Monday, October 25, 2010

A River of Life

Last week, we heard of God's promise to return to and restore the Temple in Jerusalem.  However, God's work of restoration does not end with the Temple.  Instead, the Temple is a kind of epicenter of God's restorative work.  The return of God's presence to Jerusalem brings life and health to the entire land.  The final chapters of Ezekiel go on to describe the restoration of the priesthood, feasts, sacrifices, the city, and the entire land of Israel.

As a part of that restoration, Ezekiel 47 narrates for us the last of Ezekiel's guided tour like visions.   Ezekiel's guide takes him back to the door of the Temple where Ezekiel sees water trickling out from underneath the threshold of the Temple.  From there, we are told several of the properties of this babbling brook which indicate to us its supernatural character.  This small stream of water turns so as to avoid the altar then continues on outside of the Temple complex.  It flows directly east, the same direction from which Yahweh had come to return to to the Temple.  It seems the flow of this stream is not determined by geographical factors.  In fact, as it flows further east, its get deeper and deeper despite there being no mention of any tributaries flowing into it.  What started as a trickle eventually turns into a rushing river which flows through the desert region of the Arabah and runs into the Dead Sea.  We are told that this sea, so full of salt that almost nothing can survive in it, will be "healed" by this river which flows from the Temple, its densely salted water turned fresh so that it will teem with life.  We are told it will be a place for "the spreading of nets" from Engedi to Enelgaim.  While the location of these two ancient towns is not absolutely certain, it is thought that Engedi was on the western shore of the Dead Sea and Enelgaim was on the southereastern shore, meaning that the entire Dead Sea will be good for fishing.  However, we are told in v.11 that the swamps and marshes will be left as salt water presumably so that there will still be a source of salt in the area for seasoning and preserving food.  On both sides of the river are an abundance of fruit trees which remarkably are never out of season.  Their leaves do not wither and they bear fruit every month of the year.  Furthermore, their leaves will have healing properties.

Clearly, this vision Ezekiel sees goes well beyond a promise for Israel's historical return from exile.  It is a promise not only that Israel will be restored to its land but that the land itself will be restored and renewed in a dramatic, other-worldly kind of way.  As Ezekiel has made clear in his other prophecies of restoration, a simple return from political captivity is not enough; a cleansing, renewing work of God that frees from the captivity of sin is needed to keep his people from falling back into their same old sins.  They need to be sprinkled with clean water and given a new heart and a new Spirit.  These dry bones need the breathe of God to raise them to new life.  A new creation is needed.

John picks up this idea in Revelation 22 as he describes the new creation which God is going to bring about.  In this new creation, there is no need of a temple since God dwells directly among his people.  So John sees this river issuing out not from the Temple but from the throne of God and the Lamb.  This river flows down the middle street of the new Jerusalem and the tree of life grows on either side of it yielding its twelve fruits twelve months of the year.  The leaves of this tree are for healing as well but not only for Israel but for all the nations.  What Ezekiel saw as God's promise to make Israel new, John sees as a promise to heal all peoples and all of creation.

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