Dem bones.

by K.W. Leslie, 19 June

Ezekiel 37.1-10.

Your average Christian knows very little about the prophetic book of Ezekiel. Most of ’em know only three things about it:

  1. At the beginning of the book, Ezekiel gets this vision of God’s throne which includes four freaky creatures with four heads, and what sound like living gyroscopes beside each of them. Ek 1 And for some looney reason, people who are into UFOs insist that’s what Ezekiel saw; it strikes ’em as more mechanical than miraculous.
  2. Apparently there’s such a thing as “Ezekiel bread.” Ek 4.9 Every once in a while, some overzealous Christian will bake a loaf and inflict it upon the people of their church. Here’s the deal: Ezekiel bread was meant to be awful, to make a point about suffering. But Christians’ll try to fix it up somehow: Add lots of yeast, sugar, disproportionate amounts of flour, and even butter. Most of the time it’s still awful. People, the bible isn’t a recipe book!
  3. And the bit I’m getting to today: The Valley of Dry Bones story. In it, God demonstrates his power to Ezekiel by taking long-dead bones, turning ’em back into humans, and bringing them to life.

The title of this article comes from the gospel song, “Dem Bones,” which most people don’t know is a spiritual, ’cause all they know is, “Ankle bone connected to the shin bone, shin bone connected to the knee bone…” They think it’s about anatomy. Or skeletons. Well anyway.

Ezekiel wrote his visions from Tel Aviv, Iraq. Not Tel Aviv, Israel; Iraq. (The city in Israel is named after Ezekiel’s village.) He lived in Iraq because Israel didn’t exist anymore. The Babylonians invaded and destroyed it, then scattered him and all his loved ones to the four winds. Now he lived in Iraq, figuring he’d never see Israel again.

So, in both straight-up messages, weird demonstrations, and apocalyptic visions, the LORD was trying to tell Ezekiel and his neighbors how Israel wasn’t permanently destroyed. Its restoration might be impossible for them to imagine, like dry bones turned into living bones. But God was gonna bring his nation back.

But you know how humans are: We always gotta make everything about us. And generations of Christians have misappropriated this story, claiming it’s about them, about restoring their lives—or their career, their church, their broken family, their nation, what they’ll see in the End Times, you name it. I still hear sermons where preachers swipe the idea and claim it for themselves.

Still just as invalid.

Starting with the context.

Ezekiel hadn’t actually been there to watch Israel get destroyed. He and his family, priests from Jerusalem, had been deported to Iraq in the year 597BC, when Nabú-kudúrri-usúr 2 (KJV “Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon”) had installed a puppet king, Zedekiah, to rule Jerusalem for him. Zedekiah was insubordinate, and after 12 years Nabú had enough and overthrew him personally. He invaded, besieged, and destroyed Jerusalem. His soldiers burnt the temple down. (The first temple was made of gold-plated cedar, which made it much easier to destroy than the stone temple the Romans knocked over.)

Word got back to Tel Aviv. Up to that point, the refugees had hoped some day they’d go home. Didn’t know when; just knew Jerusalem was still there, waiting for them. Now it wasn’t. No more homeland. No more city. No more daily worship for the LORD, so for priests like Ezekiel, no job to return to. They were gonna die in Iraq.

If you’re an American who remembers when the World Trade Center was destroyed in 2001, the destruction of the temple felt way worse. For Jews it was a blow to both their patriotism and their religion. It didn’t only feel like their nation was destroyed, but like they were now utterly cut off from God. It felt like being damned.

So, through Ezekiel, God sent ’em a message of hope.

Ezekiel 37.1-10 KWL
1 The LORD’s hand took me, and by the LORD’s Spirit he brought me out:
2 God put me in a valley full of bones. He made me walk round and round them.
“Look how very many, all over the surface of the valley! Look, how very dry!”
3 God told me, “Son of Adam. Can these bones live?”
I said, “Master LORD, only you know.”
4 God told me, “Prophesy over these bones. Tell these dry bones, ‘Listen to the LORD’s word.’ ”
5 My Master LORD tells these bones, “Look! I put a spirit in you. Live.
6 I put sinews on you. I grow muscle on you. I encase you in skin. I give you the Spirit.
Live. Know I’m the LORD.” 7 I prophesied as instructed.
At the sound of my prophecy, look: Shaking, and bone came together with bone.
8 I saw—look!—sinews and flesh grew on them. Skin encased them. But there was no Spirit in them.
9 God told me, “Prophesy to the Spirit. Prophesy, son of Adam!
Tell the Spirit this: ‘My Master LORD says this. Spirit, come from the four winds!
Blow into these who were killed. They will live.” 10 I prophesied as instructed.
The Spirit came into them. They live! They stand on their feet—a very, very great army.

And here’s where your average preacher tends to stop, then interpret the passage to suit their vision of what they want God to raise from the dead.

Every so often they’ll include the next few verses. But then they suffer a freakish bout of amnesia: They read it, but forget it, and still interpret the passage to suit themselves. You remember how James wrote about a person who looks at his reflection, then immediately forgets it? Jm 1.22-25 You’d think James was using hyperbole, but that’s precisely how some preachers are with the bible. They read it, then it blinks out of their brains, and they preach their own ideas.

Well, on to what God says this vision meant.

Ezekiel 37.11-14 KWL
11 God told me, “Son of Adam, these bones are the whole house of Israel.
Look, they say, ‘Our bones are dry. Our hope is dead. We’re cut off.’
12 So prophesy! Tell them this: ‘My Master LORD says this.’
Look, I’m opening your tombs. I’m taking you out of your tombs, my people.
I bring you to the very ground of Israel.
13 You’ll know I’m the LORD when I open your tombs.
When I bring you out of your tombs, my people, 14 I’ll put my Spirit in you. Live.
I’ll put you on the ground, and you’ll know I’m the LORD.
I said it; I’ll do it,” promises the LORD.

The Jews were calling themselves dead. God reminded them he raises the dead.

Losing Jerusalem and the temple felt like the end of the world. Obviously it wasn’t. And the real end is the beginning of the next world, so God’s followers still no reason to despair. That is, unless we’ve only put our hope in earthly things, like homelands and temples. Or wealth, heritage, good reputation, family, jobs, anything with an expiration date. Our hope needs to be in God alone. ’Cause everything ends. But God raises the dead.

And yeah, it took a few decades, but God did let his people return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. You should know that from a few other parts of the bible. You do read your bible, right?

Illegitimately borrowing the story.

Unless God tells you personally, “I’m gonna do for you as I showed Ezekiel I can do for dry bones,” you don’t have any basis for claiming this story for yourself. No Christian does.

Imagine a Christian wants to have a kid, reads in Genesis about how the LORD promised Abraham a kid, and now says, “See, God tells me I’m gonna have a kid.” Or if a Christian reads about how the LORD told Solomon he’d make him rich, and says, “See, God tells me he’s gonna make me richer than every other king.” Or if I took God’s message to Joseph that his son would save his people from their sins, and start claiming, “See, God tells me my son’s gonna be Messiah.” It’s just that stupid.

Problem is, other Christians do such things. So we get the idea it’s okay to take prophecies which don’t belong to us, and claim ’em for ourselves. We’re even taught this by various Christians: If you don’t carjack a prophecy, it means you lack faith. You just gotta believe harder.

Yeah, these people are only setting themselves up for failure and grave disappointment. ’Cause God is under no obligation at all to follow through with what they’re claiming for themselves. They’ll never prosper in the way they expect.

The result is they’ll wind up doing one of these three things:

SPIN. When the prophecy doesn’t come true for them, they’ll stretch its meaning till it fits their circumstances. If they expect God will give them a child and he doesn’t, they’ll claim the prophecy actually meant spiritual children, and the kids in Sunday School count as their own. If they expect God’ll give them money and he doesn’t, they’ll claim he meant spiritually wealthy—or that God makes them comfortable despite their monthly struggle to keep ahead of their bills. The Jehovah’s Witnesses claimed Jesus’s second coming would happen in 1914, and when it didn’t they claimed they really meant he took on a new heavenly position that year. Not that anything on earth really changed any. Or at all.

Such people will claim, “God has fulfilled his every promise to me!” And they’re right; he has; he fulfilled his legitimate promises to them. But he didn’t fulfill any of his imaginary promises to them, and they’re totally lying to themselves about that.

It may be misplaced faith. But their denial is actually damaging all their faith, both misplaced and well-placed. And when other Christians realize they’re claiming God fulfilled stuff when he didn’t really, it’s gonna ding their faith. (As for people who don’t believe in prophecy and God’s promises, it’s just gonna give them something more to mock.)

STAGGER. When the prophecy doesn’t come true for them, they’ll back up, look at what they’ve done, and realize they were wrong. “Wait: That verse wasn’t for me. Well, don’t I feel silly.”

Which is great! But the reason I say they’re staggering, is because most of them don’t learn their lesson and never do this again. They totally do it again. Many times. Hey, everybody else they know is doing it.

I once had a pastor who’d regularly claim God wanted him to do some huge project… only for him to backtrack a few years later because nothing would come of it. I gotta give him props for admitting he got God wrong. Problem is, in the beginning, he was so sure he was right, he’d nudge people out of leadership—even the church—because he was so insistent the project was God’s will, and must go through. And he never did learn his lesson: Get confirmation before you run amok with “God’s plan.” (And get it from real prophets, not yes-men.)

QUIT. Worst-case scenario: Their faith not only takes a massive hit, but they give up altogether. They quit God.

After all, the only reason they glommed onto these promises, and insisted God was gonna come through for them, was because they wanted the stuff in those promises. They didn’t want God so much; just the stuff. They wanted God to grant them a worry-free life, riches, good health, the usual. God promises none of those things. Mammon will, but it can’t raise the dead, y’know.

This is why we gotta steer people away from faith-damaging misinterpretations of out-of-context scriptures.

Our takeaway from Ezekiel’s vision is to remember: God can restore anything. You may think it’s dead and gone forever, but if God gets involved, he can always bring it back.

The catch is, he’s gotta say he’s bringing it back, like he told Ezekiel and the Jews he was bringing their nation back. If he doesn’t, we can’t hold him to the stuff he never promised.