What is “life”? We hear the term all the time: “larger than life,” “life begins at conception,” “life happens,” “full of life,” “life itself,” and so on. There are countless semantic domains and aspects of creation in which this term and its related concept apply.
Our text from Ezekiel 36 is really all about this word “life”—but in a case against the dark recesses of lifelessness. It’s about a people facing death—physical, spiritual, historical, theological, communal death. Israel was “on their way out,” “running out of steam”—indeed, running “out of life.” And Yahweh’s promise is to bring them back, appealing to renown imagery of a “heart of stone,” reminiscent of so many children’s stories involving spells and curses (which the Savior ultimately breaks to restore life). As the Messiah made clear in the first century, God is not the God of the dead, but of the living1. And that is precisely God’s business: attaining to life, creating, resurrecting and restoring, renewing, breaking the curse of death.
One only has to glance at our planet to see this at work. Our earth, this temple-dwelling-place of God, features trillions of living species—flourishing oceans of kelp, whales, sea otters, and limitless unnamed invertebrates. And then there are hundreds of thousands of beetles, variations of dogs that few could ever tame, and a sprawling humanity diverse in culture, language, and historical identity. And what about plants and trees? Subsets of these like flowers and shrubs? Good heavens, it would certainly seem that God is obsessed with life. Whether we like it or not, we appear to be living in the backyard of a cosmic Gardener!
One could also glance at the life of Christ to find a similar motif: healing a shriveled hand, curing diseases, reviving desires long forgotten, coming back from the grave itself. Ethical, institutional, religious, political decay—Jesus brings new life to all of these domains. Granted, none of this life came without a thorough weeding (cf. Mt 3:12; 13:30), but the end result was certainly worth the trouble.
As the reader can see, God is needed to rejuvenate an organism gone cold, frail, and rotting (a creature of “Dry bones” as Ezekiel puts it elsewhere, and here in chapter 36 again in a new set of metaphors: filled with “uncleanness” and “impurities,” vulnerable to “famine”). All of this—including our reading of other First Testament prophets—has us wondering: Is there any green underneath? Must we take the risk of cutting into the bark only to discover there’s no life to be found there?
This is a question all Christians face in one area of “life” or another. We wonder if there’s “green underneath” a distant marriage or dim friendship, a failing business project, or a dying church. This text in Ezekiel may remind us that if anything is truly of God, then there is good reason to believe there is green underneath.
And because of God’s covenantal faithfulness, there is no reason to fear. It is God who saves and brings life, not some magical power performed by ourselves.
God Himself comes to humanity, He Himself plants the enmity, He initiates the warfare, and He promises the victory. Humanity has no part in this except to listen to it and to accept it in a childlike faith. Promise and faith are the content of the covenant of grace which is now set up for people, which disclose the way to the Father’s house to this fallen and straying creature, and which gives access to the eternal salvation.2
Replacing a heart of stone with a heart of flesh is no easy business. But it is necessary to live.
And what is life?
We began with this question, to which the Ezekiel text offers answers in two paradoxical directions: the ability to change, and the ability to follow established boundaries. We could spend pages unfolding this, but let a simple illustration suffice to show their complementarity: It is only by certain amounts of sunlight, certain amounts of water, and the right soil composition, that a plant will retain its vibrancy. It would be foolish to expect good things to come by constantly testing these rules. Similarly, going outside the boundaries of God’s law will only bring death and lead to lifelessness. Thus, we cling fast to the good, to the “life” in obedience.
I end with a short, related meditation from Chinese Philosophy. It’s a famous passage from the Tao Te Ching (written around the same era as Ezekiel) that speaks to the same subject, albeit with a different but perhaps helpful angle:
People are born soft and supple; dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant; dead, they are brittle and dry.
Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life.