This chapter consists of two distinct communications. In the first (Ezekiel 37:1-14) the prophet sees a vision, and is directed in consequence to utter a prophecy; in the second (Ezekiel 37:15-28) he is told to perform a symbolical act, and explain its meaning to the people. There is a close connection between the two, and also between the latter and the two following chapters. In Ezekiel 37:1-10, Ezekiel, in a vision, sees a plain full of bones and is directed to prophecy to them; in consequence of which they come together, are clothed with flesh, and become alive. In Ezekiel 37:11-14, the vision is expressly explained to mean that the children of Israel, in their scattered and apparently hopeless condition, shall yet be brought together again and restored to national life. The vision is not at all concerned with the future resurrection; and yet it may well be thought that the idea of this was familiar to the mind of the people, as otherwise the prophet would hardly have chosen such a simile.
The course of thought in the later prophecy and its connection with what follows will be explained in its place.
EXCURSUS F: ON CHAPTER 37.
So much has been said in the interpretation of this chapter of the high spiritual view which can alone explain these prophecies consistently with themselves, that it may be unnecessary to add anything further; yet as correct views upon this point are absolutely essential to the right understanding of the remaining parts of this book, and as much misapprehension exists in regard to them, it may be well very briefly to mention some of the reasons why it is impossible to understand the language of Ezekiel in regard to the future as referring only to the Israelites after the flesh, and to the land in which they once lived.
Every one who compares the general scope and purpose of the two dispensations must see that they are essentially one, that the end was foreseen from the beginning, and that the earlier was distinctly preparatory for the later. The “Gospel was preached before unto Abraham,” and then “the law was added because of transgressions, until the promised seed should come” (Galatians 3:8; Galatians 3:19); and this preparatory character of the old dispensation, recognised even by Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15-18, &c.), was more and more insisted upon by the prophets (e.g., Jeremiah 31:31-34; Haggai 2:6-9, &c.). At the same time, they describe the future continually by means of already familiar events in their history (see Isaiah 40-66 throughout, especially Isaiah 62, 63), even going to the extent of promising again the reign of David (Jeremiah 30:9; Ezekiel 34:23-24; Ezekiel 37:24-25; Hosea 3:5), and the coming in the last days of the prophet Elijah (Malachi 4:5). These prophecies are repeatedly and expressly interpreted of Christ and His forerunner, while the promised “new covenant” is explained of the Christian dispensation; and the description of the wonders accompanying its introduction (Joel 2:28-32, &c.) is applied to the circumstances connected with the first promulgation of the Gospel (Acts 2:16, &c.). Moreover, it was from the first expected that the “seed of Abraham” should embrace far more than his descendants after the flesh, and the promise that he should be “the father of many nations” is shown by St. Paul to mean that all who embraced his faith should be recognised as his children (Romans 4:16); while the correlated promise, “To thy seed will I give this land,” is extended in the same connection (Romans 4:13) to a promise “that he should be the heir of the world.” When these facts are joined (1) with our Lord’s teaching that the types and shadows of the old economy were fulfilled in Himself; that the time had come when Jerusalem should no longer be the place where the Father should be worshipped (John 4:21); and (2) with the apostle’s declaration that all earthly distinctions between Jew and Greek, or of whatever other kind, are passed away: that “if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed” (Galatians 3:28-29); and also (3) with the whole argument in the Epistle to the Hebrews that the Aaronic priesthood culminated and was absorbed in the higher priesthood of Christ, and that the whole sacrificial and Temple arrangements of old were typical and temporary, and were superseded by the realities of the Christian dispensation—there seems no longer room for doubt that the Jewish Church and nationality are things of the past, and have been merged for ever in the Church of Christ. At the same time, it is never to be forgotten that the prophets foretold, and history has fulfilled, that “salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22), and that the law should “go forth from Sion,” and the “new covenant” be made with God’s chosen people; for it is abundantly evident that our Lord, after the flesh, was a Jew, and all His immediate followers were Jews. His Church was cradled among them, and it was not until some years after it had entered upon its career for the salvation of the world that its doors were thrown open to the Gentiles.
If, however, it were still urged that, all this being admitted, many prophecies, and notably those of Ezekiel, still seem, over and above these things, to look forward to a future restoration of the Jews to their own land, in a condition of great prosperity and power, it must be replied that the above considerations of the absolute removal in Christ of all distinctions among those who believe in Him are inconsistent with the future revival of these distinction in His Church; and that even such an explicit prophecy of the restoration of the fallen “tabernacle of David” as is contained in Amos 9:11-12 is expressly applied by the apostles (Acts 15:16) to the union of Gentiles and Jews in the Christian Church.
Besides all this, in predicting the future under the figures of what has gone before, the prophets frequently foretell what would be contradictory if it were to be understood literally. Thus Zechariah (Zechariah 14:16-19) declares that all nations shall come up to Jerusalem to keep the Feast of Tabernacles: an evident physical impossibility. So also there is continual mention of the restoration of animal sacrifices with acceptance to God, which is inconceivable in the light in which those sacrifices are viewed in the New Testament. The offering of the “one sacrifice for sins for ever” (Hebrews 10:12) by Him who was the Antitype of all sacrifice necessarily brought to an end the whole typical system.
Finally, it is to be considered that the very representations of the old prophets are sometimes repeated in the New Testament as a means of describing a state of things which no one would dream of interpreting literally. This is particularly noticeable in the present passage. Ezekiel has been describing a spiritual resurrection of the people (comp. John 5:21), and then goes on to foretell an assault by their enemies which shall be frustrated by the power of God (Ezekiel 38, 39). The same thing is foretold in Revelation 20: the power of evil is restrained for a time, and there is a resurrection of the believers in Christ, with a period of blessing and prosperity; then the enemies of God (under the very same names of Gog and Magog) are gathered to battle, and destroyed by the power of God; and finally, the Church of the future, the heavenly Jerusalem, is revealed in its power and glory, in much the same way as in this passage of Ezekiel.
It can scarcely be necessary to add that the figurative interpretation of these prophecies does not affect the important question in regard to the purpose of Divine Providence in the continued preservation of the Jews as a distinct people, and the intimations in regard to their future, given in the Epistle to the Romans and elsewhere. Whatever may be the future designed for Israel, the question here is simply, What was the instruction intended to be conveyed in this chapter? And the reasons above given seem sufficiently to indicate the interpretation adopted.
(1) In the midst of the valley.—The word is the same as in Ezekiel 3:22; Ezekiel 8:4, and having the definite article prefixed, is very probably the same plain, now seen in spirit, in which Ezekiel had seen his former visions.
Which was full of bones.—It is better, with the Hebrew, to put a stop after “plain” (valley), and then read, this was full of bones. The bones, as the subsequent verses show, were not heaped together, but thickly strewn upon the face of the plain. After the prophet’s mind had so long dwelt upon the desolating campaigns of Nebuchadnezzar, these ghastly reminders of the loss of human life might naturally enter into his thoughts.
(2) Very dry—as showing that it was a long time since life had left them, and that the possibility of their living again was far removed.
(3) Can these bones live?—The question is put to the prophet in order to emphasise the human impossibility of that which is immediately brought about by the Divine omnipotence. (Comp. Matthew 9:5-6.) It was precisely this teaching which the people needed. As they had formerly refused to believe his announcements of impending judgment, so now that this had come, they were utterly incredulous in regard to his declarations of future blessing. It seemed to them impossible, and what they needed to be taught was that “what is impossible with man is possible with God.”
Thou knowest.—The prophet sees the natural impossibility, yet perceives that there must be some deeper reason for the question, and therefore replies in these words. It may be, too, that the question thus asked, before its object is suggested, connected itself in his mind with the thought of the literal resurrection of the dead and the difficulties it suggests.
(4) Prophesy upon these bones.—“Prophesy” is here used (as frequently) in its original sense of “speak on God’s behalf,” and does not convey the idea of prediction.
(5) Breath.—The three words,” breath,” “wind,” and “spirit,” are represented in the Hebrew by the same word, and the context must determine which sense is intended. Similarly in Greek there is the same word for the last two of these. (Comp. John 3:5-8.)
(8) No breath in them.—The restoration of the dry bones to life is described as taking place in two stages, with evident reference to the record of the creation of man in Genesis 2:7. In the first, they are restored to perfect form, but yet without life; in the second, they receive breath and become “living creatures,” as in Genesis 1:20-21; Genesis 1:24; Genesis 2:7, in all which the same expression is used.
(9) Upon these slain.—The word is used designedly. The bones which Ezekiel had seen were those not merely of dead, but of slain men; and in this was their likeness to Israel: as desolated, and their nationality for the time destroyed by their enemies.
(11) Are the whole house of Israel.—This Divine interpretation of the vision leaves no doubt of its meaning. Whatever other sense might possibly be attached to its language, there can be no uncertainty as to that which the Spirit intended. The last clause of the verse, “cut off for our parts,” is obscure in the English, but in the original is simply for us—i.e., “as for us, we are cut off.”
(12) Open your graves.—In Ezekiel 37:2 it is said that the bones were “in the open valley,” literally, upon the face of the valley. This was a necessity of the vision, in order that they might be seen; now the people, whom the bones represented, are spoken of as in graves, since this was the normal and proper place for the dead.
(14) Put my spirit in you.—Here, as throughout this series of prophecies, the moral resurrection of the people and their restoration to their own land are intimately associated together. The former was at once the necessary condition of the latter, and would also be its consequence in a still higher development. Compare a similar association of the spiritual with the literal resurrection in John 5:21-29.
Ezekiel 37:15-28 constitute another prophecy, which probably was given very soon after the former, since there is a close connection between the two. In the former, under the figure of the revival of the dry bones, God had set forth His power to accomplish the promise He made of the spiritual resurrection of Israel; in the latter. He adds to this the specific declaration of what had been before only implied, that the two long-severed nations of Israel shall be re-united and prosperous under the rule of the future David, while He Himself will dwell among them, and they shall be obedient to Him. These promises prepare the way for the prophecy of the great and final attack of the enemies of the Church (Ezekiel 38, 39) and their overthrow by the power of God. The promise of this prophecy is first set forth by a symbolic action (Ezekiel 37:15-17), which is then to be explained to the people (Ezekiel 37:18-20), as in the case of the vision (Ezekiel 37:11), and then the promises of blessing follow.
(16) One stick . . . another stick.—These are not rods, as in Numbers 17:6-9, although Ezekiel may have had that event in mind; the word here is an entirely different one, and means simply a piece of wood. The two pieces were, no doubt, so shaped that being firmly held together they would appear as one.
For Judah, and for the children of Israel his companions.—The object is to represent by the two pieces of wood the two kingdoms. It would be insufficient, therefore, to mention Judah only; for with him Benjamin had been always associated, and also considerable fragments of the other tribes (2 Chronicles 11:16; 2 Chronicles 15:9). After the fall of the northern kingdom, individual members of the ten tribes who had not been carried into captivity joined themselves more or less completely to the kingdom of Judah (2 Chronicles 30:11-18; 2 Chronicles 31:1).
For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim.—Joseph, as including the two great tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, is put for the whole of the ten tribes, and Ephraim is specified as being the leading tribe, and this makes necessary the addition, “and all the house of Israel his companions,” to show that the whole northern kingdom is included. The word for, in italics, should be omitted.
(19) Which is in the hand of Ephraim.—Again Joseph is put for the whole ten tribes, and again it is indicated that the control of these was chiefly with Ephraim. The human power, which led to and perpetuated the division, is in contrast with the “mine hand,” where all shall be re-united under Divine rule.
Will put them.—Grammatically the plural pronoun “them” refers to the piece of wood, which is in the singular; but the construction is according to the sense, the wood representing the ten tribes.
(20) Before their eyes.—The symbolical action was not only to be performed before the people, but the united wood was to remain in the prophet’s hand, while he unfolded to them the Divine promise. That promise is essentially a repetition of Ezekiel 34:11-31; Ezekiel 36:22-30.
(21) Will gather them.—The restoration of Israel from their captivity among the heathen here, as often elsewhere, is the first step in the fulfilment of the Divine promises. This, however, like the other Divine promises, was fulfilled only to a “remnant,” a course which, as St. Paul shows in Romans 9, had been foreseen and foretold from the first. A fulfilment on a larger scale was perpetually prevented by the sins of the people; God did for them all that their obdurate disobedience would allow Him to do. Yet He did not wholly reject them, but allowed a remnant to keep alive His Church, and become the channel of those richer blessings of the new covenant, in which all who will accept His salvation are united in a holier bond, and led to a land of higher promise than Israel after the flesh could ever know.
(23) Out of all their dwellingplaces.—This expression can hardly refer to their places of exile and temporary sojourn among the heathen, since these were not especially the places where they had sinned. Their sins were rather committed in their own land; the “lands of their captivity” were the places where those sins were punished. “Their dwelling places” is then to be understood of their own land of Canaan, where they had been led into idolatry and all abominations by the heathen dwelling among them; and the promise is that this land shall be purged, that all evil shall be cast out from it, and the people delivered from the temptations by which they had hitherto been overcome.
(24) David my servant.—Here, as in Ezekiel 34:23-24, David personally is described as their one king and shepherd. (See the Note there.)
(25) For ever.—Strong emphasis is placed upon this declaration by its frequent repetition. In this verse, the occupancy of the land is to be for ever, and the kingship of David is to be for ever; and in Ezekiel 37:26; Ezekiel 37:28 the sanctuary is to be “in the midst of them for evermore,” and the covenant of peace is to be “an everlasting covenant.” Such promises are taken up continually in the New Testament, and explained of the everlasting reign of the King of kings, the Good Shepherd, over His people, and of the Temple of the Holy Ghost in the heart of the believer.
(26) Multiply them.—In accordance with what has gone before, comes this promise of the great increase of the spiritual Israel. Even John the Baptist had said, “God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham”; but our Lord more emphatically taught that the true children of Abraham were those who followed Him (John 8:39, &c.); while His Apostle St. Paul explains repeatedly, and at length, that Abraham was the father of all those who walk in his faith, whether they be of the circumcision or the uncircumcision (Romans 4:12, &c.); and again, “that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham” (Galatians 3:7). Thus was fulfilled the promise that he should be “the father of many nations” (Genesis 17:5, interpreted in Romans 4:17), and in the same way also was to be fulfilled the present promise of the multiplication of the seed of Israel.
(27) My tabernacle also.—Compare the whole promise of this verse with 2 Corinthians 6:16 : “Ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them: and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” This promise of “a sanctuary in the midst of them for evermore” was in type and shadow set before the eyes of the people with the restoration of the Temple of Zerubbabel; but in its reality began to be fulfilled at the incarnation of the Son of God, of whom it is said by St. John (John 1:14) that “He dwelt (literally, tabernacled) among us,” and is continued by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers (1 Corinthians 3:16; 1 Corinthians 6:19); while it is to receive its final consummation in that future when the tabernacle of God shall be with men, and “the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple” of the heavenly Jerusalem (Revelation 21:3-22). See Excursus F at end of this book.
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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Ezekiel 37". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany