Singing with Ezekiel

Ezekiel. He never was our favorite prophet, was he? We much prefer Isaiah, whose words we can copy straight to our Christmas cards. Or Amos and his friends who speak out with such passion against oppression and injustice. Ezekiel doesn’t write copy for Hallmark’s line of religious cards. He doesn’t show up much in our Sunday school curriculum. His friends are mostly wild-eyed men and women, obsessed with the God’s judgment of the world. Ezekiel is strange, some would say, weird; his visions and voice are imaginative, often incomprehensible, with violent and pornographic tendencies. If you want to find Ezekiel in popular culture, you must listen to songwriters from the mountains or watch Samuel L. Jackson in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.

I was 14 years old when my friend Chris and I thumbed through our Bibles in confirmation class and stumbled upon Ezekiel. The pages opened in chapter 23, and we read about two sisters whose names no one had ever mentioned to us before or ever since, Oholah and Oholibah. We read with a mix of fascination and terror, and we didn’t know what to make of the strange world we had accidentally entered, and so we giggled. Our pastor didn’t know how to be strict and stern, but the way he looked at us then was pretty close. He asked me to read verses 5 and 6, and thankfully I remembered that we were supposed to find chapter 23 in Jeremiah, one of Ezekiel’s neighbors in the book.

Ezekiel, son of Buzi, was a Judean priest, or perhaps a recent graduate preparing for the priesthood. He was part of a first wave of exiles from Jerusalem whom King Nebuchadrezzar deported to Babylonia in an attempt to subdue the troublesome leadership of Judah.

We don’t know much about Ezekiel’s personal life, but I can imagine that he felt utterly out of place in that foreign land. You see, you can be a teacher without a school; you just meet your students in the living room or under the tree in the back yard. You can be a bricklayer or a blacksmith anywhere in the world, as long as you have your tools. But Ezekiel was a priest of the Lord whose temple was in Jerusalem, and outside of that sacred place he could not be a priest. He had lost his home and the focus of his life. His entire community had been uprooted, and they all struggled to make sense of this devastating experience of loss.

It was in exile that Ezekiel became a prophet of the Lord. He had visions, he heard voices, in the grip of God’s spirit he traveled far, and he declared it all to his compatriots in exile. Ezekiel insisted that their losses did not reflect the defeat of their God by the gods of Babylonia, as some surmised; no, this was the judgment brought down on them by their God. It was God’s judgment against them, and Ezekiel insisted it was justified and deserved. In his mind, there was no room for historical coincidence, no room for political analysis that might explain their losses as collateral damage in the conflict between the global powers of the day, Assyria, Babylonia, and Egypt. In his mind, this was God’s doing, all of it. Relentlessly the prophet painted the picture of a God consumed by wrath and bent on violence; Ezekiel burned with a fire not many of his fellow exiles had ever even gotten close to.

Those who thought that Ezekiel was out of his mind weren’t so sure when more news arrived from Jerusalem. Ezekiel had declared that the Babylonians would breach the city walls, burn the buildings to the ground, slaughter many of the inhabitants, and deport the rest. And he was right; he wrote it all down:

In the twelfth year of our exile, in the tenth month, on the fifth day of the month, someone who had escaped from Jerusalem came to me and said, “The city has fallen” (33:21).

Everything that once made them who they were as a people, had been taken away or destroyed: the land, the temple, the city and throne of David, their proud theology. All that was left was complete exhaustion and long silence. And in that silence Ezekiel heard a new word, a word that spoke of homecoming and new hearts – but who could hear it? Not even Ezekiel himself; he wrote it all down, dutifully, but he couldn’t say it. The words of judgment had come to him so much more easily. The losses they had experienced were so much more tangible than these first whispers of hope that were working their way to his lips.

That’s when the hand of the Lord once again came upon Ezekiel, and the Lord brought him out by the spirit of the Lord and set him down in the middle of a valley. It was a journey into the heart of the people in exile, a journey to the end of the road. Ezekiel didn’t just see a valley full of bones, he walked around in it. The Lord led him around as if to make sure he saw the full extent of hopelessness. It is one thing to walk around in a dusty lifeless desert where life never flourished, but this was a place that once was lush with life and laughter, full of possibility.

Elie Wiesel noted that Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, unlike his other visions, does not bear a date. Why? Wiesel suggests, because every generation needs to hear in its own time that these bones can live. Amid the ash heaps of Auschwitz we meet Ezekiel, amid the killing fields of Cambodia, the orchards of Bosnia, the roads and churches of Rwanda, the villages of Darfur – amid the “vast acreage of death, once fields of birth,” as Daniel Berrigan called the land marked by the consequences of our sin.

In Berrigan’s meditation on Ezekiel’s vision, God cries out,

Have I populated the earth with monsters?
Of the symphonic
sweep and scope
of my creation
… they make this –
a petrified forest of death.
Bones, bones. Dry bones.
But not forever, I swear it!
… Ezekiel, stand in the killing fields.
Shall these bones live?

“Mortal, can these bones live?” the Lord asked, while the prophet made his way through the lonely valley of history. And Ezekiel answered neither no nor yes, but said, “O Lord God, you know.” The answer is not ours to give, and yet we are part of the answer that is given.

The Lord told Ezekiel to start preaching to the bones and told him what to say:

“O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live. … You shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

Imagine that. Ezekiel was about as far away from the garden of creation as human imagination can travel, and there, in the dust where life once was, in the desert of hopelessness, he spoke the word of the Lord.

And a rustling sound
as of leaves in autumn wind
started amid the dry bones.
A whisper, then a drumbeat!
They stood erect, those bones,
and knitted firm!

One human being, standing amid the consequences of our sin like the last chronicler, Ezekiel spoke with prophetic courage

and the spirit entered the bones.
First a whisper,
then a drumbeat,
then reverberant –
a heartbeat!
They took breath once more! and
walked about! and
conversed one with another!
joyful, harmonious,
an immense throng, the newborn, the living!

“Speak to them.
Death no dominion!
from graves, mausoleums, hecatombs—
Lazarine multitudes, come forth!
far from servitude!
enter the gates
of new Jerusalem!”

The prophet spoke, and hope began to sing. Death no dominion! Corruption, injustice, oppression, and proud theology? Not the last word. Devastating judgment, exile, and weeping by the rivers of Babylon? Not the last word. “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live!” The last word is so much like the first in the garden, when the Lord God formed the earthling from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the earthling became a living being. Beyond the reality of death, there is the promise of new creation. “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live!” Ezekiel traveled to the end of the road, and he came back singing of the faithfulness of God like a preacher in the morning of the third day.

When we get to the point where we say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost,” when we get to the point where cynicism and despair look like the only reasonable responses to the course of the world, when we get to that point, we need a friend like Ezekiel who’s seen it all and came back singing. We need a friend to remind us that God is not done. Or better yet, because we are part of God’s Easter people, because the spirit of hope is at work within and among us, we take our stand beside Ezekiel and bear witness to God’s faithfulness and promise, “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord!”

You who abandoned your dreams because you fear the pain of disappointment, listen up! You who see that we’ve made a mess of the world and that we just don’t have what it takes to fix things, listen up! You who have settled for the status quo and the whispers of the Babylonian gods that tell you that exile is as close to home as it gets, listen up! Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live!

The breath of God is at work in the valley, and you must bear witness to it with your own breath and voice. Not just for your own sake – the world needs prophetic friends who clearly see what is, and yet dare to declare that fullness of life for all is God’s will and promise. That is our work.

[1] Daniel Berrigan, Ezekiel: Vision in the Dust (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1997), p. 112, 114

[2] Berrigan, p. 114

[3] Berrigan, p. 115