Are We to Understand Ezekiel's River Literally or Figuratively?

Manfred E. Kober, Th.D.

Woven throughout Old Testament prophecy is a constant theme of spectacular physical and geographical changes to occur when Christ returns. Zech. 14 describes many features of this upheaval, including a new river predicted to flow from Jerusalem and through the desert (Zech. 14:8) after the Second Advent of Christ (v. 4).

The prophet Ezekiel concludes his temple vision (chapters 40-46) with a description of the same miraculous, life-giving stream issuing from the temple. The river is also mentioned by Joel (3:18), some 250 years before Ezekiel and by Zechariah in the Babylonian exile. About 1000 B.C., the Psalmist refers to the same river in Psalm 46:4.

1A. The Denial of Its Literalness

Unfortunately many commentators spiritualize the river and thus cannot agree on its interpretation. The early church fathers saw the river as a symbol of baptism. Some see it as the stream of church history. Many speak of the river as emblematic of spiritual life, with some saints only ankle-deep or knee-deep Christians. Some are waist-deep in spiritual things and others totally immersed. There are those who identify the river with the stream of the Gospel, denying any literal future aspect of the prophecy. Derek Kidner somehow relates the river with the rivers of paradise in Genesis 2, as “vitality that flows from holy ground,” whatever that nonsensical statement might mean (Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary [Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1967], 63).

William M. Thoimson, for 45 years a missionary to Syria and Palestine in the 19th century, in his famous and unsurpassed three-volume work, his description of Bible lands, The Land and the Book, regrettably takes the allegorizing approach to Ezekiel 47:

There are good men, and learned in the Scriptures, who interpret it literally, and maintain that a mighty physical miracle is here predicted; but we find in it only a spiritual allegory, which foreshadows miracle of mercy for the whole world. That God will cause such a river of actual water to flow down from Mount Moriah to gladden the desert of Judea and heal the Sea of Sodom, I do not believe. There is another desert and another sea, however, which will surely redeem and heal—the desert of sin, the sea of spiritual death. . . .That sea figures largely in that allegory, as well it may. . . Fit symbol of that sea of depravity and corruption which nothing human can heal (1907, Vol. 1, 425-427, emphasis added).

2A. The Defense of Its Literalness

Only the literal interpretation can do justice to magnificent prophetic passages such as Zechariah 14 and Ezekiel 47. It is demonstrably true in the interpretation of these and other passages that “sane literal interpretation. . .cannot fail to lead to happy results in exegesis. Spiritualizing an mysticalizing interpretation, on the other hand. . .are bound to produce endless confusion” (Merrill F. Unger, Zechariah: Prophet of Messiah’s Glory [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975], 239).

If one denies the literalness of the river, where does one stop? The events of the Second Advent outlined by Zechariah and Ezekiel are interrelated. The (1) rebellion of the nations at Armageddon is followed by (2) the ravishing of Jerusalem, which in turn is followed by (3) the return of the Lord, (4) the removal of the mountains, (5) the revelation of the river, (6) the redemption of nature, and (7) the reign of Christ. The Germans have a proverb: “Wer A sagt der muss auch B sagen.” (He who says A also must say B.) An interpreter who sees the return of the Lord as a literal event should also subscribe to a literal fulfillment of its accompanying events.

If the river is not literal, why would Zechariah and Ezekiel list so many actual geographical places in the context? Jerusalem, the Mount of Olives, the Arabah, the Dead Sea, En-Gedi, En-Eglaim, and the salt flats are quite specific locations.

If the river were not literal, why would there be at least 10 references in Scripture to the river? Psalm 46:4 mentions a river which will make Jerusalem glad. Joel 3:18’s millennial prediction envisions a fountain coming out of the temple and watering the valley of Shittim in which the Dead Sea is located. In fact, the millennial changes predicted by Zechariah and Ezekiel are simply a microcosm of the healing of the curse that will take place all over the world.

Apparently every desert on earth will become lush and green. Joel speaks of other rivers of Judah flowing with water (Joel 3:16). Isaiah writes of waters breaking out in the wilderness, streams in the desert, and floods upon the dry ground (Isa. 43:19-20; 44:3). The wilderness will become a fruitful field (Isa. 32:15; 55:13). The changes described for the wilderness of Judea will be worldwide as deserts such as the Sahara, Gobi, and Mojave will become lush forests. The redeemed will be there to witness the transformation as the Redeemer saves the groaning creation from the curse of sin (Rom. 8:22). At that time the carol “Joy to the World” will take on its fullest meaning: “No more let sins and sorrow grow, nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.” (See my chapter on “The Return of the Lord and the River of Life” in Willis and Master, Basic Theology Applied, 289-90).

© Manfred E Kober

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