The great Old Testament prophet Ezekiel lived and worked among his countrymen who were exiled from their homeland to the land of Babylon. He settled down and lived among them and worked among them along the river Chebar in a country that was not their own. And it fell Ezekiel's responsibility, having been there for ten years or more when Jerusalem was destroyed, to let the people know that what they were dealing with in the destruction and the loss and the exile, was actually the judgment of God against their own sinfulness. Ezekiel let them see the consequences of their choices in prophecies that are moving in their power. And then after time had gone by and the city was destroyed and the captives were all taken, Ezekiel began to try to cause his people's minds to dwell on the promises of God. God's promises were that this condition was not permanent, but that God still had a purpose for his people and that after 70 years, he would take them back home and make them a nation again and give them joy and satisfaction in his service.
Unfortunately, the people of Ezekiel, like many of us, had difficulty after all of that time really believing in God's promises. Their body language, if you will, was such that it betrayed a lack of confidence in their future and a lack of belief that this hope could actually be fulfilled. I don't think that the people were much different than we are in that way. When hardship or when disappointment or when pressure or loss has borne down on us long enough and heavily enough, it begins to sap our confidence and it causes it to show in our body language. I was listening to a ball game on the radio a few weeks ago, and my favorite team was behind, and one of their best players had just swung and missed strike two by a mile. The runs that were needed were on the base, but the guy swung and missed. The announcer commented, "You can just tell how he has been going by his body language. His shoulders are sagging and he looks like he doesn't think he is going to hit the ball." Have you ever felt that way? Even in our spiritual lives at times, that feeling causes a lot of people to at least be willing to contemplate giving up on the greatest journey that there is and the greatest goal there ever can be.
One of Ezekiel's great prophecies deals with exactly that problem. If you look at the section in most English Bibles, it will have some kind of heading on it like "The Valley of Dry Bones" or "The Dry Bones" and it is an odd vision that has a powerful and much needed point that we want to consider together this morning. It is found in the first 14 verses of Ezekiel 37.
Let me tell you the story, first of all, of the vision itself, the picture which is unfolded here before us. Ezekiel the prophet is taken by the hand of the Lord, and he is set down in the middle of a valley, a level ground in between the mountains, and having been set down here in the middle of the valley, the thing that impresses him immediately is that this valley is full of bones. I can remember a time or two as a boy either hunting in the woods or hills around home or going down over the hills to the lake to go fishing, when I would happen on a place where an old cow had died. It probably starved to death in the country where I grew up. It would have been dead for a while and the bones would be scattered out. It would be kind of an eery feeling for a boy with just one old cow's remains. But Ezekiel is lead around through this situation. The word "behold" is used twice in one verse as if to indicate the impression this made, the surprise with which this struck him. He noticed two things. First, there were very many of these bones. It was like a whole army had been destroyed there, had fallen there, and their bodies had not been buried. They had just been left laying there. The bones were all scattered around. They had already come apart and were all scattered around. The other thing Ezekiel noticed is that these bones were very dry. They had been there a good while. There certainly was no thought of them getting up and walking off anywhere. It was a pretty hopeless situation. That is what the scene was meant to impress him with.
After he had been led around among them and surveyed the situation, God raises the question to the prophet, "Son of man," he addressed him, as if to say, "Ezekiel, you are one of these. You are among people whose destiny is like this." "Son of Man, "God says, "can these bones live?" What would you have thought in answer to a question like that?
Back to the old cow remains that I mentioned earlier, I never had any thought of whether those bones would be there when I came back by that place. I knew they would be. Why is God asking a question like this? Ezekiel and everybody else would know that is not how things work in this world. It has to be to make a point to Ezekiel. Is there any hope for these dry bones?
And Ezekiel says in verse 3, at the end of the verse, "And I answered, 'O Lord God.'" Notice the contrast between that and "Son of man." It is as if to say "O God" who is over everything. "O God" who is God and not a man. There is a contrast there, in other words. "Thou knowest." "You know," in other words, Ezekiel is saying, "God, if these bones ever live, it will have to be because of you. You will have to do it because no man can cause them to do it." If it is up to us, these bones will just lie here. They will never get up or never live again.
God tells him, "Alright, you prophesy over these bones." Now to prophesy, to a lot of people, they think immediately of predicting the future. But in the Bible the word is used just to deliver God's word, to speak God's word. "You say to these bones," (you teachers, preachers, how would you like to preach to dry 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 will cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord." It is interesting that at the end of verse 3, Ezekiel said, "O Lord God, you know." And at the end of verse 6, God says, "You shall know that I am the Lord." Now what Ezekiel is given the job of doing is standing there in a valley full of dry bones and just saying to them, "Here's what the Lord says. He says that he is going to bring tendons on you and muscle and he is going to cover you with skin and he is going to get you up and put breath in you and you are going to live." Ezekiel couldn't say how God was going to do it. He could just say "here's what God says." That is the first part of it. So what do you do? Do you say "That doesn't make sense, God?" Or why would I say this to dry bones? They can't hear me. There won't be any response to this. How could this be? No. Ezekiel says, "So, I prophesied as I was commanded." Isn't that a great statement in verse 7. What does that tell you about the spirit of Ezekiel? "I just went to them and I said, 'thus says the Lord,'" and he delivers the message faithfully.
And it is interesting in verse 7 it says, "As I prophesied." So many times things happen in the Bible while people are doing what God told them to do. "As I prophesied, behold, there was a sound, and behold a rattling," this version says. Some of them will say "a thundering." Some of them will use some other word like that. It was a loud sound, in other words, and you can see what it was - so many bones coming together that the whole sound of it begins to sound like thunder. "Bones came together, bone to its bone. And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them." That would have been amazing, wouldn't it?
"But there was no breath in them." So God tells Ezekiel to prophesy again. This time prophesy to the breath. Say to the four winds that the breath should come and breathe on these slain that they may live. Remember that when God created Adam in the garden, he formed him from the dust of the ground and then breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. Genesis 2:7. And what is happening here is that kind of thing all over again. He brings the bodies together by his power and then he says you prophecy to the breath and "the breath came into them," verse 10 says. "So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army." God had made them alive again, and there stood the prophet preaching, and what a transformation! His audience had gone from dry bones to a great army standing on its feet!
Now what kind of a meaning does a vision like that have? Well, we are not left to guess this time because the Lord tells Ezekiel what this means in verse 11 and following. "Then he said to me, 'Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel.'" So we begin to see the picture. These bones laying here represent the condition of Ezekiel's people. The city of Jerusalem has been destroyed. The temple lies in a heap of rubbish. All the people except the very poorest of the land have all been carried away and they have now settled down to a long captivity that humanly speaking seems to have no end. They have been there for a while already. When you have been in a condition for eleven years, doesn't it look to you, from your perspective, like that is just how things are going to be. That is how it is here. These are Ezekiel's people.
And it says, "Behold, they say our bones are dried up." Now what did they mean? They mean we are discouraged. We are in despair. We feel like we have dried up on the inside. Our bones are dried up. Our hope is lost. We are clean cut off. So this valley of dry bones represents not just the people of Israel but their frame of mind, their inner condition, the state of their hearts. These are people who are living in utter despair, hopelessness has taken hold of them. They feel like they are in a condition from which there is no deliverance. Their body language indicates the idea that they expect to accomplish nothing and to go nowhere. Have you ever been there with them? Have you ever had your dwelling in that valley full of dry bones? Have you been to the place where you are so dispirited that you thinking of giving up serving, giving up a friendship, giving up a marriage, giving up a place in the Lord's body, giving up the thought that some how someday you will end up in heaven? Have you ever been there where these people were?
So what does it mean, God, that you raise these bones up and have them to stand on their feet? Verse 12, "Therefore, prophesy and say to them," (this is the explanation of the vision) "Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel." Now, notice he is not talking here, although God has the power to raise up the dead, he is not talking about a literal resurrection of the dead here. He is talking about bringing them home out of captivity and putting them in their land again and making them his people again. That is what he is talking about. Verse 13, "And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord."
Now what does that have to do with us? If this is spoken to the people of Israel and it has to do with God's promise to bring them home from captivity just as the prophet Jeremiah had preached, and if that is the way that he was going to make them alive again, then what does that have to do with us? Let's come along now from the vision to the meaning to the application of this prophecy. There is a great principle laid down here. And that great principle is that the God who keeps his promises can bring new life even to dry bones. When God works in keeping with his word, he can make alive again those who for all practical purposes, had lost hope. That great principle is the theme of scripture. It is something which is emphasized from the beginning of the Bible to the end of the Bible. God can make alive again.
A lot of you have been on trips this summer and some of you have driven through areas where it has been real hot and dry and all the vegetation just seems like it is just so withered up that it rattles when the wind blows through it. And then you look off in the distance and there will be a green streak. It will be where there will be trees and all of that. What is it that makes that green ribbon through the brown landscape? There will be a stream or there will be water located in that situation. In Jeremiah, chapter 17, the great prophet Jeremiah said, beginning in verse 5, "Cursed is the man who trust in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord. He is like a shrub in the desert and shall not see any good come. He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness in an uninhabited salt land." The other side of the contrast starts in verse 7. "Blessed is the man who trust in the Lord." In other words, he doesn't trust in man and his confidence is not in the flesh. "Blessed is the man who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. He is like a tree planted by the water" (not like a desert shrub) "that sends out it roots by the stream and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit." The principle of Ezekiel's vision is that those who fear the Lord are like the green tree instead of the desert shrub because God can bring life where there has not been any life.
Now let's apply that principle to each one of us. What it says to us is, first of all, God can raise up those who have been dead in their trespasses and sins. Our God has the power because he is a God who, when he has spoken, will do it. Our God has the power to take those who have been dead in their own trespasses and sins and to bring them to life again. The apostle Paul in Ephesians, chapter 2, beginning at verse 1, has the most beautiful statement on this that you can find. He says, "And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked." Notice that Paul does not cover up the true spiritual condition that we are in when we are lost. "You are dead in trespasses and sins which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sone of disobedience - among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved - and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus." God can do it, he has done it, and he will do it for us. Through Christ, he can make alive those who were dead spiritually.
In Colossians, chapter 2, verses 12-14, Paul describes how this happens. That person who sees what God has accomplished in raising up his own son identifies himself with that by being buried with Christ in baptism and God forgives him of all of his trespasses and sins and raises him up to walk in new life. A man who is in Christ is a new creature, II Cor. 5, verse 17 says. Some of the versions put it "a new creation," just like those dry bones were made a body and then given breath.
The father of the Prodigal Son watched out over the hill and saw that boy who had been off in the far country trudging toward home. The father was moved with compassion and ran out and embraced him and kissed him and then called for the celebration to start. But the older brother objected. The father explained, "Your brother was dead and is alive again." That is what God can do. He can make the one who was dead alive again.
Secondly, the application of this is that God can take those who started that journey and then made a failure of it and become dead in their own sense of guilt and failure, God can make them alive again. You remember when John Mark headed out on that first missionary journey with Paul and Barnabas and then he came home before the trip was finished, before the work was done, no doubt feeling like a failure. Paul the next time didn't want to take John Mark with him. Barnabas wanted to take him so bad he was willing to go off and work without Paul. You remember before that story is over, Paul is writing from prison and saying you bring Mark because he is useful to me for ministering. God has taken that failure and made something out of him.
In the New Testament when someone obeys the gospel, is baptized into Christ, and starts out and that person turns aside from walking in the light, fails miserably in that initial intention to follow the Lord, then that person can be made alive. The New Testament doesn't call on him to perform some great feat of accomplishment. It doesn't tell him, "Be baptized into Christ again." What it tells him is "You repent of that failure. You pray to God that the thought of your heart might be forgiven you" and he will be faithful and righteous to forgive us. There is a difference between the way God initially makes us alive when we become Christians and in the way God makes us alive when, as Christians, we have departed from the faith and need to come home. I want you to see that.
The third application is that God can take those who are disheartened and discouraged while they are trying to serve, he can take those whose shoulders are slumping and whose heart's are down and whose minds are dispirited, and he can renew them and bring them to life with a new sense of zeal and a new sense of enthusiasm. Psalm 23 is much loved by us. One reason is because it teaches us about a God who can restore our souls as we have been singing about this morning. In Isaiah, chapter 40, a passage much loved, no doubt, by every child of God, Isaiah deals with this in verse 28 and following: "Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint."
In Acts 27, when Paul and his traveling companions are caught up in an awful tempest which has just driven their boat for some 14 days, when all hope of their being saved is passed, an angel of the Lord stands by Paul and tells Paul that God is going to keep them and that God is going to use them and Paul that night says to his traveling companions, "For this very night there stood before me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, 'Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar. And behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you." And then Paul says to them, "So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told." There, first of all, is a picture of what happens when we get disheartened. We stop thinking that it will be exactly as we have been told. We start thinking of leaving that or compromising it or giving up on it. What Paul is saying is "Let's take heart; God can bring new life like he did here after fourteen days caught in a storm."
And then the application is that God can give new life where there has been loss and grief and heartbreak. There is a beautiful passage in Luke 7 in the New Testament of Jesus happening upon a funeral procession at a village called Nain. He being Lord could see the hearts of the people and he knew that this was a widow lady who had only one son who was 12 years old and that boy had died. Jesus was so moved with compassion that he went up to that place, he put his hand on the coffin, he raised that boy up and gave him, the Bible says, back to his mother. You and I look at that story and we think, "But he hasn't done that to me. He hasn't done that for me." To which we say, "The story is not over yet." The Lord still has that kind of power and you and I don't think, because we look for things that are eternal and not merely to thinks that are temporal. We know that the Lord will one day do what he did with that boy. The God who has the power to speak and then to do what he says that we meet in Ezekiel 37 has raised up his own son as an assurance that he has the power over the law of sin and death.
I want this morning to be of some encouragement to all who walk through the valley of the dry bones. If you are lost in sin, look what God can do. If you made a beginning as a Christian and you fell by the wayside, please look what God can do. If you are somebody who is depressed and discouraged, would you think about what God can do instead of what you or I can do? If your heart has been pierced by a feeling of grief and loss that you think there is no cure for, would you think of the God who has spoken and will do what he says? If we can help you in responding today, either by becoming a Christian or coming and confessing some need or just in praying with you, won't you let us know that by stepping out and coming today while we stand and sing?