MAURICE

THE VALLEY OF DRY BONES

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE

Frederick Denison Maurice, English divine and author, was born in 1805. He was the son of a Unitarian clergyman, and after studying in Cambridge began a literary career in London, where his friend Coleridge and others persuaded him to take orders in the Church of England. In 1836 he was appointed chaplain to Guy's Hospital. In 1840 he was elected professor of English literature and history and in 1846 of divinity at King's College, London, but lost both positions in 1853 because of his radical views. He was professor of moral philosophy at Cambridge from 1860 until his death in 1872.

Lewis O. Brastow, D. D.


MAURICE

1805-1872

THE VALLEY OF DRY BONES

The hand of the Lord was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones, and caused me to pass by them round about. And behold there were very many in the open valley, and lo, they were very dry. And he said unto me, "Son of man, can these bones live?" And I answered, "O Lord God, thou knowest."Ezek. xxxvii., 1-3.

We are naturally curious to know whether two contemporary prophets ever conversed with each other. In Micah we found such evident indications of sympathy with the mind of Isaiah as warranted the supposition that he was his pupil. I can not trace any signs of a similar relation, or indeed of any personal relation, between Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Tho they were passing through the same crisis; tho they had both to witness the evils which were destroying their nation; both to share its miseries; tho the false prophets were the common enemies of both; yet their circumstances, their character, and their work were entirely distinct, in some points even contrasted. Their very differences, however, show us that they were both alike prophets and priests.

The Book of Lamentations exhibits the spirit of the individual man Jeremiah more transparently than his longer book, which is so mixed up with historical details, with anticipations of a ruin not yet accomplished, with hopes, however faint and soon dispelled, of a national repentance. Most of those whom the prophet had denounced were banished or dead. Men could talk no more about the temple of the Lord, could boast no more that the word of the Lord was with them; the vessel which the potter was shaping had been broken to pieces. The sadness of the prophet, which had been checked sometimes by indignation, sometimes by the consciousness of a word which must still be spoken, of a work which must be done, became complete and absorbing. Heretofore his intense sympathy with his country might seem to be qualified by his lively apprehension of its crimes; now both feelings were blended into one. When he looked upon the desolation of the city there sat upon his soul a weight of sorrow and evil, as if he were representing his whole people, as if there was no wrong which they had committed, no evil habits which they had contracted, which did not cling to him, for which he was not responsible. And this was no imaginary fictitious state of mind into which he had worked himself. God had made him inwardly conscious of the very corruptions which had destroyed the land. If he had made any fight against them; if they did not actually overpower him and enslave him, this was God's work and not his; the promise of the covenant made with his fathers, which was as good for every one as for himself, was fulfilled to him. And now he was realizing the full effect of this discipline. The third chapter of the Lamentations, beginning "I am the man that hath seen affliction by the rod of His wrath," contains the climax of his experience. In the memorable passages which follow, the history of a life is gathered up. "I said, My strength and my hope is perished from the Lord; remembering mine affliction and my misery, the wormwood and the gall. My soul hath them still in remembrance. This I recall to mind, therefore have I hope. It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed. They are new every morning; great is thy faithlessness. The Lord is my portion, saith my soul; therefore will I hope in him. The Lord is good unto them that wait for him. It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. He sitteth alone and keepeth silence, because he hath borne it upon him. He putteth his mouth in the dust if so be there may be hope. He giveth his cheek to him that smiteth him, he is filled full with reproach. The Lord will not cast off for ever; but tho he cause grief, yet will he have compassion according to the multitude of his mercies for he doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men."

Anything more individual than these utterances it is impossible to conceive; and yet it is just by these that one understands the sacerdotal work to which Jeremiah was called. There was no longer any temple. The priests as well as the princes had been for the most part carried away by Nebuchadnezzar. But there was a man walking about in the deserted city to which the twelve tribes had come up,—in the midst of the ruins of the holy place into which the sons of Aaron had gone with the memorial of their names on their breastplates,—who really entered into the meaning of that function, who really bore the iniquities of the children of Israel before the Lord;—one to whom it was given to translate the ceremonies and services of the divine house into life and reality. He had been taught more perfectly, perhaps, than anyone who had served in the temple, what was implied in its worship and sacrifices. He felt the burden to which those sacrifices pointed, the burden of individual and national sins. Yet, with that burden resting upon him, he could enter into the presence of the Holy One of Israel. He was sure there was a deliverance for his people as well as for himself; that there could not be one for him if there was not also one for them. Thus when part of his work was over, when he had nothing more to say in the ears of kings or priests or people, this office,—which had been so closely connected with his prophetical office, and which, if it had depended upon outward conditions, must have been more entirely at an end than that,—still remained in all its original power. And the words of the prophet remained to explain to all generations the spiritual character and acts of the priest.

The office of the priest must have seemed to be more utterly extinct for Ezekiel than even for Jeremiah. He was forcibly removed from all the associations of the temple while it was yet standing. When he was called to be a prophet to the captives by the river Chebar, he might have supposed that the earlier designation which belonged to him as one of the Levitical family, had been extinguished in the later one. Yet we have seen how he was instructed, at the very commencement of his work as a prophet, that the glory of Him who filled the temple was surrounding him in Mesopotamia as it surrounded him when he went up to present the morning or the evening sacrifice in Jerusalem. Such a vision was given him of that glory as he had never beheld in the holy place. He found that the earth,—that common, profane, Babylonian earth upon which he dwelt,—was filled with it. All the powers of nature, the forms of animals, man as the highest of the animals, the motions and order of the outward world and of human society, were pointing towards it. And the central object, the highest object which he could behold, tho there was an ineffable brightness beyond, was a Man upon a throne, One who could command him, in whose name he was to go forth, whose words he was to speak.

This was no isolated revelation or dream. The very name which the prophet thenceforth bore, the name by which he was to know himself, depended upon it. "Son of man, stand upon thy feet and I will speak unto thee," were the first words which he heard after he fell upon his face. That great title is bestowed upon him through all the time in which he was prophesying. It was in many ways more suitable to him than to those who had gone before him. There was now no Hezekiah or Josiah to represent the Divine king. The witnesses for the kingdom seemed to be at an end. Nebuchadnezzar was the lord of the earth. At such a time the natural position of the Jewish seer became a human position. The Israelite's glory was to be a "Son of man."

Yet he was not absolved from any of the obligations of the older prophets; he was not to expect a more willing or attentive audience among captives than they had found at home; briars, thorns would be with him; he must dwell among scorpions. Lamentations and mourning and woe filled his roll as much as that which Baruch wrote out for Jeremiah. And he must eat this roll; it must become a part of his very soul; its words must come forth living and burning out of himself.

He must understand, besides, all the fearful responsibilities of the prophet. He was to speak whether the men about him would hear or whether they would forbear. There were times when his tongue would cleave to the roof of his mouth, when he should be dumb and should not be to them a reprover. But when God opened his lips, the blood of those to whom he was sent was upon him; it would be required at his hands if they died in their iniquity and he had not warned them. He must submit to do all symbolical acts, however strange and fantastical they might seem in themselves, which might bring the feeling of coming judgments home to a sense-bound people. He must act a mimic siege, he must eat defiled bread; he must cut off his hair and weigh it in balances, if so the people could be made to understand,—in spite of their false prophets who spoke of coming peace and enacted their signs, which of course involved no discomfort or humiliation to themselves,—that the city would really be destroyed and the sanctuary laid waste. He was to persuade his brother captives that they were a remnant in which the nation still lived, a stock out of which it should hereafter grow and flourish, even tho they were most rebellious, dreaming of good things which would never come, not waiting for that good which God had designed for them. There was to be the same end in all the punishments which were coming upon the land and in all its deliverances. God was saying in all "I am the Lord."

This sentence recurs again and again in the prophecies of Ezekiel. It is the thought of his mind, the one which gives all the sublimity and all the practical worth to his discourses,—that the knowledge of God is the supreme good of man, and that the desolation of his countrymen has come from their not liking to retain it. He is transported in spirit to the temple. There the same vision of the glory of God which he had seen by the river returns to him. The light of it shows him, portrayed upon the wall of the temple round about, the abominable beasts and creeping things, and the idols of the house of Israel; what the ancients of the house of Israel did in the dark, every one in the chambers of his imagery; how the women were weeping for Tammuz; how the men were worshiping the sun towards the east. Whether such abominations as these were actually to be seen in the temple, or whether the prophet's eye opened by the divine Spirit saw that they were possessing the hearts of those who seemed to others, perhaps to themselves, to be worshiping the God of their fathers, it is clear that the mind of Ezekiel was led back to the place in which he had ministered, that he might be taught how little the sacred building could preserve the truth which was enshrined in it.

What Ezekiel has seen in the temple enables him to answer the elders of Israel when they come to consult him in his own house. Just what was going on among those who worshiped in Jerusalem, was going on in the hearts of those who sought his oracles. They were setting up idols there. They wanted to know what God would do with them or against them; they did not want to know Him. And therefore Ezekiel announces to them a great and eternal moral law, one of the most varied application; "God will answer you according to your idols." The truth which is presented to you, will be colored, distorted, inverted by the eye which receives it. The covetousness which you are cherishing will make the best and divinest word you hear, a minister of covetousness. Your pride and your lust will make it a minister of lust and pride. No bolder or more awful paradox was ever enunciated than this, nor one which the conscience of everyone will more surely verify. And there was this special proof of courage in making such an announcement, that it must have destroyed Ezekiel's reputation as a prophet. The elders came in terror, feeling that they wanted guidance and expecting some ready-made answer, such as the regular traders in prophecy could always furnish. The truly inspired man answers, "I can tell you nothing,—nothing at least that will not deceive you and become a lie in your minds. For you bring lies in your minds, and except they be extirpated, they must convert whatever is added to them from without, to their own quality."

Ezekiel himself illustrates in another case this great principle. No commandment had established itself more completely by the experience of the people to whom it was addrest, than the second. The idolatries of the land had accumulated with each generation. Each had cause to complain of the last as bequeathing it a stock of corrupt habits and traditions; the sins of the fathers had been visited upon the children. These were facts not to be gainsaid. The captives had leisure to reflect upon them. It might have been a most profound and profitable reflection.

The use they made of it was to prove they were under a necessary law of degeneracy. How could they help themselves? The fathers had eaten sour grapes, and their teeth were set on edge. Who dared dispute it? There was God's own word for it. Had he not told them the plan and method of His own government? Such language addrest to one of the favorite preachers or prophets of the people, would have silenced him altogether. He would have said, "It is a mystery, no doubt; we must take the words of the commandment tho we can not understand them. God is Sovereign; He can do what He likes. If it pleases Him that each generation should be more corrupt than the last, we must submit and not dispute His will." Others there would be who would complain boldly and with good reason of a will that compelled to evil, but yet would lazily submit to it, supposing it to be inevitable, tho feeling the absurdity of calling it divine. Ezekiel boldly stands forth to dispute and deny the whole principle. He does not dispute or deny the second commandment,—that was probably the text of his discourse. But he will not let the second commandment or any other words in the world be pleaded against the character of God. Righteousness and equity he maintains to be the foundations of the divine character and of the divine acts. He will tolerate no resolution of them into a heathenish notion of sovereignty or self-will. "The ways of God are equal," he says, "and your ways are unequal." The sins of the father only descend upon the son, they are only punished in the son, when the son accepts them, entertains them, makes them his own. At any time he may turn round and repudiate them and cleave to the God who doth not will the death of the sinner, but desires that he should return and live. The doctrine of the second commandment and of the whole law, is that a man is righteous so long as he cleaves to the righteous God who has made a covenant with him, unrighteous when he forsakes that covenant and acts independently. Therefore the notion of any perpetuity in righteousness, or in evil, is equally cut off. Every man has the capacity of righteousness, the capacity of evil. Let him be ever so righteous, he must become evil the moment he ceases to trust in God and begins to trust in himself. Let him be ever so evil, he must become righteous the moment he begins to trust in God and ceases to trust in himself.

The enunciation of laws or principles seems more especially to belong to Ezekiel, as the experience of personal evil and the sympathy with national sorrow belong more to the tender and womanly nature of Jeremiah. Nevertheless, Ezekiel was to be a priest in this sense also, as well as in that higher sense of beholding the glory of God and proclaiming His name. Suffering was not the destination of one prophet; it was the badge of all the tribe. Ezekiel's life was to be a continual parable, illustrative of the life of the nation. A man scrupulously careful of the law, was to violate the precepts of it respecting food, and to eat what was loathsome. A man sensitive probably as to his reputation, and with that kind of lofty imagination which makes attention to details and all petty acts unspeakably painful, must submit, for the sake of his countrymen, to such as seemed most ignominious to himself and perplexing to them. Finally, the desire of his eyes must be taken from him with a stroke, and he must not mourn or weep. Even at such a time he must be a sign to the people, tho by doing so he should seem to refuse the sympathy that he most wants, and should only lead the captives to say, "Wilt thou not tell us what these things are to us that thou doest so?"

Apart from these sufferings which concern him individually and domestically, the vision of the desolation of Israel became every day more overwhelming to him. Nor was it only the desolation of Israel. He who was called "Son of man," was not likely to speak less of Egypt and Tyrus and the land in which he was himself dwelling, than those older prophets who had so many more reasons for regarding Judea as the one garden of the Lord. The arms of Nebuchadnezzar had been turning the earth upside down and making it waste. Everything must have seemed to him disjointed, incoherent, withered. Could it ever be renovated? Was it possible even for that country which God had blest above all others and man had curst above all others, to breathe and live again?

This was the question which was proposed to the prophet on that day when the hand of the Lord was upon him, and he was carried into the valley which was full of bones. The vision, clear as it is in itself, must not be read apart from the context of the prophecy. You should remember where Ezekiel was dwelling; by what kind of people he was surrounded; what was the condition of his own land; what had come and was coming upon all lands; or you will not understand the picture which now rose up before him. You should think, too, of the man himself, of the heat of his spirit, of the words which he had uttered in vain, of the acts which had only made the captives stare vacantly, of the desolation of his house and his heart. You should think of those other visions he had of the ascending scale of creatures, of the mysterious order of the universe, of the glory of God, before you place yourself beside him in the valley, and walk with him round about it, and look at the different bones, and see how each separately how altogether, they expound to him the condition of the house of Israel. It was dead,—that body from which he had believed that life was to go forth to quicken the universe. It had none of the beauty of a corpse in which there is still form, on which the spirit has left its impression. There had been a time of gradual decay, a time when the pulses of the nation beat feebly and faintly, but when they might still be felt; a time after that when you knew it had ceased to breathe, but when you could still speak of it as entire. But another stage had come, the stage of utter dissolution, when each limb looked as if it had nothing to do with any other, when you could scarcely force yourself to believe that they had ever been joined together. Can these bones live? what a thought to come into the mind of any man gazing on such a scene! It could not have come from himself, certainly, nor from any of these relics. God must have sent it to him; He must have led him to dream that such a resurrection was possible. And now the process of it is also revealed to him. The prophet is commanded to speak. His speech seems a mere sound in the air. But there is a noise and a shaking; then a frightful movement of the bones towards each other, each claiming its fellow to which it had once belonged. This strange effort at a union of dead things betokens a power that has not yet declared itself. And soon the sinews and the flesh come up upon them. They have acquired a form, tho they have no life. "Then said he unto me, 'Prophesy unto the wind; Thus saith the Lord God: come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain that they may live.' So I prophesied as he commanded. And the breath came unto them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army."

"Doth he not speak parables?" was the phrase by which the Jews of the captivity exprest their dislike and contempt for the troublesome and mystical prophet who was among them. "Doth he not speak parables?" is a question which men, looking round with weary hearts upon the condition of Christ's Church in various periods of its existence, have asked themselves, with a very different intention and spirit, when they have read this vision of the valley of dry bones. "Is not this written," they have said, "for the ages to come? Is not this one of parables concerning the kingdom of God?" Yes, brethren, if we will first read it fairly and honestly, as describing what Ezekiel says it described to him,—if we will not search for a distant application till we have acknowledged the immediate one,—we shall find that here, as everywhere, Ezekiel is exhibiting facts which belong to other times as well as his own, and laws and methods of a divine government which belong to all times as well as his own.

And that I may not waste your time in enumerating different crises of history in which the facts may be discerned, and by which the law and the method may be tested, I say at once, they are all for us; the vision and the interpretation are of this day. Do you not hear men on all sides of you crying, "The Church which we read of in books exists only in them. Christendom consists of Romanists, Greeks, Protestants, divided from each other, disputing about questions to which nineteen-twentieths of those who belong to their communions are indifferent. And meantime what is becoming of the countries in which these different confessions are established? What populations are growing up in them? Does the present generation believe that which its fathers believed? Will the next generation believe anything?" Brethren, you hear such words as these spoken. I do not mean to inquire how much there is of truth in them, how much of exaggeration, what evidences there are on the other side which have been overlooked; what signs of life there are anywhere in the midst of apparent death. But this I must say; Christians in general are far too eager to urge special exceptions when they hear these charges preferred; far too ready to make out a case for themselves while they admit their application to others; far too ready to think that the cause of God is interested in this suppression of facts. The prophets should have taught us a different lesson. They should have led us to feel that it was a solemn duty, not to conceal, but to bring forward all the evidence which proves, not that one country is better than another, or one portion of the Church better than another, but that there is a principle of decay, a tendency to apostasy in all, and that no comfort can come from merely balancing symptoms of good here against symptoms of evil there, no comfort from considering whether we are a little less contentious, a little less idolatrous than our neighbors. Alas, for this Church, or for any church, if its existence now, if its prospects for the future, are to be determined by such calculations as these! No, brethren, our hope has a deeper foundation. It is this; that when the bones have become most dry, when they are lying most scattered and separate from each other, there is still a word going forth, if not through the lips of any prophet on this earth, then through the lips of those who have left it,—yet not proceeding from them, but from Him who liveth for ever and ever, the voice which says, "These bones shall rise." It is this; that every shaking among the bones, everything which seems at first a sign of terror,—men leaving the churches in which they have been born, forsaking all the affections and sympathies and traditions of their childhood,—infidel questionings, doubts whether the world is left to itself or whether it is governed by an evil spirit,—are themselves not indeed signs of life, but at least movements in the midst of death which are better than the silence of the charnel-house, which foretell the approach of that which they can not produce. It is this; that all struggles after union, tho they may be of the most abortive kind, tho they may produce fresh sects and fresh divisions, tho they must do so as long as they rest on the notion that unity is something visible and material, yet indicate a deep and divine necessity which men could not be conscious of in their dreams if they were not beginning to awake. It is this; that there are other visions true for us, as they were for Ezekiel, besides the vision of dry bones. The name of a Father has not ceased to be a true name because baptized men do not own themselves as His children. The name of the Son has not ceased to be a true name, because men are setting up some earthly ruler in place of Him, or are thinking that they can realize a human fellowship without confessing a Man on the throne above the firmament. The name of the Spirit has not ceased to be a true name because we are thinking that we can form combinations and sects and churches without His quickening presence, because we deny that He is really in the midst of us. It is this; that when all earthly priests have been banished or have lost their faith, tho there should be none to mourn over the ruins of Jerusalem, or to feel its sin as his own, yet there is a High Priest, the great Sin-Bearer, ever presenting His perfect and accepted sacrifice within the veil, a High Priest not of a nation, but of humanity. It is this; that tho all earthly temples, in which God has been pleased to dwell, should become desecrated and abominable, tho all foul worship should go on in the midst of them, and tho what is portrayed on their walls should too faithfully represent what is passing in the more secret chambers of imagery, tho at last the shrines that have been supposed to contain the mystery which they set forth should be utterly destroyed, and a voice should be heard out of the midst of them, saying, "Let us depart,"—yet that this will not be the sign that the Church of God has perished, only the sign that the temple of God has been opened in Heaven, and that from thence must come forth the glory that is to fill the whole earth.