Friday, April 22, 2011

The Concept of Resurrection in the Old Testament with Special Reference to Ezekiel 37:1–14

Is there such a thing as life after death? Scientific atheism, which is growing in popularity in the West these days, says no; but those who believe that death is the end of a person’s existence are in the minority, historically speaking. Apart from some of the ancient Greeks, most people have believed in some kind of life after death.

But what about the orthodox Hebrews of the historical period of the Old Testament? What did they believe about life after death? Some people think that the Old Testament does not say much about life after death. There are also scholars who say that the concept of resurrection was only a new development relatively later on in the history of the Old Testament, and that resurrection was an idea that was borrowed from other ancient Near Eastern cultures, quite possibly from the Zoroastrian religion of the Persians.

Now it is true that the teaching about life after death in the Old Testament is not systematically developed, but the number of passages in the Old Testament that give voice to a hope and trust in God for deliverance from death is by no means small. The Old Testament saints believed that upon death the soul of the deceased went down to a place called Sheol which is often translated in our English Bibles as the pit or the grave, or in Chinese as 阴间 (yīnjiān), the dark place.

The orthodox ancient Hebrews believed in Sheol. They believed that there was a place that the soul of the dead person went to after the death of the body. But existence in Sheol should not really be described as life after death. As far as the Old Testament is concerned, although the souls of the dead had a kind of existence in Sheol, this existence after death was not life!

Existence in Sheol was not considered to be life for a number of reasons: because there is no praise of God in Sheol (Ps 6:5); and because it is a dark and dreary place, distant from God (Ps 88:10–12). As such, Sheol was not considered to be an abode fitting for the righteous, but is properly the appointed destination for the wicked and foolish (Ps 9:17; 49:13–15).

But the hope that the Old Testament believers had was that Yahweh was the one who controlled the movement of souls in and out of Sheol. Like an air traffic-controller who determines which plane comes into the airspace around an airport, which planes come in to land and which planes take off, God is viewed in the Old Testament as being the person who determines not only who goes down into Sheol, but also who gets to get out of that dark and dreary abode.

God has the power to preserve a person’s life by keeping them from descending into Sheol; but as we know, death is one of the few certain things in life. This means that God’s usual practice is to allow people (one day) to descend into Sheol. But the firm hope of the Old Testament saints was that although we might die, God is able to raise or redeem people up from Sheol with the purpose that those so redeemed might, as Ps 116:9 says, “walk before Yahweh in the land of the living.”

There are many psalms where the psalmist trusts in God to deliver him from death. In Ps 49:15, the psalmist says full of confidence: “God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol.” In Ps 27:13, the psalmist says: “I believe that I shall see the goodness of Yahweh in the land of the living!” And Ps 37:29 says that “the righteous will be preserved for ever” and “will possess the land and dwell in it for ever.”

In other words, the Old Testament hope for life after death was the hope of life lived out in the presence of God in the Holy Land. The Old Testament saints had the hope of experiencing life in the land of the living, which involved being in God’s presence forever more. The Old Testament saints believed that God had promised that those who walk in his way would, after death, come to live life in the world again such that their relationship with God might continue.

But how could this idea of experiencing life in the land after death be fulfilled, if not by way of resurrection? The Old Testament belief in the restoration of the soul of the righteous dead to life in the land of the living clearly implies resurrection. As it says in Ps 30:3: “O Yahweh, you have brought up my soul from Sheol; you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.” Being saved up out of the grave is basically the language of resurrection.

This concept of life through resurrection is something that is clearly seen in Ezek 37:1–14. Here the prophet Ezekiel is given a vision concerning the restoration of Israel, and the interesting thing about it is that it is pictured in terms of a large-scale resurrection.

At the commencement of the vision, Israel is pictured as many dry bones lying scattered across the ground in a valley (Ezek 37:1–2). Then God asked Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel wasn’t sure, but he knew that God knew (Ezek 37:3). Then God commanded Ezekiel to prophesy. God said that, as the bones heard the word of God, they would be moved by the Spirit and arranged in place, then joined by sinews, and covered with flesh, and then covered with skin (Ezek 37:4–6).

So Ezekiel did as he was commanded. He pronounced God’s word over the dry, lifeless bones; and as he prophesied, “there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone” (Ezek 37:7). The sinews, flesh, and skin linked and wrapped the bones into human form; but strangely the bodies were not alive (Ezek 37:8). God called upon Ezekiel to prophesy again, to summon the Spirit to give life to the bodies (Ezek 37:9). So once again Ezekiel did as he was commanded, and the Spirit obeyed the call. The Spirit gave breath to the bodies, and “they came alive and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army” (Ezek 37:10).

Ezekiel 37:1–14 is a vision of the resurrection power of the word of God. God can make dead bones live! And the purpose of this vision? From Ezek 37:11 it is clear that God gave this vision to Ezekiel in order to encourage the people of Israel who had come to despair of life because they were experiencing God’s judgment upon the covenant rebellion of Israel. They had lost hope, but their situation wasn’t truly hopeless. What about the life-giving power of the word of God, the very same word that created this universe back in the beginning? The life-giving of the word and Spirit of God means that Israel could have hope for the future. Specifically, this vision was also a promise, a promise that God would raise them from their graves and restore them back to life back in their own land:
“Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am Yahweh, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am Yahweh; I have spoken, and I will do it” (Ezek 37:12–14).
All of us are getting on in life … some of us perhaps more than others. We human beings all usually hope that death will be some time in coming, but the truth is that we never know when or how death will come upon us. Whether we like or not, waiting at the end of life for all of us is a dreadful reality … death. Naturally no one likes the thought of having to die. The English philosopher, Francis Bacon, once said, “Men fear death as children fear to go into the dark.”

Stepping out into the dark unknown is scary; but as we face death, as we look into the dark abyss, Christians need not be like those who, as the Apostle Paul said, “grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess 4:13). Christians are not like Theocritus, the Greek poet of the third century B.C. who said: “There is hope for those who are alive, but those who have died are without hope.” Being without hope is not true for the Christian. In the face of death, Christians have the hope of life. And this isn’t just wishful thinking, a kind of denial of reality. This hope is based on the reality of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and on the reality of the life-giving power of the Creator of this universe.

Jesus through his own resurrection has broken the hold of the power of death over God’s creation. Furthermore, the Lord Jesus has said that “the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (John 5:25). It is because of the power of the word of Almighty God that one day the bona fide members of Christ’s church, like Israel, will be restored to life in the land of the living.

The famous preacher Martin Lloyd-Jones once described the early Christians who often faced the prospect of a horrible death in periods of severe persecution, as being able to “face death with a smile.” Obviously they were not necessarily literally smiling when they died, but they did die with hope in their hearts. They died knowing that not only would they go upon death to be in God’s presence spiritually, but more importantly that (at Christ’s return to earth) God would act to raise them from the dead, and to restore them to life in the land of the living, where they would live in God’s presence and experience blessing forever more. That is the only way in which the early Christians could face death with a smile.

But what about us? As you face the awful reality of death, and your own death in particular, do you have hope for life after death in your heart? I hope you do. Christians can have a sure hope like no other people have, a hope that is backed up by the reality of the resurrection of Jesus.

The fact of the matter is that God has promised life to those who follow Jesus Christ, and life he will give to such people. God will definitely act to restore his people to life in the land of the living. He did that for Jesus, and he will do it also for us who believe. Believers may have to wait a while until they experience the fullness of this life, but in God’s good timing one day they will experience resurrection and eternal blessing in the presence of God in a renewed world. The God who brought life out of nothing back in the beginning is the God who brought life out of death in the resurrection of Jesus, and the God who will bring life out of death at the end of time when Jesus returns to judge all people.

Just as Ezekiel’s prophecy gave hope to the downhearted people of Israel, so too the word of God gives hope to people today. The gospel, at the heart of which stands the resurrection of Christ, is a prophetic promise that what God did for Jesus, so too he will do for those who are followers of Jesus. So whatever happens to you in the future, if you are a disciple of the Lord Jesus, you can face all things, even death, with the hope of eternal life in your heart. The resurrection of Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament hope of deliverance from Sheol and eternal life in the land of the living.

1 comment:

bill said...

I concur. Resurrection is not about physical bodies coming out the ground but about being back into the land which is the presence of God