11 Then He said to me, "Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, 'Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.' 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, 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. 13 And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. 14 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."
The twentieth century saw the fulfilment of one of the most anticipated prophecies in the Old Testament; the rebirth of an ingathered Jewish people to their ancient homeland, the modern state of Israel, in 1948. That event closed the chapter of almost 1900 years of Jewish exile and of waiting for this prophetic word to come to pass.
Why is the regathering of national Israel so significant in our time? What is signified by Jewish return and sovereignty in the land of Israel after centuries of forced exile and wandering among the nations, to the ends of the earth?
The majority of people alive now will not have known a time in their life when the modern nation of Israel did not exist. However, this is only a relatively recent phenomenon - for the overwhelming part of almost two millenia, the Jewish nation had disappeared, dormant in exile.
It is my conviction, with many others, that the rebirth of a Jewish state, in her ancient land, was the harbinger to a series of end-time events that will reach their climax with the spiritual redemption of the Jewish people, the judgement of the nations and the personal return of the Lord.
In a previous teaching, we outlined what befell the Jewish people after their defeat and dispersion by the Romans, after the Second Jewish Revolt, 132-135 AD. This casting out took them to the ends of the earth where, for almost nineteen centuries, they wandered, without state, persecuted, marginalised and the victims of some of the worst expressions of human brutality.
Despite their condition, they contributed greatly to the enriching of world culture in the arts, literature, science, law, music, medicine, politics and every sphere of human life.
During the Second World War, the Nazi Holocaust effectively reduced European Jewry by two-thirds, almost six million Jews dying at the hands of Hitler's Third Reich and its Nazi collaborators.
To any human observer over the preceding centuries, it must have appeared that any Jewish hope of return was cut off forever.
In the verses quoted from chapter 37 above, Ezekiel sees a vision of a huge valley stretched out before him. Dominating the prophet's view are heaps upon heaps of bones, without number.
The bones are described as very dry, bleached by the sun over time. They are severely decomposed, having been in such a decayed condition for a very long time; abandoned, forsaken and forgotten.
These bones figuratively cry out that their "hope is cut off" and so likewise echoed the sentiments of many people over past centuries in regard to the fate of the Jewish nation.
It was a major offence in eastern culture not to bury the bones of the dead and here is a whole valley full of them, scattered and above ground - it is the ultimate dishonour to them and they are left exposed, shamed. All hope of the singular parts being joined to their corresponding parts are forlorn. Any glimmer of repatriation to their homeland died ages ago.
For Ezekiel, these bones and the nation they represented, had been deceased for so long there was no credible thought of them ever becoming a united people again before God. There are many of them, as if a great catastrophe, or many, had befallen them to be piled up and spread so wide. The appalling scene that confronts Ezekiel is one of utter horror, desolation and finality.
As Ezekiel wrestles with the dreadful vision before him, a question is posed by the Lord, Ezekiel 37:3: "Can these bones live?"
The Lord, in effect, is asking this: "Is there any chance that the people whom these bones belong to, could ever be resurrected, stand on their feet once more and be a living multitude before Me? Can a dead nation, dispersed across the earth, with all hope extinguished, languishing in foreign exile, come back from the 'dead', and once more, stand upon their feet to be reconstituted as a nation before Me, the Lord?"
Ezekiel cannot see a human way to answer the question, only humbly acknowledging that with God, such a resurrection may be possible. Only divine revival could possibly bring such bones back together and cause the force of life to enter them once more.
The idea of revival on this scale beggars belief and so it must have seemed over the following centuries after the Jews were exiled. As time went on and the Jewish exile lengthened, very few could believe that Ezekiel's words still had future application.
Not only had the people, symbolised by the dry bones withered, but the Land also from where they were taken languished over the passing of time.
That land would eventually become a wilderness, neglected, uncultivated and barren. Many who travelled as pilgrims over the centuries to the holy places did so full of romantic visions of what the land held. But they all remarked on the desolation of the place. The promised land had become a forsaken land.
Such abandonment of the land led Mark Twain, in his book, 'Innocents Abroad', to remark:
"...a desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds-a silent mournful expanse...A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action....We never saw a human being on the whole route...There was hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of the worthless soil, had almost deserted the country."
Other travellers over the intervening centuries expressed the same horror at what had become of the fortunes of the old Jewish places.
The context of chapters 36 and 37 leave us in no doubt that this is an end time vision. It is eschatological. A national regathering of the Jews from among the nations where they had been driven; then to a spiritual restoration at some point in the future once regathered - but the physical restoration is crucial as the second spiritual part cannot happen without the physical part first.
Over the centuries, these words of Ezekiel lost relevance as few expected them to be fulfilled and in the vacuum the Church, wrongly, replaced national Israel as the subject of the prophecies. There were those, however, who clung literally to these words and believed in a revived Jewish nation, however far off and incredulous it must have seemed to them.
They had the eye of faith and believed God could fulfil His word, in His way and His time, despite the circumstances and helpless condition that Jewry found itself in.
Therefore prophesy and say to them, "Thus says the Lord GOD: 'Behold, O My people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up from your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel.'"
The Jewish people considered the foreign lands to where they had been exiled as their "graves".
Then say to them, "Thus says the Lord GOD: 'Surely I will take the children of Israel from among the nations, wherever they have gone, and will gather them from every side and bring them into their own land.'"
You cannot spiritualise this and claim it speaks of the Church. If so, what gathering from the nations is talked about here and what does their 'own land' refer to, in connection to the Church?
This is a literal prophecy to the dispersed and seemingly dead Jewish people, lost without hope in a dry valley, the nations where they were cast out to.
It is a literal gathering back into the Land covenanted to them, their 'own land' - only one land in all human history fits this description; it is the Land of Israel we know today and to where the Jewish people have returned and where God will revive them.
They have returned: religious, irreligious, secular, assimilated, some atheists and some agnostic, many God fearing and a growing number Messianic. But the ultimate purpose of God is to bring them home, (to stretch the sinews of nationhood over them once more). Then, to cause His breath to be put in them so they may live as a people before Him. Ultimately, to then pour out His Spirit on and in them.
Verses 22 and 23 of Ezekiel chapter 37 talk about their cleansing by God but this cleansing happens AFTER they have FIRST been put back in the Land, hence, why they come back as they are, in their various conditions.
The prophecies of Ezekiel do not say they come back holy, prepared and deserving of being brought back to life. God did not wait for the exiled Jewish people to clean up their act before initiating this end time plan.
First, they are brought back into the Land in the state they are in, in the same manner God calls anyone to Himself; He starts with where and what they are at present. But the Land restoration is first as the Land is where God is in covenant with His people, the only nation in history to ever be dealt with by God in this manner.
The bones coming together signify national restoration, a nation once more before God with all the institutes and national identity that go with that. It is Land of Israel as we know it today, the ancient promised land - it is not spiritualised or superseded by Church.
God makes it absolutely clear to Ezekiel that what He is dealing with here are the exiled Jewish people, not any other group and certainly not the Church:
Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel."
It is very important to understand that this prophetic fulfillment is a process. The various stages of its fulfillment happen over time and the physical regathering of the Jewish people back into their own land after all these centuries is but the first part in this process. The climax is their redemption, the blessing/judgement of the nations and the return of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Before their exile, the Jews had lost their spiritual bearings and the apostasy of the nation's leaders and priesthood was a continual theme of the prophets' denunciations.
Then, they had to relinquish their national identity as they were taken over by foreign powers, finally by the Roman Empire.
Lastly and tragically, the Jews lost their physical land and nationhood; they were banished from their land by Rome and thus began to the long period of the exile among the nations. And so the full judgement of God had fallen upon Israel.
The subsequent exile of the Jewish people was awfully represented by those bleached bones in the valley. After centuries, could they really live and what agency could possibly be the means of their return to life from the dead?
The Jews had maintained that exile in the nations was as the grave to them; they were as good as dead and cut off from the Land that God had covenanted to give them forever.
But where there is judgement, God also offers restoration and it is this that our eyes are witnessing first hand today; the days of Israel's restoration. From nineteen centuries of foreign exile, God has opened the graves and declared:
5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord."
First, sinews then flesh and skin. Then, the breath of the life of God put within these resurrected and reassembled bodies. All the stages necessary to create functioning, self awareness, vitality and ultimately, a heart alive to God.
Similarly, in the process of the bones coming to life again, the reverse of what befell them formerly is happening to Israel: first, the regathering into nationhood; secondly, the building of a national identity as the Jewish people in the Jewish state; third, their spiritual redemption as God remembers His covenants to His people.
As the Jewish people have returned to life back in the Land, so has the Land itself flourished, given its abundance and dramatically changed from a neglected outpost of various regional powers to a dynamic, thriving, progressive country and testimony to the authenticity of the word of God. See Isaiah 27:6.
As resurrection from the dead is divine and miraculous, so the rebirth of the Israel, in our generation, is as wonderful as resurrection itself.
The nation of Israel today is the fulfillment of what Ezekiel saw in that valley. However, the restoration is not yet complete. We wait and long for the coming spiritual revival of the nation when God brings to pass these words:
"I will...put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord." - Ezekiel 37:6
May the nations and the Church grasp what is the significance and future consequences of the Jewish regathering back into the Land of Israel.
"For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?" - Romans 11:15