THE SPIRIT AND THE DRY BONES


Vol. 5, No. 6, Nov. – Dec. 1976

Harry Foster

Reading: Ezekiel 37:1-14

EZEKIEL had many experiences of the Spirit but none so strange as the one on the day when he was taken to Dry Bone Valley. “Behold,” he ejaculated, and then again: “Lo” (verse 2), as the full nature of this scene of desolation broke upon him. And then the Spirit of the Lord posed the question to him: “Son of man, can these bones live?” No wonder that even a man of God like Ezekiel had no glib answer to such an enquiry. If it happened it would be one of the most sensational miracles which could ever occur. Very sensibly he put the whole matter back to God: “Thou knowest”, whereupon he was shown that God not only knows but He operates. The scattered dry bones became a living army on the march. In this way God declared for all time that His own purposes for His earthly people Israel will never be abandoned.

The vision is yet for the future. There are those who judge that we are now halfway through the realisation of this remarkable prophecy; that Israel’s dry bones have already become united and clothed with flesh, so that we are now only waiting for the final breath of God which will complete the national miracle. There is much to confirm such an interpretation, but there is also a significant weakness about it. When the Lord Himself applied the interpretation of the vision, He spoke of His people confessing: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off” (verse 11). In other words the prelude to such a startling divine resurrection is complete despair from the human side. Is this true of modern Israel? Or does she yet have to come to a new zero of hopelessness before God can fulfil His Word? Before she is recovered must she yet despair?

The very word ‘despair’ reminds us of the personal experience of the great Israelite, Paul, in his own proving of resurrection power: “We despaired even of life … that we should … trust … in God which raiseth the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9). So we turn from God’s promised miracle for a nation to enquire about His working in individual Christians. In this way, without in any sense lessening our conviction about Israel’s future, we may discover what this message can mean to us personally. Are we feeling dry and scattered? Does the question arise as to whether there is any future here on earth for us? Then let us turn again to Ezekiel’s vision so that we may find new inspiration from Ezekiel’s God.

THE PRINCIPLE OF RESURRECTION

Resurrection is the divine method of working. The Scriptures consistently describe God’s activities as being based on the principle of resurrection. Let us consider some examples:

1. Job

We take it that Job was a very early figure among the patriarchs, and that his long and enthralling book has a message for us all. In the New Testament we are reminded of his patience (James 5:11); but if he waited, what was he waiting for? The answer is that he needed a miracle of resurrection. His friends alternated advice as to action with counsels of despair, but Job maintained that his faith would continue [107/108] even down to death: “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in him” (Job 13:15), and he also voiced the triumphant confidence that issues out of death are guaranteed by his living Redeemer (19:25). He was right! His dry bones did live again. His final vindication brought him not only to the doubling of all his possessions but also to the replacing of his lost sons and daughters by an equal number (42:13). In this way God established at the dawn of history that His principle of blessing is resurrection.

2. Isaac

We are told that Abraham’s triumphant faith involved him in going down into the valley of death itself (Hebrews 11:17-19). Even the miracle of new life which was embodied in his son Isaac had to be delivered over to death, not only to test Abraham’s obedience but to establish the basis upon which God dealt with him as that which is applicable to every genuine believer. If God had asked him: ‘Can a slain Isaac live again?’, as He asked Ezekiel about the dead bones, Abraham would surely have surpassed the prophet’s faith and uttered a triumphant: ‘Yes’! It is not without significance that even such a man of God as Abraham took almost a lifetime to learn this lesson of faith in the God of resurrection. After all, Paul openly confessed that it was a lesson which he was only painfully and slowly learning (2 Corinthians 1:9). If we are men and women of faith, then this is the great principle which we must grasp, namely that God always works on the basis of death and resurrection.

3. Jonah

There is a sense in which the greatest ‘resurrection man’ of the Old Testament was Jonah. Christ Himself chose this prophet’s experience as the illustration and foreshadowing of His own burial and resurrection (Matthew 12:40). Somehow this brings us more comfort. Job was a massive man spiritually, a veritable giant of faith. Abraham was even greater, for he was God’s acknowledged friend. We who know that we are both insignificant and unworthy, feel ourselves to be completely outclassed by such great men of God. ‘God would do that for them,’ we argue, ‘but our faults and feebleness make it most unlikely that He would ever do it for us.’ So it helps us very much if we turn to a man who was more noted for his faults than for his faith, a wilful man, an unloving man, an altogether unworthy man and — to our surprise — we find that the mighty miracle of resurrection came to him.

If ever I feel particularly depressed, I invariably find enormous comfort in Jonah 2. Here was a man in the direst of straits, a man who was touching bottom in an extreme way; and moreover one who had brought all his troubles upon himself. How could he pray? But he did pray, even though it was from “the belly of hell” (Jonah 2:2). How could God answer such a man’s prayer? Well, the fact remains that He could and He did, for “salvation is of the Lord” (2:9). So even man’s unworthiness does not paralyse God. Far from it! Jonah’s self-will and self-righteousness delayed the divine plans, but when he came low in spirit as well as in circumstances, then God “who raiseth the dead”, raised him and renewed his commission to service. We presume that the startling success of Jonah’s ministry was partly due to this resurrection experience. God’s principle of resurrection is essential for fruitful service. This, as I have said, is the basis upon which He always works.

4. Christ

We know, of course, that the whole redemptive work of the Lord Jesus hinges on His literal resurrection from the dead. But even before He went to the cross He made it very plain that the validity of His right to bear the name of Jehovah was proved in terms of resurrection: “I am the resurrection and the life”, He affirmed. It seems clear from many of His miracles that He only began to work when men’s efforts and expectations were exhausted.

Take the first of them all, the beginning of the ‘sign’ miracles described in John’s Gospel, which was that of the water turned into wine. It was only when all the bridegroom’s resources were completely used up and when Mary desisted from offering her advice, that Jesus began to work. Until then He insisted that ‘His hour’ had not yet come (John 2:4). Clearly ‘His hour’ is when everything human is at zero. So long as men had wine and Mary had plans He was not ready to act. The moment that everything was left to Him was the moment of His power. Cana of Galilee laid the foundation for Christ’s manifestation of His glory, showing that it was to be based on the principle of resurrection. If we pass to the seventh great sign of that Gospel, the [108/109] climax of all Christ’s miracles, we find that once again He deliberately waited until all human hope had gone before He called Lazarus from the dead. “Lord, by this time he stinketh; for he hath been dead four days,” expostulated Martha, only to be reminded by the Lord Jesus that this very fact made a suitable platform for a manifestation of the glory of God (John 11:39-40).

5. The Church

So the Church came into being, a community of those who confessed with their mouths the Lord Jesus and believed in their hearts that God had raised Him from the dead. From the first, however, its members not only proclaimed Christ’s resurrection but were led into experiences which demonstrated that with God resurrection is an abiding principle. Read the book of the Acts with this in mind, and you will find God’s people constantly involved in fresh experiences of need and almost despair, only to find new deliverances which led to mightier blessings. It is not always easy, nor is it necessary, to explain how or why things so worked out. Those concerned must have been first puzzled and then relieved as they experienced these miracles of divine intervention. The epistles, however, do give us an explanation of what lay behind these descents into the depths and the subsequent uplifts to the heights, pointing out that they represent the working out of the principle of resurrection. “For we which live are always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the life also of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death worketh in us, but life in you” (2 Corinthians 4:11-12). So we look through this essentially Jewish vision to find a relevant message for ourselves. It is clear for all to see that God always works on the principle of resurrection.

THE PRELUDE TO RESURRECTION

By a quite deliberate action, the Lord confronted Ezekiel with an impossible situation. Thinking superficially we might judge that the description was exaggerated. Not bodies, not skeletons even, and not just bones, but scattered and very dry ones. We must remember, though, that Ezekiel, far from inventing this scene, had it shown to him by God Himself; and God never exaggerates. If, then, we ask why the picture was such a dark one, we must answer that God purposely chose this means of conveying to His people the essential basis of His working. We remind ourselves again of Paul’s words: “We have had the answer of death within ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9). The human approach to any situation is embodied in the saying: ‘While there’s life, there’s hope’. This vision, though, gives us a glimpse into another dimension of life, the divine; and we find that real hope only begins when all lesser hopes have died.

Take this matter of Ezekiel’s ministry among the remnant. He only began it after the second stage of the captivity, but when the city was still standing and the temple intact, so that the false prophets could insist that they would never be destroyed. Strangely enough that was a period in Ezekiel’s life when God kept him dumb, as can be verified in 24:27 and 33:22. He was not literally silent, but he had nothing to say to the superficial optimists, but devoted chapters 28 to 32 to the non-Jewish nations. In other words, God had no word of hope for Israel until all man’s false hopes had been entirely exploded. When, however, tidings came back to the prophet that the city had finally been overthrown, then his mouth was opened to tell of God’s promise for a new day. So in this chapter 37 we are told that the whole house of Israel will confess: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost” (v.11). On the basis of this confession, the Lord finds Himself free to promise that He will open their graves and bring them back into the land. It was as though He said: ‘If you have been brought to the end of yourselves and have abandoned all your hope, then I will now act in resurrection recovery and prove Myself to be the God of hope’. I have already stated that I do not think that modern Israel has by any means reached this zero point, and therefore expect that the nation will yet be brought into some extreme of human hopelessness before God fully implements this vision. We, however, are not discussing Israel, but ourselves. We, too, must be people of the resurrection. But such a miracle demands despair from the human side. The prelude to resurrection is always death. We shall know little of the power of His resurrection unless we are first prepared to be conformed to His death.

Perhaps a consideration of the spiritual agonies of the man described in Romans 7 may illuminate [109/110] this truth for us. Whether that man was Paul the Christian or not, it is undeniably true that the letter was written to Christians and that the very personal nature of the passage verses 7 to 25 suggests that the apostle was seeking to write helpfully to his readers, leading them through the valley of despair to the mount of transfiguration. Here was a man trying to achieve holiness by personal effort, struggling with all his might to fulfil God’s “holy, and righteous and good” commandments (v.12), only to discover that the more he struggled, the worse his condition became. It was a losing battle, and no wonder, for it is not in the power of fallen human nature to conquer sin and live in holiness.

Note that the use of the personal pronoun, ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘my’ appears no less than forty-five times in this short passage, until the final confession is made: ‘I of myself (i.e. ‘left to myself’) am bound to revert to serving sin, even though I desire and plan to serve God’ (v.25). This is wretchedness indeed! This is “the body of this death”. And yet out of his deep despair this same believer is able to cry: “I thank God”! How can this be? It is because his thanks are made “through Jesus Christ our Lord”. He is the One “raised from the dead” (v.4), who is ready to share His resurrection life with us. Is it too much to suggest that many do not enjoy the fullness of Romans 8 because they have never really come to despair of themselves as this Romans 7 man did? The prelude to resurrection is death.

As always, we turn back to our Lord Jesus to understand divine truth. When He rose from the dead it was not by self-effort but because “the glory of the Father” came down into that silent tomb and triumphantly quickened that inert body (Romans 6:4). In the brief article on ‘Inspired Parentheses’ on the inner cover of this magazine I have drawn attention to that most significant Second Day, when our Lord’s body lay in quiet expectation of the resurrection morning. In this connection that Sabbath is highly relevant. In His dying moments Jesus declared that His flesh would rest in hope (Psalm 16:9). He was willing to wait for God’s answer to death. and He did wait all through the long hours of that mysterious interlude, until God’s Third Day arrived. This points the way for us. It is only when God’s people despair of all merely human effort and accept the divine verdict of the cross on the whole of the natural man, that the full power and glory of resurrection can be displayed in them. Israel’s dry bones, far from being too dead for God’s purposes, were only now ready for His miracle of resurrection. As the startled Ezekiel saw this amazing answer to the question posed by God, he must have been devoutly thankful that he had not intruded with his own ideas, and had left the matter to his faithful, covenant-keeping God. Our trouble so often is that we cannot wait for God, but must needs interfere with our own ideas or efforts.

THE PROPHET OF RESURRECTION

And yet there was a sense in which Ezekiel had to play an important part in the great resurrection miracle. It was God who performed the action but, as He so often does, He chose to make use of a human instrument. The prophet’s part in this miracle was small and yet it was absolutely essential. It had two aspects, his speaking to men and his speaking to the Spirit of God.

1. The Word of God

Ezekiel was told to speak in the Lord’s name: “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them …” (v.4). God always works through His Word. The Lord Jesus foretold the day when all humanity will emerge from its tombs, and said that this will occur at the sound of His voice (John 5:28). This is future. But He also spoke of the spiritual experience which is for now (John 5:25), and promised present eternal life on this same basis, i.e. hearing His voice. This present hearing of His voice can only be through those who speak the Word of God in His name. The parallel with Ezekiel suggests that the Lord needs men and women who will so speak His Word, and through it the dead will come into newness of life. This is familiar to us. We find it described in the book of the Acts, and we rejoice that from that day to this, the Lord has had His witnesses who speak for Him. Sometimes we do so feeling, like Ezekiel, that we prophesy in a dead valley to dry and scattered bones; but we must not despair. We are witnesses of the resurrection, not trying to get people to lift themselves, but proclaiming Christ’s power to lift them. The task is humanly impossible. Like Ezekiel, we are by no means sure that there can be any positive results. But the Lord does not ask us to explain or to understand, but only to obey. When Ezekiel opened his mouth, God did the rest. [110/111]

2. Prayer

In the vision Ezekiel had to speak twice. On the first occasion his utterance brought a restoration of the form of life which was truly remarkable, but the essential breath or spirit was still lacking. The prophet was therefore told to prophesy again, not this time to the people but to the Spirit. (It should be noted that in the original, the word for ‘Spirit’, ‘breath’ and ‘wind’ is the same.) So this time Ezekiel opened his mouth to call for the life-giving Spirit, an action which seems to indicate prayer rather than preaching, speaking to God and not to man.

One thing is certain, and that is that prophesying with no prayer background is ineffectual speaking. The very first allusion to a prophet makes it clear that his function was to pray: “He is a prophet, and he shall pray for you” (Genesis 20:7). If, therefore, we are to see God’s resurrection power at work, we have got to take our prayer ministry seriously. In the historic restoration of God’s people to the land, it is clear that the key factor was the prayer of Jeremiah, of Daniel, of Ezra and of Nehemiah. None of these was an inactive or unpractical man — far from it! Nehemiah was himself a worker, if ever there was one; but even a cursory glance at his book will reveal that absolute priority was given to prayer. And what shall we say of our Lord Jesus? He did so many miracles without seeming to pray especially about them; but when it came to raising Lazarus from the dead, He deliberately paused before the tomb and publicly declared that what He was about to do was in answer to prayer already made on the matter: “Father, I thank thee that your heardest me …” (John 11:41). This clearly shows that before He spoke the life-giving word, Jesus had prayed and received assurance of the answer. Our Saviour is the great Prophet of Resurrection.

“Can these bones live?”, God asked Ezekiel. When Ezekiel passed the question back to Him, the Lord made it plain that they could if only the prophet would get involved in both prayer and preaching. And so it proved. The scattered bones became a living, marching army. Surely God still looks to us for co-operation. We, too, are meant to be prophets of resurrection.

—————-

 

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