All this is seen, not in literal reality, but in spiritual dream and vision. Again we ask the question, What is reality? It may be that the things which we call real are not things at all; they may be but transient and misleading shadows. Let us be careful how we talk about reality. Vision is the larger life. A man is still a man in his dreams. He may not be able to put them together well, or to read their enigmas fluently and precisely; but they are still efforts of the mind, hints of sublime possibility, indications that we are not walled in with stones, but limited by skies. Let us, therefore, once more remind ourselves that reality is a term which has not yet been exhaustively defined.
When Ezekiel saw the bones, and knew that "there were very many in the open valley," and that "they were very dry,"—a circumstance put in to indicate that if there were a miracle at all it would be a supreme effort of divine power,—the Lord said unto Ezekiel, "Adam [the Hebrew of son of man], can these bones live?" There was a time when Ezekiel might have answered, No, certainly not; there can be no doubt about that; the bones are so dry that live they never can. Men are not so fluent in their older age as in their youth. Ezekiel had been educated by visions,—not educated into frivolity, but educated into adoration, reverence, wonder, expectation. So this most dazzling of the prophets answered, "O Lord God, thou knowest" A finer answer than the rattle and gabble of fluent youth. We are made to see that there are possibilities which did not enter into our earlier calculations in life. Men are gradually trained to see the eloquence of hesitation. Youth is impatient with all things that stop; the great conception of youth is to go on, to quicken, to hasten, to fly, never to stand still. It is of no use endeavouring to exhort youth to take another view; only time can work that miracle. By-and-by older men begin to see that the speaker who halts may be the prophet; the man who never stopped for a word was but a reciter of his own nothings. May Ezekiel typify us in this present attitude and in this eloquent hesitation! Ezekiel the Prayer of Manasseh, looking upon the bones, would say, No, they can never live, for they are very dry: I could stake a universe on that declaration. But Ezekiel the prophet says, I must speak whisperingly, reverently; no one can tell what God can do: I will therefore reply, O Lord God, thou knowest.
This is an answer which becomes a world educated as ours has been. We should be very careful now how we say that we have reached the limit of things. Rather have we been educated to say that in things there is no limit; in other words, we never can overtake the omnipotence of God, or forecast Omniscience, or tell what the Eternal will do. God is never short of resources. We have misspent our time and lost the very bloom and perfectness of our education if we do not now hesitate before denying anything that is grand, sublime, beneficent, wonderful in majesty and tender in goodness. After all our tragedy and sorrow and stress we ought to be able at this moment to say regarding any grand proposition, however unlikely it appears on the surface, Yet even this thing of wonder may become one of the commonplaces of life. Education tends to larger faith, or it is a false education. The liberalisation of the mind means larger imagination, larger trust in the Infinite: deep, complete spiritual education, when told that mountains may be carried into the midst of the sea, says, Yes, it may be so; only ignorance flatly denies. Obstinate, self-worshipping minds draw boundaries and live within geometric lines and limits; but the imagination that has been schooled in the divine sanctuary, the faith that has been trained through the wilderness, the trust that has seen the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living,—all these combine to say, We have seen nothing yet compared with the glory that is to be revealed.
Ezekiel at this moment is not on his wings of fire. He often flies away from us, and we cannot overtake him in all his airy course; but at this moment he stands with bent head, and with voice subdued he answers God, saying, "O Lord God, thou knowest." Let us keep by that answer. That fits all the great situations of life; within the sanctuary of that reply we may enjoy a sense of security, in other words, a sense of ineffable peace. God is always addressing great questions to us either audibly or typically or inferentially. But for these great questions the world would stagnate: along all the winds there come, whirling, thundering, the great inquiries that keep the world fresh, pure, masculine, hopeful. Can dead men live? What is the answer?—"O Lord God, thou knowest" Once we should have said, No; they are dead and buried; their native earth has devoured them, and there is no deliverance from the grasp and the greed of the grave: but now, having seen such wonders in other directions, we hesitate and say, "O Lord God, thou knowest." Are not God"s questions God"s answers? Does God mock the universe by interrogation? Does he not rather by interrogation suggest that other miracles are coming? Interrogations are alarum-bells rung in the sleeping chambers of the race to rouse us to gaze upon the morning of undreamed beauty. Is there an unseen world? is a question that rings in the audience-chamber of every soul. What is the answer? We know what it would have been once. Men mock the unseen, men taunt the invisible; that Isaiah, when they are fat and prosperous and full of gain—many of whom dare not go up a green lane alone at midnight: these be thy gods, O unbeliever! Now we say, in reply to the inquiry, "O Lord God, thou knowest." There may be a world unseen; we begin to believe there is; we ourselves are unseen; no man has seen himself; we have not seen our selves, there may therefore be a world unseen: O Lord God, thou knowest. Then we ask ourselves questions. Taught by the great interrogations of the divine, we have learned to put deep inquiries to ourselves and about ourselves, and sometimes we say, Do the dead visit the living? do they take no notice of us? are they clean gone for ever? are we not mentally touched by their influence? how otherwise do we account for sudden thought, startling inspiration, the upsetting of plans well calculated and exquisitely moulded? Why that flashing thought? whence that new impulse? Do the dead come to us in unseen whiteness, in ineffable silence? "O Lord God, thou knowest." Hear our little prayer, and send them to us more and more. We are not afraid of the sainted dead.
How is this great miracle to be wrought out? As usual, by human instrumentality. The Lord employed the prophet:—"Again he said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones." Why did not the Lord himself order the bones to live? Because we live under a mediatorial economy. It hath pleased God so to construct all the kingdoms we know about that one thing is done through another: instrumentality is the key of progress: we live for God and for one another. There is no lone soul; there is no isolated life: every touch sends a thrill through the universe. We were not asked how kingdoms were to be builded and related; we find this great mediatorial economy prevailing everywhere: God seems to do nothing now directly. He came into direct service, so to say, in the first chapter of Genesis; then he hurled his fiat from his burning throne, and all things addressed answered him. Since then he has controlled one thing by another; he has made large use of man. What does the word "Prophesy" here mean? It does not mean predict. The word "prophesy" is too often limited to mere foretelling; here "prophesy" may mean, Speak on my behalf: represent me: be God"s vicar. What was the prophet to say?
"Thus saith the Lord God unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live" ( Ezekiel 37:5).
The great prophet always brings life. The true preacher is never associated with mere death, which is negation, which is darkness, which is night without a star or a hope. The prophets have kept the world young. The poets keep us young in heart, yet men in understanding and dreamers in hope. Herein the Bible takes the supreme position in literature: it is the leading book. The Bible never ends; when it says Amen, it is only that we may take breath before beginning again. It is the book of prophecy, it is the book of prediction; the book of transfiguration, the book of divine emphasis and representation. Take the Bible in this sense, and it enlarges with every reading, and glorifies with every new experience. The Church therefore ought to be the leading institution in the world. All music ought to be there, all beauty ought to find its housing in the sanctuary; all nobleness of life, all sweetness of charity, all greatness of view and effort and enterprise for the good of man should originate at the altar. There is but one tree the healing of which is for the healing of the nations, and the name of that tree is the Cross; it is rooted in Calvary.
What did Ezekiel do when called upon to utter words that were unlikely ever to be fulfilled? He gives the answer in Ezekiel 37:7 : "So I prophesied as I was commanded." That is the right spirit, and that is the right method. This is all we have to do. Ministers do not make their own sermons; if they do, the people never hear them, or at once forget them. They do not get down to the heart"s great needs; they have no sphere in the valley of dry bones. Such sermons have no music for shattered lives, and broken fortunes, and dead souls. Poets do not make their own poems. The poet does not know what he has written: he reads his own lines with wonder. The great intercessor does not know what he is praying. He is carried away by prayer; he is taken, as it were, by invisible hands and lifted into unmeasured altitudes, and there he talks with God; and if some hand has caught the words and fastened them to the steadfast page the suppliant reads these words as if he had never spoken them. The prophet does not invent his own prophecy. He is entranced, filled with enthusiasm, divinely infatuated, mad; and when he reads he wonders, and often weeps. Only Materialists know what they are doing as to beginnings and endings.
Sometimes men have to prophesy under distressing circumstances—the valley was "full of bones," and the bones "were very dry," and Ezekiel prophesied as he was "commanded." We are not to be disheartened; we are to speak to the deadest men as if they could hear us; we are to address bones as if they could reply; in the churchyard we are to find an audience; among the dead we are to constitute an assembly of eager listeners. It is not for us to control the circumstances, and to say, Give me a fit audience, give me a kingdom for a stage. It is for us to prophesy according to the bidding of God,—in the village, full of dull heads and lifeless eyes, and weary, dispirited hearts; in the city, mammon-driven and mammon-cursed; among the ignorant, who have no sublime ambitions; among the rich, who are trusting to uncertain riches; among the atheists, who have said, There is no God: wherever our field is appointed, there we are to prophesy in gladness of heart. God will do the rest. "My word shall not return unto me void" is an assurance that goes ringingly through all the winds that circulate round the globe, breathing their blessed inspiration upon every sick-visitor, every Sunday-school teacher, every missionary toiling under difficult circumstances, every pastor and preacher and prophet. If it were man"s word it would go forth void and come back void; it is God"s word, and therefore it cannot fail.
While Ezekiel prophesied, what happened?
"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" ( Ezekiel 37:7-8).
That is the first miracle. Here is a miracle by instalments. When we come to the New Testament the work is done at once; Christ commands, and the work is done. Some of us are in this department of God"s miracle: we are mere outlines, we are not yet men; we stand, articulately we are right, joint is attached to joint, and the figure is complete; but we are mere spectres, skeletons, anatomically perfect. How many persons of this kind we meet! We say, The figure is good, the stature is right, the anatomy is perfect; but there is no breath in them. Afterwards another prophecy was delivered, and the wind was bidden to come, and to breathe into the standing bones; and it came, "and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army." Some of us have not got into that second department of the miracle, do not let us therefore be discouraged; some of us are in that second department of the miracle, let us not therefore be boastful, let us abstain from contemning those who are not so far advanced as we are. The miracle is one, and God is one.
"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" ( Ezekiel 37:11-14).
Here we have the literal explanation of the miracle, the literal boundary of God"s thought in this vision. But who is to limit the spiritual? The material is only given to us as a suggestion; what we have is to lead us on to what we have not; the known is to point with steady index-finger to the unknown. We may have the literal interpretation given, but that does not bar the action of the great sublime and tender and reverent imagination. Here we have all the kingdom of miracles in one act. Resurrection—why, that is almost declared in the text. We sometimes say the doctrine of resurrection is not to be found in the Old Testament: here in this very chapter we have God promising to open graves; in this vision we have the resurrection prefigured. If God could do this miracle, what miracle is there that lies beyond his omnipotence? We take the act of eating food: does it end in itself? then it were a beast"s act. When the poet eats bread he eats poetry; when the prophet nourishes himself at the common table he performs a sacramental act; every draught of water drunk by the true man acts upon his soul like the wine of God. Do not be imprisoned by the material and the literal and the geometrical. Your home is meant to signify heaven; every height points to some sublimer altitude. Who can fix the issues of any one action? What then is our hope amid the dry bones, the shattered fortunes, the fatal diseases, the moral pestilence of the world? What is our hope? Our hope is the hope of Ezekiel. That God who has brought him to see the reality of the desolation will make him the instrument through which shall come the rush, the surging life, the resurrection—immortality
Almighty God, we come to an altar not made with hands. We come to the unseen, the ineffably holy, the divinely complete; we come to the altar of the Cross, a Cross for ever towards us, a crown beyond. We come to confess our sin, but if we confess our sin where shall we begin the appalling recital? We remember no moment that bore not its own stain. Yet we will confess that we have done the things we ought not to have done, we have left undone the things we ought to have done; with our whole soul we will say, each for himself, God be merciful to me a sinner! Wash us, and we shall be clean; sanctify us, and there shall be no stain upon our souls. The blood of Jesus Christ, thy Song of Solomon, cleanseth from all sin. It finds its cleansing way into the inmost recesses of the soul; may we know what is meant by the cleansing of the blood of Christ, and rise and follow after holiness with eager and ardent hearts. Thou hast called us to sanctification; thou hast set apart thy Church. She is not one of many, she is not in the great crowd; thou hast called her and elected her and sanctified her, and all these processes are promises of the final and everlasting crown. May we be in the Church of Christ which he hath redeemed with his own blood; may we bear the name that is new on the palms of our hands and on our forehead; in all our life may we show that we have been with Jesus, not in the sunshine only, but in the darkest night of sorrow. The Lord look upon us; comfort the downcast, the broken-hearted, the bereaved, and such as are called upon to walk in long darkness: dry the tears of sorrow, that the vision of the soul may once more behold, and the heart exclaim, How good, how gracious is the Lord! Pity us in our low estate; have mercy upon us because of manifold infirmity; and bring us, life"s journey done, to the river which flows fast by the throne of God. Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Ezekiel 37". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany