Expositor's Dictionary of Texts
The hand of the LORD was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the LORD, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones,Ezekiel 37:2
Dean Stanley, in the introduction to his Eastern Church, observes: 'It is sometimes said, that of all historical studies that of Ecclesiastical History is the most repulsive. We seem to be set down in the valley of the Prophet's vision—strewn with bones, and behold they are very many and very dry: skeletons of creeds, of churches, of institutions; trodden and traversed by the feet of travellers again and again; craters of extinct volcanoes, which once filled the world with their noise, and are now dead and cold.'
That vision of the dry bones... perhaps is the best-known passage of the Old Testament. 'Son of man, can these dry bones live?' must have often been the self-questioning of Ezekiel, and when he thought on the shattered nation he could give no answer more confident than the conviction, 'O Lord God, Thou knowest'.
Think of the sublimity, I should rather say the profundity, of that passage in Ezekiel, Song of Solomon of man, can these bones live? and I answered, O Lord God, Thou knowest. I know nothing like it.
Describing Dr. Donne's preaching in London during his last illness, Izaak Walton remarks that 'when, to the amazement of some beholders, he appeared in the pulpit, many of them thought he presented himself not to preach mortification by a living voice, but mortality by a dying body. And doubtless many did ask that question in Ezekiel, 'Do these bones live? or, can that soul organize that tongue, to speak so long time as the sand in that glass will move toward its centre, and measure out an hour of this dying man's unspent life? Doubtless it cannot.' And yet after some pauses in his zealous prayer, his strong desires enabled his weak body to discharge his memory of his preconceived meditations, which were of dying; the text being, 'To God the Lord belong the issues from death.'"
References.—XXXVII. 3.—W. Lee, University Sermons, p. 187. G. S. Barrett, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xliii. 1893, p. 267. P. T. Forsyth, ibid. vol. lxi. 1902, p. 312. H. P. Liddon, Outlines of Sermons on the Old Testament, p. 260. J. Mitchinson, Can the Dry Bones Live, Sermons, 1881-88.
Every shaking among the bones, everything which seems at first a sign of terror—men leaving the churches in which they have been born, forsaking all the affections and sympathies and traditions of their childhood—infidel questionings, doubts whether the world is left to itself or whether it is governed by an evil spirit—are themselves not indeed signs of life, but at least movements in the midst of death which are better than the silence of the charnel-house, which foretell the approach of that which they cannot produce.
—F. D. Maurice.
Speaking, in the tenth chapter of Chartism, of the vice and misery in country districts of England, Carlyle cries: 'Ah, it is bitter jesting on such a subject. One's heart is sick to look at the dreary chaos and valley of Jehoshaphat, scattered with the limbs and souls of one's fellow-men; and no Divine voice, only croaking of hungry vultures, inarticulate, bodeful ravens, horn-eyed parrots, that do articulate, proclaiming, Let these bones live!'
Reference.—XXXVII. 7.—C. Perren, Revival Sermons in Outline, p. 341.
What precise meaning we ought to attach to expressions such as that of the prophecy to the four winds that the dry bones might be breathed upon, and might live, or why the presence of the vital power should be dependent on the chemical action of the air, and its awful passing away materially signified by the rendering up of that breath or ghost, we cannot at present know, and need not at any time dispute. What we assuredly know is that the states of life and death are different, and the first more desirable than the other, and by effort attainable, whether we understand 'born of the spirit' to signify having the breath of heaven in our flesh, or its power in our hearts.
—Ruskin in The Queen of the Air, §55.
'About noon, Friday 5th, I called on William Row, in Breage, on my way to Newlyn. "Twelve years ago," he said, "I was going over Gulval Downs, and I saw many people together; and I asked what was the matter; and they told me a man was going to preach: and I said, To be sure it is some mazed man, but when I saw you I said, Nay, this is no mazed man: and you preached on God's raising the dry bones; and from that time I could never rest till God was pleased to breathe on me and raise my dead soul."'
—Wesley's Journal for 1755.
References.—XXXVII. 9.—Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxxviii. No. 2246. H. Scott Holland, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxi. 1902, p. 33. W. H. Hutchings, Sermon-Sketches (2nd Series), p. 296. XXXVII. 9, 10.—R. C. Trench, Sermons New and Old, p. 219. W. Howell Evans, Sermons for the Church's Year, p. 146.
We seem to have in some degree lost a principle of cohesion between the work done and the work doing; and thus the events with which the Gospel narrative makes us acquainted, instead of being, every one of them, 'very nigh' to us, bound up and interleaved within the volume of our personal experience, have to be fetched, as we want them, from the remote distance where they lie, like the bones in the valley of prophetic vision, dry and sapless, detached from each other, and from all connexion with the life that we are now living upon earth. When we receive along with each of these facts the sign that was given to Moses, and learn that it is I AM which hath sent it to us, a breath of life is infused within all that has been formal and historical; across the statements of the letter, of which, taken singly and apart, we may have said that 'they are very dry,' a spirit passes, they come together, and behold they live, and stand up on their feet an exceeding great army, fighting for and with us in the battle.
—Dora Greenwell, A Present Heaven, pp. 53, 54.
No right and no power to disbelieve in the arm of Hercules or the voice of Jesus can rationally remain with those who have seen Garibaldi take a kingdom into the hollow of his hand, and not one man but a whole nation rise from the dead at the sound of the word of Mazzini.
—Swinburne, A Study of Victor Hugo, p. 113.
Reference.—XXXVII. 11, 12, 13.—Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxviii. No. 1676.
Compare the closing sentences of Tolstoy's What is Art? 'Universal art, by uniting the most different people in one common feeling, by destroying separation, will educate people to union, will show them, not by reason but by life itself, the joy of universal union reaching beyond the bounds set by life. The destiny of art in our time is to transmit from the realm of reason to the realm of feeling the truth that well-being for man consists in being united together, and to set up, in place of the existing reign of force, that kingdom of God, i.e. of love, which we all recognize to be the highest aim of human life. Possibly, in the future, science may reveal to art yet new and higher ideals, which art may realize; but, in our time, the destiny of art is clear and definite. The task for Christian art is to establish brotherly union among men.'
After quoting this passage, Miss Wedgwood, in The Message of Israel (pp. 231 f.) observes: 'The words belong to that region of vast soothing hope which seems akin to the influence of music. All that is pathetic, all that is tragic in history, seems gathered up in the mere existence of such aspirations, and the consciousness that they were futile as far as human eye can see. But national aspirations soar into the region where they become as it were luminous, and cast their glow even on the fate they have not had the strength to mould. "Desire of heaven itself is heaven," says a poet of our own day, and the vision of a united Israel seems almost to justify the exaggeration, if exaggeration it be. The glowing hopes expressed in this passage are evidently as the bow in the cloud—a gleam upon a gloomy background.'
Victor Hugo also, in his Shakespeare (chap. ii.), after quoting from the prophecy of the Wind and the Bones, cites this twenty-seventh verse loosely, and then asks: 'Is not everything there? Search for a higher formula, you will not find it: a free man under a sovereign God. This visionary eater of filth is a resuscitator. Ezekiel has offal on his lips, and the sun in his eyes.'
The first act of theft, falsehood, or other immorality, is an event in the life of the perpetrator which he never forgets. It may often happen that no account can be given of it; that there is nothing in the education, nor in the antecedents of the person, that would lead us, or even himself, to suspect it. In the weaker sort of natures, especially, suggestions of evil spring up we cannot tell how.
Reference.—XXXVIII. 11, 12.—J. M. Neale, Sermons on the Prophets, vol. ii. p. 44.
And caused me to pass by them round about: and, behold, there were very many in the open valley; and, lo, they were very dry.
And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord GOD, thou knowest.
Again he said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.
Thus saith the Lord GOD unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live:
And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the LORD.
So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone.
And when I beheld, lo, the sinews and the flesh came up upon them, and the skin covered them above: but there was no breath in them.
Then said he unto me, Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.
So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army.
Then he said unto me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say, Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are cut off for our parts.
Therefore prophesy and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel.
And ye shall know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves, O my people, and brought you up out of your graves,
And shall put my spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I shall place you in your own land: then shall ye know that I the LORD have spoken it, and performed it, saith the LORD.
The word of the LORD came again unto me, saying,
Moreover, thou son of man, take thee one stick, and write upon it, For Judah, and for the children of Israel his companions: then take another stick, and write upon it, For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim, and for all the house of Israel his companions:
And join them one to another into one stick; and they shall become one in thine hand.
And when the children of thy people shall speak unto thee, saying, Wilt thou not shew us what thou meanest by these?
Say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I will take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim, and the tribes of Israel his fellows, and will put them with him, even with the stick of Judah, and make them one stick, and they shall be one in mine hand.
And the sticks whereon thou writest shall be in thine hand before their eyes.
And say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I will take the children of Israel from among the heathen, whither they be gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them into their own land:
And I will make them one nation in the land upon the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king to them all: and they shall be no more two nations, neither shall they be divided into two kingdoms any more at all:
Neither shall they defile themselves any more with their idols, nor with their detestable things, nor with any of their transgressions: but I will save them out of all their dwellingplaces, wherein they have sinned, and will cleanse them: so shall they be my people, and I will be their God.
And David my servant shall be king over them; and they all shall have one shepherd: they shall also walk in my judgments, and observe my statutes, and do them.
And they shall dwell in the land that I have given unto Jacob my servant, wherein your fathers have dwelt; and they shall dwell therein, even they, and their children, and their children's children for ever: and my servant David shall be their prince for ever.
Moreover I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them: and I will place them, and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in the midst of them for evermore.
My tabernacle also shall be with them: yea, I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
And the heathen shall know that I the LORD do sanctify Israel, when my sanctuary shall be in the midst of them for evermore.