One of the oddest and most famous passages in Ezekiel (found in chapter 37) has inspired numerous Sunday school lessons, sermons, and even a song. In the chapter, the prophet Ezekiel is led by God into a valley filled with bones. The Lord instructs Ezekiel to prophecy to the bones, telling them that God “will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin” (Ezekiel 37:5-6).
Although the Bible has been known for some odd imagery, especially within the book of Ezekiel, this vision in particular has one of the most bizarre metaphors in all of Scripture. What do the dry bones symbolize, what’s the historical context of this vision, and why does this matter for us now?
The Historical Context
Before we can discuss the vision itself, we have to understand all that preceded chapter 37, especially Ezekiel 36. In the previous chapter, Ezekiel proclaims a blessing to all of Israel, that they will produce fruit, even though now they are in desolation. That they will re-inhabit their towns and see their ruins rebuilt.
During the time of Ezekiel, the Babylonians laid waste to Israel. They took several of their people captive (such as Daniel and his friends in Daniel 1), laid ruin to their city, and destroyed their temple.
Restoration seemed impossible. Under the foot of the most powerful Empire at the time and with the poorest of the poor (2 Kings 24:14) living in the city, they could see no possible renewal of the Israelite nation.
In essence, they were like dry bones: a dead nation, full of absolutely no signs of life or recovery. It would take an absolute miracle for them to rebuild.
The Dry Bones
This is when the vision takes place.
God takes Ezekiel to the middle of a valley where he sees a multitude of dry bones. He asks Ezekiel if the bones can live.
Now, Ezekiel had witnessed the Babylonians destroying Jerusalem. He knew it was just as impossible to raise Israel from the dead as it was to bring life to the dry bones in the valley. So he answers that God alone knows.
In essence, only God can bring what’s dead back to life.
God has Ezekiel prophecy over the bones, commanding them to attach to one another. They do so, and skin, tendons, and muscles cover the bones. But they still have no life in them.
Then God has Ezekiel command breath into the whole but dead bodies, and they spring to life, standing on their feet, enough people for an entire army.
The word for breath in this verse is the same one used in Genesis when God breathes life into Adam.
Where we see the bones rising in the Old Testament
This is God’s promise to the captives in Babylon and the Jews scattered throughout the world at the time. He would restore them when they felt as though their bones had dried up.
We see the prophecy fulfilled in a number of ways.
The first fulfillment happens when Israel returns to their homeland (Ezra 1:1-4), but they come back to a land full of ruins. In Nehemiah, they rebuild the wall around the city and the temple within.
In this way, God fulfills the vision given to Ezekiel, but he doesn’t stop there.
Where we see the bones rising in the New Testament
Even with their physical homeland restored, the Israelites (and all the peoples of the earth) still had dry bones. Dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1), everyone needed a miracle in order to receive new life.
Jesus steps onto the scene and offers new life to the dry bones through his death and resurrection. Anyone who believes in him and accepts him as their personal Lord and Savior will be a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). We receive new tendons, and flesh, and are indwelt with the spirit of God, the breath of life.
What this means for us
We can discover a number of applications from this passage in Ezekiel.
First: God fulfills what he sets out to do. Not only does he provide for our physical needs (our daily bread, Matthew 6:11), but he doesn’t stop there. God acknowledges we have a deep spiritual need that can only be fulfilled by him. We cannot breathe without the breath of life, and we cannot live without him living inside of us.
Second: Prophecies can often be fulfilled more than once. For instance, in the passage of Daniel 9, when the abomination of desolation comes onto the scene, it could refer to many people. Antiochus Epiphanes IV appeared to fulfill the criteria, as he set a statue of Zeus in the Jewish temple and sacrificed a pig, both abominations according to Jewish law. But the passage also appears to be referring to the antichrist who will attempt to change dates and will set up abominations for people to worship.
Third: It doesn’t matter how much we have messed up or have fallen into sin. No matter how dry our bones have become, God can restore all things. If we have a friend or family member who has rejected Christ and who does not seem interested in Christianity, God can still work in and through them to bring them to him. Whenever we lose hope, despair when we watch the news, or worry about tomorrow, we can rest assured that God promises to restore all things, just as he had with the Israelite captives in Babylon.
Photo credit: Pexels/Chris J Mitchell
Hope Bolingeris a literary agent at C.Y.L.E. and graduate of Taylor University's professional writing program. More than 400 of her works have been featured in various publications ranging from Writer's Digest to Keys for Kids. She has worked for various publishing companies, magazines, newspapers, and literary agencies and has edited the work of authors such as Jerry B. Jenkins and Michelle Medlock Adams. Her column "Hope's Hacks," tips and tricks to avoid writer's block, reaches 6,000+ readers weekly and is featured monthly on Cyle Young's blog, which receives 63,000+ monthly hits. Her modern-day Daniel, “Blaze,” (Illuminate YA) released in June, and the sequel “Den” releases a year from now. Find out more about her here.