The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”
Ezekiel was a contemporary of Jeremiah, although his prophetic activity began a little later and came from a different perspective. While Jeremiah lived in Judea and witnessed the fall of Jerusalem firsthand, Ezekiel received his first vision from God as one of the exiles in Babylon. He must have been included in the first wave of Judeans deported to Babylon when Jehoiachin surrendered to Nebuchadnezzar’s army. (2 Kings 24)
Ezekiel uses a great deal of figurative imagery to describe Jerusalem’s impending destruction. The book begins with a vision of God that reads like a bizarre dream- wheels within wheels, strange chimeric creatures, and a blindingly bright “appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord” that knocks him to the ground. And that’s just the beginning. There are more strange visions, some of which are interpreted for the reader. God tells Ezekiel he will be held personally responsible for the deaths of sinners he doesn’t forewarn of God’s judgement, and commands him do some very strange symbolic acts that today we might call performance art.
In one of Ezekiel’s visions, he sees the glory of God actually packing up and leaving the Temple. The emotional and spiritual impact of this event must have been devastating, because the concept of an omnipresent deity had not yet developed. God’s presence was thought to reside in the temple, above the ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies. If God had grown so disgusted with his wayward children that he actually abandoned his dwelling place, all hope was really and truly lost. I can’t help but be reminded of the “God is dead” theologies that popped up in the sixties, and the effect these had on some people. If God is absent, or God is dead, what does that mean for a people whose entire existence was built around their special relationship to Him? This would have resulted in a corporate identity crisis of major proportions.
Thankfully, Ezekiel doesn’t end with a terrifying vision of divine abandonment and resultant social anomie. Terrible days will come as a consequence of Israel’s refusal to love God and neighbor. But God has not abandoned his people, even if that seems to be the case. It is in the crucible of the exile that the concept of monotheism is able to be fully refined. God is not a local sky god whose influence is restricted to the land of Canaan, but a God who is present with his people wherever they are. God has not abandoned them, and is able to accomplish the seemingly impossible, as Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones assures us. And at the end of the story, God will again be present with his people, causing a great river of life to flow from his presence from a restored Temple into a restored Eden.
When the world is falling apart around us and God seems so far away that we wonder if he’s really there, Ezekiel reminds us that even if we think all is lost, it really isn’t. Sometimes it takes a dark night of the soul to shatter our inadequate understanding of God, only to find the light of connection on the other side of the darkness. And that’s good news to me.