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THE RIVER OF LIFE
To Ezekiel the river meant the blessings of Messiah’s reign. The last page of the Apocalypse tells of the river of water of life that proceeds from the throne of God and of the Lamb. We have fuller knowledge of Ezekiel’s vision than he had.
I. The first point to note is the source of the river.—It flowed out from beneath the Temple gate. It is from His presence that all blessings for a thirsty, sin-blasted humanity are to flow. We can take a further, wonderful step than Ezekiel, and see that God is not only the source of all good, but is Himself the true and only Good. The river is not only the blessings, whether material or spiritual, which God in Christ gives, but it is Himself imparted to and dwelling in us. Jesus spoke of ‘rivers of living water,’ and St. John comments: ‘This spake He of the Spirit which they that believe on Him should receive.’ As truly as a river must flow, so truly is it God’s nature to communicate Himself.
II. We note, next, the rapid deepening of the stream.—‘A thousand cubits’ is about fifteen hundred feet. At that distance from the point of issue it was up to the ankles; by the second thousand it was to the knees; by the third, to the loins; by the fourth, it was too deep and broad to be forded. And no tributaries had fallen into it to account for the increase. The river was self-fed, and grew as it flowed, because the mighty energy within the Temple pulsed more strongly the longer it continued—fit type of that unwearying impulse of love which communicates Himself to men and is its own motive; fit type of the inexhaustible fullness which gives and still is full, and for ever ‘operates unspent.’ The blessings which Christ gives increase by reception and use. The growth of the Christian life should be, and so far as Jesus is received will be, continuous and swift. If our Christian life is as shallow and with as little weight in it to-day as long years ago, the fault is ours. Alas! that so many should resemble rather the streams in Tartary, that creep shallowly and languidly through a few miles, and then dry up in the thirsty sands, evaporated by fierce heat. Ezekiel thought that the river would run quick, and deepen visibly as it ran. What would he have said if he had been told that, nineteen centuries after Messiah had come, the majority of mankind would never have heard of Him? ‘Is the Spirit of the Lord straitened? Are these His doings?’
III. Next, we have the effects of the river described in lovely imagery, tinged with ‘local colour.’—Every one knows that in Palestine, as in all countries as near the equator, water will turn desert into garden. And so Ezekiel was but lifting familiar physical facts into a higher region when he saw that ‘whithersoever the river cometh’ there comes fertility along both banks of every ‘wady’ in the sun-stricken wilderness where tamarisks and other vegetation thrive, and the traveller steps down out of the scorching heat and brown desolation into cool green shadow, and treads on grass. But the river brings with it other forms of life—‘a very great multitude of fish.’ And that, too, is true to Nature, for travellers tell us how, when the rain comes, depressions in the ground that had been baked clay for months swarm with aquatic life. But the river does more than that, for it fills the Dead Sea, where few creatures live, with fish as many and great as in the Mediterranean itself. It heals the heavy, sulphurous waters, and they are filled with living things.
The river brings life. In the highest sense of the word, life that is true. For it is only they in whom Christ lives that truly live at all. Physical vitality, and even vigorous mental activity, may exist, and their possessor be, in the view of God, ‘dead while he liveth.’
‘Everything shall live whithersover the river cometh’—let the quickening effects of the entrance of the Gospel into the Dead Sea of stagnant and rotting heathendom be our comment on that jubilant prophecy. Similarly, the river brings fertility. Trees overhang it, and their roots draw up the vivifying treasure; therefore their leaves know no autumn decay, and they bear fruit every month. Everything needed for sustenance and for cleansing springs up where the river of God flows.
IV. But there is one sullen, unreceptive spot even in the prophet’s vision.—There are miry places and marshes lying close by the healed waters, still glistening white, like the alkali plains, with the caked salt on their surface, a ghastly contrast to the lush fertility around and the sweet waters in the sea. So long as man’s will is free, some will refuse the sparkling benediction, and the sad old record will have to be repeated—‘some believed and some believed not.’ It is of no avail that we have lived on the river’s bank as we do unless we have obeyed the invitation of Him Who is Himself, in a very profound sense, the River—‘Come unto Me and drink.’ We may perish with thirst within hearing of the lap of its ripples and be given over to salt, though within arm’s length of what would heal and vivify and refertilise us.
(1) ‘This chapter must have been in our Saviour’s mind when He spoke of the rivers of water which should flow from the believing soul. ‘As the Scripture hath said,’ perhaps refers to this portion of Scripture. It is therefore to be interpreted primarily of the influence of the restored people of God, when from Jerusalem shall issue those streams of blessing and saving power which shall influence the entire world of humanity. What shall the restoring of Israel be but life from the dead for the teeming myriads of the globe? Surely the chosen people are now learning the languages of all the world, that some day they may speak them as the missionaries of the Cross. But if this is the primary significance of the word, it is equally clear from our Saviour’s quotation that each individual who receives the gift of Pentecost may see a reflection of the possibilities of his own life.’
(2) ‘Ezekiel’s vision of Messianic times is singularly different from that of the second part of Isaiah, with its grand poetic imagery. Instead of lofty eloquence and sublime figure, we have prosaic details, like an architect’s specifications of the measurements of the Temple, and a land surveyor’s report of the extent of territory. Milton and Defoe are not more unlike in the quality of their imagination than these two prophets. But the substance of their visions is the same.’
I. Ezekiel’s vision describes the blessings which would come to the world through the Lord’s dwelling with His people.—While the primary reference is to the restoration of the Jewish people, it is in Christianity that the full beauty is realised. It is interesting to trace through the Scriptures the figure of water as a symbol of spiritual blessing. In the beginning of Genesis we have man’s first home pictured as a garden. There was a river that watered the garden, and flowed thence in four streams to carry the blessing out into the world. In the garden were all kinds of trees, bearing their fruits in their season. We know the sad story of the ruin which came upon this fair garden life. Man was driven out into an inhospitable world, amid briers and thorns. Sin always brings curse—it makes deserts out of gardens.
II. It is not a mere literary accident that in the last chapter of the Bible we find another picture wondrously like that of Eden.—We see here a pure river of the water of life, pouring out from under the throne of God and of the Lamb. Again we see the garden beauty—on the banks of the river the tree of life bearing twelve manner of fruits and yielding fruit every month. Thus the circle is complete. This illustrates the work of redemption in this world—bringing men back again to the lost paradise. Between the lost Eden and the restored paradise stands the Cross of Christ, the symbol of redemption.
III. From the Cross and broken grave poured forth a river of the water of life.—Into all the world it flowed, carrying on its streams fertility, fruit, beauty, and good.
That is what our subject pictures. From under the throne of God the waters pour. Deeper and wider do the streams grow as they roll on until they are rivers to swim in. On the banks fruit trees grow. Into the desert the waters are carried. They even heal and sweeten the bitterness of the Dead Sea.
(1) ‘There is a beautiful legend of the Valley of Chambra, which illustrates the origin of the river of the water of life. The valley is supplied with water from a great spring which bursts out on the hillside. The people tell this story of the origin of the spring: Once, long ago, the valley suffered from a great drought. Every tree, plant, and flower withered, and the people were famishing with thirst. Appeal was made to the oracle, and they were told that if the Princess Rene would give her life as a sacrifice, water would issue from her grave. Her answer was, “I am ready.” She was buried alive, and from her grave there burst out a spring like a river in volume. Its waters poured down into the valley, carrying drink to man and beast and bird, and refreshing to the root of every tree, plant, and flower. This is only a heathen legend, but it is a beautiful parable of the work of Jesus Christ.’
(2) ‘There is an oriental legend of a fountain with this marvellous quality—that wherever even a few drops only of its water fell a new spring burst up. A traveller had only to carry some of this water with him, and he could traverse any desert, causing a new fountain to open wherever he wished it.
(3) ‘The scene of the vision was the Temple hill. The waters represented the blessings of religion. The Temple was a type of the Incarnation. God dwelt in the holy of holies, in the Shekinah. By and by Jesus came, the Son of God, and then God dwelt in Him, not a symbol merely of the Divine glory in the dark room, but God Himself in a perfect human life. We know what rivers of blessing have flowed forth from Jesus Christ. Think of the influence of His words. Wherever they have gone they have carried life, strength, cheer, and comfort. They have told the story of the love and mercy of God in all lands, and have made millions of lives richer and better. Think of the influence of the life of Christ. He lived His short years as no other man had lived before. There was no sin in Him. It was really God living among men, the Divine truth, purity, righteousness, and love lived out in common human ways. There was love in the world before—mother-love, friend-love, but never such love as was seen in Jesus. He loved His enemies. He had no resentments, no bitterness in His heart. The more he was wronged the sweeter was His spirit. No one before had ever cared much for the poor, for broken lives, or for the fallen; Jesus showed a deep and sincere interest in all these classes. He had compassion upon the ignorant and those who were out of the way. Thus He lived out the love of God in a world where love was intensely hungered for. At last He made love’s supreme sacrifice, giving His life. Ever since that day the influence of Christ’s life has been flowing over the world like a river broad and deep.’
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Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Ezekiel 47". The Church Pulpit Commentary. https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26