The River of God
“There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High.” Psalm 46:4
The Bible opens the history of man by showing him surrounded by a garden. It is in the midst of a garden he awakes, touched into life by the creating hand. There he learns his kingship in creation; there he discovers One whom he can love; there he walks in fellowship with God. We read, too, that through the garden ran a river. It flowed from Eden through the midst of paradise. On leaving Eden it parted into four, and its streams went out to fertilize the world. This, then, is the environment of man in the idyllic morning of his days–a garden of perfect beauty and delight made glad by the flowing of a river.
But as the history of man proceeds, of man in his relationship to God, the need arises of some other figure to illustrate the scenery of redemption. As long as man is unfallen, so long is a garden his true environment. There is no sin seeking to assail him, no hostile power bent upon his destruction. He can walk secure amid his garden groves and live without apprehension of assault.
But with the advent of sin, all is changed. There grows an antagonism between man and God. The Church of God separates from the world and lives engirded by a deadly enemy. And just as this antagonism deepens, so does the thought of the garden become dim, and its place is taken in poetry and prophecy by the sterner concept of the city. For modern man, the city is the home of commerce and its social life is the measure of its value. But in earlier times the value of the city lay mainly in the security it offered. And all who have seen a medieval city with its high walls and its defended ports will understand how in the day of trouble the city was the stronghold of the land. It was not to gardens that men fled for refuge when the trumpet rang its summons of alarm. They tilled their garden in the day of peace but fled to the city in the day of danger.
And so as the conflict of the spirit deepened and life assumed the aspect of a war, the garden ceased to represent the Church, and the battlement city took its place. That is why Scripture opens with a garden and closes its long story with a city. Slowly above the dust of spiritual battle there rose the outline of a city’s wall, until at last, all that the psalmist hoped for and all that the prophet had declared in faith, was seen in vision by the seer in Patmos.
Now this identification of Church and city was greatly furthered among the Jews by one thing. It was greatly furthered for the Jews by the increasing importance of Jerusalem. So long as the Israelites were villagers and lived a pastoral or rural life, just so long their concept of a noble city was drawn from what they knew of foreign capitals. But as Jerusalem began to grow in numbers and to attract the attention of the world, then the associations of the city took a kindlier and more familiar tone. No Jew could picture a city of his God so long as the greatest cities were all heathen. There must be a capital of his own land to suggest and to inspire the figure. And so it was, as Jerusalem advanced and became the home of government and worship, that both prophet and psalmist with increasing confidence described the Church as the city of Jehovah. It was not just of Jerusalem they thought, though under all they thought about lay Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the sacrament and seal of the invisible city of their quest. Hence John on the closing page of Revelation, when he describes the city of his vision, says, “I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem.”
Now between Jerusalem and other cities, there was one point of sharp and striking contrast. Jerusalem stood almost alone in this. It had no river flowing by its walls. It was very beautiful for the situation; and as a city compactly built together, it occupied a position of great strength, and its walls were a mighty safeguard round about it. Yet one thing it lacked to beautify its streets and to make it a safe shelter when besieged–and the one thing which it wanted was a river. Nineveh had the waters of the Tigris; through Babylon wound the streams of the Euphrates; the city of Thebes rose beside the Nile, and Rome was to win her glory by the Tiber.
Jerusalem alone possessed no river; no depth of water flowed beneath her walls; all she could boast of, beside her wells and springs, was an insignificant and intermittent stream. It is that which explains the psalmist’s exclamation. A river!–the streams of it make glad the city. He sees Jerusalem, yet it is not Jerusalem, for in his vision there flows a river there. Once there had been a river in the garden when the garden was man’s meeting-place with God, and now the garden has become the city, and behold there is a river in the city.
What then is this river which the psalmist sees in the city of Jehovah? There is no need for conjecture, for the psalmist himself tells us what it was: “God is in the midst of her,” and he adds that it is the presence of God that is the gladdening river. It is Jehovah present with His Church that constitutes its gladness and refreshing.
I need hardly remind you how often in the Scripture God is compared with living waters. We read in Jeremiah, “They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.” Zechariah speaks of the fountain that shall be opened in Jerusalem for sin and for uncleanness. “And in the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, ‘If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink.'” That, then, is the river in the city. It is the gladdening presence of Jehovah. It is God not distant in the heaven of heavens, but moving in the midst of our activities. For in that there is the secret of all strength, the hope of patient endurance to the end, and the gladness which is born of satisfaction of all that is deepest in the soul.
Let us remember, too, what John says of this river, that it proceeds out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. It is not without deep significance that John should have added these words–“of the Lamb.” There is a presence of God throughout the whole creation, for all things have their being in Him. That river flows from the throne of the Creator. But the river in the city flows from the throne of the Lamb; its well-spring is in Jesus and Him crucified; it is in Christ once slain and now enthroned that the city of God has joy and satisfaction. To His own city, God reveals Himself, as He does not and cannot do unto the world. He comes to His own in the love of Jesus Christ, for he that hath seen Him hath seen the Father. And this is the river, not from the throne of God, but from the throne of God and of the Lamb, which flows and flows only through the city. This is that river which is full of water, and by the banks of which everything lives. This is the river which Ezekiel saw and which before long was deep enough to swim in. It is God, but it is God in Christ, the God of pardon and of full redemption. There is a river which makes glad the city, and it flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb.
The River Speaks of Joy
But now, to carry out the thought a little, let us take some suggestions from the figure. And, first, the river in the city speaks of joy. Between the ancient and the modern city, there is one contrast we might easily miss. We view a city as the home of pleasure, as the place where most enjoyment may be had; it is in a measure to escape from dullness and boredom that multitudes leave the country for the town. But for the Jew, the city in itself was not regarded as a place of gladness; there was always something of a shadow on its streets. As a matter of fact, it is in country life that the Bible finds its images of gladness. The city was but a sad necessity in a country which might be swept by war. And the gloomier the city was, the better; for the higher and more impregnable its walls, the greater was the safety it afforded to men who sought its shelter in the strife. Not of a city such as we know, today would a Jew think when he read of the city of God. He would imagine one that was impregnable and could defy the siege of any foe. And so says the psalmist, “Lo, there is a river”–the city of God is girded with walls unshakeable–yet through it flows the gladness of the hills and the joy of waters on which the sunshine plays. Safe is the man who dwells within these walls, for they are built by One whose workmanship is sure. His life is more than one of gloomy safety cut off from the liberty of plain and hill. At his very feet, there flows a river, clear as crystal, making glad music, and he who stoops to drink of its clear stream is refreshed and made happy by its refreshment.
But aren’t there many who are tempted yet to think of religion as a life of gloom? They may feel that it is safe to be religious, but that that safety is very dearly purchased. The city of God is but a gloomy place, and someday they shall enter its defenses, but today let them have the gladness of the mountains and the music of the broad and happy world. To all who may be tempted to think so comes the word of the psalmist–“Lo, there is a river!” Not only is the Christian life the guarded life, it is the life that is lived beside the stream of joy. For to know that God is with us in Christ Jesus and that He will never leave us nor forsake us, that, after all, is the unfailing secret of the happy and contented heart. Everything lives where this river flows. The tree of life is growing on its banks. To live with God is to redeem one’s life from the worry and the rush that make it not worth living. The city of God is not a gloomy place, however, it may look to those without; there is a river in its streets that makes it glad.
The River in the City Suggests Peace
When you read the opening verses of this Psalm, you find yourself in a scene of wild confusion. The psalmist, in a few graphic words, pictures chaos in the world. The earth is reeling in the shock of an earthquake; the mountains sink into the depths of the ocean; the waters of the sea rise up in fury and sweep with terrific force across the land. Everywhere there is uproar and confusion, an earth that is shaken to its very base, and men in terror and panic fear as if the end of all things was at hand. Then suddenly the psalmist calls a halt, and another vision breaks upon his gaze. A river! and it is flowing in sweet peace through a city that stands unshaken and unshakable. And nothing could be more striking or more beautiful than that swift passage from the roaring sea to the gentle gliding of that quiet river as it murmurs among the city streets. It is the psalmist’s vision of the peace of all who have taken up their dwelling-place with God. This is a peace that the world can never give, for the world is in throes of the earthquake and of the storm. But it flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb; its source is a Saviour crucified yet crowned, and it is the heritage of every man who believes in an enthroned Christ.
The life of the Christian should be like a river flowing through the streets of a great city. In the midst of all disturbance and dismay it ought to be like a picture of sweet peace. For he who has God beside him night and day and who continually stays his mind on God, amid all the disturbing tumult of his lot, has a heart at peace with itself.
The River in the City Suggests Prosperity
We do not need to be told how a city’s welfare depends upon its river. It is the Hudson that makes glad the City of New York by bringing a livelihood to tens of thousands. There is hardly a dwelling on any street or terrace that is not influenced in some way by the river. Life may be hard enough for many citizens, but it would be harder and perhaps impossible if the sources of our river were to fail and its bed to become empty of its waters. On the Mississippi depends the prosperity of New Orleans, on the Hudson the prosperity of the City New York; is it not equally true that on the river depends the prosperity of the city of God? For let the presence of God in Jesus Christ be withdrawn from the soul or from the church, and nothing can save that soul from being cast away or keep that church from the decay of death. No organization will avail if Christ is not present in its congregation. No wealth of learning, no beauty of ritual, is of the slightest use if that is lacking. Unless God is in the midst of her and His grace like a flowing river, the city of God can never hope to see the work of the Lord prospering in her hand. Brethren, for the sake of our own souls, and not less for the church which we belong to, let us covet more earnestly what is in our power, a life of unbroken fellowship with God. That is the victory that overcomes the world. That is the open secret of prosperity. That is the river from the throne of the Lamb that makes glad the city of our quest.
A River With Many Streams
As I close let us note one other word. The psalmist does not merely speak about a river; he pictures the river branching into streams: “There is a river the streams whereof make glad.” Now the word translated “streams” is rather “brooks.” It is used everywhere of lesser rivulets, and it brings before us the thought of the great river with its waters carried along a hundred channels so that each garden-plot within the city has its own tiny, yet sufficient, stream. It is thus that the river makes glad the city of God, not merely by flowing in a mighty tide, but by coming into every separate plot in a channel peculiarly its own. And so the question for each of us is this, “Is God indeed mine–is He my own? Have I opened a way for Him into my garden–am I personally acquainted with His grace?”
It is not enough to live near the river and let it flow beside us in its beauty. God must be ours, and we must be His if we are to have the gladness of His presence.