Great Texts of the Bible
Life from the Dead
And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord God, thou knowest.—Ezekiel 37:3.
1. There is perhaps no passage in all the Bible which, for weird imaginative power, surpasses Ezekiels Vision of Dry Bones. By means that are as simple as simple can be, he transports us into a veritable valley of death, and the gloom and the horror of it enter our souls. We shall let the prophet himself lead us into the valley, and tell us what he saw, and how he felt, and what the vision did for him. This is the story in his own words, with something of their muffled music:
Jehovah touched me with His mighty hand,
And bore me in the spirit to a valley,
And in the midst thereof He set me down,
And it was full of bones; and round and round
Among the bones He led me. And, behold!
Thickly they lay upon the valleys face,
Exceeding many and exceeding dry.
Then thus He spake to me: “O child of man!
Can these bones live?” “O Lord,” I said, “Thou knowest.”
“Lift up thy voice,” He said, “and prophesy
Upon these bones, and in these words address them:
Ye dry bones, listen to Jehovahs word.
Thus saith Jehovah to these bones, Behold!
I will breathe into you the breath of life,
Sinews and flesh will I bring up on you,
And I will cover you with skin, and put
The breath of life in you: then ye shall know
That I am God the Lord Omnipotent. ”
Straightway I prophesied as I was bidden,
And, as I prophesied, behold! a shaking!
Each several bone drew near unto his fellow.
And, as I gazed, behold! there came upon them
Sinews and flesh and skin to cover them.
But still within them was no breath of life.
“Lift up thy voice,” He said, “and prophesy.
Speak to the wind, thou child of man, and say,
Thus saith the Lord Omnipotent: O wind!
Come hither from all quarters of the heavens,
And breathe upon these slain that they may live. ”
So then I prophesied as He had bade me,
And into them there came the breath of life;
As living men, they stood upon their feet—
A mighty host and great exceedingly.1 [Note: J. E. McFadyen, The City with Foundations, 73.]
This picture is not drawn from the Divina Commedia of Italys favourite poet; it is not a reproduction of any of Lord Leightons works; it is a canvas from an older collection of paintings, so often stowed away, neglected, and forgotten amid the dust of the cellars of the worlds academies and picture-galleries. Nevertheless, even to those possessed simply of artistic feeling, devoid of sentiment or religious spirit, there is a pathos and beauty contained in these words of the prophet Ezekiel which it would be difficult to surpass, or even to equal.
2. Like many other visions, before and since, Ezekiels vision of the Valley of Dry Bones was partly shaped by the circumstances of the times. The horrors of the Chaldæan invasion, which had resulted in the carrying away of the Jewish people into Babylon, were still fresh in the memories of men. In many a valley, on many a hillside, in southern Palestine, the track of the invading army, as it advanced and retired, would have been marked by the bones of the unoffending but slaughtered peasantry. In his work on Nineveh, Mr. Layard describes such a scene in Armenia—an upland valley covered by the bones of a Christian population which had been plundered and murdered by the Kurds.
A page from the “Annals” of Tacitus throws the light of an illustration on the imagery of this chapter. The Roman historian relates a gruesome incident in the march of one of the imperial armies through the forests of Germany. Some years before, Varus, a Roman general, had been entrapped and cut off there with his whole force by the barbarians. The succeeding general, having marched his troops into the heart of the country, came one day upon a large open camp which was whitened all over with a vast array of human bones. It struck with a chill upon the minds of the commander and of his men that these were the bones of their precursors—the remains of their friends and fellow-countrymen who had perished some years before upon that very spot.1 [Note: J. Laidlaw, Studies in the Parables, 207.]
3. What does the vision treat of? Life and death, in their barest, most glaring contrast; life and death, and the way in which the one is to pass into the other; life and death, and the huge gulf between them, and how that gulf is to be bridged over; life and death, with their unfathomable mysteries and their world-pervading power.
Life and death! They compass us on every side: whithersoever we cast our eyes we see the workings of one or the other; we see them perpetually battling and struggling and wrestling, and now one gains the mastery, now the other. But what they are in themselves we know not. No eye of man has ever seen either. No foot of man has ever reached the hidden cave in which either of them dwells, the dark fountains from which they spring.
There are three facts in Ezekiels vision, each necessary to the complete picture—
A Living Prophet.
A Life-Giving God.
The prophet is horne upon the wings of his imagination to a valley filled with human bones—weird, gruesome, chaotic; for they are not even skeletons, but an indiscriminate mass of bones. No prospect could have been more forlorn or unpromising. There they lie, sad emblem of a hopeless, lifeless people—the living dead.
It was the scene of so many visions, the valley by the river Chebar. Now it wore a hideous face. It seemed a valley of desolation. It was a vast charnel-house. A skeleton army to Ezekiels vision lay there, ghastly, not with the fresh horror of festering corruption, but with the gaunt squalor of dry ruin. The plain was white with the chronic leprosy of death. And it was the chill of old death, death grown grey and sere, death itself turned dead, because it was death with its beauty dead, its pathos dead, death not redolent of life just gone, but long hopeless of any life to come; it was death long settled down into dismal possession, death established, privileged, throned, and secure.
Round and round the valley the prophet is led by his mysterious guide, the only living man in the grim silent valley. And everywhere are bones—the face of the valley is thick with them, so many that the soil beneath them does not peer through; bones exceeding many and exceeding dry. Dry—for it is long, long, since the warm sap of life was about them; and they are so shrivelled and wizened that nothing but a miracle can ever bring the life about them again. “Behold!” says the prophet sadly, casting his despondent glance upon them, as he moves about the valley—“Behold them—exceeding many and exceeding dry.”
1. What do these dry bones represent in the world to-day?
(1) There are spiritual dry bones and desolations among the nations. Other armies than those of emperors and kings assault the soul of a people, and indeed they are always with us. The Lord of them all is Covetousness, and his Queen is the Pride of Life. Their daughters are many—Corruption, Cruelty, Luxury, Lust, Thoughtlessness, Idleness, Extravagance, Gambling, Accumulation, Satiety, Hopelessness, Violence, Boasting, Division—a host of dreadful creatures who feed on the vitals of the people. To slay their father is to slay them all. To let him live in power is to scatter and blast the nation as the simoom blasts and dispels the caravan. And when we look round on England, Europe, and America, we see Covetousness, like Satan, throned; and his foul hand has gripped the nations. The cry of “More, more,” goes up, a monstrous prayer, to the listening ear of God; and Gods answer is that we will always live on the edge of war till we go to the root of the matter and dethrone Covetousness. Though every nation were to cry for peace, and every ruler to ask disarmament, and a hundred Peace Congresses to meet, we shall never make one step forward towards that true peace which is founded on giving that unites, not on greed that disunites. That is not the peace which the societies of earth desire at present. The peace they want now has other aims than the desire of brotherhood. It is peace for the further development of the greed of wealth—that is, for the fruitful source of jealousies, hatred, and envy, injustice, cruelty, and dissension. The result of such a selfish peace is certain to be war; and this natural result is the punishment which the law of Gods universe exacts for greed. Till the greed ceases the punishment will continue.
The man who accumulates that he may keep, or who piles up all the goods he can that he may enjoy them himself, who distributes nothing, he is the covetous man; he is the man whom the parable sketches in so bold an outline. “I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there”—that I alone may have my ease in self-enjoyment—“will I bestow all my fruits and my goods.” This is the man whom God condemns. But the Bible calls the man not only immoral but also a fool. Why? Because there is an inevitable power whose force he does not think of: Death. “Thou fool, this night shall thy soul be required of thee; then whose shall those things be which thou hast provided?”
In Gods name, what do you gain by a life of voluptuous self-indulgence? You have gained, at a vast expense of time, that slothfulness of heart which eludes the difficulties of life and refuses its commonest burdens; that indifference which sneers at enthusiasm as foolish, reverence as ridiculous, admiration as vulgar; that restless activity which spends on the pursuit of pleasure the energies of immortality. A life of this kind is slavery. Better to be poor as the poorest than such a pitiable ruin of humanity. The world may flatter the selfish man. He may win his way to a higher place in society year by year, but Christs word holds true—at best he is a fool, at worst he is degraded.
Rich towards God! Surely it is time for some of us to think of that! The night is far spent; the day is at hand when all the scenery of life will be changed, and a new world open on us. What treasure have we laid up for our existence there? Nothing but eternal things are wealth in that far-off land, and we cannot win these without surrendering what is transient. The happiness of the man who lives for mere self-interest here is in accumulation. The blessedness of the man who lives for God is in distribution.1 [Note: Stopford A. Brooke.]
(2) Many of our people lie scattered and dry in the valley of ruin. They have lost reverence and love for the spiritual powers by which a nation lives. Justice is an interloper, love of man sentimentality, pity a scientific error, simplicity of life a folly, honesty—save where it is good policy—a mistake, honour a weakness, faith in good laughable, the pursuit of the ideal madness, love of beauty incomprehensible, sacrifice of self for others undue interference with the laws of nature, and truth unwise, and not to worship the God of Getting-on irreligious, blasphemous, atheistic. These folk are the dry and fleshless bones of the dead in this country, unhappy victims of the cancer of nations. We might leave them to their death were it not that the dry-rot in them infects others with their disease, and were it not that pity for their miserable fate wakens in all who love mankind. “Son of man,” we hear, “can these dry bones live?” Is all England to take this turn to death? Is there to be no resurrection for this great people, none from the death of greed into the life of self-giving?
Mrs. Forbes Julians journal for 1901 contains an account of a visit that she and her husband paid to America in that year. “We were sometimes amused,” she writes, “by the references made to the price of things by a few of the less refined visitors at the various hotels in New York.
“ Thats my automobile. It cost fifteen thousand dollars (£3000). It has all solid silver fittings, was the remark of a lady, a total stranger, as she pointed out her motor-car to me from our hotel window. She also gave us a list of her jewellery, and informed us of the price of several ornaments she was wearing at the time, and whenever we met her on several other occasions she volunteered information about her diamonds and other precious stones, with a profusion of which she was always decorated. On our being anxious to escape the recital on one occasion, and my husband saying that he thought it was getting late, her daughter remarked, I guess I can tell you the time, and we then noticed that she was wearing three watches. She kindly explained that she was terribly fond of watches, and possessed seventy.
“Finding both these ladies very good-natured when we knew them better, we tried to interest them in the case of a poor and deserving woman whose husband was ill, and who was anxious to get work for herself, to support him and her children. We mentioned that the case was a genuine one, as we knew of it through an American friend, Mrs. Carroll, and a German friend, Countess von B—(a cousin of Humboldt), who was engaged in philanthropic church settlement work in New York. We hoped we had persuaded the millionairess to employ our poor seamstress, but I unluckily added that when she worked for Mrs. Carroll or myself we paid her tram fares, as she lived in a remote and cheap part of the city. On hearing this, the poor possessor of all this wealth (for I think she was poor in all but her banking account) exclaimed, Is that so? I call that just extortion. Shell have no car fares from me. Why no, I guess I wont employ her. The fares in question amounted to ten cents, about 5d. of our money.”1 [Note: Memorials of Henry Forbes Julian (1914), 124.]
(3) But the dry bones of Ezekiels vision may be discovered, and that not seldom, within the human soul. When a soul has lost its hold on truth or grace, when it has ceased to believe, or ceased to love, all the traces of what it once has been do not forthwith disappear. There are survivals of the old believing life—fragments of the skeleton of the old convictions, bits of stray logic which once guarded a creed, phrases which expressed the feeling that once winged a prayer. There may remain on in the arid desolation a very valley full of dry bones—of aspirations which have no goal; of opinions which have no real basis, no practical consequences; of friendships which are felt to be hollow, but which are still kept up; of habits which have lost all meaning, but which it is hard to surrender. Not seldom may we meet with writers and with talkers, with historians, with poets, whose language shows that they have once known what it is to believe, but for whom a living faith has perished utterly, and left behind it only these dried-up relics of its former life.
Earlier in his life, while Carlyle was young and confident, and the effects of his religious training were fresh in him, the existence, the omnipresence, the omnipotence of God, were then the strongest of his convictions. The faith remained unshaken in him to the end; he never himself doubted; yet he was perplexed by the indifference with which the Supreme Power was allowing its existence to be obscured. I once said to him, not long before his death, that I could only believe in a God which did something. With a cry of pain, which I shall never forget, he said, “He does nothing.” For himself, however, his faith stood firm. He did not believe in historical Christianity. He did not believe that the facts alleged in the Apostles Creed had ever really happened. The resurrection of Christ was to him only a symbol of a spiritual truth. As Christ rose from the dead, so were we to rise from the death of sin to the life of righteousness. Not that Christ had actually died and had risen again. He was only believed to have died and believed to have risen in an age when legend was history, when stories were accepted as true from their beauty or their significance. The body of the belief was now perishing, and the soul of it being discredited by its connexion with discovered error, was suspected not to be a soul at all; half mankind, betrayed and deserted, were rushing off into materialism.1 [Note: J. A. Froude, Thomas Carlyle, 1834–1881, ii. 268.]
(4) Again there is restlessness and aimlessness. If there is one thing which the awakening man feels, it is the scatteredness, the disjointedness, of his being. I am made up of countless parts—innumerable elements of thought and feeling, desire and will, affection and ambition, interest and occupation. I do not complain of a want of variety, of diversity, of manifoldness of gifts; that which I bewail is a want of unity. I give this fragment of myself to this, and another fragment of myself to that—I bestow here a wish, and there an effort, and there a taste, and there a liking; here an outlay of time, and there of money, and there of toil, and there of affection—one lord after another has dominion over me, many by turns, no one in perpetuity—and when I look at my life it is a thing of shreds and fragments; it has no coherence, no continuity, no plan, or, if any, only one of roving, straying, sinning. And now the grey hairs are upon me. I have eaten and drunken, I have played and toiled, almost my entire portion, and nothing is done, nothing is gained—nothing which can be called mine, nothing which can go with me when I die, or welcome me at the other side into everlasting habitations. The bones of my complex frame are dry, and lo, they lie all along the valley of my being, no two in one!
If proof of the fact that the forces of materialism have been at work among us were needed, nothing could afford it more clearly than our loss of peace and dignity in modern society. Many costly luxuries have become necessities, and they have increased the pace of life to a rush and fury which makes business a turmoil and social life a fever. A symbolic embodiment of this spirit may be seen in the motor-car and the aeroplane as they are often used. These indeed need not be ministers of paganism. The glory of swift motion and the mounting up on wings as eagles reach very near to the spiritual, if not indeed across its borderland, as exhilarating and splendid stimuli to the human spirit. But, on the other hand, they may be merely instruments for gratifying that insane human restlessness which is but the craving for new sensations. Along the whole line of our commercial and industrial prosperity there runs one great division. There are some who, in the midst of all change, have preserved their old spiritual loyalties, and there are others who have substituted novelty for loyalty. These are the idealists and the pagans of the twentieth century.1 [Note: J. Kelman, Among Famous Books, 243.]
(5) Such was the state of the whole world when Christ came down to save it. The whole world was lying dead in trespasses and sins; and nothing was to be seen in the whole race of man but the wreck of shattered souls. If we look into the first chapter of St. Pauls Epistle to the Romans, we are there carried in spirit to a far more appalling and loathsome vision than that which met the eyes of the prophet Ezekiel—to a place filled, not with dry bones, but with unrighteousness, with fornication, with covetousness, with envy, with murder, with strife, with deceit, with malignity, with backbiting, with hatred of God, with despitefulness, with pride, with boasting, with undutifulness, with implacableness, with unmercifulness, with all things that die, and with all things that kill. When our eyes wander over these carcasses of souls, mouldering and rotting on every side, we can hardly so much as take heart to ask, Can these bones live?
But some members of the Church make a greater problem than men of the world. They make us ask, in more despair than the world itself stirs, Can these bones live? These people go to church, uphold their Church, and would fight for their Church; they would make civil war for its privilege. They have more fight than faith in them. Their souls are exceedingly filled with contempt. And they have a name of lusty life. But they are spiritually dead and they care for their Church but as partisans, or because it is a centre of social rank, or of juvenile amusements. What preacher but is cast into occasional despair by that question as he looks upon many spiritual skeletons around him? What preacher has not many a time to answer with Ezekiel that these can live only by some miracle of God?
The members of Mr. Murkers little congregation, disturbed and shaken with the dissension that had arisen [over the question of electing a woman as treasurer of the church], “were cast down but not destroyed,” “perplexed but not in despair.” A tenacious affection and unfaltering loyalty for the “cause” kept most of them together. They did not value their “principles” less because they had betrayed human infirmities in working them out. They were simple people, but they were not so illogical as to suppose that the trying vicissitudes which their church shared in common with all earthly institutions proved their particular policy to be unsound. Order is good, but life, they held, came before order. One of their members from Macduff met a member of the Established Church there who twitted him upon a want of harmony in the Congregational Chapel. “Why,” he said, “do you dissenters have so many differences. Look at the folk in the Kirk, how quiet they are!” “Oh, yes,” was the smart but provoked rejoinder, “the folk in the Kirk are quiet, very quiet; so are the folk in the yaird behin the Kirk!”1 [Note: J. Stark, John Murker of Banff, 42.]
2. What we have here, then, is an allegory of resurrection. But it is the resurrection, not of the body, nor primarily of the soul as individual, but of the nation. The resurrection of the individual dead was no part as yet of the Hebrew faith. This is shown here by the prophets answer to the question, “Can these bones live?” “O Lord God, thou knowest,” he said. If the resurrection of the dead had been a current belief, or the prophets belief, he would have said, “Yea, Lord.” But he took the unlikeliest, most incredible thing they knew to illustrate the grandeur of what God would do. The people were as hopeless of the future as they were of the dead rising. The point of the vision is lost if we suppose a current belief in the resurrection of the dead, or any intention of the prophet to teach it. “God will do a thing as incredible in its way as you and I know the raising of the dead to be.” It is originally, then, an allegory of spiritual resurrection; but of spiritual resurrection in national or public form.
A Living Prophet
Ezekiel was himself to be the instrument of the regeneration. Christ can do no mighty works through unbelief; unbelief ever breeds spiritual paralysis; it sinks into a slough of despond, and there wallows in its helplessness. Ezekiel was the one man who had the faith and courage to lift his eyes above the phenomena to the great Reality that is behind all phenomena, the one man who refused to fix his gaze on the dry bones as if that were the whole truth. If he saw the dead bones, he saw also the living God, and set no limits to His power. The man of faith comes to his generation with a message: he is a seer of the mountain tops, who sees the heavens open and the Son of Man, standing at the right hand of power. The prophet is a man with a mission and a message, who sees deep into the heart of things because God has anointed his eyes with eye-salve; and so he becomes an interpreter of truth to his generation. “Again he said unto me, Prophesy over these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.” It was the thing they needed most. They had listened to the word of Nebuchadnezzar till their hearts welled within them; they marked the horses and chariots of Babylon, and cried, Woe unto us, for we are undone. But, here is a man who heard the word of the Lord, who saw the horses of fire and chariots of fire round about them, and therefore bears himself with strength and assurance. So he prophesied as he was commanded; he brought to the people a message of hope; he came to tell them the Lord was among them.
1. Ezekiel was prepared for his part in this resurrection from the dead. He was prepared in a twofold way.
(1) He had a vision of God.—In the first chapter of Ezekiels prophecy we are told that he saw visions of God. He saw wings with human hands under them; a vision of the Divine and the human—(the wing everywhere symbolizes Divinity, and the hand humanity)—the Divine controlling the human, for the wings moved the hands. He saw winged creatures with the face of a man symbolizing intelligence, the face of a lion symbolizing courage, the face of an ox symbolizing patience, and the face of an eagle symbolizing aspiration, all under control of the Divine wings. The need of every prophet of God is that his intelligence, courage, patience, and aspiration shall be linked with God and be completely controlled by Him.
(2) He felt the hand of God.—“The hand of the Lord was upon me.” The hand of the Lord symbolizes His power, and to be under His hand is to be endued with His power. The Spirit of God is in every Christian for life, but every Christian is not under Gods hand for power. The prophet responds to the touch of God and goes where He leads. “The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he carried me out in the Spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley; and it was full of bones.” He was willing to be led by the Lords hand into the valley of bones. The temptation is for us to seek the garden with its flowers rather than the valley with its bones.
The sorrowful sense of the widespread deadness must enter into a mans spirit, and be ever present to him, in order to fit him for his work. A dead world is not to be quickened on easy terms. We must see mankind in some measure as God sees them if we are to do Gods work among them. So-called Christian teachers, who do not believe that the race is dead in sin, or who, believing it, do not feel the tragedy of the fact, and the power lodged in their hands to bring the true life, may prophesy to the dry bones for ever, and there will be no shaking among them.1 [Note: A. Maclaren.]
2. Ezekiel began by facing the facts. It is always a false start in religion to begin by minimizing the tragedy that has befallen human nature—to make little of the sin that has filled the world with sorrow—and so reduce the cure which Christianity brings to the level of the merely “natural.” Mr. Birrell declared once that the one doctrine of religion he had never any difficulty in believing was the doctrine of original sin. Human nature is depraved—totally depraved. That does not mean that there is no good left in it; there is a difference between fallen humanity and devilhood; there is left that to which the good can appeal and which responds to the appeal of the good. But sin has invaded human nature in its totality; it has penetrated to every part and power. It has thrown its plague of darkness over the understanding; it has warped the emotional life; it has vitiated our moral personality and inflicted unnatural disease on our physical frames; our fall is complete, our depravity total. If we are to magnify the grace of God we must follow Ezekiels example. He did not explain away the stern and awful facts, so fostering a false hope. No, he stood in the very midst of the valley gazing on the melancholy scene; he passed by the bones round about; he surveyed all the facts, and there was no getting away from them, there were very many, and they were very dry.
That this world hath evil in all its parts, that its matter is in a corrupt, disordered state, full of grossness, disease, impurity, wrath, death, and darkness, is as evident as that there is light, beauty, order, and harmony everywhere to be found in it. It is as impossible that this outward state and condition of things should be a first and immediate work of God as that there should be good and evil in God Himself.… But now, as in man, the little world, there is excellency and perfection enough to prove that human nature is the work of an All-perfect Being, yet so much impurity and disease of corrupt flesh and blood as undeniably shows that sin has almost quite spoiled the work of God; so, in the great world, the footsteps of an infinite wisdom in the order and harmony of the whole sufficiently appear, yet the disorders, tumults, and evils of nature plainly demonstrate that the perfect condition of this world is only the remains or ruins, first, of a heaven spoiled by the fall of angels, and then of a paradise lost by the sin of man. So that man and the world in which he lives lie both in the same state of disorder and impurity, have both the same marks of life and death in them, both bring forth the same sort of evils, both want a redeemer, and have need of the same kind of death and resurrection before they can come to their first state of purity and perfection.1 [Note: William Law, An Appeal to all that Doubt (ed. 1768), 18.]
3. But in facing the facts Ezekiel did not acquiesce in them. The temptation of religious people everywhere is to recognize the wide extent of insensibility and to acquiesce in it. They mark where their neighbours are and, having given to each his badge, they let them be; he that is righteous, let him be righteous still, and he that is worldly let him be worldly still, for characters are formed, and there is little use in fighting against facts. There are whole communities which have sunk to that, which are perfectly respectable, but with no faintest impulse of aggression, and where the great powers which transfigure character are unknown.
Much of what in Scotland was called Moderatism began by being something else. A minister, with evangelical sympathies, found himself in a parish where swearing and hard drinking abounded; at first he talked in his own dialect, but, in a while, as no one understood, he changed his tone, and through the rest of life he was content to discharge a purely mechanical office, taking men as they were, and not expecting them ever to be different. But alongside of that we have another record, of brave men coming into very ungodly regions, and by sheer courage and directness penetrating the hard crust of habit, and awakening in the unlikeliest people interest, and tenderness, and the deep fountain of tears.1 [Note: W. M. Macgregor, Some of Gods Ministries, 208.]
Tolstoy describes the effect in a frightful lodging-house in Moscow of something which he had said without knowing that he was overheard. Over the top of a partition in the room, one womans head and then another appeared, looking at him with strained attention. “I had not expected that a casual word would produce such an impression. It was like the field of battle seen by Ezekiel on which the bones began to move. I had uttered a chance word of love and pity, and it produced upon these women such an effect that it seemed as if they had been waiting for it, to cease to be corpses and to become alive again.” Nothing is gained by underestimating the difficulty; and yet I think that every one who has had experience in working for others must have seen effects in individuals like that which Tolstoy describes, when they found themselves in some way accepted by the good, and spoken to as if, after all their waste of life, they still might make something of it. They may be far from what they ought to be, but it is an unforgettable lesson to see such movements in what seemed a hopeless life.2 [Note: Ibid.]
4. Then, to our surprise, instead of Jehovah Himself addressing the bones and rousing them to unity and life by His word of thunder, He turns to the prophet, and bids him pronounce the magic word. “Prophesy thou over the bones.” The Divine and resuscitating word is to be spoken by Gods human servant. “Dry Bones”—they are thus addressed as if that were their name—“listen”—among these dead ones there are still, it would seem, slumbering possibilities—“listen to the word of Jehovah,” the word, that is, that falls from the lips of His prophet. What qualifications had Ezekiel for this task? Every worker in the valley of bones needs three qualifications. He must be a man of God, a man of the Bible, and a man of prayer. He must keep right with God and the word of God, while he trusts the Spirit of God. No valley of bones can resist a man of this kind.
(1) Ezekiel was a man of God in that he was right with God and completely under Gods control. It is well to be a man of learning, a man of position, a man of means, a man of eloquence, but it is a thousand times better to be a man of God.
(2) But, further, the man of God must speak the word of God. The prophet spoke to the bones exactly what God told him. In 2 Timothy 3:16-17, we have the purpose of the Scriptures: “All Scripture is God-breathed, and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work.” The man of God has the whole Bible from which to draw equipment for every good work.
This is the glory of the Bible. It is at once the book of truth, the book of law, and the book of influence. Think of it as the book of truth, and you remember immediately the great historical pictures of the Old Testament, and the great appeals to reason in the Epistles of the New. Think of it as the book of law, and you hear the thunder of the Ten Commandments, and the vehement admonitions of the Hebrew prophets. Think of it as the book of influence, and you feel the pathetic power of the Psalms of David and the Gospel of St. John. Try to conceive its full might as a combination of the three, and there stands out before you the personality of Him of whom the whole Bible is but the picture and expression—that Christ who is at once the teacher of mans ignorance, the ruler of mans waywardness, and the inspirer of mans spiritual vitality; at once the Truth and the Way and the Life. It is in its combination and mastery of all three of these great fundamental powers that the Bible is the universal and eternal book, the Word of God to Man 1:1 [Note: Phillips Brooks, Essays and Addresses, 472.]
(3) He must also be a man of prayer, depending upon the Spirit of God to use the Word. The prophet was commanded to call upon the breath of God to breathe upon the valley of bones, and, while he spoke Gods word, Gods invisible power moved upon the valley.
“The most striking thing of all in each days work,” says one of Professor Flints students,—“the most impressive act of all—was the prayer with which he began the days work. There we were—130 of us or so, finding our several ways like the members of a great herd to our accustomed places, and having found them, chatting away about all sorts of things in church and state—sharpening pencils, preparing notebooks; a hum, a buzz, a rustle over all. And then the retiring-room door opened; a little, spare, alert figure hastened to the platform with exactly that shy sideways-looking expression in the Sir George Reid portrait, so sideways-looking and uncertain in his walk as to give one at times the impression of lameness. The next moment we were on our feet with heads bent, minds waiting, ears straining, listening to the few short sentences of agonised and agonising pleading with which he cast himself and us all on the mercy of God in Christ. Pardon for our sins, strength for our need, the strength needful for this day and its duties: just a few short sentences, but they seemed to rise out of infinite depths of helplessness and of trust, the cry of a strong man in his utter weakness and absolute dependence upon God. It was an instruction to us that we should prepare the devotional part of our Sunday service before we took up the preparation of our sermon; we know that this was his own custom for each days lecture. And as we ponder his precept and recall his example and think of our foolishness in the neglect of both, we get very near the secret, the greatest of all the secrets, perhaps, of our failure on the Sabbath day. His prayer was a wrestling with God and a prevailing; the hard won victory of faith over a stubborn wilfulness and out of the midst of a great weakness.”1 [Note: D. Macmillan, The Life of Robert Flint (1914), 288.]
The Life-Giving God
The dry bones stirred at the word of the Lord. They were not thereby vitalized or quickened, but they were stirred. Ezekiel describes the effect in one of the weirdest of visions. “As I prophesied there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together bone to his bone.” Under the urgent preaching of the prophet, the dissecta membra—those miserable fragments of mutilated manhood—were stirred to shame at their condition, and they rallied into at least the appearance of an organized body. There was a “shaking”; a movement all over the valley as the bones, recognizing their mutual affinities, glided towards one another; and there was a “noise” as they came together with hollow click, bone to his bone. And then over the naked skeletons flesh and sinew crept, and the skin covered them above. And that was all that the preaching of the greatest prophet of his generation accomplished, all that his urgent entreaty to hear the word of the Lord effected.
There was still no breath in them. Any quickening of interest was a momentary reflection of light from his eager face, for they had no source of light within themselves. So, after prophesying to the bones, there remained for him another prophesying, to the wind—“Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live. So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army.” In preaching and in all great work for men, we come upon the same transition—from that which we can do to that which we cannot do, when we must lay down the instruments at our command, and seek another. All greater work requires them both.
1. Ezekiels preaching had prepared the way of the Lord, and made His path straight; the reorganized bones in which the saving grace of shame had been stirred were ready to receive the quickening of the Divine power. And God is ready to give wherever men are ready to receive; the valley of dry bones was to be the scene of a great manifestation of creative goodness. As it was in the beginning, so it was now. In that far-off day of creation God fashioned the dust of the earth into a human form, and it lay before Him, a masterpiece of Divine architecture. But it was dead; it was unspiritual; it was like the beasts of the field, only a little more elaborately planned, a little more delicately executed. But God had graciously purposed to make man in His own image, after His likeness. And, stooping over that masterpiece of clay modelling, He breathed into it His own Divine breath; He said to it: “Receive the Holy Ghost,” and now that animate clay was a living son of God. Just so, after the dead bones had come together, after sinew and flesh and skin had covered them; after all the reformation had been effected that human preaching and moral influence could effect, God said, Prophesy now to the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Come and breathe upon these bones, that they may live. It was all they needed now, and it was a need that only the Spirit of God could supply.
In the Church that bears the name of Christ we may have everything but the essential thing. We may have order and decency and reverence and the appearance of fraternity. Bone may come to bone, and there may be the sinews and even the flesh and skin, and yet there may be no pervading breath, no mysterious and unifying life. We may have a congregation, but not a communion; we may have an assembly, but not an army; we may have a fellowship roll, but not of those who are counted alive, and whose names “are written in the Lambs book of life.” We may be just a crowd, and not “the family of the living God.” We may have prayers, but no prayer. We may have petitions, but no real intercession. We may have posture and homage, but no supplication. We may have exquisite ritual, but no holy worship. We may have what men call “a finished service,” and yet there may be nothing of the violence of a vital faith. We may have benevolences, but no sacrifice. We may have the appearance of service, but no shedding of blood. The Church may be only an organized corpse. But when the breath comes, how then? The breath of God converts an organization into an organism; it transforms a combination into a fellowship, a congregation into a church, a mob into an army. That breath came into a little disciple-band weakened by timidity and fear, and it changed it into a spiritual army that could not be checked or hindered by “the world, the flesh and the devil.” And when the same breath of God comes into a man of “parts,” a man of many faculties and talents, sharpened by culture, drilled and organized by discipline, it endows him with the veritable power of an army, and makes him irresistible. “And Peter, filled with the holy breath!” How can we compute the value and the significance and the power of that unifying association? Peter himself becomes an army, “an army of the living God.” If the Church were filled with men of such glorious spiritual endowment, what would be the tale of exploits, what new chapters would be added to the Acts of the Apostles!
I suppose there never was a time in the history of the world when organization went for so much, for good or ill, as it does to-day. Societies have been called into existence for all manner of purposes, till they oust the home and threaten to submerge even the Church. Science is organized both into philosophies and into great industries. Philanthropy is organized as a serious business. The Churches themselves organize and federate in a way unheard of; and some seek to organize now that never were organized before. Missions are conducted by societies which are in themselves small states. Politics and parties are in the hands of wire-pullers. And death is organized as well as life. Drink is organized into a solid, selfish interest, anti-social, anti-national, and anti-human. Armies were never such perfect and costly machines, and wars were never so scientific. The bloodless war of industry is entering on a phase of trusts and syndicates, when vast organizations threaten to extinguish private enterprise altogether. The commercial swallows up the national. The fieriest patriotism vanishes when we can sell on excellent terms to a rival race. It is the newest Catholicism, the latest Ultra-montanism—that of finance. Labour also is organized, no less than Capital, in a way that seems at times to threaten both the life and the conscience of industry. Civilization altogether becomes organized, by wire, and rail, and press, into a concert which is not always in tune, but is still in action. But is there no danger in this passionate rush to the mechanical side of existence? As we perfect the form, what is to become of the spirit? Can we organize human nature, and land this leviathan with a hook? Can we organize ourselves into eternal life, or thus contest with Christ the monopoly of souls? Do we not already know more than we have power to manage?1 [Note: P. T. Forsyth, Missions in State and Church, 326.]
2. Jehovah, who breathed into the nostrils of the first man the breath of life, is able and ready to work His ancient wonder upon less promising subjects and on a more splendid scale. Breath is the greatest thing, the necessary thing, to a living man—mentioned here first, and as Gods own gift; till they get their breath, they will be of no use. But it is imparted last. First, the dry and wizened bones must be clothed with flesh and sinews, and then, when they look like human beings, they will be ready for breath. And finally, when they stand upon their feet, an exceeding great army, the breath of life in their nostrils, and the light of life in their eyes, then they will know “that I am Jehovah.” For those hopeless men of whom the sapless bones are the emblem do not yet rightly know what manner of God is theirs, and how by His mighty power He can revive them again.
What precise meaning we ought to attach to expressions such as that of the prophecy to the four winds that the dry bones might be breathed upon, and might live, or why the presence of the vital power should be dependent on the chemical action of the air, and its awful passing away materially signified by the rendering up of that breath or ghost, we cannot at present know, and need not at any time dispute. What we assuredly know is that the states of life and death are different, and the first more desirable than the other, and by effort attainable, whether we understand being “born of the spirit” to signify having the breath of heaven in our flesh, or its power in our hearts.1 [Note: Ruskin, The Queen of the Air, § 55 (Works, xix. 354).]
“Can these bones live?”—
The prophet saw such clothed with flesh and skin;
A wind blew on them, and life entered in;
They shook and rose.
Hasten the time, O Lord, blot out their sin,
Let life begin.”2 [Note: Christina G. Rossetti, Poetical Works, 204.]
3. Observe then, the first lesson of the vision. That lesson is commonly misread, even by us, or at least read with the wrong emphasis. The object of this vision is not to produce the sense of our own spiritual helplessness. No doubt its picture of the dead—unburied, dismembered, so long dead that only bones are left; these bones so long exposed as to be bleached and dry—is appallingly vivid. But that is not the point of the Lords answer in the vision. The real point is a challenge to Gods power. The people were saying, “Our bones are dried, our hope is lost; we are cut off for our parts.” Well, said the Lord, I take you at your own terms. You talk about “dry bones.” I will give My servant the prophet a vision of a whole valley covered over with dry bones; and, in face of that vision, say, “Can these bones live?” The power of God, not the helplessness of man, is the real meaning of the vision. For the prophet is so sure that the thought of such bones being brought again to life could never have come but from Him who quickeneth the dead, that he instantly replies, “O Lord, thou knowest.”
4. And the second lesson is that the power of God is exercised through human means. “It is my power,” says the Lord; “but it is to be applied in the exercise of your ministry.” So Ezekiel is bidden prophesy “upon” or “over” these bones. He is bidden address the word even to these bleached and scattered relics: “Say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.”
The turning-point of the prophets ministry was when he bore a message declaring that the Lord would do the very thing which men themselves said was impossible. For that prophecy had a quickening power in it which brought about its own fulfilment. And so has it always proved. When Gods servants tell men plainly of their “death in sin,” of their utter want of power in themselves to serve the living God, and yet proclaim that God has sent His message for this very purpose, that they shall live, it brings its own fulfilment. Often men think otherwise. They call it a discouraging doctrine! They say, “What use is there in preaching the helplessness of man?” But that is not the kernel of our message; it is the helpfulness and the power of God. God sends His message for this very purpose—to rouse men, to draw together these bones to one another, to call to them “Arise from the dead!” for Christ shall give them light. It is then and thus that awakenings, conversions, revivals have invariably followed.
When Tennyson passed from school to the university, religious life in England had very much decayed. The spirit which animated Wesley, and which had fallen like the prophets mantle on the earlier Evangelicals, had now become cold. English religion, in and out of the Church, was like the valley Ezekiel described, full of bones, and the bones were dry. And in the midst of the valley one figure, now old, who had seen the fire of religious sacrifice rise high to God in the past, who had welcomed its descent and directed it into new channels but who had outlived his enthusiasm, went to and fro, chilled at heart, and wailing for what had been. It was the soul of Coleridge, and if the voice of the Spirit asked him, “Son of man, can these bones live?” he answered, but not in hope, “O Lord God, thou knowest.” He died before he saw the resurrection which Tennyson saw, the blowing of the wind of God, and the bones coming together, and the slain breathed upon, so that they lived and stood upon their feet, an exceeding great army.1 [Note: Stopford A. Brooke, Tennyson, 18.]
Life from the Dead
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Brooke (S. A.), The Kingship of Love, 309.
Davidson (A. B.), The Book of Ezekiel (Cambridge Bible), 266.
Dixon (A. C.), Through Night to Morning, 127.
Forsyth (P. T.), Missions in State and Church, 291.
Gollancz (H.), Sermons and Addresses, 1.
Hare (J. C.), Sermons Preacht in Herstmonceux Church, ii. 419.
Jowett (J. H.), Things that Matter Most, 163.
Laidlaw (J.), Studies in the Parables, 207.
Lamb (R.), School Sermons, i. 347.
Liddon (H. P.), Forty-Two Sermons Selected from the Penny Pulpit, iii., No. 1047.
Lushington (F. de W.), Sermons to Young Boys, 76.
McFadyen (J. E.), The City with Foundations, 73.
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Parker (J.), Studies in Texts, ii. 52.
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Skinner (J.), The Book of Ezekiel (Expositors Bible), 342.
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Vaughan (C. J.), Sundays in the Temple, 235.
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Cambridge Review, iv., Supplement No. 97 (J. Mitchinson).
Christian World Pulpit, xxvi. 377 (F. W. Farrar); xliii. 267 (G. S. Barrett); lxxxv. 234 (A. F. Moody).
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Church Pulpit Year Book, 1914, p. 257.
Churchmans Pulpit: Easter Day and Season, vii. 400 (C. H. Prichard); Twentieth Sunday after Trinity, xiii. 16 (R. Winterbotham); Mission Work, i. 77 (J. L. Roberts).
Treasury (New York), xii. 208 (J. M. Dickson).