You know about those parts of the Bible that are very hard to read, because they’re so full of details like Who begat who? and how this kind of sacrifice or ritual is to be carried out, and how that curtain is to be made and how many rings it is to hang from? So that as you plow through the reading, you wonder, what kind of blessing, or guidance, or inspiration, could I possibly get out of all these picayune details which I don’t understand the half of, and which I can’t do anything about, 30-plus centuries later? And if someone does come along who’s all feverish with excitement about what secrets lie hidden in these details and instructions that will tell you exactly when Jesus is coming back, or how to lose ten pounds every month, you wonder, “Do you need to see a doctor?”
The next song we’re going to sing is based on one of those long, detailed and difficult passages. It was the very last part of the Bible that I ever finally read all the way through-and not for lack of trying: the last eight chapters of the Prophet Ezekiel. In them are pages and pages of finely detailed descriptions of a temple to be built in Jerusalem once the Hebrews return there. Every detail down to minutest brass tacks. Or bronze. Ezekiel had this vision twenty-five years after the Babylonians had destroyed the first temple in which he had served as a priest.
Another thing that kept grinding me to a halt was that I knew that Ezekiel’s finely detailed temple was never even built. When the returning Exiles did rebuild the Temple, it was barely half the temple that Ezekiel foresaw. So, not only were all those complicated and unrealistic details hard to understand, I kept wondering, “What’s the point?”
And not just me. In Jesus’ own time, his fellow Jews were wondering and arguing about Ezekiel’s temple, and whether they had even built the wrong one. If so, then should they even be worshiping there? Some of them even said, “No; don’t bother. Because we were unwilling or incapable of building the temple according to Ezekiel’s vision, that’s why the fiery glory of God’s presence, the “shekinah,” never returned to the most holy place over the Ark of the Covenant, like Ezekiel said it would. And that’s why God’s people remain still in Exile, many of our Hebrew spiritual relatives said then, and still say to this day.
In my last and successful attempt at plowing through the last chapters of Ezekiel, lightning struck in chapter 47: “The man [who was taking Ezekiel on a tour of the new temple in his vision] brought me back to the entrance to the temple, and I saw water coming out from under the threshold of the temple toward the east (for the temple faced east). The water was coming down from under the south side of the temple, south of the altar. 2 He then brought me out through the north gate and led me around the outside to the outer gate facing east, and the water was trickling from the south side. 3 As the man went eastward with a measuring line in his hand, he measured off a thousand cubits[a] and then led me through water that was ankle-deep. 4 He measured off another thousand cubits and led me through water that was knee-deep. He measured off another thousand and led me through water that was up to the waist. 5 He measured off another thousand, but now it was a river that I could not cross, because the water had risen and was deep enough to swim in—a river that no one could cross. 6 He asked me, “Son of man, do you see this?” Then he led me back to the bank of the river. 7 When I arrived there, I saw a great number of trees on each side of the river. 8 He said to me, “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah,[b] where it enters the Dead Sea. When it empties into the sea, the salty water there becomes fresh. 9 Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live. 10 Fishermen will stand along the shore; from En Gedi to En Eglaim there will be places for spreading nets. The fish will be of many kinds—like the fish of the Mediterranean Sea.11 But the swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they will be left for salt. 12 Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river. Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail. Every month they will bear fruit, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing.”
This passage jumped out at me, and not only because it includes fish and fishing. It sounded familiar. John’s Revelation, and his vision of the New Jerusalem picks up where Ezekiel’s vision leaves off, in Rev. 22: 1-3 “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”
Still, Ezekiel’s river, flowing out of the temple, is utterly, physically and geographically impossible. No river ever did, or can, or will, flow down from the Temple Mount, unless it rains there all day, every day. People had to bring water up to the Temple. Again, many of Jesus’ contemporaries might have said, “Well, there would be a river flowing down from the temple, if we were willing, worthy, or capable of building the right temple, to Ezekiel’s specifications.”
And yet, once a year, at the last and greatest day of the Feast of Tabernacles, there was a ceremony in which the high priest would pour water onto the sacrificial altar in the temple. It was a meager little echo of Ezekiel’s vision of that river flowing from God’s Temple. On that very day, of that very feast of Tabernacles, perhaps at the very moment when the high priest was pouring water onto the altar, Jesus said, in John 7: 38 and 39: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living [or life-giving] water will flow from within them.” 39 By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.”
That’s another passage that often had me scratching my head. Where in the Old Testament did Jesus get that quote, “rivers of living [or life-giving] water will flow from within them?” No one has found that direct quote in the Old Testament. Then one day it struck me, maybe Jesus is only alluding, or referring to a theme or an image in the Bible, rather than making a direct, word-for-word quotation. And the most likely reference, or allusion, is to the rivers of living, [or life-giving] water in Ezekiel 47, flowing from the new temple of God.
To all those who were wondering and debating, “Did we build the right temple or the wrong one?” and “Was it because we were unworthy or unwilling to build the right one, that no life-giving water flows down from the temple?” Jesus is saying, in effect, “You can stop arguing and worrying about that. Ezekiel’s magnificent, life-giving temple that you could not build, God has now given; what could not rise toward heaven by your power has descended from heaven by God’s love. I am that temple, and the Holy Spirit is that life-giving river; Come to me and not only will Ezekiel’s river flow to you, to slake the deepest, strongest thirst of your spirits, this river can flow through you to slake the thirst of the world.”
That thirst, both physical and spiritual, may explain why the next song became so popular among Mennonites who settled the wide open semi-desert prairies of Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, the Dakotas and Canada. They were still speaking, worshiping and reading the Bible in German then. A new song circulating in the churches back then was “Oh, Have You Not Heard of That Beautiful Stream?” A German language version of it also spread among German-speaking churches of North America.
During my pastorate in McPherson, Kansas, whenever some of the older members would request a hymn, it was often this next song. They had sung it and loved it since their youth. They might also request that we sing a verse or two of it in German, in which they had first learned it.
If ever one was visiting a frail, elderly church member in a memory care unit, who might not know who you were or even acknowledge your presence, you may need only to sing the first few words in German to get them started singing the next four verses, also in German. And so you’d still have sweet fellowship with them.
Why don’t we join them now, singing HWB 606, but in English? Sing it as a celebration of that that river which Ezekiel foresaw, a cool, clear, refreshing river already within us and among us, and soon to come. That is what inspired this song. Let’s sing it in anticipation of the new Zion which John the Revelator foresaw. Sing it about Jesus, the new temple of God, and the source of all life-giving water of God’s Spirit flowing to us, and through us, to slake our deepest thirsts, and those of the world.