In Ezekiel 37, the prophet Ezekiel was given a vision of a valley full of dry bones. God told Ezekiel to “prophesy” to the bones, to tell the bones to join back together, take on flesh, and begin to breathe again.
The context of this passage is that during and especially after the siege of Jerusalem, the Babylonians slaughtered large numbers of Jews and left their bodies lying exposed in the nearby valleys. The rest of the people were taken into captivity in Babylon. There was no one left to mourn or bury the dead. Decades later, there would have been nothing left but mounds of dry bones. Could such bones ever be brought back to life? The idea is preposterous. Even Ezekiel could not conceive of such a miracle. But then God commanded Ezekiel to bring them back to life through prophecy.
God did not bring those literal dead bones back to life. This was a symbolic vision of the nation of Judah being brought back to life. This was as inconceivable to the Jews as the idea that dry bones could be brought back to life. Their nation was shattered and scattered. The Jews were spiritually dead, homeless, purposeless, and hopeless. Yet God did restore the nation a few decades later.
This chapter also picks up some of the imagery from the previous chapter, where God said, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (36:26). This image also involved bringing life to something as dead as a stone. The resurrection of the dead bones had two stages—the bones were covered in flesh, and then breath was breathed into them to make them alive. The same two stages were evident in Ezekiel 36:26—the people would be given a new heart and a new spirit. In the Old Testament, spirit and breath and wind are the same Hebrew word (ruah). The two stages recall the creation of humanity in Genesis 2:7: “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” The image of the dry bones prophesied the restoration of the nation of Judah, but it also prophesied something greater—the spiritual regeneration of human beings through the new birth that Jesus brought. In John 3, Jesus described this as being “born again.” The same two stages are mentioned there: “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:6). In that passage, Jesus also connected spirit with wind, the breath of God.
This image of dry bones coming back to life also prophesied the resurrection from the dead that Jesus would make possible through His own death and resurrection. Old Testament Jews had trouble believing in the afterlife. They wondered how God could resurrect those who were burned or were lost at sea. But God can do the impossible. Revelation 20:13 prophesies, “The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them.”
Ezekiel 37 is perhaps best known through the African-American spiritual song “Dem Bones.” The imagery in this chapter has specific applications, but throughout history it has been understood to apply to a whole host of impossible situations (including slavery) that God can redeem and restore. Jesus told His followers, “With God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26, Mark 9:23, 10:27, Luke 18:27). The contexts involved questions of whether the rich and the demon-possessed could be saved.
The odd imagery of dry bones in Ezekiel 37 is full of hope for many situations. It reminds us that with God nothing is ever hopeless.