Wherever the Spirit is present, you can be sure that God is up to something.
The Bible discloses this truth throughout its pages. Genesis 1:1, 2, with its reference to the Spirit of God hovering over the waters of creation, becomes the inaugural example that fixes the grand pattern of Spirit-work to follow.
Another Bible story that follows this creative “Spirit work of God” paradigm is Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones (37:1-14). Curiously, this prophecy has the highest concentration of references to the Hebrew word ruach (“spirit”) found in the Old Testament. It is one of my favorite passages in the Bible.
But before we dig into this text, let’s take a closer look at the word ruach.
In the Old Testament, the word Spirit (or spirit) is usually a translation of ruach. What’s tricky about this Hebrew word is that it has multiple meanings. The correct usage depends on the context. For instance, if the setting is the realm of nature, ruach is usually translated “wind.” When the context is the realm of animate life, then ruach is ordinarily translated “breath.” And related to this in the realm of human beings, where emotions or intellect, attitudes or aptitudes of people are in view, ruach is often translated “spirit.” Finally, when the presence and activity of the transcendent God is the context, ruach is translated “Spirit.”
We can see the progression from natural to personal in these definitions. The first two speak of moving, corporeal air, while the second two terms speak of conscious being — human or divine. Ruach in all four usages communicates the idea of a dynamic, invisible presence essential to life, known principally through its effects. And since wind and breath are common elements of nature, it is not unusual to find them employed as potent metaphors for the work of the Spirit. This is precisely what we find when we turn to Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones.
Ruach and exile
Ezekiel writes from exile in Babylon. On the banks of the river Chebar, he receives visions of future hope for a scattered and devastated Israel with little more than the memory of the blessed land and life they had, but lost. This is the historical context in which his vision of bare bones and fresh breath occurs.
A careful reading of Ezekiel 37:1-14 reveals that what the prophet witnesses “in the Spirit” (v. 1) is the full range of ruach work. In our English translations it’s typically lost on the unwary reader that ruach is found ten times in these fourteen verses to reveal the astonishing creative work of God in His people:
- God moves Ezekiel “in the Ruach of the Lord” into a valley full of dry bones (v. 1).
- God speaks to these bones by Ezekiel: “I will cause ruach to enter into you” (v. 5).
- God promises more by Ezekiel: “I will . . . put ruach in you; and you shall live” (v. 6).
- The bones rattle and join, all fleshed out, “but there was no ruach in them” (v. 8).
- God commands Ezekiel to “prophesy to the ruach . . . and say to the ruach . . .” (v. 9).
- “Thus says the Lord God: ‘Come from the four ruach, O ruach . . . breathe . . .” (v. 9).
- Ezekiel obeys and prophesies, “and ruach came into them, and they lived . . .” (v. 10).
- God promises His people, “I will put My Ruach in you, and you shall live . . .” (v. 14).
In this Ruach-drenched prophetic utterance, the winds, the breath, and the Spirit of God all coalesce to bring a people into existence, a nation back from exile — to give life for death and hope for despair. While this prophecy is suggestive of New Testament themes of death and resurrection, in a literal sense, the prophet speaks of a figurative death in Ezekiel 37. Israel exists as refugees far from their land for their rebellious sin against God. This “death” equates to a dry-bone and a grave-like subsistence. Four times in two verses Israel is identified as captives in graves in need of a fresh Spirit-breath in order to rise up out of them (vv. 12, 13).
Ruach and return
The counterpoint to this dry and deathly existence, and allied with the main ruach theme, is the word live (Hebrew: hayah), which appears six times in fourteen verses. God’s singular question to the prophet in this bone-littered valley is “Can these bones live?” (v. 3). Ezekiel hesitates to answer, though he surely knows the answer: Spirit gives life; man cannot conjure it. As in the creation story of Genesis 1-2, where divine word leads to action and God breathes life into adam on Day Six, we know with Ezekiel that when and where God’s Spirit-breath is present and active, revival and restoration and life spring up.
Again, while the life promised here anticipates the promise of physical resurrection to come in Christ (and the kingdom beyond), the fresh, vivified life offered by God here is spiritually understood. This is new life formed in God — life in the promised land, life as God intended for His people all along. This is nothing other than real life — not a life bound and doomed by human rebellion, but rather, life quickened and restored by the gift of the Spirit.
The first and last verses of this prophecy exhibit a meaningful symmetry. In verse 1, Ezekiel is in the Spirit and moved by it to the valley of vision. When we come full circle to verse 14, Israel is promised a similar indwelling and movement in history: “I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land.”
The text concludes with the assurance that what God has said, He will do: “‘Then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken it and performed it,’ says the Lord.” Notably, the strong “hand of the Lord,” moving “Spirit of the Lord,” and energizing “word of the Lord” (vv. 1, 4) work together as one in a prophetic utterance that discloses both the word and the response, the vision and its reality, the emblem and its interpretation, a promise given along with its fulfillment. This is all the vital, formative work of Ruach.
Ruach and sin
“Can these bones live?” is not just a question for the sixth century prophet Ezekiel and his fellow captives; it is a question as perennial as death itself. As Apostle Paul would state it, this prophecy of bones and breath, death and life, is for our learning and admonition (Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 10:11). The prophecy may, and has been, read as individuals, as families, as congregations and churches, as nations, or as the entire human race. It is a living word capable of speaking to each of these — and others too — simply because each one can so easily become its own valley of barren bones.
Centuries before Ezekiel and Israel’s return under Ezra, King David felt the full weight of this truth in a most personal way. In his intimate confession in Psalm 51, evoked by the prophet Nathan’s word of rebuke over his destructive transgression with Bathsheba, the poet laments his “broken bones” of sin and guiltiness (v. 8) and in three successive verses petitions for the reviving and sustaining work of God’s creative Ruach:
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from Your presence,
And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of Your salvation,
And uphold me by Your generous Spirit (Psalm 51:10-12).
David’s bones found new life — and return — after a personal exile into sin. How dry do you have to be to be beyond the work of God’s restoring Spirit? What about the Pharisees? Jesus told them they were like painted graves “full of dead men’s bones” (Matthew 23:27). And yet after the Spirit was poured out in Acts 2, as God had long promised to give His people, we learn that some Pharisees did believe and raise up — like one Saul turned Paul (Acts 15:5; Philippians 3:5).
Ruach and life
Paul knew firsthand the generative power of the Spirit. He too was dead in sin as a Pharisee but found the fresh breath that comes from the gift of the Spirit of life. This is the legacy of the church: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. . . . For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace (Romans 8:2, 6).
Paul championed the profound importance of the Spirit-gifted prophetic word in the mission of the church because it transforms lives (1 Corinthians 14:1-3, 24, 25)!
Our Lord understood the vanity of mere flesh, the empty graves we dig for ourselves, and the bare bones left behind when our pride has run its course. Jesus also knew the Spirit-word of power that brings dead things to life: “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63).
The gospel of Jesus Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit make Ezekiel’s vision of that valley of dry bones a recurring theme of our lives and ministry and worldview. We see dead bones everywhere: in ourselves, in our families, in our churches, in cities and nations and world. There’s a wasting addict, a looming divorce, spiritual apathy, racial distrust, cultural collapse, a violent planet . . .
God asks us, “Can these bones live?” Yes, yes they can!
God is up to something: one Ruach and a new creation!