Spring 1998


Volume 17, Issue 1

The Valley of Dry Bones

by Dr. Bruce Waltke


Dr. Bruce Waltke is Professor of Old Testament at RTS/Orlando. He is also Professor Emeritus at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. He is the author of numerous articles and several books, the most recent of which is Finding God’s Will: A Pagan Notion?


Ezekiel’s famous vision, The Valley of Dry Bones, was given to him more than 2500 years ago for the Babylonian exiles. However, God’s question to Ezekiel, "Can these dry bones live?" is a question still addressed to us at the end of the twentieth century. At times we ask it of our lives, our marriages, and our churches.

The vision both now and then aims to revive the flagging spirits of God’s elect. The blight of doubt wilts and withers lives that were once lovely and fragrant as a rose. Marriages conceived in love and brought through faith may die in cynicism and despair. Churches that once budded and flourished in the early rains, become parched by discouragement that prevents the latter rains.

God addresses this prophecy to "my people" (v. 12, 13). Our forefathers in the Babylonian exile, having lost the holy city with the LORD’s temple, questioned whether they were still the people of God. The repeated address, "O my people," reassured them of their identity. Likewise, however hopeless our situation may seem, believers in the Lord Jesus need to hear again God’s address to them, "O my people" (Gal. 3:26-29; 6:16; 1 Peter 2:9-10).

Although Ezekiel originally delivered his vision to the Babylonian exiles, he collected it with his other visions into his book, which now addresses the universal Church. Within the canon, it functions as an encouragement and as exemplar of how God revives His people. Its truths by definition are universal and eternal. Paul refers to Ezekiel’s vision in his comment "the Spirit gives life" (2 Corinthians 3:6).

The prophecy has two acts: I. Vision (vv. 1-10) and II. Interpretation (vv. 11-14). Each of these has three scenes: 1. The valley of dry bones (vv. 1-3); 2. the fragmented bones becoming bodies (vv. 4-6), and 3. the wind entering bodies (vv. 9-10). The interpretation identifies the bones as the House of Israel and their dryness as their loss of hope (v. 11) and the wind as the Spirit (v. 14). The three scenes of each act provide the exemplar for the way God resurrects dry-bone saints.

SCENE ONE: THE VALLEY OF DRY BONES

The first scene, the valley of dry bones, features the prophet himself and gives an initial insight into revival. By calling and sending a prophet to the dry bones, God in His sovereign grace initiates Israel’s revival. The scene consists of three parts.

Partial Scene 1: The Call of Ezekiel (v. 1a). Ezekiel introduces his prophecy by the formula: "the hand of the LORD was upon me" (v. 1). This formula is relatively common in Ezekiel and marks off his first-person accounts of his various visions. This intervention signals that Israel’s resurrection originated with God, not with humankind. Likewise today, resurrection from our "graves" begins with the call of a prophet, one whom God sends and through whom He speaks (Romans 10:14-15).

Partial Scene 2: The Valley of Dry Bones (v. 1b-2). In the second partial scene God causes his prophet to confront the spiritual condition of his people. The Spirit settles him down (not merely ‘set’) in the midst of the dry bones and then leads him round and round the open cemetery to give him a belly full of death. The situation looks impossible. God’s prophets are both called and realistic. Perhaps you too feel as though you are in exile, hopelessly cut off from your heritage and a future. Salvation seems impossible.

Partial Scene 3: The Prophet’s Faith (v. 3). In the third partial scene, the LORD stimulates faith within the prophet. He addresses him as "O Human Being" [not, "Son of Man"] to remind him that he is earthbound and mortal. No prophet can breathe spiritual life into this valley of dry bones. Only God can do that.

By asking the question "Can these bones live?" the LORD effects two virtues in Ezekiel. First, he forces him to become involved by answering the question. Second, in trying to answer it, Ezekiel turns away from the Valley of Dry Bones to the LORD himself. Whereas the LORD addressed him as "O Human Being," he addresses God as "O Sovereign Covenant Keeping LORD." His answer is classic: "You alone know." It says that nothing is impossible with God. Israel’s revival depends solely on God’s sovereign grace (cf. Luke 5:12).

Revival begins with a prophet who is called, who confronts reality, and believes that nothing is impossible with the sovereign Lord. True prophets are both realistic and optimistic.

SCENE TWO: THE BONES BECOME BODIES

The second scene, in which the bones become bodies, features the Word of God, thereby giving us our second insight into revival.

Partial Scene 1: A Command to Preach the Word of the . Lord (vv. 4-5a). The first partial scene underscores the importance to preach His word authoritatively by enfolding one command to preach within another command to preach. Finally,through the prophet, God Himself addresses the Dry Bones. First, God speaks to His prophet and commands him to prophesy: "Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones.’" Second, He then commands the prophet to preach His Word to the people and commands them to hear: "And say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD?’" Then, again through the prophet, God now addresses the people: "This is what the LORD Sovereign LORD says to these bones."

One and a half verses of this scene command the prophet to preach God’s Word and the people to hear it. This enfolded formula, though shortened, is repeated in each scene (vv. 9, 12). If a preacher hopes for revival, he must emphasize and reemphasize, however tedious, "Now hear the Word of the LORD."

The exhaustive vocabulary for preaching also underscores the importance of preaching the Word of the Lord for revival. The key word "prophesy" (i.e., to speak for God) occurs an intentional seven times, the number that signifies a completeness (vv. 4, 7 [2 times], 9, 10, 12). A second term is "the word of the LORD" (v. 4), which signifies a prophetic word from God. Third, when God addresses the dead bones He uses yet another term: "This is what the LORD says" (v. 5, 9, 12).

This formula reflects the way in which political messengers once presented the words of their lords (e.g., 2 Kings 18:19). The prophets used this formula to indicate that, like messengers of a worldly king, they were messengers from the heavenly King. As the heavenly King’s representatives invested with full power, they spoke authoritatively for Heaven to the earth.

Finally, he draws the prophecy to conclusion with a word from the inspired Word of God, "declares" (Heb. ne’um). Ne’um signifies "Spirit filled speech." The word occurs in Psalm 110:1, "The LORD said (Heb. ne’um) to my Lord." Our Lord interprets it: "How is it that David, speaking by the Spirit, call him ‘Lord’?"

Partial scene 2: The Dry Bones Will Live (vv. 5b-6). The second partial scene features the message itself. He revives his elect through the promise to bring them back to life: "I will cause wind [Heb. ruah; see NIV note] to enter you and you will come to life…" (v. 5-6). God’s message to mortals is that He is the God of life. He blessed His creation (i.e., filled them with the potency of life) to overcome sterility and death. Filled with His life, the flora and fauna overcome death and survive. For His elect, Christ is their resurrection and the life (John 11:25). Whoever hears His word and believes Him who sent Him has eternal life…; he has crossed over from death to life" (John 5:24). If death is the last word, then death is god. But Christ swallowed up death!

Ezekiel emphasizes the certainty of revival; Isaiah emphasizes the means. Addressing the same discouraged exiles (Isaiah 40:27), Isaiah says: "Those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint" (40:31). By the gift of faith in the gift of God’s Word, the saint is transferred from the Valley of Dry Bones to the land that flows with milk and honey because God is uniquely present there.

SCENE THREE: THE WIND ENLIVENS THE SLAIN

The third scene, the wind enlivens the slain, features the role of God’s Spirit, providing our third insight into revival.

Partial scene 1: The Wind/Spirit Comes Through Preaching (vv. 9). The connection between God’s word and Spirit is linked in v. 4: "Prophesy to these bones…I will make breath enter you and you will come to life." However, it becomes clear that the Word alone is insufficient. The second scene draws to a conclusion with the comment: "But there was no breath in them." Scene 3 begins with the need of preaching to effect the gift of the Spirit (v. 9).

Partial Scene 2: The Wind Enlivens the Bodies(v. 10). The wind, which God equates with His Spirit in v. 14, transforms the Valley of Dry Bones into a vast and vital army. The LORD brings revival through both authoritative preaching and the giving of the Spirit (cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:4-6; 2:13; 1 Corinthians 3:14-18).

The Scots Confession expressed the conviction of the Reformers: "Our faith and its assurance do not proceed from flesh and blood, that is to say, from natural powers within us, but are the inspiration of the Holy Ghost…, who sanctifies us, and brings us into all truth by His own working, without whom we should remain forever enemies to God and ignorant of His son, Christ Jesus. For by nature we are so dead, blind, and perverse, that neither can we feel when we are pricked, see the light when it shines, nor assent to the will of God when it is revealed, unless the Spirit of the Lord Jesus quickens that which is dead, removes the darkness from our minds, and bow our stubborn hearts to the obedience of His blessed will."

PRAY FOR PROPHETS

Let us then pray that God will raise up prophets to preach his word in our generation. And let us pray that God will continue to use faithful seminaries to give His called preachers an even more sure word of prophecy. The last two scenes of the vision contain partial scenes of fulfillment (vv. 7-8; 10), but not the interpretation. Ezekiel and his generation of the House of Israel died before they saw the elect arise from their graves and become full of the Spirit in order to return to the Holy Land and settle down in it. The next generation, however, did experience it, and they knew that the LORD had done what had seemed impossible. Prophecy is delayed in part that we may have a much more sure word of prophecy (1 Peter 1:19).

And let us pray that the Church will ask for and embrace the fullness of God’s Spirit (cf. Luke 4:10-13).





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Reformed Quarterly, Volume 17, Issue 1
Reformed Theological Seminary
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