Valley of Dry Bones

by Ed Gallagher

I will put My Spirit within you and you will come to life, and I will place you on your own land. Then you will know that I, the LORD, have spoken and done it, declares the LORD.

Ezekiel 37:14
Gustave Doré, The Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones, 1866, Wikimedia Commons

This lesson covers the book of a Ezekiel with a focus on his vision in ch. 37. 

What do you know about Ezekiel? He was a prophet in Babylon during the exile. There were three waves of exile (according to Jer 52:28–30, and explained in this lesson). Ezekiel was taken during the first wave, in 597 BC. The temple was not destroyed until the second wave, 586 BC. (The temple is very important in this book.) Ezekiel is a priest (1:3), and he receives his first vision on his 30th birthday—that is the best guess as to what “the thirtieth year” in 1:1 refers to—the day he would have been eligible to serve as a priest (cf. Num 4:23). God often calls Ezekiel “son of man” (= human, 94x), and calls himself “Lord GOD” (= Adonay Yahweh, 217x).

Other prophets sometimes date their prophecies, but Ezekiel certainly stands out in this regard. Fourteen prophecies in the book are dated in relation to the exile of King Jehoiachin (see, e.g., 1:2), who was exiled with Ezekiel in 597 (2 Kings 24:10–20). The first vision, dated to the 5th year (1:2), thus took place in 593 (counting 597 as the first year). The latest dated prophecy is at 29:17, dated to the 27th year = 571 BC. The prophecies do not always come in chronological order. 

Ezekiel is also known for his sign acts: “playing” siege (4:1–3), lying on his side for a year (4:4–8), eating defiled bread (4:9–17). (This bread company does not follow the recipe—verse 12!) He was prevented from mourning for his deceased wife (24:15–24). What was the point of these actions? They signified that Jerusalem would soon be destroyed. The first exiles thought the captivity would be brief (discussed in this lesson); they thought the worst was behind them, that God would protect Jerusalem. Ezekiel’s ministry, in its early years, aimed at convincing these exiles that the worst was still to come; they should give up hope in Jerusalem’s survival. 

His first vision (chs. 1–3) is filled with strange images: four living creatures, each with four faces, and with wings (1:4–12), and above them a throne, with a figure like a man, identified as “the likeness of the glory of the Lord” (1:22–28).

Bernard Picart, Ezekiel’s Vision, eighteenth century, RijksMuseum

What does this represent? The living creatures are later identified as cherubim (10:15). Ezekiel is seeing a vision of the ark of the covenant, God’s throne, with the Lord seated on top. The Lord has come to exile with his people and with his prophet. The Lord commissions Ezekiel to prophesy to Israel (ch. 2). Ezekiel is appointed as a watchman (3:16–21), and he is made mute except when God speaks through him (3:26–27). This muteness would last until Jerusalem is destroyed a few years later (24:25–27; 33:21–22). 

About a year after his first vision, Ezekiel took a spiritual journey to Jerusalem (8:1–4). He entered the temple and saw all sorts of idolatry (8:5–18), as a punishment for which God appointed slaughter (ch. 9). Then Ezekiel sees God’s throne, the ark of the covenant, leave the temple (ch. 10), finally sitting on a mountain (11:22–23). Why does the ark leave the temple? God has abandoned the temple to its fate. But hope follows destruction (11:14–21). Ezekiel returns to tell the exiles (11:24–25). 

The first half of the book (chs. 1–24) emphasizes the sins of the Judeans and the coming destruction. Prophecies against foreign nations (esp. Tyre and Egypt) are collected in chs. 25–32. Finally, the destruction of Jerusalem is reported to Ezekiel in the 12th year (= 586 BC; 33:21), and the rest of the book (chs. 34–48) focus on hope for the future. 

Because Israel has endured poor leadership (34:1–10), God himself will shepherd the nation (34:11–22), and he will set over them “my servant David” (34:23–24), and they will live in a restored Eden (34:25–31). God curses Mt. Seir, the home of the arrogant Edomites (ch. 35), but he promises renewed prosperity for the land of Israel (36:8–15), not for the sake of Israel (36:22) but for the glory of his own holy name (36:16–32). Again, Israel will be like Eden (36:35). 

God shows Ezekiel a valley filled with dry bones (37:1–10). When Ezekiel prophesies over the bones, the bones come together and grow flesh, without any breath (vv. 7–8). (The Hebrew word for breath is ruaḥ, which also means wind and spirit. So these bodies have no breath or spirit.) Ezekiel then commands the breath (ruaḥ) to come from the four winds (ruaḥ) (v. 9), and the breath/spirit (ruaḥ) came into the bodies. What similarities do you see between this vision and the creation of man in Genesis 2? With the creation of man, God created a body and then breathed into it “the breath of life” (Gen 2:7), just as in Ezekiel (though in Gen 2:7, the Hebrew word for breath is not ruaḥ but nishama).

What does this vision signify? God explains the vision (vv. 11–14), such that Israel is metaphorically in a grave (in exile), and God will restore them to their land. God’s spirit (ruaḥ) will fill the people (v. 14), which echoes similar prophecies earlier (11:19; 36:26–27) and is reminiscent of the promise of a new covenant which Israel will not violate (Jer 31:31–34).

On another, more general level, the vision indicates God’s ability (and willingness) to give new life in impossible, hopeless situations. We continually need to hear this message. And both Jews and Christians have traditionally seen here a picture of our own resurrection, demonstrating that death cannot triumph over God’s people (Matt 16:18). 

The rest of the book contains further visions of restoration. Judah and Israel will come together again to form one nation (37:15–23), ruled over by “my servant David” (37:24–28), and God will again live among them (37:27). God will defeat the pagan nations (chs. 38–39), and a new, magnificent temple will be established (chs. 40–43), where God will once again dwell (43:1–5), unlike the temple that he had abandoned earlier. This new temple will exist in an Eden-like paradise, in which a river gives life to all who drink, and fruiting-bearing trees provide food (47:1–12; cf. Rev 22:1–5). The name of this city will be “The Lord Is There” (48:35).

Conclusion 

The Book of Ezekiel reminds us that God punishes sin, but he also provides hope. The God who breathes his spirit into the dry bones also causes his spirit to dwell in us (Rom 8:11) and has established us as his temple in which he dwells (1 Cor 3:16; 6:19; Eph 2:21–22; 1 Pet 2:5).

Additional Questions for Discussion

Read Ezekiel 1. What do you think Ezekiel is describing? What is the significance of this vision? 

Read Ezekiel 4. Why does Ezekiel do these strange things? 

Read Ezekiel 37:1–14. What does God mean by showing Ezekiel these bones? 

According to God’s explanation of the vision (vv. 11–14), what is the hope that God is presenting to Israel? 

Read Ezekiel 37:15–28. What does God say here about the future of his people? 

Additional Resources

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