The scholar Gerald Wilson, who has walked through the valleys of Judea wrote, … the flock must pass at times into and through the deep, rugged wadis—dry stream beds cut through the semi-desert hills … the canyon depths are swathed in dark shadows as the rising cliff walls exclude the distant sun. … there is no grass or water, the heat can be oppressive, and the whole flock must struggle up the steep sides of the canyon to resume its journey toward the next feeding place. … I cannot imagine the difficulty of herding a whole flock of sheep through the “valley of the shadow of death”. There is reason to fear in the valley. The threats are real, danger is present, and evil lurks in the shadows. In the valley life hangs by a thread, the future precarious and uncertain. Read in the scriptures and you will find at times valleys were the place of child sacrifice, a place to dispose of the dead and in time to come the valley is the place of judgement. And yet even in the valley of the shadow of death the Psalmist finds confidence to say, “… I will fear no evil. Where does he find such confidence, what is his reason for hope when it seems all hope is gone? Psalm 23, reminds us we are not alone. Our confidence comes from the presence of the good Shepherd and the protection he affords us.
In my view, the valley of dry bones is one of the strangest images used in the bible. Hostile armies, camped opposite each other, who would meet for battle in the valley that lay between them was typical of ancient warfare (1 Samuel 17:3). The valley was an ancient battlefield, the bones of the slain, a vast army that suffered the indignity of being left to rot where they fell. God directed Ezekiel to walk among the bones to examine the scene. Ezekiel noted that the skeletal remains were very dry. These were the remains of the long dead, dry bones that had been picked clean. This was a place of defeat, a graveyard and not a place to linger. Here lay the bones of a lost army with a lost cause. This was a valley where the shadow of death lingered.
God asked Ezekiel, Can these bones live? The obvious answer is No, bones cannot live! The dry bones were not the remains of the recently deceased who might be resuscitated, this fallen army was long past any hope of life. But Ezekiel was unwilling to say either yes or no, because he was in the presence of God for whom all things are possible. Ezekiel opted for the safe answer, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.” (Ezekiel 37:3) God commanded Ezekiel first to prophesy to the bones to hear God’s word, and then to prophesy breath to them.
Even as Ezekiel spoke he heard the rattling of the bones as they obeyed the command of God. Just as in Genesis, God spoke and commanded all created things to come into being, now God’s word is spoken to dry lifeless bones commanding action and they began to join together bone to bone, with tendons forming, flesh appearing and skin covering these bodies. When Ezekiel spoke a second time the breath of life entered the bodies and a vast army stood to its feet.
God explained this was a vision of the people of Israel who had said Our bones are dried up and hour hope is gone (Ezekiel 37:11-12) What happened as the dry bones came to life was a glimpse into the future, a picture of promise for people without hope. This was a people who had been crushed and conquered. This was people weeping, broken in spirit, ripped from their homeland, strangers in a strange land. In this prophesy hope is given to those who had lost all hope. Hope is given to those who saw themselves and their nation as beyond help. Hope is given to those whose circumstances led them to believe they were cut off from God and cut off from their homeland. The mighty, powerful hand of God is seen to do what no one thought was possible. If God can bring life in the valley of dry bones, he can bring life to us in the valleys we may be in.
David reminds us even in the valley of the shadow of death we are not alone for the Good Shepherd is with us. Ezekiel reminds us in the seemingly hopeless valley of dry bones, there is hope if God speaks life. Christians are never without hope. The valley we are journeying through, the pandemic, inflation, people with anxiety, worried about the future – all this may leave us feeling the cold fingers of the shadow of death – but we are a people of promise, a people of hope. Our strength may fail us, our bones may feel dried up and our hope may be gone, but God can bring life and hope even in the most difficult or unexpected circumstances.
I encourage you to share your Christian hope with those who might just need a helping hand out of the hopeless valley they find themselves in. Is there someone in your family, circle of friends or your workplace you could encourage this week?
- What do you think King David had in mind when he wrote about the valley of the shadow of death?
- What is the role of the Shepherd in this Psalm? What connections do we make between the shepherd of this Psalm and the person of Jesus? (John 10:11&14)
- What do we find in Genesis 14.8 & 1 Samuel 17.3 that helps us understand what the prophet saw in Ezekiel 37.1 & 10?
- How did this imagery reflect the situation of the people who were captive in Babylon? Ezekiel 37:11.
- What are the present conditions of our age that might deprive us (or the people of our city) of hope?
- What hope do we find in Ps 23 and Ezek 37 that might help us to persevere through the valleys we may journey through in life? And how can our church family provide a beacon of hope for those who have none?
Rev John Malcolm