Toe bone connected to the foot bone
Foot bone connected to the heel bone
Heel bone connected to the ankle bone
Ankle bone connected to the shin bone
Shin bone connected to the knee bone
Knee bone connected to the thigh bone
Thigh bone connected to the hip bone
Hip bone connected to the back bone
Back bone connected to the shoulder bone
Shoulder bone connected to the neck bone
Neck bone connected to the head bone
Now hear the word of the Lord.
The African-American author and songwriter James Weldon Johnson composed Dem Bones based on the famous oracle from Ezekiel. Ezekiel is one of those prophets buried at the back of the Old Testament that’s so full of imagery and prophetic language it’s tough to figure out exactly what it all means. Think apocalyptic science fiction and you might be able to wrap your head around it.
The imagery is what makes this passage so powerful to me. God brings Ezekiel into a valley of strewn, unburied dry bones. Desolation is all around and God asks Ezekiel if these bone can live. Ezekiel has his own opinion, but he’s certainly not going to voice it to God! Like the prophets before him, he thinks the only thing that is going to bring these bones back to life, and fix everything else on earth, is direct, heavenly intervention. But far be it from him to tell God how to do God’s job! Instead, he uses the time-tested diplomatic approach and says, “Certainly You know that answer better than I do.”
God responds to Ezekiel by telling him to relay a message direct from God to the dry bones:
“Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: 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. I will lay sinews on 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.” ~ Ezekiel 37:4-6
And the most amazing thing happens:
So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. ~ Ezekiel 37:7-10
I love this imagery of God, not only as the Creator of life, but also God as the Restorer of life. No wonder this oracle continues to speak to the hearts of the oppressed! It’s not enough for people to worker harder and do better. The bones can come together, but it isn’t until God’s breath – God’s grace – is breathed into them that they live and can stand on their feet.
God is not going to intervene and fix everything this side of eternity. But God does breathe life into our dry, dusty bones so that we can stand together as a vast multitude and work to fix things ourselves. God raises us up to stand up to oppression, violence, and daily evil. God breathes God’s breath into us to speak out against discrimination, misogyny, and the many ways we fail to recognize any other as much a child of God as we are ourselves. God calls us to be covenant partners.
Dem bones be connected
Now hear the word of the Lord.