Resurrection Life in the Valley of Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14)
This is the eleventh in a series of posts dealing with the proper interpretation of Old Testament Kingdom Prophecy (OTKP). If you’re new to this subject (or to my blog), you’ll want to read the essay with which I introduced the series (just click here).
My goal in these eschatological adventures is two-fold.
First, I want to open up something of the Christ-centered truth and beauty of OTKP to my brothers and sisters in the Lord.
Secondly, I want to reason a little with my premillennial brethren. In particular, I want to make the case that we all will best understand, enjoy, and profit from OTKP when we see that its true sphere of fulfillment is: 1) Christ, 2) the New Covenant he instituted by his blood, 3) the two-staged spiritual Kingdom he has already introduced (and will soon consummate), and, 4) the New Covenant community he is creating out of elect Jews and Gentiles: the Church.
In short, I would like my premillennial brothers to reconsider the amillennial approach to the interpretation of OTKP.
Since the end of the age will soon be upon us, it is important that we stand together as much as possible. Seeing eye to eye on eschatology would definitely help. These essays—and the book in progress from which they are extracted—represent my best effort at contributing to that worthy goal.
Resurrection Life in the Valley of Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14)
Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones is a great favorite among Christians, and with good reason: Its evocative symbolism unfailingly calls to mind their own conversion; the happy day when the sovereign Spirit of God lifted them out of the Valley of the Shadow of Death and planted them in Christ, through whom they have now begun to experience the joy of eternal resurrection life (John 11, Rom. 6:1f, Eph. 2:1-12, Col. 1:13).
However, as good NT exegetes we must honestly ask ourselves: Is this really what the Spirit of God had in mind when he gave Ezekiel this mysterious vision and prophecy?
Our premillennial brethren think not. Though differing among themselves as to the details, all of them are united in reading this prophecy more or less literally rather than figuratively. Therefore, all are united in referring it, not to the Church, but to the redemption of latter day ethnic Israel.
Some say it has already been partially fulfilled in the modern return of millions of Russian and European Jews to Palestine.
Others say it will be fulfilled during the (seven year) Tribulation period, when a believing Jewish remnant fans out across the globe to gather their dispersed brethren back to their ancestral homeland, there to await the return of their Messiah (Isaiah 66:18-21).
Still others argue that it will be fulfilled after Christ’s return, when, through the same faithful remnant, he (Christ) assembles his far-flung Jewish brethren to rule and reign with him in his millennial kingdom.
But again, all agree that Ezekiel was not speaking figuratively about the spiritual ingathering of Christ’s Church.
If, however, we have been won to the NCH, we cannot go down this road. Why? Because now we understand that Ezekiel must have been speaking figuratively of the Church; that the the true sphere of fulfillment of all OTKP is the New Covenant in Christ, the two-fold spiritual Kingdom that the New Covenant creates, and the New Covenant people who enter it by faith.
The task before us, then, is to see if our prophecy actually favors this view over and above the premillennarian, and also to see exactly where it is fulfilled: In the Era of Proclamation and Probation, in the Era of Reward and Retribution, or in both.
With these fascinating questions in mind, let us turn to it now.
How Shall the Restoration Come?
In the previous oracle (chapter 36), God had given glorious promises of Israel’s latter day Restoration. Among other things, he had spoken of prospering his people upon the mountains of their homeland (36:8-15), and also of filling them with his Spirit, so that they might walk in his ways and secure his covenant blessings (36:27-28). Now, in 37:1-14, he gives us a vision of how all this will come to pass. The resulting contrast is stark: Because of the greatness of God’s grace, a people lying altogether dead in the Valley of the Shadow Death will, in that Day, be miraculously transferred to—and planted upon—the High Mountains of Israel, where they will live forever in consummate prosperity with their covenant-keeping God (40:1-2)!
The Valley of the Shadow of Death
The vision begins with the LORD carrying Ezekiel, in the Spirit, to a valley where beholds a great multitude of bones scattered over the face of the ground. Upon close inspection, he realizes that they are “very dry”—i.e., long dead, and therefore thoroughly dead (1-2). Reading these verses, the Jews in exile may well have recalled Jeremiah’s dreadful prediction to the effect 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 with good reason: The vision does not speak of a physical place, but rather of a spiritual condition. For this is none other than the Valley of the Shadow of Death (Psalm 23:4, 107:10, 14, Isaiah 9:2, Jer. 2:6, Luke 1:79). This is the great spiritual wasteland into which God, through the sin of Adam, has cast all the sinful exiles of Eden (Gen. 3:24, Luke 4:5-7, Rev. 12:6, 14). This is what the NT refers to as the Domain of Darkness; the fallen, Satanically controlled world-system, whose unregenerate inhabitants, though having a name that they are alive, 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?
Now that the inspection is complete, God questions 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). But not yet knowing what the bones symbolize, he is uncertain as to whether or not God wills for them to live. So he responds, “O Lord God, You know” (v. 3). This calls to mind Christ’s exchange with his incredulous disciples, when they asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus’ answer is applicable here: “With men it is impossible. But with God, all things are possible” (Mt. 10:17-27). The sovereign God can indeed save spiritually dead sinners. Moreover, in the case of his elect, nothing in heaven or upon the earth can keep him from doing so (John 6:37, 10:16).
Prophesy to Them!
In verses 4-6, we hear God’s command to Ezekiel: He is to prophesy to the dry bones, declaring that God will put sinew and flesh upon them, cover them with skin, and fill them with breath, so that they will live again—and come to the knowledge of the LORD who has raised them from the dead!
The imagery here clearly alludes to the creation of Adam, whom God first formed from the dust of the earth, and then raised up by breathing the breath of life into his nostrils (Gen. 2:7). But the creation in our text is something different: It is a re–creation; and it is spiritual, rather than physical. Christ himself will accomplish it (John 20:19-23), with the result that his people will come to know both him and his Father as their sovereign Savior (John 14:15-20).
A NT paraphrase of God’s message to Ezekiel might therefore go something like this: In that day, God will regenerate a great multitude of elect sinners (his Church), raising them up from the spiritual death they inherited from the first Adam, 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 allude to the physical resurrection of the saints? To be sure. But it does so in the same way that NT talk of their spiritual resurrection (through faith in Jesus) precedes, alludes to, and guarantees a bodily resurrection that will occur at the end of the age (John 5:24-29, 11:25-26, Rom. 6:5). Here, then, the resurrection of the body is not in view, since before that resurrection the (spiritually) risen, regenerated, and restored “Israel of God” must go to war (37:10, 38-39).
Breathe, O Breath, Upon These Slain!
In verses 7-10 we find the prophet doing exactly as he was bidden. Moreover, when he obeys, all unfolds exactly as God said it would. Such mighty prophesying pictures the spiritually creative power of the word of the truth of the Gospel (Rom. 1:16, 10:17, 1 Thess. 2:13, Heb. 4:12, 1 Peter 1:23).
Following the pattern laid down in Genesis, this re-creation occurs in two stages: First, the dead bones become bodies (7-8); secondly, the dead bodies become living bodies, for the breath (i.e., Spirit) of God stands them up on their feet, so that they become an exceedingly great army (9-10).
This pictures the creation of the Church Militant all throughout the Era of Proclamation and Probation. In a microcosm, it was fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost, when the Spirit fell upon and filled 120 “rattling bones” that had previously come together in one place (Acts 2:1), after which they stood up boldly so as to make loving war in the cause of Christ and the Gospel (Acts 2:4, 11, 14ff). But the vision will continue to be fulfilled—even until the end of the Age—whenever and wherever God assembles and builds up the Body of Christ through preaching of the Gospel (1 Cor. 12:13, Eph. 4:12, 15-16, Col. 2:18-19).
Notably, this ecclesiological interpretation is supported by v. 9, which represents the Spirit as coming from the four winds, an allusion to the four corners of the Earth, from which God will gather his universal Church, comprised of Jew and Gentile (Mark 13:27, Rev. 7:1f). It is also supported by v. 10, in which eschatological “Israel” is portrayed as an exceedingly great army, a metaphor repeatedly ascribed to the NT soldiers of Christ (Luke 14:31, 1 Cor. 9:7, Eph. 6:10f, 2 Tim. 2:3, Rev. 19:14).
The Whole House of Israel
In verses 11-14, God finally interprets the vision for Ezekiel: It is yet another oracle of Israel’s eschatological restoration. However, the Israel here in view is not ethnic, but spiritual. It is the Church, the eschatological “Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16).
Ethnic Jews will be among them, for in many times and many places they have indeed felt themselves to be hopelessly lost and cut off. But so too have multitudes of elect Gentiles (v. 11, Mt. 4:12-16, Mt. 15:25, Eph. 2:12). And since they too will enter the Eternal Covenant through faith in Christ, God will not be ashamed to call them “My people” (Rom. 9:25-26, 2 Cor. 6:16, Heb. 2:11, 11:16, 8:10, Rev. 18:4).
It is, then, of Christ’s New Covenant people—both Jew and Gentile—that God here speaks, promising to raise them up from the grave of spiritual death, and to transport them to their heavenly homeland; indeed, to plant them on the very top of his Holy Mountain (v. 12, 36:8-15, 40:1-2; Col. 1:13, Gal. 4:26, Heb. 12:22, Rev. 14:1).
To the Praise of His Glorious Grace
When he does so, the elect will realize that the great transition was not at all of their own doing; that God himself, by his sovereign grace, is the One who made them alive together in Christ, raised them up together in Christ, and caused them to sit down together with Christ, there to enjoy the glories of the Zion above until the happy day of Jesus’ glorious return (v. 13-14, John 15:16, 1 Cor. 1:26-31, Rom. 8:28-30, Eph. 2:4-10, Titus 3:4-7, 1 John 3:14, Rev. 14:1, 21:1-5).
O Israel, shall we not, then, even now, be a glad and grateful people, devoted to the praise of the glory his sovereign grace, granted to us in Christ Jesus our Lord (Eph. 1:6)?