Ezekiel 37:1-14 has to be one of my favourite OT texts – the mystery and the wonder of the dry bones coming together, bone to bone, the sheer beauty and strangeness of the language…
But what does it all mean? In the original context, Ezekiel was recording God’s promise to restore Israel, the desolate Northern Kingdom, while even Judah was still in exile in Babylon. In our own time, the passage is often taken as a pretext for preaching on revival, and as a prophecy of God’s restoring work in the Church. In the churches of the Anglican tradition, the text is often taken in the context of Lent, and made to reflect the Father’s work in raising his Son from the dead, frequently illustrated with reference to Jesus’ own raising of Lazarus in John 11.
Which is right? Or have I found another interpretation, a fourth way? Not really. I want to look at the common factor in all these strands of thought, and then look at where God himself was going with all this.
God has many names in the Bible – according to Lambert Dolphin’s list, somewhere around 38 in the OT alone – and one of the most evocative is ‘Yehovah shalom’ – God is our peace (Judges 6:24)
But shalom means more than just peace, as in absence of conflict. It means whole, finished, fulfilled, perfected. Shalom means that kind of peace that results from being a whole person in right relationship to God and to one's fellow man.
I think it’s out of this quality of being that God is promising to act. “Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 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.” Ezekiel 37:13-14 (NIV) God’s God-ness restores, makes whole again, brings into shalom…
And God in Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever – the God who promised to re-shalom Israel is the same God, who hears our prayers for healing, renewal, for the restoration of the church… The God who would bring those dry bones together, bone to bone back in the days of the Babylonian exile, 600 years before Jesus was born to Mary, is the same God who sends his Holy Spirit on us in power today, the same God who does heal, does restore broken people and broken relationships, does make all things new, just as remarkably today as he did for Ezekiel.
God doesn’t change – James tells us how “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” James 1:17 (NIV) God is faithful: “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.” Hebrews 10:23 (NIV) His promises are as bright and undimmed today as when he made them, and just as trustworthy for us as for those whose ears first heard them.
We mustn’t forget this – God’s promises are neither empty nor outdated. “For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it: it will certainly come and will not delay.” Habakkuk 2:3 (NIV) And as Peter said, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” 2 Peter 3:9 (NIV)
So God is promising wholeness, restoration, making right, whole, finished, fulfilled, perfected. Shalom means that kind of peace that results from being a whole person in right relationship to God and to one's fellow man. He plans to make all things all right again, to dry every tear:
“[God himself] will wipe every tear from [the] eyes [of all his elect]. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Rev. 21:4 (NIV)
But we must not mistrust God because things haven’t happened according to our own timescale – we mustn’t lose confidence in God’s promised because he’s haven’t happened yet. God is waiting: he is waiting for the wheat and the tares to come to full growth before he risks damaging the harvest by prematurely trying to pull out the weeds. Anyone who’s old enough to have pulled wild oats by hand will remember the principle!
So let’s watch and pray as Ezekiel watched in chapter 3 of the book that bears his name – remember the passage?
“Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to a wicked man, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn him or speak out to dissuade him from his evil ways in order to save his life, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. But if you do warn the wicked man and he does not turn from his wickedness or from his evil ways, he will die for his sin; but you will have saved yourself.
“Again, when a righteous man turns from his righteousness and does evil, and I put a stumbling-block before him, he will die. Since you did not warn him, he will die for his sin. The righteous things he did will not be remembered, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. But if you do warn the righteous man not to sin and he does not sin, he will surely live because he took warning, and you will have saved yourself.” Ezekiel 3:17-21 (NIV)
God hasn’t left us to do this all alone, religiously observing all those instructions in our own strength. Hear again his words from the book of Joel: “And afterwards, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.” Joel 2:28-29 (NIV)
It was through Jesus’ return to the Father that this happened: “…I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counsellor [the Holy Spirit] will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” John 16:7 (NIV) Jesus said, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” John 14:18 (NIV)
Amen! Even so, come Lord Jesus!