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Son of man, can these bones live?
The vision of a true revival
I. Such a revival often seems utterly hopeless. The condition of a nation in some of its eras of misfortune; the condition of the human race in their graves; the condition of men who have lapsed into low spiritual life;--are all conditions whose striking emblem would be a valley full of dry bones. There seems nothing to promise better things. There is no effort, no struggle upwards. Hope is lost.
II. Such a revival is deeply interesting to good men. By a dialogue Ezekiel is interested in the present condition, the possible future, of these “bones,” is taught his own weakness, and has revealed to him the source of strength and the methods of renewal. So always some Divine influence comes to interest good men in the recovery to higher life of those with whom He has to do. By His Spirit too, and by the, discipline of life, and by the Scriptures, God, as in a dialogue with such a man’s soul, teaches him all he needs to know about such a renewal as He sees is deeply needed.
III. Such a revival is partly wrought by creature agency. For political regeneration there are appointed heroes of the State; for the resurrection of the body there is appointed the angel with the trumpet, that shall sound when the dead are to be raised; for revival of the Church of God, earnest-souled men are appointed.
IV. Such a revival is gradual in its progress. There were several stages in the accomplishment of the revival in this valley of vision. So in every revival. First, “a noise.” This is the least important of all, yet often seems to be a needful accompaniment, an indication of awakening life. Then “a shaking.” This politically finds its fulfilment in revolution, and often in war. In spiritual things it finds its fulfilment in throes of spirit, sometimes the agonies of doubt. Then “the bones came together, bone to his bone.” This surely points to right organisation and consolidation, whether of the nation or of the individual character. Then “the sinews and the flesh came upon them, and the skin covered them from above.” Here is the accomplishing of all that can be accomplished of merely external order and beauty. But how poor are all! For “there was no breath in them.”
V. Such a revival requires God’s special operation. From the four winds the breath came, that is the symbol of the Divine Spirit. So only “righteousness exalts a nation,” and without the Spirit of God there will not be righteousness: so the dead at the last day will be raised by God.
VI. Such a revival produces sublime results. Instead of a valley of dry bones, there is an army, living, united, loyal, mighty. So, by their true regeneration, nations rise from being abject, poor, immoral, to kingdoms of liberty, prosperity, virtue. So human characters shall be elevated: the man no longer “dead in sin,” shall have a heart united to fear God, a nature that reveals the Divine in spiritual harmony, strength, and glory. (Urijah R. Thomas.)
Can these bones live
Ezekiel differs from the other prophets in this: that he stands before us as half prophet and half priest. He has been described by a great authority as a priest in a prophet’s mantle. In him the two streams met and parted. In this passage, however, Ezekiel is not a priest, but a pure prophet, and he is in the direct prophetic line. We are perhaps in a position to trace the growth of this famous allegory and to reconstruct the process by which it took shape in the prophet’s thought. It had taken fire from a spark, and that spark was a phrase he had heard from his fellow exiles in Babylon--“Our bones are dried and our hope is lost.” The metaphor swelled in his imagination to a vision and became one of the great dreams of the world--so much more a dream because its explanation is the sleepless purpose of Almighty God with man. Ezekiel stands up among the prevailing lassitude and indifference, and he is a prophet because he is a man of hope, because he has faith in God. What we have here is an allegory; it is an allegory of resurrection, but not the resurrection of the body, nor perhaps of the dead as individuals, but of the nation. The resurrection of the individual dead was perhaps no part as yet of the Hebrew faith.
I. As to the scene, it was the scene of so many visions--the valley by the river Chebar. Now it wore a hideous aspect, and to the prophet its face was a scene of desolation; it was ghastly with dry ruin, with the chronic leprosy of death. And it was death grown grey and sere, death that was hopeless of any life to come; death settled down into possession; death that was privileged, enthroned and secure. That was Israel--defeated, destroyed, and dismembered, crumbling into paganism, some not hoping, not wishing to revive. The bones were many and they were very dry. Death always has the majority on its side. The dryness and death of a dead multitude is something more than the death of the same number scattered up and down the community. The dead city is always worse than so many dead people scattered about the country; therefore pull down the infested places; erase the slums, destroy the hotbeds of vice, however difficult, and get rid of the ferment of corruption.
II. As to the prophet’s acting. He “passed by them round about”; he did not tread upon them as the lout upon the cemetery graves. The Spirit moving among them was God; He is God of these bones also, and, therefore, Ezekiel is reverent to them. May the Spirit of God make us reverent towards all human wrecks--whether black or white. The Christian preacher has no right to be anything else. Can he be otherwise than respectful towards those whose hope and joy are gone? Who acts otherwise does it from a low heart. Can these dry bones live? Well, they are relics, things with memories, things once wedded to life although now in such tragic divorce from it. A mere mummy of a man, living under the wrath and curse of God, may not be the object of God’s neglect. God’s anger is not out of all relation to His love; not beyond His pity; not foreign to His grace. To have the anger of God, I venture to say, is at least some melancholy dignity. “Son of man, can these bones live?” This question is put every time we review the past. Is there not often in the dead past life for the present? “Can these bones live?” It is the question God is asking us by the mouth of history today. Why, these Gospels which have done so much are comparatively meagre--they are His bones--when you compare them with the fulness of the whole historic Christ, who takes ever a saving relation to Him as a historic revelation of God. The faith of Pentecost makes a great difference in the meaning of the historical creed. Then the Christ within us can take full measure of the Christ without. His evidence is Himself, and the history of the Risen One, with the experience of the Church during these two thousand years, must interpret and supplement the historic evidence of His Resurrection. Experience verifies the Gospels. The living evidence is not confined to the first, second, and third centuries. It is vital and mighty in every century, and not least in the century in which we live. The Spirit which quickens is as essential as the vision which sees. The faith which felt what these bones could be was as real as the eyesight which saw them on the plain. There can be, indeed, no new revelation of the Father: “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today, and forever.” But the future may reveal more of the revelation which is fixed in the history of the past, and elicit its infinite resources. By way of history will come the extraction of the resources of that revelation. The circumstances of history must work ever with the relics of history--personal history and public history--that is the way of God’s Spirit. And the coming revival which is to move no mere sect or coterie, which is to change the whole of our national life--that revival will show its genius also in this: it may recast here and there the history of the Church, but it will enlarge by new races the Christianity of the future. From age to age God confounds the pessimists. He takes the man of little faith, carries him back through history to the dark ages and asks him, “Can these bones live?” God puts you into the valley of the fifteenth century when paganism was even settling in the Church itself, when the faithful had almost ceased to believe. “Could these bones live?” You see not how, but God’s answer was the wonderful sixteenth century with the rediscovery of Paul and the coronation of faith, with all that followed. Once more He plants you in the Church early in the eighteenth century. Can that thing live? God’s answer is Wesley, the Oxford Club, and the Evangelical Revival. Do you doubt if any such answer can be given to the question now? We have the answer before our eyes, and the world has it, and it is often like smoke in the world’s eyes. But the men who first faced the missionary problem had it not before their eyes, they had it before their faith only. They were prophets, truly, and they had the answer more surely by faith than many of us have it even by sight. They saw men trooping from their living graves, they saw the races around them rescued and civilised by the Gospel. They saw the Church reconverted because they had within them the spirit that makes it to be so and they felt the first flutterings of its breath. What preacher does not sometimes despair when he looks at the spiritual skeletons around him? Or, perhaps, the preacher himself preaches only because it is a duty and prophesies in obedience rather than in belief. What of these? Well, preach hope until you have it, and then preach it because you have it--you have heard something of that sort before. Today the preacher is a man of parts and affairs. Often the congregation looks well and comfortable, but there is something lacking. It lacks life. It is a congregation and not a church. It may be cultured, but it is not kindled. There is more religion than regeneration. It has been clothed but not quickened. It knows about sacred things but little about the Holy Ghost. Oh, prophesy once more, prophesy till the Spirit of life comes. Preach, but still more pray. And how can you do that if your appeal to man be not inspired by your residing with God? Pray to the Spirit of God and preach to the spirit in men. Never mind current literature, but preach the deep things of God and remember that it is possible to lose your souls by mistaken efforts to gain others. Preach character by all means--more than has been done--but preach it through the Gospel that makes it. It is the demands of life that make men of us. Ask of them great sacrifices. Leave them not at ease. There are those who have not got beyond,, human, nature and its kindnesses, who care more for culture and to have something going on than for the Gospel. Rouse them to conflict, call on the Spirit to seize them and do with them what you never could do. Does not the Spirit do for us what no man can ever do?
III. As to the result. “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.” The true insight and knowledge comes by way of resurrection. We know what must rule others by knowing what has changed and ruled us. This is the source of true conquest and dominion in the world. The power of the final lordship is one of which we know nothing until we have saved men. And we cannot use the power until we ourselves have experienced it. The world is to be ruled at last only by those men and that society that knows the laws and powers of the new soul. We cannot know God’s way with the mighty world unless we give our own manhood as the pledge and lay ourselves down before Him. Spiritual power makes its own procedure, and human society must finally take its shape from the light of the redeemed soul. I suppose there never was a time when--for good or ill--organisation meant so much as today. It has been called into being until it threatens to oust the home and submerge the Church. But is there no danger in this passionate desire for an organised state of existence? As we perfect the form, what is to become of the spirit? Can we organise ourselves into eternal life? Where are we to find that life which is to save our organisation from becoming our grave? “Ye shall know that I am the Lord when I have brought you out of your graves.” The efficiency of the world can only be secured by the sufficiency of the Spirit. It is Christ’s power and courage and resource we need to face the perils around us, and the trouble is that these do not occur to our common thoughts, our common Press, and our common Parliament. What we need is to know ourselves for what we are, for the moral laggards and traitors and rebels we are. We want a power that will enable us to go on when robust assurance fails and disillusionment comes and we find ourselves out. If we have no such discovery, no Redeemer, no Quickener, then there is no God, no future. It is in His redemption we must find our power and our methods to rule the world. The life of a people depends not merely on magnanimity or devotion, but on the righteousness whose source is Christ. Our ethics are suffering today because we think of love and sacrifice for their own sake. We hear so much about them that they have become self-conscious. They fancy themselves, as we say, and dress themselves for the public gaze. They should be lost in moral inspiration. Before I admire any sacrifice or ardour I wish to know how it has been inspired. It is not idealism but sanctity that saves a nation. The greatest power we know is holiness. It was the first care of Christ not to sacrifice Himself for an ideal; it was that He might glorify the holiness of God. He died to bless man, but still more to glorify God. The first charge on us must be not the happiness of men, but the holiness of God. Then people will be “called from their graves.” There is no future for Godless commerce or Godless ardour of any sort. The missionary spirit is the spirit that brings nations out of their graves and resurrects them to Godliness. If you ask me whether all the human wrecks of this world can live, I am sure of it; first, because God has made something out of my shipwreck, and secondly, because I know that when He died He died for the whole world. And God knows, if I do not know, the world’s future and the world’s possibilities; it is He who still commands and has told me to act and pray till every man is saved, and therefore every man shall be saved. It would not be so hard to believe in the black races if we were sound in our belief about the white races. We are straitened within ourselves, and when there is lack of power what can we do but pray? We are bound in our passions and our sins: our bones are dried up, we are weary and too easily weighted down. These things lie upon us like the weight of earth. We can live only in Thee, O Lord of life. Clothe our bones, quicken our flesh, and the valley of Death shall be one of hope, because though we have fallen we rise to holier love and a nobler life. (T. P. Forsyth, D. D.)
Lessons from the valley of vision
The primary object of this chapter was to encourage the Jews to expect their restoration from the Babylonish captivity. At the time of the utterance of this prophecy they were scattered among the cities of the Babylonish dominions without any existence as an independent nation. But as the bones in the valley of Ezekiel’s vision only needed the quickening process described in the narrative to become a living army, so the Jews only needed the interposition of God on their behalf to become again an independent nation. The meaning of the vision is explained in verses 11 to 14. But there are three other meanings that it is regarded as conveying. Applying the vision to the nominal Christian Church, it teaches that if any of God’s people have lost their spiritual life, and so their capacity for usefulness, the Holy Spirit can quicken them, and so restore to them their power for efficiency, making them an army for Immanuel. Applying the vision to the human race, it shows us God’s method of awakening into spiritual life the dead in trespasses and sins. A third view looks upon the vision as teaching the resurrection of the body at the last day, especial reference being had to the bodies of believers.
I. The text presents us with a picture of the spiritual state of our race; “dead in trespasses and sins.” The scene presented to Ezekiel’s sight in vision was a valley full of bones. They were “very dry.” For a long time they had lain under the scorching heat of an eastern sun, until they were ready to crumble into dust. Here we have symbolised the condition of our race. Men are “dead in trespasses and sins.” Spiritual life is departed. Sad as the picture may appear, it is not overdrawn. Scripture testimony is true. All flesh is corrupt, Man is born in sin and shapen in iniquity. “There is none righteous,” naturally, “no, not one.” It is all-important for us to maintain this doctrine now. For there are those who would persuade us that man is not wholly corrupt; that the race is improving; that there are germs of good in us; that by the cultivation of his faculties, a man may subdue vicious propensities and become virtuous and holy. Why did Christ come to this world? Not simply to leave us an example of perfect holiness, but to atone for sin. He died to save us from a death from which we could not save ourselves. But take away any necessity for the atonement of Christ, and the love of God does not appear so great as the doctrine of man’s depravity makes it appear. This doctrine of original sin is one too humbling to man’s pride to be received without remonstrance, and the deep-rooted opposition to it is one proof of its truth. Who likes to be told that by nature he is wholly corrupt, and void of spiritual life? Christianity is the great civilising power in the world today, but in the most Christianised countries there is ample evidence of the universal prevalence of sin. There is no hope for the world from itself. As Ezekiel looked forth upon the valley of desolation, God said to him, “Son of man, can these bones live?” and he answered, “O Lord God, Thou knowest.” We ask, “Is it possible for the millions of our race now in ignorance of the Gospel, in darkness about a future state, never having heard of the only way of salvation, to be enlightened and all brought at last to worship the same Lord and trust in the same Saviour as ourselves?” We look around us: we see that in a Christian land, like our own, the masses of our fellow creatures, with all the spiritual advantages they possess, are careless about salvation and treat the Gospel as if it were some cunningly devised fable. “Can these dry bones live?” They cannot save themselves; they are powerless to procure themselves spiritual life. Looked at from a human standpoint, the work is an impossibility. To Him who created a world out of nothing, there is no impossibility in restoring to life, whether the dead in sins or the dead in body. Be it ours to follow the directions of Divine Providence, and patiently to wait for the exertion of God’s almighty power.
II. The text presents us with an illustration of the human instrumentality God generally employs in the work of quickening the dead in sins; the preaching of the Gospel. Ezekiel was commanded to prophesy unto the bones, and say, “O ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.” Thus it appears that the dry bones were fit subjects for prophecy. They could hear the Word of God and understand it. Remembering that the dry bones primarily represented the Jewish nation, we see the propriety of the command. And taking the dry bones as representing the human family, we see an equal propriety in the vision. Our business is with the command, not the results. We are to use the means, and leave it to God to prosper them. Ezekiel’s was a message of life (verses 5, 6). The Gospel is a message of life. We are told to go and preach to every creature. This preaching has been the human instrumentality chiefly employed. Yet Christianity triumphed over the religions of heathen Greece and Rome; it superseded the subtle philosophies and hoary idolatries of the East; it destroyed the worship of the barbarous Gauls and Germans, and rough savages of Northern and Eastern Europe, and has ever since maintained its hold. Yet the world still speaks of the foolishness of preaching, and wonders that such simple means should accomplish such great results. Let people say what they will, the power of the pulpit is the greatest of human instrumentalities employed to bring about the conversion of the world. The press cannot supersede it, and never will; for in the living voice of a man in sympathy with his mission and burning to save souls, there is a power that the lifeless page can never exercise. It is a divinely appointed institution. God honours it. In this valley of vision, there was one prophet commissioned to declare God’s will. Now it is different. One was enough then for the work to be done. But the command to preach Christ’s Gospel was given to all His disciples. Ezekiel was prepared to deliver his message, and it would have been grievous sin in him to refuse to do so. So now the disciples of Christ, who are called to preach His Gospel, are prepared for their work. God gives physical, mental, and spiritual gifts to His servants. Ezekiel had the message which he was to deliver, given him, and he dared not announce any other. Had he done so, punishment from God would have been richly deserved, and speedily inflicted, and there would have been no resurrection of the army. And if a preacher preaches any other Gospel than that of “Christ crucified,” not only does he expose himself to the punishment of unfaithfulness in a matter of such transcendent importance, but also he will be of no use in saving souls. Many are the ways in which God’s servants, divinely commissioned to preach the Gospel, perform their task. Each man for himself must give up his account to God of the way in which he has fulfilled his commission, and ought to do his duty unmoved by the frowns or favour of men. All are not learned as Apollos, or zealous as Paul, or loving and persuasive as John in later life. Like the diversity in the plumage of the feathered tribes; like the variety in the hues of flowers; like the perpetual variation in the shapes of the fleeting clouds, so is the variety endless in the gifts and manner of the divinely commissioned preachers of the Gospel. So long as God owns His servants’ labours, let us stand by, and murmur not against His ambassadors.
III. The text presents us with a view of the Divine agency employed in the work of quickening the dead in trespasses and sins: the power of the Holy Spirit. What was the result of Ezekiel’s prophecy (verses 7, 8)? Ezekiel might prophesy, but all his prophesying could not give them life. The change which had been accomplished was not done by Ezekiel’s prophesying, but by the power of God. Thus it was the Holy Spirit’s power that made that army of slain men to live. Similarly, when God’s servants preach the Gospel message to the spiritually dead around them, they feel their utter helplessness to quicken them into spiritual life. As the bodies of Ezekiel’s vision had the form of living beings before the breath entered into them, so men may be like Christians in their outward behaviour, but lack their spiritual life. To give this is the work of the Spirit. Oh, recognise the power of the Spirit, Third Person in the ever-blessed Trinity. All the preaching in the world will he useless to give spiritual life to a single soul unless He put forth His power. Trust not in the preacher whoever he may be, but in the Spirit. Already in answer to faithful prayer the Spirit has descended, and dead souls have been quickened, and are an army for Christ doing His work For the vision of Ezekiel showed that the dead when raised became a living army. Their life was given them that they might fight against and subdue God’s enemies: they were not simply to enjoy life themselves. And when by the Holy Spirit’s working, sinners are led to trust in Jesus and gain spiritual life; they are at once effective soldiers for Christ, and able to lead others to serve under the same gracious King. (T. D. Anderson, B. A.)
The valley of dry bones
In the galleries of Versailles the history of France is written in colour. Passing from corridor to corridor, the observer reads from those pictured pages of the centuries, the fortune of ideas, institutions, and dynasties. It is an impressive method of teaching. Many passages of Scripture are marvellous specimens of colour writing. The truth is not taught in dry formulas, but is flashed upon the mind, from parable or symbol or picture. Inspiration is the highest art. Who paints truth like God? Burning bush, pillar of fire and cloud, visions of patriarchs and prophets, splendours of the Transfiguration mount, flaming canvas of the Apocalypse,--what is there that equals these limnings of the Divine pencil? The passage before us is one of these colour sketches of inspiration. It is clear that God designed to teach desolate Israel, by this vision, three things.
1. That there was hope for them. In the judgment of men, they were past help. They were utterly destroyed, their land ravaged, their capital overthrown, themselves captives in Babylonia. Where on the horizon was there a morning ray of promise? God still lived. God had not been carried away into captivity, and “in the Lord Jehovah there is everlasting strength.”
2. The lesson of self-distrust. They could not deliver themselves. The wisest heads among them might scheme, the boldest conspirators might plot, but it would avail nothing. Those bleaching bones in the valley were the symbol of utter impotence.
3. Entire dependence upon God. It was the Word of the Lord, at whose utterance bones knit themselves to bones, and covered themselves with flesh. It was the Word of the Lord, at whose bidding the inspiration of life came into the motionless bodies, and transformed the valley of sepulture into an amphitheatre crowded with a host of stalwart men. Israel’s hope was Israel’s God. The history of Israel was a microcosm, the world’s history in type and miniature. The principles on which God governed that people, are the principles on which He governs the race. His arguments and appeals and instructions to them are for all men and all time. This is a lost world. By many that statement is branded as unwarrantable. How wonderful is the march of our modern civilisation! How it hunts out and subsidises the hidden forces of earth and sea and sky, how it annihilates distance, and accelerates the transit of human thought! What beneficent changes it has wrought in ideas and institutions! But there is another side to the matter. It is a universally confessed fact that there is a vast amount of moral and spiritual inertia, which the so-called progress of the race does not overcome, nor sensibly abate. Humanity grows bigger, rather than better. There is not a well-balanced correspondence between the growing intelligence, and the increasing righteousness, of the race. The intellectual outstrips the moral advance. The discoveries of curiosity outnumber and outweigh the accretions of character.
1. That human expedients will prove ineffectual. There has been no stinting of effort to reclaim the world, on the part of good men. The utmost that human effort can compass in this matter is reform, and what a lost world needs is a remaking. Reform alters the shape, but not the nature of things. Man’s wisdom has as yet found no way of renewing mankind.
2. The instrumentality to be used is the preaching of the Gospel. As a matter of history, the preaching of the Gospel has proved the most efficient method of reaching a lost world. The little company of the apostles, by the simple proclamation of Christ and the resurrection, dealt the deathblow to Greek and Roman superstition, entrenched in the stronghold of centuries. Cyril and Chrysostom moved two continents with their message. The earth shakes with the tread of the millions who are mustering at the Gospel call. In the jungles of India, under the shadow of the great wall of China, in thronged and eager Japan.
3. The efficient agent is the Spirit of God. The bleaching relics became the bodies of men, but “there was no breath in them.” There is a certain measure of influence in the simple utterance and acknowledgment of the claims of Divine truth. Christian governments, Christian institutions, Christian ethics are the result of the confessed sovereignty of the Gospel teachings. But this is not the last power of the Gospel of Christ. It is only when, and only as, the Spirit of God “takes of the things of God, and shows them unto men,” that wonderful transformations are wrought in nature, and character. No masterly eloquence, no exhaustive learning, can supply His place. “Paul may plant and Apollos water, but God giveth the increase.” The consolidation of all human agencies is comparatively inoperative in the work of man’s renewal, and uplift to spiritual life. It is “not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, saith the Lord.” We are to concern ourselves less about our intellectual greatness, and more about our fitness to be instruments, through which and with which the Divine power can work.
Certain inferential teachings of this passage are worth noting.
1. Some of the methods by which churches and Sabbath schools endeavour to enlarge their influence are weak and wicked. Eternal well-being is at stake, and the fair, the sociable, the concert, the drama cannot lift men “dead in trespasses and sin,” into “newness of life in Christ Jesus.”
2. The passage is full of encouragement to Christian workers. The spiritually dead are not beyond their reach. The same power that peopled that silent valley with hosts of stalwart men, that transformed blaspheming Saul into fervent Paul, is at their command.
3. The general and concentrated outcome of this portion of Scripture is to urge all who work for God to rely entirely upon God. The invincible Spirit, if He be for us, who can be against us? (Sermons by the Monday Club.)
I. A striking description of the religious state of the heathen world.
1. The persons made the subject of this prophetic vision are represented as dead. To be dead is to be in a state which excites reset and sympathy. To lose the image of God is to die; because as death destroys the human form, sin destroys truth, holiness, and love, in which the image of God in man consists. This is the unhappy case of the heathen. The heathen world is judicially dead, under the wrath and curse of Almighty God. To counteract generous feelings, and to stop the stream of pity in its very fountain, we are aware that the doctrine of the safety of the heathen has been confidently affirmed. The true question is among such persons often mistaken. It is not, whether it is possible for heathens to be saved,--that we grant: but that circumstance proves the actual state of the heathen world to be more dangerous than if no such possibility could be proved; for the possibility of their salvation indisputably shows them to be the subjects of moral government, and therefore liable to an aggravated punishment in case of disobedience. The true question is, Are the heathens, immoral and idolatrous as they are, actually safe?
2. The number of the dead forms another part of the picture,--“the valley was full of bones.” The slain of sin are innumerable. The valley as we trace it seems to sweep to an unlimited extent, and yet everywhere it is full! The whole earth is that valley. Where is the country where transgression stalks not with daring and destructive activity? where it has not covered and polluted the soil with its victims? If we turn to the east, there the peopled valleys of Asia stretch before us; but peopled with whom? With the dead! That quarter of the earth alone presents five hundred millions of souls, with but few exceptions, without a God, save gods that sanction vice; without a sacrifice, save sacrifices of folly and blood.
3. To the number of the dead the prophet adds another circumstance,--“they were unburied”: the destructive effects of sin, the sad ravages of death, lay exposed and open to the sun. So open and exposed have been the unbelief and blasphemies of the Jews, and the idolatry and vices of the Gentiles.
4. The prophet closes his description by adding, that “the bones were very dry.” Under this strong figure the hopelessness of their condition is represented. Thus the Jews, introduced in verse II, are made to say, “Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost”; and the state of the heathen must, at least, be equally hopeless. As far as mere human means and human probabilities go, “there is no hope.” From themselves it is certain there is none.
II. The means by which its mystical resurrection is to be effected: “Prophesy upon these bones,” etc.
1. This direction intimates that the ministry of the Word is the grand means appointed by God for the salvation of the world. Others have looked for the amelioration of the human race from the progress of science. Another class of speculatists would wait until wars and revolutions have broken up old systems of despotism, and introduced political liberty, before any means are taken to spread the Gospel. Here is another attempt to build the pyramid upon its point. In vain do men expect liberty without virtue.
2. The words may be considered as an injunction on the ministers of the Gospel. But to whom is the message directed? To missionaries only? Nay; but to all who are called “to preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.”
3. The injunction, “Prophesy,” respects not only ministers, but you also who have a private station in the Church. In the society of Christians the particular work of every member is his own salvation; but he owes a duty to the whole body, which is to promote, by all the means in his power, the common end of the association. That common object is to bring “the wickedness of the wicked to an end, and to establish the just.”
III. The prophecy expresses the certain success which should follow the application of the appointed means. We are engaged in no doubtful cause: the kingdom of Christ must prevail; and the Word which has given Him the heathen for His inheritance is “forever settled in heaven.” Our confidence rests--
1. On the power of the Gospel. We are not to consider the Gospel as a mere system of doctrines, and duties, and hopes, offered coldly to the reason of mankind. It is this system, but it is more; it is the source of a Divine influence which exerts itself upon the faculties of those who hear it. The Word is never sent without its Author. “Go, and preach My Gospel, and lo, I am with you.” The same union subsists between the Spirit and the Word.
2. Our confidence in the certain success of the Gospel rests also upon experience. Christianity is not a novelty; and its efficacy is not now to be put, for the first time, to the test of experiment. It is that powerful and Divine instrument which has for ages been wielded with glorious success in the cause of God and truth.
3. Prophecy confirms the certainty of success. (R. Watson.)
The valley of dry bones and the true preacher
I. This preacher had a fine church to preach in. It is in “the midst of the valley.” The true preacher of Christ has open nature for his temple. He need not be confined to the buildings of man’s hands, or tied to the conventionalities of society. Wherever men are, on the valley, the hilltops, the seashore, the high road, or in the market place, he can open his mission, he can deliver his message. Thus Christ and His Apostles preached.
II. This preacher had an affecting congregation to address. The valley was full of bones, “very many and very dry.” Unregenerate souls are like dead bodies in many respects.
1. They are the creatures of the outward. While there is life in the human body it has a power to appropriate the external to its own use; but when life has departed, the external elements make it their sport. It is so with unregenerate souls. They are the creatures of circumstances.
2. They are loathsome to the eye. The human frame that is beautiful in life becomes so offensive in death, that love seeks a place to bury it out of sight. Unregenerate souls are loathsome to the eyes of all who are truly and spiritually alive.
III. This preacher had a Divine sermon to deliver.
1. He appealed to his dead auditory. This showed his strong faith in God. His own reason would suggest to him the absurdity of his work, but he trusted God.
2. He appealed to Heaven. “Come from the four winds, O breath,” etc. From Heaven the power came, and that power he invoked with all the earnestness of his nature. Thus with the true preacher of Christ. His words will be powerless unless made powerful by the mighty Spirit.
IV. This preacher had marvellous results to witness.
1. The results were what he worked for. The efforts he exerted were for resuscitation, and resuscitation came. Every true preacher will get, to some extent, that for which he earnestly labours.
2. The results were gradually developed. Here is--
(1) Motion--bones moving.
(2) Organisation--bones knitted together and covered with flesh.
(3) Vitality--the organisation animated.
(4) Exertion--stood on their feet “a great army.”
Under every true preacher the work in a congregation goes on something in this way. (Homilist.)
The vision of dry bones
I. The representation given us in this vision of the moral condition of our world. Bones--dry bones--unburied bones--very many of them--what a crowd of suggestive thoughts seem to be called up by this picture! A bone--who likes to look on this dishonoured relic of life? What a recoil do youth and beauty feel at being told that “to this complexion they must come at last”! But the bones the prophet saw were, on our spiritual interpretation, yet more painful to contemplate; they represented the bones, not of a dead body, but, so to speak, of a dead soul, scattered members of the immortal part--God’s image defaced, corrupted, broken into dust and fragments. Furthermore, to complete the picture of death and desolateness, the prophet adds, “and they were very dry.” They had not only remained a long time in this state, they were bleached and crumbled in the sun, and all vestige of the human thing was gone. The application of this lies upon the surface. God made us men, but sin has changed us into skeletons. Observe, further, the vision seems to point to the utter shamelessness of the unconverted state. The bones were in an open valley, or champaign. There may be those who sin in secret, those who defraud and plunder by means of locked up and secret ledgers, who concoct their mendacious schemes in chambers dark as the unsunned and unfrequented sepulchre; but the many hardly care to hide their iniquity, they leave the pestiferous breath of corruption to go up from the valley, and seem to glory in their shame. And how unblushingly does vice walk our streets, and lying enter into our commerce, and sinful and foolish jesting dishonour our entertainments, and the offer of cheap excursions affront the sanctities of God’s holy day! And whey justify themselves who do such things. Even concealment--that homage which bad men pay to the divinity of virtue--is deemed uncalled for. “They are dead in trespasses and sins,” and desire that none should bury them out of our sight. Another mournful spectacle which the vision exhibits of spiritual death reigning around us is its universality. It is not in the midst of the valley only, in the crowd of cities, and in the feverish stir of courts, the haunts of dissipation, or amidst the thickly nestling families of the outcasts that we meet with these relics of spiritual corruption. Wherever we pass, with the prophet, round about, in the retirement of the village, in the seclusion of the cloister, in the calm privacies of family and domestic intercourse--sweet Auburn, mighty London--it is all one--there is not a house in which there is not one dead.
II. The means to be employed for the recovery of the world from its spiritually dead condition. “Can these dry bones live? Can your faith grasp the great fact of these bones becoming men?” And the answer which the downcast man of God would return, would be in substance Ezekiel’s answer--“O Lord God, Thou knowest.” “Judging by past results, judging by present evidences, judging by any standards of human likelihood, I should say these bones will continue bones. I see not hope or sign of life among them. Every form of moral inducement fails. Mark here, the ministry of the Word is God’s great agency for the world’s conversion. The days we live in are fertile of expedient and project and bold thought. Every sun that rises finds a thousand busy minds planning and devising something for the good of mankind, The philanthropist’s calling is absolutely overdone; and by education, by cultivation of e taste for the arts, by shortened labours for the sons of toil, and open doors for the repentant criminal, by reformatories, dormitories, penitentiaries, and industrial schools, everybody has his scheme for mending the world’s present condition. Amidst this multitudinous assemblage of human remedies, all good in their way however, it is a great repose to the mind just to see what is God’s remedy. He interferes not with our social machinery, our commerce, our science, our philanthropy, or our laws--these may all go on as before; but He has His own cure for the moral disorders of mankind; and where that cure is left out of sight, God will bless no other. And that is, to prophesy upon these bones and say unto them, “O ye dry bones, hear ye the word of the Lord!” And at this part of the vision the minister of God finds his lesson, He has a pardonable preference for the great promising fields of labour. True, he must go where he is sent, but he would not choose a valley of bones if he could get an auditory of living things. But the tenor of his commission runs--“Preach to the most ignorant, and dark, and hopeless; speak to the dead; even in the place of tombs and at the very mouth of graves; prophesy upon these bones.” Neither are we to be tellers of smooth things when we prophesy, to shrink from calling people by their right names and addressing many among them as spiritually dead; for you see there God’s own instructions to the preacher--“Say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear ye the word of the Lord.” And this is our confidence when we speak--that it is the word of the Lord.
III. The success which shall attend the use of all heavenly-appointed means for the conversion of souls. We may not omit to observe here, how, under every dispensation the dead and the hopeless are the objects of the Almighty’s care. They are the tempted among disciples, the heavy laden among sinners, the weeping among the prodigals; it is among the reeds the sorest bruised, and among bones the “very dry,” that mercy finds occasion for its most tender and bright displays. Let us see this principle acted out in the vision. There was a noise and a shaking. To two out of the three proposed interpretations of the vision suggested at the outset these effects seem applicable enough. Thus we can have no difficulty in imagining that a great political commotion should be stirred up on the first proclamation of Cyrus for the return of the Jews to their own land; whilst for the other interpretation, or that which applies the vision to the resurrection of the body, we have the later New Testament confirmation, that the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the powers of heaven shall be shaken. But what fitness have these terms for our spiritual rendering? Much every way. There is no resurrection to spiritual life, whether in a nation, in a family, or in an individual soul, without both a noise and a shaking. Yes, the chariots of the Redeemer never have been noiseless chariots. There was a noise in Judea when John preached the baptism of repentance; there was a noise at Athens when Paul preached the doctrines of the resurrection; there was a noise at Ephesus when the craftsmen saw the danger which threatened their silver shrines. And is there not often a noise in families when the prophesying is just beginning to take effect, when some solitary member of a household comes out from the rest, and with a lofty disregard of the results, resolves to cast in his lot with the people of God? Ask yourselves, have you ever been shaken from these sandy and unstable foundations on which so many are building their immortal house? Have you over been shaken from those unscriptural and hollow creeds which are the only answer many have to make to the fears of death, the terrors of the grave, and the heavy indictment to be preferred against them at the last day? Or, lastly, have you ever felt a shaking in yourselves? Have you ever known what it is to have the heart to sink, and the knees to smite, and the tongue to falter through an oppressive sense of your soul’s danger and urgent need? If so, be of good cheer; at this time there was a shaking in you, the bones were beginning to move, and flesh was beginning to come up, and over the face of your regenerate soul the Spirit of God was moving and imparting to you the first breathings of spiritual life.
IV. The last scene of this imposing spectacle. See in this feature of the prophet’s vision, a type of that halting stage in the Christian life, in which all external forms of godliness are kept up without any growing experience of its power; living, indeed, in shape, but having no breath in them. Seeing there was no breath in these risen forms, the voice said unto Ezekiel, “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.” We want more breath in our body, more of that which distinguishes the skeleton from the man and the religious automaton from the thing of life--and this is to be obtained only by our prophesying to the wind; by one and all in the church and in their closet offering that fervent petition, “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” (D. Moore, M. A.)
The vision of the dry bones
Like many other visions before and since, it is partly shaped by the circumstances of the times. The horrors of the Chaldean invasion, which had resulted, in carrying away the Jewish people into Babylon, were still fresh in the memories of men. In many a valley, on many a hillside in Southern Palestine, the track of the invading army as it advanced and retired would have been marked by the bones of the unoffending but slaughtered peasantry. In a work written some years ago, Mr. Layard has described such a scene in Armenia, an upland valley, covered by the bones of the Christian population who had been plundered and murdered by Kurds. Ezekiel, wrapt in a spiritual ecstasy, was set down in a valley that was full of bones. But what are we to understand by the dry bones of the vision of Ezekiel? This is plainly a picture of a resurrection, not, indeed, of the general resurrection, because what Ezekiel saw was clearly limited and local, but at the same time it is a sample of what will occur at the general resurrection. It may be urged that this representation is presently explained to refer to something quite distinct--namely, the restoration of the Jewish people from Babylon, and therefore that what passed before the prophet’s eye need not have been regarded by him as more than an imaginary or even impossible occurrence intended to symbolise a coming event. But if this were the case, the vision, it must be said, was very ill adapted for its proposed purpose. The fact is that the form of Ezekiel’s vision, and the popular use which Ezekiel made of it, shows that at this date the idea of the resurrection of the body could not have been a strange one to religious views. Had it been so Ezekiel’s vision would have been turned against him. The restoration from the captivity would have been thought more improbable than ever if the measure of its improbability was to be found in a doctrine unbelieved in as yet by the people of revelation. We know, in fact, from their own scriptures, that the Jews had had for many a century glimpses more or less distinct of this truth. Long ago the mother of Samuel could sing that the Lord bringeth down to the grave and bringeth up, and Job could be sure that though worms destroy his body yet in his flesh he would see God; and David, speaking for a Higher Being than himself, yet knows that God will not leave His soul in hell nor suffer His Holy One to see corruption; and Daniel, Ezekiel’s contemporary or nearly so, foresees that many who “sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt,” and later on the courageous mother of the seven Maccabean Martyrs cries to her dying sons that “the Creator of the world, who formed the generations of men, and thought out the beginning of all things, will also of His mercy give you life and breath again if you regard not yourselves for His sake.” Undoubtedly there was among the Jews a certain belief in the resurrection of the body, a belief which this very vision must have at once represented and confirmed. Ezekiel’s vision, then, may remind us of what Christ our Lord has taught us again and again in His own words of the resurrection of the body. But its teaching by no means ends with this. For the dry bones of Ezekiel’s vision may well represent the conditions of societies of men at particular times in their history, the condition of nations, of Churches, of less important institutions. Indeed, Ezekiel was left in no kind of doubt about the Divinely intended meaning of his vision. The dry bones were pictures of what the Jewish nation believed itself to be, as a consequence of the captivity in Babylon. All that was left of it could be best compared to the bones of the Jews which had been massacred by the Chaldean invader, and which bleached the hillsides of Palestine. “He said unto me, These bones are the whole house of Israel; behold, they say, Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost; we are cut off.” Certainly in the captivity little was left of Israel beyond the skeleton of its former self. There were the sacred books, there were Royal descendants of the race of Jacob, there were priests, there were prophets, there was the old Hebrew and sacred language not yet wholly corrupted into Chaldean, there were precious traditions of the past days of Jerusalem, these were the dry bones of what had been earlier. There was nothing to animate them, they lay on the soil of heathenism, they lay apart from each other as if quite unconnected. To the captive people Babylon was not merely a valley of dry bones, but socially and politically it was fatal to the corporate life of Israel, “Thus saith the Lord God, Behold, O My people, I will open your graves.” And this is what actually did happen at the restoration of the Jews from Babylon. Each of the promises in Ezekiel’s vision was fulfilled. The remains of the past history, its sacred books, its priests, its prophets, its laws, its great traditions, its splendid hopes, these once more moved in the soul of the nation as if with the motion of reviving life. It was a wonderful restoration, almost if not altogether unique in history. We see it in progress in the 119th Psalm, which doubtless belongs to this period, which exhibits the upward struggle of a sincere and beautiful soul at the first dawn of the national resurrection, and we read of its completion in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah; it was completed when the Temple, the centre of the spiritual and national life, was fully rebuilt, and when the whole life of the people in its completeness was thus renewed in the spot which had been the home of their fathers from generation to generation. And something of the same kind had been seen in portions of the Christian Church. As a whole, we know the Church of Christ cannot fail, the gates of hell shall not prevail against it; but particular Churches may fail in their different degrees,--national churches, provincial churches, local churches. These, like the seven churches in Asia, which stand as a warning for all the ages of Christendom, these may experience their varying degrees of corruption and ruin and the moral insensibility which precedes death. And some of us may have noted a like resurrection in some institution, neither as defined as a church nor yet so broad or inclusive as a nation, in a school, a college, a hospital, a charitable building, a company. It is the creation, it is the relic of a distant age, it is magnificent in its picturesqueness, it lacks alone nothing but life. It persists in statutes that are no longer observed, it observes ceremonies and customs which have lost their meaning, it constantly holds to a phraseology which tells of a past time and of which the object has been forgotten. But certain it is in each year its members meet, they go through the accustomed usages, they signalise their meeting, it may be by splendid banquets, by commanding oratory, but in their heart of hearts they know they are meeting in a valley of dry bones. The old rules, usages, phrases, dresses, these are scattered around them like the bones of Ezekiel’s vision, a life which once animated and clothed has long since perished away. Lastly, the dry bones of Ezekiel’s vision may be discovered, and that not seldom, within the human soul. When the soul has lost its hold of truth or grace, when it has ceased to believe or ceased to love all the traces of what it once has been, do not forthwith despair. There are survivals of the old believing life, fragments and skeletons of the old affection, bits of stray logic which once created phrases which express the feeling which once won to prayers, there may remain amid the arid desolation of every valley full of dry bones the aspirations which have no goal, the actions which have no real basis, no practical consequences, the friendships which we feel to be holy and which are still kept up, the habits which have lost all meaning, we meet with writers, with talkers, with historians, with poets whose language shows that they have once known what it is to believe, but for whom all living faith has perished utterly and left behind it only these dried-up relics of its former life. “Can these bones live?” Can these phrases, these forms, these habits, and these associations which once were part of the spirit life, can they ever again become what they were? A man may have ceased to mean his prayers, his prayers may now be but the dry bones of that warm and loving communion which he once held with his God, but do not let him on that account give them up, do not let him break with the little that remains of what once was life. It is easy enough to decry habit, but habit may be the scaffolding which saves us from a great fall, habit may be the arch which bridges over a chasm which yawns between one height and another on our upward road; habit without motive is sufficiently unsatisfactory, but habit is better, better far, than nothing. Some of us it may be surveying the shrivelled elements of our religious life cannot avoid the question which comes in upon us from heaven, “Can these bones live?” They seem to us, even in our best moments, so hopelessly dislocated, so dry, so dead, but to this question the answer always must be, “O Lord God, Thou knowest.” Yes, He does know; He sees, as He saw of old into the grave of Lazarus; He sees as He saw into the tomb of the Lord Jesus, so He sees into the crypt of a soul of whose faith and love only these dry bones remain, and He knows that life is again possible. (Canon Liddon.)
The restoration and conversion of the Jews
I. There is to be a political restoration of the Jews. Israel is now blotted out from the map of nations; her sons are scattered far and wide; her daughters mourn beside all the rivers of the earth. But she is to be restored; she is to be restored “as from the dead.” She is to be reorganised; her scattered bones are to be brought together. There will be a native government again; there will again be the form of a body politic; a state shall be incorporated, and a king shall reign. “I will place you in your own land,” is God’s promise to them, They shall again walk upon her mountains, shall once more sit under her vines and rejoice under her fig trees. And they are also to be reunited. There shall not be two, nor ten, nor twelve, but one--one Israel praising one God, serving one king, and that one king the Son of David, the descended Messiah. They are to have a national prosperity which shall make them famous; nay, so glorious shall they be that Egypt, and Tyre, and Greece, and Rome shall all forget their glory in the greater splendour of the throne of David.
II. Israel is to have a spiritual restoration or a conversion. Both the text and the context teach this. The promise is that they shall renounce their idols, and, behold, they have already done so. Weaned forever from the worship of all images, of whatever sort, the Jewish nation has now become infatuated with traditions or duped by philosophy. She is to have, however, instead of these delusions, a spiritual religion: she is to love her God. “They shall be My people, and I will be their God.” The unseen but omnipotent Jehovah is to be worshipped in spirit and in truth by His ancient people; they are to come before Him in His own appointed way, accepting the Mediator whom their sires rejected; coming into covenant relation with God, for so our text tells us, “I will make a covenant of peace with them,” and Jesus is our peace, therefore we gather that Jehovah shall enter into the covenant of grace with them, that covenant of which Christ is the federal head, the substance, and the surety. They are to walk in God’s ordinances and statutes, and so exhibit the practical effects of being united to Christ who hath given them peace.
III. The means of that restoration. Observe that there are two kinds of prophesying spoken of here. First, the prophet prophesies to the bones--here is preaching; and next, he prophesies to the four winds--here is praying.
1. It is the duty and the privilege of the Christian Church to preach the Gospel to the Jew, and to every creature, and in so doing she may safely take the vision before us as her guide.
(1) She may take it as her guide, first, as to matter. What are we to preach? The text says we are to prophesy, and assuredly every missionary to the Jews should especially keep God’s prophecies very prominently before the public eye. Every man has a tender side and a warm heart towards his own nation, and if you tell him that in your standard book there is a revelation made that that nation is to act a grand part in human history, and is, indeed, to take the very highest place in the parliament of nations, then the man’s prejudice is on your side, and he listens to you with the greater attention. But still the main thing which we have to preach about is Christ. Preach His hallowed life, the righteousness of His people; declare His painful death, the putting away of all their sins. Vindicate His glorious resurrection, the justification of His people; tell of His ascent on high, their triumph over the world and sin; declare His second advent, His glorious coming, to make His people glorious in the glory which He hath won for them, and Christ Jesus, as He is thus preached, shall surely be the means of making these bones live. Let this preaching resound with sovereign mercy; let it always have in it the clear and distinct ring of free grace. Man has a will, and God never ignores that will, but by His almighty grace He blessedly leads it in silken fetters. Preach, preach, preach, then, but let it be the preaching of Christ, and the proclamation of free grace. The Church, I say, has a model here as to the matter of preaching.
(2) And I am certain that she has also a model here as to her manner of preaching. The manner of our preaching is to be by way of command, as well as by way of teaching. Repent and be converted, every one of you. Lay hold on eternal life. “Seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.”
(3) We have a model here, moreover, as to our audience. We are not to select our congregation, but we are to go where God sends us; and if He should send us into the open valley, where the bones are Very dry, we are to preach there. Do not say, “Such-and-such a man is too bigoted”; the case rests not with him, nor with his bigotry, but with God. These bones were very dry, but yet they lived. Let not, therefore, the greater viciousness of a people, or their greater hardness of heart, ever stand in our way, but let us say to them, dry as they are, “Ye dry bones, live.”
(4) And here, again, we have another lesson as to the preacher’s authority. If you will observe, you will see the prophet says, “Hear the Word of the Lord.” Always put to your fellowman the truth which you hold dear, not as a thing which he may play with or may do what he likes with, which is at his option to choose or to neglect as he sees fit; but put it to him as it is in truth, the Word of God; and be not satisfied unless you warn him that it is at his own peril that he rejects the invitation, and that on his own head must be his blood if he turns aside from the good word of the command of God.
(5) I cannot leave this point without noticing how the prophet describes the effect of his preaching--there was a voice, and there was a noise. Is this stir, then, the stir of opposition, or is it the stir of inquiry? Anything is better than stagnation: of a persecutor I have quite as much hope as of a quiet despiser.
2. After the prophet had prophesied to the bones, he was to prophesy to the winds. He was to say to the blessed Spirit, the Life-giver, the God of all grace, “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” Preaching alone doth little; it may make the stir, it may bring the people together, but there is no life-giving power in the Gospel of itself apart from the Holy Spirit. The “breath” must first blow, and then these bones shall live. Let us betake ourselves much to this form of prophesying. Observe that this second prophesying of Ezekiel is just as bold and as full of faith as the first. He seems to have no doubt, but speaks as though he could command the wind. “Come,” saith he, and the wind cometh. Little faith, Mender harvests; much faith, plenteous sheaves. Let your prayer, then, be with a sense of how much you need it, but yet with a firm conviction that the Holy Spirit will most surely come in answer to your prayers. And then let it be earnest prayer. That “Come from the four winds, O breath,” reads to me like the cry, not of One in despair, but of one who is full of a vehement desire, gratified with what he sees, since the bones have come together, and have been mysteriously clothed with flesh, but now crying passionately for the Immediate completion of the miracle--“Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” (C. H. Spurgeon.)
The prospects of Christianity when brought to bear on the lower races
I propose to concentrate our attention on the prospects of Christianity when brought to bear on the lower races and more grovelling religions that form so large a section of our Empire, and to endeavour to answer the commonly alleged objection to missionary effort, namely, that the dry bones cannot live. It is a waste of power, they say, alike in money and in men; a waste of power which might be so much more usefully employed in elevating and Christianising our virtual heathen at home. Those who assert this maintain
(1) on a priori grounds, that ethnological inferiority makes them unreceptive of the highest civilisation, and incapable of appreciating Christian truth or recognising Christian obligation; and
(2) a posteriori, they assert that missionary effort among them has, as a matter of fact, proved a failure. Let us consider first whether the a priori argument is conclusive. We may frankly in the outset recognise the reality of race differences; we are fully alive to all that is denoted by the expression, national idiosyncrasy; nor can we question the relative inferiority of race as compared with race. “God hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.” That is to say, that all who bear on them the stamp of man--all who, by that unaccountable intuition which leads the mastiff, the greyhound, the terrier, the Newfoundland, despite their utter dissimilarity of contour, pursuits, and habits, to recognise each other as alike dogs, feel and cannot divest themselves of the feeling that they have a common humanity--do, as a matter of fact, and in right of that feeling, stand in a fraternal relation one to the other. Once recognise this common humanity, and the Christian, who believes in the Incarnation, must also recognise that every human unit is potentially redeemed in Christ, whose glorious title is not the King of the Jews but the Son of Man; so that according to the Christian idea race distinctions, however characteristic, fade away, and are merged in the glorified humanity of the second Adam, “in whom there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free; but Christ is all and in all.” And on this hypothesis there is nothing to startle us in Christ’s words taken in their literal significance, “make disciples of all nations”; “preach the Gospel to every creature.” I say in their literal significance, though we well know that to do this often sacrifices the spirit to the letter. But once concede the postulate of universal redemption, once accept the truth, “Christ tasted death for every man,” and the systematic evangelisation of all men becomes a necessary corollary. We pass on to the a posteriori argument that missionary work among the heathen is a recognised failure. Is it so? This is a question of evidence. Whom shall we first summon into the witness box? We will cite our own selves. We English people of today are a standing reply to the supposed uselessness of missionary effort. It is true our Christianity is of long standing; but let our minds dart back to the origines of Christianity in these islands. What manner of persons were they to whom the first Christian missionaries came? Were they, think you, a promising field for Gospel labour? Were our skin-clad and tatooed Keltic predecessors hopeful material for the first mission priests from Gaul to work on; or, a few centuries later on, were our rude Saxon forefathers, debased in drunkenness and gluttony, patently and obviously receptive of a religion which inculcated righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come? But the Kelt and Saxon, it is replied, in spite of their savagery and rudeness, belonged to better breeds; were they not members of the great Aryan family? Granted, yet have we any right to assert that when they first passed under the mild yoke of Christianity they were on any higher level, morally or spiritually, than the New Zealand Maori or the West Indian Charaib? And may we not with justice assume that hereditary, i.e. transmitted Christianity, has been a perceptible factor in their moral and spiritual elevation? At least, is it possible so to eliminate this factor as to be safe in pronouncing that they were originally better breeds, and naturally more receptive of Christian influences? But we may go a step further, and boldly assert that it has not been a failure even with the savage, that is to say with races of a confessedly low organisation, given two necessary conditions,--sufficient time and favourable surroundings. If you wish to know what the Gospel can do for the savage pure and simple, study the Moravian mission records. The darkest and dreariest corners of heathendom are the field of labour of their choice. Thibet, Greenland, the Mosquito Coast, Surinam, Aboriginal Australia--these are their principal mission stations. Their records and reports are worth reading; they have in them the ring of veracity; they faithfully chronicle ill-success and disappointment; but they can point to tangible results of all this patient effort; they have confessedly achieved what had been deemed impossible--the elevation of the Australian native, where they have been able to bring him within the range of continuous Christian influence, from his depth of degradation, through the power of the Gospel, and through the magic which resides unimpaired in that name which is above every name, the saving name of Jesus Christ our Lord, and in the power of His Cross. Or read the life and letters of John Coleridge Patteson, first missionary Bishop of Melanesia. In his first cruise among those islands, which were destined afterwards to be his scattered diocese, and subsequently the scene of his martyrdom, he thus describes his visit to Bauro: “The house of Iri was long, low, and open at the ends; along the ridge pole were ranged twenty-seven skulls not yet blackened with smoke; and bones were scattered outside, for a fight had recently taken place near at hand.” Yet, later on, he writes thus of his youngsters that he had gathered round him from this very Golgotha: “I have quite learned to believe that there are no ‘savages’ anywhere, at least among black or coloured people; I’d like to see anyone call my Bauro boys savages.” From the savage pure and simple we pass to those races which are admittedly inferior to the higher types of humanity, but which, either through contact more or less continuous with those higher races, or because they do not naturally fall very low in the scale, have manifested some receptivity of Christian teaching and Christian influences. Of these the West Indian negro furnishes a good example; an example, too, the more instructive, because it is possible to compare the negro who has lived thus under Christianity with his heathen congener in Africa. It so chances that this comparison can be made in more places than one; and the juxtaposition is startling from the force of contrast. On the West Coast of Africa, about a hundred miles from Sierra Leone, is a little missionary settlement near the mouth of the river Pongas. It was started mainly through the zeal and energy of Bishop Rowle, of Trinidad, while principal of Codrington College, in Barbadoes, with the object of repaying spiritually the vast debt of material wrong inflicted mainly on that portion of the Dark Continent by the West Indian slave trade. It is a mission mainly supported by the West Indian Church, with the assistance of a committee in England, and manned now for some time exclusively by West Indians of colour trained at Codrington, or by native West Africans from Sierra Leone. It is, indeed, a striking contrast between the degraded Susus, grovelling in abject superstition, and these patient, loving, self-denying priests--men of their own race and complexion--who have come to live among them, and to elevate them, not merely by Christian teaching, but by Christian example. Just such another negro mission exists and flourishes under the auspices of the Church Missionary Society in the Niger Valley, governed and directed by the saintly Bishop Crowther, himself a negro of pure African descent, born and bred on the soil whereon he now labours. Well might he exclaim, as on a memorable occasion he did, with proud humility, to the Church Missionary Society gathered together in Exeter Hall, “I am your result; you are asked what comes of all your expenditure and all your effort; I am your result.” And he was right. But what has been the effect of Christianity upon the rank and file of the negro population? for we have confessedly been dealing hitherto with only its best representatives. We must in all frankness reply very great, and yet very little. If we were asked what has been the practical result of Christianity upon the civilised European nations, we should have, I fear, to make a similar reply, “Watchman, what of the night? The morning cometh, the night cometh also.” But in the case of negro Christianity, at least of West India negro Christianity, the uneradicated faults and vices are much more palpable and apparent, and perhaps more generally diffused than those of European Christianity. They are the vices that either have come down to them from the days of their African heathenism or were incident to their condition in the West Indies previous to emancipation and Christianity. Besides being enslaved by iniquitous superstitions, the negro Christian has too often a very limited practical belief in the sanctity of truth and honesty; many a habitual church-goer is prone to lying, cheating, and petty pilfering. He fails too often to bridle his tongue, and to the sins of evil-speaking and lying many and many a one adds slandering. And yet, while he allows himself in this unlovely catalogue of unchristian sin, the Christianised negro values his religion. In the West Indies religious services, when hearty, and accompanied by plain outspoken preaching from a man who is patiently trying to live up to what he preaches, are always thronged. The ordinances of religion are eagerly sought. They read and know and love their Bibles. Above all, they give the best test of sincerity; they are willing to deny themselves considerably to secure to themselves the means of grace. Out of their deep poverty they contribute freely to Church support. If we would learn the cause of the imperfection of negro Christianity in the isles of the West, let us remind ourselves of the two necessary conditions for Christianity to take effect, sufficient time and favourable surroundings. I doubt whether those who deny or question the reality or possibility of mission work among inferior races have ever reflected how much of their own Christianity, or at least their receptivity of Christian principles, is an inherited peculiarity, a transmitted idiosyncrasy, as entirely as many of those other moral qualities on which as a race we pride ourselves; and whether they realise how much of it is due to the presence everywhere among us of patterns, imperfect it may be, but none the less valuable, of a high ideal of Christian conduct, and to the restraining force from childhood upwards of a generally sound public opinion in respect of Christian obligation. “Can these dry bones then live?” The answer still must be, “O Lord God, Thou knowest.” The bones are exceeding many and very dry; centuries of superstition and oppression and degradation have driven all the vital moisture from them. They must reform themselves gradually. Gradually each bone must adjust itself to his bone; gradually the flesh must clothe them and the skin cover them above. Gradually (that is to say) must the outward decencies and proprieties of Christianity be developed among them. And even then till the wind of God has been wafted to them, and in His capacity as the Life-giver has inspired the as yet inanimate forms, there can be no vital religion; there can be no general bringing forth of the fruits of the spirit, which are “love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.” (Bp. Mitchinson.)
The valley of the dead
I. The natural deadness of humanity. It goes without saying that there are some people in the world whom you would describe as morally and spiritually dead. If you go down, for example, men and women so lost to all to the lowest dregs of society, you will always find nobleness, and purity, and goodness that they are “dead”--dead to God, dead to humanity, dead even to their own better self. Now, if the Gospel of Christ confined this word “dead” to such wrecks of humanity, I suppose no one would be surprised; certainly no one would have a word to say in objection to the term. But here is the remarkable thing; this Book steadily refuses to limit this term “dead” to these moral outcasts; it takes it in all its dark and terrible meaning, and it declares it is true of all men without exception, and that whatever else conversion may be, before all things else it is this--“passing from death unto life.” Take, for example, one illustrated fact. It was not without the profoundest significance that the one man selected by Christ to hear the discourse on the supreme necessity of the new birth was not an abandoned profligate, nor the publican smiting on his breast and crying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner,” but Nicodemus, the respectable and apparently blameless Pharisee. There is a tendency in some of the theological thinking to paint a picture of human nature with the darkest lines all left out. Do you tell me that the kindlier view of human nature which is taken today is not only in itself a truer view, but is a healthy reaction from the exaggerated statements of the Calvinistic theology of a past age? I am not careful to deny there is some truth in what you say. Be it so; but do not forget the pendulum of human thought is always swinging from one extreme to the other, and if there was once danger from an unscriptural severity, there may be equal danger today from an unscriptural charity of statement. Too little shadow will spoil a picture quite as much as too little light. Or do you again remind me that there is something good to be found even in the worst of men; that the hardest heart has a tender spot somewhere if only we knew where to find it; that, in a word, there are some movements of moral life in all men, and that so far they are certainly not “dead,” I will not dispute the fact. If there was no conscience in man, there would be nothing left to which Christ could appeal; but do not forget the occasional movements of this conscience towards virtue may be associated with the profoundest indifference to God. Beneath the muttering of the lips of the sleeper the soul may lie in the sleep of death. It is not immorality that is the universal sin, it is a deeper, darker, deadlier sin--it is ungodliness! You may be alive to man, but dead to God. Just as the moon has that part of her surface which is turned to the earth all radiant with light, whilst the opposite hemisphere turned towards the distant heavens is dark as midnight, and is wrapped in the silence of eternal death, so the heart of man is lighted up with gleams of human goodness, whilst it is utterly dark and dead to God. At the surface of the sea there may be some dim, imperfect light penetrating the water; but as you go deeper down the light grows fainter and fainter, until in the depths it is quenched in the darkness of an everlasting night. It is a great, it is a fatal mistake to imagine you will commend the Gospel by concealing any part of its message. Speak, I say, all you find in your heart to say of the honour and glory of man, but when you have said all do not end there. Add another word. Say--say it with tears in your eyes: “This glorious temple is all in ruins. This child of the Eternal is a lost child, a dead son.”
II. The process of quickening. The prophet is commanded by God to “prophesy unto these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord,” and then follows that word. The first act--that is, of any prophet--in the quickening of the dead is the utterance of a Divine message that is intrusted to him. The Gospel is called in the New Testament “the Message,” and a message only asks to be delivered. We are not discoverers of truth, we are only witnesses to a truth given to us to declare. It is “the Word of the Lord,” not the word of the man, which we have to speak. And on this fact depend two things--first, the authority of the messenger, and next the power of his message. You are an “ambassador for Christ,” with all the responsibility, but with all the authority of an ambassador. And as this truth confers authority on the messenger of Christ, so it creates all the power of His message. “For some thirty years,” wrote the late Dr. Pusey in the preface to his learned and laborious work on Daniel, “this has been a deep conviction of my soul, that no book can be written on behalf of the Bible like the Bible itself”; and what Pusey said of the Book we may say of the message the Book contains, and which is given us to speak. The power of the Word is more in the message than in the messenger who delivers it. I do not forget because I say this how much, how very much, depends on the man; how just as an instrument out of tune may mar the noblest music, so an unworthy or unfit messenger may spoil all the sweetness of the message. But for all this, the message is the first thing, the great thing, and the messenger is only of value as he speaks the message. “Who then is Paul, or who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed?” Here, then, I repeat, is the secret of our power so far as our word to man is concerned--we have to speak “the Word of the Lord.” There is nothing else to speak. You may, if you please, try to substitute other things for it; you may give to your people ingenious speculations on science, lectures on art. There is no power in them to reach the deepest needs of the sin and sorrow of the world. There is only one theme for the Christian preacher, but it is an infinite theme; it is Christ Himself--Christ, Son of God and Son of man, Christ in all the immeasurable meaning of that glorious Name--
Well worth all languages on earth or heaven.
Christ crucified, Christ risen, Christ ascended to the eternal throne, Christ Friend, Brother, Saviour, Lord, Judge of men, and only as that mighty Name is on our lips will the music, of the message touch the heart of man.
III. Fruitless preaching. The prophet has prophesied “over the bones,” and now mark the result: “Them was a noise, and behold an earthquake, and the bones came together, bone to his bone. And I beheld, and lo! there were sinews upon them, and flesh came up, and skin covered them above, but”--“but there was no breath in them.” How often is this experience repeated in our own work. We preach “the Word of the Lord”--preach it, perhaps, fervently and earnestly--and then what follows? There is some excitement in the congregation, there is movement, there is interest; some eyes am filled with tears; here and there there are impressions created--there is what looks like the first stirrings of the Divine life. Alas! alas! it is not so. The congregation disperses, the eyes are soon dry again, the heart has not been touched, the depths have never been moved, God has not yet come to those dead souls, “there is no breath in them.” It was the semblance--not the reality of life we had produced. It takes some of us a long time to learn this humbling, but most salutary lesson. We can do so much, or what seems so much; we have “the Word of God” on our lips, we can preach it faithfully, we can toil hard, very hard, all the night, and it seems impossible all this toil should end in nothing. Yet it does. When we have done all, we have failed, utterly failed, to quicken the dead. It is only when He comes who is the Lord and Giver of Life that in a moment our unfruitful toil is crowned with abundant and overflowing success. Do you ask me how we are to gain this power? how this Divine breath may come breathing on the slam? I answer in the words of the vision, “Prophesy unto the wind,” and prophecy, which spoken to man is preaching, uttered to God is prayer. It is prayer, only prayer, that holds in its upstretched hands the secret of the power of God. (G. S. Barrett, B. A.)
A moral resurrection
I. The multitude of its dead.
II. The apparent hopelessness of the dead.
III. A startling command.
1. It is the Lord who speaks.
2. In His words, are--
IV. A glorious promise.
V. The resurrection.
1. A noise.
2. A reunion.
3. Harmony in this reunion.
4. Elastic strength for action.
5. A human form.
(1) God, the Source.
(2) The Spirit, the Agent.
(3) His Word, the instrument.
(4) Man, the medium. (J. Gill.)
Faith refers all possibility to God
Then comes the Divine challenge to the man who is willing honestly, and without any disguise, to contemplate the facts: “And He said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live?” God will have the sympathy and the hope and the eager anticipation of His servant for His enterprise before He will openly pledge Himself to it. Ponder the situation--God and His servant all alone, and together gazing at that valley very full of very dry bones! Thus do begin the things which thrill earth and heaven! No life, no promise, no hope, anywhere but in Him who searches us with His challenge. There can be no mighty commerce between earth and heaven except through the faith which believeth Him “who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were.” It is a chief peril of our creaturehood to make ourselves--not the living God--the law and measure and explanation of all things. “We were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight”--wailed the unbelieving spies! And what could grasshoppers achieve against giants? Yet the Word of Jehovah had pledged victory. Two dominions are ever open to us--self or God, our creature thoughts or our Creator’s Word. In that momentous testing hour it was not in self and its thinkings that Ezekiel took his stand, but in God and His greatness: “O Lord God, Thou!” Let us follow his example, and so become “men of God” the highest dignity open to us--men who ever account the living God the first and chief factor in every problem of thought and conduct. The miserable alternative is the grasshopper manner--grasshopper fears, grasshopper thinkings, grasshopper doings! And of what avail is a grasshopper in a valley of dry bones? (C. G. Macgregor.)
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.
The resurrection of dry bones
The prophecy of Ezekiel is a remarkable illustration of the nearness of the spiritual world, and of many of its laws, scenes, and circumstances The prophet was from time to time brought into the spiritual state in which the surrounding spirit world is seen, and he “saw visions of God.” The fact that we are lying in two worlds is suggestive of the very deepest considerations. It solves the mystery of the earth’s motions and its ever-abounding varied life. The earth lives because joined to a living world, as the body lives because joined to a living soul. We are united to matter as to our outer life, but as to our inner we are now living in eternity, and shall simply live on in the inner world when loosened from this outer sphere. We have companions, too, in the spirit, as well as in the body. The virtuous soul is Inked in spirit bonds with an innumerable company of angels: the wicked plotter against another’s peace knows it not, and would that he knew it well, but he is the instrument of malignant fiends “more wicked than himself.” The object of the vision before us was two fold, natural and spiritual, temporary and everlasting. It was given in its natural meaning to comfort the Israelites with a hope of their return from the captivity in which they were in Babylonia; and it was, in its spiritual meaning, to testify to every man’s resurrection from the death of sin to the life of righteousness. The Lord opened the graves of captive Israel after they had declared that their very hope was lost; and this same Lord can and will restore us from the depths of difficulty, and even of despair, when our penitence has prepared us for future blessing. Let our language then ever be, “Why art thou cast down, O my soul, and why art thou disquieted within me? Hope thou in God, for thou shalt yet praise Him, who is the help of my countenance and my God.” The natural man is dead to God, to heaven, to justice, to truth. Any possibility of resurrection arises from the inner man, which the Lord has implanted at each person’s creation, and strengthened by heavenly influences, both from within and from without, from his childhood. But by this arrangement of Divine mercy, the resurrection from disorder and sin is possible. (John 5:24-25; Ephesians 5:14; Philippians 3:11-12.) These passages show, in the most striking manner, how truly in the light of Scripture we are dead by nature, and the absolute necessity of a spiritual resurrection. But all our experience teaches the same thing. How else is it that we are so cold to recognise the love of our heavenly Father, which yet surrounds us with blessings? that we are so prone to wrong, so difficult to be led to adopt the right? that heavenly wisdom is so undelightful to our minds, until our taste has become changed, while the merest folly, and often the worst pollutions, are greedily received? It is because of this depraved and deadened state of the lower degree of the soul. The state of the natural mind is described in the vision before us, by the valley which was full of bones. The natural mind is called a valley, because its principles, as compared with the elevated affections of heavenly love, are as a valley compared to mountains. The mountains are said to bring peace (Psalms 72:3), because the exalted affections which unite the soul to the Lord do indeed bring peace; but in the valleys, fruitfulness is found, for the works which are the fruits of religion can only be produced in practical life. All men start on their spiritual journey in the valley, and only by effort and by prayer ascend to higher, holier states. But the valley the prophet saw was full of bones. What are these bones? The doctrinal truths of religion which form the framework or skeleton of man’s regenerate state, round which all other virtues fix and cluster, are as bones. These bones of doctrinal truth are taught in childhood. They are stored in the memory, but often, after that, neglected. In such case their condition is like that mentioned in the description before us, “they are very dry.” You look upon the careless and indifferent possessor of the most sacred truths, and see them, if noticed at all, regarded as things of no account, and you are tempted to say, like the question put to the prophet, “Can these bones live?” Can they who hear with indifference the grandest themes, the most solemn appeals, really be awakened to their higher interests? While musing sadly over this desolation, a voice comes from heaven to the conscience, “Can these bones live?” And while we dare scarce venture to hope for so great a restoration, again the Divine mercy speaks within us the gracious promise: “Thus saith the Lord God unto these bones, Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live.” Confidence is imparted to the conscience. The angel Hope takes the place of grim despair, and we go to the Word, and from it learn to prophesy as the Lord has commanded. The effects which follow this sacred prophesying are portrayed. First, “there was a noise, and then a shaking.” The noise represents the agitation which takes place in the thoughts of the newly awakened convert, the shaking is the tremor and change experienced in the affections. The noise induced as the first effect by the prophesying of the prophet, brings vividly to mind the conflicting thoughts which fill the council chamber of the soul, when making its first efforts for a new life. Hope and fear both utter their voices. Accusations and defences, encouragements and blame, oppose each other; a complete tumult of contending sentiments clash together; the subject in debate is, Shall we arise and live for heaven, or shall we lie down and die forever? The noise was followed by a shaking. When the soul has determined to follow the truth, and employ its Divine light to explore the affections, a discovery of their impure character takes place. We tremble, and we determine to renounce our self-will, and all its impurities. We tremble, but we look up to Him who has said, “I give you power to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and nothing shall by any means hurt you.” This is a shaking which is most salutary, and breaks the bonds which have held us in spiritual captivity to the earth and sin. The truth has made us free. The next operation is thus described. “The bones came together, bone to his bone.” The soul has become earnest. It is seen that there is a beautiful harmony and order in religious truths. Each has its proper place, and takes it; they come together, bone to his bone. There are doctrines in relation to the Lord, these form the head of the religious system; there are doctrines in relation to the neighbour, these are the breast; there are doctrines in relation to the active uses of love and faith in the world, these are the arms and hands; and there are doctrines for the duties of everyday life, these are the legs and the feet. To perceive all these in harmony, and to have thus an entire and complete religious system, is of the highest importance to our best interests. The accomplishment of this is intimated by the significant words, “The bones came together, bone to his bone.” The prophet describes further, “and beheld that the sinews and the flesh came up upon them.” The word rendered sinews would be more correct if translated nerves. We have noticed that the moving and arrangement of the bones represent the formation of a correct and complete religious system in the soul. But system is hard and stem, as an unclothed skeleton, unless accompanied and softened by the presence of heavenly goodness. This goodness is represented by flesh, which is at once soft and solid. In the form of muscles it is the grand source of energy and power in the body. Flesh, throughout the Word, is the symbol of goodness, which imparts at once fulness and softness to our spiritual states. The flesh, then, that came upon the bones in the view of the prophet, represented the goodness which is imparted to the soul as it advances in its heavenly career, and seeks not only to know and believe, but to love and do what the Divine commandments teach. With earnest desires it presses on to attain the heavenly life, and thankfully feels that it is becoming stronger for good, warmer in the course it daily pursues. The prophet next observed that, after the preceding changes, he saw skin appear, to surround and beautify the whole. The functions of the skin are three fold. It clothes, it feels, it purifies. It is the seat of sensation and touch. Feeling, in relation to all the ever-occurring particulars of momentary life, is expressed in the skin. Without this presence of life in the extremes we should both do and suffer much that would be utterly detrimental to health and life. Secondly, the skin is a means of absorbing light, moisture, and other grateful elements from the surrounding objects, which are eminently useful to the preservation and beauty of the body. Thirdly, the skin is the grand instrument by which the waste material, which had formed part of the body, is carried off invisibly, and the body’s renewal and progression are secured. I dwell upon the importance of the skin, to illustrate what is equally important in a spiritual point of view, that is, a consistent Christian life, for our outward life of virtue is the skin of the Christian character. This consists of faith and love, like minute blood vessels and nerves, living in all the daily acts, the words and works of life. A just, kind, beautiful life is the expression of the soul’s highest emotions and sentiments--the skin unveiling the principles within. While, then, you look well to love and faith, the heart and the lungs of religion, do not forget those works of justice, piety, and gentleness which make the Christian skin. On the contrary, go often and hold communion with the Lord, that you may become radiant with holiness, like the skin of the face of Moses, when he had talked with God. Our text adds, respecting these bodies preparing for life, “there was yet no breath in them.” Breath, or spirit, signifies conscious spiritual life. As we learn, think, and act in accordance with the Divine commands, new principles of virtue and order are formed within us. We grow in grace, we acquire a new nature; but for a considerable time we have no inner consciousness of living a spiritual life. To bring out our freedom, to regenerate us as men, and to make us more completely men, we are left for a considerable time to the comparatively slow growth of rational thought, consistent obedience, and constant effort, as if from ourselves, to draw nigh to the Lord, and to win His kingdom. The time, however, comes when we feel the presence and the power of heavenly life. “Come from the four winds (the Divine Mercy says), and breathe upon these slain.” We find the energies of a new state diffusing themselves with vigour and delight through our whole being, and we stand up as a portion of the Lord’s grand army. (J. Bailey, Ph. D.)
The resurrection of dry bones
Let the world be surveyed by one who knows and feels that men are destined for eternity, and what aspect will it wear if not that of the valley of vision, through which the prophet Ezekiel was commissioned to pass? On all sides are the remains of mighty beings, born for immortality, but dislocated by sin. Can these be men, creatures fashioned after the image of God, and constructed to share His eternity? What disease hath been here, eating away the spiritual sinew, and consuming the spiritual substance, so that the race which walked gloriously erect in the free light of heaven, and could hold communion with angels, hath wasted down into moral skeletons, yea, disjointed fragments, from which we may just guess its origin, whilst they publish its ruin? It is not that men are the spectres, the ghosts, of what they were, as made in the likeness of God, and with powers for intercourse with what is loftiest in the universe. They have gone beyond this. It is in their spiritual and deathless part that they have become material and lifeless: it is the soul from which the breath of heaven has been taken: and the soul, deprived of this breath, seemed turned into a thing of earth, as though compounded, like the body, of dust; and dwindled away till its fibres were shrivelled and snapped, and its powers lay scattered and enervated, like bones where the war has raged and the winds have swept. If we had nothing to judge by but the apparent probability, so little ground would there be for expecting the resurrection of these souls, and their re-endowment with the departed vitality, that if, after wandering to and fro through the valley, and mourning over the ruins of what had been created magnificent and enduring, there should come to us, as to the prophet, the voice of the Almighty, “Son of man, can these bones live?” our answer could be only the meek confession of ignorance, “O Lord God, Thou knowest.” But we go on to observe that the parable is not more accurate, as delineating our condition by nature, than as exhibiting the possibility of a restoration to life. It cometh frequently to pass, mere frequently, it may be, than shall be known till all secrets are laid bare at the great day of judgment, that, when the minister of Christ is launching the thunders of the Word, or dilating, with all persuasiveness, on the provision which has been made for the repentant, a sound is heard, if not by men, yet by the attendant angels who throng our sanctuaries; the sound of an agitated spirit, moving in its grave clothes, as though the cold relics were mysteriously perturbed. The prophesying goes on in the valley of vision; and there is a shaking amongst the bones, as close appeals are made to the long torpid conscience, and the motives of an after state of being are brought to bear upon those who are dead in their sins. And then may it be said that bone cometh unto bone--the different faculties of the soul, which have heretofore been disjointed and dispersed, combining into one resolve and effort to repent, and forsake sin--and that sinews and flesh knit together, and clothe the bones, the various powers of the inner man being each roused to its due work; so that, as there appeared before the prophet the complete human body in exchange for the broken skeleton, we have now a spirit stung with the consciousness of its immortality, where we had before the undying without sign of animation. But this is not enough. There may be conviction of sin, and a sense of the necessity that some great endeavour be made to secure its forgiveness; and thus may the soul, no longer resolved into inefficient fragments, be bound together as the heir of eternity; yet there may not be spiritual life, for the soul may not have been quickened with the breath which is from heaven. Accordingly, the parable does not end with the formation of the perfect body, figurative as that was of the reconstruction of the soul into a being aware of its immortality; it proceeds to the animating the body, and thus to the representing the quickening of the soul. The prophet is commanded to prophesy unto the wind, and then breath comes into the bodies which he had seen succeed the scattered bones. This part of the parable is expressly interpreted as denoting the entrance of God’s Spirit into the house of Israel, that they might live; and we therefore learn the important truth that, whatever the advances which may be made towards the symmetry and features of a new creature, there is nothing that can be called life, until the Holy Ghost come and breathe upon the slain. And we have to bless God that, in this part also, the vision is continually receiving its accomplishment, It is the special office of the Holy Ghost to open the graves in which sinners lie, and to animate the moral corpse, so that the dead are “born again.” There would be no use in our prophesying upon the bones, if there were not this Divine agent to revivify the buried: we might indeed go down into the sepulchres, and gather together the mouldering remains of humanity, and compound them into a body, and then, as by the strange power of electricity, work the limbs into a brief and fearful imitation of the living thing: but the active and persevering wrestler for the prizes of eternity, oh! the Spirit of God must be in every member of this creature, and in every nerve, and in every muscle; and let that Spirit only be taken from him, and presently would you observe a torpor creeping over his frame, and all the tokens of moral death succeeding to the fine play of the pulses of moral life. But there is one respect in which the vision, as thus interpreted, appears not to be thoroughly accomplished. We carry on our prophesying over the heaps of dry bones; and now and then there may be produced the effects of which we have spoken: a solitary sinner arises from his lethargy, and sets himself to the working out salvation. But what is there in any one district of the valley I nay, what is there in the combined districts of the valley, supposing that valley to include the whole earth, which answers to the starting up of an “exceeding great army”? In the valley which Ezekiel traversed, such was the result of his prophesying. What would be the parallel to this, if, at this moment and in this place, the parable were to be spiritually fulfilled? It would be, that, if there be still amongst you the tens, or the fifties, or the hundreds, of souls sepulchred in flesh, these tens, or these fifties, or these hundreds, would be roused by the announcement of wrath to come, and spring into consciousness that they have been born for eternity; so that, however at the commencement of our worshipping, the dry bones had been scattered profusely amongst us, at its clone the whole assembly would be one mass of life, and no individual would depart, as he came, “dead in trespasses and sins.” It would be--we dare not expect so mighty a resuscitation, and yet days shall come when even nations shall be “born in a day,”--that whatsoever is human within these walls would bear traces of a new creation, and man, woman, child, be “alive unto God” through Christ Jesus their Lord. And if the spiritual fulfilment were effected throughout the whole valley of vision, we should be living beneath the millennial dispensation, in that blessed season when all are to know the Lord “from the least to the greatest,” and the knowledge of His glory is to fill the earth, “as the waters cover the sea.” When commensurate with the marvellous quickening of the dead on which Ezekiel gazed: the spiritual sepulchres will be emptied, and the almost quenched immortality be everywhere reillumined. (H. Melvill, B. D.)
There was no breath in them.
No life apart from the Spirit of God
I. The servant of God, anxiously engaged in his work, often sees among the people to whom he ministers, a state of things which may be thus described: “There was no breath in them.” This may be said where there is--
1. Theology without religion. Theology is truth. Religion is life. And a framework of bones without living breath in it, aptly represents a well-arranged scheme of doctrine without an inspiring spirit to animate it. The doctrines may be as beautifully set as is the wondrous human frame--everything in its place; but if that be all, there is a grievous defect--there is no breath in them! Glorious as Gospel doctrine is when it is alive in living souls, there is nothing so hateful as dead doctrines held in dead souls.
2. Knowledge without service. There is a man who is ever making researches in one direction or other--in philosophy, literature, science, history, or art. Never a day passes but he makes some fresh acquirement. His memory is so retentive he lets nothing drop out, and can summon at will any thought or fact from the recesses of his brain when it is required. His mental digestion is marvellously strong; his reading well-nigh universal. The laws which minister to health, and the laws which lead on to wealth, he knows with a clearness and fulness beyond those of most men. But all that he knows is merely so much dead material; like so much magnificent furniture covered up in an unused drawing room: an index of wealth, but of no manner of use.
3. Faith without works. There is a man who has been brought up from childhood in the beliefs of the doctrines of the Gospel--and he does not doubt one of them--but with him, these beliefs are all dogmas dead as a corpse; they never stir. He is not moved by them to penitence, or to love. Here is a mass of useless capital--which, though more precious than gold, is lying idle as lumber.
4. Teaching that is without heart. Have not most of us had experience enough to understand what this is? Mr.
is a clear thinker, a close reasoner, and an eloquent speaker and preacher. You listen. The words pour out uninterruptedly, without difficulty, without a flaw; faultlessly accurate, and yet somehow, you know not how, they leave no impression behind. Rather give me a plain, humble discourse from a man who has a heart, than all the fine words and faultless harangues in the world, if there is no breath in them!
5. Organisation without animation. That is just what a breathless, but otherwise perfect skeleton would show. The ordinary machinery of Christian work moves on without discomfort. Orthodoxy unimpeachable. Propriety unspotted. But it is like being in an ice house to be there. Official mechanism smothers, suppresses, stifles all eagerness; that would be irregular, and nothing but a stereotyped conventionalism is permitted. Earnest souls speed elsewhere in despair. Bone fits to bone--but there is no breath in them!
6. Ceremonial worship without devotion. The water imparts spiritual life; the bread and wine nourish it. The priest absolves--the priest at the font--the priest at the marriage altar--the priest at the communion--the priest at the confessional--the priest in sickness--the priest at the article of death--the priest at the grave! Oh, the miserable sham! The mere skeleton work of a religion. No life--no breath in it!
7. Words without deeds. Fluency of tongue may be a blessing, but it is often a snare. And where God has imparted this gift, which, when put to high and holy uses, is of vast service, yet its use may bring its own temptation with it. The fairest talker may not be the man of holiest life. He may be an accomplished critic, having a keen eye for the defects of his fellow members, and perhaps a ready flow of wit, which he does not hesitate so to use as to sting and wound another. But all the while he forgets to turn the talk upon himself; he never thinks of criticising his own acts and words, nor of setting them in the light of the holy and searching law of God: nor does he care to inquire how he stands in the sight of Him with Whom he has to do! His religion is but superficial and empty. There is no breath in it.
8. Profession without possession, or church membership without real godliness. His religion, such as it is, is of a neutral tint. He does not offend by provocation: nor does he help anybody in religion, as if his heart and soul were inspired for Christ. No fervour--no glow. The bones, at the prophet’s voice, have come together, bone to his bone, and the skin covers them above, so that they do not drop to pieces again--but there is no breath in them!
II. What is to be said of such a state of things?
1. Such a state of things is extremely unsatisfactory. This indeed is saying little; for the fact is that in each case there is a dead failure. What purpose can a row of corpses answer, however perfect the skeletons? The world is none the poorer for the bones of the dead dropping to pieces in coffins underground; and if theology be dead, and beliefs be dead, and churches are dead, away with them! No loss if they go! The loss of lifelessness is one which both the world and the Church can well afford to bear; and, indeed, it is one of God’s mercies that dead things must go!
2. “No breath in them.” Looking at Ezekiel’s vision, we see that, in that case, bad as it was, it had been even worse. For these dead bodies were organised. We do not know of any revealed law of God by which breath could come into a promiscuous collection of bones! But let chaos cease, let order reign, let bone fit to bone, and skin cover them above, and then there is, at all events, something for the living breath to animate. So that--
3. The case is not a hopeless one. For if at the appointment of God, when s prophet spake to dead bones, there was a rustling, a shaking, so that bone came to his bone,--that looks as if God did not mean things to stop there. “No breath in them.” But God wills that there shall be.
4. Thus the case is one which indicates duty. Namely, the duty, the important duty of pleading with God. “Come from the four winds, O breath.” (C. Clemance, D. D.)
Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.
The vision of the valley of the dry bones
All else was done. Three things are prominent--the multitude, the dryness, and the isolation. We shall not stay to draw out the figure in detail in its national application. But who does not do it for himself when once the thought is suggested? What are the despairing things in the problem this day presented to the statesman, to the philanthropist, to the Christian, as any one of the three gives his mind to the study of his dear, his suffering, his unmanageable people? Is net indeed multitude the first of them? The population has outgrown its spot of earth; has outgrown its home supplies and resources; has outgrown its civilising influences; has outgrown its means of grace. But if multitude is one despairing thought, another is dryness. What is sometimes called “the milk of human kindness”--that indescribable something which ought to be capable of being appealed to as sure to respond, that appreciation of kindness in the motive, in the intention, in the effort to serve, that meeting half-way the fellow feeling of love--all this seems to have been (as the vision would say) dried up and dried out of the human being which meets us in the streets and lanes, the high roads and hedges, into which the messenger of an unselfish compassion tries to make his way: the bones are very many--that is not the worst of it--they are also by long habit, of neglect on the one side, of suspicion on the other, so utterly dry. There is yet a third despairing thing--it is the isolation. Each bone, of the once one compact frame, lies apart and separate. The parable is too easily read. The corporate life, as we speak, is extinct in vast masses of our people. Patriotism, loyalty, public spirit, are not ideas, not names, only, they are jests and gibes. “Every man for himself” is the hateful maxim--hateful enough if it were all, but there is a companion maxim--“and every man’s hand against his brother!” We turn for a moment from the social to the religious aspect. Multitude--dryness--isolation--yes, they are all here. It is not only the difficulty (though that is enormous) of providing for what we call the spiritual destitution of the masses--masses springing up suddenly in valley and mountain, in harbour and hamlet, in town and country. We would look more broadly at the religion of our times. Certainly it has multitude. Legion is its superscription. This of itself is perplexing: perplexing any way: deeply depressing to the lover of order, to the educated churchman who must have the exact thing or nothing. It is idle to sit wishing for what men call union--generally meaning by it uniformity; generally meaning by it a uniformity to be brought about by the unconditional surrender of all but one form to the one. It is too late--or too soon--for this. The one hope now for religion is the practical confederation (without much talking about it, without programme or treaty of peace) of all schools and all parties, of all sects and all churches against what ought to be the common foe of all--ignorance and profaneness and infidelity and sin. And, in order to this, a spiritual unity--the holding of a unity of spirit in the bond of peace. “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live”--live each first, live then all. We hasten to our last use of the text, which is the individual. Is it fanciful to see a valley full of dry bones within the continent of the one being? Multitude--dryness--isolation--have those words, those despairing things we have called them, no meaning for the man? Has the scattering of Babel, the very confusion of tongues, no parable for the individual? Oh, how many provinces, how many islands and continents are there in one life, in one bosom! The disunion which works all around works first within. Oh, if there were peace within, how many discords would be precluded or healed around. Uncertain tempers, inordinate affections, unruly passions, hurtful lusts--desire of things forbidden, indisposition to things commanded--doubts about revealed truth, alienation from God in His beauty and His holiness--questionings what to think of Christ--suspenses about things vital to faith, vital to hope, vital to charity--these are the things spoken of when we make the vision personal. There is no need to traverse this part of the ground: we all plead guilty to the charge of selfishness. Rather let us listen to what the vision tells of as the steps of the revival. We can trace them more clearly in the individual case than in the collective. There is, first, what a prophet calls a “noise”--the margin of the revised version calls it a “thundering”: a “shaking”--the revised version calls it an “earthquake.” What is it in the man? It is something, it is anything, which interrupts the course of the everyday life. It may be a loss--it may be a disappointment--it may be a sickness--it may be a death. The immediate result of this shaking, where it has its proper work, will be the earnest effort to amend the life. God, whose hand is in all, yet expects this of the man. If he wishes to be saved, he must help the work by a reformation of the life. He must give up, in resolution and honest effort, his known sins. He must exert himself, in resolution and honest effort, to do his known duties. And then, sooner or later, not all at once but little by little, that prophecy to the wind, the breath, the spirit, shall make itself audible within, and God Himself shall “breathe upon the slain,” so that the dead carcase shall become a living man, and the gathering of the bones and the reconstruction of the frame shall have its perfect work in the reanimation of the whole by the entrance of the life-giving Spirit. (Dean Vaughan.)
The wind of the Holy Ghost blowing upon the dry bones in the valley of vision
I. Speak a little unto this deadness which is incident unto a people externally in covenant with God.
1. Some kinds of deadness.
(1) Death, properly so called, is a thing so well known that it is needless for me to tell you what it is.
(2) There is a death which is metaphorical; which is nothing else but a disease or distemper of the soul, whereby it is rendered unmeet and incapable for holy and spiritual exercises. And this again is two fold, either total or partial. There is a total death incident unto the wicked and ungodly, who are stark dead, and have nothing of spiritual life in them at all. There is a partial death incident to believers, whom God hath raised out of the grave of an unrenewed state, and in whose souls He hath implanted a principle of spiritual life. And this partial death, incident to believers, consists in a manifest decay of spiritual principles and habits, in the abating of their wonted life and vigour and activity in the way and work of the Lord: their faith, their love, their hope, and other graces, are all in a fainting and languishing condition; they lie dormant in the soul, like the life of the tree that lies hid in its root, without fruit or blossoms, during the winter season.
2. Some of the causes of this spiritual deadness.
(1) Abstinence or neglect of food, you know, will soon bring the body into a pining, languishing condition: so, if the means of grace be not diligently improven, if we neglect, by faith, to apprehend and to improve Christ, and to feed upon Him, whose “flesh is meat indeed, and whose blood is drink indeed,” the spiritual life of the soul will soon languish and wither (John 6:53).
(2) Surfeiting the soul with sensual pleasure is another great cause of spiritual death (Hosea 4:11).
(3) Inactivity and sloth in salvation and generation work is another cause of spiritual deadness.
(4) The contagion of ill example, of a carnal world, and irreligious relations, has a fatal influence this way.
(5) Some deadly wound in the soul, not carefully noticed, may be the cause of spiritual death.
(6) A holy God has sometimes a righteous and holy hand in this spiritual death, that the Lord’s people are liable unto, by withdrawing and suspending the influences of His Spirit from them. He does it sometimes in a way of awful and adorable sovereignty, to show that He is not a debtor unto any of His creatures. Sometimes He does it to humble His people, and to prevent their pride, which makes Him to behold them afar off. He does it to make them prize Christ, and see their continual need of fresh supplies out of His fulness. He does it sometimes for the trial of His people, to see if they will follow Him in a wilderness, in a land that is not sown, as well as when he is feeding them with sensible communications of His grace and Spirit; to see if they will live on Him by faith, when they cannot live by sight or sense. Sometimes he does it for their chastisement, to correct them for their iniquities. Not hearkening to the motions of His Spirit, is one great reason why the Lord withdraws His Spirit. Lukewarmness and formality in the discharge of duty is another cause of it, as we see in the church of Laodicea; it made Him to spue that church out of His mouth. Prostituting the gifts and graces of the Spirit unto carnal, selfish, and base ends, to procure a name, or make a show in the world. Sinning against light, trampling upon conscience, as David no doubt did in the matter of Uriah and Bathsheba; whereby he provoked the Lord so far to leave him, that he cries out (Psalms 51:11). Barrenness and unfruitfulness under the means of grace. Their not listening carefully to the voice of God in ordinances and providences (Psalms 81:11-12).
3. Some of the symptoms of it and would to God they were not too visible, rife, and common.
(1) Want of appetite after the bread and water of life is a symptom of spiritual death.
(2) Though a man have something of an appetite, yet if he do not grow, or look like his food, it looks something dangerous and death-like.
(3) Ye know, when death takes a dealing with a person, it makes his beauty to fade. Perhaps the day has been, O believer, when the beauty of holiness adorned every step of thy conversation; but now, alas! the beauty of thy conversation is sullied and stained, by lying among the pots of sin. This says, that spiritual death is dealing with thy soul.
(4) Death not only wastes the beauty, but the strength also (Ecclesiastes 12:3).
(5) Death wastes the natural heat and warmness of the body. So it is a sign of a spiritual decay and deadness, when wonted zeal for God and His glory, and the concerns of His Church and His Kingdom, is abated.
(6) A dead man, you know, cannot move, but only as he is moved from without, in regard he wants a principle of motion within. So it is a sign of spiritual death, even in believers, when external motives and considerations have a greater influence in the duties of religion upon them, than an internal principle of faith and love.
II. Speak a little unto these breathings and influences of the Spirit of God, which are absolutely necessary for the revival of the Lord’s people under deadness.
1. The nature of these breathings or influences. The influences and gifts of the Spirit of God are of two sorts, either common or saving.
2. The variety of these influences of the Spirit.
(1) There are the convincing influences of the Spirit (John 16:8).
(2) There are the enlightening influences and breathings of the Spirit. Hence He is compared unto eye-salve (Revelation 3:18).
(3) There are the renewing influences of the Spirit. We are said to be “saved by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Titus 3:5). Hence He is called “a new Spirit.”
(4) There are the comforting influences of the Spirit. This is the south wind, as it were, gentle and easy, and refreshing; and therefore He is called the Comforter.
(5) There are the corroborating and strengthening influences of the Spirit. By the breathings of the Spirit the feeble are made “like David, and as the angel of God before Him.”
(6) There are the drawing and enlarging influences of the Spirit. He is like oil to their chariot wheels; and when He comes, they are as the chariots of Amminadib, or a willing people.
(7) There are the sin-mortifying and sin-killing influences of the Spirit.
(8) There are the interceding influences of the Spirit (Romans 8:26).
(9) There are the sealing and witnessing influences of the Spirit.
3. The manner of the acting or operation of these influences, or how it is that this wind blows upon the soul.
(1) The wind of the Holy Ghost blows freely; the Spirit acts as an independent sovereign (John 3:8).
(2) He breathes on the soul sometimes very surprisingly.
(3) These breathings and influences of the Spirit are sometimes very piercing and penetrating.
(4) The breathings of this wind are very powerful, strong, and efficacious. He masters the darkness of the mind, the contumacy and rebellion of the will, and the carnality of the affections: the enmity of the heart against God, and all the spiritual wickedness that are in the high places of the soul, are made to fall down at His feet, as Dagon did before the ark of the Lord.
(5) Although He act thus powerfully and irresistibly, yet it is with an overcoming sweetness, so as there is not the least violence offered unto any of the natural faculties of the soul.
(6) There is something in the breathing of this wind that is incomprehensible by reason (John 3:8).
(7) These influences of the Spirit are sometimes felt before they be seen; as you know a man will feel the wind, and hear it, when he cannot see it.
4. The necessity of these breathings.
(1) That they are necessary, will appear--From the express declaration of Christ (John 15:5). From the express acknowledgment of the saints of God upon this head (2 Corinthians 3:5). From the earnest prayers of the saints for the breathings of this wind (Song of Solomon 4:16).
(2) To what are these breathings necessary? To the quickening of the elect of God, when they are stark dead in trespasses and sins. For the suitable discharge of every duty of religion. For accomplishing our spiritual warfare against sin, Satan, and the world. To the exercise of grace already implanted in the soul.
5. Some of the reasons of these influences of the Spirit: for the wind, you know, has its seasons and times of blowing and breathing.
(1) The Spirit’s reviving influences blow very ordinarily in a day of conversion.
(2) When the soul has been deeply humbled under a sense of sin and unworthiness.
(3) After a dark night of desertion, when the Lord returns again.
(4) Times of earnest prayer and wrestling; for He giveth His Spirit to them that ask it (Ezekiel 36:37).
(5) Times of serious meditation (Psalms 63:5-6; Psalms 63:8).
(6) Communion days are sometimes days of sweet influences.
(7) The day of death has sometimes been found to be a day of such pleasant gales of the Spirit, that they have been made to enter into the haven of glory with triumph.
III. The life that is effected and wrought in the souls of God’s elect by these influences and breathings of the Holy Spirit.
1. It is a life of faith (Galatians 2:20).
2. It is a life of justification.
3. It is a life of reconciliation with God.
4. It is a life of holiness and sanctification: for the Spirit of the Lord is a cleansing, purifying, and renewing Spirit.
5. It is a very lightsome and comfortable life: and no wonder; for His name is The Comforter. His consolations are so strong, that they furnish the soul with ground of joy in the blackest and cloudiest day (Habakkuk 3:17-18).
6. It is a life of liberty; for “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.”
7. It is a hid life (Colossians 3:3).
8. It is a heavenly life; they are made to live above the world: “Our conversation is in heaven.”
9. It is a royal life: for they are “made kings and priests unto God” (Revelation 1:6).
10. It is an eternal life (John 17:3).
IV. The use of the doctrine.
1. The first use shall be of trial and examination.
(1) If these breathings have blown upon thy soul, man, woman, then He has blown away the vail and face of the covering that was naturally upon thy mind and understanding.
(2) If the wind of the Holy Ghost has blown upon thy soul, He has blown away some of the filth of hell that did cleave to thy soul, and has transformed thee into His own image (2 Corinthians 3:18).
(3) If this wind has blown upon your souls, then it has driven you from your lying refuges, and made you take sanctuary in Christ.
(4) If ever you felt any of the reviving gales of this wind of the Spirit, you will long for new gales and breathings of it; and when these breathings are suspended and withheld, your souls will be like to faint, as it were, like a man that wants breath.
(5) If you have felt the breathings of this wind you will not snuff up the east wind of sin and vanity (John 4:14).
(6) If this wind has blown upon your soul, then you will follow the motion of this wind; you will not run cross to this wind, but will go along with it. But, say you, How shall I know if I be led by the Spirit of God? I answer, If ye follow the Spirit, then you will not fulfil the lusts of the flesh; but, on the contrary, you will study to “crucify the flesh, with the affections and lusts.” Then the way wherein you walk will be a way of holiness, for He is a Spirit of sanctification; and a way of truth. Ye know leading imports spontaneity and willingness.
2. The second use shall be of exhortation.
(1) Consider that spiritual deadness is very prevalent in the day wherein we live.
(2) Consider the evil and danger of spiritual deadness. The evil of it will appear, if ye consider that it is a frame of spirit directly cross to the command of God. The evil and danger of it appears further from this, that it unfits the soul for every duty, and mars our communion and fellowship with God. It opens a door for all other sin, and renders a man an easy prey unto every temptation. It lays a foundation for sad and terrible challenges from conscience.
(3) Consider, that as the breathings of the Spirit are necessary for every duty, so particularly for that solemn work which you have before your hands of commemorating the death of the exalted Redeemer.
(4) Consider the excellency of these influences of the Spirit. They blow from an excellent original: the Holy Ghost is the author of them; and you know He proceeds from the Father and the Son. So that a whole Trinity, as it were, convey themselves with these breathings. They are the purchase of a Redeemer’s blood, and therefore excellent. These influences of the Spirit, they, as it were, supply Christ’s room while He is in glory. (E. Erskine.)
The Spirit’s advent
The vision illustrates--
I. The deadly effects of sin.
1. It begets death. Although the upas tree in Java feeds on wholesome soil, and light and dew, it yet spreads the miasma of death; so sin, the more it flourishes in the heart of man, the more completely it destroys all good.
2. This is the testimony of experience. Even thy secret sin has benumbed thy best feelings, robbed thee of thy peace, raised a barrier between thee and God. It has undermined thy character, blinded thine eyes to the beauty of truth, dulled thy sense of duty, blunted the fine edge of conscience.
3. Observance of others deepens this conviction. On every side we see men and women ruined by sin. Conscience, reverence for God, filial love, aspirations after a holy life--all dead.
II. God’s power we save.
1. Life giving is the prerogative of God alone.
2. The fulness of the Spirit’s power is required.
3. A variety of force and influence is sent forth. Some need terror, others softening influences.
III. The place of human agency.
1. It is in man’s power to stay this life-giving energy.
2. The condition of His advent is very simple. Simply ask.
3. The alternative is a thing to be dreaded. (J. D. Davies, M. A.)
Life to the dead
I. Forms without life. The work had reached an advanced stage even before the prophecy of the breath. Separate bones had been fitted and articulated together, flesh was laid upon the skeleton, and skin covered it. This was Divine, not human work. The prophet had spoken the message, but God had given the power. Yet these forms were powerless, for all the purposes of life, until quickened by the breath.
1. There may be a Divine work upon the natures of men, which shall, nevertheless, stop short of spiritual life. Let two men come before you. One is opposed to Divine truth, or, at least, is utterly indifferent to it. Science attracts him; politics stir him; art charms him; music fascinates him; commerce absorbs him. But the Bible is without beauty or power to him; it has no place in his thoughts, and exercises no influence in his life. Let another stop forward. He has a perfect understanding of the Cross of Christ, and the work which was done there; he is able to explain to you very clearly how a soul may be justified before God through the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ. The study of the subject is a recreation to him. He knows how to be justified with God, but has never sought justification. He knows that he must be born again, but has never prayed to be regenerated. In that man we see a beginning of the work of God. God has opened his mind to understand the great truths connected with the Gospel of Christ. He knows them all, and in those truths he has the vantage ground for spiritual action.
2. These forms possess all the capabilities of life. You have all the faculties for reverence, trust, and loving consecration; you understand how to use these powers in every direction of your life, save in that one upward direction that looks towards God. You have faith and love toward those around, and consecration to those who are dear; but to God, no trust, no love, no dedication. You are without spiritual life. The very development of these capabilities is an element of hope. Simply receive Christ, and God has given you all the capabilities that are necessary. Only your connection with Christ is wanted to attain spiritual life.
3. Yet, prior to the breath, these forms are powerless for all the purposes of life. You may pay homage to the beauty of truth and Christian principles; you may even speak reverently and tenderly of the loveliness of Christ--you can hardly help doing that; if you have any susceptibility, you can hardly withhold from Jesus the meed of praise--but these will not avail if there be no spiritual life. This is not only true of the individual Christian, but also of the Christian Church. No correctness of form and appearance will avail without spiritual life. I would rather belong to a Church that has some blunder in its organisation, but, at the same time, is endowed with the vigour of the Holy Ghost, than I would belong to some correct organisation in which there is no spiritual life and strength.
II. The inspiration of life.
1. The working of the Holy Spirit is as essential to salvation as the work of Jesus. You will not be conscious always of His working. You will only be conscious of certain feelings in your own heart. If you should feel an anxious desire to serve Christ, and to love Him, be sure it comes from the Spirit. Act upon it. Find your way to Christ.
2. The Holy Spirit does work in response to the prayer of God’s servant, for we read that the prophet prophesied to the breath, and the breath came.
(1) The Holy Spirit is the great hope of the Church today. If it was necessary three centuries ago that God should raise up Luther to press the great truth of justification by faith, it is needful today that the work of the Holy Spirit should be presented in all its grandeur, and that the Church should be roused to plead for His mighty power. It is in answer to prayer that the Holy Spirit will work.
(2) The Holy Spirit’s work is as essential for personal salvation as it is for the Church. (Colmer B. Symes, B. A.)
Come, O breath
I. Let us look at the surrounding scene and see if that does not say to us we must have the Holy Ghost. What was the scene that met Ezekiel’s eyes? We must note this, because we purpose to make what I think will be a legitimate use of the vision. When Ezekiel looked abroad, he saw human nature wrecked, and I pray you mark it--not human nature rather spoiled of its beauty--not human nature sick--not human nature dying--but human nature dead--nay, more, dead and dislocated. When he looked abroad, it was human nature wrecked and ruined. The bones were scattered. They were so completely scattered, and death had so done its work, that they were beyond the power of human recognition, and beyond the power of human reconstruction. Oh, when we look around, what is the sight that meets the eye? Is it not identically the same as that which met the gaze of Ezekiel? I know there are some who seem to look at the world through a medium you and I know nothing about. I cannot say where they get their rose tint from, but to their eyes there is something of beauty and spiritual worth left in man. When man fell it was such a fall that he did not merely bruise himself: he broke his nature to pieces; and now sin has laid low the very framework of our being, and from head to foot there is not one part that has not suffered by the fatal fail The affections, the memory, all the powers of man, are lying prostrated. I said that it would have been difficult for anyone to recognise in those bones the men who once walked to battle. Am I going too far when I say that it must be almost as difficult for the angels, when they look down on earth, to recognise, in the specimens of humanity they see now, man as first he came from the Creator’s hands? And methinks that when they now look down and see some of the bloated drunkards that reel through our streets, the brazen-faced fallen ones that flaunt along our thoroughfares--when they look at the debauched and the debased specimens of mankind to be found on every hand, they say, “In these it is difficult to recognise man as he came from the Creator’s hands.” No oratory, no eloquence, no human power; no church machinery, can avail aught. “Come, O breath,” for the ease is too desperate for human wisdom or for human might,. If you look at the passage, you will see that Ezekiel was not allowed to shut his eyes to the true state of the case. “And the Lord caused me to pass by them round about.” He was not to look at them from a distance. In order to realise the fact, Ezekiel had to take one of the most ghastly walks that I can imagine ever mortal man took. Why? That he might realise the desperate condition. I am afraid there are a good many professing Christians living in a fool’s paradise. Talk to them about sin, and they say, “Oh, but these thinks are so sad; I would really rather not hear about them.” Sir, will your ignoring a fact alter it? Will your shutting your eyes to festering sores heal them? The Lord said to Ezekiel, “Go round about these bones, and take in the scene.” Ay, they are very many. Why, take London alone, and you have to say, “O God, they are very many.” London is more than a match for the church. We have to cry concerning the metropolis, “Come, O breath.” But let your eyes go farther afield, taking in our large provincial towns--our manufacturing centres. Oh, how the people hive--how they swarm in them! Take our Liverpools and our Manchesters. Go, ask concerning the history of some of those places, and you will have then to cry, “Come, O breath, for the case is desperate. The bones are many.” But stay, I am only talking about a Christian country now. You have to flit across the channel. How about the millions who are swathed in the darkness of superstition? Pass on farther yet to China. There you realise it. Do you know that every third man in the world is a Chinese? Do you know that every third woman in the world is a Chinese woman, and that every third child born into the world is a Chinese child? You may well say, “O God, they are very many.” “And they were very dry”--no marrow, no sap left, nothing in them that could be cultivated into life. And that is the case with the world at large. Now where is your power to meet the case? Surely this view of the surroundings must drive you to the conclusion that the only one power which can meet the case is the power from on high. “Come, O breath, for the bones are many, and the bones are dry.”
II. The deep need of the Spirit’s power is demonstrated in the scene that met the eye after the preaching. We have only looked at the valley as it was before Ezekiel began to preach. Now let us see how it appeared after his sermon.
1. I note, first, that Ezekiel did preach. Preaching always has been the great agency of God for the ingathering of souls; and none of us must stand aloof and say, “What is the good of preaching to sinners who are in such a condition as you have described?” God said unto Ezekiel, “Go, prophesy unto dry bones,” and he said, “I prophesied as I was commanded.” And the work of the Church of Christ is not to argue--not to ask the reason why, but to obey her Lord’s command, and send her hosts out in the great valley of dry bones, and preach everywhere. And do you observe what he preached about? He preached about the grand essentials. If you read through his short sermon to the bones, it was all about life. Ah, that was what they wanted. Ezekiel did not waste his time in talking about a number of things that could not possibly concern dry bones. He saw death: he preached life. He saw ruin: he preached remedy. Semi-political sermons to poor dry bones? Evening entertainments for dry bones? Magnificent essays, that smell of the oil of the midnight lamp but know nothing of unction, for dry bones? Ye Ezekiels of God in the valley of death, if you preach, preach the grand essentials--life, cleansing, God’s power unto salvation. Here is the theme to proclaim.
2. Now, notice, he did it, and what was the result? “There was a noise.” That is not always a sign of the presence of God. You cannot always say there is a revival going on because there is a considerable amount of excitement. If any man likes he can create a certain excitement. There may be noise and no power. The Lord was not in the earthquake that rent the rocks. The Lord was not in the wind that roared around the cave. The Lord was in the still small voice. You must not always say, “Oh, there was wonderful power, because there was a great noise.” More than that, there was a coming together. The bones all came bone to bone. Well, he would be a strange preacher who did not feel a sense of pleasure in seeing people brought round about him to hear the word. Thank God for great gatherings of people, because the first step towards salvation is generally the coming beneath, the sound of the word. But, let us remember, large congregations do not necessarily prove the presence of God. We may have crowds of people coming together, and yet no spiritual result. Then there was an external improvement. After Ezekiel’s sermon the valley did not look as ghastly as it did before. Instead of dislocated bones there were, first, skeletons. And then I read that on the bones there came flesh, and over the flesh there came skin. Do you see what Ezekiel’s preaching had done? It had made them look a great deal more respectable. Ay, preaching can do that apart from the power of the Holy Ghost. The drunkard may be led to give up his cup: the profane man may be led to forsake his oaths: the unchaste may be made to live a pure life, and homes may be revolutionised. There may be a very great deal of moral improvement, and yet there is need to add the sentence--you find it in the 8th verse, the latter clause--“but there was no breath in them.” They were better looking, but they were just as dead. And so you may have moral improvement without any spiritual life.
III. Let us, then, aptly to Ezekiel’s resort. It must have been a grand sight. Ezekiel had been preaching, and thus far he had been gazing at the bones, I suppose, in the same sort of way as I have been gazing upon this congregation, and he had seen a marvellous change. Now, do you see the man of God? He does not look at his congregation any longer. He has nothing more to do with them. He has finished his preaching. He turns to praying. I see him lift up his eyes to heaven, surrounded as he was with corpses, and he cries, “Come, O breath of God. Come and breathe upon these slain.” He had reached his boundary line. He had done all he could do. He preached as commanded: now he leaves results with the Spirit of God. Do you note with what wonderful faith he prayed? It is not the language of faltering belief mixed with unbelief. It is “Come, O breath of God.” He has no doubt that it will come. Why? Because he had a “Thus saith the Lord.” The Lord had told him to call upon the wind, and therefore he knew it would come. When you and I are asking for temporal mercies it will be well for us not to be too importunate. But when we come to ask for the Spirit’s power we can dare to be bold. Here is a promise: “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask.” Church of God, ye need not tremble as you breathe the prayer. I want you to note one element of faith in Ezekiel which it will be well for us to follow. Do you see what unbounded faith he had in the power of the Spirit? Let me read the words to you. “Come, O breath,” and do what? “and breathe upon these slain, and they shall live.” We are almost ready to say, “What, Ezekiel, do you think it will be as easy for the Spirit of God to raise up all these corpses as it is for you to breathe? Yes,” Ezekiel would have said, “I may preach, and I may cry, and I may wear myself out. I can do nothing, but all the Holy Ghost has to do is just to breathe.” Oh the magnificent ease expressed in the sentence--“breathe upon these slain.” Mother, though that son of yours may have heard every evangelist and every preacher in England, the Holy Ghost has only to breathe and he shall live. Oh, let us get back to our simple faith in the mighty power of the Holy Ghost. I fear me that the Spirit is too often dishonoured--too often ignored. (A. G. Brown.)
“Come from the four winds, O breath!”
I. We are nothing without the Holy Spirit. We find that men are dead; what is wanted is that they shall be quickened; and we cannot quicken them. How, then, should this fact affect us? Because of our powerlessness, shall we sit still, doing nothing, and caring nothing? We cannot sit still: we do not believe that it was God’s intent that any truth should ever lead us into sloth: at any rate, it has not so led us; it has carried us in quite the opposite direction. Let us try to be as practical in this matter as we are in material things. We cannot rule the winds, nor create them. The sailor knows that he can neither stop the tempest nor raise it. What then? Does he sit still? By no means. He has all kinds of sails of different cuts and forms to enable him to use every ounce of wind that comes; and he knows how to reef or furl them in case the tempest becomes too strong for his barque. Though he cannot control the movement of the wind, he can use what it pleases God to send. Thus, though we cannot command that mighty influence which streams from the omnipotent Spirit of God; though we cannot turn it which way we will, for “the wind bloweth where it listeth,” yet we can make use of it; and in our inability to save men, we turn to God, and lay hold of His power.
1. By this fact, we must feel deeply humbled, emptied, and cut adrift from self. It will do us good to be very empty, to be very weak, to be very distrustful of self, and so to go about our Master’s work.
2. Next, because of our absolute need of the Holy Spirit, we must give ourselves to prayer before our work, in our work, and after our work.
3. Since everything depends upon the Spirit of God, we must be very careful to be such men as the Spirit of God can use. If any of us should become lazy, indolent, or self-indulgent, we cannot expect the Spirit, whose one end is to glorify Christ, to work with us. If we should become proud, domineering, hectoring, how could the gentle Dove abide with us? If we should become despondent, having little or no faith in what we preach, and not expecting the power of the Holy Spirit to be with us, is it likely that God will bless us?
4. Next, since we depend wholly upon the Spirit, we must be most anxious to use the Word, and to keep close to the truth in all our work for Christ among men. You cannot work for Christ except by the Spirit of Christ, and you cannot teach for Christ except you teach Christ; your word will have no blessing upon it, unless it be God’s Word spoken through your lips to the sons of men.
5. Again, since we are nothing without the Holy Spirit, we must avoid in our work anything which is not of Him. A headlong zeal even for Christ may leap into a ditch. What we think to be very wise may be very unwise; and where we deem that at least a little “policy” may come in, that little policy may taint the whole, and make a nauseous stench which God will not endure.
6. Moreover, we must be ever ready to obey the Holy Spirit’s gentlest monitions; by which I mean, the monitions which are in God’s Word, and also--but putting this in the second place--such inward whispers as He accords to those who dwell near to Him. When the Holy Ghost moves thee to give up such and such a thing, yield it instantly, lest you lose His presence; when He impels thee to fulfil such and such a duty, be not disobedient to the heavenly vision; and when on thy knees He seems to direct thee in prayer, go in that direction; or if He suggests to thee to praise God for such and such a favour, give thyself to thanksgiving. Yield thyself wholly to His guidance.
7. Once more: since, apart from the Spirit, we are powerless, we must value greatly every movement of His power. Look out for the first desire, the first fear! Be glad of anything happening to your people that looks as if it were the work of the Holy Spirit; and, if you value Him in His earlier works, He is likely to go on to do more and more, till at last He will give the breath, and the slain host shall arise, and become an army for God.
II. We may so act as to have the Holy Spirit.
1. If we want the Holy Spirit to be surely with us, to give us a blessing, we must, in the power of the Spirit, realise the scene in which we are to labour. Do you want to save the people in the slums? Then you must go into the slums. Do you want to have sinners broken down under a sense of sin? You must be broken down yourself; at least, you must get near to them in their brokenness of heart; and be able to sympathise with them.
2. Next, if the Holy Spirit is to be with us, we must speak in the power of faith. If preaching is not a supernatural exercise, it is a useless procedure.
3. In addition to this, if we desire to have the Spirit of God with us, we must prophesy according to God’s command. God will bless the prophesying that He commands, and not any other; so we must keep clear of that which is contrary to His Word, and speak the truth that He gives to us to declare.
4. Notice, next, that if we would have the Spirit of God with us, we must break out in vehemency of desire. “Come from the four winds,” etc. A man of no desire gets what he longs for; and that is nothing at all.
5. Then, if we would have more of the power of the Spirit of God with us, we must see only the Divine purpose, the Divine power, and the Divine working.
III. We would speak hopefully to our hearers.
1. You who are not yet quickened by the Divine life, or are afraid you are not, we would exhort you to hear the Word of the Lord.
2. Next, we would remind you of your absolute need of life from the Spirit of God. Put it in what shape you like, you cannot be saved except you are born again; and the new birth is not a matter within your own power.
3. But we would have you note what the Holy Spirit has done for others. Say to yourself, “If the Holy Spirit could make a saint out of such a sinner as that, surely He can make a saint out of me.”
4. May I go a little further, and say that, we would have you observe carefully what is done in yourself? You have put away many things from you that were once a pleasure to you, and now you take a delight in many things which you once despised. There is some hope in that, though it may be nothing more than the sinews coming on the bones, and the flesh upon the sinews. God takes such a delight in His work, that, having begun it, He completes it.
5. Furthermore, we would remind you that faith in Jesus is a sign of life. “He that believeth on Him is not condemned”; wherefore be of good cheer.
6. We beg you not to be led aside to the discussion of difficulties. Leave the difficulties; there will be time enough to settle them when we get to heaven; meanwhile, if life comes through Jesus Christ, let us have it, and have done with nursing our doubts.
7. Further, we would have you long for the visitation of God, the Holy Spirit. Join with us in the prayer, “Come, Holy Spirit, come with all Thy power; come from the four winds, O breath!” One wind will not do, it must come from all quarters. Be willing to have the Holy Spirit as He wills to come. Let Him come as a north wind, cold and cutting, or as a south wind, sweet and melting. Say, “Come, from any of the four winds, O breath! only come.” (C. H. Spurgeon.)
I. The prayer. “Come from the four winds.”
1. It is an expression of deep need. Prayer was something more than a cry of “self-relief,” such as animals utter. The scene throughout the valley is weird and gruesome--a vast charnel house, a call for earnest supplication amid the stillness and motionless state of the unwakened dead--of supplication for the breath of life.
2. It was an expression, too, of hope. Despair is dumb. It might seem impossible to men, but the Divine command had gone forth, “Say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord God, Come”; and the Divine command is not in vain.
3. It was the expression, too, of longing desire, and desire is the hand of the soul which reaches out after that which it thirsts for. It is a disposition for receiving Divine gifts, After the Ascension, ten days were allowed to elapse before the coming of the Spirit, thereby calling out and sharpening the desire of the apostles for the Divine afflatus.
II. To whom addressed.
1. Not to the natural wind. Of what we used to call the “four elements”--fire, air, earth, water--three are symbols of the Holy Spirit. Earth alone is too material to represent Him. It is of the Spirit our Lord spoke (Luke 12:49). In the vision of “holy waters,” Ezekiel depicts the outpouring of the Spirit. And in the conversation with Nicodemus, Christ compared the operations of the Spirit to the wind (John 3:8).
2. It is the Holy Spirit depicted by “breath” and “wind” in this vision. In relation to Christ He is the breath. Christ “breathed on” the apostles, “and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost” (John 20:22). And in regard to man; for God breathed into man’s nostrils “the breath of life, and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7).
3. The prayer runs, “Come from the four winds, O breath.” This betokens two things--first, the omnipresence of the Holy Spirit, to use the language of divinity, His immensity, the four winds representing all directions, all space; secondly, that, though omnipresent, He could “come,” and be present in a new way.
4. Through the Son of Man, through the Incarnation, and all the mysteries of the Redeemer’s life, culminating in His glorification and intercession at the Father’s right hand, the breath of life was given to the race, which, through sin, had become like the dry, dead bones. There were the two “prophesyings,” the two appeals to a world “dead in trespasses and sins,” the outer one, of the visible Son of Man; the inward, of the invisible Spirit of God, the one preparing the way for the other, which was the result of it.
III. For what offered.
1. “Breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” Observe the influence is calm. There are times of violence, as with the natural wind: “the sound from heaven as of a rushing, mighty wind” (Acts 2:2); or again, when “the place was shaken where they were assembled together” (Acts 4:31); but, as a rule, God works in stillness. There is always something unusual which accompanies “beginnings.” So here. But, according to the ordinary laws of grace, the Spirit’s operations are conducted with tranquillity.
2. But the influence is potent. It brought about a wondrous restoration and transformation. Where there had been death, stillness, insensibility, now there is life, movement, and consciousness. It does what nothing else has the power to do--raises a sinner from the death of sin.
3. The resurrection was
(1) complete. They “lived and stood up.” They did not remain as valetudinarians, in a recumbent posture, waiting for some further access of vitality. They stood up, ready for action.
(2) It was corporate. Whatever may be the individual operations of the Spirit in man and man, he is restored as a part of “a life larger than his own”; he is by the very fact of his restoration a member of a body, a member of a Divine society in which the Spirit of life dwells. He has around him, on all sides of him, others with the same thrill of life which has chased away the icy grasp in which death had bound him.
(3) It was aggressive. “An exceeding great army.” The Church was to go forth and attack the strongholds of sin or false beliefs, and to conquer the world. Every member of it, if true to his calling, must be animated with a missionary spirit.
4. The vision, therefore, is a mystical picture of the work of the Church in the world, imparting life to the “dry bones” of corrupt nature, and to the nations who were before without God and without hope (Ephesians 2:12).
5. Further, it has ever been regarded as a representation of the general resurrection in the Last Day, when the Spirit’s work as “the Giver of life” shall be extended to the body (Romans 8:11).
1. To pray with a sense of deep need, confident hope, earnest desire.
2. To pray to God the Holy Ghost. “Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,” etc.
3. To examine ourselves, whether our spiritual resurrection bears the marks above mentioned.
4. To believe in the eleventh article of the Creed, “the resurrection of the body,” and to keep the body in temperance, soberness, and chastity, in view of that event. (The Thinker.)
The gilt of the Spirit
What in its grand sum total was the moral condition of the world till Christ lived and died and rose again, and ascending up on high from thence gave gifts unto men? Contemplate that world, not as clothed in that false glamour and deceitful glory with which art and poetry invested it, but as it must have presented itself to eyes purer than to behold iniquity, contemplate it, I say, exactly on that Pentecostal day, which we may justly call the birthday of the Church;--only one small people upon the whole earth preserving the knowledge, the faith, the worship of the true God; and they only using this knowledge to sin more guiltily, because against clearer light and knowledge, than the other nations of the world; their hands still red with the blood of Him whom they should have welcomed as their King and their God;--the rest of the world “wholly given to idolatry”; and with idolatry to what strange and hideous forms of evil! Contemplate for an instant the gladiatorial shows of Rome, men killing one another to make sport for lookers on; by tens and by hundreds “butchered to make a Roman holiday.” Contemplate, but with hasty and averted eye, the strange lusts of Greece, men glorying in their shame, and boasting of wickednesses which one would have thought no darkness would have seemed to them dark enough to hide. Then, when all things were thus at the worst, the Son of God was manifested in the flesh, lived a life of perfect obedience, made on His Cross a perfect offering for all the sins, past, present, and to come, of all mankind; rose again, went up on high, and, being exalted at the right hand of God, shed abroad His gifts upon men, even the rebellious. And when they that were ambassadors of His grace, at His bidding began to prophesy, immediately there was a great shaking among the dry bones in the valley of death, everywhere a mighty agitation; life once more was in conflict with and overcoming death! and as the breath of God passed first over the Jewish Church, and then over the Gentile world, and breathed upon those slain, multitudes came up out of their graves, the graves which sin had dug for them,--three thousand souls, we know, on the day of Pentecost, were the first-fruits of a far mightier harvest,--and all stood upon their feet, an exceeding great army of living men, made now by that quickening breath of the Holy Ghost alive unto God. And ever as these messengers of Christ, and such as in succession took up the message from their lips, the same effects followed; the Holy Ghost was given; and multitudes, alienated hitherto from the life of God, dead in their sins, lived to holiness and to God. Sad it is to think that there should have been ever pause or remission in such a blessed work of reanimation as this. But that such pause or remission has been we cannot deny. Death reigns not now everywhere, as once; but yet, oh! how much death, how much that has refused and is still refusing to live. Not to speak of those whom the false religions of the world, Hindu and Buddhist and Mohammedan, have slain, nor yet of the votaries and victims of a thousand meaner superstitions and idolatries, is not Christendom itself a spectacle at this day which well might make angels weep? For surely the slain in it are many--those whom superstition has slain, and those whom infidelity has slain--the slain by intemperance, covetousness, uncleanness, pride, and a thousand other weapons of the enemy;--who could number up their multitudes? Pray, ye who have any feeling sense of what the Church of the living God ought to be, terrible in its serried ranks as an army with banners, and what it is, resembling as it does only too nearly a valley of dry bones--pray, as did the prophet of old, “Come from the four winds,” etc. And as prayer is a mockery, unless work is added to it, add in one shape or another your work to your prayers. (Archbishop Trench.)
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.
Despair denounced and grace glorified
I. A true word: “They say, our bones are dried.”
1. Observe, first, that they describe themselves as dead, as dried, and as divided. These people spoke of their bones, and therefore conceived of themselves as dead; and so the sinner may without, exaggeration conceive of himself as devoid of spiritual life. He knows not the life of God, for he is dead in trespasses and sins. They were divided too. These Israelites were scattered abroad in every place; and perhaps you, dear friend, feel that, as Hosea says, your heart is divided, and you are found wanting. Perhaps you go further with the figure, and seem to be dried, sapless, useless, hopeless. This is a very sad description of a man’s soul, and yet how many of us have had to subscribe to it for ourselves. It is just what we felt ourselves to be while we were without God, and without hope; and yet the Spirit of God was convincing us of our guilt.
2. Further, these bones could by no means raise themselves. There was no trace of moisture left upon them; they could not give themselves life or motion; it were a fool’s hope to look for Such a thing. Is that the dreary fact which forces itself upon you? Do not try to forget it. You are discovering the truth. In you there is no spiritual power to stir towards God until His Spirit moves towards you.
3. There seemed to be before these bones no prospect but the fire. Do you begin to feel in your own conscience the first burnings of the fire which never shall be quenched? Ah, whatever may be your gloomy apprehensions they are none too gloomy.
4. Moreover, these people felt that they were cut off from healing agencies. They say, “We are cut off for our parts”; that is, each bone is cut off from its fellow, and the whole thing is cut off as to its parts from every hope and comfort. Happy they who have been delivered from this wretched state; but I had almost said, happy they who are experiencing it, for those who feel their sinfulness are on the road to better things. Brother, I hope your extremity will be God’s opportunity. When your bones are dried then will God come in as the resurrection and the life and make these dry bones live.
5. It seemed to these poor people as if they were quite given over, for when bones are cast out in the field and left to be bleached by the wind and the sun, when nobody gives them burial, but there they lie, the refuse of the charnel house, then they are according to all likelihood left for destruction. Apart from Christ, we are cast off: apart from Christ, God cannot look upon us except in anger: apart from the atoning blood our sins protest against the entrance of mercy, and there we lie self-condemned and helpless, abandoned in our own judgment to condemnation swift and sure.
II. Here is an ill word in the text: “Our hope is lost.” It is a good thing if our false hopes are lost; but true hope is still to be had. They said of old in the Latin, Dum spiro spero, while I breathe I hope; and I turn the proverb over, and say, Dum spero spiro--while I hope I breathe. To render the sentences rather freely will suit me well: “While I live I hope, and while I hope I live.” Despair, which is the mind’s declaration that there is no hope, is not so much a sickness of the understanding as a sin of the soul. No man has a right to despair; no man can be right while he is despairing.
1. Despair is a high insult to God; it casts dishonour upon His chief attributes.
(1) It is most derogatory to the truth of God. If a man says, “I cannot be saved,” he contradicts the Divine voice, “Look unto Me, and be ye saved.”
(2) He that despairs insults God’s power. He doth in effect tell the Lord that He pretends to a power which He does not possess.
(3) But despair abundantly casts dishonour upon God’s mercy. The Lord glories in His power to save, and He has plainly declared that He will save all those who confess their sins and put their trust in Him; and do we doubt Him?
2. Mark you, while it does this, which is bad enough, despair brings out the devil and Crowns him in Christ’s stead. Despair says to Satan, “Thou art victorious over the mercy of God; thou hast conquered Christ Himself.”
3. This heinous sin of despair tramples on the blood of Christ. Christ has died and shed His blood, and we know that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all sin. We have God’s Word for it; yet here is a man who says, “It cannot cleanse me from my sin.”
4. Despair has something in it of sinning against the Holy Ghost; for the Holy Spirit brings you rich cordials in the promises of God, which will raise your spirits and will restore you from death; and what do you do with them? You take them and dash them against the wall; as if this almighty medicine, devised by infinite wisdom, were the deceitful nostrum of a quack, and you could not receive it.
5. When a man gives way to despair, there comes upon him usually a habit of wrangling against God and His truth. Sometimes the despairing one gets into such a nasty, ugly temper against everything that comes to him from the Bible and from the ministers of God that you begin to think that he must be half mad. So perhaps he is, but it is not a madness that saves him from responsibility; it is a madness which will be laid to his charge in the great day of account, because it is self-inflicted and wilfully persisted in.
6. Worse than this, despair makes a man ready for any sin, for there are many that say, “I can never go to heaven, therefore I will take a good swing here, and get what pleasure I can while it is within reach.”
7. Let me say further, despair degrades a man, degrades him below the brute beast; for brutes do not despair. You think worse of God than your dog thinks of you. Instead of crouching to His feet, as your poor dog does to you, to try and get a gracious word, you growl at the great Lord--“It is of no use for me to be humble: there is no hope.”
8. Oh, this despair--avoid it, I pray you, as you would avoid death itself, for it will render all means of grace useless to you. If ye will not believe, neither shall ye be established.
9. Despair, too, is certainly vain and wicked, because it has no Scripture whatever to support it.
III. A gracious word.
1. God meets us upon our own ground, and takes us up where we are. They said, “We are as dried bones.” “Yes,” says God, “and I will quicken you”; but the Lord even goes beyond anything which they have felt or said, for they did not say they were buried. No, they were as bones scattered in the open valley, unburied; but the Lord knows they are worse than they think they are; and so He goes further in mercy than they thought they had gone in misery. He says, “I will open your graves,” and that looks as if they were finally laid in the sepulchre; but the Lord adds, “and cause you to come up out of your graves.” Oh, the mercy of the Lord! There is no bound to it.
2. Now, observe how the Word brings comfort by introducing another actor upon the scene. You are like a dried bone, good for nothing, and able for nothing; but the Lord comes in Himself, and He says, “I will, I will.” Oh, that grand “I will”!
3. But recollect that God comforts us here by depicting the completeness of His working.
4. Lastly, notice the feeling which is produced by it. Ah, what a feeling a man has that there is a God when God has saved him; when he begins to dance for very joy of heart because he is fully forgiven, then he knows Jehovah is God; when his heart feels restful, and full of peace, when he can say, “God is mine, Christ is mine, heaven is mine,” he does not need evidences of the existence of God, or arguments to prove the power of God. He carries a demonstration of the truth within his own heart, and tells of it to others with tearful eyes. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
I. Soul resurrection is a matter of individual responsibility. Man has no choice in the question of his bodily resurrection. He can do nothing towards hastening or delaying it, preventing or effecting it. Not so with the soul. Its moral condition is dependent upon itself. “Arise from the dead,” is the voice of eternal justice as well as of redemptive mercy.
II. Soul resurrection is a good in itself. It is the prisoner leaving the dungeon and his chains, and going forth a pardoned and reformed man, in the full play of his freedom, to enjoy with a grateful heart the blessings of life, and to discharge with a right spirit the duties of his sphere. It is the diseased man, leaving the dark chamber of suffering, and going forth, with renovated health and invigorated frame, into the fields of nature, in the opening spring, to breathe that new breath from God that is quickening all nature into life.
III. Soul resurrection is the grand end of all God’s dealings with men. In every event of Providence, in every page of history, in every verse of the Bible, in every dictate of reason, in every throb of conscience, in every sorrow, and in every joy, His voice to the soul is this, “Arise from the dead”:--Break through thy grave of carnalities, prejudices, corrupt habits, into the life of truth and love.
IV. Soul resurrection involves the highest agency of God. The Divine power, which will be employed to call up at last the teeming myriads of the buried dead, is nothing in grandeur, compared with that Divine energy which will be put forth to wake the dead soul to life. In the former case, the mere fiat or volition will do it. God has only to will it and it is done. But far more than this is employed on His part to raise the soul. For this purpose He has to “bow the heavens and come down,” assume our nature, and in that nature reason out to us the arguments of His almighty love.
V. Soul resurrection is the only pledge of a glorious bodily resurrection. (Homilist.)
Take thee one stick.
Joining the sticks
I. The sad condition of the people of Israel at the time the prophet wrote. It was that of separation and of estrangement. Such a condition was--
1. Contrary to nature.
2. Displeasing to God.
3. Disastrous to themselves.
That and other sin had reduced them to a condition of national bankruptcy, physical serfdom, social misery, and moral degradation.
II. The happy condition to which the people of Israel were about to be restored. That of unity, harmony, and oneness. Union in a Christian Church is a condition greatly to be desiderated, and earnestly to be sought by all its members.
1. It is of great importance to the Church itself.
2. It is an immense advantage to the surrounding community.
3. It is well pleasing and highly honouring to God.
III. The agency by which this delightful change was to be effected.
1. He breathed into them a principle of spiritual life.
2. He sent them wise advisers and earnest intercessors.
3. He visited them with a sore trial. The Babylonish captivity. Common suffering often awakens common sympathy, and common sorrow begets mutual interest.
4. He appointed them a common work. The rebuilding of the city and temple of Jerusalem. A common service for Christ is still promotive of union among Christians.
5. He makes His residence in their midst (Ezekiel 37:27). Christ in the midst of a Church acts like a magnet in the midst of steel particles: He attracts all to Himself. As Christians are enabled to love Christ and approach Christ, so will they love one another and approach one another. (F. Morgan.)
I the Lord do sanctify Israel.
I. We shall view it as the Holy Spirit’s work to “sanctify Israel.” He gives a new, another, a spiritual life, yea, His own life, to sinners who were dead in trespasses and in sins. That is the religion of the Bible. That sanctification which becomes conspicuous and visible is the giving of life Divine, life spiritual, and into the soul of a sinner dead in trespasses and in sins. “You hath He quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins.” The Apostle John puts it in another form, and says to his brethren who were regenerated by the power of the Holy Ghost, “We are of God”--that is, we have a life obtained from God--“we know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness.” The Son of God Himself speaks of it in the third chapter of the Gospel of St. John as a “new birth”; and what is that but participation in a new, another nature? “I, Jehovah, do sanctify Israel.” Let me here glance at the identity of the covenant seed in this grand operation of grace. Wherever the Holy Ghost implants spiritual life, that soul is identified, at once, as an Israelite. “The heathen shall know that I, the Lord, do sanctify Israel.” And who are Israel? The seed of a covenant Head; a ransomed people; an emancipated people; a peculiar people. Oh! the vast importance of this distinction. I would to God that it were kept up and maintained among the followers of the Lamb. What is the first feature of their peculiarity? They are circumcised in heart, and love God, and are distinguished from the Egyptians. Light is in their dwellings, when all else is dark and dead. Look well to this point. Am I really sanctified by the Holy Ghost, set apart from the world, and made partaker of the Divine nature? Then am I Christ’s offspring. Then am I separated from the world for Him; redeemed by His precious blood; brought out of Egyptian bondage, and cannot live under the taskmasters and under the yoke any longer. Then am I made to serve Jehovah, and worship Him “in spirit and in truth.” Think of our daily and hourly dependence. Think of the matter of fact, that we cannot advance a step in the Divine life, that we cannot claim a promise even, or enjoy it, that we cannot surmount a difficulty, that we cannot meet an enemy, that we cannot sustain a trial, without communications of grace from on high. And therefore, says the apostle, when referring to Him in whom all is treasured up, “Of His fulness have all we received, and grace for grace.” Do not attempt to satisfy me, do not attempt to satisfy yourselves with a lazy religion. All God’s sanctified ones are employed; for He says to every one of them, “Son, go work in My vineyard today.” Don’t stop till tomorrow. Go every day. The believing family of God are called upon to glorify Him “with their bodies and spirits,” because their bodies and spirits are the Lord’s. O God! employ Thy sanctified ones, and let every child of Thine be active and vigilant in extending the triumphs of the Cross! Do not tell me that you are incapable of doing anything. That is one of Satan’s falsehoods and artifices to allure you to indulge in laziness. Do not tell me that you have no talent. I can receive none of these excuses. All God’s sanctified ones have at least something to do in His vineyard for the glorifying of His name. And I would have them take a lesson from one of our old martyrs, picked up from the lowest walk of life, illiterate, and without a penny which he could call his own; and who when brought before a Roman pro-consul and sneeringly asked, “What can you do for your Christ?” replied, “I cannot preach Him: I have no talent. I cannot support His cause; I have no money: but there are two things which I can do for Him; I can live for Him, and I can die for Him.”
II. “The heathen shall know that I, Jehovah, do sanctify Israel.” The heathen shall know! What, do you mean to send all out as missionaries to foreign lands and barbarous tribes, to make known what God has done for our souls? I do not think, at any rate at present, that all should be employed thus, for you need not go out of England, or out of London, to find vast numbers of heathens. Now we would here come again to the subject of decision. Say, how is it with you? With a life so superior, with a dignity so supernatural, with prospects so bright, at an expense so vast as the atoning blood of Christ--will you degrade yourselves--will you suffer the heathen to triumph over you? Oh, to be able daily and hourly to put on the Lord Jesus Christ, that His likeness, His image, His mind, His Spirit may be exhibited by us, whilst we seek no provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof. This is the way to make it known, that the heathen shall know and see the contrast. Not a few worldlings, whom I have thus set down as heathens, have been brought to acknowledge that there is something very singular, something very strange, something very mysterious, which they cannot fathom, in the Christianity which we possess. They cannot discover what that something is; and they never will until God gives it to them; it is His to bestow. And this brings me to dwell for a moment on the absolute sovereignty of the grace which imparts it. “I, Jehovah, do it.” Oh, how I wish that I could be more familiar with His doings, and jealous about my own I Oh, how I wish that every spiritual act that a believer is able to perform, might be instantly traced, as the apostle did his, to the hand of God! Oh, the blessedness of subscribing to that article of the apostle’s creed, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above,” etc. Then, having laid the foundation in absolute sovereignty, see how he goes on in the next verse to describe its operations:--“Of His own will begat He us”--not man’s proud free-will--“of His own will begat He us, by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first-fruits of His creatures.” Oh, the vast importance of having this distinction between us and the heathens, and the preservation of that distinction as the work of God--an act of the operation of His absolute power! “I, the Lord, will do it, and the heathen shall know it.” Now here is a glorious distinction--that the heathen shall know it. They must not only acknowledge that what is done is a good thing, but that it is supernatural and beyond the creature’s power; and admit, as the heathen monarch of old did, in the case of the deliverance of Shadrach, Meshech, and Abednego, that it is the work of Him whose dwelling is not upon this earth--that it is a supernatural, Divine work. Another point which will be conspicuous to the heathen is, your circumspection; for, when God sanctifies, He makes the recipient of His sanctifying grace very circumspect. The heathen will not see the secret intercourse that is going on in your heart with God. They cannot see the hidden springs of life. They cannot see the secret purpose of predestinating love, from whence all proceeds; but they can see your circumspection. They can see how you walk; they can see what spirit, and mind, and temper you exhibit. They can see whether there is anything about you--in your whole conduct and deportment--which gives the lie to your profession; and they will not be backward in talking about it. They discover it in a moment. Oh, how important, therefore, is that solemn advice of the apostle!--“Be ye therefore holy, even as he who hath called you is holy.” One point more: it relates to the experimental enjoyment--which sanctifying grace imparts when we stand before the heathen as a distinguished people, and the heathen shall know it. (J. Irons.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Ezekiel 37". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/
the Fifth Week after Easter