THE whole verse reads thus: "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."
God's servant Ezekiel was both a prophet and a priest. We are informed that his father belonged to the priestly tribe. When the Lord was pleased to call him by His grace, and to send him forth upon his ministry, the name Ezekiel was given to him, signifying "God will strengthen." When quite a youth he was carried away a captive to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar. This was about 600 years before the advent of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, when Nebuchadnezzar took prisoner to Babylon Jehoiachin the king of Judah. The young man Ezekiel was also carried away, and in Babylon, with Jehoiachin his king a captive, he prophesied to God's people for twenty-two years. He was contemporary, at least during a part of his ministry, with Jeremiah and with Daniel, and though there is nothing said of the intercourse between these good and gracious men, they must have been a comfort and a strength to each other in that distant and idolatrous country.
A remnant of the people remained in the land; they were not carried away captive until the final destruction of the temple. Those who thus remained in the land until the final invasion by Nebuchadnezzar were evidently people who had not the fear of God in their hearts; they determined, if possible, to continue in the land, making light of God's word that seventy years of captivity must be fulfilled. Hence we find when, if I may so speak, the dregs of Judah were left in the land, they were not long before they set up in the temple the idols of the Moabites and surrounding nations, and then God soon destroyed by fire the temple which had thus been polluted.
Now there is a good deal in Ezekiel's prophecy that is directed to the apostate Jews who were left in the land of Palestine, and this is how we are to interpret, at least historically, some of the earlier chapters of this book.
But then, too, there is vouchsafed to Ezekiel a great and glorious vision of our covenant God, shown as the appearance of a Man upon the throne, directing all the turning wheels of His providence; wheels that are full of eyes, and that only move as the Spirit of God moves; every wheel under the control of Him who, with the appearance of a Man, is seated upon the throne with a rainbow encircling that majestic position.
In the 11th chapter we have the opening up of the new covenant blessings pronounced by God's servant Ezekiel upon God's people. And then we come to the last eight chapters of this book, from the 40th to the 48th, descriptive of the temple, of the sanctuary waters, and of the land which was to be the possession of the tribes named therein. How are we to understand these eight chapters of Ezekiel, from chapter 40 to 48? Are they symbolical, or are they indicative of events which are yet to come to pass? I read in connection with this temple and the waters and the land, that they were all shown to Ezekiel in visions of God. He was taken up to a high mountain. The framework of the city was displayed before him; the mystic temple rose, and the measurements recorded in the closing chapters of this prophecy were taken and announced in his hearing. As I understand, the temple and the sanctuary waters and the land are all alike used to describe God's purposes and God's fullness in the great and glorious gospel. If it pleases God in future days to alter the configuration of that land and literally to bring to pass that which is recorded in this chapter, it will be but a confirmation of His own Word concerning His purposes of love and mercy. I have often read in human writings, and in commentaries, that this and that are unnatural and impossible! Such statements do not weigh for one moment with me, for with our God all things are possible; and if in Palestine there is to be the literal fulfillment of what is recorded here, it will simply be for the confirmation of the essence of truth, upon which I desire to speak this morning. I would ever seek to avoid those puerile speculations by men who know nothing whatever--they cannot know--about the literality and fullness of that which is set forth here. You may speculate about the mystic temple, you may speculate about the land as described here, and you may go away with souls dry, with consciences untouched, and with no sight of a living, loving, glorious Saviour.
But to look now at what we have set before us,--we have here a picture of fruitfulness and of healing. But why, someone may say, why the lengthy descriptions of the measures of the temple, the threshold, and the altar? Why chapter after chapter of these? The events will declare it; what is set forth here is a reality so great and so glorious that Ezekiel could only express it in signs. Look at all the mystical figures of a mathematician; in themselves they are very dark, but see a Senior Wrangler--he leaps through these figures to the very confines of the universe, understanding the movements of the heavenly bodies, and able to set forth the wonderful realities of God in creation.
Now I look at this mystic temple as a wonderful sign. Ezekiel was inspired to write, and by those signs he reveals to us, by the power of the Holy Ghost, the things that make for our eternal peace, and the events will declare it. We are poor, finite-minded creatures, with powers of the feeblest, and when the infinite God is pleased to unveil some of His eternal purposes, can you wonder that He often speaks in signs and symbols? Can you wonder that there are waters to swim in, a river that cannot be passed over?
Let us look at these words which I have read to you, "Every thing shall live whither the river cometh." I will speak of three things. First of all, the PICTURE; secondly, the PROMISE; and thirdly, the PROOF.
What is the picture? We have it depicted for us here by the pen of the Holy Ghost. What is the first scene painted on the canvas? Desert--the wilderness. What wilderness? Not a wilderness simply, but the great wilderness of Judah. There is a definiteness in connection with the images which God gives to His servant Ezekiel. It is no other than the great wilderness of Judah lying between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. In that wilderness our blessed Lord was led or driven to suffer those forty days and forty nights of temptation. In that wilderness there was no vestige of food, so that Satan said, "Command that these stones be made bread." In that wilderness our blessed Lord was with the wild beasts, each one with its mouth closed in the presence of its Maker. The great wilderness of Judah, the most desolate and the most inhospitable tract of country in the whole land of Palestine. There is no drop of moisture to be found in the limestone hills which are to be seen in every part of that wilderness. There is nothing to nourish the meager vegetation which is to be found there. How could that wilderness be reclaimed--that burning, sandy tract with the limestone hills, and with but little trace of nourishing vegetation? The task of reclamation is absolutely hopeless--speaking from a natural point of view. Look at the great desert of Sahara, that occupies so great a space in Africa. There has been much discussion concerning it; it is generally understood that nothing but the turning and directing of water into that vast barren tract would change the desert into a productive place. What could be turned into this great wilderness of Judah? God in His Word describes to us here, in the same picture, that which is to make this wilderness produce trees and fruit, and leaf and life.
Let me read to you from Isaiah what is said concerning this particular wilderness. In chapter 35, verses 1 and 2, we have this: "The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose. It shall blossom abundantly and rejoice, even with joy and singing." That wilderness is your heart by nature; that wilderness is my heart by nature. That wilderness is human life apart from the healing power and inflowing grace of the great and the glorious gospel. Irreclaimable! No natural power can turn the waters into that wilderness, and make that desolate place to rejoice and to blossom as the rose.
Turn now and see Ezekiel, if I may so speak, drawing with a pen moved by the Holy Ghost another great part of this terrific landscape (as it is naturally and spiritually considered.)
We read here of a certain sheet of water which is called the sea. What sea? The Dead Sea, a place of utter desolation; the wilderness representing the desolation of the waters, 1,300 feet below any other sheet of water upon the face of God's earth. Look at the Dead Sea as travelers describe it. What are those heavy substances floating upon the surface? Bitumen. What kind of exhalations rise up when the sun is in its zenith? Sulphurous. What is the taste of the water? Those who try it find their mouths filled for a long time with the taste of acrid salts. No birds swim on its waters; very few even fly across the Dead Sea. No fish live in its depths. No men are to be seen fishing, for there is nothing there for them to catch. No birds, no fish, no life! In its depths are the Cities of the Plain--guilty Sodom and Gomorrah. What do these waters cast up? Dead trunks of trees, skeletons, all that savors of death. And what does the Spirit of the living God by Isaiah say concerning this that I am now attempting to describe? "The wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt." (Isa. 57:20) Your heart by nature; human life apart from the healing and sweetening and sanctifying grace of the everlasting gospel. Look at Jordan. For countless generations Jordan has been pouring its silvery streams into the Dead Sea; they have all been swallowed up, and the sea is as dead and polluted and polluting as ever. Is the Dead Sea a hopeless, irreclaimable place? It is not, naturally, if God sees fit, but we are now speaking of the picture which God has drawn for us in His Word. What Jordan could not do, God describes here as being wrought by His everlasting gospel. Who would have thought it? Who could have thought it? The mystic temple rises in the actual frame of Jerusalem on which the eyes of Ezekiel rest. And there is a link between the mystic temple and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah; a link between that which sets forth God in Christ in His fullness and love, and that hollow place where Sodom and Gomorrah lie entombed. Is there any sin too great for the cross? Is there any vileness too great for the healing power of the everlasting gospel? "If I make my bed in hell, there Thou wilt find me"--I speak of spiritual feelings. A desert and the Dead Sea, altogether hopeless, filled with death, but in the distance the glorious temple! Now there is a link between the two.
Secondly, the promise. What is the promise? It is given in our text, and supported by promises not a few throughout this chapter; "Every thing shall live whither the river cometh."
Where does the river come from? In verse 12 we have it; the waters have issued out of the sanctuary. The river then comes from the sanctuary. The sanctuary was the place where the ark of the covenant was; where was the mercyseat; where was the manifested throne of Jehovah. We have then to do with sanctuary waters, with sanctuary healing, and with sanctuary help. The river comes from Jehovah's throne; the river proceeds from eternal Sovereignty, which is its fountain head. These waters issued out of the sanctuary. "He will have mercy upon whom He will have mercy." Hear the blessed music of the everlasting gospel in the last book of the Bible: "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." (Rev. 22:1) And the mercyseat and the ark of the covenant were together indicative of the throne of God and of the Lamb.
Now see the waters beginning to flow out from the throne of God and of the Lamb. Unseen they flow across or under the temple area, and they begin to bubble up from under the threshold of the eastern gate. We read about that eastern door of the temple that the waters proceed from the eastward. Concerning the eastern door of the temple Ezekiel tells us, "He brought me back the way of the gate of the outward sanctuary which looketh toward the east, and it was shut." That was why the waters came from under the threshold. "Then said the Lord unto me, This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall enter in by it because the Lord, the God of Israel, hath entered in by it; therefore it shall be shut. It is for the prince." (44:1-3) In other words, the closing, as I conceive--at least from one point of view--the closing up of the Jewish dispensation, the shutting of that eastern gate, did not hinder, but was a part of the Divine purpose in connection with the flowing forth of the waters that issued from the sanctuary.
Look at them. They signify a miracle, and so is the standing of every redeemed life by the gospel of the grace of God. The waters flow; they are fed by no tributaries,--there are no conduits that minister to their supply; they have their origin in the sanctuary itself. And notice, the river makes its own channel; there was no channel in that wilderness; the river makes its own channel. Not a drop of that water runs to waste; not a single drop.
"Dear, dying Lamb! Thy precious blood
Shall never lose its power,
Till all the ransomed Church of God
Be saved to sin no more."
The river flows, it broadens and deepens as it goes, it cuts out its own channel, and it flows continually onward. At first Ezekiel found it up to his ankles, then to his knees, then to his loins, and then the waters were deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be passed over. Men have attempted to describe the successive periods which these figures set forth; the ankle period, the knee period, the loin period, and waters to swim in. Undoubtedly they have some reference to God's work in the dispensation of grace as to periods of Church history, but I do not know half as much about those periods as I once thought I did. I am more and more doubtful of those who deal continually with periods, and bring a succession of maps and charts on which to depict the out-working of the counsels and purposes of God. This I know by my own experience, and by the testimony of God's Word, the ankle, and the knee, and the loins, and the breadth of the river, signify the suitability of the gospel when ministered to the heart of a poor hell-deserving sinner by the power of God the Holy Ghost. But what are the waters to swim in? I cannot get any further than the Apostle Paul did in verse 33 of Rom. 11: "Oh the depth of the riches, both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!" Ankle deep--babes in grace can get there. Knee deep--young men in divine things are led there. Loin deep--fathers and mothers in Israel are there. Waters to swim in, a river that cannot be passed over.
"There shall I bathe my weary soul
In seas of heavenly rest,
And not a wave of trouble roll
Across my peaceful breast."
But is there not to be a further fulfillment of it here? Yes, I believe there is, but I am seeking that God by His grace would speak right home to your consciences now, concerning your own personal knowledge of these great and glorious realities.
The river flowed on surely. Here is the message concerning it: "So shall My word be that goeth forth out of My mouth; it shall not return unto Me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it." (Isa. 55:11) And what has God sent that river for? To make the wilderness rejoice and blossom as the rose; to turn the waters of the Dead Sea into waters of sweetness and life. Here is the fiat of Omnipotence, "Every thing shall live," and where God says shall, all the hostile forces of hell rage in vain. One shall of God, and the event is sure. Jesus Christ "shall see of the travail of His soul, and shall be satisfied."
What are these waters? They are waters of life, they are waters of love, they are waters of cleansing, they are waters of fullness. How is it that trees spring up? How is it they bear such wonderful fruit? How is it that their fruit is borne every month, and that their leaves have medicinal properties? Because the river brings the seeds, hence the wilderness rejoices and blossoms as the rose. Let me turn to one of the Lesser Prophets, the prophet Joel, chapter 3, verse 18: "A fountain shall come forth out of the house of the Lord, and shall water Acacia Vale" (the valley of Shittim in our version), the place where the acacias are. They only maintain a kind of stunted existence in barren and desolate places. "A fountain shall come forth of the house of the Lord, and shall water Acacia Vale." What took place in Acacia Vale? There Israel fell through Balaam's conspiracy with regard to the Moabites; there Israel was led awfully astray. Where is that fountain to flow? God says by Joel it will flow in Acacia Vale; it will flow in the Valley of Shittim, into the waters of the Dead Sea in which Sodom and Gomorrah lie entombed. Oh, beloved, the deep that lieth under, that has been bridged for us, and the waters rich and full and free go down into the desert, go down into the Dead Sea, and "every thing shall live whither the river cometh."
Lastly, the proof. I do not know whether I am right in so often making the little divisions of what I attempt to say begin with the same letter, but I think it sometimes helps memory. Here is the proof. What is the river? "Jesus Christ and Him crucified." See the flowing of that river, Acts 4:33, "What great power gave the Apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all." See the flowing of the river. One hundred and twenty fishermen, if you like to call them so, are by its side; it flows on, there are three thousand. The Apostle gave witness to the resurrection with great power through the Spirit of the living God enabling them to speak with fluency and accuracy in the vernacular of every person to whom they addressed themselves. The flowing of the river--the Holy Ghost proceeding from the Father and the Son; the love of the Father coming to us through the Son; healing mercy by the Lord Jesus Christ. It proceeds from the throne of God and of the Lamb, the Holy Ghost in that beautiful, glorious river bringing the Lord Jesus Christ in the fullness and in the glory of His grace into desert hearts, and into Dead Sea lives. What is the gospel? It does not simply tell certain truths, but by the Holy Ghost it is with power. It comes to a sinful heart like Gomorrah; it comes to a sinner vile, lost, law-condemned, self-condemned and, "every thing shall live whither the river cometh." You are not partly lost, dear friends; you are not partly dead, but "dead in trespasses and in sins," and your heart by nature is like the desert described in this book.
Is there not a seeker here? You realize, my friend, your sinnership before God. Yes, but I am so dark and confused in my mind. True. But your heart is concerned on account of sin, and you know somewhat of what contrition of spirit is. Yes, but I am so exercised I can get hold of nothing. But you have got hold of something, even your sinnership, and wilderness, and Dead Sea state in the sight of a holy and heart-searching God. The river has come; you have a new nature, and new life. The river cometh, and
"The work which His goodness begins,
The arm of His strength will complete."
Healing energy has begun. See how it came to the woman of Samaria--ankle deep at first, but how blessedly that river sprang up in the heart of that dear woman! Look at Lydia; the Lord opened her heart, and the waters began to flow therein. See Saul of Tarsus,--oh the Dead Sea fruit that his heart bore! The river began to flow, and Saul of Tarsus began to live. The malefactor upon the cross,--the waters flowed, and the malefactor lived. Believer, you say, "My heart is hard and almost lifeless; at times I feel almost pulseless." But as this river flows it touches your prayers, and they awake into new life; the buds of promise begin to appear, and the fruits of righteousness to be made manifest.
But I must stop. What is there not in the gospel? All food for the soul is in the gospel; where the gospel flows into the heart of a poor man or woman concerned about sin, there can be no famine in the soul. Where the river flows, famine of soul ceases. Fruit in the gospel for all seasons, and for all appetites. You have it here, "new fruit according to his months." Fruit for the sad, fruit for the tempted, fruit for the weak, for the seeker, and for those who are cast down. Medicine for the sick. "Whither the river cometh"--now flowing, out-flowing. It comes to the understanding, and that is enlightened. It comes to the will, and it is changed. It comes to the conscience, and it is purged. It comes to the affections, and they are purified. But there are those who are called marshes, with a name to live and yet dead. Oh that the gospel today may flow into our souls, and that the sanctuary waters of the grace of God, and the love of Christ, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, may possess us, that we may look forward to that time when the Lamb shall lead us into living fountains of waters, and God shall wipe away all tears from our eyes.