“Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD.”
Poor Ezekiel. I can’t think of a biblical character I feel more sorry for, more often. Charged with the unwelcome job of speaking God’s word to Israel—the nation who in God’s own estimation are a rebellious, stiff-necked people who do not listen—he gets some of the worst gigs in prophetic history. He’s required by God to not just tell people what they’ve done and what is about to happen, but show them as well (because if he simply told them, they wouldn’t listen).
So he ends up making buildings in the mud and staging mock battles, cuts his hair in weird and wonderful ways, and lies on his side and cooks his food over cow dung for roughly a year, all in aid of demonstrating Israel’s imminent judgement. None of that would have been especially pleasant.
Still, good comes with the bad. Ezekiel is the bearer of bad news, but in the latter part of the book he’s also the bearer of extraordinary visions of restoration. He paints vivid pictures of God undoing the destruction he wrought on faithless Israel, and restoring the remnant of his people to their land once again.
The vision of the valley of dry bones is part of this portion of Ezekiel. (If you’re wondering, yes, this is where the old “Dem bones dem bones, dem dry bones” spiritual comes from.) The vision doesn’t hold back: the valley is covered with skeletal remains, long dead and withered.
As Ezekiel speaks the word of God, the bones respond rapidly: they come together, bone-to-bone, and fill out with sinew, skin, and flesh. But the full restoration of these people stalls at the final step: they have no breath in them. They’re not alive—yet.
So God causes wind to come and “breathe on these slain” (v. 9), bringing them to life and standing them on their feet. The dead rise because the Lord has given them breath.
All of this is the prelude to these verses printed above. Here the Lord responds to Israel’s despair over their lost hope as a nation by giving an astonishing promise through the picture of a revived army (v. 10). Despite their destruction and subjugation, God will bring them back to life. He will open their graves, restore them to life, give them his own spirit, and restore them to their land. Formerly characterized by death and destruction, their dashed hopes and very identity will be restored and renewed by the spirit of the living God. All of this is for a purpose: to the praise and glory of the Lord. They will know that he has done this—for who else would be capable of raising someone from the dead?
The idea that Yahweh is Lord of life and death and has raised the dead is not new in Israel. It may not be common, but it’s not new. Elijah and Elisha’s ministry featured resurrection (1 Kgs 17; 2 Kgs 4); psalms of lament and thanksgiving feature death and resurrection as metaphors for recovery from extreme suffering (Jonah 2; Ps 116). Here, however, this traditional belief is applied to Israel’s recovery from the ‘death’ of the exile. Ezekiel’s role here speaks of the powerful role of the prophetic office: the word of Yahweh spoken through the prophet raises the dead!
We would do well to ponder not only our own promised resurrection at Christ’s return, but our transformation through the word of God: once dead in transgressions, we were saved by grace, through faith. Not by works, so that none of us may boast, but made alive together with Christ, and sealed with the promised Holy Spirit. The word of God brings life.
That old spiritual—the leg-bone’s-connected-to-the-hip-bone one—is God’s promise to Israel, and our own story too. It’s also evangelistic, acknowledging that God’s word brings life to the lifeless, and hope to those without hope.
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones,
Hear the word of the Lord!
 The same Hebrew word is translated variously in this passage as ‘spirit’, ‘breath’, and ‘wind’.