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Ezekiel and the Valley of Dry Bones - a study of Ezekiel 37

If God can raise an army from a valley of dry bones, He can empower us for great things.


Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Ezekiel 37:1-14

In a very dramatic vision of a valley of dry bones, God tells Ezekiel that not even death can prevent Him from restoring and reviving His people. This message of hope -- that however powerless or irrelevant we think we are, God can turn us into a mighty army -- was encouraging to the Jews, and it should be equally encouraging to us today.

He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” (37:3)


Getting Started: Things to Think About

This Has Nothing to Do with Zombies

Every time I have studied this passage in a small group, someone has inevitably made a joke about zombies. Later in this post, I’ll clarify exactly why this passage is polar opposite to fictional zombies, but in the meantime, I’m going to get ahead of it.

Here’s how you might use this topic: “The passage about the valley of dry bones makes some people think about zombies. Why would anyone think about zombies in the first place? What makes zombies such a common part of storytelling and imagination today?”


Zombies have been in movies since 1932 (seriously!), but usually as a feature of some tasteless slasher/horror/gore film. The AMC show The Walking Dead (filmed just south of Atlanta, as I’m sure you know) kicked the genre into a new stratosphere of awareness. The Walking Dead first aired in 2010; seasons 4-6 averaged more than 13 million viewers per episode (for context, these days a World Series game would love to have 13 million viewers).


According to Wikipedia: There were 8 zombies films released in pandemic-abbreviated 2020, 16 in 2019, 9 in 2018, 15 in 2017, 19 in 2016, 24 in 2015, and so on. And those are just the ones someone bothered to enter onto Wikipedia. I can’t recommend watching any zombie movies – it seems that most of them are mainly interested in showing brutal ways for people and zombies to kill each other. (But some of them at least have a goofy premise, like Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies, or Warm Bodies, which answered the question no one asked, “What if Romeo and Juliet, except zombies?”)


Anyway, I actually have somewhere I’m going with this. In 2014, when The Walking Dead fervor was peaking, Lifeway Research actually published an article on the topic:

The long and short is this: the author proposes that Americans are becoming more and more distrustful of their neighbors and of society, and so an entertainment genre that’s about your neighbors literally turning into monsters and society completely collapsing strikes a chord. If that’s true, that would suggest that “hope” is no longer a common thing. Not good.


If anyone in your group has watched a zombie flick, ask them why they think such movies/tv shows are popular. If they enjoyed it, why? If they didn’t, why not?


I tend to agree with the Lifeway article. After all, just read the tagline from that tv poster. People are pessimistic about the future of humanity, so why not be entertained by its downfall? As far as I can tell, zombie movies (like any end-of-the-world movie) are depressing and defeatist, but at least the heroes go down fighting (and maybe even put off extinction for another day). Some people like that.


Spoiler: There’s No Possibility for a Zombie Apocalypse. I feel silly saying this, but “zombies” aren’t going to happen. There’s nothing out there that can reanimate corpses. Plus, movement (being ambulatory) requires an amazing combination of brain and internal organ function, not to mention a proper kind of nutrition. If anyone in your group has fallen for the “movie science of zombies”, tell them to do some research.


PSA: Get Your Rabies Shot. In looking up this topic, I was reminded how awful the rabies disease is. Rabies causes symptoms in people very much like what is associated with a zombie and may have even inspired some of these movies. Rabies is nearly 100% fatal in humans (once you start showing symptoms) and still causes 59,000 deaths per year around the world. If you are bitten by a dog or a bat, see a doctor and make sure you are up on your vaccine.

 

Our Wider Context in Ezekiel

As I mentioned last week, we only have one lesson in this entire, incredible final section of Ezekiel. The final part of last week’s lesson was all about hope, and I gave an abbreviated outline of the end of the book. Here’s more:


Part 3: God *Will* Restore His People (ch 33-48)

  • God renews Ezekiel’s call to be a watchman (33:1-20)

  • Jerusalem has fallen; now we look to the future (33:21-33)

  • God will restore righteous leadership to Israel (34:1-31)

  • Esau (Edom) will be destroyed, but Jacob (Israel) will be restored (35:1-36:15)

  • God will cleanse His people and restore His name (36:16-38)

  • God will bring new life to His people (37:1-14)

  • God will unify Israel under one king (37:15-28)

  • God will have victory over His enemies (38:1-39:29)

  • God will dwell in a restored temple (40:1-43:27)

  • God will restore the line between holy and unholy (44:1-31)

  • God will restore law and justice in Israel (45:1-46:24)

  • God will restore the land with living water (47:1-12)

  • God will restore the ancient boundaries (47:13-48:29)

  • God will restore His name (48:30-35)

So, when you look at an outline like that, it’s pretty inspiring. There are an awful lot of allusions to Jesus in chapters 34 and 37. This section is hope to the extreme.


But there are also enough obscurities in it to frighten the casual reader away. What are Gog and Magog in chapters 38-39? Is this final vision of a temple and land literal or figurative? I don’t think God has given us those answers (although I have more to say about this at the very end of the post).


Setting the unanswerable questions aside, Lifeway has chosen to focus on the valley of dry bones in chapter 37. I would think that to be a popular choice because it’s so captivating. Let’s explore:


This Week’s Big Idea: The Valley of Dry Bones in Popular Culture

Before you start reading the passage, ask if anyone in your group can think of a song that has to do with the valley of dry bones.


The one that I know best is the first one I ever learned – “Dry Bones” (“the foot bone’s connected to the ankle bone…”). I sang that with the Singing Cadets at A&M. Couldn’t find a recording of us doing it, but they also did in in 1985, same version (singing doesn’t start until 1:40).

But it wasn’t just us! Here’s the Cathedrals doing their version of the song:

Of course, it’s a kids song, and I suppose that’s fine. But then I saw that one church put together this video for the song, and I am forever scarred:

(and there are more; too many more). Frankly, that makes the vision a little goofy. And it also leaves out the part about the bones being covered by flesh, receiving the breath of life, and becoming a vast army.


Other songs have recognized the power of the image. Elevation Worship’s “Rattle”, and Lauren Daigle’s “Come Alive”, and Chris Tomlin/Lecrae’s “Awake My Soul” mix the valley of dry bones with the New Testament image of salvation as from spiritual death to spiritual life.

If you have one of those songs in mind when you read this passage, that’s great! There’s no doubt that God is pointing through this valley to the spiritual resurrection believers experience in Jesus! But let’s acknowledge that this vision is first about a national revival and a restoration of God’s people. For people who see how far they have fallen away from God and wonder if there is any hope for them, this vision is proof of God’s life-giving power of revival. Keep that in mind as we study!

 

Part 1: The Potential (Ezekiel 37:1-6)

The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 6 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.’”

Wow! What an incredible image. Unfortunately, people seem to be so caught up in the “bones” part of it that they miss what’s really going on here. This is not a “real” valley. There’s nothing to indicate this is the valley of Armageddon or anyplace else. Ezekiel has been taken “by the Spirit”, so it doesn’t have to be a physical location.


This is the aftermath of a great battle. An army fought in this valley and was utterly destroyed. The fact that these bones remain on the valley floor suggest that everyone related to the army is gone because there was no one to bury them. And the fact that they are “very dry” suggests that they have been dead for a long time. This image is utter hopelessness. Everyone is dead, and there is no one even to mourn them.


God then asks the loaded question of if the bones can live. Ezekiel wisely deflects. (I hope I am that quick-witted when asked such an impossible question!) Every detail in the image is designed to produce a very obvious answer: “of course these bones can’t live; it’s impossible!”.


This reminds me of a very important encounter of the Gospels:

24 “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” 26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19 // Mark 10 // Luke 18)

And that’s exactly what God was proving to Ezekiel. To Ezekiel, the prospect of those very dead bones coming to life should be completely impossible. But with God, it’s just another day of creation.


Catch the focus:

  1. First, Ezekiel is told to “prophesy” (prophesy with a “s” is a verb; prophecy with a “c” is a noun). This always means to give a word from the Lord.

  2. Second, Ezekiel is told to tell the bones to “hear the word of the Lord”.

  3. Third, the message starts with “this is what the Lord God says”.

All of this is from and of God. (Sorry, Ezekiel did not “connect dem dry bones”.) God is the one doing this work.


So why the details about tendons and flesh and skin? To me, it makes it more realistic and understandable. Unlike the extremely creepy children’s video linked above, God is not making skeletons dance (Again, sorry, but “dem bones” aren’t “gonna walk around”.) God is turning skeletons back into people. I wonder if this verse sheds more light on the original creation of Adam in Genesis 2:

7 Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

Perhaps God created the skeleton first, then added the flesh, then covered it with skin? It’s beside the point, so please don’t get distracted by that. The point is that if we believe that God could turn long-dead skeletons back into humans, why would we doubt that He can revive His people?


The “breath of life” is a key connection between Genesis 2 and Ezekiel 37 (more on this below). The breath of life points to a very simple and clear conclusion: the Lord has been at work.


The phrase “know that I am the Lord” is very common in Ezekiel. It appears 68 times in the Bible. 9 of those are in Exodus, specifically related to the plagues in Egypt. 54 occur in Ezekiel, which makes it clear that the idea is fundamental to Ezekiel the prophet. In many ways, Ezekiel is like a second Exodus. The people are strangers in a strange land, and they have been surrounded by a pagan culture that does not acknowledge God Almighty. Well, God will make it clear to them (and to everyone) who is the only True God.


And that’s still true today. You and I know that God is God because of what He has done in us. In salvation, we crossed over from death to life. (However, don’t spend too much time in discussion here because we’re just going to repeat all of it in the next section.)


Aside: What Is the Difference between a Living Body and a Dead One?

For all of humanity’s determination to prove that we don’t need God, we still can’t answer the most fundamental questions about anything. For our purposes this week, that question is the difference between “life” and “death”. We can figure out that something is alive or dead, but we can’t tell what happened (ontologically) between a body being alive and being dead, and we certainly can’t take a dead body and make it alive again.


That’s because life itself is the purview of God and God alone. I’ve seen statements like “life and death are unquantifiable abstracts” and “life is an indeterminate spark”, but those are deflecting the fact that humans simply don’t have the answers. We are good at taking life away, but we are incapable of giving life back (except through processes that God has clearly initiated).


The difference is “the breath of life”. As you should remember, the Hebrew word for “breath” is also used of “wind” and more importantly “spirit/Spirit”. The difference between life and death is the presence of spirit (which means something different for animals, which have the breath of life, see Genesis 1:30, but not an eternal spirit/soul like humans). And that’s beyond our capacity to create or manage. Life belongs to God.

 

Part 2: The Presentation (Ezekiel 37:7-10)

7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

Again, the details are included to help us imagine being there. As the Elevation Worship song caught, “rattle” is a fantastic detail. When you hear that word, doesn’t it put you into the vision? A valley of bones coming together would have created an overwhelming sound! And so God did to the bones what He said He would. They are turned into complete skeletons, given flesh, and wrapped in skin. But a big emphasis is given to the fact that they did not yet have the breath of life in them.


Now, your Leader Guide (like those worship songs) jumps straight to the application that the people around us who do not know Jesus as Savior are just like those reanimated bones – people walking around, but they’re dead inside. And yes, that’s very similar to the classic definition of a zombie. (And I’m sure we’ve all heard that used as a joke in some sermon or Bible study – “it’s too late to prepare for the zombie apocalypse; you’re in one!”) And also yes, that’s absolutely true! When Adam sinned against God, he died spiritually. And because of that, we have all been born spiritually dead. But unlike zombies, we were physically alive. We just weren’t spiritually alive. That came with salvation.


The difference is that these not-yet-alive bodies weren’t running around, doing their daily life (or trying to eat people), not knowing that they weren’t alive. No, these bodies were standing, waiting. They were waiting for God to breathe on them. To me, the image is closer to Pentecost than to salvation –

Luke 24: 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Acts 2: 1 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

In other words, I see the valley of dry bones as a promise of revival, when God again empowers His people to “be His army” on the earth. The word “revival” literally means to come back to life. God will once again turn His destitute people, scattered to the nations, into a mighty army. It would be incredibly encouraging to Ezekiel’s listeners, right? Of course, we find out from Jesus that being is “God’s army” means something very different than what they would have thought when they heard that word.


Aside: Is This Chapter Not about Salvation?

When I say that God gave Ezekiel this vision first about national revival and giving hope to the Jews who felt powerless, I’m not saying that those songs are wrong. Revival, even national revival (in the case of the Jews), is a very complex idea. A few weeks ago when we studied Ezekiel 11, I said that the focus was on God’s “remnant”. To me, a “remnant” is very different than the “vast army” described in our passage. In other words, when God revives His people (as illustrated in this valley), He will also save many of them for the first time.

And if you know much about church history, or if you have ever been a part of a Billy Graham Crusade, you know that revival and salvation go hand in hand. When God does the mighty work of reviving His churches (think “The Great Awakening” or “The Second Great Awakening”), that power spills over into evangelism. As God’s people as restored/refilled by the Holy Spirit, they powerfully share the gospel and many people are saved. Think back – when you were at an event where many Christians “rededicated their lives to Christ”, were there not also a lot of people who came for salvation for the first time?


Just as the power that raised Jesus from the dead was so overwhelming that it brought other people back to life with Him (Matthew 27), the power to revive God’s people will also spill into the lives of everyone around us and bring many to salvation.


Please, let’s not split hairs over whether this valley is about revival or salvation. (There are entire denominations built on that hair-splitting.) The point of this vision is that God will never abandon His people or leave them powerless. God will never stop bringing about His kingdom. Jews in that day and Christians today -- even when God’s people feel marginalized and irrelevant, God always has the power to turn us into a mighty army.

But before we get to the major applications, let’s finish the passage.


Bonus Aside: Making Sure Everyone Understands Why This Isn’t about Zombies

I just want to be absolutely clear about this. What God shows Ezekiel is as polar opposite of zombies as possible. In Ezekiel 37, the dead bodies are returned to life – real life, God-breathed life. These aren’t walking skeletons or shuffling corpses. These are people. But more importantly, remember how I said that the zombie “interest” is fueled by a lack of hope in the future of society? Well, this is the opposite – this is about God restoring hope in Ezekiel (and through him to the Jews) that God’s people have a sure future, that they will be restored to God and that God will keep all of His promises to them.

 

Part 3: The Promise (Ezekiel 37:11-14)

11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit 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.’”

As expected, we find out that this vision isn’t about a valley of dry bones at all. It is about giving hope to God’s people who have lost hope. These Jews have really lost hope; as far as they are concerned, they are no better than dead. Your leader guide directs you to the book of Lamentations, which Jeremiah wrote in grief at the fall of Jerusalem and which easily could have been written at the same time as Ezekiel 37. Consider:

21 Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return; renew our days as of old 22 unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure.

It seems as if our passage was written directly against that cancerous fear. “Death itself cannot hinder Me. Even if you were dead, I could call you up from your graves.”


To me, Paul said it best in Romans 8:

35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(Aside: I don’t have time to go into this, but I find it interesting that the very next thing Paul says in Romans is his desperate desire for a revival in Israel. The overlap between this section of Romans and our section in Ezekiel is instructive.)


There are still lots of questions about this passage’s fulfillment, but I will leave that to the very bottom. I’m afraid that too much speculation on that will just distract from the necessary takeaways from this passage:

  • If you are a Christian, no matter how small or helpless (or dead inside) you feel, God can still revive you and use you in a mighty way.

  • If you are not a Christian, know that the God who has power of life itself has more than enough power to save you from your sin and restore you to Himself.

Challenge everyone in your group to think about specific situations they feel hopeless or helpless about. What do they need to “hand over” to God in those situations?

Let’s remember that the ultimate fulfillment of this promise is the eternal life and peace in God’s presence in heaven. In this life, we have many troubles! But we should never let our troubles overwhelm us or bring us to hopelessness. The God who can raise a mighty army out of a valley of dry bones is at work in our lives right now!

 

Closing Thoughts: The Rest of Ezekiel

The final chapters of Ezekiel have produced lots of questions among Christians. Are we to read these chapters literally or figuratively. Or both? It reminds me of the questions we ask about Revelation...


This is why I left the Bible Project video to the very end. It gives a common perspective on how we should understand this part of Ezekiel:

If you want to know more about the end of Ezekiel, that's a great video. And if you want to know more about "Ezekiel's Temple", here's an interesting article from a Christian apologetics group:

They make the very true case that the way you understand these chapters will depend largely on how you understand other prophetic or poetic sections of the Bible.


For me, the conclusion that every Christian should draw from Ezekiel or Revelation or any other obscure passage of the Bible is that God will bring His people into a fuller, eternal existence with Him in a real place that's often called heaven. It will be a real, physical existence where we will be in God's presence. We can debate the size and appearance of the buildings, and we can debate the physical location, but none of that changes the most important truth of heaven: "The Lord Is There".


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