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A Valley Full of Dry Bones
The first vision in Ezekiel 37 is the best known in the book. If people are ignorant of everything else in the book, they are often aware of the valley of dry bones, though frequently they have no idea what it means. It surely doesn’t help when commentators apply the whole passage to the Christian church.
The bones stretch out over a wide area, and the prophet is given an aerial view of them. When the inspection is over, God asks Ezekiel, “Son of man,1 can these bones live?” (Ezek. 37:3). The prophet is wise. He knows that the answer to all such questions lies with the living God. So, the Lord gives Ezekiel a command to speak over the bones, and as He speaks the words of God the bones came together and flesh covered them (Ezek. 37:7-8). As so often in the biblical record, the Lord does not bypass the human instruments He has created to exercise dominion upon earth. Ezekiel speaks for God and God’s power stands behind the words.
What occurs next repeats the order found in the creation of man in Genesis 2:7. Life is not ours to bestow. It is given at the behest of the Creator. The “great army” (Ezek. 37:10) that stands in front of him is “the whole house of Israel” (Ezek. 37:11). But which Israel? We must continue reading to find the answer. As we proceed, we hear “Israel” say that they are like the dry bones; that they are without a hope and close to being cut off. This indeed would resonate with the plight of the people in Ezekiel’s time. They have arrived at this sad end because of their multiplied sins against their covenant God (Ezek. 16:59; 20:37).
The vision of the dry bones becoming living men is further explained in terms of revivication in verses 12 and 13. God will open their graves and put His Spirit in them and then bring them back into their land (Ezek. 37:14). The Spirit’s agency suggests not just a bringing back to life but a complete resurrection.2 We are back on New covenant territory (cf. Isa. 59:20-21; Ezek. 36:27; 39:29). But we still have to ask what this all means. Is there to be a literal resurrection of Israelites under the auspices of the New covenant? Or is this coming out of the graves a picture of New covenant restoration? I think it is undoubtedly the latter. This matches verses 21-23 where God declares He will regather Israel and bring them into their own land, a reunited kingdom, cleansed from their sins. The resurrection motif amplifies the kind of restoration Israel hopes for. God’s immense covenant grace is hope’s guarantee.
Whereas the valley of dry bones teaches the revival of Israel in their land, the sign of the two sticks coming together in the prophet’s hand communicates reunification of the scattered tribes. The visions belong together. But they must be read entirely. The prophet is not predicting conditions after the return from Babylon. He is projecting the realization of God’s covenant promises to the nation. “David” appears for the last time (Ezek. 37:24-25) first as a king (melek), and then as a prince (nasi). Although I don’t pretend to know how fit together the Branch as king and David as king, I have no doubt that with a little more clarification there will be no contradiction. The presiding presence of the God-man (Messiah – Isa. 9:6-7) and the rule of David are not necessarily at odds with one another. The magnitude of the coming kingdom, coupled with the preeminence of Israel (e.g. Zeph. 3:20), and the insistence of God that men and women participate in the world as image and likeness of Him would indicate that “David, My servant” is indeed David.3
The Land, the Sanctuary, and the Covenants
Just like Jeremiah 33:17-26, the end of Ezekiel 37 is strewn with recollections of the divine covenants. Jeremiah mentioned or alluded to all the major covenants in his declaration of Yahweh’s faithfulness. Ezekiel 37:22-28 contains references to the New covenant (Ezek. 37:23b, 26), the Davidic covenant (Ezek. 37:24), the Abrahamic covenant (Ezek. 37:22, 25), and the Priestly covenant (Ezek. 37:26-27). These combine in the new kingdom era. God weaves the different covenantal threads together, in and through the New covenant.
The land has been conspicuous by its presence at the chapter’s close. In Ezekiel 37:22 it is the place where the tribes of Israel are made one again, never more to be divided into two kingdoms. In Ezekiel 37:25 it is the dwelling place of Israel forever.4 Without the land aspect of the Abrahamic covenant being literally fulfilled there can be no realization of the Davidic and Priestly covenants as predicted in the chapter. Moreover, the work of the New covenant in coalescing these covenants through a thorough redemption is negated. Those readers who suppose that they can wrap these covenants together in Christ and the Church will do what they do. But they will receive no encouragement from me. I see my role as unfurling the revelation of God as it was given, not anachronistically freighting in an interpretation of revelation that had not yet been given. We must always make a concerted effort to stand where the inspired authors stood if we are to hear their voices instead of ours.
Three times in the last three verses God states that the temple will be present in this culminative age.
Moreover I will make a covenant of peace with them, and it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; I will establish them and multiply them, and I will set My sanctuary in their midst forevermore. My tabernacle also shall be with them; indeed I will be their God, and they shall be My people. The nations also will know that I, the LORD, sanctify Israel, when My sanctuary is in their midst forevermore. (Ezekiel 37:26-28)
There is no difficulty locating the “everlasting” New covenant in this passage.5 This situates the time of fulfillment when God finally redeems Israel (Isa. 45:17; 54:8-10; Jer. 24:6-7). The placing of Israel in their land goes hand in hand with multiplying them, which is in accord with the covenant with Abraham. The inclusion of “My sanctuary” (miqdash) necessitates a place to put it. The covenant with Phinehas (Psa. 106:28-31) provides the basis for this expectation. God’s tabernacle (mishkan) may be the same as the sanctuary (I think it is), or the difference between the two is that one is the outer temple and one is the inner holy place.6 The mention of God’s “sanctuary” in the reestablished land is significant in view of the temple vision in chapters 40 through 48. As Renz correctly observes, it prepares the ground for the concluding vision.7
1 “Son of man” is a phrase occurring frequently to describe Ezekiel. It refers to Ezekiel as a representative of men generally. When Jesus applies it to Himself in the Gospels it carries a far greater connotation.
2 I hesitate to connect the two since resurrection, at least in the New Testament, includes glorification. Whether this is the case with Old Testament saints cannot here be settled.
3 See Eugene H. Merrill, Everlasting Dominion, 546
4 Notice, “the land that I have given to Jacob” (Ezek. 37:25a).
5 Ezekiel 37:24-28 contains the repetition of olam (“everlasting”). Paul Williamson points out that “The most striking feature of this anticipated realization of Yahweh’s covenant promises is its permanence.” – Sealed with an Oath, 173
6 It will be pointed out by some that if a temple is in Israel forever it creates two problems with later revelation. I think it is worthwhile pausing to try to clear up some of the issues. The first problem is that it appears from passages like 2 Peter 3:7, 12-13 and Revelation 20:11 that the present heavens and earth will be destroyed and replaced by the new heaven and new earth. How can the sanctuary be “forever” when the earth isn’t forever?
In response to this difficulty it can be noted that the Hebrew term olam can mean “a long time”, either in the past (1 Sam. 27:8; Psa. 25:6), or “before the world began” (Prov. 8:23), or it can mean a long time in the future (1 Sam. 13:13), or something like “until the end of the world” (Gen. 9:16; Exod. 32:13). Or it can refer to eternity (Isa. 54:8; Dan. 7:14). It is often used of God (e.g. Psa. 103:17; Deut. 33:27; Isa. 40:28). Of course, some of these passages may be interpreted either to mean “perpetual,” or “until the world ends”. It is hard sometimes to discern which is meant. I hold that in Ezekiel 37:26-28 it actually means both, since I believe there will be a great deal of continuity between the present order and the new creation. The covenants bind the two aeons together.
This brings us to the second problem, which is the description of Revelation 21:22 where we are told that the New Jerusalem has no temple in it. I shall of course address the matter when I come to the Book of Revelation, but I can at least say that the passage does not essentially forbid a temple on the new earth; only in the city that comes down out of heaven from God.
7 Thomas Renz, The Rhetorical Function of the Book of Ezekiel, 116
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.