"Then he showed me a river"

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Not all water is the same in the Bible. Rivers and seas are presented quite differently from each other. Seas are deep, dark, chaotic, and wild. Man was not meant to live in or on the sea, and therefore the sea becomes, in the Biblical way of thinking, something that is alien to man’s life, something threatening and dangerous. Rivers, however, are different. They are sources of water for drinking and for cleansing, and thus they are helpful and life-sustaining.

river1Rivers are actually important to the Biblical story. The first rivers we encounter in the Bible are those which flowed from the garden in Eden. “Now a river flowed out of Eden to water the garden; and from there it divided and became four rivers. The name of the first is Pishon; it flows around the whole land of Havilah, …. The name of the second river is Gihon; it flows around the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Tigris; it flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates” (Gen 2.10-14). In the context of Genesis 2, Moses was emphasizing the goodness of the garden as a place perfectly and fully suited to sustain man’s life. This reminds us that in the Bible, rivers are a source of life and a symbol of life.

It is not without significance that the land of Canaan was “a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in valleys and hills” (Deut 8.7). The resemblance to Eden is not coincidental. Furthermore, when the Israelites finally came into the land of Canaan and settled it, their capital city of Jerusalem had as its water source a spring that was called Gihon – the same name as one of the rivers that flowed out of Eden. This too was not mere coincidence. Jerusalem was, more than any other place, the meeting-place of God and his people, the city where they dwelt together, reminiscent of the closeness of God and Adam in the beginning. So in Jerusalem there was a source of water that reminded the people of the original garden’s water, and of how their life came from God.

When God brought Israel out of Egypt in the exodus, you will recall that He did not take them directly into the land of Canaan (which was eventually going to be their homeland, just as God had promised). Instead God brought them into the wilderness of Sinai. Normally, nothing lives in the wilderness primarily because it is, generally speaking, a waterless environment. So how was Israel supposed to survive in such a place? The answer was: God would make rivers for them in the wilderness. We are familiar with the stories of how God brought water from a rock on more than one occasion in the wilderness (Exod 17 and Num 20). 1 Corinthians 10.1ff implies that there were other times as well. What we possibly do not think about, however, was that God was making rivers, He was making sources of life. “He opened the rock and water flowed out; it ran in the dry places like a river” (Psa 105.41). This was not only a demonstration of God’s ability to provide for his people, it was also a demonstration of God’s ability to transform. He was turning a dry and lifeless place into a watered place of life.

river-in-the-desertThis picture of God providing water in the wilderness reappears later in a vision experienced by the prophet Ezekiel. In chapters 40-48, Ezekiel describes a vision of a perfect temple. It represents the people of God in the Messianic age. Near the end of the vision, in chapter 47, Ezekiel saw a trickle of water coming from the door of the temple and flowing toward the east. Now, before we go any further, you have to remember something about Bible geography. When you are in Jerusalem, to the east of the temple was a valley (the Kidron Valley). In this valley was the Kidron brook, which flowed (in the rainy season) toward the southern end of the city. Also, to the south of Jerusalem lies a vast wilderness. Now in Ezekiel’s vision, as this trickle of water went farther from the temple, it got bigger. It flowed into the Kidron Valley and proceeded southward, getting deeper as it flowed. After it flowed 4000 cubits, Ezekiel said the water was “a river that I could not ford.” This river then flowed into the wilderness of Judea and turned that wilderness into a place of life, and it eventually flowed into the Dead Sea and turned it into fresh water, and brought life to everything. “It will come about that every living creature which swarms in every place where the river goes, will live” (Ezek 47.9).

It is a beautiful image of the life that God would make available in the Messianic age. Ezekiel’s vision ties the experience of Israel in the wilderness to the Messianic age. Just as God gave Israel life – by making a river – in the wilderness of Sinai, so the Messianic age would be a time when God transformed the death of his own people into life, like a river flooding a wilderness and causing things to grow and live there. God said the same thing about the Messianic age through the prophet Isaiah: “I have given waters in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert, to give drink to My chosen people” (Isa 43.20).

As the apostle John neared the end of his heavenly, visionary experience (which he wrote down as the book of Revelation), the final scene was that of heaven itself. John first saw the outside of the city, and then proceeded to see inside of it. As he described its beauties, his angelic guide “showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb” (Rev 22.1). It is not surprising that there is no sea in heaven (see 21.1), but it does have a river.

An interesting fact about the Hebrew language is that the root of the word for “river” is also a word that can mean “to bring to rest.” The idea seems to be a simple one: a river is a peaceful, life-giving thing, a place where the weary can drink and be revived, and rest. Consistently, from Genesis to Revelation, we see a picture of God providing a river for his people, a source of life and a place of rest. Such is the picture John describes of heaven, and the ultimate fulfillment of Ezekiel’s vision.

river3The next time you are out and come by a river, and if you sit by the bank to rest a little, think about the heavenly river and about our life and rest there.

David McClister



Link: The 12 Most Iconic Rivers on Earth: http://www.foxnews.com/travel/2012/10/15/12-most-iconic-rivers-on-earth/