The Old Testament is replete with stories of intrigue, with one of those narratives originating within the prophecies of Ezekiel. Depending on one’s own eschatological leanings, Ezekiel’s words offer a variety of interpretations. This fact is especially true in Ezekiel 37, the prophecy of the valley of dry bones.
Outside of his own personal biography, Ezekiel’s life story is essentially unknown. He lived in the tumultuous times as Israel watched and experienced their destruction at the hands of the Babylonians. Ezekiel himself became a casualty of war, as he was taken captive most probably during the second of the three deportations. One immediately discovers the providence of God, as Ezekiel began his prophecies during his captivity. He offers the hope of the thirty-seventh chapter in response to the destruction of Jerusalem and the sacred temple. The die is now cast. (No pun is actually intended here in using this idiom, but one can imagine that if nothing changes, many churches are going to literally die.) Judgment has come, but God reveals Himself as the God of revitalization and resurrection.
The question of the moment is the one asked by God of Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel’s answer resonates with most who love the church, “Lord GOD, only You know” (37:3). The prophecy specifically regards Israel’s return from captivity. Many see this passage with a greater eschatological significance, relating it to Israel’s gathering as converted believers in God’s kingdom. Regardless of how one views the eschatological significance of this passage, two important ingredients are essential for Israel’s return.
The first requirement necessitates the preaching of God’s Word. God tells Ezekiel, “Prophesy concerning these bones” (37:4). As Ezekiel obeys, the Scripture unveils this magnificent vision of bones taking on tendons and flesh. Note carefully that the bones described are dry bones. These soldiers who died in battle were not afforded the privilege of a proper burial. They experienced the great disgrace of open decay. Yet God intervenes, and Ezekiel speaks to the bones.
The second standard for revitalization set by God involves the work of the Spirit. The word breath occurs in a variety of ways in this passage. That issue causes the reader to remain somewhat in the dark concerning its meaning as God says that He “will cause breath to enter you, and you will live” (37:5). The word for breath in the Hebrew (ruah) is actually translated as three different words in English, namely, breath, wind, and spirit. The writer resolves this question as God declares, “I will put My Spirit in you, and you will live” (37:14).
In order for the church to be revived, it will demand a mighty work of God’s Spirit. Following a particular methodology or program does not guarantee success. One might greatly desire for the church to revitalize and grow, but genuine church growth calls for more than personal passion. It requires the Spirit of God. Church revitalization begins with laying the foundation of God’s Word as it is preached and followed through a movement of God’s Spirit. The two are inseparably linked.
Can these bones live? Only God knows, yet He instills hope in those who desire to see the established church thrive and revive. Just as God miraculously returned Israel to her home, He can bring restoration to a declining, dying church. — William Henard, Can These Bones Live: A Practical Guide to Church Revitalization (Nashville: B&H, 2015).
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