The Valley of New Life

Reading: Ezekiel 37.1-14

The English language isn’t what it used to be. When we describe ourselves, we tend to exaggerate. We aren’t literally “starving”, just hungry and ready for a meal. Nor are we really “had it”, just tired and a bit low on energy.

But for Todd Russell and Brant Webb, trapped a mile below in the Beaconsfield gold mine in Tasmania, it was a near thing, even after it was found they had survived the rock fall. And for Lincoln Hall, the Australian climber who was left for dead on his descent from Mount Everest – he was reportedly found partly undressed, with his legs dangling over a precipice, hallucinating and very unco-operative. Hypothermia was setting in. That was too close for comfort! We watch the photos of him with fingers and toes blackened with severe frostbite.

Dry Bones

The Lord’s people were in disarray. The northern kingdom (Israel), centred on Samaria, had fallen to the Assyrians around 722BC. The southern kingdom (Judah) seem very sure of their continued peace and safety because they have the temple. The Lord’s stern warning comes through Jeremiah, “Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!’ If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless” (Jer. 7.3-8).

But now disaster had stuck. In 597BC Jerusalem was taken by Nebuchadnezzar. Many Jews, including king Jehoiachin and the prophet Ezekiel, were taken into exile in Babylon. A puppet king, Zedekiah, was appointed, but after a time he rebelled against the Babylonians. Jerusalem fell in 587BC and more Jews were taken into exile. Jeremiah was with the remnant who remained in the land.

Both prophets quote the same proverb, “The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Jer. 31.29; Ezek. 18.2). It’s not our fault – we have inherited this mess from an earlier generation!

But the time goes on and on. Depression and hopelessness set in. The temple hasn’t protected them and the great deliverance – the expected rescue from their plight – just hasn’t happened. Now they are saying, “Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off” (Ezek. 37.11). As they are taken into exile in Babylon, they see the bones and bodies of the fallen. That might just as well be us. We’re done for! We’re finished!

 God’s Promise

Ezekiel has a vision. He is taken by the Spirit of the Lord to a valley full of dry bones, very dry bones – they have been there a long time (vv. 1-2).

The Lord asks, “Son of man, can these bones live?” There’s an obvious answer to that, isn’t there? No! No way! But Ezekiel is cautious in his answer. The Lord is asking the question. It is foolish to limit what the Lord himself might choose to do. “O Sovereign Lord, you alone know” (v. 3).

Only the Lord can answer the question. Only the Lord can bring the dead to life. And the Lord will do it – by his word spoken through the prophet!

“Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord’” (vv. 4-6).

The first prophetic word is addressed to the dry bones. The prophet watches in amazement as bones come together, tendons and flesh appear on them and they are covered with skin. Now they are dead bodies – “there was no breath in them” (vv.7-8).

“Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live’” (v. 9).

The second prophetic word is addressed to the “breath” – or “wind” as the Good News Bible puts it. The Hebrew word ruach has a rich range of meaning. It may be “wind” or “breath” or “spirit”. There can be a play on words that is lost in an English translation.

In the creation, we read that “the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Gen. 2.7). Now the “breath” enters these corpses and they stand up on their feet – “a vast army” (v. 10).

The prophecy is about “the whole house of Israel” – one day the two kingdoms will be reunited. The Lord will restore them to the land. “I will put my Spirit (ruach) in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord” (v. 14).


The disciples of Jesus had been discouraged, depressed. Their Lord and Master had been crucified, dead and buried. Of course, they still had his teaching, but even that was beyond them – unlivable without Jesus. And they were supposed to be doing something – “catching men and women”. Some vital keys were missing.

But then they saw him. Jesus was truly alive from the dead. That put a different meaning on his death. His prayer in Gethsemane for the Father’s will to be done wasn’t resignation to a human fate, but commitment to a redemptive work that would see him vilified, abused and done to death. It was done “by” sinners – that was clear enough. Yet in the loving purpose of God, it was accepted “for” sinners – for the forgiveness of sins and the restoration of sinners.

That was the key in their understanding. Now there was a message about “repentance and forgiveness of sins” to be got out to all peoples – “but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Lk. 24.45-49). Yes, they now had flesh, tendons and skin. But they lacked the vital Spirit of God that would empower them to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1.8).

On the day of Pentecost, they were “filled with the Holy Spirit” and began to speak “the wonders of God” in the native tongues of those who were gathered in Jerusalem (2.4,11).

And Today…

Today’s church is in crisis. We need a revival! By that I don’t mean that we need some remembered enthusiasm from the past. And it’s not a matter of “pepping up” our singing or preaching. Something is seriously missing, rather like God’s people in Ezekiel’s time – “Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off”.

We have a crisis of faith. For more than a hundred years now the church’s confidence in the Scriptures has been battered and eroded from within by false and negative criticism. There are those who have set aside key Christian doctrines such as the virgin birth and resurrection of Christ, and his atonement for human sin on the cross. In fact, “sin” and “hell” aren’t “politically correct” terms any more. There is an air of uncertainty about the uniqueness of Jesus as the only one through whom salvation is possible.

Weakened by this attack from within, we have been more vulnerable to the jibes from without. The media are no longer broadly supportive. The da Vinci Code plants the idea that maybe the New Testament as we have it – and the Christian Church – has been suppressing the truth about Jesus all along. The book has absolutely no credible basis in fact, but it projects an element of uncertainty for those already weakened in their understanding of the Scriptures.

Along with the crisis of faith and, in part, flowing from it, we have a crisis of action. Instead of being a body so strong and vigorous in mission that “even the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Mt. 16.18), we have tended to become a group who remember the name of Jesus and value his teachings and try to do our bit for justice for those who have been marginalised in society. But to call people to repent of their sins and to offer them forgiveness of sins… Isn’t that presumptuous? or worse, judgmental? Aren’t people entitled to adopt their own belief-system, to choose their own lifestyle, to do their own thing? What right have we or anyone else to even suggest that other lifestyles than our own might be wrong?

Statistically, the percentage of the Australian population which claims to be Christian has been declining. Church attendances have been down. Yet this is still a great many people – many more than the hundred-and-twenty who met constantly for prayer in the upper room in Jerusalem. It could be, but isn’t, “a vast army”.

Can these bones live? Don’t put limits on what the Lord can do, on what the Lord intends to do. But be open to him with an urgency of prayer such as the hundred-and-twenty had in that upper room. Come back to him with faith renewed – trusting in him, trusting his word, seeking to be available for his work.

“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them… Those who accepted [Peter’s] message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (Acts 2.1-4,41).

Here we are, Lord! Do it again!

© Peter J. Blackburn, Halifax and Ingham Uniting Churches, 4 June 2006
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, © International Bible Society, 1984.

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