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Thursday, July 18th, 2024
the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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Bible Commentaries
Ezekiel 37

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-28


Ezekiel 37:1-28

The most formidable obstacle to faith on the part of the exiles in the possibility of a national redemption was the complete disintegration of the ancient people of Israel. Hard as it was to realise that Jehovah still lived and reigned in spite of the cessation of His worship, and hard to hope for a recovery of the land of Canaan from the dominion of the heathen, these things were still conceivable. What almost surpassed conception was the restoration of national life to the feeble and demoralised remnant who had survived the fall of the state. It was no mere figure of speech that these exiles employed when they thought of their nation as dead. Cast off by its God, driven from its land, dismembered and deprived of its political organisation, Israel as a people had ceased to exist. Not only were the outward symbols of national unity destroyed, but the national spirit was extinct. Just as the destruction of the bodily organism implies the death of each separate member and organ and cell, so the individual Israelites felt themselves to be as dead men, dragging out an aimless existence without hope in the world. While Israel was alive they had lived in her and for her; all the best part of their life, religion, duty, liberty, and loyalty had been bound up with the consciousness of belonging to a nation with a proud history behind them and a brilliant future for their posterity. Now that Israel had perished all spiritual and ideal significance had gone out of their lives; there remained but a selfish and sordid struggle for existence, and this they felt was not life, but death in life. And thus a promise of deliverance which appealed to them as members of a nation seemed to them a mockery, because they felt in themselves that the bond of national life was irrevocably broken.

The hardest part of Ezekiel’s task at this time was therefore to revive the national sentiment, so as to meet the obvious objection that even if Jehovah were able to drive the heathen from His land there was still no people of Israel to whom He could give it. If only the exiles could be brought to believe that Israel had a future, that although now dead it could be raised from the dead, the spiritual meaning of their life would be given back to them in the form of hope, and faith in God would be possible. Accordingly the prophet’s thoughts are now directed to the idea of the nation as the third factor of the Messianic hope. He has spoken of the kingdom and the land, and each of these ideas has led him on to the contemplation of the final condition of the world, in which Jehovah’s purpose is fully manifested. So in this chapter he finds in the idea of the nation a new point of departure, from which he proceeds to delineate once more the Messianic salvation in its completeness.

The vision of the valley of dry bones described in the first part of the chapter contains the answer to the desponding thoughts of the exiles, and seems indeed to be directly suggested by the figure in which the popular feeling was currently expressed: "Our bones are dried; our hope is lost: we feel ourselves cut off" (Ezekiel 37:11). The fact that the answer came to the prophet in a state of trance may perhaps indicate that his mind had brooded over these words of the people for some time before the moment of inspiration. Recognising how faithfully they represented the actual situation, he was yet unable to suggest an adequate solution of the difficulty by means of the prophetic conceptions hitherto revealed to him. Such a vision as this seems to presuppose a period of intense mental activity on the part of Ezekiel, during which the despairing utterance of his compatriots sounded in his ears; and the image of the dried bones of the house of Israel so fixed itself in his mind that he could not escape its gloomy associations except by a direct communication from above. When at last the hand of the Lord came upon him, the revelation clothed itself in a form corresponding to his previous meditations; the emblem of death and despair is transformed into a symbol of assured hope through the astounding vision which unfolds itself before his inner eye.

In the ecstasy he feels himself led out in spirit to the plain which had been the scene of former appearances of God to His prophet. But on this occasion he sees it covered with bones-"very many on the surface of the valley, and very dry." He is made to pass round about them, in order that the full impression of this spectacle of desolation might sink into his mind. His attention is engrossed by two facts-their exceeding great number, and their parched appearance, as if they had lain there long. In other circumstances the question might have suggested itself, How came these bones there? What countless host has perished here, leaving its unburied bones to bleach and wither on the open plain? But the prophet has no need to think of this. They are the bones which had been familiar to his waking thoughts, the dry bones of the house of Israel. The question he hears addressed to him is not, Whence are these bones? but, Can these bones live? It is the problem which had exercised his faith in thinking of a national restoration which thus comes back to him in vision, to receive its final solution from Him who alone can give it.

The prophet’s hesitating answer probably reveals the struggle between faith and sight, between hope and fear, which was latent in his mind. He dare not say no, for that would be to limit the power of Him whom he knows to be omnipotent, and also to shut out the last gleam of hope from his own mind. Yet in presence of that appalling scene of hopeless decay and death he cannot of his own initiative assert the possibility of resurrection. In the abstract all things are possible with God; but whether this particular thing, so inconceivable to men, is within the active purpose of God, is a question which none can answer save God Himself. Ezekiel does what man must always do in such a case-he throws himself back on God, and reverently awaits the disclosure of His will, saying, "O Jehovah God, Thou Knowest."

It is instructive to notice that the divine answer comes through the consciousness of a duty. Ezekiel is commanded first of all to prophesy over these dry bones; and in the words given him to utter the solution of his own inward perplexity is wrapped up. "Say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of Jehovah Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live" (Ezekiel 37:4-5). In this way he is not only taught that the agency by which Jehovah will effect His purpose is the prophetic word, but he is also reminded that the truth now revealed to him is to be the guide of his practical ministry, and that only in the steadfast discharge of his prophetic duty can he hold fast the hope of Israel’s resurrection. The problem that has exercised him is not one that can be settled in retirement and inaction. What he receives is not a mere answer, but a message, and the delivery of the message is the only way in which he can realise the truth of it: his activity as a prophet being indeed a necessary element in the fulfilment of his words. Let him preach the word of God to these dry bones, and he will know that they can live; but if he fails to do this, he will sink back into the unbelief to which all things are impossible. Faith comes in the act of prophesying.

Ezekiel did as he was commanded; he prophesied over the dry bones, and immediately he was sensible of the effect of his words. He heard a rustling, and looking he saw that the bones were coming together, bone to his bone. He does not need to tell us how his heart rejoiced at this first sign of life returning to these dead bones, and as he watched the whole process by which they were built up into the semblance of men. It is described in minute detail, so that no feature of the impression produced by the stupendous miracle may be lost. It is divided into two stages, the restoration of the bodily frame and the imparting of the principle of life.

This division cannot have any special significance when applied to the actual nation, such as that the outward order of the state must be first established, and then the national consciousness renewed. It belongs to the imagery of the vision and follows the order observed in the original creation of man as described in the second chapter of Genesis. God first formed man of the dust of the ground, and afterwards breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, so that he became a living soul. So here we have first a description of the process by which the bodies were built up, the skeletons being formed from the scattered bones, and then clothed successively with sinews and flesh and skin. The reanimation of these still lifeless bodies is a separate act of creative energy, in which, however, the agency is still the word of God in the mouth of the prophet. He is bidden call for the breath to "come from the four winds of heaven, and breathe upon these slain that they may live." In Hebrew the words for wind, breath, and spirit are identical; and thus the wind becomes a symbol of the universal divine Spirit which is the source of all life, while the breath is a symbol of that Spirit as, so to speak, specialised in the individual man, or in other words of his personal life. In the case of the first man Jehovah breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the idea here is precisely the same. The wind from the four quarters of heaven which becomes the breath of this vast assemblage of men is conceived as the breath of God, and symbolises the life-giving Spirit which makes each of them a living person. The resurrection is complete. The men live, and stand up upon their feet, an exceeding great army.

This is the simplest, as well as the most suggestive, of Ezekiel’s visions, and carries its interpretation on the face of it. The single idea which it expresses is the restoration of the Hebrew nationality through the quickening influence of the Spirit of Jehovah on the surviving members of the old house of Israel. It is not a prophecy of the resurrection of individual Israelites who have perished. The bones are "the whole house of Israel" now in exile; they are alive as individuals, but as members of a nation they are dead and hopeless of revival. This is made clear by the explanation of the vision given in Ezekiel 37:11-14. It is addressed to those who think of themselves as cut off from the higher interests and activities of the national life. By a slight change of figure they are conceived as dead and buried; and the resurrection is represented as an opening of their graves. But the grave is no more to be understood literally than the dry bones of the vision itself; both are symbols of the gloomy and despairing view which the exiles take of their own condition. The substance of the prophet’s message is that the God who raises the dead and calls the things that are not as though they were is able to bring together the scattered members of the house of Israel and form them into a new people through the operation of His life-giving Spirit.

It has often been supposed that, although the passage may not directly teach the resurrection of the body, it nevertheless implies a certain familiarity with that doctrine on the part of Ezekiel, if not of his hearers likewise. If the raising of dead men to life could be used as an analogy of a national restoration, the former conception must have been at least more obvious than the latter, otherwise the prophet would be explaining obscurum per obscurius. This argument, however, has only a superficial plausibility. It confounds two things which are distinct-the mere conception of resurrection, which is all that was necessary to make the vision intelligible, and settled faith in it as an element of the Messianic expectation. That God by a miracle could restore the dead to life no devout Israelite ever doubted. (Cf. 1 Kings 17:1-24; 2 Kings 4:13 ff; 2 Kings 13:21.) But it is to be noted that the recorded instances of such miracles are all of those recently dead; and there is no evidence of a general belief in the possibility of resurrection for those whose bones were scattered and dry. It is this very impossibility, indeed, that gives point to the metaphor under which the people here express their sense of hopelessness. Moreover, if the prophet had presupposed the doctrine of individual resurrection, he could hardly have used it as an illustration in the way he does. The mere prospect of a resuscitation of the multitudes of Israelites who had perished would of itself have been a sufficient answer to the despondency of the exiles; and it would have been an anti-climax to use it as an argument for something much less wonderful. We must also bear in mind that while the resurrection of a nation may be to us little more than a figure of speech, to the Hebrew mind it was an object of thought more real and tangible than the idea of personal immortality.

It would appear therefore that in the order of revelation the hope of the resurrection is first presented in the promise of a resurrection of the dead nation of Israel, and only in the second instance as the resurrection of individual Israelites who should have passed away without sharing in the glory of the latter days. Like the early converts to Christianity, the Old Testament believers sorrowed for those who fell asleep when the Messiah’s kingdom was supposed to be just at hand, until they found consolation in the blessed hope of a resurrection with which Paul comforted the Church at Thessalonica. {1 Thessalonians 4:13 ff} In Ezekiel we find that doctrine as yet only in its more general form of a national resurrection; but it can hardly be doubted that the form in which he expressed it prepared the way for the fuller revelation of a resurrection of the individual. In two later passages of the prophetic Scriptures we seem to find clear indications of progress in this direction. One is a difficult verse in the twenty-sixth chapter of Isaiah-part of a prophecy usually assigned to a period later than Ezekiel-where the writer, after a lamentation over the disappointments and wasted efforts of the present, suddenly breaks into a rapture of hope as he thinks of a time when departed Israelites shall be restored to life to join the ranks of the ransomed people of God: "Let thy dead live again! Let my dead bodies arise! Awake and rejoice, ye that dwell in the dust, for thy dew is a dew of light, and the earth shall yield up [her] shades." {Isaiah 26:19} There does not seem to be any doubt that what is here predicted is the actual resurrection of individual members of the people of Israel to share in the blessings of the kingdom of God. The other passage referred to is in the book of Daniel, where we have the first explicit prediction of a resurrection both of the just and the unjust. In the time of trouble, when the people is delivered "many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt." {Daniel 12:2}

These remarks are made merely to show in what sense Ezekiel’s vision may be regarded as a contribution to the Old Testament doctrine of personal immortality. It is so not by its direct teaching, nor yet by its presuppositions, but by the suggestiveness of its imagery; opening out a line of thought which under the guidance of the Spirit of truth led to a fuller disclosure of the care of God for the individual life, and His purpose to redeem from the power of the grave those who had departed this life in His faith and fear.

But this line of inquiry lies somewhat apart from the main teaching of the passage before us as a message for the Church in all ages. The passage teaches with striking clearness the continuity of God’s redeeming work in the world, in spite of hindrances which to human eyes seem insurmountable. The gravest hindrance, both in appearance and in reality, is the decay of faith and vital religion in the Church itself. There are times when earnest men are tempted to say that the Church’s hope is lost and her bones are dried-when laxity of life and lukewarmness in devotion pervade all her members, and she ceases to influence the world for good. And yet when we consider that the whole history of God’s cause is one long process of raising dead souls to spiritual life and building up a kingdom of God out of fallen humanity, we see that the true hope of the Church can never be lost. It lies in the life-giving, regenerating power of the divine Spirit, and the promise that the word of God does not return to Him void but prospers in the thing whereto He sends it. That is the great lesson of Ezekiel’s vision, and although its immediate application may be limited to the occasion that called it forth, yet the analogy on which it is founded is taken up by our Lord Himself and extended to the proclamation of His truth to the world at large: "The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God; and they that hear shall live." (John 25; Cf. John 20:28-29). We perhaps too readily empty these strong terms of their meaning. The Spirit of God is apt to become a mere expression for the religious and moral influences lodged in a Christian society, and we come to rely on these agencies for the dissemination of Christian principles and the formation of Christian character. We forget that behind all this there is something which is compared to the imparting of life where there was none, something which is the work of the Spirit of which we cannot tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth. But in times of low spirituality, when the love of many waxes cold, and there are few signs of zeal and activity in the service of Christ, men learn to fall back in faith on the invisible power of God to make His word effectual for the revival of His cause among men. And this happens constantly in narrow spheres which may never attract the notice of the world. There are positions in the Church still where Christ’s servants are called to labour in the faith of Ezekiel, with appearances all against them, and nothing to inspire them but the conviction that the word they preach is the power of God and able even to bring life to the dead.


The second half of the chapter speaks of a special feature of the national restoration, the reunion of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel under one sceptre. This is represented first of all by a symbolic action. The prophet is directed to take two pieces of wood, apparently in the form of sceptres, and to write upon them inscriptions dedicating them respectively to Judah and Joseph, the heads of the two confederacies out of which the rival monarchies were formed. The "companions" (Ezekiel 37:16)-i.e., allies-of Judah are the two tribes of Benjamin and Simeon; those of Joseph are all the other tribes, who stood under the hegemony of Ephraim. If the second inscription is rather more complicated than the first, it is because of the fact that there was no actual tribe of Joseph. It therefore runs thus: "For Joseph, the staff of Ephraim, and all the house of Israel his confederates." These two staves then he is to put together so that they become one sceptre in his hand. It is a little difficult to decide whether this was a sign that was actually performed before the people, or one that is only imagined. It depends partly on what we take to be meant by the joining of the two pieces. If Ezekiel merely took two sticks, put them end to end, and made them look like one, then no doubt he did this in public, for otherwise there would be no use in mentioning the circumstance at all. But if the meaning is, as seems more probable, that when the rods are put together they miraculously grow into one, then we see that such a sign has a value for the prophet’s own mind as a symbol of the truth revealed to him, and it is no longer necessary to assume that the action was really performed. The purpose of the sign is not merely to suggest the idea of political unity, which is too simple to require any such illustration, but rather to indicate the completeness of the union and the divine force needed to bring it about. The difficulty of conceiving a perfect fusion of the two parts of the nation was really very great, the cleavage between Judah and the North being much older than the monarchy, and having been accentuated by centuries of political separation and rivalry.

To us the most noteworthy fact is the steadfastness with which the prophets of this period cling to the hope of a restoration of the northern tribes, although nearly a century and a half had now elapsed since "Ephraim was broken from being a people." {Isaiah 7:8} Ezekiel, like Jeremiah, is unable to think of an Israel which does not include the representatives of the ten northern tribes. Whether any communication was kept up with the colonies of Israelites that had been transported from Samaria to Assyria we do not know, but they are regarded as still existing, and still remembered by Jehovah. The resurrection of the nation which Ezekiel has just predicted is expressly said to apply to the whole house of Israel, and now he goes on to announce that this "exceeding great army" shall march to its land not under two banners, but under one.

We have touched already, in speaking of the Messianic idea, on the reasons which led the prophets to put so much emphasis on this union. They felt as strongly on the point as a High Churchman does about the sin of schism, and it would not be difficult for the latter to show that his point of view and his ideals closely resemble those of the prophets. The rending of the body of Christ which is supposed to be involved in a breach of external unity is paralleled by the disruption of the Hebrew state, which violates the unity of the one people of Jehovah. The idea of the Church as the bride of Christ is the same idea under which Hosea expresses the relations between Jehovah and Israel, and it necessarily carries with it the unity of the people of Israel in the one case and of the Church in the other. It must be admitted also that the evils resulting from the division between Judah and Israel have been reproduced, with consequences a thousand times more disastrous to religion, in the strife and uncharitableness, the party spirit and jealousies and animosities, which different denominations of Christians have invariably exhibited towards each other when they were close enough for mutual interest. But granting all this, and granting that what is called schism is essentially the same thing that the prophets desired to see removed, it does not at once follow that dissent is in itself sinful, and still less that the sin is necessarily on the side of the Dissenter. The question is whether the national standpoint of the prophets is altogether applicable to the communion of saints in Christ, whether the body of Christ is really torn asunder by differences in organisation and opinion, whether, in short, anything is necessary to avoid the guilt of schism beyond keeping the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. The Old Testament dealt with men in the mass, as members of a nation, and its standards can hardly be adequate to the polity of a religion which has to provide for the freedom of the individual conscience before God. At the worst the Dissenter may point out that the Old Testament schism was necessary as a protest against tyranny and despotism, that in this aspect it was sanctioned by the inspired prophets of the age, that its undoubted evils were partly compensated by a freer expansion of religious life, and finally that even the prophets did not expect it to be healed before the millennium.

From the idea of the reunited nation Ezekiel returns easily to the promise of the Davidic king and the blessings of the Messianic dispensation. The one people implies one shepherd, and also one land, and one spirit to walk in Jehovah’s judgments and to observe His statutes to do them. The various elements which enter into the conception of national salvation are thus gathered up and combined in one picture of the people’s everlasting felicity. And the whole is crowned by the promise of Jehovah’s presence with the people, sanctifying and protecting them from His sanctuary. This final condition of things is permanent and eternal. The sources of internal dispeace are removed by the washing away of Israel’s iniquities, and the impossibility of any disturbance from without is illustrated by the onslaught of the heathen nations described in the following chapters.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Ezekiel 37". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/ezekiel-37.html.
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