Down a Biblical Stream

“Behold,” says Isaiah 66:12, “I extend peace to her like a river.” My adventure in the rapids of Smith River in Northern California (note last post) did not illustrate “peace like a river.” I remember singing years ago a chorus that claimed, “I’ve got peace like a river.” This biblical simile has always puzzled me.1  As I pondered my river experience, ironically, this verse and song immediately came to my mind. My experience did not line up with the biblical figure of speech.

What does Scripture mean by comparing peace to a river? How are rivers, streams, and water presented in Scripture and for what purposes? Thus began a little word/theme study.

First, I reflected upon what I remembered of references to rivers/water in the Bible. Why, yes. Biblical narratives include water as part of the setting from the very first biblical story (as well as the last narrative which we cannot address today). “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” This is the first sentence in The Holy Bible. It is one of my favorite sentences. The second sentence begins to develop the setting: “And the earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.”

We love to jump right into the next sentence when God talks! “Let there be light!” (What an elegant account — these opening chapters!) Let’s note the H2O components of that second sentence. (We’ll resist the urge to analyze “formless and void.”) The first mention of the element of wetness is the expression “the surface of the deep.” Hmm. “The deep” refers to water, as the sentence clarifies at its end: “the surface of the waters.” The primal planet was birthed in fathomless depths of water. I like the expression, “the deep.” My traveling mind connects the depths of water with the depths of the human soul. Doesn’t the book of Proverbs compare the heart or soul to a stream? Doesn’t Jesus pick up this comparison? ”

“A plan in the heart of a man is like deep water, but a man of understanding draws it out” (Proverbs 20: 5; note also Proverbs 18:4; 21:1;25:21,25).

“He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water'” (John 7:38; in context, note verse 37 and John 4:10,14; 6:35 and the OT passages of Isaiah 44:3; 55:1; 58:11).

Conceptual understanding begins with concrete understanding. First, we experience the material world, which God uses to illustrate and reveal spiritual realities to us.

From these initial connections and reflections which led to looking up a few key verses leading to other key verses, I turned to Logos Bible Software to collect some metadata.2  I typed in two key words, river/water, to draw up all biblical references. Logos gave me all references in five translations: the ESV, KJV, NASB, NIV, and NRSV. Logos informed me of 4,417 references in 3, 747 verses total for these five translations. This included all references to river, rivers, water, waters, watered, and watering, but not other related references such as waterway, waterfall, riverway and such.

Watson Lake near Prescott, Arizona -- a man made lake just 20 minutes from our house.

Watson Lake near Prescott, Arizona — a man made lake just 20 minutes from our house.

Then there are other water words such as stream, lake, sea, brook, rain, flood,well, and tears which I did not include in this search. It is interesting that such a seemingly simple exploration could take me down such a deep Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole! This always happens to me when I do a study. I see the plan ahead and do not see all the rabbit holes I’m going to drop into and disappear there for who knows how long! I won’t do that with you. We’ll get wet in here, swim awhile, and pick up some lovely river rocks and gems. Then, maybe this little study will inspire you or someone else to do a further study of this or some other theme/word study in the Scriptures.

My old Logos software told me that the The English Standard Version (ESV) contains 828 references to “river/water” which are located in 702 verses (meaning some verses use these words more than once). Interestingly, the KJV employs these words 953 times, the NASB 871, the NIV 809, and the NRSV 956 times. The differences in numbers stems from the use of pronouns or river names without using the word river, and such. For instance, in the KJV, Exodus 41:1 says, “And it came to pass after two full years that Pharoah dreamed: and behold he stood by the river.” The other four translations name the river, the Nile, and don’t use the word river, so this verse does not appear in their lists.

Thus, the numbers in the translations vary, but the point is that the water/river theme is an important theme in biblical narratives and expositions. From the lists given, I copied down several pages of references with partial verse quotations in one of my study notebooks, an old fashioned composition notebook.

I record study notes in cheap notebooks and journals, writing from both ends — front to back is one topic, and back to front is another, and sometimes other topics in the middle! If anyone ever reads my scratch work, it will be befuddling, I’m sure. I’ve gotten rid of some of my study notes and will continue to do so. Too much clutter. I have enough print and electronic files which are saved. My point now is that it is important to study biblical topics and have a means or system of recording, reflecting, and sharing. You don’t need Logos Software, but you do need some basic tools: your Bible, a study Bible, a good concordance, a good Bible dictionary, a few good commentaries, some notebooks for recording, pen/pencil, and I recommend colored pencils for highlighting your Bible as you read and study.

I did not take this picture, and I do not know its name or location, but the view is peaceful!

I did not take this picture, but the view is peaceful! Can you hear it bubbling?

I’ve deviated from discussing content to explaining method, so let’s go back to H2O. We want to digest some Scripture and not just play with our food. Hmm. Let’s look at some contrasting usages of the river theme and draw a few nourishing observations, and then we’ll pick this study up in our next post.

Our first text was Isaiah 66:12 in which God is talking to the people of Israel and offering comfort and hope in light of the discipline they were incurring for their multi-generational sins and as prophesied would yet incur. Verse 12 is nestled within a picture of a mother-child relationship in which the young child finds satisfaction by nursing at the mother’s breast, being carried on her hip, and being held lovingly on the knee. It is a touching picture. The verse is often quoted out of context and incomplete. Verse 12 says (NASB), “For thus says the LORD, ‘Behold, I extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall be nursed, you shall be carried on the hip and fondled on the knees.”  Verse 13 continues, “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; and you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.'”

The peace of a river equals satisfaction of longing and thirst. Amazingly, God compares Himself to a mother. God is the mother, and Israel is the child in this text. In Psalm 1, which we will explore it in our next post, a river again is the source of health and life. So, rivers meet the nourishing needs of a growing life. However, both Scripture and life present the dangers of rivers (of which my experience in the Smith River is a small demonstration).

Earlier in the book of Isaiah, God prepares his people for suffering. Suffering is  symbolized by “the waters/rivers.”  The LORD explains what He has done and will do about their suffering.

“But now, thus says the LORD, your Creator, O Jacob, and He who formed you, O Israel, ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine! When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, nor will the flame burn you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (Isaiah 43:1-3a).

The river metaphor in Scripture communicates a variety of messages. The waters of the river can satisfy our thirsty longings and bring peace to our souls. The waters of the rivers also represent the storms of life, the dangers, our fears, our suffering. Encircling all the figurative meanings is the comforting knowledge of the safety found in God’s presence in all circumstances. We realize our identity: “You are Mine!” We recognize safety and accept security in Him: “I have redeemed you.”

Whether the river is calm or raging, the peace God is His presence. W. E. Vine writes, “The peace of an obedient heart and a trusting spirit is that which enjoys the sunshine of His countenance and the calmness of holy communion with Him.” 3

Bible study should always provide soul and life nourishment (what many call application). I would like to say with Isaiah, “‘I will trust and not be afraid for the Lord God is my strength and song, and He has become my salvation.'” Isaiah continues, “Therefore you will joyously draw water from the springs of salvation” (Isaiah 12: 2b-3). Life-giving, living water.

Continued in the next post!!

  1. Simile: a figure of speech that draws comparisons between two different things, noting some similarity by employing the word like or as.  An excellent example from Scripture is Matthew 28:3 wherein Matthew describes an angel who is sitting by the rolled away stone after Christ’s resurrection: “And his appearance was like lightning and his garment as white as snow.” The italicized phrases present two similes, one using like and the other as.  We understand the unfamiliar by comparing it to something familiar.

2. Logos Bible Software. There are now 7 versions, but I have version 4 which is very clumsy and not user friendly. However, I still find assistance in my old version.

3. William MacDonald. Believers Bible Commentary, 991.

Categories: Spiritual Growth | Tags: | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Down a Biblical Stream

  1. Louis Mann

    As always, I am enthralled by your word pictures as you lead your reader through the “waters” of deep thought. Looking forward to the next offering.

    • kltolsen

      Thanks, Louis. It’s time I publish another post! Each day I think of different branches of thought I’d like to paddle down, but I have time to explore only a few, and I respect the limited time you have to invest in reading my musings. I do hope there is spiritual nourishment available in my posts that will make your investment worth it!

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