By Ivan Maddox
West End Bible Fellowship
Occasionally we run across words and phrases in the Bible that we do not understand clearly, but that we understand well enough to make sense out of the passage or passages of scripture we are reading. Because we understand the passage as a whole, we often don’t have or take the time to get a clearer understanding of the word or phrase in question.
A good example of this is the phrase “living water.” We understand what “living” means, and we understand what “water” is, but how many of us are sure what “living waters” are?
In John 7, Jesus spoke of “living water.”
John 7:3838 He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.
In the very next verse we are told that Jesus was referring to the spirit of God, so we don’t have to guess what he is talking about. We know that “his belly” here is what we would refer to as “his heart.” But even though we understand what is literally being referred to here, what exactly is “living water”?
“Living water” refers to running, healthy water which supports life and is considered safe to drink. The opposite of living water is still, stagnant water, which can promote disease instead of health.
Living water is used throughout scripture to represent other things which give or promote life. But, as we shall see, living water means something completely different when we look ahead to the time of Christ’s return.
Living Waters in a Figurative Sense
In Proverbs 13 there is a reference to a “fountain of life.”
Proverbs 13:1414 The law of the wise is a fountain of life, to depart from the snares of death.
The scripture here is referred to as “the law of the wise.” God’s word is called “the law of the wise” because those who are wise treat God’s word as the law by which they live. When God’s word is dealt with in this way, it is a fountain of life. A fountain is the source of something; in this case, life. God’s word preserves and prolongs the lives of those who heed it by enabling them to avoid and escape snares set to kill or harm them.
Proverbs 14:2727 The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life, to depart from the snares of death.
We respect and obey God’s word because we fear God. The fear or awe of Jehovah is a source of life, because it results in obedience to God.
Song of Solomon 4:12-1512 A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.
13 Thy plants are an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits; camphire, with spikenard,
14 Spikenard and saffron; calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense; myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices:
15 A fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon.
Here love is a source of life; but the life that springs forth from it is not the life of the object of its love. Rather, love gives life to a garden of pleasant fruits, springing forth from the heart of the lover, to the delight and refreshment of the object of its love.
Jeremiah 2:1313 For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.
God Himself is here compared with a fountain of living waters. He is contrasted here with a cistern, which is a reservoir prepared to catch rainwater or other water for later usage. This is still water rather than running water, and provides a limited rather than limitless supply of water. A broken or leaky cistern is the last thing you would want to depend on for your water supply.
God here compares His people’s forsaking of Him and substituting other gods with exchanging a fresh water spring for a leaky cistern. His people’s act was as senseless as it was deliberate. This comparison is echoed in Jeremiah 17.
Jeremiah 17:1313 O LORD, the hope of Israel, all that forsake thee shall be ashamed, and they that depart from me shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living waters.
Jesus spoke of living waters in two vivid passages of scripture. He first spoke of it while conversing with the woman at the well in Samaria.
John 4:10-1410 Jesus answered and said unto her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.
11 The woman saith unto him, Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep: from whence then hast thou that living water?
12 Art thou greater than our father Jacob, which gave us the well, and drank thereof himself, and his children, and his cattle?
13 Jesus answered and said unto her, Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again:
14 But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.
Here Jesus does not explain what the living waters he is referring to represent. However, he does make it clear that the end result of drinking of the living water he provides is eternal life. The living waters in Proverbs were concerned with prolonging this life. The living waters here are concerned instead with life in the ages to come, or life in the coming Kingdom of God.
In John 7, Jesus spoke again of living waters.
John 7:37-3937 In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink.
38 He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.
39 (But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified.)
In John 4 the emphasis was on drinking the living water. Here the emphasis is on the living water becoming a source of life from within the one who drinks it.
We are explicitly told in this passage that when Jesus spoke of living water here, he was speaking about the holy ghost, or holy spirit, that would be given after his ascension. This connection between [living] water and the spirit is seen again in I Corinthians 12.
I Corinthians 12:13.13 For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.
We have all been made to drink of one spirit, and as a result, living water is supposed to flow out of our bellies, or, as we would be more likely to say today, out of the depths of our being, or out of our hearts. But what does it mean to have living water flow out of our hearts?
I think a parallel to this is found in the fruit of the spirit. In John 15 we are taught that God wants us to bear much fruit. In Galatians 5 we are introduced to the fruit of the spirit: characteristics of God that He wants to see reproduced in us.
While fruit benefits the tree that bears it, especially with respect to reproduction, it is specially designed to benefit someone or something other than the tree that bore it. Fruit trees don’t eat fruit. The fruit they bear is designed to give enjoyment and nourishment and refreshment to those who eat it rather than to the tree.
In a similar way, the spirit of God is designed to benefit the person who has it; but its benefit does not stop there. The spirit of God is given to us for ministry to others, both inside and outside the body of believers. Having the spirit of God enables you to minister life to others.
Just as the Law of God and the fear of the Lord protect us from traps and dangers meant to kill us or harm us, so also when we minister to others by the spirit of God, we protect and bless others by helping them to walk in obedience to God. And even more wonderfully, God has given us the privilege of ministering eternal life, or life in the ages to come, to people by means of His word and His spirit.
The Literal Living Waters
But there is another use of the term “living waters” that has to do with neither flowing, healthy water nor with water used in a figure of speech. Rather, it has to do with the hope of Christ’s return.
Psalm 36 speaks of both a fountain of life and and a river of living waters. At first glance, this record appears to be speaking figuratively.
Psalm 36:7-97 How excellent is thy lovingkindness, O God! therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of thy wings.
8 They shall be abundantly satisfied with the fatness of thy house; and thou shalt make them drink of the river of thy pleasures.
9 For with thee is the fountain of life: in thy light shall we see light.
This is a beautiful passage, and it speaks to us of God-given abundance and pleasures and life and light. Were this the only passage on the subject, we could easily conclude that the river of God’s pleasures and the fountain of life were symbols of God’s blessings on his people in this lifetime. However, Psalm 46 also makes reference to this river, and suggests that the reference may be to a literal river.
Psalm 46:1-41 God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;
3 Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. Selah.
4 There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High.
This passage begins by assuring us that God is ready and willing to help His people. It then seems to soar into lofty heights of hyperbole, giving us examples of troubles so far outside the realm of our experience as to seem impossible. The passage seems to be saying, in colorful language, that even when our whole world seems to fall apart, God is there to shelter and protect us, and to deliver us from the very worst this world can do to us. The “river” in verse 4 seems to represent the heights of joy and glory to which God exalts His people when the world has done its best to beat them down.
This is certainly a valid application for this passage. But the passage takes on a new and deadly seriousness when we realize that there is a literal future event that seems to correspond closely with what is described in verses 2 and 3. This event is the final earthquake described in Revelation 16.
Revelation 16:17-21.17 And the seventh angel poured out his vial into the air; and there came a great voice out of the temple of heaven, from the throne, saying, It is done.
18 And there were voices, and thunders, and lightnings; and there was a great earthquake, such as was not since men were upon the earth, so mighty an earthquake, and so great.
19 And the great city was divided into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell: and great Babylon came in remembrance before God, to give unto her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of his wrath.
20 And every island fled away, and the mountains were not found.
21 And there fell upon men a great hail out of heaven, every stone about the weight of a talent: and men blasphemed God because of the plague of the hail; for the plague thereof was exceeding great.
The earthquake described in this passage is mentioned in prophecy numerous times in scripture. It is one of the final great judgments unleashed on this planet prior to the return of Jesus Christ to judge the world. This earthquake is also mentioned in Hebrews 12.
Hebrews 12:25-27.25 See that ye refuse not him that speaketh. For if they escaped not who refused him that spake on earth, much more shall not we escape, if we turn away from him that speaketh from heaven:
26 Whose voice then shook the earth: but now he hath promised, saying, Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven.
27 And this word, Yet once more, signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that are made, that those things which cannot be shaken may remain.
In short, the world in that day will be divided into that which can be shaken, and that which cannot be shaken. Even in the midst of this terrible judgment, God’s people are not to be shaken, but are to put their trust in God for protection and safety.
But if the earthquake refers to a literal future event, it would seem that the river would likewise refer to a literal, but future, river.
Joel gives us a new detail about the fountain which is the source of this river.
Joel 3:1818 And it shall come to pass in that day, that the mountains shall drop down new wine, and the hills shall flow with milk, and all the rivers of Judah shall flow with waters, and a fountain shall come forth out of the house of the LORD, and shall water the valley of Shittim.
This verse, which is filled with imagery, tells us that this river has its source in the house of the Lord. Because of the flowery language used in the first half of the verse, though, it is not at all clear that this is meant literally.
Zechariah 13 tells us the purpose of the fountain, but doesn’t add much else in the way of details.
Zechariah 13:1-21 In that day there shall be a fountain opened to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and for uncleanness.
2 And it shall come to pass in that day, saith the LORD of hosts, that I will cut off the names of the idols out of the land, and they shall no more be remembered: and also I will cause the prophets and the unclean spirit to pass out of the land.
This fountain will be a cleansing fountain, and seems to correspond with a cleansing of the promised land that will take place at that time.
Zechariah 14 picks up from here, and sets for us the historical context of this future event.
Zechariah 14:1-91 Behold, the day of the LORD cometh, and thy spoil shall be divided in the midst of thee.
2 For I will gather all nations against Jerusalem to battle; and the city shall be taken, and the houses rifled, and the women ravished; and half of the city shall go forth into captivity, and the residue of the people shall not be cut off from the city.
3 Then shall the LORD go forth, and fight against those nations, as when he fought in the day of battle.
4 And his feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east, and the mount of Olives shall cleave in the midst thereof toward the east and toward the west, and there shall be a very great valley; and half of the mountain shall remove toward the north, and half of it toward the south.
5 And ye shall flee to the valley of the mountains; for the valley of the mountains shall reach unto Azal: yea, ye shall flee, like as ye fled from before the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah: and the LORD my God shall come, and all the saints with thee.
6 And it shall come to pass in that day, that the light shall not be clear, nor dark:
7 But it shall be one day which shall be known to the LORD, not day, nor night: but it shall come to pass, that at evening time it shall be light.
8 And it shall be in that day, that living waters shall go out from Jerusalem; half of them toward the former sea, and half of them toward the hinder sea: in summer and in winter shall it be.
9 And the LORD shall be king over all the earth: in that day shall there be one LORD, and his name one.
This fountain will not exist until Christ returns to establish his kingdom on the earth. There will be two rivers, going in two different directions, issuing from the same source. The river going west will flow into the Mediterranean Sea. The river going east will flow into the Dead Sea.
Ezekiel 47 fills in a lot of the details for us. The context of this passage is the millennial temple which will exist during Christ’s reign on the earth.
Ezekiel 47:1-121 Afterward he brought me again unto the door of the house; and, behold, waters issued out from under the threshold of the house eastward: for the forefront of the house stood toward the east, and the waters came down from under from the right side of the house, at the south side of the altar.
2 Then brought he me out of the way of the gate northward, and led me about the way without unto the utter gate by the way that looketh eastward; and, behold, there ran out waters on the right side.
3 And when the man that had the line in his hand went forth eastward, he measured a thousand cubits, and he brought me through the waters; the waters were to the ankles.
4 Again he measured a thousand, and brought me through the waters; the waters were to the knees. Again he measured a thousand, and brought me through; the waters were to the loins.
5 Afterward he measured a thousand; and it was a river that I could not pass over: for the waters were risen, waters to swim in, a river that could not be passed over.
6 And he said unto me, Son of man, hast thou seen this? Then he brought me, and caused me to return to the brink of the river.
7 Now when I had returned, behold, at the bank of the river were very many trees on the one side and on the other.
8 Then said he unto me, These waters issue out toward the east country, and go down into the desert, and go into the sea: which being brought forth into the sea, the waters shall be healed.
9 And it shall come to pass, that every thing that liveth, which moveth, whithersoever the rivers shall come, shall live: and there shall be a very great multitude of fish, because these waters shall come thither: for they shall be healed; and every thing shall live whither the river cometh.
10 And it shall come to pass, that the fishers shall stand upon it from Engedi even unto Eneglaim; they shall be a place to spread forth nets; their fish shall be according to their kinds, as the fish of the great sea, exceeding many.
11 But the miry places thereof and the marishes thereof shall not be healed; they shall be given to salt.
12 And by the river upon the bank thereof, on this side and on that side, shall grow all trees for meat, whose leaf shall not fade, neither shall the fruit thereof be consumed: it shall bring forth new fruit according to his months, because their waters they issued out of the sanctuary: and the fruit thereof shall be for meat, and the leaf thereof for medicine.
This passage might look like an allegorical vision begging for some kind of interpretation to make sense of it, but nothing could be further from the truth. The events described are taking place in a vision, and the man with Ezekiel is an angelic being, but the rivers being described are real. They do not yet exist, and will not exist until the time of Christ’s return.
The “house” in verse 1 is the Temple of God which will exist at the time of Christ’s return. It is the same temple described in great detail in Ezekiel 40 — 46.
The temple is the source of the living waters. This makes it the location of the fountain of living waters. This means that, symbolically at least, God and Christ are the fountain, or source, of the living waters.
The waters flow out of the temple and out of Jerusalem through the east gate. The waters will be quite shallow at that point, but about a mile from the city they will turn into a full-fledged river.
We saw in Zechariah that there will be two rivers of living water: one going west, and one going east. Ezekiel deals only with the one going east.
The waters flowing into the Dead Sea will heal its waters, so that they will support life. The waters of the Dead Sea will become abundantly filled with many kinds of fish.
There are three passages dealing with living waters that we need to look at in Revelation.
In Revelation 21 we have moved at least a thousand years past the events described in Ezekiel 47 and Zechariah 14. The earth that exists now has been destroyed by fire, and new heavens and a new earth have been created.
Revelation 21:1.1 And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.
In verse 6 of this chapter, God makes a beautiful promise to those who are given the privilege of living in this new world.
Revelation 21:66 And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely.
Here God promises that those who make it to this new world will have free access to the fountain of living waters, and will be able to quench their thirst there.
It is not clear in this passage whether a literal fountain of living waters is meant, or whether God is speaking in a figure.
However, chapter 22 makes it clear that there is a literal river of living water in this new world.
Revelation 22:1-21 And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb.
2 In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.
We would expect to find the throne of God and of the Lamb in heaven. However, we are informed in Revelation 21 that God’s throne will be with men in New Jerusalem.
Revelation 21:2-3.2 And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
3 And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.
In the Millenial Kingdom, the kingdom of the Messiah during his thousand year reign on earth, the living waters flowed from the temple of God. In the new earth, though, there will be no Temple.
Revelation 21:22.22 And I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it.
In the new earth, the living waters will flow from the throne of God and the Lamb, which takes the place of the temple.
And in Revelation 22:2, the tree that grows alongside the river of living waters is identified. It is the tree of life.
There is one other passage in Revelation that makes reference to living waters.
Revelation 7:13-1713 And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they?
14 And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
15 Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them.
16 They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat.
17 For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.
Here we are told that those who endure and remain faithful until the end during the great tribulation will receive a very special privilege: They will serve God day and night before His throne, in His temple. We are told that their robes will be made white by being washed in the blood of the Lamb, meaning that they will be made righteous by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We are also told that the Lamb will lead them to living fountains of water. We are not told whether this will be in heaven or on earth (though all previous references to living water have to do with earthly waters), and we are not told when this will take place. All we know is that it will happen.
The passages that use “living waters” as a figure are understandable even without a clear understanding of just what living waters are. Understanding what living waters are in nature adds clarity to our understanding.
But “living waters”, as the term is used in scripture, ultimately have reference to the time of Christ’s return, and to the great hope that God has given to His people. Understanding living waters in this sense intensifies the emphasis in those places where they are referred to in a figurative sense.
Natural living waters support and promote life and health by remaining clean and pure. True living waters do more. They don’t just support life and health; they impart healing.
Those things that are compared to living waters actively heal what they touch. God’s word heals. The fear of the Lord brings healing. Israel rejected the One who gave them life, opting instead for the contaminated water of broken cisterns.
But we also gained an added benefit. In the process of trying to clarify the meaning of a phrase used as a figure, we got a glimpse of an aspect of Christ’s coming kingdom that few people see or understand. As we come to understand the our hope in greater detail, our anticipation of it should grow, so that we look forward with greater and greater eagerness toward the things that God has prepared for those who love Him, and live our lives accordingly.