Let us pray:
Holy One, nourish us this day with a vision of new life. Come, O Breath, and fill our spirits, and may the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts, be found pleasing to you, God of our redeeming. Amen.
What a stark vision God has given Ezekiel. The text reads that God’s spirit “set him down” in a valley covered in bones and then led Ezekiel on a walking tour of the dry, brittle remains. And then, God’s question pierces the quiet, desolate air: “Mortal, can these bones live?”
Can our depleted spirits be revived after we have lost our breath?
Can they live? An interesting question for God to ask a mortal, as God has named Ezekiel. It must have seemed impossible for Ezekiel. Even with God right beside him, he cannot give a solid answer:
“Mortal, can these bones live?”
Ezekiel answers, “you know.” It seems that Ezekiel cannot imagine it.
But he prophesies to the bones as God has asked …can you hear the bones rattle as they come together? And then he prophesies to the four winds to bring breath to the bones as commanded…can you watch as breath enters the vast multitude of bones, and they stand on their feet? Can you picture?
The valley of dry bones describes the people of Israel during their 80 years of exile in Babylon. Everything they knew was taken from them, not the least of which were their religious practices, where the temple in Jerusalem was the center and heart of their lives, and the very house of God, now in ruins and rubble back in their homeland.
The Babylonians destroyed the temple and ripped the Israelites from their home. They could no longer sing their songs of praise, and they hung their instruments on the “willows there,” as the song from Godspell reminds us. “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” Their songs of praise lost their healing effect in a desperate place. They did not lose God, but many lost their ability to hope for any resurrection from the death dealing place that held them captive.
The earlier chapters of Ezekiel are filled with his prophesies about how the idol worshiping that the people engaged in would bring their doom. In the ancient Near East, for both the Hebrew people and people of other religions, the prevailing assumption was that anything that happened has been either willed or allowed by God, or the gods.
In fact, Ezekiel himself and other leaders were taken into exile by the Babylonian about ten years before the rest of the population as part of a leadership brain drain, before the people of Judah were conquered and removed from their land. Ezekiel continued to prophesy from afar, and the vision of the valley filled with dry bones describes both what awaited the people of Israel and the depletion they would endure once there.
There is precedent for the image of dry bones in this passage. Proverbs 17:22 teaches that a downcast spirit dries up the bones. Indeed. When the people cry to God that their bones are dried up, they are utterly depleted and have nothing left to give. In many ways this vision can describe us when we find ourselves in a time of life when we have lost our breath – when we have lost the animating power to live our lives as fully as God has created for us.