At what point do we give up hope? “Never,” you say. Let me re-phrase the question. At what point do we give up hope in our own abilities and resources? We can come to a moment of grim recognition, a fateful dawning of realisation that we do not possess the means to get out of a bad situation, be that medical, relational, financial, ecclesiastical, or otherwise.
Recently, I have often found myself reflecting on Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37). As Ezekiel surveyed the desolate scene God set before him, I wonder what he thought. There were so many bones which were so very dry. Who were these people and what happened to them?
Accompanying this arresting tableau, the Lord offers one outrageous question, a question which frames its purpose, verse 3: “Son of man, can these bones live?” Not only are these people dead, but their bodies have also rotted away. Not only have they been reduced to bones, but their bones are very dry. One step away from finally returning to dust, these human remains couldn’t be further away from life.
Ezekiel’s first response is instructive, “O Sovereign Lord, you alone know.” He looks beyond the capacity and ingenuity of human beings to the knowledge and will of God. He has no hope in what might be humanly possible, but he is unshaken in his faith in the Lord. It’s not that he gives up hope and does nothing, but rather he only has hope in the Lord’s ways.
It is this attitude of mind that makes him willingly obedient to God’s command. He preaches to the dry bones, telling them that breath will enter them and bring them to life, and that God will re-constitute their muscles and re-invigorate their organs. It is with this same attitude of mind that we must faithfully preach the word of the Lord in every situation, no matter how desolate the scene.
As he prophesies, flesh and skin cover the bones – a miracle in itself – but still there is no breath in them. God’s next instruction is pivotal, verse 9, “Prophesy to the breath.” The connection is obvious, but God confirms in verse 14 that the breath is the Holy Spirit.
Word and Spirit go together. We can preach with all vigour and verbal alacrity and yet nothing but dead air remains unless the Spirit of God carries his word to the hearts of the people who are listening. Preaching is a double act of faith: faith first in the supernatural transforming power of God’s word, and second in the attendant quickening of the Holy Spirit.
Not so obvious is the identity of the bones, which the Lord reveals in verse 11. We might expect these to be the spiritually dead dry bones of the pagan nations, but they are not. They are the bones of the whole house of Israel who say, “Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.” These are the desperate words of the destitute people of God. The vision given to Ezekiel is a vision of hope for those who have lost spiritual sight and hearing; in fact, all sense and feeling.
In response, let us renew our commitment to preach God’s word to the church, and let us pray for the Holy Spirit to bring life, so the church can testify of God’s life-giving truth to the world. We may find people who have run out of hope in the world, but they are not without hope of new life. Christians do not speak of hope in ourselves and call people to be masters of their own destiny; we have repented of that vain hope. Neither do we hold up our hands in impuissant despondency. We hope in the Lord and we speak his word. We trust that his truth is what all people need most and depend on his Spirit to bring life.
This article was first published in the Church of England Newspaper.