ZECHARIAH 14 AND THE RIVER OF LIFE
Don K. Preston D. Div.
“It shall be in that day that living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem; half of them toward the former sea and half of them toward the hinder sea; in summer and winter it shall be” (Zechariah 14:8).
To the ancient Jew living in the promised land water was the image of life and blessings. Zechariah promised that when the Messiah came in judgment (v. 1, 5) “living waters” would flow from Jerusalem. It would flow to all peoples–from sea to sea. It would be an endless supply–in summer and winter.
Water conjured up images of the Garden of Eden and Man’s once intimate relationship to God (Genesis 2:10).
Water also symbolized cleansing and purity. The sacrificial system of the Old Covenant had various “washings”( Hebrews 9:9-14) that sanctified to the purifying of the flesh. While never effective for the cleansing of the conscience, the cleansing of these ceremonies nonetheless symbolized the purity that was necessary to approach God.
Zechariah’s promise of living waters therefore carried with it a rich variety of concepts; [resurrection] life, cleansing, blessings, etc.. Zechariah was clearly not therefore, speaking of literal water.
THE FOUNTAIN IN PROPHECY
Zechariah’s prediction that God would open a fountain for the cleansing of sin is consistent with other prophets.
Joel predicted that in the “last days” consummating in the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord, Jehovah would open a fountain for cleansing. That fountain would flow “from the house of the Lord” (3:18) for the acquittal of the sins of Israel (v. 21).
Isaiah contains several Messianic prophecies that mention the flowing of abundant waters in the Kingdom. In 12:3 Isaiah foretold the time when God’s people would draw waters from the well of salvation. In 31:25f the prophet said that in the kingdom “on every high mountain and on every high hill there shall be rivers and streams of water”; this would also be “in the day of great slaughter.”
In Isaiah 35 the Lord promised that in the day of His coming: “waters shall burst forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert” (v. 6-7). This cannot be Jesus’ incarnate ministry; it refers to his coming “with a vengeance, and with the recompense of God” (v. 4). Salvation and judgment would be joined, “He will come and save you” (Isaiah 35:4).
Jesus said of his coming against Jerusalem: “these be the days of vengeance when all things that are written must be fulfilled” (Luke 21:22).
Ezekiel 47 contains a graphic description of the River of Life. The river flows from the Temple of God at Jerusalem eastward all the way to the Dead Sea. This river is unique because “When it reaches the sea, its waters are healed. And it shall be that every living thing that moves, wherever the river goes will live…everything will live wherever the river goes” (v. 8-9). The River brings the dead to life!
Zechariah 12-14 contains another reference to the fountain being opened. In chapter 12:10f Adonai foretold the time when all the tribes of the land would mourn and look on the one whom they had pierced. Jesus quotes this verse in Matthew 24:30 and says it would be fulfilled in his coming against Jerusalem.
In chapter 13:1 the prophet said “in that day”–the day of mourning–“a fountain shall be opened for the house of David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and for uncleanness”
The day of mourning would be the time of Jesus’ coming against Jerusalem in AD 70 (Matthew 24:30). The time of mourning would be when God would open a fountain for the cleansing of the sins of Israel. Therefore Jesus’ coming against Jerusalem, in AD 70, would be the time when the fountain for the cleansing of the sins of Israel would be opened.
Zechariah was not saying there would be no cleansing for sin prior to that Day of mourning. He was focussed on the consummation of the work of the “Branch” (Zechariah 6:13), who would be betrayed in the house of friends (13:6) when they would weigh out the thirty pieces of silver (11:12). One cannot divorce initiation from consummation or “vice versa.” The work Jesus began in his ministry would be perfected at his parousia (1 Corinthians 15:24-28; Hebrews 9:24-28).
With this caveat it is nonetheless true that the prophetic emphasis is on the judgment coming of the Lord when speaking of the Fountain for Sin. In Joel 2-3, Isaiah 31; 35, and Zechariah 12-14 the context is the same; the coming of the Lord in judgment against Israel.
JESUS AND LIVING WATERS
Jesus came to confirm the promises made to the Fathers (Romans 15:8). His promises are not new ones severed from Israel’s promises. When Jesus therefore promised living waters he was promising to fulfill Joel, Isaiah, and Zechariah.
In John 4 Jesus promised the Samaritan woman: “The water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life” (4:14); he promised “living water” (4:10).
Zechariah predicted the coming of living waters. Jesus offered living waters. Was the “living water” Jesus offered the woman at Sychar different than what the prophets of Old anticipated?
THE SPIRIT AND THE WATER OF LIFE
At the feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem: “On the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out saying, `If a man thirsts let him come to me and drink. He who believes on me, as the scriptures has said, `out of his heart will flow rivers of living water'” (John 7:37-39).
The miraculous outpouring of the Spirit was to be a “last days” work (Joel 2:28-32) to bring Israel back from the dead (Ezekiel 37:14).
In Acts 2 Israel stood before God “dead” in her sin ( Romans 7:7-14); under the curse (Galatians 3:10f). The Holy Spirit appeared on the Apostles and they in turn preached Jesus and him crucified. They promised the forgiveness of sin in Jesus’ name upon repentance and baptism (2:38). They then promised that the obedient could receive the promise of the Spirit (2:39). That day three thousand of Israel responded to the Messiah. Were they raised from the dead?
In Romans 11 Paul said the remnant had received “that for which Israel seeks” (11:7). In a word, Israel sought “resurrection”; this was the hope of Israel, Acts 24-26. Further, Paul said that while Israel had not yet attained to her hope and the remnant had, when Israel would turn this would be “life from the dead” (11:15). Biological death and life is clearly not the focus here. It is life and fellowship with God.
Paul spoke of this miraculous work of the Spirit as “the Earnest [arrabon] of the inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession” (Ephesians 1:13-14). The miraculous mission of the Spirit was the Earnest of resurrection life (2 Corinthians 5:5).
One cannot divorce the ministry of the Spirit from Israel’s last days resurrection hope. Nor can one protract the miraculous ministry beyond that time of fulfillment. The Spirit’s miraculous ministry was limited to the last days. The life resulting from the Spirit’s work would flow forever.
JESUS AND THE WATER OF LIFE
Does the believer in Christ today have the Water of Life that Jesus promised in John 4? If not the Old Covenant promises stand unfulfilled; and this means the Old Covenant stands as valid today (Matthew 5:17-18).
If we do not have the Water of Life today Israel remains God’s chosen people and the object of his promises of life. God’s promise of the River of Life was to Israel, and “the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). God could not cut off Israel without fulfilling his promises to her.
If we do not have the Water of Life there i
s no resurrection from sin death today. Jesus, in John 5:24-25, said those believing in him have “everlasting life” and have “passed from death into life.” Notice the correlation between Jesus’ “water” that gives eternal life and this resurrection to everlasting life.
If we do not have the Water of Life today the Spirit’s miraculous ministry is unfulfilled. If eternal life is the possession of the believer the Spirit has fulfilled his miraculous mission and those gifts have ceased.
Most believers would assert in the strongest terms that we do indeed enjoy the Water of Life in Christ today. As Joe Musselwhite has shown in an article in the “Presence,” the [true] claim that the Water of Life is a present reality has tremendous eschatological implications.
ISRAEL’S HOPE AND THE RIVER OF LIFE
In the Old Covenant, the River of Life flows from Israel’s judgment (Isaiah 35; Joel 3; Zechariah 14:1-8). What relationship would the fall of Rome, per the amillennial view of Babylon and Revelation, have to the River of Life? None. What Old Testament prophecy associated the opening of the River of Life with the fall of Roman Catholicism? None. What connection would the Eastern European Common Market have with the River of Life? None.
The River would flow from the fulfillment of Israel’s promises. John said Revelation was the anticipation of what the prophets had foretold, and the time of fulfillment was “at hand” (Revelation 22:6-8). Any attempt to remove the River of Life from the fulfillment of Israel’s promises is improper.
Furthermore, all the prophets place the opening of the fountain in the context of the Lord’s coming against Jerusalem (Zechariah 14:8–“in that day”). The fountain is for the cleansing of sin. These facts completely refute the claim that the “redemption” associated with the fall of Jerusalem (Luke 21:28) was physical deliverance. This also negates the idea that the fall of Jerusalem was strictly localized in meaning.
WHENCE COMES THE FLOW?
If, as we strongly believe, the Water of Life is truly available to believers today, from whence does it flow? This may seem like a facetious question at first but it is significant.
In the Old Covenant prophecies the River of Life would flow from Jerusalem (Zechariah 14:8, from the Temple, Ezekiel 47, the house of the Lord, Joel 3:18). The River of Life would flow from the New Jerusalem.
In Revelation, John depicts the destruction of Babylon, the Old Jerusalem. In the “New Jerusalem” that would follow, Jesus and the Father sit on the throne (22:3). From that Throne flows the River of Life (22:1-2). The River of Life would flow to the nations after, and as a result of, the coming of the Lord (18-19) the Resurrection (20:10f), the destruction of heaven and earth (21:1), the fall of Babylon (18-19).
If the River of Life is available to the believer today Babylon has fallen; heaven and earth has passed away; the Resurrection has occurred at the Parousia of the Lord. Conversely, if these things have not occurred we have no Water of Life today. There is no salvation. There is no satisfaction for those who “hunger and thirst after righteousness” (Matthew 5:6).
THE RIVER AND TODAY
At the close of his Apocalypse the Lord caused these wonderful words to be penned: “The Spirit and the Bride say `Come!’ And let him who hears say `Come!’ And let him who thirsts come. And let whoever desires, let him take of the water of life freely.” Be sure to read my Who Is This Babylon? for a fuller discussion of the River of Life and Zechariah 14:5.
Must we wait who knows how much longer, per all futurist views of eschatology, to truly drink from the River of Life? Or is that invitation truly applicable today? We firmly and gladly believe so. The atoning fountain was opened at the Cross, guaranteed by the Spirit, and perfected at the parousia (Hebrews 9:24-28). Christ is on the Throne and the River flowing from it is pure, sweet, satisfying and abundant–open to all. Let him who is athirst come! There is no more waiting.