Thursday, November 27, 2014
Below is my lesson for Sunday, Nov. 30, on Ezekiel 37.
I. I recently had an experience where I was asked to be on a panel about religion. I was the token Christian, and appeared with a Muslim, a Buddhist (of Jewish background), a Jewish woman, an agnostic (also of Jewish background), and an atheist (of Catholic background). Interesting that four of us claim Jewish background, although Jews are such a minority. It was a disturbing yet interesting experience that I am still trying to sort out. But the bottom line had to do with knowledge and revelation. What do we know and how do we know that we know it? (not just belief, which can, as the atheist pointed out, sometimes be a copout).
II. Visions. The Bible has many accounts of dreams and visions being used to communicate a specific message to a specific person. Sometimes those are meant for another group, as in this case: Ezekiel is to tell his vision, or at least the meaing of it (37:12) to the people of Israel. Ezekiel’s audience of exiles in Babylon would have been the audience.
a. Dreams are for sleeping, and usual specific to the person or situation, as when Joseph was given two dreams for the protection of Mary and Jesus. It is bad exegesis to try to get some kind of personal meaning out of these dreams. Does God use dreams today?
b. Visions are given when the person is awake, and they are highly symbolic, visually. They are therefore not literal—that is, this vision does not really happen, and God explains them in the context, but the visual symbolism adds to their power. This passage has one of the most powerful visual symbols in the Bible—old skeletons coming back to life, not just as skeletons but as an army of full, fleshly, muscular bodies.
c. Many times the person getting the vision or dream does not accept it immediately. Moses in Exodus 3 is an example.
d. What are we to do with the dream or vision? Look for the explanation God gives, and don’t go any further with it. In this case, the meaning is clearly explained.
e. God loves the human body and human sensibilities. These visions are testimony to the eye’s power and the human ability to imagine.
f. The purpose of visions and dreams is to give guidance and direction and to foretell the future. They do not exist for the intellectual superiority or personal knowledge of the receiver.
III. The first vision.
a. Unnamed valley; implied to be a valley after a battle. The army has been destroyed and not buried, which is deplorable in ancient times; they have rotted and become nothing but very dry skeletons due to exposure. No possible life.
b. “Can these bones live?” Interesting that it implies that the bones have life-giving properties (blood in marrow) that may not have been known then.
c. “O Lord GOD, You know.” Short answer but much meaning. This struck me as much as the rest of the story. Of all the religionists on my panel, I respected the agnostic the most (although she was dismissive of her version of Christianity). If you are going to reject Christ, the most you can say otherwise is, “I don’t know,” which is what agnostic means. Everyone else was as dogmatic as Christians are expected to be.
i. In other words, “I don’t.” This is Ezekiel’s confession of limited knowledge of the present, past, and future. That is where we start. While most of us would admit we don’t know everything, we act as if we do. The issue of Ferguson, MO, which has lit up the media and social media, is a good example. We all think we know more than we think we know. I have chosen not to write anything on social media about it because I don’t know, despite what I hear and read, which is as much as anyone. We simply don’t know as much as we think we do. Ezekiel is probably thinking, “NO WAY,” but also says, “You know, Lord.”
ii. An admission that God does know, which is faith.
iii. A submission to God’s knowledge and revelation.
d. Ezekiel is told to prophesy to the bones, that breath would come into them and they would live, and they began to re-animate; he had to prophesy a second time for the actual living.
e. They became an army, which speaks to what they had been and would be—purposeful, organized.
f. Breath-wind-spirit have symbolic connection in the Bible. See John 3:8 and Acts 2:2, where the Holy Spirit is symbolized as wind (not a transparent Asian woman as in The Shack!) Greek word is pneuma and Hebrew is ruah.
IV. The meaning of the vision.
a. God doesn’t let us go crazy with this. I remember the old song “The foot bone connected to the ankle bone,” etc. and an old stop-action cartoon of this, but the skeleton’s were fighting. That is not what is described here. The army doesn’t fight, and they are not skeletons, and it may have taken a long time in Ezekiel’s vision.
b. “I will open your graves and cause you to come up from your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O My people, and brought you up from your graves. I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken it and performed it,” says the LORD.”
c. This and the next vision seem to be more focused on the eternal rather than post-exilic—the end times when Israel is restored to the land then at the end of 70 years. The exile could be seen as the grave, but that could be stretching the analogy.
V. Second visual symbol, 15ff.
a. This is not a vision but an action Ezekiel is supposed to perform before his audience as an object lesson.
b. Two sticks are joined, symbolizing the rejoining of the two subkingdoms. Judah would go back to the land, but Israel would still be scattered. We see this in that Mary and Joseph are in the line of Judah, but Saul/Paul was of the tribe of Benjamin and lived in Antioch (Turkey), not Judah, as that tribe had been scattered.
c. The two significant points in the explanation are that
i. The scattered will be joined together (same idea as the bones)
ii. The nation will not be divided (like Germany after the cold war)
iii. A descendant of David will be the leader.
1. This leader, unlike those in the previous chapters, will be “My servant” and a good shepherd. “ A shepherd as a leader is different from a pagan king or military dictator; David was a shepherd, Jesus is the good shepherd
2. They will be cleansed (purified) and cease their idol worship.
3. This descendant will be a prince forever.
4. He will “cut” a covenant of peace with them.
5. He will set his sanctuary among them (interestingly, the last several chapters of Ezekiel are about the temple/sanctuary)
d. These conditions were somewhat fulfilled after the exile, but not perfectly, because they were still living in a sinful world. Not all came back; they did cease idol worship, but a descendant of David was not their king yet.
e. Why David? Block says, “Yahweh’s restoration of his flock and appointment of David is not motivated primarily by pity for the bruised and battered sheep of Israel, but from his covenant with his people.” In this case, God’s faithfulness to his covenant and promises, that is, his utter truthfulness and dependability, are more the issue and driving force behind what will happen than pity for the exiles’ state or the historical memory of the greatness of the kingdom under a charismatic king.
f. Why David? The Bible is unlike the accounts of kings and rulers in that part of the world at that time. It tells the truth, warts and all. David is popular but loses his popularity; David is prone to excessive violence, lust, deception, humiliating others; David is not a good father; David is close to God (but not always), but in no way godlike, which other civilizations had; things that pagan kings would have been praised for (killing someone to maintain power and get his wife) are shown as great evils. No wonder the Jews didn’t fit in!
g. Why David? His heart trusted, and God made a promise, but not because of who David is. Jesus clarified this is Matthew 22:41-46 when he asked the Pharisees how the great David could call his own descendant Lord. They were stumped. The descendant of David would be greater than David; David would be a bringer of the Messiah.
VI. Bringing it together.
a. Application #1: God loves the human body. We are the ones who have trouble with it. Our bodies allow us to serve. Our bodies are good in andof themselves. God will resurrect the body, just as he does the dry bones.
Psalm Psa 139:13 For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother's womb.
Psa 139:14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.
Psa 139:15 My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Psa 139:16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.
b. Application #2: God knows. Step back. This was a wake-up call to me to state my thoughts as thoughts, not absolutes.
c. Application #3: God restores the most destroyed to usefulness and wholeness in a way we cannot understand.
Isa 61:3 to grant to those who mourn in Zion-- to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified.
d. Because we cannot know, and because God does restore, never stop praying for that restoration. Humanly speaking there may be no options, no way. Many who profess atheism, I perceived do so because of great pain, great questioning, as well as great pride. Arguing won’t speak to him, but the Holy Spirit can revitalize him spiritually.
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