Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
but the Lord delivers him out of them all.
He keeps all his bones;
not one of them is broken. (Psalm 34:19–20)
Modern people no longer attach much symbolic significance to bones. We scratch our heads at God’s promise to “keep all our bones.” But in the Bible, bones have all sorts of figurative meaning, depending on the context. This is an exceedingly precious promise.
We not only hear of “flesh and bone,” referring to the human body, or to kinship. Bones are also mentioned as a sign of starvation or sickness or wasting away when seen through someone’s skin. And bones refer to the deepest part of humans (as in Psalm 6:2: “I am languishing; . . . my bones are troubled”).
Directions about His Bones
The first two books of Scripture, Genesis and Exodus, include prominent mentions of bones. First, perhaps no bones in Scripture are more famous than Joseph’s. The book of Genesis ends with Joseph making the sons of Israel swear to bring up his bones from Egypt to the promised land when God delivers them (Genesis 50:25). And when Israel makes its exodus, the pledge is fulfilled. Exodus 13:19:
Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for Joseph had made the sons of Israel solemnly swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones with you from here.”
The book of Joshua also ends with Joseph’s bones. Joshua 24:32: “As for the bones of Joseph, which the people of Israel brought up from Egypt, they buried them at Shechem, in the piece of land that Jacob bought.” In the New Testament, Hebrews celebrates this as a great act of faith: “By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones” (Hebrews 11:22). How is it an act of faith?
Bones Back to Life
Just breaths before Joseph’s bones are mentioned in Exodus 13, the people receive instructions about the Passover lamb in Exodus 12: “It shall be eaten in one house; you shall not take any of the flesh outside the house, and you shall not break any of its bones” (Exodus 12:46; also Numbers 9:12). There is something sacred, it seems, about bones. But the picture is not yet complete.
Then we come to Ezekiel 37 and his vision of a valley of dry bones — the bones being the last remaining part of bodies that once lived. The dry bones represent death, and yet not utter devastation. Something remains. Bones remain. And God tells Ezekiel to prophesy, and when he does, flesh returns to the bones, and then breath returns to the restored bodies, and an army of God’s people rises from the grave.
In other words, intact bones, kept bones, unbroken bones, represent the hope of resurrection — that God, in his perfect timing, will reassemble the bones, and restore the flesh, and give breath, and bring dry bones back to full life with resurrection power.
He Keeps Hope Alive
Now, back to Psalm 34:20. God keeping the bones of the righteous is a promise of resurrection. He keeps them to restore them to life. And note well, resurrection does not mean no death. In fact, it requires it. You must first die to be brought back to life again. Just as deliverance does not mean no trouble. There must first be trouble before we can be delivered from it.
So Psalm 34:20 does not promise the righteous won’t suffer in the flesh and even die. But it does promise that God will raise them. All their bones will be kept, which is figurative, not literal. Not one will be broken. A righteous man may indeed break bones and even die with broken bones. The point is God will keep his bones — God will raise him; God will put him back together and give him flesh again and breath again.
Not One Bone Broken
The reason Joseph cared about his bones is that he believed God would raise him back to life one day. He believed in resurrection. And the reason God instructed his people not to break the bones of the Passover lamb is that one day God would raise the true Passover Lamb back to life. And so, John 19:36 reports, at the death of Jesus,
These things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken.”
And if we know the meaning of bones, we say at that point in John’s Gospel (if it hasn’t already been clear enough), Jesus is going to rise. He won’t stay dead. These unbroken bones are a sign. God is keeping them. And God will raise them. And because he did raise them, he will raise ours too if we are in Christ (Ephesians 2:5–6).
If we only knew deep down, in our bones — in the midst of our afflictions, however severe — what a resounding rescue we have coming, how much more ready might we be to bear up under our momentary trials.