On my way in to church on Wednesday mornings, I often catch a short podcast episode on WGTE about common phrases we use today but were made popular by the plays of William Shakespeare. The radio host picks a phrase and explains its origins and what it would have meant to the audiences watching Shakespeare’s plays.
A few weeks ago, the featured phrase was “dead as a door nail.” The host explained that, back in the 1500s, nails were valuable commodities. Each one was hand-crafted by a blacksmith, which made them very expensive. They were so costly that, if a structure was no longer useable, it would be burned down just to recover the nails. Thieves were known to steal nails by prying them right out of the walls they secured. Nails in the doors were especially vulnerable.
So, builders developed a way to thwart the would-be door nail thieves. They’d use long nails so that, when they were hammered into the door, the pointed end would stick out the other side. They would then bend the part of the nail that was sticking out nail and hammer it over so that it would form a “j” at the end, like a hook. Then they would hammer the bent end back into the door, making the nail impossible to remove from the outside. But, that also meant that the nail could never be reused. Even if it could be removed from the door, it would be nearly impossible to straighten out, and if it were, the places where it had been bent would be so weak that they’d be useless. This weakened, misshapen, unusable nail was called a dead nail.
That’s how we came to describe anything that seems unsalvageable is “dead as a door nail”: the project at work that the boss doesn’t okay, the washing machine that grinds to a halt mid-cycle, the car battery that won’t turn over, the mouse that the cat proudly drops at our feet. Whatever we think can’t be revived, whatever we think can’t be rescued or refashioned or repaired or repurposed, we deem dead as a door nail.
The Jewish exiles in Babylon may have felt that they, as a people, were as dead as a door nail, but they described themselves with a different image. They felt as dead as dried bones. We find bones littered throughout the Bible as an indicator of pain and death and hopelessness. We find them in Job, with his bones shaking from dread, racked by night and burning with heat. The psalmists describe bones out of joint, bones that can be counted as they cling to the skin, bones that stare and gloat, burning like a furnace, wasting away because there’s no health in them. The book of Proverbs cautions that a downcast spirit dries up the bones.
The exiles in Babylon believed that they were as dead as dried bones, and with good reason. They had built their lives around four basic beliefs. First, they believed that, as God’s chosen people, blessed as they were by their covenant relationship with God, God would protect them at all times. Sure, they were supposed to keep up their end of the covenant, but Scripture tells us just how badly they did that. Second, they believed that, since God had given the land to their ancestors, the land was rightfully theirs, and God would make sure they were never forced out of it. Third, they counted on God’s promise that the dynasty of King David would rule forever. Finally, they were convinced God resided in the temple in Jerusalem, which was the only appropriate place where God could be worshipped.
But then, the Babylonians came calling, not once, but twice. And when they did, every one of those foundational beliefs was shaken. God did not rescue them. God did not fight to keep the land in their possession. The kings of David’s line were removed from their thrones. And the temple! Its precious furnishings were looted and the structure completely destroyed—burned by fire hot enough to destroy walls made of stones quarried and shaped by seventy thousand laborers and eighty thousand stonecutters.
The exiles had lost their homes, their land, their monarchy, their nation and, they feared, their God. How could God let such a thing happen to God’s chosen people? How could God allow them to be carried away from their land? How could God stand by as their kings were maimed or executed, while God’s own house burned to the ground? Was it possible that God had abandoned them? Was it possible that their God was not as powerful as they thought?
Ezekiel was among the first group of exiles who were made to walk away from their homes in Jerusalem to the foreign land of Babylon. He heard his people’s cries of lament over what they had lost. But he didn’t share their theories or their questions about why these tragedies had befallen them. No, he had a very clear understanding of the problem, and it wasn’t with God. It was with the people.
The people had stopped living as God’s people. They took their chosen-ness for granted and neglected the responsibilities that went with it—both to God and to others. They lived as though they had God penned up in the box of the temple and were free to do whatever they chose, no matter how contrary to God’s law. But, Ezekiel insisted that God was not some tamed house pet but the sovereign Lord of all the world, and God had decided to utterly destroy Judah because of its long, ugly history of abominations and abuse. The first twenty-four chapters of Ezekiel are devoted to his explanation of what had brought about the first exile and his warning to the remaining inhabitants of Jerusalem about what was yet to come—that Nebuchadnezzar would breach the walls of the city, set the city ablaze, slaughter many and exile the rest. In the words of Ezekiel’s contemporary Jeremiah, “King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon would gnaw Jerusalem’s bones.”
Contrary to the exiles’ worry that God was no longer in control, Ezekiel insisted that the exile and the destruction of Jerusalem were a demonstration of God’s sovereign power and of God’s justice. As the scholar Katheryn Pfisterer Darr writes, “If the God who is both just and the Lord of history [had] determined to reduce Judean land and cities to uninhabited wasteland, and to exile or exterminate the population, then this must be because the Judeans [had] sinned to such a degree that no other outcome [was] possible without violating divine justice.” In other words, God’s justice in the face of grave idolatry and unfaithfulness could only lead to the destruction of the perpetrators. No wonder the exiles cried out, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”
But, far from being aloof from the people, God had been listening to every word they said. God heard their lament about dried bones and lost hope and severed ties, and God responded by giving Ezekiel a vision of hope to share with the people.
Ezekiel recounts what he saw. In the vision, the Spirit of the Lord brought him out to a valley that was full of bones. There were bones everywhere. Imagine Ezekiel, walking amidst piles of bones: bone-dry bones. Bones that had no life in them. Bones that held out no hope that life could be restored to them. Then, as Ezekiel wanders in this valley, filled with the evidence of death, God asks him a question: “Can these bones live?”
Ezekiel answers, “O Lord God, you know.” I wonder if he said those words with a shrug of his shoulders, as in “How should I know?” But, maybe he said those words with a heartfelt faith that the God whose people were nothing more than a heap of dried bones in their own eyes were something more in God’s eyes. “They look hopeless to me, Lord, but you are greater than I am. Your knowledge surpasses my knowledge. Your power is incomparable. I don’t know if these dry bones can live, but I do know that you know.”
in response, God gives Ezekiel some instructions: “Tell those dry bones to hear the word of the Lord. Promise them that the Lord God will cause breath to enter them, and they shall live. Tell them that God will lay sinews on the bones, and connect them to muscles, and cover the muscles with skin, and will put breath in them and they shall live. In this act of being resurrected to new life, the people who were once dried bones—the people who had forgotten that the Lord is not at their beck and call but is sovereign over all things—”shall,” God says, “know that I am the Lord.”
While Ezekiel is still speaking in the vision, the dry bones noisily rattle their way into formation. The sinews appear, and the muscles, and the skin. But, there’s no life in them. They are still dried bones, all dressed up with no place to go. The people they represented weren’t much different. They had the appearance of God’s people, but they weren’t living as God’s people. They had the bones of the law, that would enable them stand up straight but they were ethically and morally crooked. They had the muscle to create justice in the world, but they committed and permitted injustice. They had the ability to respond with compassion and mercy to the world’s pain, but they had become calloused against the pain and struggle of others. Without God’s breath, they were still only dried bones—dead as a door nail, and just as hopeless.
But God is not content with skeletons whose sinew and muscle and skin merely cover bones that are still dried up. The vision continues as God tells Ezekiel to turn from the bones and call upon the Spirit of God—the wind of God—to come from every direction and breathe life into these once-dead bones. And the Spirit comes, and the dried bones live.
God explains the vision to Ezekiel. Those bones represented the whole house of Israel, including the people of the northern kingdom which had fallen 150 years before. God’s response to the people’s lament was a glorious promise, which God commissions Ezekiel to announce: “I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people, and you shall know that I am the Lord; I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.”
There are situations in our world where we may well believe that God’s hand is bringing about the consequences that blatant injustice deserves. More often, we may find ourselves feeling like the exiles did, but without any wrong-doing on our part. We may feel that our bones have dried up as we fight long battles with pain or grief or worry. Hope is hard to come by, as we see a world that is burning with violence and climate change and poverty and hate. We may wonder, as the exiles did, if God is really as powerful as we thought, or as near as we desire. When we feel like our bones are dried up, when our hope is gone, and when God feels absent, we may feel like we are as dead as a door nail. It is then that we can find hope in Ezekiel’s vision and in God’s promise that dried bones can live.
The promise of new life is for those who feel like they are bone-dry, and the promise was fulfilled when Jesus sent his Spirit to dwell in each of us. The Spirit enables us to pray with confidence the prayer I include in every funeral service: “Comfort us in our loneliness, strengthen us in our weakness, and give us courage to face future unafraid.” We know that the Spirit will answer that prayer.
When we feel as though we are as powerless as bones without sinew and muscle, the Spirit gives us the power to act. Jesus commissioned us to care for the poor. Our baptismal vows bind us to accept the gift of the Spirit’s power to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. But, when we are so bombarded by the pain and trouble of the world that our emotional skin becomes insensitive to it, the Spirit moves in our hearts to reawaken our compassion and mercy. When we are faced with a task that feels too big for us, we can trust that the Spirit will give us the strength we need, as the old African-American saying goes, “to make a way out of no way.”
The exiles feared that God had abandoned them. But, they didn’t know, as we do, that one day the promised king of David’s line would come to us and offer us healing and forgiveness and peace in abundance. They didn’t know, as we do, that in Christ, we are never abandoned. They didn’t know that by the power of his Spirit, Christ would live in each of us, and that worship could happen everywhere, at any time, in spirit and in truth. They didn’t know, as we do, the power of the Spirit who brings dried bones to life.
Bones—even ones knotted together with sinew and flesh, and covered by skin—are not truly alive. If we don’t have the Spirit in us, we aren’t either. But, as we read in the letter to the Ephesians, “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” This life is possible when we truly hear the word of the Lord, fully revealed in Jesus. It’s possible because Jesus breathes into us his life-giving Spirit. It’s possible because the Spirit teaches us and reminds us that we have been freed from the power of sin and released from the fear of death, that we are never alone, and that we are empowered to be God’s people in the world. Like the bones in Ezekiel’s vision, “God’s breath comes into us, and we live, and we stand on our feet, a vast multitude.”
When we feel we have been dried up, hollowed out, or let down—when we feel as dead as a door nail—God will breathe new life into us. This is the promise God made to Ezekiel and to the exiles. This is the promise God makes to us. Thus says the Lord God, “I am going to bring you up from your graves, O my people, and you shall know that I am the Lord. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.” Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young