The valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37)

Exiled in Babylon, Ezekiel receives news that Jerusalem has fallen (Ezekiel 33). It’s the last gasp of a nation that is no more. Assyria had taken most of the land, and Babylon has taken what remained. There is no house where God is present in the world. There’s no anointed king representing heaven’s reign on earth. The bodies of those who tried to defend it lie unburied in what people were calling the Valley of Slaughter (Jeremiah 7:32; 19:6). What God intended to be his Holy Land lay defiled with their dead bones.

“Can these bones live?” God asked Ezekiel (37:3). The man has no answer. Death is so final. Ezekiel has already been lamenting, “The end! The end has come upon the four corners of the land!” (Ezekiel 7:2). Who could argue? Speaking as a human, who could overturn death?

But Ezekiel is not speaking as a human. He’s speaking for his Master, the Sovereign Lord who breathed his breath into the human in the beginning, raising a human from the dust as a living being (Genesis 2:7).

Can this Valley of Slaughter become a new Eden? Is the Lord to breathe his breath into these bones, raising a body of people from the dust to stand as a great force under him? (Ezekiel 37:10)

The kingdom of God had died at the hands of the nations, but the Sovereign Lord was not leaving them dead on the battlefield: “I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them.” (37:12-13)

This promise goes beyond the unburied bones on the battlefield after Babylon’s invasion. God is opening graves to bring his people back.

This promise goes beyond Judah. Israel had died at the hands of Assyria. God planned to resurrect them too, forming them both into a unified nation in his anointed:

Ezekiel 37:22-26 (NIV)
22 I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. There will be one king over all of them and they will never again be two nations or be divided into two kingdoms. … 24 My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. … David my servant will be their prince forever. 26 I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. 27 My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people.

A new covenant? The Sinai covenant created a nation under God, but that nation divided and died. A new covenant creates a unified, resurrected people in the Lord’s anointed.

There are three participants in this new covenant relationship: the new nation (verse 22), the new king (verse 24), and the new sanctuary where God is present (verse 27).

The rest of Ezekiel explores these three themes:

  1. The new sanctuary for the Lord must be built as he expects (Ezekiel 40–44).
  2. The new prince is the centre of life for the community under his leadership (Ezekiel 45–46).
  3. The new nation unifies God’s people in a radically new way, free from their previous division and inequality (Ezekiel 47–48).

Everything is renewed as a city where God lives among them, a community under the leadership of God’s anointed, known for this: the Lord is there! (48:35)

When did God do this?

When did God raise the dead bones to life? When did a new covenant establish a new nation with a new king and a new sanctuary? Was it five centuries before Christ, nineteen centuries after Christ, or somewhere in between?

  • In 539 BC, Persia conquered Babylon. The reason Israel did not die out as a nation was that Cyrus sent them back to their land to worship their God and reestablish their culture. He’s described as the Lord’s anointed (Isaiah 44:24–45:4), and he rebuilt the sanctuary (Ezra 1:2). But Cyrus was not the promised David. He was Persian. They were still under foreign rule. Long after Cyrus, the prophets were still promising a Davidic king who would restore the nation to God’s reign (e.g. Zechariah 4:6; 9:9).
  • In 1947, Israel was re-established as a nation. The World Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Jerusalem features Ezekiel 37:14 in large letters over the exit, but it doesn’t really match what Ezekiel proclaimed. There’s no king. There’s no sanctuary. Israel today is a democracy, not a kingdom. An Australian did try to blow up the existing buildings to make room for a temple, but a fully functioning temple with animal sacrifices is not something most Israelis want.
  • Was Ezekiel 37 fulfilled in Christ? Did the new covenant arrive in the first century with God raising up a nation in Christ the king, with God dwelling among us? That approach also raises questions: if Jesus was the Davidic prince called to restore the sanctuary and the nation, why was he crucified? Why was the temple destroyed? And why did the nation lose its homeland?

Of course, these objections to Jesus as the fulfilment of Ezekiel 37 are exactly the reasons many Jews do not accept Jesus as their Messiah. Instead of saving the nation from Rome, he was crucified by Rome. Instead of building the sanctuary, he announced its fall. Instead of elevating Jerusalem in the eyes of the nations, he said the city would fall to the nations. How can such a one be the Messiah?

Some Christians plead that these objections are unfair because Jesus was cut off before he could finish the task. While he suffered humiliating defeat in his first coming, he’s coming back with absolute power to force the nations into submission. Next time he will be king, reigning in Jerusalem over the nation and the nations, perhaps with some kind of sanctuary.

While you can find verses that speak of the authority he will ultimately have, the main message of the New Testament is not, “He didn’t manage it the first time, so please give him another chance.” Our message can sound like that if we don’t appreciate what he achieved.

The New Testament opens with Jesus as the anointed son of David, come to save his people, the embodied Immanuel presence (Matthew 1:1, 21, 23). King. Nation. Sanctuary. Matthew 1 says it’s all there, in him.

The apostles’ first sermon presented Jesus as the embodied resurrection of the Davidic kingship, enthroned over their enemies, heaven’s Messiah and earth’s Lord, making us all the dwelling place of the Spirit (Acts 2:24-39).

The Epistles speak of a future when every knee bows to King Jesus, but his kingship is present too. The Letters describe the unexpected trajectory by which he became king: giving his life to enter into the death of his people, so it’s in the king whom God raised up that his people come to life and form a sanctuary for God in the world. That’s how the promises of Ezekiel 37 come to life.

Take Ephesians 2, for example. We were dead in transgressions against the heavenly sovereign, captives of an alien power (verses 1-2). He entered our demise, so that even when we were dead in our trespasses, God made us alive together with Christ (verse 5).

What happened to him happens to us, for the kingdom comes to life in the king. The phrase made alive together with is a single word: syzōopoieō, (literally co-enlivened). There’s a series of these words in Ephesians 2 that emphasize our participation in him. They all start with sy(n) meaning “together.” In verse 6, God’s people are co-raised (synegeirō) and co-enthroned (sygkathizō) in the reign of the resurrected king (verse 6).

The Messiah enters our death, so the deceased people of God are co-enlivened, co-raised, and co-restored in the heaven-sent king. It’s not like God owes us; it’s his regal benevolence (grace) extended to us in Christ. It’s an act of divine creativity that brings us to life as the people of God in the Messiah (verses 8-10).

If you’re not yet convinced that this is how God brings the dead bones to life, watch how Ephesians 2 keeps tracking Ezekiel 37.

Ezekiel said that God would unify the divided nations of Israel and Judah in the Davidic king (verse 15-23). Ephesians said God did that and so much more! God brought the whole world together as a unified nation in the Messiah (2:11-24). While the extent of what God would do had remained an unrevealed mystery in Old Testament times, it’s through the good-news proclamation of Jesus as God’s anointed king that the nations are co-heirs with Israel … in Messiah Jesus (Ephesians 3:6), restored to the One who is Father of every family (3:14), in the overreaching love of the Messiah (3:19) who achieved immeasurably more than anyone imagined (3:20).

Ephesians 2 says that God raised both you (the gentile recipients of the letter) and us (the Jewish writer’s people) to life. Together in the Messiah we are co-enlivened, co-raised, co-enthroned as the people who have come to life in the anointed king. We’re united in a covenant of peace as co-citizens (sympolitēs) with God’s people (verse 19).

That’s now the king and the nation of Ezekiel 37 are raised. But what about the sanctuary?

The Septuagint of Ezekiel 37:7 spoke of each bone coming together to its joint (armonia). Ephesians 2:21 says that God has co-jointed (synarmologeō) us so as to form us into a holy temple in the Lord. In the Messiah, the nation and the nations are being co-constructed (synoikodomeō) into a dwelling for God (verse 22).

That’s how Paul understood the sanctuary promise to be fulfilled (see 2 Corinthians 6:16).


How are the dry bones of Ezekiel 37 being raised to life? In the resurrected Messiah.

The divided and deceased nations of Israel and Judah are raised to life — along with the nations — in a covenant of peace that raises us out of death in Christ who forms us together into a dwelling place for the Breath of God.

While we are dead and captive, God co-enlivened, co-raised, and co-enthroned us in the Messiah when he was raised up. The war that produced the dead bones on the battlefield is over because God made peace between his nation and the nations in the Messiah. Together we are co-citizens of God’s people, co-jointed as his temple, co-constructed into a dwelling for God.

Everything promised in Ezekiel is fulfilled in Christ. That’s New Testament’s message.

What others are saying

Robert H. Suh, “The Use of Ezekiel 37 in Ephesians 2”, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society volume 50 (2007:4): 732–733:

Ephesians 2 then delves into the central issue of unity between Jews and Gentiles. Ezekiel 37 talks about the future unity between two separated kingdoms, Israel (northern kingdom) and Judah (southern kingdom). Paul, however, in Ephesians 2 speaks of Jews and Gentiles being united through the work of Christ in their present historical setting (Eph 2:11–18). The affinity between the two texts, however, goes far beyond this. The general sequence of Ezekiel 37 seems to be continuously kept without interruption. Thus as the themes of the Davidic King and eternal sanctuary (Ezek 37:24–28) follow the theme of unity (Ezek 37:15–23) in Ezekiel 37, the theme of Jesus the chief cornerstone, which corresponds to the theme of the Davidic King in Ezek 37:22, 24, 25, and that of the temple in which God lives follow the theme of unity in Ephesians 2. Apart from the sequence, the underlying idea in both Ezekiel 37 and Ephesians 2 appears to be identical: salvation and unity are not something that humans can achieve; it is purely the gift of God.

The link between the two texts is even further supported by the presence of extensive shared vocabulary and by numerous important themes found in both texts. All the evidence presented in this article suggests that, whatever Paul’s intention, he used Ezekiel 37 as a framework for building his own argument in Ephesians 2.

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