The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ 4Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6I 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.’
7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9Then he said to me, ‘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.’10I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
11 Then he said to me, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” 12Therefore prophesy, and say 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.13And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14I 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.’
Ezekiel was a priest who became a spokesperson for God during Israel’s exile in Babylon. Ezekiel is one of the three Major Prophets, along with Isaiah and Jeremiah. His book is 48 chapters long! Despite the volume of material in Ezekiel there are very few passages from this prophet that find their way into the 3 year common lectionary. Why you ask? Perhaps it is because Ezekiel is a little nutty. Saying a prophet is a little nutty is probably a redundancy but Ezekiel is weird even for a prophet.
Having said that the above passage is a truly inspired bit of prophecy. Ezekiel prophesied in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon. It is hard to overstate the devastating impact of the Babylonian destruction of Judah and particular Jerusalem, the leveling of the Temple and the exile of Jerusalem’s inhabitants. It was like the end of the world for the people of Israel and Ezekiel paints a vivid portrait of what that felt like in his “Valley of Dry Bones” prophecy.
Ezekiel was driven by the Spirit (the Spirit always “drives” people places, like Uber) into the middle of a valley full bones. The dryness of the bones is indication of their total and complete lifelessness. Perhaps they are the residual of one of the battles between Israel and Babylon which left the valley floor carpeted with Israeli dead.
In the midst of the bones the LORD asked Ezekiel the question, “Mortal, can these bones live?” This question has echoed through the ages as people have viewed the destruction of peoples, nations, cities, hopes, dreams, etc. Ezekiel put the question back to God, “O Lord God, you know.” Of course, God does know, the question is whether such an outcome can possibly come into Ezekiel’s mind. But God answered the question with the command for Ezekiel to “Prophecy to these bones” and tell of God’s coming restoration; sinew and flesh shall come upon the bones which were formerly dry and lifeless. Finally the breath of life itself would animate the bones and reconstitute the people.
I find it odd whenever the word prophesy is used as a verb rather than a noun. It just sounds odd. But prophecy is one of those words better understood as an action rather than a thing. The prophecy delivers a word which itself brings into being that which it says. To prophecy is about more than describing a new reality it speaks it into being. This is because the prophecy is the conduit through which God’s Spirit enters into the world and changes reality itself.
The festival of Pentecost, which celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit, is all about the Word of God, freighted with the power of the Holy Spirit, coming upon the people and giving them the ability to prophesy; speak a word that brings things into being.
In confirmation class this past Sunday I was speaking with the students about Pentecost and what happens in the story in Acts. One of the confirmands said there was a new device that you can wear like a Bluetooth earpiece which will translate other languages in real time. I am not aware of such a device but it made me think about what happened to the followers of Jesus when they received the Holy Spirit. Those followers of Jesus in the upper room received, not a device or an implant but something inherent which allowed them to understand the Word of God and receive it.
In confirmation we pray that confirmands might also receive this same ability, to receive and understand the Word of God in their own language/experience. And this Word is more than words which describe, it is a Word of God that: reveals sin, offers forgiveness, remakes lives, renews hope, creates faith or as Luther described it: the Spirit “keeps, enlightens, gathers and sanctifies.”
Of course, the capacity to be open to the Word of God, receive and understand it, be changed by it, these are gifts we never stop praying for. How many seemingly destroyed hopes and dreams have we stood in the midst of like a valley full of desiccated bones and wondered, can these bones live?
God knows, but we ask that the eyes of our hearts be opened by God’s Holy Spirit that we might see God’s re-creative and restorative power at work in and through our own lives.