I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
Ezekiel has a vision. God’s Spirit transports him to a desolate valley filled with bones—dry bones, casualties of battles fought or hardships suffered in the distant past. Survivors and witnesses of these crises didn’t stay behind to bury their dead. They fled immediately, leaving the site strewn with lost life to be picked clean by scavengers and rot in the open air. Years of exposure to the hot sun bleached the bones white. Whatever happened here was neither noble nor ennobling. Ezekiel doesn’t report seeing any kind of memorial. He doesn’t recognize the valley as an historically significant location. It’s a forgotten place filled with forgotten evidence of what appears to be intentionally forgotten trauma.
Over the years, I’ve conjured Ezekiel’s vision in various ways. As a kid, the valley was deep, dark, and spooky, a Halloween nightmare. As a film student drunk on movies, it evolved into a black-and-white panorama haunted by whistling winds, a ravishing image from a John Ford widescreen Western. These days, I see a “CSI” crime scene. I stand with Ezekiel in full daylight, mystified by how this graveyard came to be, by what apparently was some sort of holocaust—mass murder, suicide, or epidemic. Then, recalling the mystery’s solution, I’m jolted. I recognize these bones. I know why they’re here and what they represent.
Speak to the Bones
“Can these bones live?” the Spirit asks Ezekiel. Looking at vast neglect and absence of life, the prophet answers honestly: “Only You know.” One imagines the questions racing through Ezekiel’s mind. Do they need to live? Perhaps what killed them was too painful to consider resurrecting them to face its memory. Might it be better to let them rest in peace, buried with the past? Once they’re alive, what’s next? What can they do that living people can’t do? Ezekiel hasn’t a clue whose bones lay scattered before him. He’s without background and rationale for bringing them to life. Imagining his puzzlement, one also imagines the Spirit’s aware that he’s confused. Yet It doesn’t offer any answers—not yet.
The Spirit instructs Ezekiel to speak to the bones, saying, “Hear the word of the LORD! I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life.” (Ezekiel 37.4-6) With that, Ezekiel’s confusion vanishes. He clearly understands he’s left the human state of logic to enter the divine realm of faith. As he speaks to the bones, he hears a rattling sound. They begin to reassemble, fastened by new cartilage and ligaments. Flesh covers their frames. Yet they remain a lifeless sea of corpses before Ezekiel orders them to breathe. They rally to their feet, standing before him like a huge army. Ezekiel still can’t positively identify them until the Spirit finally explains: “They’re people who say, ‘Our hope is gone; we’re cut off.’ Now give them God’s promise: ‘I’m going to open your graves and bring you up. Then you’ll know I’m the Lord. I’m going to put my Spirit in you and you will live. You’ll know I’ve done this by My word.’” (Ezekiel 37.11-12,14)
Crossing the Border
I recognize these bones because they’re mine. You recognize them, too. While Ezekiel’s vision occurs to reassure Israel during Babylonian captivity, it’s fair to say anyone who’s ever lived has bones in this graveyard. It’s filled with criminal evidence—broken dreams, severed relationships, shattered trust, and other savagery, conceivable and inconceivable. What happened here proved too traumatic to lay properly to rest. We took flight, vowing never to return, willing to leave pieces of us to the scavengers and elements. There’s a lost hope here, a ruined ideal there, and smatterings of wounded self-image everywhere. Returning to the scene crowds our minds with confusing questions. Yet God’s Spirit asks only one: Can these bones live?
That question is our password to transform graveyard grief into graveyard faith, crossing the border between natural thinking and unnatural belief. We stop talking about the bones and start speaking to them. Obeying God’s Spirit—in many cases, defying man’s wisdom about “cutting losses” and “getting closure”—we command these bones to live. It starts with a rattling, which can be unnerving to say the least. But, like Ezekiel, we keep speaking. Then, seeing the bones reconstituted but not fully revived may trigger violent flashbacks of their demise. But we keep speaking. We order them to breathe, to respond to the inspiration of God’s Spirit. Our memories may be too scarred to recognize our restored hopes and freedoms in their original, unharmed condition. We may be astonished at the number of them. That’s when God speaks, explaining what He’s done in us and through us. That’s when we know without a doubt that He is God. That’s when we know how powerful faith—graveyard faith—in His promises truly is.
Confronting the remains of what we've lost crowds our minds with confusing questions. But God's Spirit restores clarity and stirs faith by asking just one.
(Tomorrow: And the Winner Is…)