Ezekiel 47 – The River of Life
A. The river from the temple.
1. (1-2) The river’s source: the temple.
Then he brought me back to the door of the temple; and there was water, flowing from under the threshold of the temple toward the east, for the front of the temple faced east; the water was flowing from under the right side of the temple, south of the altar. He brought me out by way of the north gate, and led me around on the outside to the outer gateway that faces east; and there was water, running out on the right side.
a. There was water, flowing from under the threshold of the temple: Led back to the door of the temple (presumably by the radiant man of Ezekiel 40:3), Ezekiel saw something that never existed in the temple before: a river flowing directly from the temple.
i. “Ezekiel uses this imagery to affirm that the new temple, like the old, will be a font of blessing for Israel.” (Vawter and Hoppe)
ii. Significantly, the river does not come from a king’s palace or a government building. It doesn’t come from a marketplace, a place of business, or an athletic arena. It comes from God’s house.
b. There was water, running out on the right side: In all of its recorded history, Jerusalem never had such a river. There were streams and springs, but never a rich, mighty river, and never one flowing from this part of the city. In the semi-arid geography of Israel a river like this was both a blessing and a miracle. It brought life, growth, vitality, refreshment, hope, and security.
i. “Blessing, fertility and water are almost interchangeable ideas in the Old Testament” (Taylor). We think of the beauty of Psalm 46:4: There is a river whose streams shall make glad the city of God.
ii. “Jerusalem is the only great city of the ancient world that wasn’t located on a river, and in the east, a dependable water supply is essential for life and for defense. During the Kingdom Age, Jerusalem shall have a river such as no other nation ever had.” (Wiersbe)
iii. Running out on the right side: “The waters seem to have been at first in small quantity; for the words imply that they oozed or dropped out. They were at first so small that they came, drop by drop; but they increased.” (Clarke)
iv. “We have reminders that flowing streams are parables of the flowing life of God (e.g. Psalm 42:1; Jeremiah 2:13; John 4:10-15).” (Wright)
v. Trapp gave a typical spiritualized explanation of this river: “The gospel of grace, and the gifts of the Holy Ghost thereby conveyed into the hearts of believers, and poured out upon the world by the death of Christ.”
vi. Though such a river has symbolic meaning, we should not miss the plain promises of such a river in the coming kingdom of the Messiah.
· A fountain shall flow from the house of the LORD (Joel 3:18).
· And in that day it shall be – that living waters shall flow from Jerusalem (Zechariah 14:8).
vii. John mentioned a similar river relevant to the eternal state in Revelation, but it isn’t the same as this river. “The variance between Ezekiel’s account of this river and that of John in the Revelation centers on the river’s source. God is the source of both rivers; but Ezekiel saw the river issuing from the temple, whereas John saw the river coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb (a temple not existing according to Revelation 21:22).” (Alexander)
2. (3-6) The river’s increasing depth.
And when the man went out to the east with the line in his hand, he measured one thousand cubits, and he brought me through the waters; the water came up to my ankles. Again he measured one thousand and brought me through the waters; the water came up to my knees. Again he measured one thousand and brought me through; the water came up to my waist. Again he measured one thousand, and it was a river that I could not cross; for the water was too deep, water in which one must swim, a river that could not be crossed. He said to me, “Son of man, have you seen this?” Then he brought me and returned me to the bank of the river.
a. When the man went out to the east with the line in his hand: Ezekiel’s unnamed guide followed the course of the river as it flowed out to the east. He followed the river one thousand cubits (about one-third of a mile or one-half a kilometer) from some point, perhaps its origin from the temple.
b. He brought me through the waters: Together with the unnamed guide, Ezekiel went into and through the waters. The river was not something for Ezekiel to simply look at or think about; it was something for him to enter into.
c. The water came up to my ankles: At the measured distance (one thousand cubits), the river was as deep as Ezekiel’s ankles. It wasn’t very deep, but Ezekiel was in it as much as he could be, experiencing all the depth the river had at that point.
i. The phrase, the water came up to my ankles, is literally water of ankles. Taylor relates how this led to a bad translation and bad theology: “So strange did this phrase seem to the lxx translator that he virtually transliterated it and made ‘water of remission,’ with the result that many early Christian commentators applied this symbolism to the waters of baptism. A warning to both translators and interpreters!”
d. Again he measured one thousand and brought me through the waters: Ezekiel’s guide continued eastward with the flow of the river, and he brought Ezekiel with him along the way. This continued for four measures of one thousand cubits in total.
e. The water came up to my knees… up to my waist: As Ezekiel continued, the river became deeper at each measuring point. Starting at ankle depth, then up to his knees, then his waist. At each point along the way, Ezekiel was in the river as deep as he could be. He didn’t artificially sink himself into the river, but his experience matched the actual depth of the river.
i. This rapid increase in depth – from a small trickle of a stream to ankle depth, to knee depth, to waist depth, all in the course of about a mile (or 1.5 kilometers) – is miraculous. We read nothing of other streams leading into this; it is a miraculous and abundant provision.
ii. “Why was it necessary to bring Ezekiel through the waters in vision? The purpose was to reveal to him both the size and depth of the river. The trickle (the literal of ‘ran out’ of Ezekiel 47:2 is ‘trickled forth’) had become a veritable river during the measuring activity of the man in the vision.” (Feinberg)
f. It was a river that I could not cross; for the water was too deep: The rapid increase of the river’s depth and power showed what a mighty river this was. It soon came to the point where the water was over Ezekiel’s head, and all he could do was swim.
i. Fundamentally, this shows us the miraculous nature of a real river in a real Messianic kingdom to come. Yet by spiritual analogy, there is a powerful picture of increasing progress and depth in our spiritual life. It illustrates a progression from ankles, to knees, to waist, to depths where one can no longer touch the ground and must swim. God’s people read this and feel a call to go deeper. They shouldn’t stop until they are swimming, carried along by God’s currents and comfortable in that place.
ii. “We need the ankle-depths of walking to be exchanged for the knee-depths of praying; and these for the loin-depths of perfect purity; and these for the length, depth, breadth, and height of the love of Christ.” (Meyer)
iii. Spurgeon saw a spiritual analogy between the life of faith and swimming. We start out “floating in faith,” somewhat passively, just keeping our head up out of the water. We then progress to swimming by faith. “How blessedly our friend Mr. Mueller of Bristol swims! What a master swimmer he is! He has had his feet off the bottom many years and as he swims he draws along behind him some 2,000 orphan children, whom, by God’s grace, he is saving from the floods of sin and bringing, we trust, safe to shore.” (Spurgeon)
iv. Many commentators and preachers through the centuries have seen the increasing depth of this river to be an illustration of the great depths of God’s word. “Scriptures have their shallows wherein the lamb may wade, like as they have their profundities wherein the elephant himself may swim. Augustine condemned the Holy Scriptures at first, as neither eloquent nor deep enough for the elevation of his wit. But afterwards, when he was both a better and a wiser man, he saw his own shallowness, and admired the never enough adored depth of God’s holy oracles.” (Trapp)
g. He brought me and returned me to the bank of the river: When it was clear that the water was too deep for Ezekiel and he could not cross it, then his guide brought him out of the river and back to the bank. He asked Ezekiel to carefully think about what he saw and experienced (have you seen this?).
3. (7-12) The power of the river.
When I returned, there, along the bank of the river, were very many trees on one side and the other. Then he said to me: “This water flows toward the eastern region, goes down into the valley, and enters the sea. When it reaches the sea, its waters are healed. And it shall be that every living thing that moves, wherever the rivers go, will live. There will be a very great multitude of fish, because these waters go there; for they will be healed, and everything will live wherever the river goes. It shall be that fishermen will stand by it from En Gedi to En Eglaim; they will be places for spreading their nets. Their fish will be of the same kinds as the fish of the Great Sea, exceedingly many. But its swamps and marshes will not be healed; they will be given over to salt. Along the bank of the river, on this side and that, will grow all kinds of trees used for food; their leaves will not wither, and their fruit will not fail. They will bear fruit every month, because their water flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for medicine.”
a. Many trees on one side and the other: Once out of the river Ezekiel noticed the many trees. They grew along both sides of the river.
i. “The deepest valley rift in the world is the Arabah in the Holy Land. The waters of the river will flow east through the Arabah into the Dead Sea. ” (Feinberg)
b. When it reaches the sea, its waters are healed: Ezekiel’s guide described the miraculous properties of this river. As the river flowed out from Jerusalem then down into the Dead Sea, those lifeless waters were healed. There would be a very great multitude of fish in that strange body of water that previously held no life. This can and will be fulfilled both literally in a coming kingdom age and is also a fitting symbol of God’s present work through the gospel.
i. There is also an obvious but possibly overlooked point here: God cares about the environment and promises to restore and heal it. Despite the many who worship the creation instead of the Creator, God Himself cares about His creation. His salvation and work of redemption extend to the environment.
ii. “Its waters are miraculously healed, rapa normally refers to the healing of a diseased body, but in this case the miracle involves neutralizing the baneful chemicals in the water, so it becomes fresh.” (Block)
iii. Jesus may very well have had this image of Ezekiel in mind (or a similar one) when He spoke of rivers of living water (John 7:37-38). There is a valid spiritual application of this wonderful image, and a literal fulfillment to come.
iv. Yet many commentators unfortunately feel comfortable ignoring any future literal fulfillment of this and see it only as a visionary parable. “This sea is the wide world dead in sins and trespasses. [Ephesians 2:1] These fishers are Christ’s apostles and ministers, who are called fishers of men, [Matthew 4:19] and their preaching compared to fishing.” (Trapp)
c. Its swamps and marshes will not be healed; they will be given over to salt: There will remain certain areas near the former Dead Sea that will keep their old characteristics. Perhaps this is so that the useful minerals gained from the Dead Sea would still be available from these places.
i. “The preservation of some pockets of saltiness is intentional, recognizing the economic benefit of the minerals found in and around the Dead Sea. Salt (melah) is not only a valuable seasoning and preserving agent; the word functions generically for a wide range of chemicals extracted from the sea. ” (Block)
ii. As an example of an overly-spiritualized approach to this passage, consider how Clarke thought of the swamps and marshes of Ezekiel 47:11: “A description applicable to the Roman Catholic Church, that is both schismatic and heretic from the Church of Jesus Christ, which is built on the foundation of the prophets and apostles, Jesus himself being the chief corner stone; for the Church of Rome, leaving this foundation, is now built on the foundation of councils and traditions, and lying miracles; the popes in their succession being its only corner stones.”
d. Will grow all kinds of trees used for food: Along the sides of the river, there were remarkable fruit trees with leaves that will not wither and fruit that will never fail. In some unknown way, their leaves will be used for medicine.
i. Matthew Poole had an unfounded and interesting speculation: “These trees most likely were palmetto trees, whence the balm that healeth, the fruit that feedeth, and juice that refresheth, and allays our thirst.”
B. The borders of the land.
1. (13-14) The promise of the land, and two portions for Joseph.
Thus says the Lord GOD: “These are the borders by which you shall divide the land as an inheritance among the twelve tribes of Israel. Joseph shall have two portions. You shall inherit it equally with one another; for I raised My hand in an oath to give it to your fathers, and this land shall fall to you as your inheritance.
a. These are the borders by which you shall divide the land: This emphasizes that this was not a symbolic or spiritual land, God gave specific borders to mark it. There will be real land that will be given to the real twelve tribes of Israel.
i. These are all twelve tribes. “Although the nation had been divided politically for nearly four hundred years, as in the case of all his prophetic colleagues Ezekiel’s vision of Israel’s future is based on the tradition of a united nation consisting of twelve tribes of Israel descended from Jacob’s twelve sons.” (Block)
ii. “The boundaries are substantially those originally given to Moses in Numbers 34:1-15. In Numbers the southern boundary is given first; here the reckoning is from the north.” (Feinberg)
b. Joseph shall have two portions: As was with the division of the land under Joshua, the two sons of Joseph (Ephraim and Manasseh) would each have their portion.
c. I raised My hand in an oath to give it to your fathers, and this land shall fall to you: Again, God emphasized that this was a real land that would continue and fulfill the promises of a real land to Israel’s patriarchs. God made these promises to:
· Abraham in Genesis 13:15 and 15:18.
· Isaac in Genesis 26:3.
· Jacob in Genesis 28:13.
i. This granting of the land in the millennial kingdom will be an extension and a fulfillment of those long ago and often repeated promises.
2. (15-20) The borders of the land on every side.
“This shall be the border of the land on the north: from the Great Sea, by the road to Hethlon, as one goes to Zedad, Hamath, Berothah, Sibraim (which is between the border of Damascus and the border of Hamath), to Hazar Hatticon (which is on the border of Hauran). Thus the boundary shall be from the Sea to Hazar Enan, the border of Damascus; and as for the north, northward, it is the border of Hamath. This is the north side.
“On the east side you shall mark out the border from between Hauran and Damascus, and between Gilead and the land of Israel, along the Jordan, and along the eastern side of the sea. This is the east side.
“The south side, toward the South, shall be from Tamar to the waters of Meribah by Kadesh, along the brook to the Great Sea. This is the south side, toward the South.
“The west side shall be the Great Sea, from the southern boundary until one comes to a point opposite Hamath. This is the west side.
a. This shall be the border of the land: Using landmarks on the north, east, south, and west, God described the borders of Israel in the period of Ezekiel’s temple, a period regarded as the millennial reign of Jesus Messiah.
i. “This is the area which God swore to give to the nation (Ezekiel 47:14, cf. Genesis 15:18-21; Numbers 34:1-12), and which was ruled by Solomon (1 Kings 4:24).” (Wright)
ii. In his commentary, Daniel Block has a very good map. As he envisions it, if these borders were put upon a modern map it would include all of Lebanon and a good portion of Syria (including Damascus). It would not include modern Jordan or Egypt, and not extend southward to modern Eilat.
iii. “Only twice in Israel’s history did the political borders of Israel extend as far north as Lebo-hamath: under David and under Jeroboam II (2 Kings 14:25).” (Block)
b. From the Great Sea, by the road to Hethlon: Many landmarks are listed, but we believe that since the geography of this part of the world will be significantly transformed right before this period begins, it is impossible to exactly establish what these places will mark in the coming age. In general, we can say that it is an area somewhat larger than the land Israel occupied in the Old Testament.
i. The description shows that this is not the eternal state. “The western boundary was the Great Sea (Ezekiel 47:20; cf. Numbers 34:6). In contrast the land of God’s people in the eternal state will have no sea since the sea will no longer exist (Revelation 21:1).” (Alexander)
3. (21-23) The command to divide the land.
“Thus you shall divide this land among yourselves according to the tribes of Israel. It shall be that you will divide it by lot as an inheritance for yourselves, and for the strangers who dwell among you and who bear children among you. They shall be to you as native-born among the children of Israel; they shall have an inheritance with you among the tribes of Israel. And it shall be that in whatever tribe the stranger dwells, there you shall give him his inheritance,” says the Lord GOD.
a. Thus you shall divide this land: The repeated commands to divide the land indicate that this is a real land, not a spiritual representation. The best way to understand this is that this division of the land is yet to come, but will come in a kingdom period when the world is ruled in a direct way by Jesus Messiah.
i. You will divide it by lot: The general allotments of land were assigned to each tribe. Within each tribal allotment, particular portions of land would be assigned to families by lot.
b. And for the strangers who dwell among you: The land God promised to Israel in this kingdom period would not be for Israelites alone. There would be people from other lands and ethnic groups (strangers) living there also. By God’s command, these were to be treated as native-born among the children of Israel. They would even have inheritance rights.
i. “The Pentateuch prescribes humane treatment for the aliens living in Israel (cf. Exodus 22:21; 23:9; Leviticus 19:10, 33-34; 23:22; Deuteronomy 14:29; 24:14-15, 17-22). Such treatment is a moral obligation that derives from Israel’s experience as aliens in Egypt. Ezekiel goes far beyond the Torah’s legislation.” (Vawter and Hoppe)
ii. “It is based on the principle that if these men choose to accept the standards, the religion and the way of life within Israel as a permanency, i.e. as proselytes who settle and have children there (Ezekiel 47:22), then they are entitled to the same treatment as native Israelites.” (Taylor)