Written by Josh Tiessen
Ezekiel was a 6th-century-BC prophet who lived in Tel Abib near the Kebar River (modern-day Iraq). He and his fellow Jewish refugees had been taken from their homeland of Judah to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar.
In his vision of the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37, he sees sun-bleached bones and skeletons. They are symbolic of the Jewish exile, a consequence of their rebellion against their Maker. However, God’s Spirit breathes life, and the bones rattle together, taking on flesh and coming back to life.
While reading the prophet’s vision, I imagined a scene of a single butterfly flitting through a cavernous rib cage, emanating light and casting radial shadows.
This was the starting point of my painting, Can These Bones Live? As I gathered reference material, the science department at my old high school graciously let me borrow their full skeleton model for a weekend. I brought it home and photographed it with my studio lighting on the dining room table.
These bones coming to life was a metaphor of national resurrection. It was an image of hope for the Jewish exiles who would one day return to the promised land.
In the broader context of the Bible, this vision of homecoming foreshadows the promise of transformed hearts through grace, enabling the people of God to live on a new earth of justice and peace in eternity.
Often, ideas about heaven are associated with an otherworldly place with wispy disembodied spirits on clouds. My painting Rise Up is a musing on how life-after-death, resurrection, is bodily. This means our eternal bodies will reflect who we are, including our unique personalities and ethnicities.
Historically many of our ancestors have white-washed biblical characters in their artistic depictions. I wanted to depict racially diverse figures of all ages: a young bi-racial woman in the foreground and a middle-aged Indonesian woman and an older Caucasian man atop rock spires in the background.
The monarch butterfly is my symbol of the Spirit of God breathing new life. The 15 spiralling butterflies are metamorphosing the 15-year-old girl from a skeleton to a living person.
Monarchs are unique among butterflies, as they journey on long migration routes from Canada to Mexico. The first ones to embark die before their final destination, sacrificing their lives for their grandchildren. They are like the ancient Hebrew people wandering in the wilderness or the exiles who died in captivity whose grandchildren entered the promised land.
The young woman’s Victorian lace hints at a wedding dress. This is a symbol of the Bride of Christ—His Church from every tribe, nation, and language, whose sins have been forgiven through Jesus’ sacrificial death for humanity and the gift of His moral perfection given to Her.
The title Rise Up came from the song “Still Rolling Stones” by Lauren Daigle. The painting is a metaphor for transcending all that is evil in our present world—greed, sexual exploitation, self-absorption, racism—and a longing for a world set right, where harmony reigns between humans, animals, and their Creator.
Through the prophetic imagination of Ezekiel’s vision, God gave a narrative of hope to the Jews in exile. While we Christians in the West are not persecuted like believers in the Middle East and Asia, we are increasingly experiencing an internal “exile” in our post-Christian society where our voice is a minority in the cultural public square.
We need prophetic imagination fuelled by a biblical worldview in order to resist our society’s false narrative that utopia can be achieved by human effort alone, whether that be through a political party or a medical advancement.
In tumultuous times we are to be people of hope, anticipating our future resurrection to a world free of illness and injustice.
But since we are already new creations in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17) we are called to embody that here and now, in our schools, workplaces, and communities.
God calls us to “work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile” (Jeremiah 29:7 NLT).
Can These Bones Live? asks whether we have eyes to see the flicker of light in our valley of death. Rise Up symbolizes our hope of new creation breaking through. My desire is for these two paintings to serve as counterpoints, two interdependent realities of Ezekiel’s vision that harmoniously shape our lives as countercultural people of God.
Josh Tiessen is a professional fine artist and published writer based in Stoney Creek, Ont. He has had solo exhibitions in galleries from New York to LA. His new book Streams in the Wasteland is set to release this year.