Ezekiel's River

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When Jesus called Andrew and Peter, to be his disciples, they were working as fishermen. Jesus said, "Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men." [Mark 1:17] He probably alluded to Ezekiel's prophecy of a spiritual river, in chapter 47. Its waters brought healing wherever they came. Ezekiel spoke of men casting nets in it, and catching fish, and Jesus interpreted this as a metaphor for men who believe in him. He brought the waters of life. Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg comments, "If the fish be the men who have attained to life by the Messianic salvation, the fishers can only be the messengers of this salvation, who gather those who are quickened into the kingdom of God--introduce them into the communion of the church. So also has our Lord repeatedly and emphatically expounded this trait of our prophecy; thus in the words directed in the apostles to all the ministers of the church: "I will make you fishers of men; fear not, henceforth thou shall catch men" (Luke v. 11; in Matt. xiii. 47, etc.)." Below is Hengstenberg's commentary on Ezekiel 47:1-12.

The prophecies of the prophet Ezekiel elucidated

by Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg.

Volume 21 of Clark's foreign theological library; T. & T. Clark, 1869.


Here suddenly the view becomes wider and freer. It enters into the Messianic times. From the restored temple at length salvation goes forth for the whole world: this is the naked thought. We shall have to regard as the Mediator of this salvation the exalted descendant of David, who, according to ch. xvii. 23, grows from a feeble sapling to a glorious cedar under which all fowls dwell: to the fowls of every wing there, correspond here the fish of every kind (ver. 10). In harmony with our prophecy the salvation here announced took its beginning at the time of the second temple, and flowed thence, where Jesus had the chief seat of His activity (comp. on John vii. 3, 4), over the nations of the earth.

The relations of the New Testament to our section are very rich and manifold. In reference to it the Lord in Matt. iv. 18, 19 says to Peter and Andrew, "I will make you fishers of men." On it rests the miraculous draught of fishes by Peter at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus (Luke v.), and also the draught after the resurrection in John xxi. Jesus designedly embodies, at the commencement and the close, the contents of our prophecy in a symbolic act. No less allusive to our prophecy is the parable of the net, which gathered of every kind, in Matt. xiii. 47. Finally, in Rev. xxii. 1, 2 is announced the last and most glorious fulfilment of our prophecy. Our section is the only one in the whole cycle of ch. xl.-xlviii., the fulfilment of which is represented in the New Testament as belonging to the time of Christ. It should have set aside the old application of the whole prophecy concerning the new temple to the Christian church, that the New Testament affords no support for this interpretation. On this side of the Apocalypse the references are limited to ch. xlvii. 1-12; all the rest is ignored, which would be inconceivable if it referred to the times of the New Testament. But the new Jerusalem in the Apocalypse, far from establishing the interpretation of the whole prophecy by the Christian church, stands to the restored Jerusalem of Ezekiel in an antithetic relation. In Ezekiel all is earthly; there all is above the earthly. The measures are quite different. In Ezekiel the whole city has the moderate circuit of about a mile and a half (about 7 Eng.), which agrees with its extent after the exile. On the contrary, in Rev. xxi. 16 the city is 12,000 stadia long, broad, and high. It measures on every side 300 geographical miles (above 1200 Eng.). In the Apocalypse all is of gold, precious stones, and pearls, while here the most moderate relations are presented. The temple that forms here the absolute centre is wanting altogether in the Apocalypse.

It is not otherwise with the closing prophecy of Ezekiel than in the prophecy in the first book of Moses. There the announcement concerning the blessing coming upon all the families of the earth through Abraham, and of the Shiloh, to whom the people cleave (Gen. xlix. 10), only penetrates into the Messianic region. Irrespective of this, the prophetic announcement--as Gen. xii. 1-3, and particularly the blessing of Jacob in Gen. xlix., clearly show--refers to the deliverance of the nearer future, to the people springing from the descendants of the patriarchs, the release from the land of pilgrimage, the possession of Canaan. So, in Ezekiel, the lower but nearer deliverance preeminently draws his attention to itself, as indeed is the case in all other prophets; as, for ex., Habakkuk opposes to the Chaldean catastrophe first the release from the Chaldean bondage. Such a course is evidently wise and natural. The plain, obvious matter of fact could only be mistaken in a time when the mind was not alive to historical apprehension. It is an anachronism to attempt to revive such an interpretation. We certainly need not therefore mistake the fact, that in a certain sense the whole description of the new temple bears a Messianic character. The restoration of the temple here announced is not exhausted by the immediate fulfilment. It assures us that even in the church of Christ life will ever issue from death. But there it stops: ch. xlvii. 1-12 alone is directly and exclusively Messianic.

The order in this section, which runs parallel with ch. liii. of Isaiah, ch. xxx. and xxxi. of Jeremiah, and ch. xi. of Zechariah, is very simple: first, the description, the water from the sanctuary, vers. 1-6; the trees on its banks, ver. 7; then the statement of the purpose served by that which is described--the water, vers. 8-11; the trees, ver. 12.

Ver. 1. And he brought me back to the door of the house; and, behold, waters issued from under the threshold of the house eastward: for the front of the house was toward the east, and the waters came down from under the right side of the house south of the altar. 2. And he brought me forth the way of the gate northward, and led me round without to the outer gate that looketh eastward; and, behold, waters gushed from the right side. 3. And when the man went forth to the east, and the line in his hand, he measured a thousand cubits, and brought me through the waters, waters of the ankles. 4. And he measured a thousand, and brought me through the waters, waters to the knees. And he measured a thousand, and brought me through waters of the loins. 5. And he measured a thousand ; and it was a river that I could not wade: for the waters were high, waters of swimming, a river that could not be passed. 6. And he said unto me, Seest thou, son of man? And he led me, and brought me back to the brink of the river. 7. When I returned, behold, at the brink of the river were very many trees on this side and on that. 8. And he said unto me, These waters go out to the west circuit, and go down to the waste, and enter the sea; brought forth they fall into the sea, and the waters are healed. 9. And it shall be, that every living being that creepeth, to which the two rivers come, shall live; and the fish shall be very many: for these waters shall come thither, and they shall be healed; and every thing shall live to which the river cometh. 10. And it shall be, that fishers shall stand on it, from En-gedi even to En-eglaim ; they shall be a spreading place for nets: their fish shall be of all kinds, as the fish of the great sea, very many. 11. Its mire and its marshes that are not healed are given to salt. 12. And on the river, on its brink, on this side and on that, shall grow all trees for food: its leaf shall not fade, nor its fruit cease; it shall ripen every month, for its waters flow forth from the sanctuary ; and its fruit shall be for food, and its leaf for healing.

Under the figure of water salvation is often presented in Scripture, which appears even in paradise in the shape of water; comp. Gen. xiii. 10. In Ps. xlvi. 5, "The river, its streams gladden the city of God," the blessings of the kingdom of God, His royal graces, appear as a river that conveys its saving waters by a series of channels to the community of God. The saving waters that there belong first only to Zion are here led out also to the heathen. In Ps. Ixxxvii. 7, when the Messianic salvation is come which quickens the thirsty soul and the dry land, Israel sings, "All my springs are in Thee." Isaiah prophesies in ch. xxx. 25 of this time: "And there shall be on every high mountain, and on every lofty hill, rivers, waterbrooks, in the day of the great slaughter, when the towers fall." While the judgment on the world proceeds, and in it annihilates all pride and abases all haughtiness, Zion is quickened by the waters of salvation. The figure is directly explained in several places. In Ps. xxxvi. 9, "And of the river of thy pleasure thou makest them drink," the river denotes the fulness of delight which the Lord pours upon His own. Isaiah says in ch. xii. 3 of the Messianic times, "And with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation." In Rev. vii. 17 it is said, "The Lamb in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and lead them to living fountains of waters." Accordingly water signifies life, a powerful happy life disturbed by no hindrance. So also in Rev. xxii. 1. Ezekiel expands here what Joel has indicated in ch. iv. 18, "And a fountain goes forth from the house of the Lord, and waters the acacia dale," the symbol of human need; and Zechariah again in ch. xiv. 8 points back to Ezekiel. The water comes out under the threshold of the house. The house is the proper temple, the holy place, and the holy of holies. The proper fountain is in the latter. According to the Apocalypse, the water goes out from the throne of God. The prophet has in ch. xliii. 1 f. seen the new entrance of the Lord into the sanctuary forsaken by Him. In this entrance, from which the city again receives the name "Jehovah thither " (ch. xlviii. 35), not only the appearance of Christ announced elsewhere by the prophet, but the issue of the waters consequent upon it, has its ground. But Ezekiel, held fast by the Old Testament limits, cannot advance to the fountain of waters. The entrance into the holy of holies was allowed only to the high priest. The words, "For the face or front of the house was toward the east," explain the foregoing passage, where the threshold toward the east was spoken of. The front side is, as such, at the same time the door side. But the front of the temple is toward the east. That the descent of the water is spoken of is explained by this, that to depict its internal elevation the temple was higher than the court. The water comes down under the right or south side of the house, that is, to the south-east; for from what goes before, the south side can only be the south part of the east side. The water flows to the south end of the threshold. The reason why it came forth there, and not in the middle of the threshold, is given in the words "south of the altar." The altar of burnt-offering lay immediately before the east door of the sanctuary (ch. xl. 47): the water must therefore issue not from the middle of the threshold, if it was not to meet with an immediate hindrance; it must first come forth where the altar did not stand in the way. The prophet has, so far as he was allowed, seen the origin of the water. Now he is to observe its further course. For this purpose he must leave the temple. The most natural way out was the east gate of the court, where the water flowed toward the east. But as, according to ch. xliv. 1, 2, the outer east gate was always shut, he must go round through the north gate, and outside the temple make his way to the east gate. There, according to ver. 2, he sees water gushing out on the right side. The right, or the south side, is here also, from the connection, the south-east. The south side of the east gate is first meant. But the water comes forth on the south side of the east gate, only because it has taken its rise on the south-east side of the temple. It goes forth thence in a straight course. The measuring in vers. 3-5 is fourfold. The thought is, that the Messianic salvation, at first small in appearance, will unfold itself in ever richer fulness and glory, crescit eundo, while the streams of worldly enterprise after a brief course dry up-- are streams whose waters lie (Isa. lviii. 11; Job vi. 15-20). To be compared is ch. xvii. 22, 23, where the tender sapling grows to a cedar, in whose shadow all the fowls of heaven, all the nations of the earth, dwell,--a passage that affords the necessary supplement to ours, as in it the person of the Mediator appears; and also in the New Testament the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven. The same progress which is exhibited in the real world among the nations, appears also in the life of individuals. The wonderful power working in secret brings by degrees great out of small, fathers in God out of children. That it was not possible to walk through the water (ver. 5), the prophet ascertained by his own experience as he waded in to the neck (Isa. viii. 8). In ver. 6 the prophet is brought back from the stream to its brink. He cannot therefore have been satisfied with observing the state of the water from the brink, which has also all antecedent analogy against it. The words, "Seest thou, son of man" (ver. 6), point out the high significance of what precedes, and form at the same time the close and the transition. The words, "and brought me back to the brink of the river," indicate that the attention is now to be turned to this, whereas hitherto it was directed to the bed of the river, in which the prophet had to go hither and thither. It is said literally in ver. 7, "when he turned me back." This is one of the verbal peculiarities which occur, in the whole of the Old and New Testament, only in Ezekiel. Me: this shows that the return was a passive act determined by a foreign influence. It is indeed preceded by, "He led me, and brought me back to the brink of the river." The need of salvation is denoted by hungering as well as thirsting. Accordingly life or salvation is here represented in the shape of the fruit-tree, as before by the water; comp. Isa. Iv. 1, 2, where, in describing the future times of quickening, along with water for the thirsty, is named bread for the hungry. The trees have here no independent import. They come into account only for their fruit. If, by an unseasonable comparison of Ps. i. 3, Jer. xvii. 8, we understand by trees, men--the righteous of the Messianic time--by fruits their virtues, we violently sever our prophecy from the connection with Gen. ii. 9, iii. 22, on the one side, and with Rev. xxii. 2 on the other. That in the latter place persons are not spoken of, and the trees as in paradise come into account only for their fruits, is shown by the parallel passage, ch. ii. 7, "To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God." Here the righteous are not themselves the tree of life, but they eat of the tree of life. With ver. 8 begins the statement of the aim. First, we learn in vers. 8-11 what the water means. The words, "These waters go out to the east circuit," determine the region in which the waters are to prove effectual. The details then follow in the words, "And go down to the waste, and enter the sea." The waste, the Arabah, denotes in general the valley of the Jordan. In this connection, however, with the east region on the one side and the sea on the other, the Arabah can only come into account in its south end by the Dead Sea. There, in preparation for the Dead Sea, and as a fitter entrance to this, it is a horrid wilderness--"a solitary plain full of salt clay." The wilderness is in Scripture a figure of ungodliness--thus a suitable emblem of the world estranged from God and excluded from His kingdom, to which applies the words in Ps. cvii. 5, "Hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted in them." In the fundamental passage of Joel corresponds to the Arabah here, "The vale of the acacias, the wilderness tree;" and in Isa. xxxv. 6, the Arabah is in parallelism with the wilderness: "In the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the waste." The figure of the wilderness transferred from Joel, the prophet only indicates. He turns immediately to a second more striking figure of ungodliness, and gives this at full length. "The sea" is from the whole context the east sea (ver. 18), the Dead Sea, of which Von Raumer says, p. 61, "The sea is called Dead, because there is in it no green plant, no water-fowl-- in it no fish, no shell. If the Jordan carry fish into it, they die." Gadow relates: "Some herons had taken their stand on the miry delta (of the entering Jordan), and sought the little fishes washed into the sea, that died instantly in the sharp lye. I remarked some struggling with death." This explains the passage of Ezek. xlvii. 8-10. Sea-fishes, which Marshal Marmont at Alexandria cast into the water taken from the Dead Sea, died in two or three minutes. As a symbol of the corrupt world lying in wickedness (1 John v. 19), the Dead Sea is the more appropriate, as it owes its origin to a judgment on the corrupt world, and the spiritual eye discerns under its waves the figure of Sodom and Gomorrah. The prophet has already, in ch. xvi., presented Sodom as a type of the world dead in sins; comp. above, p. 144. "Into the sea" is a repetition, in order to attach to it the statement of the aim and the import. All before this was purely geographical. For the statement of the aim the phrase "brought forth" prepares, which points to the higher hand, which by deliberate counsel executes the plan of salvation. "And it shall be" (ver. 9) directs the attention to the remarkable change. As there is in the Dead Sea no other "living being" than those who wrestle with death, or have yielded to it, so also its counterpart the world is a great charnel-house. "Living beings:" they merit this name first after the waters from the sanctuary have overcome the substances hostile to life. The "two rivers" stand for the strong river, as in Jer. 1. 21 the double revolt means the strong revolt. The first oppressor of Israel in the time of the Judges bears, on account of his great wickedness, the name Rishathaim, double wickedness. In a certain respect the foregoing passage speaks of a doubled water-- the source as it first comes from the sanctuary, and the increase which it afterwards receives. Only after they receive this reinforcement they effect the here mentioned miraculous change in the Dead Sea. "And the fish shall be very many:" the sea appears in Scripture as the symbol of the world. Accordingly men appear as the living creatures in the sea, and in particular as the fishes; comp. on Rev. viii. 9. In the Dead Sea of the world there were hitherto only dead fish, that are not reckoned as fish, but only unspiritual, unsaved men. If the meaning of the fish be settled, that of the fishers cannot be doubtful. If the fish be the men who have attained to life by the Messianic salvation, the fishers can only be the messengers of this salvation, who gather those who are quickened into the kingdom of God--introduce them into the communion of the church. So also has our Lord repeatedly and emphatically expounded this trait of our prophecy; thus in the words directed in the apostles to all the ministers of the church: "I will make you fishers of men; fear not, henceforth thou shall catch men" (Luke v. 11; in Matt. xiii. 47, etc.). The question is not of fishers who will divide the fish caught after their kind, but only of those who catch fish of different kinds. The forced transference of the prophecy to the last time of the kingdom of God has nothing for, everything against it: the gradual growth of the river of life; the authority of Christ, who sets out from this, that the fishing of men predicted by Ezekiel begins immediately; and the nature of the thing, as it would be absurd to ignore the beginning and contemplate the end alone or even chiefly, since it is already contained in the beginning. The fishers will stand from En-gedi to En-eglaim. Both places are combined, because they are both named from a fountain. En-gedi is known. It lies on the west side of the sea, pretty far toward the south, though by no means on the south end. Jerome places En-eglaim at the north end of the sea, where the Jordan flows into it. But as obviously the whole compass of the sea is intended, it is much better to look for En- eglaim on the east side of the sea. Now En-gedi is in fact obliquely over against the Eglaim mentioned in Isa. xv. 8 ; according to the Onom. s. v. Agallim 8 m. p., south of the old Moabite city Ar, probably identical with Agalla, a city which Alexander Jannaeus had wrested from the Arabs (Joseph. Arch. xiv. 1,4). "They shall be a spreading place for nets;" literally, they shall be a place for the spreading of the nets. The subject is the places from En-gedi to En-eglaim, thus the whole compass of the Dead Sea, on which hitherto no spread nets, as it were the symbol of the fish kingdom, were seen. The nets are spread after fishing to dry, in preparation for new work, new success. "Their fish shall be of all kinds:" this refers to Gen. i. 21. In the Dead Sea of the world arises such a joyful swarm of those who are made partakers of life from God, as once at the creation in the natural sea of ordinary fish. The salvation is for all, without distinction of nation, rank, or age. "Its mire and its marshes that are not healed" (ver. 11): the height of the water in the Dead Sea is different at different times. If the water subsides, salt morasses and marshes arise here and there, that are cut off from connection with the main sea (Robinson, Part ii. pp. 434, 459). In the Dead Sea of the world, the swamp and marshes are originally of the same nature as the main sea: the only difference is, that they cut themselves off from the healing waters that come from the sanctuary: comp. the sayings, "and ye would not;" and, "No man can come unto me, except the Father, who hath sent me, draw him"--whose drawing the longing of the soul must meet (John vi. 44). "Are given to salt:" the salt comes into account here not as seasoning, as often, but as the foe of fruitfulness, life, and prosperity. The salt land denotes, in Job xxxix. 6, the desert, barren steppe. To be given to salt forms the contrast to deliverance from the corrosive power of salt, which would be effected by the water from the sanctuary, if access were afforded to it; the waters remain given over to the salt: "He that believeth not the Son of God shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him" (John iii. 36). It is punishment enough for the world lying in wickedness, that it abides as it is. That the trees bring forth new fruit every month (ver. 12), indicates the uninterrupted enjoyment of salvation. The salvation must present itself for the deadly sick heathen world, before all in the form of saving grace. Besides the nourishing fruits, therefore, are named also the healing leaves.