Print this page

Ezek 37:15-28

Ezekiel 37:15-28

Background to the Book of Ezekiel
Literary:  The Book of Ezekiel has been compiled in five main sections:

Ezek 1-3 - an account of the prophet's call

Ezek 4-24 - oracles of judgement against Judah set in the time before the fall of Jerusalem

Ezek 25-32 - oracles against foreign nations

Ezek 33-39 - oracles of hope for those in exile

Ezek 40-48 - vision of a renewed temple, temple regulations, distribution of land to tribes on return from exile

Some of the imagery and symbols are very colourful: one only has to read the first three chapters to see this. The author uses the metaphor of unfaithful women in Ezek 16 and 23 to convey his message that Israel has been unfaithful to Yahweh. However, this can cause pain to women who have suffered because of the sort of metaphors used to convey a biblical message. We live in a very different society to the world of Ezekiel. Symbolic actions appear both to point beyond themselves and also represent to the bystanders something which was of particular importance in connection with the total message of the prophet.

The style of the book can be quite repetitious, as in Ezek 20. The discourses can be long, chap 16 is longer than 6 of minor prophets (830 words). Besides his colourful language he uses unusual words, eg the verb ‘to profane’. According to scholars he uses a number of Akkadian based words/phrases, also some Aramaic forms. Missing are verbs/words like - trust, redeem, bless, curse, and references to salvation, grace, love, covenant faithfulness & fear. Furthermore, terms from the psalms are missing. Dependence on the Holiness code (Lev ) and other Priestly writings is almost universally accepted. He draws on language and stories from Jeremiah (foundling sisters) Deuteronomic History (Deuteronomy-11 Kings), Isaiah, Zephaniah, Nahum. Nearly everything is set in the words and actions of Yahweh and Ezekiel is consistently addressed as 'ben-adam' (son of man). His visions can be read in Ezek1, 8-11, 37:1-14. 40-48. In 3 of them the glory of the Lord plays a significant role but not in 37. Nearly all the book is written in prose which is different from Jeremiah and Isaiah

The book makes extensive use of dates to mark important events and oracles, and these dates indicate that the book is organized chronologically. The book opens with the earliest event (ca. 593 B.C.), the prophet’s call (1:1-3; 3:16). The next dated event (592 B.C.) is the great Temple vision, which definitively explains to the prophet the fate of Jerusalem (8:1). The prophet’s important account of the history of Israel’s sin (20) is dated to 591 B.C. The beginning of Jerusalem’s siege (24:1) is dated in 588 B.C., while the various oracles against foreign nations (25-32) bear dates between 587 and 585. News of Jerusalem’s fall (33:21) is said to have reached Babylon in 585, and the eschatological vision of the restored Temple ( 40-48) is assigned a date of 573. This neat chronological arrangement is disturbed only by the later revision of an oracle against Tyre (29:17), which bears the date of 571.

This organization of the book according to content is not perfect. There are a few words of promise mixed in with the oracles of judgment in the first part of the book (11:14-21; 16:60-62; 17:22-24), and this section also contains calls for the people to repent (14:6; 18:30-32). Similarly, the words of promise in the latter part of the book are occasionally mixed with references to judgment (e.g., 34:1-10; 36:16-32). Nevertheless, readers are left with the overall impression that, up to the time of the fall of Jerusalem, Ezekiel spoke mainly words of judgment and that after the fall he switched to words of promise. The organization of the book thus reinforces two of the most prominent themes found in the individual oracles. First, Jerusalem is destined to be destroyed for its sin, and nothing can be done to save it. There can be no talk of salvation until after the judgment has occurred. Second, after Israel has been punished, God will be faithful to the promises made to David and will restore Jerusalem’s status as the eternal divine dwelling place. In spite of their severe punishment, both the people and the city remain God’s elect. Equally important from a theological standpoint are the three long vision reports, which are closely linked linguistically and thematically. The first vision describes the appearance of God’s glory in Babylon and provides the occasion for the prophet’s call (1-3). The second vision graphically portrays the judgment on Jerusalem and the Temple and the movement of the divine glory out of the sinful city ( 8-11). This vision serves as the introduction to the longest and most complex of Ezekiel’s oracles of judgment. Finally, the third vision ( 40-48) summarizes the oracles of promise and describes the return of the divine glory to a rebuilt and reconsecrated Temple. The various literary devices that have been used to structure the book reinforce each other, so that readers’ overall impression is one of unity. The book has been carefully organized at some stage of its compositional history, and that organization itself conveys part of the prophet’s message.

Historical: (History within the text) xxxEzekiel, unlike Jeremiah who remained in Jerusalem, appeared to be part of the group which was deported first from Jerusalem to Babylon in 597 BCE. He was a priest whose call took place beside the river Chebar in 593 BCE. His wife died during the fall of Jerusalem and his ministry was to those who were in exile with him. The purpose of his message in the early chapters of the Book was twofold. First, he gave the exiles hope by telling them his visions whereby the glory of the Lord left the temple and settled in Babylon (Chaldea). The people were assured that the presence of God was there in exile and had not remained behind in Jerusalem. Secondly, he emphasised that they were in exile because they had sinned even right back when they were in Egypt. The people could not blame God for the consequences of their behaviour. Initially, the exiles would have been devastated at their deportation: they lost their land and with it the promise to Abraham (Gen 12:1-3), the loss of temple and Jerusalem, the loss of the Davidic kingship and any confidence that Yahweh had effective power compared with the Babylonian gods. The latter half of the book speaks about the promises of restoration. We don't know a great deal about the circumstances in which the exiles found themselves, but it seemed that many of the people settled and were able to live prosperous lives, some working within the Babylonian government.

Context of Ezek 37:15-28
This reading is part of the section Ezek 33-39 which has a focus on oracles of restoration. Ezek 33 acknowledges that the the people hear the words of the prophet, but fail to take them seriously. The leaders are condemned in the following chapter (Ezek 34) for their inability to act as responsible shepherds for their people and so God will be their shepherd who will take over as leader and rescue his sheep. The picture of the shepherd seeking out the lost sheep is one picked up again in the NT. The chapter closes with a covenant of peace which includes an ideal picture of life in the new Israel. Ezek 35 condemns the Edomites for their treatment of Israel and the reverse of this is the salvation offered to Israel in Ezek 36. The imagery of hope is focused on creation - the mountains will hear the prophet's word which is quite unusual. It is because the land, the ravines, the hills and the valleys have suffered that they will now bloom and all the waste places will become fertile and reproduce. The Lord will bring this restoration about because he is concerned for his own name. It is an interesting theology which states that God will act for God's name and not for the sake of the people. Earlier, in Ezek 34 God acts because of concern for the people who are suffering from poor leadership. The covenant spoken of in Ezek 36 has similarities to the new covenant in Jer 31. The story of the dry bones in Ezek 37 is one of the more well known stories of the Old Testament and the second part of the chapter (Ezek37:15-28) uses a sign act to reiterate the message of restoration for the whole of Judah and Israel. The last two chapters of this section use the threat of an enemy to demonstrate the protection of Yahweh for Israel. These chapters interrupt the flow from the promise of a covenant of peace (Ezek 37:26) and the vision of the new temple (Ezek 40-48).

Insights/Message of Ezek 37:15-28
Literary structure: This is the third of Ezekiel's visionary reports, the others appear in 1:1-3:15, 8:1-11:25, 40:1-48:35 (Darr:1497). This is the only vision which is not dated and it may have dropped out. The opening phrase in these visionary reports, "the hand of the Lord came upon me", implies a compulsion in which Ezekiel has no choice. In the unit, Ezek 37:1-14, vv.1-10 are a description of the restoration of Israel using the imagery of dry bones and, vv.11-14 are a salvation oracle. If we look at the narrative flow with the dialogue: v.1-2 Yahweh initiates - takes and sets down, leads Ezek in the vision: v.3 - Yahweh speaks, asks ?: v.3- Ezek replies: vv.4-6 -Yahweh commands Ezek to prophecy: v.7 - Ezek now prophesies: vv.7b-8 - action occurs, bones rise: v.9 - Yahweh speaks and tells Ezek what to prophecy: v.10 Ezek does it: vv.11-14 - Yahweh speaks and tells what Ezek to say:

Behold (hinneh) is used twice in v.2 which declares that what Ezekiel is about to see will be extraordinary. When Ezekiel answers God's question in v.3 we are unsure of the inflection which the audience would have heard. Is it emphasising the conviction, 'you know' or is it resignation (Darr:1499)? I believe in the context it is reinforcing the power and all knowledgeable God. As the valleys and mountains were addressed in the previous chapter so the dry bones are addressed directly in Ezek 37. The word is effective as it was in creation - God speaks and it happens. The play on the Hebrew word 'ruah' which means, breath, wind or spirit is seen in v. 1 (spirit), v.5 (breath), v.6 (breath), v.8 (breath,) v.9 (breath x 4), v.10 (breath), and v.14 (spirit). One cannot but know by the end of the chapter God's intimately part of these people as was the case in creation. The promise to Abraham is being fulfilled a second time with the promise of return to the land in v.12. It is not until v.10 we find there is indeed a 'great host of them'. The use of this word supports the imagery that the bare bones and great desolation are the result of a great defeat which is now being turned around to victory by Yahweh's breath/spirit. V.14 repeats and summarises the previous thirteen verses: God's spirit will be in them, they will return to their own land, and because of these things they will know Yahweh. 'To know' as in a close relationship because if God's spirit is within they won't need the external commandments.

Message / Theology: V.1 declares that Ezekiel had no choice in the matter of his vision because when the hand of the Lord is upon one the ensuing event will happen. There are people today who feel the same compulsion when the call of Christ comes upon them. Unlike Darr, who suggests that v.1 implies behaviour associated with 'spirit possession' (Darr:1499), I think it is making clear that it was not self manufactured, but something that occurred in spite of himself. It has been interesting to note how rural images have been employed by the author in these chapters: sheep in Ezek 34, mountains, ravines etc in Ezek 36, and in Ezek 37 a valley with dry bones. The desolation of Ezek 36:3 which is described in Ezek 37:2 will now become part of the fertile picture prophesied in Ezek 36:8-11. The dryness of the bones emphasises the desolation and the miracle which will be wrought by Yahweh in bringing life to this people. This people who would have been feeling deserted by God, with no hope for the future are being reassured that God has the power to resurrect them. God was not defeated by the Babylonian gods, but used them to bring Israel to its senses and make them realize they belonged to Yahweh. The word of the prophet to the dry bones brings an immediate response as the bones begin to live. So the dramatic account of the vision will bring the people from profound despair to a new confidence and hope (Biggs:118). The role of the Spirit of God (ruah - breath, wind, spirit) demonstrates God's role in bringing the vision to Ezekiel, and in bringing life to the people as God did in Gen 2 by breathing into the nostrils of humanity to give them life. Hals suggest that it is deliberately structured to correspond to Gen 2 which would reinforce how important the exiles were to God (269). As God is in control of creation then how can one doubt that God will bring new life and hope to the people of Israel. There are no pre-conditions in this divine announcement - pure grace and not even because of his name. The new life is accompanied by the return to the land. The concept of Ezekiel walking among bones would be anathema to the Israelites (see Isa 66 :24) and yet it becomes a positive vision of hope, further emphasising the power of God to use that which usually abhorrent. I don't think we need to get into discussions about whether this prefigures Christian resurrection because it is a vision and needs to be kept within this realm.

Ezek 34:1-10 sets the scene with a prophetic oracle condemning the leaders of Israel for their lack of justice for those in their care. The metaphor of "shepherds" is used to describe these leaders/kings, which is a common phenomena in the ancient Near East (Darr:1463). Their actions demonstrate the lack of care, together with the observation that the sheep were scattered over the face of the earth, which becomes the reason for the indictment of the leaders as described in vv.7-10. "Therefore" in v. 7 is the prelude to God's judgement on the leaders. Furthermore, since the leaders have fed themselves and not the sheep in their care, God will take over their role and responsibility (v.10). Another prophetic oracle begins in v.11 which proclaims how God will rescue the sheep/people and indeed act in the reverse ways of the leaders described in vv.2-6. After God has proclaimed that the leadership will now be a personal directive, the people are addressed in vv.17-19. Even among the flock/people there will judgement on those who behave like the corrupt leaders of vv.2-6. Again the consequences begin with "Therefore" (v.20), which includes judgement on those who have put themselves first and salvation for the remainder of the flock. The salvation promise, names, "my servant David" as the one whom God will set up to be the one who feeds the flock. The section finishes with the affirmation by God in v.24 which affirms three extremely important theological points: I, the Lord will be their God, David will be prince and I, the Lord have spoken. The metaphor of shepherd is used in many places in the Hebrew Scriptures: in the Psalms (23, 80) and in Mic 4:6, Jer 23:3. The latter text is seen as the basis for this marvelous description in Ezek 34. The Hebrew word order is reversed in v.4 in order to emphasize the categories of people who are treated unjustly - the weak, the sick, the injured, the strayed, and the lost. After the promise of new leadership which knows how to "shepherd" (v.24), God promises a new covenant of peace with an idyllic picture of the future. All this is unconditional and through it the people will know that God is with them and they are God's sheep (Ezek 34:25-31). One cannot abdicate responsibility by blaming the leaders, because the middle verses of this chapter make abundantly clear that everyone is to behave with justice and care for each other. God saves and judges (Ezek 34:22).

Message:  The heavy focus the justice role of the leaders is very interesting. There is no indictment in regards to their religious leadership only the condemnation based on their unjust behaviour. Because of this God will step in. In Limburg's little book, the Prophets and the Powerless, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1978, pp.85-87) he suggests that when the leaders fail to do justice, God steps in as advocate for the poor and downtrodden. In Ezekiel it is more than an advocate, rather God will take over the leadership and reverse all the wrongs of the unjust leaders including the return to the land. However, the people will also have to treat each other with fairness and justice as they too will suffer the consequences. By the time the book of Ezekiel was written there were few contenders who could be regarded as descendants of David. We are left with the question about the identity this person who will be the ideal "my servant David". However, the image of David recalls the boy shepherd who defended the sheep in his flock from the wild beasts and the King David who was ruler supreme. Whilst a new leader will be in this same mould as David, the supreme leader will be God (v.31). This chapter is a tremendous encouragement for the people in exile. It declares that their leaders played a significant role in the nation's exile, but in future God will ensure justice occurs and they can live with the certainty of God as shepherd.

For Christians, Christ became the "good shepherd" as depicted in endless paintings, especially those in children's bibles. In spite of this rather hackneyed image at times, the metaphor of shepherd as leader still holds good in that it is one who cares for and puts the welfare of the flock first. As leaders in the church this continues to be relevant: those who have power and authority are there to care for and ensure that all people for whom they are responsible are not abused in any way. As we are all aware this has not been the case and we look to a better future. We can also apply the metaphor to our political leaders and ask whether they have acted as shepherds to those in their care.

Resources/Worship for Ezek 37:15-28
Worship:  Again I would make use of the Dramamtised Bible reading or it could make good drama, especially with young children

Resources: Commentaries
The Old Testament Guides (OTG) by Sheffield Academic Press are an excellent small resource which give many suggestions for readings on particular aspects in the book.

The New Interpreter's Bible is another very helpful resource and published in the late 1990's - 2002 is more up to date than some earlier works.
Allen, L.C. Ezekiel 20-48. WBC, Dallas: Word Books, 1990.
Biggs, C.R. The Book of Ezekiel. London: Epworth Press, 1996
Blenkinsopp.J. Ezekiel. Int. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1990.
Block, Daniel.L. The Book of Ezekiel. NICOT. Mich.: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 1997.
Block, Daniel.L. The Book of Ezekiel. NICOT. Mich.: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 1998.
Brownlee,W.H. Ezekiel 1-19. WBC. Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1986.
Darr, Kathryn Pfisterer. The Book of Ezekiel. NIB. Vol VI. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001, pp. 1073-1607
Cooke, G.A. Ezekiel. ICC. Edinburgh: T & T Clarke, 1936.
Eichrodt.W. Ezekiel. OTL London: SCM Press, 1970.
Greenberg,M. Ezekiel 1-20. AB. Garden City, NY.: Doubleday, 1983.
Hals, R.M. Ezekiel. FOTL XIX. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 1989.
May, H.G. Ezekiel. IB 6. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956.
Vawter, B. & Hoppe.L. T. Ezekiel: A New Heart. ITC. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 1991.
Wevers.J. Ezekiel. NCB. London: Nelson/Oliphants, 1969.
Zimmerli.W. Ezekiel. Hermeneia Vol 1. (transl.R.E.Clements), London: Fortress Press, 1979
ײ Ezekiel. Hermeneia Vol 2. (transl J.D.Martin), London: SCM Press, 1983.
The Women’s Bible Commentary , edited by C.A.Newsom & S.H.Ringe, SPCK, London, 1992

The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources:

Previous page: Ezekiel 37:1-14
Next page: Joel 2:23-32