men serving in the Babylonian courts. It is also, incidentally, the period in which scholars believe that the Law of Moses - the first five books of the Bible - were substantially edited and expanded into the form we have today.
So let's put ourselves in the position of the Exiles. Here we are, thousands of miles from home - strangers in a strange land, singing sad songs of longing for Zion. We are homesick for our ancestral lands. We believe that God has sent us here as a punishment for the disobedience of the whole nation. And so, naturally enough, we begin to think about how we can please God enough to allow him to change our circumstances, and send us back home.
In such an atmosphere, two things tend to happen. The first is that priests start to insist on greater adherance to the Law - and so, as scholars tell us, they set about codifying and editing the collection of laws which had been handed down...seeking to establish laws that will change people's behaviour...so that they will please God. It was out of that process that the Pharisees arose. By the time of Jesus, when the nation was once again under occupation, the Pharisees believed that if the whole nation could keep all of the religious laws for just one day, then God would rescue them from their oppressors. That's why they got so upset when they saw Jesus treating their laws with such disdain.
The second thing that tends to happen in these kind of circumstances is that visionaries arise - prophets...who tell people that they need to trust in God...for God is at work and on the move. So, in the book of Daniel for example, we see visions of how the various nations surrounding Israel will be defeated, and how the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah will be re-established. And that is the theme that the prophet Ezekiel is also pursuing...
At the very start of his book, Ezekiel tells how he saw what calls 'visions of God'. But we might actually turn that phrase around, and say that what he was seeing was 'God's vision'. In other words, through his visions, Ezekiel was being given a 'God's eye view' of events...looking at things from God's perspective. In his great vision of chapter 37 - the story we heard just now - Ezekiel looks across the valley and sees dry bones scattered all around. As he learns later in his dialogue with God, these bones represent the people of Israel - who have been lamenting to God that they are like dry bones...as good as dead.
But God's perspective is different from theirs. He doesn't just exist in the moment...God is not limited by time and space as we are. He hears the complaints of the Israelites...but he also sees into their future...a future in which the nation of Israel will be restored in Jerusalem. So, through Ezekiel, he promises them, in verse 12, "I will bring you back to the land of Israel". Then in verse 14, he says, "I will settle you in your own land".
We might ask - how will he accomplish this? The answer comes again in verse 14: "I will put my Spirit in you, and you will live". The words used here are an echo of the story of the first man...who was created by God out of dust...but who needed God's Spirit, God's breath, breathed into him in order to live. God describes himself as the very life that courses through our veins...both as individuals, as nations, and as the whole human race.
Once again, we are invited to see things from God's perspective. From the perspective of the Exiles, life looked pretty bleak. They had been ripped from their homes and from their land. They were under the domination of a foreign power. They had been in that condition for decades...and they couldn't see how things could possibly change for them. But God knew what he was doing.
The Exile - as terrible as it was for the Exiles themselves - gave to the world a rich body of Scripture. The writings of the Exile, like Ezekiel, some of the Psalms, the book of Daniel and so on...they all speak to us of how God remains God, and very much active and alive, even through the toughest of circumstances. That is not to say that God himself causes those tough circumstances...time and time again (as we saw in the Nazi holocaust for example) it is not God who causes the suffering...but man's inhumanity to man. But God is present in the suffering - looking for ways to bring good out of it...to transform it from death to life, from defeat into victory.
There is, of course, no more powerful example of God doing that than through the event of the Cross. On the cross, as Jesus cried out 'why have you forsaken me?' he appeared to be at his lowest ebb...as good as dead... dried up bones. But there, just at the moment when evil had seemed to overcome good, the moment when the Son of God has been nailed down...God intervenes; and transforms the situation utterly. From being a cross of defeat, it becomes a cross of victory. Sin is defeated, and all humankind is offered eternal life. The resurrection - the greatest reversal of fortune in history - powerfully proves that God is at work.
So what about us? What can we learn from these stories that can apply to our situations? Well, I think that if we begin to see our lives and experiences from God's perspective...trusting that what he has done in the past he will do again in the future...then I think we have reason for hope. There are two levels to this; the level of the church itself, and the level of our personal experience of God.
Perhaps, like me, when you look at the church worldwide - appearing to tear itself apart over theological issues...you might have a deep sense of gloom. Perhaps, like the Exiles, you feel that you want to cry out to God..."when, O Lord, will the trouble be over? When will you rescue us?" But, if we pause to look at the situation from God's perspective...with a God's-eye-view...perhaps we can begin to see another pattern emerging. There is no doubt, for example, that the theological splits of the church are man-made. They are examples of human arrogance...human beings who believe that they've got a personal hot-line to God...and that they know better than their fellow Christians how God wants them to act.
But I think God takes that human folly, and in typical topsy-turvy Kingdom ways...somehow manages to redeem it. Can you imagine, for example, how small the church would be if every church did things the same way? If all churches were like our church, they would only attract a certain number of people...people, in our case, who find comfort in the ancient words of the Prayer Book, and who enjoy singing psalms. But instead, because of the very issues that divide us as a world-wide church, there are a fantastic variety of ways in which people can experience God at work. Suddenly, seen from a God's-eye-view, the human folly of argument and division becomes a divine opportunity for colour, variety, and infinite creativity. In the same way that God saw the dry bones of Israel as an opportunity for divine action, he sees the dry bones of the church as a chance to break through...and let people experience God in all his glorious creativity.
And on a personal level - I think God invites us to see him in action in our lives too. Ezekiel's vision invites us to see that however tough our own circumstances, however difficult is the journey of faith for us, God is at work...breathing his Spirit into our situation...looking for ways to bring glory out of defeat, and life out of death.
Because that's the kind of God he is.