The prophet Ezekiel is in exile with the people of Israel. As we can imagine, they are a broken nation. Their Temple and capital city have been destroyed. Thousands of their people have been slaughtered, including many of their children killed before their eyes. The priesthood and the nobility have been decimated. Anybody left who had any wealth, education, or power has been force-marched over the desert about a thousand miles to Babylon, where they live in a ghetto and serve their masters.
It sure looked like the end of their religion and nation. It sure looked like their God was a false one, or was dead. It sure looked like the smart-money would be casting their lot with the victorious Babylonians, abandoning the old religion about the Lord who brought them up out of the land of Egypt. The pressure to do so was immense and sometimes subtle. If you wanted to get ahead in life, the only way was to cooperate with, or actually capitulate to, the empire. We see some of that happening in the Book of Daniel, like when the smartest Jewish boys were taken away and sent to the emperor’s special school for their education/indoctrination.
Every empire has done this kind of thing. We treated the Native Americans the same way. We marched them away from their homelands to reservations in the deserts of the west. Even into the last century we took their children away from their families and forced them into special schools where their language and culture could be literally beaten out of them.
It’s called genocide. It doesn’t always involve death-camps and mass murder, like with the Nazis or in Rwanda. It can involve forced deportation. Or it can involve more subtle pressures, like only allowing you to have an education or a job or a say in the decisions affecting your own life if you renounce your faith and your people.
Most of us have never known anything remotely close to the despair and brokenness that you feel when your people is subject to this kind of assault from far more powerful forces. Soldiers are not likely to show up here, kill many of us, and force some of the rest to walk to Mexico. That’s not going to happen.
So it can be hard for us to relate to staring your cultural death in the face, which is what the Jews in Babylon had to deal with. Extinction. Annihilation. Wall-to-wall death of everything you have ever known, loved, or believed in. Absolute vulnerability.
Ezekiel understands why all this happened. The people of God had failed to keep God’s laws which were designed to prevent them falling into injustice and violence. When they chose to give power to kings, priests, and successful merchants, who proceeded to hammer the poor and the needy, they were choosing to suffer the inevitable consequences. The more they wandered off to worship the god of economic growth, whose name was Baal, the more they brought down on themselves the destructive result of such a regime. God hates that stuff.
So after the dust has settled and the people are installed in their new ghetto in Babylon, Ezekiel has a vision. And the vision he sees is of a broad valley, the kind of valley where significant battles were fought between large armies. Whatever battle has happened there is now over. In fact it had to have been a few years before, because the valley was paved with the dried up bones of the dead. Birds and other scavengers have removed even the flesh from the bones. It is a wasteland of death.
And the Lord asks Ezekiel this rhetorical question. “Can these bones live?” The obvious answer is, “Of course not. These bones aren’t even connected to each other anymore. Nothing this dead can ever come back to life.” But Ezekiel knows whom he is speaking to. He knows that the Lord is the Lord of life. So he responds, “That’s up to you, O Lord.”
And God commands him to prophesy, which is to speak, to the bones. “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: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on 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.”
And when Ezekiel speaks, there is a clattering across the whole valley as the bones reconnect. So the first thing that happens, when death is transformed into life, is a reconnection. An arbitrary, random mess of disconnected bones has first to reattach with each other in order. Each bone does not spring back to life by itself. The bones are reanimated together, as bodies and as a community.
God does not give Ezekiel this vision merely for his own entertainment. This is not a divine magic show the sole point of which is for God to show off. No. Ezekiel’s vision is a message for his shattered community, the Jews in exile. The valley of dry bones represents them, the defeated, practically annihilated nation. God cares about the living. And when God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones, God means go back and prophesy to the broken Jewish people.
And the first result of such a prophecy has to be reconnection. The people have to get organized. They have to resume relating to each other and meeting together. The scattered bones have to find partners and start working together again. If they remained a collection of isolated individuals, they would be easy for their Babylonian masters to defeat, one at a time. But if they reconnected and got together and organized – formed a living organism – then they would start feeling God’s life at work in them again.
So Ezekiel sees that “the bones came together, bone to its bone.” And once the bones come together, then flesh starts to materialize on them. Coming together starts generating a community, with hopes and dreams and conversations and arguments and conflicts and growth and purpose. When the bones connect the superstructure of a community grows on them, and they become integrated, whole bodies. They start to have an identity. They start doing things together. They become a congregation.
But they’re still dead. In the vision, the valley is now filled with what looks not just like bones, but like dead bodies. Something else is needed for these bones to truly come alive. They need to breathe.
So God says to the prophet: “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” Ezekiel does this. He preaches to the breath. And remember that “breath,” “wind,” and “spirit” are all the same word in Hebrew, “ruach.” A body that isn’t breathing is still dead. The community of Jewish exiles are also not yet alive until they are animated by the Holy Spirit.
And when he prophesies to the bodies, I imagine a sudden collective intake of breath. And hearts start beating, and blood starts flowing, and muscles get energy, and brains awaken, and this whole mass of bodies starts moving and stands up together. “And they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”
They rose up. Reconnecting is important. But it’s not enough. Organizing and engaging in conversation is important. But it’s not enough. Growing and becoming embodied is important. But it is not enough. When we receive the Spirit it means we are empowered to rise up. Rising up means no longer accepting being kept down, held down, oppressed, repressed, suppressed by your conquerors. That is what the Spirit gives us.
The Jewish exiles did not, so far as we know, rise up in violent revolution. That would have been hopeless and counterproductive. But they did rise up in their own integrity and start to make something of this situation together. They got busy. Much of the Old Testament was compiled, written down, edited, and published in Babylon. Much of what over 500 years later Jesus would know as Judaism was developed and institutionalized in Babylon by the exiles. The whole thing about this being a Scripture- and synagogue-based faith, was developed in Babylon.
Because of the encouragement and inspiration the people received from the prophets in Babylon, the people were able to focus on God’s promise again. They remember that this is the God who brought them up out of the land of Egypt, and slavery. If God could do that, then delivering them from Babylon should not be too much trouble. In fact, it would be perfectly within the pattern of what they can expect from this God.
When the people wallow in self-pity and moan in despair, saying: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely,” God has Ezekiel proclaim to them: “Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”
Life is God’s job. Life is the meaning of the universe God created. No matter how bad it gets, no matter how thoroughly we choose to wed ourselves to the gods of death and fear and anger and injustice, no matter how we let inequality reign in our common life, and no matter how catastrophic the consequences in terms of the natural or political or economic or military disasters we bring down upon ourselves, we do not have the power to stop God from bring God. We do not have the power to cause death to triumph over life. We do not have the power to keep God’s will from being done.
Life always finds a way. Life always wins in the end. Life continually triumphs, even if it suffers serious setbacks. It is the trust that life wins that motivates the Jews in Babylon to connect and organize and start rebuilding their nation and faith, even though they had no land and no Temple and no power and no resources except their own memories.
The Spirit that animates them is the Holy Spirit, and the message of the Holy Spirit is always resurrection. The Spirit is about bringing life out of death. The Spirit shows us that this is the meaning of creation itself. Ezekiel’s vision reveals that, no matter how powerfully death seems to triumph, still it is God’s will that matters, and God’s will is for life.
On one level, his vision prophesies deliverance and liberation for the exiled Jews, that God will bring them back home. On another level, his vision looks ahead to the final resurrection at the end, when the whole heaven and all the earth are renewed. The apostle Paul sees this as well, when he says, “The trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised imperishable. And we shall all be changed.”
Having in our hearts this knowledge, that it is God’s will that life triumph and God’s will is never thwarted, gives us freedom to obey God here and now. Having the knowledge of the resurrection in our hearts is something that can only come from the Spirit that God has breathed into us. This is what gave the apostles the power to move out of being a defeated, fearful group of men who had abandoned or denied their Lord, and begin to preach and gather new disciples in Jesus’ name. They too were dry bones that came to life.
And so are we. In Wendell Berry’s great poem of resurrection, he says: “Be joyful / though you have considered all the facts.” The “facts” don’t matter; it is the good news of resurrection that matters. And that is the source of our joy, even in a time and situation where there might not be much evidence of anything joyful.
Be joyful! And live as if God has already won. Live as if life has already triumphed over death. Live as if the light has shined in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. Live as if joy has swallowed up all sorrow. Because that is what is true. By informing us of the truth, God’s Spirit equips us for a new life in Jesus’ commandments. By informing us of the truth, God’s Spirit empowers us for life, a life which is summed up by the imperative in the last two words of Berry’s poem: “Practice resurrection!”