I preached this sermon at the Dawson Creek Church of the New Jerusalem in Dawson Creek, BC on August 28, 2011.
EZEKIEL AND THE DRY BONES
“And I prophesied as He commanded me, and the spirit came into them, and they lived, a very great army.” (Ezekiel 37:10)
In the children’s talk this morning, we talked about the story of Ezekiel and the valley of the dry bones. We heard some of the context there – the people of Judah were in captivity in Babylon, and they were crying out to the Lord that their bones were dried up, they had been cut off – they were alive but they felt dead. And so the Lord took Ezekiel to this valley of dry bones.
Before we begin to look at the internal sense it would be useful to look a little more at the concept of spirit, since it plays such an important role in this story. In Hebrew, as well as Greek and Latin, the word for “spirit” is the same as the word for “breath” and the word for “wind.” The concept of “the spirit” was more than just the concept of natural wind or natural breath – there was a concept that the entire world was maintained by the breath or spirit of God. And so when a person breathed that was the spirit breathing in them.
With that in mind, let’s dig a little deeper into the internal sense of this story.
The story begins with the prophet Ezekiel being taken by the hand of the Lord to a valley – a low place, a dark place. It’s a valley where a great host of people has been killed, and their bones lie scattered. They’ve been there for ages – the flesh has gone from off of them, and the bones have been dried out in the sun. The Lord asked Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?” Ezekiel is humble enough to simply say, “O Lord Jehovih, you know” – but the answer clearly seems to be “no,” they cannot.
We are those bones. When we begin our spiritual lives, we are dead. In the children’s talk, we talked about times when we feel dead. And this story is about those times – but it’s also about times when we are spiritually dead without even realizing it. Because before we are born again, we are spiritually dead. The people in the earliest days of the Christian church knew this well. For example, in his letter to the Ephesians the Apostle Paul wrote, “You who were dead in trespasses and sins He made alive” (Ephesians 2:1).
Those dry bones in particular represent a part of ourselves that is both dead in itself, and that is the source of evil and death. The Writings for the New Church refer to this as our proprium, which is a Latin word meaning, “what is our own.” Now, the concept of the proprium is a complex one, and it’s hard to describe briefly even what it is. One way to think of our “proprium” is as our sense that we live from ourselves. It’s a sense of ownership, that things within us belong to us. It’s similar in some ways to the concept of a sense of self
But is this bad? We need to have a sense of self – we wouldn’t be human without it. This is true. Everyone – angels and people and evil spirits alike – have an Own or a proprium, and in fact, it’s this sense that we live from ourselves that allows us to be joined to the Lord in freedom as separate beings from Him. But there is an enormous difference between the heavenly proprium and the natural proprium that we are born with. The heavenly proprium is called the “vivified proprium,” or the proprium that has been given life. And this story of the dry bones is a story about how that happens, how the dead, bony proprium is brought to life.
What is our sense of “own” like in that first, dead state? In it, we think of everything in our lives as coming from ourselves. All our good qualities, everything we like about ourselves – that’s US, and we feel a lot of affection for me. Our thoughts are focused on ourselves – if we’re daydreaming or our minds are wandering, chances are the focus is not on others, but on something we want for ourselves.
It’s hard to believe, but in this state, from the perspective of the angels, we are nothing but scattered bones. When we believe that life is in us and from us, and that everything in our lives is from ourselves, we are not yet alive in a true sense.
It’s important to note, also, that those dead bodies did not just die naturally – they were killed, probably in battle. There are evil spirits around us constantly who would love nothing more than to convince us that we live from ourselves, that we are the most important thing in our lives, that we should love ourselves first and foremost. There is an enemy that killed us and wants us to stay dead.
Is there really any hope for us? Can we really be so radically changed that we move from the sense that life is from ourselves, to a real acknowledgment that life is something that flows in from heaven? Because this is what it’s going to take. It can seem impossible – Ezekiel was not sure that the bones could be brought back to life. But he did not deny it. He simply said, “O Lord Jehovih, you know.”
Now, many people think of being born again as something that happens in an instant. But that’s not the way it happens. It’s a process. And it’s a process in this story.
So how does it happen? How do we start to acknowledge that life is something that flows in, not something that belongs to us? Some people would say the solution – the way to feel like life is from God – is simply to stop trying to do things on your own and wait for God to flow in. But if the spirit had blown into those dead bones, nothing would have happened. They had to first be arranged in such a way that they could receive that spirit flowing in from God.
We’re the same way. The way to experience the Lord’s life, rather than life that we think of as our own, is not to just sit around and wait for it. We have to act completely as if from ourselves for God to give us a renewed proprium that acknowledges life as coming from Him.
So Ezekiel prophesies to the bones – and they start to move. As a prophet, Ezekiel represents the Lord’s Word, since he spoke the Lord’s Word. The first step in the revival of our proprium is to go to the Lord’s Word.
We go to the Word first with the intellectual side of our minds. Those bones but they especially represent the “own” in our understanding, our intellect. This is where we first hear and respond to the Word. That proprium in the understanding is all our thoughts, and the sense that our thinking is from ourselves – the sense that the things in our mind belong to us.
We do need to have that sense – that our thoughts are our own – for us to learn anything. And at first, our motivation for learning anything is going to be mixed, and in large part selfish – because we want to feel smart, or for other people to think of us as smart. But there can still be the beginnings of life there – to the extent that we want to learn truth for the sake of living better. The bones start to move. And it’s a focus on how to use truth that brings those bones together, to start to form a skeleton. We sometimes even talk in these terms about concepts – the framework of an idea we call the skeleton, the most important part of it the backbone, etc.
This can sound abstract, so let’s use an example. We know lots of scattered truth, things we’ve picked up from talking to other people, from sermons, and especially from the Word. But when we focus on how to live by them, certain ones start to stand out as being the most important. The backbone of it all is to love the Lord and to love the neighbour. The finger bones might be the specific, practical things we’ve learned about how to love the neighbour – for example, that we have to fight against a tendency to snap at our spouse when we’re in a bad mood. All the different truths we know will play some role just like the different bones in our bodies plays, and even the different parts of the different bones – because there is a direct correspondence or relationship between the spiritual function of truth and the functions of the bones of our bodies.
When we learn truth and think about how it could apply to life, those bones start to join together. But the body is more than bones. And as Ezekiel looked on, sinews and flesh and skin came onto the bones, so that they lay there complete human forms – still without life, but whole and new again as they had been when they had been alive.
The Writings say that this flesh that is put onto the bones represents that heavenly proprium – an “own” that is tied to a new will, born in the understanding. And it’s what happens when we start to put those truths we know into life – it’s what happens when we live truth and it begins to turn into goodness.
Now again, in this story, it can seem like all of this happens without any effort on a person’s part. But this is not actually the way that new proprium or sense of self-life is formed. In fact, it is just the opposite – it is self-compulsion that forms that new will. When we don’t want to do something, and yet we force ourselves to do it, it does not feel like we’re very free. In fact, it feels like we’re giving up our freedom. But the reality is that in compelling ourselves, we are coming into more freedom than ever before. The truth is that before we fight against sin, we are slaves to sin. Before we make ourselves get up and do something, we are slaves to lethargy and laziness. It’s only in compelling ourselves that our higher selves begin to have dominance over our lower selves. It’s that higher self where the new proprium resides.
But even then the process is not complete. In Ezekiel’s vision the bones had come together and flesh had covered them, but there was still no life in them – no spirit. And so at the Lord’s command Ezekiel prophecied to the four winds to breathe spirit into these bodies. And the four winds blew and spirit came into the bodies and they stood up on their feet, a great army.
As we mentioned in the children’s talk, our culture is rife with images of the undead – of living skeletons, of green-skinned zombies. That is not what we are to picture here – we are to picture an army of healthy, strong, living human beings. Because this is an image of what happens when our proprium is made new. We read a passage from Arcana Coelestia this morning describing the immense difference between a person’s “own” and a person’s “own” that has been vivified, or brought to life, by the Lord’s Own, the Lord’s proprium – that is, all the things that really belong to the Lord that He us to feel as our own. The first proprium, when we believe that life is from ourselves, is so ugly that nothing could be uglier; but the things in the vivified own appear beautiful.
And the key here is that breath, that wind, the spirit that flows into these bodies and brings them to life. The spirit represents life inflowing from the Lord. We act as if ourselves to learn truth and to live by it – but it is the Lord who breathes His spirit into that and brings it to life. It happens in the moment when we realize that we actually want to do good to others – that it isn’t any longer something we have to force ourselves to do. It happens when we realize that our desires and attitudes have changed – and we realize that we weren’t the ones who brought about those changes. And it happens when we realize that the good things in us are not our own, but they belong instead to the Lord God Jesus Christ.
The primary characteristic of the heavenly proprium is that even though it continues to feel as if it lives from itself, it perceives and acknowledges that all life is from the Lord. All angels are in this acknowledgment – the acknowledgment that of themselves they are nothing but evil, that what is their own is hard and bony and dead. But from the Lord they are granted a new proprium – a perception that they are merely vessels of the Lord’s life, and that they are blessed with the opportunity to serve as expressions of the Lord’s love.
The angels are constantly in this perception that life is the Lord’s. Even so, though, we read in Arcana Coelestia, “the angels perceive that they live from the Lord, although when not reflecting on the subject they know no other than that they live from themselves.” They still feel like life is from themselves. And so we can’t expect to constantly feel the Lord’s life in us. But when we are reflecting by ourselves, we can acknowledge it, and as we progress, even perceive it – that all of our own efforts toward goodness, all our ability to love, even our life itself, is from the Lord. This is one of the great secrets of the New Church – that our own efforts are not somehow evil or wrong, but that we know the Lord in those efforts when we realize that they are really His efforts in us. That’s the vivified, renewed proprium – the sense of ourselves that does not want to live from ourselves, but simply wants to be a vessel. And yet the Lord grants us to feel life of ourselves so that we can freely choose to join ourselves to Him in sharing His love for humanity.
It’s hard to believe that we’re dead until we come into this acknowledgment. But the Lord does let us catch glimpses of what it’s like to get out of ourselves and have moments where we aren’t so focused on our selves, or where we actually realize that the good things in us don’t belong to us. When we compare the life in those moments to the life in our regular, self-centered moments, we can realize that the more we are in our self-life, the more dead we are. But this story is also a story of hope – if the Lord could revive dead bones, scattered in a valley and left to dry, He also can bring us to life. This is the new life, this is regeneration, this is the new birth.
“And I shall put My spirit in you, and you shall live, and I shall place you on your own ground; and you shall know that I, Jehovah, have spoken it, and done, says Jehovah.”