Note: This essay is extracted from my book, The Great End Time Debate: Issues, Options, and Amillennial Answers (Redemption Press). Here is a key to some of the acronyms you will encounter:
OTKP = Old Testament Kingdom Prophecies
NCH = New Covenant Hermeneutic (the NT method for interpreting the OT in general, and OTKP in particular)
DNT = Didactic New Testament (the explicitly teaching portions of the NT)
Premillennarians generally agree that this OTKP speaks about the future of ethnic Israel. Beyond that, they differ widely among themselves. Some say it has already been partially fulfilled in the recent return of millions of Russian and European Jews to Palestine. Others (i.e., dispensationalists) say it will be fulfilled during a seven-year tribulation, when a believing remnant of Jews will fan out across the globe to gather their dispersed brethren back to their ancestral homeland, there to await the Second Coming of their Messiah (Isa. 66:18–21). Still others argue that it will be fulfilled after Christ’s return, when, through the same faithful remnant, the Lord will gather his far-flung Jewish brethren to rule with him during the Millennium.
But might there be a different interpretation, an interpretation that unites all Christians and speaks to them in the here and now? “Yes,” says the NCH, “there is. And when you see it, you will rise to your feet and find yourself running to the Gospel battle!”
Let us consider it now.
In Ezekiel’s previous Oracles of Good News God had given his people glorious promises of an ultimate eschatological restoration. Among other things, he had promised to bring them back from captivity (34:12–13; 36:24), cleanse them of their filthiness and idolatry (36:25; 36:33), give them a new heart (36:26), place his Spirit within them (36:27), set his servant David over them as Prince and King (34:23–24), and grant them eternal peace and prosperity on the mountains of Israel (34:13–15, 25–31; 36:8–15, 33–38). Thus shall the great promise of the Covenant be fulfilled: In an eternal homeland purged of sin and secured from judgment, the LORD will be their God and they will be his people—forever (36:28; cf. 37:24–28).
Here in chapter 37 Ezekiel gives us a mysterious vision of how all this will come to pass: Because of the greatness of God’s grace, a people lying dead in the Valley of the Shadow Death will soon be miraculously transformed and definitively transferred: planted once and for all upon the mountains of Israel, where they will forever live in peace and prosperity with their Messiah and their covenant-keeping God.
The Valley of the Shadow of Death (vv. 1–2)
The vision begins with the LORD carrying Ezekiel in the Spirit to a valley where he beholds a great multitude of bones scattered over the face of the ground. Upon close inspection he realizes that they are “very dry”—that is, long dead, and therefore thoroughly dead (vv. 1–2). Reading these verses, the Jews in exile may well have recalled how Jeremiah had predicted that the Babylonians would fill the accursed Valley of Topheth with the bones of the inhabitants of sinful Jerusalem (Jer. 7:32–8:2). But God does not name this valley, and for good reason: The vision does not speak of a physical place, but of a spiritual condition. This is the Valley of the Shadow of Death (Ps. 23:4; 107:10, 14; Isa. 9:2; Jer. 2:6; Luke 1:79). This is the great spiritual wasteland into which God, because of the sin of Adam, cast all the sinful exiles of Eden (Gen. 3:22–24; Luke 4:5–7; Rev. 12:6, 14). This is the Domain of Darkness, whose unregenerate inhabitants, despite having a reputation that they live, are in fact completely dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1–10; Col. 1:13; 2:13; Rev. 3:1).
Can These Bones Live? (v. 3)
Now that the inspection is complete, God has a question for the prophet: “Son of man, can these bones live?” Ezekiel well understands that nothing is too hard for the LORD (Gen. 18:14; Jer. 32:27). However, not knowing what the bones symbolize, he is uncertain as to whether or not God wills for them to live. So he responds, “Lord God, You Yourself know” (v. 3). This calls to mind Christ’s exchange with his incredulous disciples, when they asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus’s answer applies here: “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27). The sovereign LORD can indeed save spiritually dead sinners. Moreover, in the case of his elect, nothing in Heaven or upon the earth can stop him from doing so (John 6:37; 10:16).
Prophesy to Them! (vv. 4–6)
In verses 4–6 we hear God’s command to Ezekiel: He must prophesy to the dry bones, telling them that God will put sinew and flesh upon them, cover the flesh with skin, and fill the bodies with breath so that they will live again and come to the knowledge of the One who has just raised them from the dead.
These verses speak of a creation. The imagery clearly recalls the creation of Adam, whose body God formed from the dust of the earth, and then brought to life by breathing the breath of life into his nostrils (Gen. 2:7). Here, however, we are dealing with something different. This is a re-creation. And it is a spiritual re-creation rather than a physical. The NT tells us that Christ himself willaccomplish it (John 20:19–23), with the result that his people will know both him and his Father as their sovereign Creator and Redeemer (John 14:15–20). A NT paraphrase of God’s message to Ezekiel might go like this: “In that day God will regenerate a great multitude of elect sinners (i.e., his Church), raising them up from the spiritual death that they inherited from the First Adam, and bringing them to an eternal newness of life that they will inherit through the Last” (Rom. 6:1–4; 1 Cor. 15:45; Eph. 2:6; Col. 3:1).
Does this prophecy also allude to the resurrection of the body? To be sure. However, it does so in a manner that awaits further light on the (two) stages of the Kingdom. That light is given in the DNT, where we learn that a saint’s spiritual resurrection (through faith in Christ) precedes, prepares for, and guarantees his bodily resurrection, which is set to occur at the end of the present evil age (John 5:24–29; 11:25–26; Rom. 6:5). So then: Ezekiel 37 does indeed allude to the resurrection of the body, but that is not its focus. Its focus is the spiritual resurrection of the Israel of God: the Church (Gal. 6:16). Before she can attain the resurrection of the body, something spiritual must occur: She must first be spiritually resurrected, spiritually assembled, and led out by God into spiritual war (Ezek. 37:10; 38–39; Rom. 6:1-14).
Come, O Breath, So That They May Live! (vv. 7–10)
In verses 7–10 we find the prophet doing exactly as he was bidden. Moreover, when he does, all unfolds exactly as God said it would. Such mighty prophesying pictures the spiritually re-creative power of the Gospel in the mouth of the prophetic Church (Rom. 1:16; 10:17; Col. 1:6; 1 Thess. 2:13; Heb. 4:12; 1 Peter 1:23; Rev. 11:1–3).
In accordance with the pattern laid down in Genesis, Ezekiel sees that the eschatological re-creation will occur in two stages. First, the dead bones will become bodies (vv. 7–8), then the dead bodies will become living bodies, for the breath (i.e., the Spirit) of God stands them on their feet, henceforth ready to serve as an exceedingly great army (vv. 9–10). All of this pictures the ongoing creation of the Church Militant throughout the Era of Proclamation. In a microcosm it was fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost, when the Spirit fell upon and filled 120 “rattling bones” who had previously come together in one place (Acts 2:1). As a result, they stood up boldly to wage a loving holy war in the name of Christ and the Gospel (Acts 2; 4; 10; 13). But the vision will continue to be fulfilled right up to the end of the age, whenever and wherever God assembles, builds up, and sends out the Body of Christ through interaction with his Spirit and his (Gospel) Word (1 Cor. 12:13; Eph. 4:12, 15–16; Col. 2:18–19).
Notably, this ecclesiological interpretation is supported by verse 9, which represents the Spirit as coming from the four winds. This alludes to the four corners of the earth, from which God will gather his universal Church, comprised of Jew and Gentile (Mark 13:27; Rev. 7:1–8). It is also supported by verse 10, in which eschatological “Israel” is portrayed as an exceedingly great army, a metaphor repeatedly used to describe the NT Church, who are cast as good soldiers of Jesus Christ (Luke 14:31; 1 Cor. 9:7; Eph. 6:10–18; 2 Tim. 2:3; Rev. 19:14).
The Whole House of Israel (vv. 11–14)
In verses 11–14 God finally interprets the vision for Ezekiel. It is yet another oracle of eschatological “Israel’s” restoration (Gal. 6:16). Ethnic Jews will indeed be among them, for in many times and places they have felt themselves hopelessly lost and cut off. But so too have multitudes of Gentiles (v. 11; Matt. 4:12–16; 15:25; Eph. 2:12); and since, through Christ, they also will enter the Eternal Covenant, God will not be ashamed to call them “my people” (Rom. 9:25–26; 2 Cor. 6:16; Heb. 2:11; 8:10; 11:16; Rev. 18:4).
God’s promise to them is manifold: He will raise them up from the grave of spiritual death, transport them to their heavenly homeland, and plant them on the top of his Holy Mountain (v. 12; Ezek. 36:8–15; 40:1–2; Gal. 4:26; Col. 1:13; Heb. 12:22; Rev. 14:1). Note carefully from the conclusion of the prophecy that when this happens his people will realize that the great transformation was not of their own doing. Rather, God himself, by his sovereign grace, was the One who made them alive together with Christ, raised them up together with Christ, and caused them to be seated together with Christ in the heavenly places. There they will enjoy the glories of the Zion above (and vicissitudes upon the earth below) until the happy day when the High King returns and raises them bodily for eternal life in the glorious Homeland to Come (v. 13–14; John 15:16; Rom. 8:28–30; 1 Cor. 1:26–31; Eph. 2:4–10; Titus 3:4–7; 1 John 3:14; Rev. 14:1; 21:1–5).
By pushing this prophecy into a distant millennial future, and by limiting its fulfillment to ethnic Israel, prophetic literalism turns it into a valley of dry bones. But when the NCH breathes upon it, how the dry bones live!