In Chapter 37, God gives Ezekiel a vision that demonstrates the truth of the prophesy in Chapter 36. Verses 1-11 are the vision. Verses 11-14 are the explanation.
Scripture quotes are in the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.
The Dry Bones
The Lord took Ezekiel to a valley in a vision. He was brought there “in the Spirit of the Lord”. The valley is not named, but must have been known, for it is referred to as “the valley” rather than “a valley”. It is a stark contract to the end of chapter 36, where God said people would think of the new land as the Garden of Eden.
Ezekiel saw a valley full of bones. There were a great many bones. The bones were very dry. They were lifeless. The Lord made Ezekiel walk among them. He wanted to make sure Ezekiel knew there was no hint of life. The bones were dead and decaying. Ezekiel had earlier asked if God would completely destroy the remnant of Israel. (11:13) He must have thought the answer was yes. Here he was in the valley and everyone was dead. In verse 9, God referred to them as “the slain”. They would look like the bones of people killed in a great battle, their bodies left to decay in the open field rather than buried.
Exposure of dead bodies was part of the ultimate curse or punishment for violating the covenant. In Deuteronomy 28:25-26, God spoke of Israel’s defeat, where their body would become food for the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth. Jeremiah wrote of the same thing in Jeremiah 34:17-20. Ezekiel would likely think of these bones as those of people who were killed in Babylonia’s invasion of Jerusalem.
After taking Ezekiel on a tour of the lifeless bones, the Lord asked him “...can these bones live?”. Ezekiel answered “O Lord God, you know”. “Lord God” here translates “Adonay Yahweh”. The New International Version (NIV) says “Sovereign Lord”. Ezekiel knows the Lord can, but not if he will, so he leaves it up to the Lord.
The Lord told Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones. He was to deliver the words of Yahweh (the LORD). Those words said the Lord would:
cause breath to come upon them;
cover them with skin;
cause them to (they shall) live
To make sure the understood it, he said it in verse 5 and repeated it in verse 6. He added, in verse 4, that he would put breath in them to make them live. And he added that, when the Lord gave them life, the “shall know that I am the LORD (Yahweh)”. (6)
In my terms, I would say he will bring them back to life and make them know him.
Ezekiel had obeyed and prophesied. As he did, the bones began to rattle, then attach themselves together. Full skeletons were formed. Then, the skeletons were covered with skin. (8) But they had no life, no breath, no spirit. They could not create life in themselves.
Genesis 2:7 told us that God made man from the dust of the ground. He made his body, but it had no life. However, when the Lord breathed into him the breath of life, he became a living being. So, God told Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath and tell it to come into the bodies.
Ezekiel obeyed and breath came into them. They lived and stood on their feet. (10) There were a great number of them. Ezekiel called them an army.
So, this is how they lived. The Lord made them listen to his word (Ezekiel’s prophesy) and cause the spirit or breath to enter them, making them know the Lord. It is a picture of regeneration. We hear the word, the Spirit spirit gives us life and we follow Christ as Lord. Jesus told Nicodemus he must be born of the Spirit to enter the kingdom of God. (John 3:5)
Remember that twice before, Ezekiel has encountered God and fallen on the ground. Both times the Spirit entered him and raised him to his feet. (1:28-2:2; 3:23-24) And that is what happens here. The Spirit enters the bodies and they stood on their feet.
In Ezekiel 36:27-28, God said he would give the Israelites a new heart and a new Spirit that would allow them to obey his laws. That obedience would allow them to live in God’s land once again.
In this passage, God demonstrated this truth in a vision. He said he would re-create Israel through the prophetic word and the work of the Spirit. There is life in the Spirit through the power of God.
After the vision, the Lord explained the meaning to Ezekiel. The bones were the whole house of Israel. (11) I take that to mean all 12 tribes, both northern and southern kingdoms. (The Northern Kingdom had been conquered and exiled by the Assyrians 130 years before.)
The meaning of the dry bones is the feeling the Jews had in exile that all hope was lost. In fact, God quotes them as saying “Our bones are dried up and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.” (11) My grandmother used to say “I feel it in my bones”. For the Jews, it was an expression of great despair and sorrow. The Psalms speak of bones out of joint and wasting away. The also speak of being “dried up”. It is a sense of hopelessness. iThey were cut off from the land of Israel and, thus, also from the Lord. (11) Read Psalm 88:6-10 for a sense of being cut off from God by God.
In verse 12, God directs Ezekiel to prophesy to the exiles. They say all hope is lost, but God would give them new life, putting his Spirit within them to give them life. (14) Notice that God switched the imagery here from bodies exposed in an open field to bodies properly buried in graves. (12) God will treat them, not as those under the curse, but those for whom he has concern and care. To continue the symbolism, he said he would “raise you from your graves”. (12) The context here is not about resurrection of the body after death. Rather, this is symbolic language. He will bring them out of their state of being cut off from the land and from God. It is sort of like when God promised he would bring Israel up out of their affliction in Egypt. (Exodus 3:17) It is “exodus” kind of language, as seen by the next promise. God would return them to their own land. When this happened, the would know that he is the LORD. (14)
The Lord gave a sense of finality to the matter. He invoked himself for veracity. He said “I have spoken and I will do it”. God always keeps his word. If he said it, we can count on it.
It is tempting to focus on God’s promise to restore Israel to the land and limit this prophesy to the time Israel returned from exile. But the context makes us look more to the future. Beginning with the last chapter, this series of prophesies include a new heart and spirit, God putting his Spirit in them, and a new king or shepherd from the line of David. These are prophesies tied to the coming of Christ, who inaugurated the kingdom and sent the Holy Spirit who dwells within believers. Zechariah 3 also ties the forgiveness and prosperity of Israel to the coming of Christ, called “my servant the Branch”. (Zechariah 3:8) James, the head of the early church, in Acts 15, said that God’s promise of the restoration of Israel contained in Amos 9:11-15 was fulfilled in the coming of the Gentiles into the church.
Before we came to Christ, we were like the dry bones. We were spiritually dead. Ephesians 2:1 makes this plain. It says “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins”. That is state of every person who has not received Christ as Savior. They truly are the Walking Dead. But, when we receive Christ, the Spirit makes us alive. Colossians 2:13 says “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him (Christ), having forgiven us all our trespasses.” What God promised, what Ezekiel saw in a vision, has now become a reality.
The dry bones, transformed into living beings, became a great army. And the church is an army, dressed up in the armor of God, standing against the devil, marching forward to spread Christ’s kingdom over the earth.