Isaiah 33:21
But there the glorious LORD will be to us a place of broad rivers and streams; wherein shall go no galley with oars, neither shall gallant ship pass thereby.
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)
(21) A place of broad rivers and streams . . .—Better, rivers and canals. The bold imagery has its starting-point in what the prophet had heard of the great cities of the Tigris and Euphrates. What those rivers were to Nineveh and Babylon, that the presence of Jehovah would be to Jerusalem, that could boast only of the softly going waters of Shiloah (Isaiah 8:6). Here, again, we have an echo of Psalms 46 : “There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God.” The words help us to understand the symbolism of Ezekiel’s vision of the “river that could not be passed over,” flowing out of the Temple (Ezekiel 47:1-5). And the spiritual river of the Divine Presence would have this advantage over those of which the great cities boasted, that no hostile fleet, no pirate ships, could use it for their attacks. So in Psalm 48:7 the “ships of Tarshish” are probably to be taken ‘figuratively rather than literally’ for the Assyrian forces.

Isaiah

THE RIVERS OF GOD

Isaiah 33:21
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One great peculiarity of Jerusalem, which distinguishes it from almost all other historical cities, is that it has no river. Babylon was on the Euphrates, Nineveh on the Tigris, Thebes on the Nile, Rome on the Tiber; but Jerusalem had nothing but a fountain or two, and a well or two, and a little trickle and an intermittent stream. The water supply to-day is, and always has been, a great difficulty, and an insuperable barrier to the city’s ever having a great population.

That deficiency throws a great deal of beautiful light on more than one passage in the Old Testament. For instance, this same prophet contrasts the living stream, the waters of Siloam, as an emblem of the gentle sway of the divine King of Israel, with ‘the river, strong and mighty,’ which was the symbol of Assyria; and a psalm that we all know well, sings, ‘There is a river, the streams whereof make glad the city of God,’-a triumphant exclamation which is robbed of half its force, unless we remember that the literal Jerusalem had no river at all. The vision of living waters flowing from the Temple which Ezekiel saw is a variation of the same theme, and suggests that in the Messianic days the deficiency shall be made good, and a mysterious stream shall spring up from behind, and flow out from beneath, the temple doors, and then with rapid increase and depth and width, but with no tributaries coming into it, shall run fertilising and life-giving everywhere, till it pours itself into the noisome waters of the sullen sea of death and heals even them.

The same general representation is contained in the words before us. Isaiah’s great vision is not, as I take it, of a future, but of what the Jerusalem of his day might he to the Israelite if he would live by faith. The mighty Lord, ‘the glorious Lord,’ shall Himself ‘be a place of broad rivers and streams.’

I. First, then, this remarkable promise suggests to me how in God there is the supply of all deficiencies.

The city was perched on its barren, hot rock, with scarcely a drop of water, and its inhabitants must often have been tempted to wish that there had been running down the sun-bleached bed of the Kedron a flashing stream, such as laved the rock-cut temples and tombs of Thebes. Isaiah says, in effect, ‘You cannot see it, but if you will trust yourselves to God, there will be such a river.’

In like manner every defect in our circumstances, everything lacking in our lives-and we all have something which does not correspond with, or which falls beneath, our wishes and apparent needs-everything which seems to hamper us in some aspects, and to sadden us in others, may be compensated and made up if we will hold fast by God; and although to outward sense we dwell ‘in a dry and barren land where no water is,’ the eye of faith will see, flashing and flowing all around, the rejoicing waters of the divine presence, and they will mirror the sky, and the reflections will teach us that there is a heaven above us.

If there is in any life a gap, that is a prophecy that God will fill it. If there is anything in your circumstances in regard to which you often feel sadly, and are sometimes tempted to feel bitterly, how much stronger and more fully equipped you would be, if it were otherwise, be sure that in God there is that which can supply the want, and that the consciousness of the want is a merciful summons to seek its supply from and in Him. If there is a breach in the encircling wall of your defences, God has made it in order that He Himself, and not an enemy, may enter your lives and hearts. ‘In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne,’ and it did not matter though that mortal king was dead, for the true King was thereby revealed as living for ever, just as when the summer foliage, fluttering and green, drops from the tree, the sturdy stem and the strong branches are made the more visible. Our felt deficiencies are doors by which God may come in. Do you sometimes feel as if you would be better if you had easier worldly circumstances? Is your health precarious and feeble? Have you to walk a solitary path through this world, and does your heart often ache for companionship? You can have all your heart’s desire fulfilled in deepest reality in God, in the same way that that riverless city had Jehovah for ‘a place of broad rivers and streams.’

II. Take another side of the same thought. Here is a revelation of God and His sweet presence as our true defence.

The river that lay between some strong city and the advancing enemy was its strongest fortification when the bridge of boats was taken away. One of the ancient cities to which I have referred is described by one of the prophets as being held as within the coils of a serpent, by which he means the various bendings and twistings of the Euphrates, which encompassed Babylon, and made it so hard to be conquered. The primitive city of Paris owed its safety in the wild old times when it was founded, to its being on an island. Venice has lived through many centuries, because it is girded about by its lagoons. England is what it is, largely because of ‘the streak of silver sea.’ So God’s city has a broad moat all round it. The prophet goes on to explain the force of his bold figure in regard to the safety promised by it, when he says: ‘Wherein shall go no galley with oars, neither shall gallant ship pass thereby.’ Not a keel of the enemy shall dare to cut its waters, nor break their surface with the wet plash of invading oars. And so, if we will only knit ourselves with God by simple trust and continual communion, it is the plainest prose fact that nothing will harm us, and no foe will ever get near enough to us to shoot his arrows against us.

That is a truth for faith, and not for sense. Many a man, truly compassed about by God, has to go through fiery trial and sorrow and affliction. But I venture to appeal to every heart that has known grief most acutely, protractedly, and frequently, and has borne it in the faith of God, and with submission to Him; and I know that they who are the ‘experts,’ and who alone have the right to speak with authority on the subject, will confirm the statement that I make, that sorrows recognised as sent from God are the truest blessings of our lives. No real evil befalls us, because, according to the old superstition that money bewitched was cleansed if it was handed across running water, our sorrows only reach us across the river that defends.

Isaiah is full of symbols of various kinds for the impregnability of Zion. Sometimes, as in my text, he falls back upon the thought of the bright waters of the moat on which no enemy can venture to sail. Sometimes he draws his metaphor from the element opposed to water, and speaks of a wall of fire round about us. But the simple reality that lies below all the poetry is, that trust in God brings His presence around me, and that makes it impossible that any evil should befall me, and certain that whatever does befall me is His messenger, His loving messenger, for my good. If we believed that, and lived on the belief, the whole world would be different.

III. Take, again, another aspect of this same thought, which suggests to us God’s presence as our true refreshment and satisfaction.

The waterless city depended on cisterns, and they were often broken, and were always more or less foul, and sometimes the water fell very low in them. Isaiah says to us: Even when you are living in external circumstances like that:

‘When all created streams are dry,

Thy fulness is the same.’

The fountain of living waters-if we may slightly vary the metaphor of my text-never sinks one hair’s-breadth in its crystal basin, however many thirsty lips may be glued to its edge, and however large may be their draughts from it. This metaphor, turned to the purpose of suggesting how in God every part of our nature finds its appropriate nourishment and refreshment which it does not find anywhere besides, has become one of the commonplaces of the pulpit. Would it were the commonplace of our lives! It is easy to talk about Him as being the fountain of living waters; it is easy to quote and to admire the words which the Master spoke to the Samaritan woman when He said, ‘I would have given thee living water,’ and ‘the water which I give will be a fountain springing up into everlasting life.’ We repeat or learn such sayings, and then what do we do? We go away and try to slake our thirst at broken cisterns, and every draught which we take is like the salt water from which a shipwrecked-boat’s crew in its madness will sometimes not be able to refrain, each drop increasing the raging thirst and hastening the impending death.

If we believed that God was the broad river from which we could draw and draw, and drink and drink, for ever and ever, should we be clinging with such desperate tenacity, as most of us exhibit, to earthly goods? Should we whimper with such childish regrets, as most of us nourish, when these goods are diminished or withdrawn? Should we live as we constantly do, day in and day out, seldom applying ourselves to the one source of strength and peace and refreshment, and trying, like fools, to find what apart from Him the world can never give? The rivers in northern Tartary all lose themselves in the sand. Not one of them has volume or force enough to get to the sea. And the rivers from which we try to drink are sand-choked long before our thirst is slaked. So, if we are wise, we shall take Isaiah’s hint, and go where the water flows abundantly, and flows for ever.

IV. There is a last point that I would also suggest, namely, the manifold variety in the results of God’s presence.

It shapes itself into many forms, according to our different needs. ‘The glorious Lord shall be a place of broad rivers.’ Yes; but notice the next words-’and streams.’ Now, the word which is there translated ‘streams’ means little channels for irrigation and other purposes, by which the water of some great river is led off into the melon patches, and gardens, and plantations, and houses of the inhabitants. So we have not only the picture of the broad river in its unity, but also that of the thousand little rivulets in their multiplicity, and in their direction to each man’s plot of ground. It is the same idea that is in the psalm which I have already quoted: ‘There is a river, the streams whereof make glad the city of our God.’ You can divide the river up into very tiny trickles, according to the moment’s small wants. If you make but a narrow channel, you will get but a shallow streamlet; and if you make your channel broad and deep, you will get much of Him.

It is of no profit that we live on the river’s bank if we let its waters go rolling and flashing past our door, or our gardens, or our lips. Unless you have a sluice, by which you can take them off into your own territory, and keep the shining blessing to be the source of fertility in your own garden, and of coolness and refreshment to your own thirst, your garden will be parched, and your lips will crack. There is a ‘broad river,’ and there are also ‘streams’; which, being brought down to its simplest expression, just comes to this-that we may and must make God our very own property. It is useless to say ‘our God,’ ‘the God of Israel,’ ‘the God of the Church,’ ‘the Great Creator,’ ‘the Universal Father,’ and so on, unless we say ‘my God and my Saviour,’ ‘my Refuge and my Strength.’ How much of the river have you dipped up in your own vessel? How much of it have you taken with which to water your own vineyard and refresh your own souls?

The time comes when Isaiah’s prophecy shall be perfectly fulfilled, according to the great words in the closing hook of Scripture, about the river of the water of life proceeding out of the Throne of God and of the Lamb. But, till that time comes, we do not need to wander thirsty in a desert; but all round us we may hear the mighty waters rolling everywhere, and drink deep draughts of delight and supply for all our needs, from the very presence of God Himself.33:15-24 The true believer watches against all occasions of sin. The Divine power will keep him safe, and his faith in that power will keep him easy. He shall want nothing needful for him. Every blessing of salvation is freely bestowed on all that ask with humble, believing prayer; and the believer is safe in time and for ever. Those that walk uprightly shall not only have bread given, and their water sure, but they shall, by faith, see the King of kings in his beauty, the beauty of holiness. The remembrance of the terror they were in, shall add to the pleasure of their deliverance. It is desirable to be quiet in our own houses, but much more so to be quiet in God's house; and in every age Christ will have a seed to serve him. Jerusalem had no large river running by it, but the presence and power of God make up all wants. We have all in God, all we need, or can desire. By faith we take Christ for our Prince and Saviour; he reigns over his redeemed people. All that refuse to have Him to reign over them, make shipwreck of their souls. Sickness is taken away in mercy, when the fruit of it is the taking away of sin. If iniquity be taken away, we have little reason to complain of outward affliction. This last verse leads our thoughts, not only to the most glorious state of the gospel church on earth, but to heaven, where no sickness or trouble can enter. He that blotteth out our transgressions, will heal our souls.But there - In Jersalem; or in his church, of which Jerusalem was the emblem.

The glorious Lord - Lowth renders it, 'The glorious name of Yahweh,' שׁם shâm to be a noun, as if it were pointed שׁם shēm. So the Syriac and the Septuagint read it. The word 'glorious' (אדיר 'adiyr) means magnificent; denoting that Yahweh would manifest himself there as magnificent or great in the destruction of his enemies, and in the protection of his people.

Will be unto us a place - It seems to be harsh to say that Yahweh would be a place; but the meaning is, that he would be to them as such a place; that is, his presence and blessing would be such as would be represented by broad rivers and streams flowing through a land, or encompassing a city. Rivers and streams are sources of fertility, the channels of commerce, and objects of great beauty. Such seems to be the idea here. The presence of Yahweh would be to them a source of great prosperity and happiness; and a beauty would be thrown around the city and nation like majestic and useful rivers. It is possible that there may have been some allusion here to cities that were encompassed or penetrated by rivers and canals, like Babylon, or Thebes in Egypt. Such cities derived important advantages from rivers. But Jerusalem had nothing of this nature to contribute to its prosperity or beauty. The prophet says, that the presence of Yahweh would be to them what these rivers were to other cities.

Of broad rivers and streams - Hebrew, 'Rivers, streams broad of hands.' The sense seems to be, broad rivers that are made up of confluent streams; or rivers to which many streams are tributary - like the Nile - and which are therefore made broad, and capable of navigation. The phrase used here in the Hebrew, 'broad of hands' - properly denotes broad on both hands, or as we would say, on both sides; that is, the shores would be separated far from each other. The word hand is often used in Hebrew to denote the side, the shore, or the bank of a river. The following extract will show the importance of such rivers: 'In such a highly cultivated country as England, and where great drought is almost unknown, we have not an opportunity to observe the fertilizing influence of a broad river; but in South Africa, where almost no human means are employed for improving the land, the benign influence of rivers is most evident. The Great, or Orange River, is a remarkable instance of this. I traveled on its banks, at one time, for five or six weeks, when, for several hundred miles, I found both sides of it delightfully covered with trees of various kinds, all in health and vigor, and abundance of the richest verdure; but all the country beyond the reach of its influence was complete desert. Everything appeared to be struggling for mere existence; so that we might be said to have had the wilderness on one side, and a kind of paradise on the other.' (Campbell)

Wherein shall go - The mention of broad rivers here seems to have suggested to the prophet the idea that navigable rivers, while they were the channels of commerce, also gave to an enemy the opportunity of approaching easily with vessels of war, and attacking a city. He therefore says that no such consequence would follow, from the fact that Yahweh would be to them in the place of broad rivers. No advantage could be taken from what was to them a source of prosperity and happiness. While other cities were exposed to an enemy from the very sources from which they derived their wealth and prosperity, it would not be so with them. From what constituted their glory - the protection of Yahweh - no danger ever could be apprehended. It had all the advantages of broad rivers and streams, but with none of their attendant exposures and perils.

No galley with oars - That is, no small vessel - for larger vessels were propelled by sails. Still the reference is doubtless to a vessel of war; since vessels of commerce would be an advantage, and it would not be an object of congratulation that none of them should be there. "Neither shall gallant ship." No great (אדיר 'adiyr) or magnificent ship; no ship fitted out for purposes of war. The sense is, therefore, that though Jerusalem should be thus favored, yet it would be unapproachable by an enemy.

21. there—namely, in Jerusalem.

will be … rivers—Jehovah will be as a broad river surrounding our city (compare Isa 19:6; Na 3:8), and this, too, a river of such a kind as no ship of war can pass (compare Isa 26:1). Jerusalem had not the advantage of a river; Jehovah will be as one to it, affording all the advantages, without any of the disadvantages of one.

galley with oars—war vessels of a long shape, and propelled by oars; merchant vessels were broader and carried sail.

gallant—same Hebrew word as for "glorious," previously; "mighty" will suit both places; a ship of war is meant. No "mighty vessel" will dare to pass where the "mighty Lord" stands as our defense.

There, in and about Zion,

the glorious Lord will be unto us a place of broad rivers and streams: though we have nothing but a small and contemptible brook to defend us; yet God will be as sure and strong a defence to us, as if we were surrounded with such great rivers as Nilus or Euphrates, which were a great security to Egypt and Babylon.

Wherein shall go no galley with oars, neither shall gallant ship pass thereby; but although they shall have from God the security of a great river, yet they shall be freed from the disadvantage of it; which is, that the enemies may come against them in ships; for no galleys nor ships of the enemy’s shall be able to come into this river to annoy them. But there the glorious Lord will be unto us a place of broad rivers and streams,.... Egypt had its Nile, and Babylon its Euphrates, but Jerusalem had no such river for its convenience, commerce, and defence; but God promises to be that to his Jerusalem, his church and people, as will answer to, and be "instead" (g) of, a river that has the broadest streams; which is expressive of the abundance of his grace, and the freeness of it, for the supply of his church, as well as of the pleasant situation and safety of it; see Psalm 46:1 where the Lord appears "glorious"; where he displays the glorious perfections of his nature, his power, faithfulness, truth, holiness, love, grace, and mercy; where his glorious Gospel is preached; where he grants his gracious and glorious presence; and where saints come to see his glory, do see it, and speak of it; see 2 Samuel 6:20,

wherein shall go no galley with oars, neither shall gallant ships pass thereby: this advantage literal Jerusalem had, that, though it had no river for its pleasure, profit, and protection, yet no enemy could come up to it in that way; and the Lord, though he is indeed instead of a broad river to his people for their supply and safety, yet such an one as will not admit any enemy, great or small, signified by the "galley with oars", and the "gallant ship", to come near them; and in the New Jerusalem church state, when there will be new heavens and a new earth, there will be no sea, Revelation 21:1 and so no place for ships and galleys. The design of these metaphors is to show that the church of Christ at this time will be safe from all enemies whatsoever, as they must needs be, when the Lord is not only a place of broad rivers, but a wall of fire round about them, and the glory in the midst of them, Zechariah 2:5.

(g) "loco fluviorum", Junius & Tremellius; pro "non in talione, sed saltem ut significat loco ac vice, Deus ecclesiae est pro fluminibus", Gusset. Ebr. Comment, p. 740.

But there the glorious LORD will be to us a place {z} of broad rivers and streams; in which shall go no galley with oars, neither shall gallant ship pass through it.

(z) Let us be content with this small river of Shiloah and not desire the great streams and rivers, by which the enemies may bring in ships and destroy us.

EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)
21. Here Jerusalem is represented like the great cities of the Nile and Euphrates (cf. Nahum 3:8), as surrounded by an expanse of waters, protecting it from the approach of an enemy. The idea of course is purely poetical.

the glorious Lord] Strictly, a glorious One, Jehovah. For a place of read instead of, as Hosea 1:10 (where see R.V.).

galley with oars] probably should be flotilla of boats. The meaning appears to be that the city shall not be approached by any description of vessels of war. “Pass thereby” may be rendered “pass over it.”Verse 21. - But there the glorious Lord will be unto us a Place of broad rivers; rather, there in majesty the Lord is ours; [the Lord who is] a Place of broad rivers, etc. Some critics think that "a place of broad rivers" may be exegetical of sham, "there," and so apply it to Jerusalem; but the majority regard the phrase as applied directly to Jehovah. As he is "a Place to hide in" (Psalm 32:7; Psalm 119:114), so he may be "a Place of broad rivers," full, i.e. of refreshment and spiritual blessing. Wherein shall go no galley. The river of God's grace, which "makes glad the city of God, "shall bear no enemy on its surface, allow no invader to cross it. The prophet answers their question. "He that walketh in righteousness, and speaketh uprightness; he that despiseth gain of oppressions, whose hand keepeth from grasping bribes; he that stoppeth his ear from hearing murderous counsel, and shutteth his eyes from looking at evil; he will dwell upon high places; rocky fastnesses are his castle; his bread is abundant, his waters inexhaustible." Isaiah's variation of Psalm 15:1-5 and Psalm 24:3-6 (as Jeremiah 17:5-8 contains Jeremiah's variation of Psalm 1:1-6). Tsedâqōth is the accusative of the object, so also is mēshârı̄m: he who walks in all the relations of life in the full measure of righteousness, i.e., who practises it continually, and whose words are in perfect agreement with his inward feelings and outward condition. The third quality is, that he not only does not seek without for any gain which injures the interests of his neighbour, but that he inwardly abhors it. The fourth is, that he diligently closes his hands, his ears, and his eyes, against all danger of moral pollution. Bribery, which others force into his hand, he throws away (cf., Nehemiah 5:13); against murderous suggestions, or such as stimulate revenge, hatred, and violence, he stops his ear; and from sinful sights he closes his eyes firmly, and that without even winking. Such a man has no need to fear the wrath of God. Living according to the will of God, he lives in the love of God; and in that he is shut in as it were upon the inaccessible heights and in the impregnable walls of a castle upon a rock. He suffers neither hunger nor thirst; but his bread is constantly handed to him (nittân, partic.), namely, by the love of God; and his waters never fail, for God, the living One, makes them flow. This is the picture of a man who has no need to be alarmed at the judgment of God upon Asshur.
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