Ezekiel 37 – Life to Dry Bones and Unity to God’s People
A. A dead nation restored to life.
1. (1-3) The valley of bones.
The hand of the LORD came upon me and brought me out in the Spirit of the LORD, and set me down in the midst of the valley; and it was full of bones. Then He caused me to pass by them all around, and behold, there were very many in the open valley; and indeed they were very dry. And He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” So I answered, “O Lord GOD, You know.”
a. The hand of the LORD came upon me: Ezekiel’s remarkable prophetic experience is not specifically called a vision, but that seems to be the sense of the phrase, brought me out in the Spirit of the LORD. We regard what follows as something Ezekiel saw as a vision, not with his physical sense of sight.
i. “The mention of the hand of the Lord indicates prophetic ecstasy and inspiration. Ezekiel was brought out in the Spirit of the Lord, that is, in vision, and set down in the valley.” (Feinberg)
b. In the midst of the valley; and it was full of bones: Ezekiel saw a large expanse, a valley. This was truly Death Valley; the floor of the valley was so dense with human bones that it was described as full of bones. Ezekiel saw them all around, noticing there were very many in the open valley.
i. “The valley is the same word as the ‘plain’ in Ezekiel 3:22 (Heb. biqa), and probably the same location is intended.” (Taylor)
ii. The people represented by these bones were not only dead; they were also disgraced. In the thinking of ancient Israel (and the ancient Near East), an unburied corpse with exposed remains was a shocking disgrace to the dead. These bones were obviously denied proper burial.
iii. “The bones lay on the surface of the valley, like the remains of corpses denied a proper burial and left for scavenging buzzards. As an Israelite and especially as a priest, Ezekiel knew how important was the proper treatment of human corpses.” (Block)
iv. “The vision may have been prompted by the actual memory of seeing the Israelite dead strewn outside Jerusalem or scattered along the desert road that led Ezekiel and his companions into exile.” (Taylor)
c. Indeed they were very dry: Apart from their presence in a living body, bones are dead. Dry bones are not only dead; they have been long dead. Bones are what remain when life has passed. If something never had life, it would not leave bones. Yet when something has been dead so long, we give up hope it will ever live again.
d. Can these bones live? One might hope that a recently dead corpse might somehow resuscitate. No one hopes that scattered, detached bones might live. Admirably, Ezekiel responded to God’s question with the only hope that could be found, saying “O Lord GOD, You know.”
· Ezekiel had no hope in the bones, but he did have hope in God.
· Ezekiel did not presume to know what God wanted to do with the bones.
· Ezekiel was confident that God did know.
2. (4-6) Speaking life to dead bones.
Again He said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: “Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. I will put sinews on you and bring flesh upon you, cover you with skin and put breath in you; and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am the LORD.”’”
a. Prophesy to these bones: In the previous verse, Ezekiel deliberately left the matter with God, to His power and wisdom. In turn, God gave the prophet something to do. God commanded him to speak, to prophesy to the dry, dead bones. By all outward observation this was a vain and foolish act.
i. Many years later the Apostle Paul acknowledged that the message of the cross – God’s rescue for lost humanity in the person and work of Jesus, especially His sacrifice at the cross – was foolishness to those who are perishing (1 Corinthians 1:18).
ii. “If we want revivals, we must revive our reverence for the Word of God. If we want conversions, we must put more of God’s Word into our sermons; even if we paraphrase it into our own words, it must still be his Word upon which we place our reliance, for the only power which will bless men lies in that.” (Spurgeon)
b. O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD: Ezekiel could only preach this message full of faith in God. Yet if he was confident that he spoke the word of the LORD, he knew God’s word had supernatural power.
c. Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live: God promised to fill the dry bones with breath. He promised to bring flesh upon those bones and cover them with skin. God would make the once dead and dry bones live.
i. This was a work of revival; restoring life to something that at one time had life. This was not the creation of life from nothing; it was the restoration of life to something that had been long dead.
ii. This was God’s declaration. The bones could never create life within themselves. As the word of the LORD was proclaimed over them, they received God’s promise of life.
iii. The life would be marked by breath living once again in these bones. This has a double sense because the ancient Hebrew words for breath and spirit are the same. This was a granting of God’s Spirit (as previously promised in Ezekiel 36:27) and the restoration of life-giving breath.
iv. “At its root ruah denotes the sense of ‘air in motion’, i.e. wind or breath. This can extend from a gentle breeze to a stormy wind, or from a breath that is breathed to a raging passion. It comes to mean both man’s spirit, or disposition, and also emotional qualities like vigour, courage, impatience and ecstasy. It covers not only man’s vital breath, given to him at birth and leaving his body in his dying gasp, but also the Spirit of God who imparts that breath. Such is the rich variety of the word used here by Ezekiel.” (Taylor)
v. “The resurrection that follows does not refer directly to individual resurrection from death. It is symbolic of the recreation and revitalizing of the nation as a whole, as the interpretation shows.” (Wright)
3. (7-8) Dead bones assemble together.
So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and suddenly a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to bone. Indeed, as I looked, the sinews and the flesh came upon them, and the skin covered them over; but there was no breath in them.
a. So I prophesied as I was commanded: If Ezekiel had any doubts, he put them away and did what God commanded. To human perception this proclamation of the word of God was foolish, yet Ezekiel obeyed.
b. The bones came together, bone to bone: As Ezekiel prophesied, there was first a noise among the bones, a rattling. As he continued, the bones began to assemble themselves into skeletons.
i. The text does not specifically say, but it can be assumed that the bones assembled themselves properly, as skeletons and not as weird combinations of bones. When God restores, He puts things together in the right way.
ii. A rattling: “Since, apart from the Spirit, we are powerless, we must value greatly every movement of his power. Notice, in this account of the vision in the valley, how the prophet draws attention to the fact of the shaking and the noises, and the coming of the sinews and the flesh, even before there was any sign of life. I think that, if we want the Spirit of God to bless us, we must be on the watch to notice everything he does.” (Spurgeon)
c. The sinews and flesh came upon them: After the bones were assembled, muscles and tissue came upon the bones. The bones were full of activity, yet still did not yet have the breath of life in them. The reviving of the dry bones clearly happened in stages.
· Stirring of the bones.
· Assembly of the bones.
· Sinews and flesh upon the bones.
· Skin upon the tissues covering the bones.
· Awaiting the breath of God.
i. “The sequence involving bones, sinews, flesh, and skin reflects an understanding of anatomy available to anyone who had witnessed the slaughter of an animal; it also reverses the decomposition process.” (Block)
ii. “The body is the soul’s sheath, [Daniel 7:15] the soul’s suit. The upper garment is the skin, the inner the flesh; the inmost of all, bones and sinews.” (Trapp)
iii. “So here were men in skin, with flesh, sinews, bones; but, like Adam before inspired with the breath of life, the spirit of life was yet wanting.” (Poole)
iv. “There is no teaching in the Scriptures that the resurrection of anyone from physical death will take place in stages, such as is stated here for the dried bones of the people of Israel.” (Feinberg)
4. (9-10) The second prophecy to the bones brings life and strength.
Also He said to me, “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.”’” So I prophesied as He commanded me, and breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great army.
a. Prophesy to the breath: The previous verse left the valley full of revived, activated bodies that yet lacked breath. Now Ezekiel was told to call upon the breath (spirit, wind), praying the breath/spirit would come on these slain, that they may live.
b. Come from the four winds, O breath: In this vision, Ezekiel had already proclaimed God’s word to the dead and dry bones, and had seen a remarkable work done. Yet it was not enough; there also needed to be a work by the Holy Spirit. Ezekiel was commanded to pray – to boldly prophesy to the Spirit – calling on the Spirit to come upon those on whom the word of God had worked.
i. “The second action was tantamount to praying, as Ezekiel besought the Spirit of God to effect the miracle of re-creation, to breathe into man’s nostrils the breath of life (cf. Genesis 2:7). This time the effect was devastating. What preaching by itself failed to achieve, prayer made a reality.” (Taylor)
ii. “First, the prophet prophesies to the bones – here is preaching; and next, he prophesies to the four winds – here is praying. The preaching has its share in the work, but it is the praying which achieves the result, for after he had prophesied to the four winds, and not before, the bones began to live.” (Spurgeon)
iii. “When you have done your best, and have failed of the highest results, prophesy to the Spirit; cry to the four winds, because He may come in the icy north wind of tribulation, or the warm west wind of prosperity; but speak with the certain assurance of, ‘Thus saith the Lord God: Come!’” (Meyer)
c. So I prophesied as He commanded me: Perhaps this was, humanly speaking, an easier message for Ezekiel to preach. He had the encouragement of seeing the beginning of a supernatural work with the activation of the dry bones. Now he prophesied and prayed for the work to be completed.
d. Breath came into them: After Ezekiel’s faithful proclamation of God’s message, the work of reviving the dry bones was completed. The breath of God came into the reanimated bodies, and they stood upon their feet.
i. “There is no hope for humanity in man. But these dry bones can live. By the Word, and the Spirit of God, men can be reborn; and at last healed of their separations, and united under one King.” (Morgan)
ii. “Decayed Churches can most certainly be revived by the preaching of the Word, accompanied by the coming of the heavenly ‘breath’ from the four winds. O Lord, send us such revivals now, for many of thy Churches need them.” (Spurgeon)
e. An exceedingly great army: The bones were not revived to become a group of spectators or to live for their own comfort. They became an army, and an exceedingly great one. They lived to act under the orders of the one who gave them life.
i. Exceedingly great army: “So the Hebrew, or Army of strong, courageous, and well-ordered soldiers. The phrase in the Hebrew is very full; a power, or great host, very, very great. Thus they rise, that the prophet and we might know how safe they would be in themselves, and how terrible to their enemies.” (Poole)
ii. With all word and no spirit, we can be an army of the dead – assembled, solid, but without the true breath of life.
5. (11-14) God explains the vision to Ezekiel.
Then He said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They indeed say, ‘Our bones are dry, our hope is lost, and we ourselves are cut off!’ Therefore prophesy and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: “Behold, O My people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up from your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves, O My people, and brought you up from your graves. I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken it and performed it,” says the LORD.’”
a. These bones are the whole house of Israel: We might have supposed that Ezekiel understood that the bones in his vision represented his people. Yet, it might have surprised him when God revealed they represented the whole house of Israel, not only those from the kingdom of Judah. The restoration would include those from the northern kingdom of Israel that fell to the Assyrians some 150 years earlier.
b. Our bones are dry, our hope is lost, and we ourselves are cut off: The house of Israel had reason to say this, both those from the south and the north. Their only hope for life and restoration was in God.
i. Our hope is lost: “They were the words of despondency, born of the realisation of the desolation produced by the Divine Reprobation. It was an accurate description.” (Morgan)
c. I will open your graves and cause you to come up: The same message is communicated through a slightly different picture. Instead of the bones being exposed, here they are buried in graves. The effect is the same; life is brought to that which was dead.
i. “Cynics in Ezekiel’s audience might have assumed a sinister motive, perhaps to rob the tombs or to desecrate the remains, both common practices in the ancient Near East. But now Yahweh poses as a tomb robber like no other. The treasure he is after is the bodies of his people, whom he will raise from the grave.” (Block)
d. Bring you into the land of Israel: As promised many times in other places (such as Ezekiel 36:24 and 36:28), this revival of Israel also included their restoration to the land.
i. “The meaning of our text, as opened up by the context, is most evidently, if words mean anything, first, that there shall be a political restoration of the Jews to their own land and to their own nationality; and then, secondly, there is in the text, and in the context, a most plain declaration, that there shall be a spiritual restoration, a conversion in fact, of the tribes of Israel.” (Spurgeon in 1884)
e. Then you shall know that I am the LORD: God would powerfully reveal Himself to Israel through this great work of revival and restoration to the land.
f. I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live: The breath in the revived bones was more than the breath of human life; it was the Spirit of the living God. This is another way of expressing the great promise found in the previous chapter (Ezekiel 36:27).
i. Undeniably, Ezekiel 37:1-14 is about God’s promised restoration of Israel. It is a restoration so wide and so deep that any fair examination of Israel’s history must confess that it has not yet happened. This means that it is yet to be fulfilled, and will be fulfilled as part of God’s plan for Israel in the very last days.
ii. At the same time, this chapter teaches many principles of how God works in revival, and how God’s servants should think and act relevant to such a mighty reviving work. If we put the modern servant of God in Ezekiel’s place, we can make the following observations.
· God’s servant must know that the bones are dead and dry.
· God’s servant must walk among the dead.
· God’s servant must proclaim God’s word.
· God’s servant must have almost a foolish confidence in God’s Word.
· God’s servant must understand that the Spirit works in a process.
· God’s servant must recognize that the work of the Holy Spirit is essential.
· God’s servant must boldly pray for the Spirit to move.
· God’s servant must speak in the power of faith.
· God’s servant must notice every evidence of the Spirit’s work.
· God’s servant must look for God’s people to be revived into an army of service.
· God’s servant must not say that hope is lost.
B. One kingdom under one king.
1. (15-17) Two sticks become one stick.
Again the word of the LORD came to me, saying, “As for you, son of man, take a stick for yourself and write on it: ‘For Judah and for the children of Israel, his companions.’ Then take another stick and write on it, ‘For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim, and for all the house of Israel, his companions.’ Then join them one to another for yourself into one stick, and they will become one in your hand.
a. Take a stick for yourself and write on it: At God’s instruction, Ezekiel took two sticks. On one was writing identifying it with Judah and on the other was writing identifying it with Ephraim (that is, Israel). The sticks represented the kingdom of the northern ten tribes (Israel) and the kingdom of the southern two tribes (Judah).
i. In Ezekiel’s day the northern kingdom had been conquered and destroyed for some 150 years. Yet God still considered them a people, even though they were scattered among the nations.
ii. “Incidentally, these same scriptures show the folly of the Anglo-Israel delusion with its position of ten lost tribes.… The prophets all recognized the northern tribes as still in existence and knew of no such error as ‘lost’ tribes (cf. Isaiah 43:5-7, ‘every one’; Isaiah 49:5-6; Jeremiah 3:12-15).” (Feinberg)
b. Joseph, the stick of Ephraim: The tribe of Ephraim was the largest and most influential tribe of the northern kingdom. Several times in the Old Testament the northern kingdom was called Ephraim.
i. “Joseph was the father of Ephraim and Manasseh, the two dominant tribes in the northern kingdom. Of these two, Ephraim, the younger son, dominated northern politics from the beginning.” (Block)
ii. “Jeroboam, the first king of the ten tribes, was an Ephraimite. Joseph represents the ten tribes in general; they were in the hand of Ephraim, that is, under the government of Jeroboam.” (Clarke)
c. Join them one to another: Either in appearance or in reality, Ezekiel was to join the two sticks together so they would become one in your hand.
i. “His clenched fist will thus grasp the place where the two sticks meet, and it will appear as if he is holding one long stick in the middle.” (Taylor)
ii. “Certainly no basis exists in this text for the strange Mormon teaching that the sticks refer to two scrolls. According to the convoluted interpretation of this cult, Ezekiel was prophesying that one day the Book of Mormon (the stick or scroll of Ephraim) would be joined to the Bible (the stick or scroll of Judah) to form the complete revelation of God.” (Smith)
2. (18-20) The meaning of the joined sticks.
“And when the children of your people speak to you, saying, ‘Will you not show us what you mean by these?’— say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: “Surely I will take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim, and the tribes of Israel, his companions; and I will join them with it, with the stick of Judah, and make them one stick, and they will be one in My hand.”’ And the sticks on which you write will be in your hand before their eyes.
a. Will you not show us what you mean by these? Ezekiel’s audience among the exiles were somewhat mystified by this acted-out prophecy. Perhaps they wondered what God would have to do with the northern kingdom (Joseph and Ephraim) some 150 years after their seeming extinction.
b. Make them one stick, and they will be one in My hand: Generally, the meaning was plain. When God ultimately restored the tribes of Israel, He would restore them all. That which was previously divided in the days of Rehoboam (1 Kings 12-14) would be restored as one.
i. “Taking away the deadly feud that hath so long time been between them, breaking down the partition wall, &c. I will once more bring them all under one king, and make them of one mind.” (Trapp)
ii. “Especially significant for the Israelites was Yahweh’s unequivocal declaration that all the descendants of Jacob were heirs of the covenant. Against the grain of centuries of history and deep-seated prejudices, Yahweh extends his grace to the whole house of Israel—not only Judah but Joseph and his confederates as well.” (Block)
3. (21-23) The promise to gather, unify, and restore Israel.
“Then say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: “Surely I will take the children of Israel from among the nations, wherever they have gone, and will gather them from every side and bring them into their own land; and I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king over them all; they shall no longer be two nations, nor shall they ever be divided into two kingdoms again. They shall not defile themselves anymore with their idols, nor with their detestable things, nor with any of their transgressions; but I will deliver them from all their dwelling places in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them. Then they shall be My people, and I will be their God.
a. Gather them from every side and bring them into their own land: The restoration after the Babylonian exile was only a shadow of this promise. This was a promise to bring the Jewish people from among the nations, from a scattering much broader than the Babylonian captivity.
b. I will make them one nation in the land: This looked forward to a restoration much greater than what happened in the days of Ezra, Zerubbabel, and Nehemiah. God would bring the Jewish people as a whole back into the land.
c. In the land, on the mountains of Israel: This phrasing emphasizes that God made this promise regarding the literal land of Israel.
d. They shall no longer be two nations: Gathered together under one king, they would be established in the literal land of Israel under a literal king.
i. Vawter and Hoppe acknowledge that this has not yet been fulfilled in history: “Despite the prophet’s words and various attempts, the divisions between north and south remained. In the NT period, these divisions were clear enough in the animosity between Jew and Samaritan.”
ii. “Whether it’s the Children of Israel or the saints in the church today, the Lord wants His people to be united. ‘Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity’ (Psalm 133:1). Paul appealed to the believers in Corinth to cultivate unity in the church (1 Corinthians 1:10), and he exhorted the Ephesian believers to ‘make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’ (Ephesians 4:3, NIV).” (Wiersbe)
e. They shall not defile themselves with their idols: These promises are typical of passages that speak of the new covenant. The promises of purity (shall not defile), of cleansing (will cleanse them), and relationship (they shall be My people, and I will be their God) are often characteristic of the new covenant.
i. Among other things, this shows that the unity promised here is a unity of purity and devotion to one king. It is not the unity of compromise and lack of standards.
ii. “Provoked by their defiling and abominable acts, Yahweh had abandoned his people. Now that he has purified them, he may return and normalize the covenant relationship with them.” (Block)
4. (24-28) David, king over the restored Israel.
“David My servant shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd; they shall also walk in My judgments and observe My statutes, and do them. Then they shall dwell in the land that I have given to Jacob My servant, where your fathers dwelt; and they shall dwell there, they, their children, and their children’s children, forever; and My servant David shall be their prince forever. Moreover I will make a covenant of peace with them, and it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; I will establish them and multiply them, and I will set My sanctuary in their midst forevermore. My tabernacle also shall be with them; indeed I will be their God, and they shall be My people. The nations also will know that I, the LORD, sanctify Israel, when My sanctuary is in their midst forevermore.”’”
a. David My servant shall be king over them: In Ezekiel 37:22 God said that there would be one king over the restored and unified Israel. Here we learn that the one king is David (as previously stated in Ezekiel 34:23-25).
b. They shall dwell in the land that I have given to Jacob My servant: The clear, repetitive nature of these promises of a specific, literal land cause wonder at the attempts to spiritualize such promises and deny that God has no future plan for ethnic Israel in their ancestral land.
i. “Jacob means here the twelve tribes; and the land given to them was the whole land of Palestine; consequently, the promise states that, when they return, they are to possess the whole of the Promised Land.” (Clarke)
c. My servant David shall be their prince forever: This plain promise is most appropriately seen not as a strange and imprecise reference to Jesus the Messiah, but as part of the several promises that King David will once again rule over Israel in the Millennial Kingdom (Isaiah 55:3-4, Jeremiah 30:8-9, Hosea 3:5).
i. Most commentators believe that this reference to David is really a reference to the Messiah, the Son of David, fulfilled in Jesus Christ. They would say the same of the many other passages (noted above) which speak of David’s future rule over Israel. Yet we can simply observe that if God did not intend David, He would not have said it. There is nothing in these texts themselves that demand that it is the Messiah and not David.
d. I will make a covenant of peace with them, and it shall be an everlasting covenant with them: God here seems to describe the new covenant as both a covenant of peace (as in Ezekiel 34:25 and Isaiah 54:10) and an everlasting covenant (as in Ezekiel 16:60, Isaiah 55:3, and Hebrews 13:20). It is the covenant that brings true shalom, and the covenant that never ends.
i. “This shalom represents much more than merely the absence of war. It denotes a state of harmony and equilibrium among all participants in the divine-human-territorial relationships.” (Block)
e. I will establish them and multiply them: These promises are characteristic of the new covenant (as in Ezekiel 36:10-11). God’s ultimate restoration of Israel would be on a large scale, not a small scale.
i. The nations also will know: “Then all nations would see that it was the Lord who made Israel holy. She would be set apart from all nations as God’s special possession. No other nation would have the Lord dwelling in its sanctuary uniquely in its midst as would Israel.” (Alexander)
f. I will set My sanctuary in their midst forevermore: The promise of this sanctuary will be described in great detail in Ezekiel 40-48. To Ezekiel and the Babylonian exiles, no restoration could be complete without some kind of temple.
i. “The restoration of the temple is thus far more than simply a matter of repairing war-damage. It is God’s way of demonstrating that he is not dead and that Israel are still his people.” (Taylor)
ii. “The restoration of the sanctuary is the climax of all that this prophet had to say.” (Smith)