By Simon ManchesterSunday 21 Jun 2015Christian Growth with Simon ManchesterFaithReading Time: 0 minutes
St Thomas’ Anglican Church
The Serious God – Alive and Well
Ezekiel Chapter 37-39
Dear Heavenly Father,we pray this morning that You would incline our hearts to You. We pray that You would open our minds to Your Word. Please unite our will to Your Will. And please satisfy us with Yourself,above all things. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
This week,I read that 90% of our worries are unnecessary. I am telling you this. I don’t want you to tell me this when I am worried! I am allowed to worry,but I am telling you that 90% of our worries (I read) are unnecessary. Forty percent,apparently,never eventuate. Thirty percent have to do with the past and not the future. Twelve percent involve people’s opinions and not actual facts. Eight percent involve things that we can either influence or change. So,90%,apparently,are not worth our fears.
No wonder Jesus told us words which can seem to be quite platitudinous when He said,’Do not worry’ but what He actually meant was – don’t shoulder things which are out of your control,but seek first the Kingdom and His righteousness,and He will provide what you need.
Ezekiel would agree with this – Ezekiel,the Old Testament prophet – because in the face of this hopeless situation which he is experiencing and hopeless forecast (humanly) for Israel… we see in our chapter today,Ezekiel 37,that God gave him a unique vision of divine power at work and one of the most famous visions that has ever been given – that’s the valley of the dry bones. I would be surprised if there is anyone listening to me this morning who has not heard of the Valley of the dry bones … ‘Dem bones,dem bones’. I would also be surprised if there are many people,in fact I would be surprised if there is more than a handful,who could tell me what the next two chapters are,or are about… because we discover that after Chapter 37,in 38 & 39,there are two chapters about somebody called Gog who seems to be a chief,a prince,an enemy. And we have two quite bizarre chapters in 38 & 39 about this enemy called Gog and the final defeat of Gog.
And what I wanted to do this morning is to show you that these three chapters actually hang together quite well.
The significance of this chapter about the dry bones is the hopelessness of God’s people. I remind you that they have been in exile for 70 years. The homeland,the Promised Land,has been pretty well decimated. The kingdom has become a bit of a has-been kingdom. And God promises in this wonderful chapter that there will be a new beginning,He will restore His reputation,He will be their King,He will make them a new people. He will renew their heart,and give them a new Spirit,He will replenish the land. And if anybody thinks that this can be organised humanly,think again. This is going to have to be miraculous. If anybody thinks that it is too much for God,however,think again. He is able to take a cemetery and turn it into an army. He is able to take the valley of dry bones and make it a brand new people.
Now I want to say to you humbly that I don’t think that this chapter is primarily about resurrection. And the reason I say that to you is because God’s people were not asking the question,’What happens when we die? Could you please tell us,life is pretty terrible,but what happens when we die?’ They weren’t asking that question. They were really asking the question,’Is anybody able to revive something as hopeless as our situation?’ So it is much more about the revival of the nation than it is about the resurrection of the dead,although of course the resurrection of the dead is implicated.
I want to divide this today into two points – Chapter 37 – reviving His people. And,Chapters 38/39 – removing His enemies. I have only ever heard one sermon on Ezekiel 37 and it was when I was on holidays,many many years ago in Wollongong,and the young minister preached on Ezekiel 37. He was a young,big boy and he preached a very faithful sermon,explaining the whole situation,and then he got to the end of the sermon – I have never forgotten this – and he called out,as loudly as he could possibly call,’Can these bones live?’ And then he screamed out,even more loudly,’Of course they can!’ And he walked out of the pulpit. And we all sat there,absolutely stunned. So I am going to attempt this at the end of the sermon for you,just in case you are looking a bit sluggish. But that’s all I remember about this great sermon on Ezekiel 37,this great chapter.
Let’s think first of all about reviving His people. Now I want to summarise the vision – what’s it about – and then there’s a drama that follows at the end of Chapter 37. I want to think about the importance. What is the vision? What is the drama? And what does it mean? And if you think that’s obvious,I want to tell you that I have done quite a bit of reading this week and I have found pretty well no help from the commentaries. Commentaries are wonderful things,but there are certain times when commentaries don’t know what to say,and they just pad and they fill up and they say all the sort of stuff you don’t want to know. And one of the commentaries that I read had 127 pages on these three chapters. And I probably took two sentences of useful information from those 127 pages,and so in some ways,I am a little bit on my own here. I am the desperate preacher,praying to the Lord that His Word would be my rule and guide,His Holy Spirit would be My teacher,His glory would be my concern … and I am going to share with you things which I think are concluded from these chapters.
So will you look at Chapter 37 Verse 1 – and this is what it says,’The hand of the Lord was upon me and He brought me out by the Spirit and set me in the middle of the valley; and it was full of bones. He led me back and forth and I saw a great many bones on the floor,bones that were very dry.’ Back in Chapter 8,Ezekiel also was carried,in the Spirit (not physically,but in the Spirit) to Jerusalem. And he saw the idols in Jerusalem and he saw how bad things were. Now he has his second journey in the Spirit and he is taken to a valley and he sees how good things could be,under God’s good hand. And he goes to a valley and there are many bones in the valley and they are very dry and they are not buried bones,so that is the ultimate degradation,that the bones are lying on the floor of the valley. And the Lord asks the question,’Can they live?’ And Ezekiel does not say ‘No’ … that would be unfaithful. And he does not say,’Yes’ … because he does not know how that would happen. He says,very wisely,’Lord,You know.’
And the bones,we discover in Verse 11,are a picture of God’s people. See what it says in Verse 11,’These bones re the whole house of Israel. They say,”Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.”‘ And Israel was in desperate circumstances. The nation,the northern part of Israel,had pretty well been decimated 200 years before. The southern part of Israel had effectively died 70 years before. You know that if there is somebody who dies 70 years ago or 200 years ago,and they are left out in the open,they are nothing,at best,but dry bones. And that is what Israel had become.
Ezekiel is given two commands. One is in Verse 4: that he is to speak to the bones. And the other is in Verse 9: that he is to call for breath. And humanly,this is a hopeless thing to do. I worked in a cemetery in 1971 as a grave digger as some of you know,and it never occurred to me to say anything to the graves or to the plots because they are finished. And to think that you could walk up and down a valley,full of dry bones that have basically lost their tendons and their flesh and of course their ears,and speak to these bones is humanly a ridiculous thing to do. But that is the way God does His work. He does His work by His Word. We know that He brought the creation into being by His Word and we know He sustains it by His Word. And He brought dead people (spiritually) into the church by His Word. And He sustains His church by His Word. So that’s the way God does His work. In the first Book of the Bible – Genesis – that is how He brought the creation into being. And when He decided to make man,do you remember what He did? He said,’Let us make man’ and then He breathed and made them into a living being. And this is a kind of a repeat,this is a re-enactment of the whole creation of God,making His people.
So Ezekiel becomes the mouthpiece for this work of God,this national re-creation. And when he speaks,miraculously,the bones start to join together in his vision and they begin to put on flesh and they become a whole valley of corpses. And so he is told,in Verse 9,that he is to call to the breath or the wind or the Spirit (it is the same word) and he calls to the Spirit of God and the Spirit of God enters these corpses and they rise up and they become a living army. And in Verse 11,when they say: our hope is gone,God says: no… I will reverse things.
Now it is obvious He can turn bones into people and people into a living army,and therefore He can bring life from death,but I just say again to you – the Israelites were not asking the question,’What happens after we die?’ They were asking the question – or they were not even asking a question – they were saying,’Our hope is gone’. And God says,’I can revive you.’ That’s actually what happened in the first half of Ezekiel 37.
The second half is not a vision,but it’s a drama. And it’s not a particularly exciting drama,in fact it seems,to me to be quite a weedy drama and it probably involved Ezekiel standing up in front of as many people as possible,on some kind of platform and holding two sticks (or one commentator thinks two writing blocks) and on one of them,he has written,basically,’Southern kingdom’ and on the other he has written,’Northern kingdom’ and in front of them,he holds the two together. That’s his little drama. And it doesn’t seem to be particularly impressive,but behind the drama – and remember,Ezekiel was being highly regarded at this time because his predictions had come true – was an incredible prediction that God was able to bring the north and the south together. And one writer says: this is an even greater miracle than bringing bones up from the ground,because to get the exiles up and revived,well that is miraculous. But to get the long-dead Northern kingdom and the nearly dead Southern kingdom back together again,that is quite incredible.
If we are to ask when does God plan to do this,well the answer,again and again in the Bible,is that there is a short-term answer and there is a mid-term answer and there is a long-term answer. And of course this is the way the Bible often speaks of things temporally. So the short-term answer is that God would restore His people by bringing them back into the land and He would even probably bring many of the scattered Israelites back and there would be some kind of physical restoration. The mid-term fulfilment of this is that He would revive and restore His people in the coming of the Lord Jesus,because when people believed in Jesus,they would be reborn and therefore they would have a brand new heart and a brand new Spirit – we know that from Ephesians Chapter 2 – the dead would come alive – and then in the second half of Ephesians 2,we see the other miracle,which is that God is able to bring hostile,unnaturally connected people together. And Ephesians 2 is really a very good New Testament commentary on Ezekiel 37,because you have the two parts in Ezekiel 37 – reviving the dead and bringing together people who could not be brought together – and in Ephesians 2,you have the reviving the dead and the bringing together of people who could not be brought together. But ultimately,the fulfilment of Ezekiel’s prophesy is going to be the long physical resurrection,which is ahead for God’s people,and being relocated and restored into His very presence.
So you see,as Ezekiel talks about reviving and then sort of restoring people together,there is a short-term (Old Testament,geographical); mid-term (Gospel,Lord Jesus,community of believers); long-term (resurrection of the body,in the presence of God Himself). There is a fulfilment of sequence which is really going to take place.
Why is this chapter so significant in Ezekiel’s day? Well,it is significant because they are basically hopeless,like a cemetery. They could no more get up and conquer,they could no more get up and get the people of Israel back together,than fly to the moon. And God,with His mighty power,is going to do what they cannot do and He is going to join together these fallen,disparate,disconnected people.
This chapter also has a very important word to say to us today. It has a word for the proud person,it has a word for the fearful person,and it has a word for the confused person. The proud person needs to learn from Ezekiel 37 that the work of God,to make a person new,is absolutely,absolutely essential. Proud people,unfortunately,do not face the seriousness of their sin and what death really means. And so they see God as helpful. He is there as a kind of a coach. He is there as a kind of an inspiration. He is there as a helper. But basically,the proud person says,’Things are not catastrophic. We can fix things ourselves.’ And the problem with this sort of person is that they don’t realise the desperation and that’s why optimism is so popular,because it can actually do without God,or at least it can keep God in a box,as if that were possible. And there are many optimists who think that we will be able to get the world in good shape and we are the ones to do it.
Eugene Peterson writes in one of his books,’There is the moral optimist,and there is the technological optimist. The moral optimist thinks that generous application of goodwill to the slag-heaps of injustice,wickedness and corruption will put the world,slowly but surely,in the right. The technological optimist thinks that scientific intelligence will do the same for poverty,pollution and neuroses. Neither worships God. It seems ungracious to be unenthusiastic over such an enormous expenditure of intelligence and goodwill. These people,after all,are at least doing something. But a spiritual evil infects these good actions. It is the evil of ignoring or denying God,before whom everything rises or falls. This optimism is so persuasive,advertises itself so attractively,and chalks up so many awards,honours and achievements,it is difficult not to be impressed. But it fails to deal with God.’ And that’s why Ezekiel 37 is such an important word,because it says to the proud person who lives in this country: do you realise that your situation is absolutely catastrophic? You are not just unwell. You are bones in the valley,and it will take a miracle – a miracle,through the Lord Jesus – for you to come to life. It will take His death to save you. It is only His death that can live you life. And this chapter calls on the proud person to see.
Fearful people can also learn from Ezekiel 37. Imagine you have been,this week,for tests from your doctor and the doctor says the tests are clear and all is well. And you begin to weep,and then you say to him: how long do I have? How will I tell my wife? How will I tell my husband? And you walk outside and you immediately start phoning people,trying to work out how you will live your last weeks and what things you will put in place for your family and how you will get your house in order,and all that sort of thing. And you are thinking like this because you didn’t hear what the doctor said,or you didn’t listen,or you didn’t get what he said. But he has told you,things are well.
Now Ezekiel in Chapter 37 tells us that God is a God who gives grace to the very worst situation in the world. He is the God who gives grace to the very weakest person there is. You tell me how bad your sin is,and I will show you that it is a dot on the canvass of God’s plans. You tell me how weak you are,how hopeless things are,and I will try to show you that it is a dot on the canvass of God’s plans. And Ezekiel 37,you see,shows us that God has painted a canvass where He deals with the hugest and the greatest and the deepest problems of all the world,on which we must put the dots of our difficulties,but we must not allow the things which we think to be absolutely catastrophic,to be the canvass,when God has told us that in time and space,He is able to do what is essentially miraculous and eternal. And we must keep putting the things that come to us,as troubles and trials,on the dots of the painting of God’s canvass,knowing that He is able to turn the whole thing into something very wonderful.
The confused people also need Ezekiel Chapter 37,because we do not know,sometimes,how bad things are for us,especially spiritually. We don’t know,really,how bad we are spiritually,do we? I don’t know how to take my spiritual temperature. I don’t really know how to take your spiritual temperature either. I don’t know whether we should be singing louder or softer. I don’t know whether we should be singing more or less. I don’t know whether our prayers should be longer and shorter. I don’t exactly know,again and again,where we are in need of revival. And I sometimes find that I don’t realise how lukewarm I am,until I meet somebody who is really hot. And I was listening this week to a guy who is in America and he has plans to see the gospel go out to the whole of his city and he is bursting out of his skin with excitement and he can’t stop,he is so keen. He has so many plans coming out of his head. And I just thought to myself: if this guy is 45 degrees Celsius,I am about 2. And so we don’t exactly know how spiritually dry and dull and dead we are,and we need to ask God to revive us according to how He sees us and how we really are. And therefore,if we are confused,let’s turn Ezekiel 37 not only into thanks for what God did in the past,but let’s turn it into prayer for what God will do in the present and the future.
That is the subject of reviving His people.
Let’s,secondly,think about removing His enemies. There are two chapters and they are about a character called Gog and Gog is a chief or a prince or an enemy. And if you were to read Ezekiel Chapters 38 and 39,you would discover that these chapters about Gog are quite bizarre and again,the commentators don’t know what to make of it. They are like critics,looking at a modern-art painting. They don’t know what to say. And again,I want to ask the question very simply and briefly this morning – what do the chapters say and what do they mean? Well,Ezekiel is asked,in Chapter 38,to speak against the chief called Gog. And Gog (Verse 6) has an army that comes down from the north. And there are some interesting things about Gog. First of all (Verse 10),Gog is a plotter. He is a planner. We read in Verse 10 that Gog is somebody who devises an evil scheme to invade a peaceful people. And this peaceful people turns out to be God’s people. Now if Gog thinks up this evil – and you get the impression that Gog is a genius – notice in Verse 16 of Chapter 38 that God is working it for His own purposes. God says: you,Gog,will advance against my people (Israel) like a cloud that covers the land. In days to come,O Gog,I will bring you against My land.
So somehow,without doing evil,God is at work to use this enemy for His own purposes.
The second thing about Gog is that he is an attacker (Verse 11). He plans to attack a peaceful and unsuspecting people. But God says (Verse 22) that He will judge this Gog. So Gog is an attacker,but God will be his judge,and somehow God is going to allow this chief prince of evil to attack His people,but when the moment comes,the chief prince will fall himself.
And the third thing about Gog is (Verse 12) he is a plunderer and a looter,and so he is going to appear to do random damage to God’s people and nobody will seem to be able to control him,except in Chapter 39 Verse10,God Himself is going to eventually plunder the plunderer and lute the looter. And Gog will fall,and his forces,and they will provide a new fuel for the people of God,who will plunder everything left in the field.
So God’s people are easy pickings in the present,and they are. Eventually,the enemy,says God,will be finished off and buried totally,and this army of evil will be strewn on the field,and eventually every bone of every body will be buried. So you see this nice contrast between Chapters 37 and 39: that in 37,you have the people of God who are bones,and God will raise them; and then in 39,you have the enemies of God who have become bones and God will bury them. And so you have this reverse,these bookends,within these three chapters.
Now I want to just say,as we finish this morning,why are these couple of chapters here? Why,between Chapter 37 (and the new people) and Chapters 40-48 (and the new city) do Chapters 38 and 39 come? I will give it to you in one sentence: they come because there is a need for the removal of God’s enemies. It is not enough,you see,for God to revive His weak people and then just transport them off to the new city. It is absolutely essential for God to finally remove His enemies.
What is the point of having new people,going to a new city,if there are still sinister enemies around,who are able to infiltrate or even destroy? This guy called Gog,in Ezekiel 38-39 also appears in Revelation Chapter 20,and he seems to be the symbol of God’s enemies. He doesn’t seem to be the devil himself … he seems to be kind of the chief commander,and all his forces. And he plans evil – and God uses him,nevertheless. And he attacks God’s people,and yet God will judge and destroy him. And he plunders God’s people and eventually God will plunder him and defeat him and bury him. And Revelation says he will be devoured by fire. So this language,in Ezekiel Chapters 38-39,if you ever read it (and you might have a brief look at it today,if you have a few minutes) are sort of apocalyptic in their language – that is,they are very cosmic,they are very symbolic,they are very unusual. And no doubt,as the people of Ezekiel’s day read these chapters,they expected that in the not too distant future,there would be the defeat of their enemies. And they still faced their enemies,and God defeated many of their enemies in that pre-Christ time.
The real victory,of course,would come when Jesus appeared and dealt a fatal blow for God’s enemies,especially in dealing with the devil,when He died on the cross. And Colossians Chapter 2 says that Jesus disarmed the powers and the authorities and made a public spectacle of them,triumphing over them by the cross. So you may not realise this,but in the crucifixion,Jesus dealt a fatal blow to evil. You wouldn’t pick this up from our newspapers and you wouldn’t pick this up from television,but it’s only a matter of time before what Jesus did at the cross gets mopped-up and evil is totally removed. And if you look at Chapter 39 Verse 3,you will see a very interesting reference to disarming,where God says,’I will strike your bow from your left hand and make your arrows drop from your right hand.’ I am sure this is a reference to this disarming of God’s great enemy.
The final victory will come when Jesus returns and this is described in Revelation Chapter 20. At the end of history,history will be finished. Jesus will remove or mop-up all the remaining traces of evil and this will happen at His second coming. So He is looking into the future. He is describing things that have to do with the short-term future,the mid-term future and the final future. I therefore want to finish by saying – do you see how important Chapters 38 and 39 are for Chapter 37? Because in the end,you don’t get hope without judgement. It’s only sentimental people and optimistic people who think that you can just take the present human race and ship them off to Heaven. But there is going to be no future without a judgement. There has to be the removal of evil: the last traces of evil in my heart and yours,the last traces of evil that are in the world,and the last trace,of course,of the devil himself. There has to be a judgement if there is to be this move,from a new people to a new city.
The good news of Jesus Christ is that in Jesus Christ,you not only get the reviving of His people – conversion,one day – resurrection,but you actually get the removal of the enemies,because He is able to fatally wound the evil one and then eventually and finally remove the evil. He is the One,you see,who provides the revival,the new life. And He is the One who provides the removal. And if you want to know where to get the Christian life,you go to Jesus. And if you want to know where your greatest enemy will be defeated,it is with Jesus. That is where you will find your answers. But don’t go to the externals. It really saddens me when people just go to the externals and they settle for church and they settle for St Thomas’s and they settle for a service sheet,and a baptism and all the stuff that is just outside. Friends,you need Jesus Christ if you are to have a new life,and you are to have your ultimate enemy defeated.
I was reading recently that when Lawrence of Arabia had finished World War 1,he took some of his troops off to Paris and he showed them round the city and he showed them all the great buildings. And they weren’t as impressed by the buildings of Paris as they were by the taps in their rooms,because they discovered that when they turned the taps in their rooms,they could get this very precious water. And as they were leaving the city,Lawrence of Arabia discovered that many of his men had removed the taps from their rooms,because they had this odd idea that if they had the taps,they would have the secret. And the sad reality is that there are so many who grab on to the fittings or the externals,and get nothing. But it is in the Lord Jesus that the real revival – the new life and one day,resurrection – and the real removal of the enemy will take place.
So can these bones live? Of course they can!
That was the best that a shy guy can do!
Let’s pray. Our gracious God,we thank You for,in Your mercy and goodness,providing for us,though we deserve to die,the secret of life through the Lord Jesus. And we thank You that You have provided for us,although we deserve to be overcome,the removal of our greatest enemy and our greatest need. And we pray,our gracious God,that You would help us to live in the light of the gospel. And we pray that You would help us to go forward,seeing the things of our lives on the canvass of Your great and gracious work. Please help and enable us to represent You. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.