Bible Commentary: Ezekiel 37

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Ezekiel 37

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"O Dry Bones...You Shall Live"

As chapter 37 opens, it appears to continue right on from the prophecy of Israel's restoration in the previous chapter. Consider the great hope that was there offered to the people of Israel, to be realized at the time of Christ's return and reign, when they would ultimately return from captivity and receive a changed heart. Yet how could that help the Jews who were hearing Ezekiel's message at the time he received it? They would be long dead and gone by the time Israel's great restoration was accomplished. And what about all the Israelites who had already died or the millions who would yet die before that restoration? Where was their hope? Things looked rosy for their end-time descendants—but what about them personally?

God reveals in the wonderful prophecy of Ezekiel 37:1-14 that all hope is not lost. He intends to raise all the Israelites who have ever lived from the dead! Some see this passage as merely figurative of national resurrection—that is, restoration of the country of Israel—at the time of Christ's return. But it more naturally reads as something that is actually going to happen—a literal resurrection of people to physical life. Indeed, their being literally raised from the grave will serve as a proof of God and His omnipotent power (verse 14).

However, figurative language certainly is used here. For instance, to represent the apparent hopelessness of death, the dry bones are portrayed as saying as much (verse 11). Some, influenced by the false doctrine of the immortality of the soul, might view even that as somewhat literal—thinking it pictures disembodied souls once connected with the bones doing the speaking. But that is not the case. The imagery is similar to Abel's blood crying out to God in Genesis 4:10 or the slain martyrs crying out to God in Revelation 6:9-11. These are all figurative images, as there is no consciousness in death (see Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10).

The bones of all Israel being in one valley may also be figurative, since the people of Israel actually died in many different places over the millennia. However, it could be that the bones—or at least whatever is left of them—will actually be miraculously gathered together by God in one place prior to the resurrection described. Of course, even if He were to do it this way, the Almighty God does not actually need bones or any other body parts to recreate human bodies. What about the covering with sinews and flesh and being brought out of graves? The description given may be literal, although the process could be somewhat figurative, the main point being the ultimate result—an actual physical bodily resurrection. We don't really know exactly how God will reconstitute those who are long dead—especially considering that for many any physical remains long since decomposed or were otherwise destroyed. It may look like the vision Ezekiel described, or it could appear like a Star Trek "beam up" or something entirely different—we just don't know.

Now, what is the time frame of this resurrection? We find that spelled out in Revelation 20:4-6. That passage explains that the saints of God—His spiritually transformed servants of all ages (that is, the faithful people of Old Testament times and all faithful true Christians of New Testament times)—will be resurrected at the time of Christ's return in what is referred to as the "first resurrection," to reign with Him over all nations for 1,000 years, a period Bible students often refer to simply as the Millennium. Verse 5 contains this parenthetical note: "But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished." The NRSV appropriately places this sentence in parentheses.

Since the resurrected Israelites of Ezekiel 37 are not saints—indeed, they receive God's Spirit only after they are raised from the dead (verses 13-14)—they will not be part of the first resurrection. Therefore they must be part of "the rest of the dead" in the second or general resurrection, which occurs after the Millennium.

This fact is further substantiated by the nature of the resurrections. The first resurrection is described in 1 Corinthians 15, where we are told that "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God" (verse 50). According to that chapter, the saints of God, who formerly had "natural bodies" of flesh, will be resurrected with "spiritual bodies." Some think this merely refers to spirit-preserved physical bodies, but that is not the case. When Jesus Christ, the "last Adam," was resurrected to glory, He returned to the state of being "a life-giving spirit" (verse 45). And that is what resurrected Christians will be like (verse 49)—having bodies actually composed of spirit. While these glorified spirit beings will be able to manifest themselves as flesh if they so choose (just as Christ did after His resurrection to spirit), they will not actually be composed of flesh as is clearly the case with those in the resurrection of Ezekiel 37.

Since the resurrection of Israelites in Ezekiel 37 must be part of the general resurrection at the end of the Millennium, it follows that all others of that resurrection will experience basically the same thing. So this prophecy is representative of how God will deal with all people, not just Israel. What this means is that all the unconverted of mankind who have ever lived—which is almost everyone—will be raised at this same time to physical life. Revelation 20:11-12 describes this time in which people will be judged according to their works. Yet it should be explained that this will be a judgment over a period of time—not an immediate sentencing. Just as God's Church is being judged now (1 Peter 4:17), so will the rest of mankind be judged according to how they live their lives then—following their resurrection. Those who never knew God or His truth will at last be given the opportunity to repent of their sinful past, understand and receive forgiveness through Christ's sacrifice and be converted through receiving God's Spirit. And they will be evaluated according to how they live out the rest of their physical lives. This is not a "second chance" at salvation, as some would argue, for none of these people will have ever had that opportunity when they lived previously.

Jesus Himself referred to this future judgment period as a time when people who lived many centuries apart "will rise up in the judgment" together (Matthew 11:20-24; 12:41-42). During that judgment period, those who choose to serve God and remain faithful to Him until the end of their lives will ultimately be changed into immortal spirit beings, joining the saints who will have been glorified with eternal life 1,000 years before.

How wonderful and amazing this truth is! It answers so many questions. For instance, if it is only through Jesus that human beings can be saved (Acts 4:12), what about the untold millions who lived and died without ever hearing His name or anything He ever taught? Answer: the second resurrection! What about the billions of little children who have died over the millennia of human history? Answer: the second resurrection! What about the vast numbers God destroyed in the Flood of Noah's day? Answer: the second resurrection! What about the millions dying of AIDS today in Africa? Answer: the second resurrection! What about the 6 million Jews who died in the Nazi Holocaust of World War II? Answer: the second resurrection! What about the millions of men, women and children who have lived and died under communist dictatorships where religion was forbidden? Answer again: the second resurrection! And what about our relatives and friends who have died without understanding and obeying the Bible? Yes, the answer yet again is the second resurrection! Without the reality of this wonderful and paramount truth, the vast majority of mankind truly is lost and without hope. Thankfully, God has a plan to offer His salvation to allhumanity, not just a few.

Israel and Judah to Be One United Nation

Another prophecy is given in verses 15-28 of Ezekiel 37. It returns to the beginning of the Millennium—continuing the theme of Ezekiel 36 and the other chapters at the end of Ezekiel's book. (The flash-forward to the end of the Millennium at the beginning of chapter 37 was to give hope to those who would be dead at the time of the initial restoration.)

Here we see that the descendants of the southern kingdom of Judah and the descendants of the northern 10 tribes of Israel will ultimately be reunited as one nation, never to be divided again. (The northern tribes are represented by the birthright people of Joseph—Ephraim and Manasseh—chief among whom is Ephraim.) This reuniting will happen when the remnant of Israel and Judah are brought back to the Promised Land when Jesus Christ returns to rule all nations. As we have seen in other passages, David will be resurrected (as part of the first resurrection) to serve as king, under Christ, over the entire reunited nation (verses 24-25; 34:24; Jeremiah 30:9).

Of course, while this passage will be fulfilled at the time of Christ's return, its fulfillment won't end there. That is, it is not just a millennial prophecy. There is obviously also a relation to the time, following the Millennium, of the second resurrection—when all Israelites who have ever lived will be joined together as one nation and David will reign over them all.

Indeed, while verse 27—regarding God's tabernacle or dwelling being with the people, they being His people and He being their God—finds initial fulfillment at the time of Christ's return, greater fulfillment will still lie yet ahead. For this verse is used in Revelation 21:3 to denote the time of the new heaven and new earth, when even God the Father will come to dwell among His children forever.