As we continue to explore the meaning of Pentecost in light of the narrative of Old Testament history, today our journey brings us to Ezekiel 37. In this passage, the prophet Ezekiel is given a vision in which he sees a valley full of dry bones. In verse 11, the interpretation is given by God, saying that “the bones are the whole house of Israel; behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope has perished. We are completely cut off.” Interestingly, God says that these bones are the whole house of Israel, as opposed to were. The bones represent the existent Jewish people. What this means is that we are dealing with a metaphor. Ezekiel was seeing bones that represented the nation of Israel (unless you think that bones are in the habit of speaking).
While being metaphor, the aspects of the vision are still extremely significant. The interpretation God gives has three parallel phrases:
1) Our bones are dried up – in other words, their rotting flesh has completely decomposed and only bones are left – they are completely dead – way beyond the state of for example, the boys who Elijah and Elisha resuscitated (1 Kgs 17; 2 Kgs 4). There is nothing of them left to be raised from the dead.
2) our hope has perished – we’ll come back to this one in a minute.
3) we are completely cut off – the same word is used in Psalm 88 to describe complete and utter desolation, similarly using death as a metaphor: “I am reckoned among those who go down to the pit; I have become like one who has no strength, forsaken among the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, and they are cut off from your hand. You have put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep.
What about that second phrase? What hope has perished? What is all this dreariness about? Again, the vision clues us in. Why might there be a large number of bones gathered in one location? In Jewish tradition, dead persons are to be buried relatively quickly and to leave bones unburied was both ritually and socially unpropitious. Even if someone was left unburied, that would not explain why in this one valley, so many bones were amassed together, unless they all had died in that place. I think the best explanation is that the bones belonged to people who died in a battle, a battle in which Israel was decimated. This would certainly then allude to the invasion and subsequent destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II in 586 BC. When Israel speaks of their “hope perishing,” by this they mean the exile.
The exile was the period in Israel’s history that began in 586 BC when Nebuchadnezzar II captured Jerusalem and burned it to the ground, including the temple. Of those who survived, many were taken into captivity to Babylon, while many others were left to pick up the pieces. Regardless, Israel as a national, social and political entity was annihilated. As a religious entity, however, they endured, specifically in relation to what they called “our hope.” I think perhaps on one level their “hope perished” in that their normal human desire to live a long and happy life had been abruptly curtailed. However, it is significant that the bones spoke collectively of “our hope” (singular). It is the national hope of Israel, the expectation rooted in their history of living under the promises of God. This goes all the way back to the promises to Abraham, that to him and his seed God would give great blessing and bless all the nations of the earth through them, which in context means being God’s solution to the problem of sin (cf. Gen. 3-11). Yet how would they be God’s agents of blessing if they were constantly being harassed, oppressed and dominated by foreign powers? How could this future be true if all the institutions of Israel’s religious and national identity had been destroyed?
The solution to Israel’s desolate state is the Spirit of God – “And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.” The Spirit of God will be the agent through whom this metaphorical resurrection of the nation of Israel will take place. Israel’s hopes will be restored and fulfilled my means of the Spirit of God “breathing” new life into them and bringing them back to their land.
Fast forward a couple hundred years. Israel had been back in their land, having returned from Babylon, since 536 B.C. Nevertheless, there was still a strong belief that the exile had not yet fully ended. They were back in the land, but were still under the domination of foreign powers (Click here for more on the notion that the exile was believed to have continued past the geographical return from Babylon). Leaving aside the Gospels (which confirm the same general point I am about to make), when the sound of a great and mighty wind enters the house where the disciples were gathered, as recorded in Acts, we are meant to understand this breath of God as (an at least incipient) ending of the exile and the restoration of God’s people. In Greek (and Hebrew) the word for wind and breath (and Spirit for that matter) are the same word. This doesn’t mean that they did not differentiate between those concepts, but the ambiguity enabled authors to add layers of nuance and allusion to their texts. When the wind blew upon the 120 Jewish believers in Jesus, they were experiencing the Ezekiel 37 breath of God which launched the beginning of the restoration of Israel and the ending of exile. All of God’s promises were being answered “yes” in and through the Messiah Jesus. The people of God were being restored. There would be a worldwide family descended from Abraham that would be a blessing to all the people’s of the earth, dealing with the problem of sin and overturning the effects of the fall.
While Ezekiel 37 mostly has the national identity of Israel in mind, Acts 2 (together with the rest of the NT) has in view the full extent of the Abrahamic promise to address the woes of sin and death. In Ezekiel 37, the “resurrection” was metaphorical – speaking of the return of Israel from exile. However, beginning with Jesus, this “resurrection” suddenly became literal. When God restores his people, he does more than revive national hopes, but enables the completion of the Abrahamic mission by destroying the power of death itself. All who receive this life-giving Spirit participate in the very power that raised Jesus from the dead (cf. Eph 1.19) and are guarunteed a share in the final resurrection (Rom. 8:11). As God welcomes his people Israel home from exile, he also welcomes all of humanity back from the exile of death they had shared ever since Adam and Eve were “exiled” from the Garden of Eden, immortality escaping their grasp. All are invited home to experience the fullness of life in and through allegiance to Jesus the Messiah and Lord of the world.
At the end of each post in this series, I’ve been commenting briefly on a developing “praxis of Pentecost,” i.e., what kind of practical expressions, lifestyle, etc., flows out of an understanding and experience of the Spirit poured out on Pentecost. The Spirit of God is ever and always the Spirit of the Resurrection, whom the universal Church confesses as the “Lord and Giver of Life.” As long as the Spirit is the Giver of Life, it is the enemy of death and all that causes death. A truly “pentecostal” person will never acquiesce to the “death drives” of our modern culture, whether they be associated with the death of innocent “expendable” lives (abortion, euthanasia), the sickness that robs the life of the body, poverty that denigrates the dignity of life, the narcissism of our image-obsessed culture that effaces the true beauty of life, behaviors that abuse and destroy relationships (unbridled sexuality, violence), diseased philosophies and theologies that kill the meaning of life, reckless political, economic and domestic practices which damage the world God created and loves, or the brutality of war. I am not here making a moral statement related to the whole “just war,” but all Christians must be at least eschatologically opposed to war (Isa 2:4; 46:9; 60; Hos. 2:18; Mic. 4:3-4; Zech. 9:9-10). A “Pentecostal” Christian, alive with the energies of the resurrection flowing through their members, opposes death in all its forms, eagerly acting as an agent of the restoration of true life, in collaborative partnership with the Holy Spirit.