Magazine Article

Reviving Dry Bones

The breath of God makes all the difference in the world.

Sarah Gane Burton
Reviving Dry Bones
Photo by Chelms Varthoumlien on Unsplash

There was a crunching sound when Ezekiel stepped. He looked down at his feet and saw protruding white shapes: a femur, a jawbone, a skull. His face twisted in horror as he came to a stop at the bottom of a valley filled with bones. He was in a place of death.

For Ezekiel, a priest and a prophet, being among bones was hardly a good place to be. Leviticus 21 clearly states that only under certain conditions was a priest allowed to come in contact with a dead body and even then with the consequence of being unclean for a time (Num. 19). Additionally, there was something strange about the valley that would make anyone uncomfortable: the valley was filled with bones that were lying on top of the surface. This was not a proper burial ground. Whoever these people were, they had been dishonored by not being given a proper burial. They had been forgotten, without hope of being remembered. It was here that God brought Ezekiel in vision.

The vision is recorded in Ezekiel 37. God asks a question in verse 3: “Can these bones live?”* Ezekiel answers, “O Lord God, you know.” God says to him, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, 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” (Eze. 37:4-6).

And so Ezekiel prophesied. There was a great rattling noise, a thundering, a knocking of bone on bone—the foot bone connected to the leg bone, the leg bone connected to the knee bone, the knee bone connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone connected to the hip bone, which connected to the backbone. Marrow slipped through the bones; muscle generated; tendons and ligaments rushed up the bones, forging connections; skin crawled from the toes to the head, covering the restored bodies of thousands of dead men.

Breath of Life

Yet Ezekiel 37:8 identifies a problem: “There was no breath in them.” So again God commands Ezekiel to prophesy: “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live” (verse 9). Ezekiel obeyed. Breath entered the bodies, and an army of slain warriors, once skeletal remains, stood up to Ezekiel’s height. They were new men.

For several summers in college I worked as a lifeguard and was certified in first aid and CPR. In training we were taught that the moment there is irregular or no breath, resuscitation must be given—a human body cannot function without air. When God created humans, He “formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Gen. 2:7). Adam did not become a living being until he received breath, just as the army did not stand up until they received breath.

God made a point of not immediately resurrecting the army. By delaying the complete resurrection, He emphasized the importance of breath. Without His breath, even a perfectly new body is useless. Without His Spirit, the dead cannot live. God wanted Ezekiel and the remaining Israelites to understand how important His Spirit is.

Have you ever felt that your community, your work, your life, your relationships, have fallen apart and are dry bones in a forsaken valley? And if, miracle of miracles, the pieces of your life have come together like those ancient bones, have you felt that there was still no Spirit in it? The breath of God makes all the difference in the world. The Spirit and life of God differentiates between a skeletal army and a living, breathing movement of the present.

Despair and Division

At the time of Ezekiel’s vision the Israelites were discouraged. Their nation had been divided by civil war, and they were now exiled to various locations across the Babylonian Empire. Ezekiel himself was in the twelfth year of his exile in a small Jewish colony on the Chebar River. A priest by trade, Ezekiel was called to prophesy to the remaining people in Jerusalem, his fellow exiles in the territory that was once Israel. The latter part of Ezekiel focuses on the restoration of Israel as a nation. In this section of the book we find chapter 37.

In His address to the Israelites, God identifies two maladies that weakened the Israelites: (1) their despair in captivity, and (2) their national division. First, God addresses their despair. God explains the vision to Ezekiel, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel; behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off’ ” (Eze. 37:11). God identified His people as weak and pitiful, dry as bones. But He would not leave them in that state. After promising to open their graves and raise their dead, He continues in verse 14, “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.” Again He emphasized the essential quality of the breath of God.

Second, God addresses their division. In Ezekiel 37:16-19 God commands Ezekiel to create a visual aid to help Him illustrate the fulfillment of His promise: two sticks tied together representing the tribe of Judah and the rest the house of Israel. In this way God declared through Ezekiel that the nation of Israel would be united in one purpose, under one King, in one kingdom. They would worship one God and follow one law. Here God painted a picture of post-Advent Jerusalem, where all of God’s people will be gathered together under the one eternal King and descendant of David.

Life and Unity

God gives two solutions to the two maladies. The solution to the first, despair, is breath or the Spirit of God that gives life. The solution to the second, division, is unity under one God. When God gave this latter solution to the Israelites, He had the future in mind. We know from His prophecy about the unification of Israel that the application of His promise stretches from Ezekiel’s time to our present and on into the future until we are united as promised.

No doubt Ezekiel himself had often despaired over the state of Israel. No doubt the division of his people broke his heart. Ezekiel’s vision would have been a comfort to him, too, reminding him that God was in control and the true people of God would one day be reunited under the Messiah.

Could Ezekiel’s vision have an application to our contemporary church community? Is it possible that we are not fulfilling Christ’s desire of John 17:21, 22 for believers to “be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me”? Is it possible that some of us are not just lukewarm but spiritually dry? Could our focus on nominal Christianity and doctrinal distinction be leaving us brittle and dusty on the floor of a forgotten valley?

It takes individuals to form a church. Along with millions of others, we make up the Adventist Church and are therefore responsible for the spiritual growth and formation of our church, locally and globally. If we are dry, our church is dry. If we are divided, our church is divided. But if we are on fire, our church is on fire. And if we are united, our church is united. Examine yourself. Are you dry? Do you resonate with the Israelites? If so, do not lose hope.

God’s final miracle in the valley of dry bones was restoring the bodies by His breath. With His Spirit in them, they stood, an army ready for battle. Our church may be dry. Our church may be divided. But if we ask for His Spirit to fill us personally and our church corporately, God will not leave us desolate. God will raise us up as an army, prepared to meet any difficulty that comes our way, because we have the Spirit of the living sovereign Lord in us.

* Bible quotations in this article are from the English Standard Version.

Sarah Gane Burton

Sarah Gane Burton is a freelance writer and copy editor based in Berrien Springs, Michigan, where she lives with her husband and two children.