“And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord GOD, thou knowest.” — Ezekiel 37:3
Recently I came across an old photo showing an ancient Native American burial site located on Memaloose Island in the Columbia River, east of Hood River, Oregon. The site was literally covered with dry bones. The photo had been taken during construction of the Bonneville Dam, before the bones were carefully removed and interred elsewhere. I learned from subsequent research that the name Memaloose is derived from the Chinook Indian word memalust, which means “to die.” In the 1800s, the Indian tribes of the Columbia River did not bury their dead. Instead, they wrapped the bodies in mats or furs and placed them in the woods, on rocky points, or on islands like Memaloose.
The Corps of Discovery, under the command of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, went by the island on October 29, 1805, in their quest to reach the Pacific Ocean. On their homeward journey, the explorers visited the island and Lewis noted in his diary, “Thirteen sepulchers on this rock which stands near the center of the river and has a surface of about two acres above high water mark.” They named the spot Sepulcher Island.1
Seeing the historical photo of the dry bones on Memaloose Island helped me visualize the valley of dry bones that Ezekiel saw — and to consider just how impossible it would be in the natural for those bones to come alive again. Only God could cause that to happen!
The dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision represented the scattered Israelites in captivity, and the vision took place at a time when hope for the restoration of Israel was almost nonexistent. Historically, an initial fulfillment of this prophecy occurred when Israel was restored after seventy years in Babylonian captivity. A further fulfillment took place much later, when Israel was re-established as a nation in 1948 after nearly two thousand years of dispersion.
Notice that Ezekiel’s vision was in two parts: first, the dry bones came together and the sinews and flesh were restored, though the slain were still dead. Then God breathed into them the breath of life and they became a living, vibrant army. This reminds us that God is not yet done with Israel. Today, the nation exists and enjoys remarkable military and economic strength. Spiritually speaking, however, the nation as a whole is still “dead in trespasses and sin.” However, we know the day will come when those who are left of God’s chosen people will truly accept their Messiah.
We can also apply this vision of restoration to ourselves. If we have strayed away from God and are dead spiritually, there is hope. If we turn wholeheartedly to Him, He will restore us as He did the dry bones. Even if we are serving the Lord, we may feel there is a lack of progress in our spiritual walk and that we need revival. Is that possible? Taking Ezekiel 37:3-5 as a promise, the answer is a definite yes! As we reach out to God in faith and are quick to do whatever He lays on our hearts, He will breathe new life into us. Let us claim this promise today!
Ezekiel’s account in this chapter, which illustrates the promise of restoration described in the previous chapters, is one of six Ezekiel narratives containing the phrase, “The hand of the LORD was upon me,” or similar language. On each occasion, these words signaled that the Lord’s personal appearance, action, or intervention was imminent.
The location of the “open valley” full of dry bones referenced in verse 2 is not given; it was “open” in that it was not hid from view or shaded from the heat of the sun. In addition, the bones were unburied and thus fully exposed on the surface of the ground. Perhaps because of that as well as the passage of time, they were thoroughly dried out: no tissue, sinew, or hair remained. According to verse 11, the bones were those of Israelites who had been slain. Since the Law and Jewish culture were meticulous regarding treatment of dead bodies, this sight likely was disturbing to Ezekiel. However, he did not speak until the Lord asked him a question.
The word “noise” in verse 7 can also be translated as “voice,” so the sound Ezekiel heard may not have been that of bones coming together but rather the voice of the Lord prompting the resurrection of the slain. Since these bones were not in graves, this voice-prompted raising of the dead, along with the “open your graves” references in verses 12 and 13, foreshadows a future resurrection that would apply to “the whole house of Israel.”
When the Lord told Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones, the prophet was only responsible for accurately communicating the word of the Lord. He was not responsible for the assembly of the bones, organizing the army, or clean-up of the valley. The Lord himself gathered together an “exceeding great army” from the dry bones. Verse 14 indicates that when the Lord placed this army back in their own land, they would be a witness to all people that He had done the work.
IV. The consolation of Israel
A. Prophecies of Israel’s restoration
5. The regathering of the nation
a. The illustration of the dry bones (37:1-10)
b. The explanation of the dry bones (37:11-14)
Ezekiel’s message to the dry bones brought hope and encouragement for the people of Israel. It helps us understand that God can bring life even to those who seem hopelessly dead in trespasses and sin.
1. Meriwether Lewis, April 15, 1806 entry in The Journals of Lewis and Clark Expedition, ed. Gary Moulton (Lincoln:NE:University of Nebraska Press/University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries-Electronic Text Center, 2005), http://lewisandclarkjournals.unl.edu/item/lc.jrn.1806-04-15.