SERMON: The Good and the Bad (Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24)


1. A Modern Perspective
In life, some things are good, and some things are bad. There are good (positive) things that happen—things that help and encourage and build up. And there are bad (negative) things that happen—things that discourage, disappoint and dismay. There are good people—people who look out for others, who go out of their way to help. And there are bad people—people whose only concern is what they can do for themselves, and are willing to take things no matter what cost to anyone else. There are good leaders—those who take their responsibilities seriously, and who constantly have the welfare of others in mind. And there are bad leaders—people who are only in it for the prestige and the power, and who will use others for their own personal gain.

Yes, there are good, and there are bad. And, of course, what we mean by good and bad will vary from one person to another. Despite that, most people will have an idea of what good and bad mean—and they will also recognise the many different shades of grey in between.

2. An Old Testament Perspective
What may surprise, and even shock some people, then, is to find that our definitions of what is good and what is bad—and the way we use those expressions—are not always the same as the way God uses them—either in the past, or is likely to use them in the future. Because God’s definitions of what is good and what is bad are often quite different to our own. And if we could accept that, then maybe the way we see good and bad would substantially be changed.

Let me explain.

3. A Biblical Definition
In the Old Testament, we can read a number of stories about God’s people, who time after time wandered from the path—by often following other gods. And this was often as a direct result of poor leadership. As a consequence, the whole community, time after time, got further and further away from God, until they got to a point where the only solution was for God to step in and do something.

God would then raise up a particular leader—a godly man or woman—to lead the people forward, so that the restoration of the people in their relationship to God could begin. And it’s a cycle that is repeated time after time after time.

Now each time that cycle happened, you could very easily say, ‘But, yes, there must have been some good people amongst the people. They can’t all have been rotten to the core.’ And probably in our definitions of what is good and bad, we would have to agree. For it’s very difficult to see that amongst several million people, that there wouldn’t be a least someone who cared for someone else.

The problem is, though, that who we might consider to be ‘good’ is not necessarily who God sees as ‘good’ at all. And the reason for that, is that there is a fundamental flaw in our definition of good.

Our definition of good could possibly include people who care for others; people who make great sacrifices, and even put their lives on the line for others; people who are trustworthy, honourable, reliable and . . . dozens of other positive adjectives that you could use. And all those things we often see as ‘good’. However, our definition usually misses out on something far more fundamental than all of that—and it is the primary thing that God looks for. And that is whether a person has a sound, and faithful relationship with him. Because in order to be good, in God’s eyes, one must have a solid, and faithful relationship with him.

As a consequence, God’s definition of good, only includes people who do good works, provided that they have first got a sound relationship with him. And if they haven’t, in God’s eyes those people are not good at all. Because no matter what good deeds people do, they always lead people astray because of their beliefs.

And on that basis, is it any wonder that in the Old Testament, God has to keep resolving the problem of his unfaithful people. He has to periodically give them a new leader to bring his sheep back to the fold. But a leader who at a very fundamental base has a strong and faithful relationship with God.


And as an illustration of that, we have this passage from Ezekiel. Because in Ezekiel’s day, apart from the prophet himself, no such person was around that God could call ‘good’. As a consequence, God abandoned any idea of promoting a new leader to lead his people. And unusually he took on the direct role of being a leader himself.

And as a consequence of that, in this one snapshot of history, we get a true picture of what it means to be ‘good’ from God’s perspective.

1. The Good Shepherd (11-16)
Because not only are we told that God took on the leadership himself. But it also spells out what being ‘good’ is all about. And from a background of ‘faith’ it means being actively involved in doing four things:

Firstly, being actively involved in finding the straying members of the flock—to help steer them back on the true path. Secondly, actively going out of the way to rescue those who are lost—who don’t know God at all. Thirdly, taking responsibility to feed and tend the whole flock—giving particular attention to any weak and ailing members. And, fourthly, doing all this knowing that there is a time constraint—because finding the straying and bringing the sheep back to the fold is a job that must be done in earnest, before judgement day comes. As a consequence, there is an urgency about the tasks that needs to be instilled.

If we want to know what being ‘good’ should really mean, then, we have it in a nutshell. And if we want to be considered ‘good’ by God, then we have a description of the kind of people we should be.

In contrast, however, if we want to know what is ‘bad’, God spells that out too. And God’s list isn’t a list of the usual suspects we might consider. But as far as God is concerned it includes anyone who is fat and strong, anyone who oppresses the weak, anyone who does not come to the aid of people’s physical needs, and, more importantly, anyone who blocks people’s paths from having a relationship with God.

Consequently, our definition of ‘bad’ should not just highlight murderers, cheats, terrorists, and people who are genuinely out for themselves. But it should include anyone who simply does not believe, anyone who would distract others from following the path of faith, and anyone who discourages people from practicing the faith, in any manner at all.

So, as you can see the general definitions of what is normally considered good and bad are very different to God’s definitions. And the fundamental reason for the difference is not whether people do good or bad things. Rather it’s whether a person has a personal relationship with God—and emphasises the loving care of God over all other things—or whether God has little or no place in a person’s life.

2. Judgement Among the Flock (20-22)
Of course, the difference in definitions between God’s definitions and the way we usually use the terms are chalk and cheese. But God isn’t just concerned about the meaning in theory, he is concerned with how they pan out in practice. Because he has always been concerned that people should be considered ‘good’ in his eyes.

As a consequence, he is concerned that people wander away; he is concerned that people do not know him. And that is why we see, in Ezekiel’s day, an example of God doing something about it. And what he did was that he decided he would remove all the obstacles that were getting in the people’s way. And the starting point was to deal with the leaders who had failed to do their duty; who had failed to pass on the good news of a relationship with God; and instead had tied people up in knots, by emphasising their own personal importance.

He removed the bad leaders: The snobs, the nobles, the merchant-classes, the powerful and the prosperous. All these people came in God’s sights. They’d been greedy wanting things for themselves—and often at the cost of others. And as a consequence of their actions, they had made the poor even poorer. But most importantly they had done things in God’s name (bringing him into disrepute). So he removed them all. That was a major step to purify the people—to help them become good. But after having done all that, he then went on to sort out the general population too.

Bad leadership, bad people, people without faith, just had to go. Because not only did such leaders or people condemn themselves by their lack of faith, but by their actions they condemned others by leading them astray. And, again, the criteria for sorting the good from the bad was simply based not on whether people had done good works or not, but on whether they had any faith at all.

3. The Messianic Shepherd (23-24)
And having sorted out the true good from the true bad (in Ezekiel’s day), God then stated his intention to install his own nominee in the role of leader. A Messianic figure, without the failings of a human king, and connected to the line of David. Someone who would oversee the consummation of the present age and the opening of a new age—and a time when judgement would be made based purely on God’s definition of good and bad.

The good, the faithful to be gathered in an act of deliverance—united and purified to enter into a supernatural golden age of peace and prosperity. And the bad to miss out—to be excluded. And to be excluded in the same way that they excluded God themselves.


So as a result of these very specific definitions of God—what he considers ‘good’ and ‘bad’, we need to be very careful about how we use those terms. Yes, we might like to include all sorts of people who do great things—as being ‘good’. And we might like to include a whole host of people who do some terrible things—as being ‘bad’. However it’s God’s definition of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ with which we should be working with—not the common use to which those terms are used today.

‘Good’ can only start with a full relationship with God—and work from that base onwards. Because if we start with our definition, we really haven’t grasped God’s idea of good at all.

And the same is true of ‘bad’. Because if we begin with a list of things or people that we consider bad—and we don’t include in our definition people who exclude God from their lives, or who discourage people from having faith—then we haven’t got a true picture of what ‘bad’ really means either.

And having got our definitions straight, we can then go on to actually understand better what God is about, and try to be the ‘good’ people that God demands. People who not only have an active and living faith in the Lord Jesus for their salvation, but people who have a concern for those who are straying from the path, and are willing to do our bit to bring them back. People who have a heart for those who are lost, and are willing to go to any lengths in order to introduce them to God. People who know the importance of spiritual food, and are keen to do our bit in teaching and tending the people in their faith. People who are willing to point people to the Messiah, so that they can have an opportunity to be saved—and be considered ‘good’. And people who know that the task is urgent, and—whether the second coming comes first or people die first—that there is only a limited time in which to work.

Now I accept that some might take offence at all that I’ve just said. But then even Jesus said that nobody is ‘good’—only God—and that’s true. But it’s also true that the way salvation works, is that by us believing, God can consider us as though we are ‘good’. It’s what Jesus has done that makes us good, not the things we try to do ourselves. For it is by faith that we are saved. And as a consequence of that, all believers can be considered ‘good’ by God, simply because they believe—and because they can then carry out the responsibilities that go with that belief.


So the terms ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are commonly used today in a variety of ways. They are commonly used to describe people who do good things—or bad things. What we discover in the bible, however, is that God’s description of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ contrasts considerably with the common use of those terms. Because the use of those terms should hinge on whether a person has faith or not.

If we are Christians, what should matter is not what the world considers ‘good’ and ‘bad’, but what God considers to be ‘good’ and ‘bad’. So we need to look at these terms from God’s perspective.

And when we do, only then will we see the world and faith from God’s radically different, point of view. And that’s very important indeed.

Posted: 6th September 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis

SERMON: Ezekiel and the Valley of Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14)


“Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones
Don’t you hear the word of the Lord?
Toe bone connected foot bone
Foot bone connected leg bone
Leg bone connected knee bone
Don’t you hear the word of the Lord?” (Verse 1)

Despite the apparent humour in the traditional African American Spiritual “Dry Bones,” the background to the story—one episode in the life of the prophet Ezekiel—is one where humour is very far from his mind. In fact he was going through a very rough time both personally and professionally.


1. Ezekiel – The Prophet
In his middle twenties, he had been taken captive and resettled on the plains of Babylonia (Ch 1); he’d been married, and happily so, and yet his wife had just died (Ch 24); he was a priest, as his father had been before him (Ch 1); and the Temple he had worked in, apart from being miles away, had been totally destroyed (Ch 24). And on top of that, he was being asked by God to carry out his prophetic ministry—a ministry which included acting out symbolism on a grand scale—by holding back his emotions.

But whatever he thought of his situation, Ezekiel was aware that even though life was difficult for him, it was also difficult for his fellow exiles. After all, he was aware of the tragedy in which his people were involved. Indeed he shared their dilemma. Yet he was still prepared to put his own personal feelings aside, to maintain a passionate intensity towards God, his message, and his fellow exiles.

2. A Hopeless Cause (1-3)
And the reason that his own people were more depressed than he was, was because even though they too had been relocated to the dusty plains of Babylonia, they had lost hope. They’d fought a war and lost; they’d been forced to leave their homes behind some ten years before; their families had been split up; their country had been occupied; and Jerusalem and its Temple had been destroyed. Indeed, all the same things that Ezekiel faced. Except for the fact that Ezekiel still believed in God and practised his faith, whereas the people had given up. They had lost hope and they had lost faith. Consequently they no longer believed that their religion was relevant.

Indeed, they believed, that if the Temple was where God had chosen to live with his people, the its destruction by the Babylonians meant that the Babylonian gods were supreme. And with the destruction of the Temple, their faith and all hope had been lost.

3. God’s Solution
“Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones
Don’t you hear the word of the Lord?
Leg bone connected knee bone
Knee bone connected thighbone
Thighbone connected hipbone
Don’t you hear the word of the Lord?” (Verse 2)

Ezekiel was alone in believing in the continuing existence of God. So Ezekiel knew that God’s people needed a miracle to get them out of their predicament. And that’s exactly what happened. The restoration of the people came through the initiative of God—despite the fact that the majority of the people had abandoned him. And in typical Ezekiel style the solution came in terms of a vision.

4. Prophecy to the Bones (4-8)
And in the first stage of the vision, God took Ezekiel and took him to a valley of dry bones, symbolising the lifeless and despondent people they had become. And there, God told Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones.

Now despite what Ezekiel was going through himself, he did as he was asked. And as he watched, he saw bones clicking together, piece by piece; he saw tendons being attached and flesh appearing upon them; and then last of all he saw skin clothing the skeletons, restoring the people to some sort of normality. However, even though the bones had become human in form, they were still without life.

In other words, as a priest, Ezekiel was told by God to continue to exercise his priestly ministry, even in this strange land. He was told to preach and encourage the people in their faith; to tell them that despite the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, despite everything that had happened to them, God was not dead. He had not abandoned them, and they weren’t totally dead either. God knew well their predicament, he was with them, he would come to their rescue, and he would restore what they had lost—principally a faith in him.

But just as the bones had come together and were without life, Ezekiel was warned that preaching and encouraging would not be enough on their own. It might stir people up to have some hope, but preaching would not in itself be enough to restore their faith. Indeed, exhorting people to listen to God’s word was only the first step of the journey.

5. Prophecy to the Breath (Wind or Spirit) (9-10)
So God then outlined to Ezekiel a second stage in the process. And continuing the same vision, he told Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath. In other words, to practice his priestly ministry. To pray for his people that God’s spirit would indeed work amongst his people.

And that is precisely what Ezekiel did. He prayed. And as he prayed, the spirit entered those human forms, that had once been dry bones. And all of a sudden, those people who had been lost and despondent were suddenly restored to life, their faith had been renewed, and their hope had been refreshed.

In other words God’s people came to the realisation that God was with them after all. They rediscovered that even though the Babylonians had many gods, only their God was supreme. And he could and would restore their fortunes, return them to their homes and families, and give them hope.

The effect of Ezekiel’s prayer was nothing short of miraculous. And what preaching itself had failed to achieve on its own, prayer had made a reality.

“Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones
Don’t you hear the word of the Lord?
Hipbone connected backbone
Backbone connected shoulder bone
Shoulder bone connected neck bone
Don’t you hear the word of the Lord?” (Verse 3)

6. Comment
You know, it was quite a vision that was given to Ezekiel regarding those dry bones. And, in the scheme of history, it wasn’t that many years later before the people found themselves back home and rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem.

For a community full of totally depressed and despondent people, God provided one man with ministries of encouragement and prayer; one man who knew intimately the problems of the people. And through that one man exercising his ministries of encouragement and prayer, the people were restored to faith and hope, and rediscovered the purpose of life. However it didn’t come without a cost, because that one man, Ezekiel, had to put his own personal feelings aside, which included not mourning for his own wife, in order to fulfil God’s wishes.


Now, of course, the story of Ezekiel and his people is just one story of the use of the ministries of encouragement and prayer. And Jesus had a similar ministry. Only in Jesus’s case he came to encourage people, and to reconcile people with God, not in the context of an exile but in the context of a Roman occupation.

1. Ministry of Encouragement
Indeed, Jesus spent much of his time preaching and encouraging those who were less fortunate: those with not much to live for; the unloved; and those with little hope. He told those rejected by society that God cared. And he demonstrated it in the way he treated those who society had no time for—the outcasts, the sick, the lame, and the blind.

2. Ministry of Prayer
Jesus also spent much time in prayer. He prayed for his people, he wept over Jerusalem; and even the night before he died—when his own death was hanging over him—he prayed for his disciples and all other believers too (John Ch 17).


Which brings us to today. Because the days of Ezekiel and Jesus are not the only times in history where there has been a valley of dry bones. Indeed, that image could equally be used to describe the state of the church today.

As a consequence, the story from Ezekiel should give us real hope.

1. Our Dry Bones
Because, firstly, no matter how dry or dead we may feel at times, this story illustrates that it doesn’t take much of a spark, for God to bring dry bones to life and to give new purpose. The reality is that even though we might abandon him, God does not abandon us. And so whether it seems like we are going nowhere—or it seems like the church is going nowhere—no matter how dry the bones may be, we need to hold on to the fact that God is able to do the spectacular and bring those dry bones to life, and in a very dramatic manner.

2. Our Ministry of Encouragement and Prayer
Secondly, the importance of encouragement and prayer even today cannot be overstated. Indeed, they are a vital part of any Christian’s ministry.

Ezekiel may have been a priest, but encouragement and prayer are things that anyone of us can do. And if we all did those two things, think of the difference that we could make to the dry bones, with God’s grace.

3. The Importance of One Individual
And thirdly, should any of us think that we alone could make no difference, we should never forget the importance of the individual. Because if Ezekiel—one man—could be used by God to have such an effect on one nation, and if Jesus—one man (even though he was God’s son)—could be used by God to have such an effect on the world, then what then does that say for us and what we as individuals can do for one another, with God’s grace.

The ministries of encouragement and prayer are essential parts of the practice of our Christian faith. They are essential for the welfare of our church. But even so, it may only need one person starting off and exercising those ministries, for God to bring the rest of the church to life.


“Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones
Don’t you hear the word of the Lord?”

“Dry Bones” is an amusing, fun sort of song, but behind it is a disaster story. Behind it is the story of the prophet Ezekiel and his fellow captives going through a very rough time. It was a situation in which God asked Ezekiel to put his own personal feelings aside, to encourage and pray for his fellow exiles. And what a powerful difference that made to the rest of the people.

Now, we may not be faced with the same extremes that Ezekiel or his fellow exiles faced. Nevertheless even our bones can become pretty dry. Yet one person, exercising the gifts of encouragement and prayer, can make such a difference too. The story of Ezekiel and the valley of the dry bones shows that no matter how down and out that we become, God does care. It also shows that one person can make a real difference.

In the western world the church is noted for its “dry bones.” So today we need people who will exercise their ministries of encouragement and prayer. (Things we all can do and should do.) The question is, “Are we prepared to let God use us? And are we prepared to put our own personal feelings aside (like Ezekiel) and give it a try?”

Posted 17th August 2019
© 2019, Brian A Curtis