The Spirit’s Real Power - Reflections on Ezekiel 37:1-14

by Dr. John Holbert on Monday, May 13, 2024

The Spirit’s Real Power

Ezekiel 37:1-14

The Peripatetic Hebrew Bible Preacher


          I know that most of you will use the dramatic Acts 2 depiction of the appearance of the Holy Spirit on the gathered Jerusalem assembly at the instigation of the preaching of Peter, the former betrayer of Jesus turned lion of the word, as your text for this morning. I have several times in my reading of that text warned of the deeply anti-Jewish caste of that sermon, a tainted tone that forces me away from the text each year. I can only conclude that if you do employ Acts 2, please try to point out its Jewish problems so as not to add to the already sharp anti-Jewishness of early and modern Christianity. In this time of the devastating Israeli assault on Palestinian Gaza, in reply to the barbarian attacks by Hamas on Israel on Oct.7, 2023, we Christians must not add even an iota to the increased number of anti-Israeli protests springing up in many parts of the world by emphasizing Peter’s bold anti-Jewish polemic at Pentecost. As a result of that issue, I choose to use Ezekiel 37 as my Pentecost text. The issue of the day is the power of God’s spirit, and the marvelous Ezekiel text focuses directly on that very point. 

          Ez.37 is of course well-known and justly famous, the source of spiritual and song, as well as any number of artistic representations. Any of us who have sung in choirs (I for at least 65 years), know that “Ezekiel connected dem dry bones” all too well, and usually hum along to that tune while we read this text. If you want to do that, feel free! And, in addition, be certain to have your choir sing the tune just before or after you preach! Acts 2 is surely dramatic with its tongues of fire and multiple languages, but Ez.37 is equally so with its dry bones rattling to life under the surprising power of Ezekiel’s reluctant word. In that drama, a modern preacher may learn that even her poorly prepared and rushed attempt at a sermon may astonishingly call to life the most dedicated occupiers of those familiar pews.

          But to the text. Ezekiel is literally grabbed by YHWH and is dragged to a valley by the Spirit of God, a valley filled with dry bones. Dry bones are bones that have filled a place for a very long time. When paleontologists dig for bones of the long-dead creatures of our earth, they are of course dry, the millions of years that have intervened ensuring that all liquid life has been drained away. And notwithstanding the wizardry of Stephen Spielberg’s reanimation of T-Rex and Brontosaurus in his “Jurrasic Park” series of films (and despite the fact that the Jurrasic is perhaps not the correct ancient time in which to place these creatures—the Cretaceous may have been closer), dry bones will not be animated to life in any world we know.

          So when YHWH questions Ezekiel in the face of this vast collection of dry bones, “Mortal, can these bones live?” (Ez.37:3), the prophet’s answer is a very tentative and apparently hopeless, “O YHWH God, you know,” with the obvious implication that the prophet has not a clue, but is almost certain that dry bones will remain dry. But YHWH is not having that reply. “Preach to the bones! Say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of YHWH” (Ez.37:4). And when Ezekiel gets up the courage to preach to the bones—a decidedly ridiculous act, the object of comedy, not seriousness—YHWH promises that “sinew, flesh, and skin” will cover the bones, and they will be filled with “breath” (or “wind” or “spirit”—the word means all three), “and you shall live.” (Ez.37:6) And as a result of all that strange and spooky action, “you shall know that I am YHWH.”

          So, Ezekiel begins to preach, and sure enough he hears a “noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to bone” (Ez.37:7). And soon enough sinews and flesh and skin covered them, “but there was no breath in them” (Ez.37:8). So Ezekiel continues his preaching, this time to the “breath (wind, spirit),” and he does just that by saying, “Thus says YHWH God, Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live” (Ez.37:9). And the breath came into the lifeless bones, and “they lived, and stood on their feet, a huge multitude” (Ez.37:10). 

          This text is not in any way speaking of some resurrection leading to a blessed afterlife, despite its common misunderstanding over the centuries. Vs.11-14 make it plain that what Ezekiel has in mind is the reconstitution of the “whole house of Israel,” who have said in their Babylonian exile, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are completely cut off (from our long-lost land)” (Ez.37:11). Not so, says YHWH through the mouth the preacher Ezekiel. “I will bring you back to the land of Israel,” says YHWH, and “I will put my spirit within you and you shall live..” (Ez.37:14). The long Babylonian exile (597-539BCE) will end in Israel’s return to its land. The amazing gift of God’s spirit inevitably brings life, no matter how dry our bones may be, no matter how dry we think them to be. 

          This Pentecost, we ask that God will send the Holy Spirit to freshen and enliven our dry bones, trusting that the God we worship can bring life and newness even out of a valley filled with dry bones. Now that is a Pentecost miracle worth celebrating!

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