CHAPTER ELEVEN (pages 183-196)
The River of Life
There is a river the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacle of the most high.
Of man's first home it was said:
And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And a river went out of Eden to water the garden (Gen. 2:8-10).
Of the saints' final home it is said:
And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.
The Scripture lesson would not be complete without Ezekiel's vision of the holy waters and of their virtues. Though the passage is long, let us have it all before us:
Afterward he brought me again unto the door of the house; and, behold, water issued out from under the threshold of the house eastward: for the forefront of the house stood toward the east, and the waters came down from under the right side of the house, at the south side of the altar. Then brought he me out of the way of the gate northward, and led me about the way without unto the utter gate by the way that looketh eastward; and, behold, there ran out waters on the right side. And when the man that had the line in his hand went forth eastward, he measured a thousand cubits, and he brought me through the waters; the waters were to the ankles. Again he measured a thousand, and brought me through the waters; the waters were to the knees. Again he measured a thousand, and brought me through; the waters were to the loins. Afterward he measured a thousand; and it was a river that I could not pass over: for the waters were risen, waters to swim in, a river that could not be passed over. And he said unto me, "Son of man, hast thou seen this:" Then he brought me, and caused me to return to the brink of the river. Now when I had returned, behold, at the bank of the river were very many trees on the one side and on the other side. Then said he unto me, "These waters issue out toward the east country, and go down into the desert, and go into the sea: which being brought forth into the sea, the waters shall be healed. And it shall come to pass that everything that liveth, which moveth, whitherso-ever the rivers shall come, shall live: and there shall be a very great multitude of fish, because these waters shall come thither: for they shall be healed; and every thing shall live 'whither the river cometh. And it shall come to pass, that the fishers shall stand upon it from Engedi, even unto En-eglaim; they shall be a place to spread forth nets; their fish shall be according to their kinds, as the fish of the great sea, exceeding many. But the miry places thereof and the marshes thereof shall not be healed; they shall be given to salt. And by the river upon the bank thereof, on this side and on that side, shall grow all trees for meat, whose leaf shall not fade, neither shall the fruit thereof be consumed: it shall bring forth new fruit according to his months, because their waters they issued out of the sanctuary: and the fruit thereof shall be for meat, and the leaf thereof for medicine.
The River of Paradise
This vision of Ezekiel is the intermediate picture between the Mosaic description of the typical paradise and John's vision of the ante typical paradise. The only difference between the river which Ezekiel saw and the river of John's Apocalypse is that the one represents grace on earth and the other, glory in heaven. The river is the same-a river of grace here, of glory yonder. Above Pittsburgh we call the tributaries the Monongahela and the Alleghany. Below Pittsburgh the confluent stream is called the Ohio. The waters are the same.
When the inspired psalmist declares: "There is a river the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacle of the Most High," his theme is one with those of Ezekiel and John.
Ezekiel's Vision of the River
Last night I read and expounded at family worship Ezekiel's vision of the river. And when I had described to my children the trickling drops under the sanctuary, that issued into a tiny stream which an infant might span, then speedily became ankle deep¬ knee deep-waist deep-unwadable; then how evergreens fringed its borders and fruit trees bloomed, and bore ripened harvests of every luscious kind perennially along its course; how it reached the desert and made it blossom as a rose; how it came to that awful Dead Sea and healed its bitter, briny waters and filled them with fish, though for ages it had swallowed the Jordan without losing its deadness; but how when these waters found no outlet in some hollow place they stagnated and formed a slimy, scum-covered, pestilential marsh; and what all these things signified-my little daughter said: "0 Papa, preach about that tomorrow, preach about the River of Life!" I promised that I would. And so a little child has led me to this sermon. And I desire to so preach it that a little child can understand.
I would have us not merely to delight ourselves in a beautiful picture, but learn and apply the more beautiful spiritual truth in the beautiful symbol. When apples of gold are offered in basket of silver, let us prefer the apples to the basket.
I would answer then the following questions in order: What is this river? What are its blessings? By what means of instruments are these blessings conveyed to the world? What the course ar.: destiny of this river? What invitations does it suggest?
What Is This River?
My answer is a monosyllable: God. I want to prove to you from the Bible that God Himself is this river. I introduce as the first evidence a passage in the second chapter of Jeremiah:
My people have committed two evils. They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and have hewed out for themselves broken cisterns which can hold no water.
Here is the declaration that God the Father is the fountain of living waters.
I introduce as the second evidence Zechariah 13: 1 :
In that day there shall be opened in the city of David a fountain for sin and uncleanness.
This follows the description of the One who was pierced, and with the piercing of Him comes the unsealing of the fountain for cleansing. Therefore, God the Son is that river.
In John 7:38, I cite another evidence. It is there stated that on the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried:
If any man thirst let him came unto me and drink, and out of him shall flow rivers of living water.
This spake He of the Holy Ghost, who had not yet been given, because Christ had not yet been glorified. Therefore, this river is God the Holy Ghost. John's pure river in Revelation was seen "proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb." Ezekiel's river ran by the altar of sacrifice. Truly we may all say with David: "All my springs are in thee" (Ps. 87:7).
What Are the Blessings of This River?
The first blessing is life. This appears in the conversation between Jesus and the sinful woman at the well of Samaria:
Jesus answered and said unto her, "If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink, thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water." The woman saith unto him, "Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; from whence then hast thou that living water? Art thou greater than our father Jacob, which gave us the well, and drank thereof himself, and his children, and his cattle?" Jesus answered and said unto her, "Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst, but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life."
John, in Revelation, expressly calls it the river of life. And Ezekiel's vision particularly emphasizes this blessing:
And it shall come to pass, that every thing that liveth, which moveth; whithersoever the rivers shall come, shall live: and there shall be a very great multitude of fish because these waters shall come thither: for they shall be healed and every thing shall live whither the river cometh.
I state, then, as the first blessing of this river, it is life, eternal life. It is life for the body. It is life for the soul. It is life forever.
The second blessing is cleansing from the defilement of sin. "In that day a fountain shall be opened for sin and uncleanness." This is the beautiful Scripture upon which Cowper wrote his matchless hymn:
There is a fountain filled with blood, Drawn from Immanuel's veins,
And sinners plunged beneath that flood Lose all their guilty stains.
It is not only a fountain of life and a fountain of cleansing, but ... it is a river of refreshment and rest and peace. "Thou leadest me by the still waters." Here in the context is contrasted the roar of the stormy sea with the waters of Siloam that flow softly; peaceful waters, where the weary can recline upon its sloping banks and be at peace and be saved.
The next blessing is nourishment. On the banks of this river are trees. Never yet since God made the earth bring forth seed, that there might be bread for the eater, has there been found a fruit that does not grow on the bank of that river. With us we find in one section apples, but not oranges; in the tropics, oranges and bananas, but not apples. Each section has its own fruit, and you have to move about to get to the different fruits of the earth or have them brought from afar. Moreover, the fruit season with us is short. The fruit is soon gone. But, on the banks of this river, every tree that ever bore fruit grows, and no autumn winds shall loose their fadeless leaves, and no winter's icy breath shall nip their swelling buds. All are evergreens in foliage and perennial in bearing, and the people come and eat of this fruit and it nourishes them. It sustains their life.
In the old paradise, when God made the world, in the very center of the Garden was a Tree of Life, and if anybody would eat of that fruit he would live forever. After man had sinned, God cast him out, lest he should partake of that fruit and live forever, in sin and misery. I doubt not that God had provided that by that fruit Adam's body should renew itself continually. His body never would have died. Through the effect of that fruit, there would have been a continual renewal of the elements of life. He would never have died. And so the fruit on the banks of the stream in Revelation 22 is supplied by the Tree of Life. On either side of it was there the Tree of Life. It is not angel's food, the manna which came down for the people in the wilderness. It is the fruit that God gives His redeemed, and is their nourishment forevermore.
The next blessing is healing. The leaves of these trees are for the healing of the nations. How many sick people! People that are blind, or dim-eyed; people that are bowed with pain! It seems that diseases without number have seized hold upon the human race, and from the first wail of the newborn child until the gasping breath that tells that the spirit is gone, the body is a prey to disease, every kind of disease.
But here is health. The inhabitant shall never say, "I am sick." Never! It is the purpose of God that those who gather upon the bank of this river and partake of this fruit, and apply these healing leaves shall never know an ache or a pain. It is perfect health. Life, cleansing, refreshment, health, beauty.
Look at a desert, the glowing sand, the burning sky, the bleakness and the desolation, and, if this river comes, that desert shall blossom as a rose. It shall be as beautiful as the Paradise of God.
Means of Conveyance
What are the instruments by which the blessings shall go to the world? Or, to use an expression suggesting the methods of irrigation: What are the canals or conduits that conduct this water to the barren places? In a country where irrigation is relied on for moisture, you may see costly aqueducts or modest ditches conveying from off mountain springs or from huge reservoirs prepared by art, the water supply to every thirsty part of a field or garden.
Answering to this figure, what are the channels of God's grace? Unquestionably, God's church and His people. Out of the sanctuary the waters flow, the tabernacle of God. Out of Zion they go forth to the world. What a mission! The church of Jesus Christ, appointed to conduct the waters of life, the waters of healing, the waters of cleansing, the waters of beauty and refreshment and rest to the thirsty and parched world.
It is not only true with reference to the church, as an organization, but I can show you from the Scriptures that it refers to individual Christians. Shall I quote it? On that last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried:
If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink, and out of him shall flow rivers of living water.
Whoever is a convert, whoever has come to Christ for drink, whoever has cooled lips-burning, swollen and parched by the hot fires of sin-in the fountain of Christ, out of him in turn shall flow rivers of living water.
The outflow from him is not meant to express his own blessing. He gets his blessing in Christ; but the outflow from him is to be blessing for other people. This spake He of the Spirit, that through the influence of the Holy Spirit the Christian should be a conveyancer of the blessings of life and salvation to other people. No matter how poor, how lowly, how obscure, how little esteemed by the great ones of this world, if God shines into your heart, if you have tasted and found that the Lord is good, and have quenched your own thirst in the fountain of living waters, from you shall outflow rivers of living water.
Your influence among men shall be life-giving; it shall be health-renewing. Your influence shall be the influence of peace and refreshment. Your influence shall be cleansing as it comes in touch with the defilement of the world. What a glorious blessing!
And are there no desert places? Are there no places where people cannot live on account of the drought? Is it not getting to be so that some places are not worth living in because they have been made a moral desert? Oh! can these healing streams reach the midnight banqueting rooms where oaths fall from the lips of men that are drunk with wine? Can these healing streams flow to the places of the abandoned and lost?
Characteristics and Destiny of the River
The next question which I wish to answer is, what is the course and destiny of this river? It is expressed in three thoughts:
One, the river is outflowing. The law of motion is the law of life. Where there is a miry place, a stagnant place, there is salt. That shall never be healing. One who receives the blessings of the grace of God and profits not by them, to him they become a savor of death unto death, and not of life unto life. His condemnation will be enhanced by the degree of the light which he has not regarded, and the number and pathos and attractiveness of the pleadings which he has disregarded, and the number of admonitions to which he has turned a deaf ear.
Oh, that a man should die of thirst, when just across a stretch of desert there is a horizon of green telling of the perennial Tree of Life growing upon the banks of the stream that makes glad the city of God! To die, to die in anguish, to die of thirst, to be like Ishmael under the shrub, when the water bottle was empty, and crying in his agony. Oh, that God would again hear the lad Himself as He heard Ishmael that day and unseal the fountain for the abandoned boy!
I say the course of this river is outflowing. I mean this, that if there be in you any of the spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ, it will be a spirit of movement. It will not stop and stagnate. It will overflow and outflow. It will go to others. What genuinely converted heart would attempt to make a corner on salvation, to narrow, to hem it up and circumscribe it in home bounds, to say, "There is only room enough for me and mine in paradise"? Who of the redeemed would be willing to build a dam across a stream that God intended to flow out into yonder desert, where men are gasping for life, choking with the dust and with the sand that the storms are bringing in clouds upon them in their prostration? Tear down the dam. Let the water outflow. Let it go to the thirsty. Who will dare oppose the outward march and progress of the gospel of Jesus Christ?
Shall it stop at Jews? Why, then, did God rebuke Peter on the housetop at Joppa, who held at his girdle the key that would unlock the door of the kingdom of heaven to the Gentile, and there on the borders of that Mediterranean Sea that washed the shores of the lost Gentile world, Peter kept idle the key of the kingdom of heaven that opened the Gentile door until God converted him by a sheet let down from heaven, showing by the animals in it of every kind, not only kids and lambs and bullocks; but lions and tigers and hyenas and jackals; not only doves, but eagles and hawks and owls and bats and snakes, every creeping thing was there, that salvation was for all nations?
God said, "Arise, Peter, kill and eat." "Not so, Lord; not so, Lord; I have never eaten anything common or unclean. Let salvation be for the Jews." Break down that wall of partition! The gospel is for the world! Salvation cannot be confined in narrow boundaries. Let it overflow until it strikes the outer shore of human habitations and brings all men, whom God has made of one blood, life and cleansing and health and refreshment and nourishment and beauty and glory.
It means that if you are not a missionary Christian, you are no Christian. Thou miry place! Thou pond, green scum coming over the top, slimy things spawned in it, miasma rising from it: thou dismal swamp; thou Christian who has no outflowing; the miry places shall be salt, they shall not be healed, and whoever withholds a blessing from God from others shall himself be a curse.
The second characteristic of its course is its increase. If you stop, it sinks. If you let it go on, it gets bigger. I saw waters trickling in drops from under the sanctuary; a thousand cubits, it is ankle deep; another thousand, it is knee deep; another thousand. it is to the loins; another thousand, behold a river that cannot be waded, a river to swim in, widening and deepening its channel. and increasing its volume and its momentum. The river of God flows on.
The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, which is the least of all seeds, but it grows and grows until it makes a mighty tree, in which the birds of the air come and build their nests. The kingdom of heaven is like a little leaven, which a woman took and put in three measures of meal, and it leavened and leavened and leavened until it leavened the whole lump. The kingdom of heaven, what is it?
I saw a little stone, cut out of the mountain without hands. and it came rolling down the mountain and getting bigger and bigger, and rolling faster and faster until, as a mighty cannon ball, a huge avalanche, it smote the image of Nebuchadnezzar, and crushed it to dust, and rolled on, enlarging as it rolled, until it filled the whole earth.
There shall be a handful of corn in the earth upon the top of the mountains; the fruit thereof shall shake like Lebanon. And they of the city shall flourish like grass of the earth. His name shall endure forever; His name shall be continued as long as the sun; and men shall be blessed in Him; and all nations shall call Him blessed. And blessed be His glorious name forever: and let the whole earth be filled with His glory. Amen, and amen.
What is the next and last characteristic of its course? Its culmination. I will give you a picture:
There is in Palestine a sea way down yonder in the ground, far, far below the level of the Mediterranean and of the ocean; a sea that is a pit. A pit? Yes, a pit of brimstone. Under it are the bones of the Sodomites. The Dead Sea! No tree or flower grows on its borders. No fish, no creeping thing, is in it. It is dead, dead. And what shall heal it? Shall it be the Jordan? Far yonder in Lebanon, snowy Lebanon, the sun comes out and melts the white snow crest with which winter has crowned it, and these waters come down from Lebanon. Wonderful waters! The waters run through the Sea of Galilee, waters that had been pavement under the foot of the Son of God; waters also into which He had been baptized; waters that had been smitten by the mantle of Elijah and Elisha; waters where Gideon's troop triumphed over their foes; historic from spring to mouth. But Jordan flows into the Dead Sea and heals it not; Jordan is swallowed up and the sea is dead. It drinks up the Jordan, and if a fish should come down from the Sea of Galilee, carried by the swift waters of the Jordan, when it touches the waters of the Dead Sea it dies.
But let me show you something. Come here to Jerusalem, and behold waters trickling down from under the altar of God, and see it becoming a mighty river. It does not rise in Lebanon. It rises in the sanctuary of God. See it becoming a river! As it goes, fringing itself with evergreens and fruit-bearing trees. See it flow through the desert, and as its waters move, the desert blossoms, and becomes as the garden of God. And when that water strikes the Dead Sea it is dead no more. It is healed; healed over the very tomb of Sodom and Gomorrah, and fishermen come and spread their nets where desolation had reigned. Water that no man could drink or could sink in, water of salt and bitterness; it is healed at last. Says Revelation, "There shall be no more sea," certainly no more Dead Sea. It is as fresh as a fountain.
What Does It Mean?
What does it mean? It does express the healing power of the river that flows from the sanctuary of God. You can have no home of certain peace and rest on the water of any other stream. Go into ecstasies, if you will, about the cascades of the Hudson, its "Sleepy Hollows," its mountains, fortress-crowned. Talk of the Tiber or the Tay or the Thames. Where is there a stream not crimsoned in its tide with red-handed murder?
But this river that flows from the sanctuary of God shall redeem the world. It shall make the earth a paradise. It shall be as when God said, "It is good." New heavens bend over it. A new earth is the footstool wherein dwelleth righteousness, and from one boundary to another it is covered with the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the great deep. Oh, thou glorious river of the gospel of God, giving life to the fainting, giving cleansing to the sinful, cleansing to the most defiled, for what can heal the Dead Sea, can save any man. Such is the river-God. Such are its blessings-life, healing, cleansing, nourishment, refreshment, beauty. Such are its conduits-the church, the Christian. Such is its course-outflowing, ever-deepening, culminating in the redemption of the Dead Sea itself.
What Invitations Are Voiced by Its Waters?
Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters. And the Spirit and the Bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.
I stand by the banks of the river and send out a voice into the wilderness of the world. Who is thirsty? Who is sad? Who is sick? Who is dying? Come to the fountain, the fountain of cleansing and of life, and of health.
The earth will rot and putrefy in the sight of God if the channels of the gospel are dammed up. Its only hope is this word. You might as well attempt to stop a Texas norther with a barricade of straw as to stop the cold and chilling breath of death from seizing upon this world, if any other remedy is relied upon than this gospel.
A Benevolent Philosophy?
Try a benevolent philosophy. It lifts a lordly head. It shakes a kingly crest. It attitudinizes as a mighty one. And what is it? Agnosticism! What is agnosticism? It is a philosophy of not knowing.
Is there any final healing? It answers, "I don't know."
Is there any life beyond the grave? It says, "I don't know."
If my heart is burdened, is there any hope in kneeling down and praying, "God, help me"? It croaks, "I don't know."
Is there any God? It cries, "I don't know."
And a man prides himself on that, and goes around pushing common people aside, and says, "Here is a philosophy for you." What? "The philosophy of not knowing anything." How will that heal the world? How will that stay the hand of the assassin? How will that reform? How will it redeem the bondman? How will it strike the shackles from the slave? How will it shove off Satan, whose cloven foot presses down on the heart of the fallen? It can have no power. It is a negation, just a negation.
What will you put in place of the gospel? Here are the conduits that convey this water of life to the world. Shall we break them up? Here is the aqueduct. Shall we cut it down? Tear down the churches? Fold up the banner and close the book? Let men quit praying? The fool hath said in his heart, "No God! No God!"
The Voice of Invitation
O thou church of Jesus, yours should be a voice of invitation! Why are not your hands stretched out? Why is not your voice lifted? Surely there are thirsty people enough, and hungry people enough, spending their money for that which is not bread, and toiling for that which satisfieth not, drinking indeed each one what countless millions might drink, and yet dying of thirst. Oh, the sick world, the sinful world, the dying world, the sinking world! Church of Jesus Christ, let the waters flow to it, the waters of life. And do ye plead with men to become reconciled to God? Who would live always? Who would ask to stay where storm after storm rises dark o'er the way; who would bear the proud man's scorn, the world's contumely; who would endure forever life's burden, but for the hope of a place and a time and an estate where night shall not come, where the inhabitants shall not be sick, where God's name shall be in the foreheads of His people, and where they shall serve Him forevermore.
Heaven! Draw back its curtain. Let the world see it. Loom up into our sight, thou glory land. Stream down in radiance thy attractiveness. Draw us up to thee by the bonds of divine love, so that we may say, though lame and blind and deaf and suffering: "It makes no difference. It is just a little while. It endures but for a moment. It will work out for us glory, more glory, far more glory, exceeding more glory, far more and exceeding glory, weight of glory, in the bright world to come."
Church of Jesus Christ, talk to the people about heaven, that sun-bright clime. I repeat again, the old Methodist hymn:
Have you heard, have you heard, Of that sun-bright clime,
Undimmed by sorrow and unhurt by time,
Where age hath no power over the fadeless frame, Where the eye is fire and the heart is flame,
Have you heard, have you heard,
Of that sun-bright clime?