The River of Ezekiel's Temple

Eschatological Streams of Healing in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament


River of living water The last nine chapters of the book of Ezekiel describe a mysterious, eschatological temple that has probably puzzled commentators as long as the book has existed.  Particularly intriguing and fascinating is the account in chapter 47 of the miraculous stream of water that flows from the Temple eastwards, down towards the Jordan valley and into the Dead Sea.  This paper will examine the eschatological significance of Ezekiel's stream in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.

After describing Ezekiel's vision, we will first consider the role of Ezekiel's Temple within the literary structure of the whole book of Ezekiel, and then the role of the river within the context of the Temple.  Next, we will examine the main traditions in the Hebrew Bible that underlie Ezekiel's Temple stream: Jerusalem and Zion as the Lord's cosmic mountain, the symbolism of water as a prophetic sign of eschatological healing, and the Garden of Eden.  We will see how these traditions converge into forming a single thematic unity effectively used by Ezekiel, where Jerusalem, the mountain of the Lord, and Eden are considered to be identical.

From there, it will be useful to examine the celebration of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, and in particular how the water libation ceremony in the Temple recalled and actualized these salvific themes, while at the same time anticipating God's future outpouring of the Holy Spirit as foretold by the prophets.  This will be an appropriate bridge to move into the New Testament.  We will consider the words Jesus uttered during the feast of Sukkot, and how in the process he identified himself with Ezekiel's temple and declared himself to be the giver of the waters of life - the Holy Spirit.  Finally, we will consider the eschatology of the book of Revelation and examine how the vision of "a pure river of water of life" proceeding from the throne of God recapitulates and expands Ezekiel's vision by incorporating into it themes developed by other prophets and especially Jesus' revelation about himself.

The River Flowing from Ezekiel's Temple (Ezek 47:1-12)

Ezekiel_River.jpg After having completed his comprehensive tour of the temple (chapters 40-46), Ezekiel is led by his guide to the door of the temple.  From there the prophet sees a trickle of water emerging from under the temple's threshold, flowing eastward, passing south of the altar, and trickling out from under the wall of the east gate (47:1-2).  The guide begins to move away from the temple, pausing at four 1,000 cubit intervals where he has Ezekiel pass through the waters.  The flow of the water miraculously increases at each step, first reaching to the prophet's ankles, then to his knees and waist, until it becomes too deep for him to stand in (47:3-5).  The guide leads Ezekiel back to the bank of the river, where he sees many trees on both sides of the stream (47:6-7).  The guide then describes the continued flow of the river: The waters will flow eastward, down into the Aravah valley (the south end of the Jordan valley) and into the Dead Sea, whose "waters shall be healed" and miraculously revived.  Wherever the river goes there will be a multitude of fish "and everything will live" (47:8-10).  Fishermen will spread their nets from Ein Gedi to Ein Eglaim, and "their fish will be of the same kind as the Great Sea, exceedingly many."  However, the swamps and marshes around the sea will not be healed but "will be given over to salt" (v. 11).  The vision concludes with a return to a more detailed description of the abundant growth of fruitful trees along the river: "Along the bank of the river, on this side and that, will grow all kinds of trees used for food; their leaves will not wither, and their fruit will not fail. They will bear fruit every month, because their water flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for medicine" (v. 12).

Ezekiel's Temple within the Literary Unity of the Book of Ezekiel

In order to better grasp the significance of the miraculous healing stream flowing from Ezekiel's temple, we must first situate it within the context of the book's overall literary structure.  The book of Ezekiel opens with the prophet's awesome vision of the Merkavah, God's holy and terrifying presence seated on his throne in the midst of a whirlwind and cloud of raging fire, accompanied by four fearsome living creatures and moving wheels.  Out of this vision Ezekiel receives his calling to become a "watchman for the house of Israel" (chapters 2-3), a calling which he carries out in the following twenty chapters as he warns his people, using dramatic imagery, of the impending destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians (chapters 4-24).  Worse yet, the coming downfall of the city is anticipated by the people's spiritual death described within these chapters as the result of Israel's cultic and moral abominations: The glory of the Lord, the shekhinah, leaves the temple and the city of Jerusalem in three stages -  first moving from between the cherubim in the Holy of Holies to the threshold of the temple (9:3), then to its eastern gate, (10:19), and finally above the mount of olives on the east side of the city (11:23).  The destruction of the city will now come to pass as the inevitable consequence of the Lord having abandoned his people because of their transgressions. 

At this point, Ezekiel's role passes from that of a prophet of doom to that of a prophet of hope.

Following several chapters of prophecies to the nations, he begins to paint an eschatological picture of the restoration of Israel, describing the future rebirth of the mountains of Israel, the resettling of its cities, and even a new heart and new spirit to his people.  The flourishing nation will be so transformed that it will be said: "This land that was desolate has become like the Garden of Eden; and the wasted, desolate, and ruined cities are now fortified and inhabited" (36:35). The miraculous resurrection of Israel is also dramatically portrayed in the well-known vision of the valley of dry bones (37:1-14), followed by the promise that Israel and Judah will be united under the Son of David who will be their king and shepherd forever (37:15-28).  The section concludes with the promise that God will establish his sanctuary and dwelling place in their midst forever:

I will make a covenant of peace with them, and it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; I will establish them and multiply them, and I will set My sanctuary in their midst forevermore. My tabernacle also shall be with them; indeed I will be their God, and they shall be My people. The nations also will know that I, the LORD, sanctify Israel, when My sanctuary is in their midst forevermore.(37:26-28)

This idyllic and peaceful vision of hope, though brutally interrupted by the frightening war of Gog and Magog in the next two chapters, returns and is actualized in Ezekiel's mysterious Temple described in chapters 40-48.  Amidst somewhat technical and tedious descriptions of the Temple's dimensions, of the regulation of the cult, ministry of priests and Levites, and of the division of the land, occurs the central event of this astounding vision, already promised in chapter 37: The glory of the Lord returns to the temple (43:1-12), coming from the east, in the same form as it initially appeared to the prophet by the river Chebar. "And behold, the glory of the Lord filled the house" (43:5).  Of the temple God declares "this is the place of My throne... where I will dwell in the midst of the children of Israel forever" (43:7).

This brief sketch allows us to see the essential literary unity of the book of Ezekiel: the initial vision of the Lord's glory is tragically followed by His departure and the destruction of the temple and city because of the sins of the people.  There follows the promise of the restoration of the city, of the land and of its inhabitants, interrupted by an eschatological battle, but accomplished through the establishment of the eschatological temple out of which God's abundance and healing will flow to the land.  The symmetry of the structure of the book of Ezekiel could thus be illustrated in chiliastic form:

  • Vision of the Glory of God (1)
    • Sins of the people, warnings of judgment (4-24)
      • The Glory of God departs (9-11)
        • Oracles to the nations (25-32, 35)
          • Destruction of the temple and city, desolation of land (33)
            • God will shepherd His people (34:11-31)
          • Rebuilding of the land, resettling of the cities (36-37)
        • Destruction of the enemy nations (38-39)
      • The Glory of God returns (43)
    • Assurance that Israel will no longer defile God's name (43:7-10)
  • God dwells among his people (44-48); healing flows from the Temple (47:1-12)

Within this framework, Ezekiel's vision of the river flowing from the temple is the culmination of God's miraculous salvation to his people.  Whereas they brought destruction onto themselves, he restores them in successive steps, bringing judgment onto enemy nations, but becoming the fountain and source of restoration and healing to Israel. It is thus fitting that the book would close with the naming of the city to "The Lord is there."

Commentators have discerned two principal mythical traditions in the Hebrew bible that underlie Ezekiel's vision of the healing stream flowing from the temple: The first is Zion / Jerusalem as the Lord's cosmic mountain, and second is the Garden of Eden.

Zion / Jerusalem as the cosmic mountain

In the beginning of Ezekiel's vision of the temple, we read that the temple from which the river flows is set upon a mountain, with "something like a city" towards its southern side (40:2).  Though this mountain and city are not explicitly named, they are without a doubt Mount Zion and Jerusalem - elevated to the status of a mythical divine mountain (see Ezek 20:40). As Darr notes, Zion is often pictured in the psalms as "the inviolable mountain upon which Yahweh dwelt, and where the supranatural effects of the divine presence were manifested."[1]  Mount Zion is God's holy hill on which is situated his holy city, the city of the great King, to which all people will flow and out of which will go forth the Torah and word of the Lord:

"I have set My King on My holy hill of Zion." (Ps 2:6)
Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised in the city of our God, His holy mountain.
Beautiful in elevation, the joy of the whole earth, is Mount Zion... the city of the great King. (Ps 48:1-2)
Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the LORD's house shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow to it. Many people shall come and say, "Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, To the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, And we shall walk in His paths." For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. (Isa 2:2-3)

Psalm 46 explicitly adds the tradition of a sacred river of God's blessing flowing from God's holy dwelling, reflecting ancient mythological language about the mountain of the gods:

There is a river whose streams shall make glad the city of God, the holiest dwelling-place of the Most High. (Ps 46:4)

The idea of a spring flowing from the Temple mount would also have been inspired by the nearby presence of the Gihon spring which served as the primary water source for Jerusalem during the First Temple period, eventually channeled through Hezekiah's tunnel (2 Chr 32:30).  As Zimmerli has pointed out, Isaiah considers "the waters of Shiloah that go softly," fed by the small flow of the Gihon spring, to be a symbolic representation of God's assurance, in contrast to "the waters of the River [Euphrates], mighty and many, the king of Assyria and all his glory; and he will go up over all his channels, and go over all his banks." (Isa 8:6-8).[2]  Thus the small stream of the Gihon is to be Israel's lifeline, and not the abundant waters of the Euphrates and the deceptive strength of the king of Assyria, which will turn into a dangerous and destructive power.  The vital role of the modest Gihon spring, in supplying life-giving water to the city of Jerusalem, is dramatically given an even greater role by Ezekiel as source of water of life, even capable of healing the contaminated waters of the Dead Sea as a sign of God's healing.  The Dead Sea indeed evokes death, recalling the cataclysmic destruction of Sodom in Genesis 19 and bearing the curse and judgment of God.  This grim symbolism of dead barrenness makes the wondrous reviving of the Sea and purification of its waters an even more startling contrast, strongly reminiscent of the reviving of the dry bones in chapter 37.

Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters (Isa 55:1)
Ezekiel's River as Eschatological Sign of Healing to Israel

The Hebrew bible makes abundant use of the imagery of water as a sign of God's healing and salvation.  Perhaps the archetype of this theme is the famous episode during Israel's wanderings in the wilderness when the people suffered from thirst.  In answer to their complaints, God commanded Moses to strike a rock, from which water flowed abundantly to quench the people's thirst (Num 20:1-13).  God's providence in supplying water to refresh dry and thirsty palates is frequently expanded upon by the prophets to signify the spiritual refreshing of dry and thirsty souls.  Isaiah,[3] more than any biblical writer, uses the imagery of water profusely to depict God's wondrous salvation: "with joy" those who trust in Him "will draw water from the wells of salvation" (Isa 12:3).  Those who seek salvation will look upon Zion and see Jerusalem as "a quiet home, a tabernacle that will not be taken down.  There the majestic LORD will be for us a place of broad rivers and streams...  And the inhabitant will not say, 'I am sick'; the people who dwell in it will be forgiven their iniquity" (Isa 33:20-21, 24).  Thus Zion and Jerusalem, as the dwelling place of God, will become a source of physical healing and of forgiveness through the waters that flow from it.

Like the lush banks of Ezekiel's river flowing through the Judean desert down to the Dead Sea, Isaiah also depicts a miraculous blossoming of the parched desert with all kinds of trees, accompanied by the healing of the blind, deaf and lame.  The irrigation and vivifying of the natural environment is depicted as the quenching of the thirsty souls of the poor and needy, the satiating of their hunger and protection from the elements of nature:

The wilderness and the wasteland shall be glad for them, and the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose.  It shall blossom abundantly and rejoice, even with joy and singing... Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb sing. For waters shall burst forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert. The parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water. (Isa 35:1-2, 6-7)
The poor and needy seek water, but there is none, their tongues fail for thirst.  I, the LORD, will hear them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them.  I will open rivers in desolate heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys; I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water.  I will plant in the wilderness the cedar and the acacia tree, the myrtle and the oil tree; I will set in the desert the cypress tree and the pine and the box tree together. (Isa 41:17-19)
They shall neither hunger nor thirst, neither heat nor sun shall strike them;
For He who has mercy on them will lead them, even by the springs of water He will guide them.  (Is 49:10)

The wondrous outpouring of water which revives nature and restores the weary soul is also associated with the outpouring of God's Spirit on those who come to the waters, who will themselves become a watered garden and permanent spring of refreshing water:

For I will pour water on him who is thirsty, and floods on the dry ground;
I will pour My Spirit on your descendants, and My blessing on your offspring.

(Isa 44:3-4)

The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your soul in drought, and strengthen your bones. You shall be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail. (Isa 58:11)

Jeremiah, by contrast, depicts the shame of those who depart from the Lord as having "forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living waters" (Jer 2:13, 17:13).

The Rivers of the Garden of Eden

The stream of God's abundant salvation flowing from His holy mountain and holy city causing the blossoming of the land, the healing of the sick, and the restoration of the weary soul naturally leads to the second main theme associated with Ezekiel's river: the Garden of Eden.  Both Isaiah and the psalmist associate the eschatological hope of the blooming wilderness with the primeval paradise and garden of the Lord:

For the LORD will comfort Zion, He will comfort all her waste places;
He will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the LORD;
Joy and gladness will be found in it, thanksgiving and the voice of melody. (Isa 51:3)
How precious is Your lovingkindness, O God! Therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of Your wings.  They are abundantly satisfied with the fullness of Your house, and You give them drink from the river of Your pleasures.  For with You is the fountain of life; in Your light we see light.  (Ps 36:7-10)

As many commentators have noted, Ezekiel's life-giving river surrounded by lush and fruitful trees certainly draws from the tradition of the Garden of Eden, described in Genesis 2 as a place of great abundance of water: 

Now a river went out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it parted and became four riverheads.  The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one which skirts the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold.  And the gold of that land is good. Bdellium and the onyx stone are there.  The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one which goes around the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Hiddekel; it is the one which goes toward the east of Assyria. The fourth river is the Euphrates. (Gen 2:10-14)

Several parallels can be made between this passage and the themes we have examined above.  First, since the four rivers of Eden flow down from a common source in four different directions, this source must be situated on top of a mountain, as is Ezekiel's temple.  Second, it is interesting to note that one of the rivers of Eden is called Gihon, just as the spring in Jerusalem.  Third, Ezekiel himself, as we have seen, compares the restoration of the land of Israel to Eden (36:35), and in his lamentation for the king of Tyre he identifies Eden, the garden of God, with the holy mountain of God:

You were in Eden, the garden of God...  You were the anointed cherub who covers;
I established you; You were on the holy mountain of God. (Ezek 28:13-14)

Another book which uses the Edenic imagery of abundant waters is the Song of Songs, with its erotic depiction of human love traditionally seen as an allegory of God's love for Israel.  Here the lover describes his beloved as "a garden enclosed... a spring shut up, a fountain sealed" out of which spring up an abundance of plants, fruits, spices, and "a well of living waters."

A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse, a spring shut up, a fountain sealed. Your plants are an orchard of pomegranates with pleasant fruits... A fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon. (So 4:12-15)

Jerusalem and the Temple as Eden

It has often been noted that the two main themes underlying Ezekiel's river, Zion as the cosmic mountain, and the Garden of Eden, really were considered one and the same theme by ancient Israel.  Ezekiel did not innovate as he wrote his vision of the paradisiacal stream flowing from the temple on God's holy mountain, but rather drew from a long established tradition which considered the Temple of Solomon, the temple mount and all Jerusalem to be "a symbol as well as a reality, a mythopoeic realization of heaven on earth, Paradise, the Garden of Eden."[4]  Lawrence E. Stager, in his article Jerusalem as Eden, describes how at the time of the Davidic kingdom Jerusalem was considered to be the sacred center where Yahweh dwelt.  As we have seen, the sacred mountain, Mt. Zion, was thought to be the cosmic mountain which linked heaven and earth, established already at the time of creation, and renewed and maintained through the ritual temple worship.  It was there that Adam and Eve were buried according to Jewish tradition.[5]  Stager further describes how in ancient Biblical and Near Eastern cosmology "the earth is an island floating on the cosmic waters that rise in the Garden of Eden, where they benefit humankind."[6]  Of particular interest to us is how "in Solomonic Jerusalem, topography, hydrology, architecture, iconography, parks and gardens were all part of the sacred center patterned after celestial archetypes."[7]  The Temple on Mt. Zion was God's dwelling, just as he dwelt with Adam and Even in the Garden of Eden. The carving of cherubim, palm trees and flowers on the doors of the temple made it clear that the Temple was meant to replicate paradise, as well as the actual cherubim who spread their wings over the ark of the covenant as a reminder of the two cherubim who guarded the entrance of paradise after the expulsion of Adam and Eve (Gen 3:24).

Ronald S. Hendel describes in a similar vein the routes that the Hebrew Bible proposes as ways to get back to Eden and to the tree of life in order to overcome death - or at least to suspend it into time.  The first and foremost of these ways is through worship in the Jerusalem Temple, described as "a kind of eternal life in paradise,"[8] where the Temple is God's house, the location of the "fountain of life" and "river of your delights" (or more literally, "river of your Edens"), as seen above (Ps 36:8-10).  As Hendel puts it, 

here life, meaning eternal life, is once again available to the worshiper, who drinks it deeply in the courtyards of God's House. It may be that this is not a permanent attainment of eternal life-since one has to leave the Temple sometime-but as long as one is there, perfect life and eternity are present.[9]

The Temple worship was thus a foretaste of eternity and a reminder of Eden's original state of blessedness where the worshipper could happily drink from God's fountain of life.  Yet at the same time it was also an anticipation of the full eschatological restoration that would occur at the end of times, as portrayed by Ezekiel's vision.  This same message was taken up with remarkable similarity by two other prophets, Joel and Zechariah, who also depict waters flowing from the eschatological Temple in Zion that will bring forth the healing of Israel:

So you shall know that I am the LORD your God, dwelling in Zion My holy mountain.
Then Jerusalem shall be holy, and no aliens shall ever pass through her again." And it shall come to pass in that day, that the mountains shall drop down sweet wine, and the hills shall flow with milk, and all the brooks of Judah shall flow with waters; and a fountain shall come forth of the house of the LORD, and shall water the valley of Shittim.  (Joel 4:17-18)
And in that day it shall be that living waters shall flow from Jerusalem,
Half of them toward the eastern sea and half of them toward the western sea;
In both summer and winter it shall occur. And the LORD shall be King over all the earth. (Zech 14:8-9) 

Several comments can be made as we compare the three visions of Ezekiel, Joel and Zechariah.  All three depict a stream flowing from Jerusalem or Zion, God's holy mountain, yet only Ezekiel has it come out of the Temple, which is not mentioned by the two other prophets.  All three describe some supernatural transformation of nature and the establishment of a reign of peace for Israel at the end of time, following the annihilation of enemy nations through divine intervention (Ezek 38-39, Joel 3:2,12,17, Zech 14:1-15).  Another difference is that the stream flows only eastward according to Ezekiel and Joel (the valley of Shittim being the Jordan valley), but both east and west according to Zechariah.

One significant question concerning these visions is whether the miraculous stream will bring about a cosmic, universal healing or whether the prophets are merely interested in a national agenda.  Some commentators have argued that the return of paradise, "apparently at present limited to Palestine, is of its very nature a universal event embracing the whole world."[10]  Concerning Ezekiel's vision, Eichrodt writes:

For the river of paradise and the marvelous effects brought by it signify the transformation of this world into the garden of paradise, whence not only the hosts of earthly diseases, but also sin and guilt have been banished, and God's good pleasure in his creation comes to full effect and works a complete inward and outward transformation of the whole shape of human life.[11]

Others, however, have argued that the transformation of Israel's barren land is not a return to universal Edenic conditions, but rather "a manifestation of blessing poured out on Israel and its land which does not extend beyond Israel's borders."[12]  A close analysis of all three prophecies seems to confirm this latter position: the healing river flowing out of Zion seems intended for the quasi-exclusive blessing of Israel.  For Joel, Jerusalem will be holy when God dwells in Zion His holy mountain, "and no aliens shall ever pass through her again" (Joel 3:17).  Ezekiel is silent about the gentiles following the war of Gog and Magog, and he focuses exclusively upon Israel throughout his description of the temple.  Only Zechariah, though he also emphasizes the deliverance of Jerusalem and Judah from their gentile enemies, sees a remnant of the nations who will share in Israel's blessings - on the condition that they come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles (Zech 14:16-19).

The Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) in the Temple

The mention of an eschatological Feast of Tabernacles celebrated by the remnant of the nations at the end of time is significant because of this feast's intrinsic connection with water.  In the days of the Temple, an integral part of the Sukkot holiday was the daily water libation ceremony, during which water was drawn from the pool of Shiloah and poured on the altar, along with wine, while the temple choir sang the Hallel psalms. The main purpose of this ceremony was to invoke God's blessing for rain, for "at the feast of tabernacles judgment is made concerning the waters."[13]  As the Talmud explains: "wherefore does the law say pour out water on the feast of tabernacles? Says the holy blessed God, pour out water before me, that the rains of the year may be blessed unto you."[14]

The water libation also served as a reminder of the water that came from the rock smitten by Moses during the desert wanderings (Ex 17:1-6, Num 20).[15]  The ceremony was also considered to mysteriously refer to the pouring forth of the Holy Spirit as hinted by Isaiah (12:3):

Says R. Joshua ben Levi, why is its name called the place of drawing water? because, from thence, "they draw the Holy Spirit", as it is said, "and ye shall draw water with joy out of the wells of salvation''[16]

Finally, the rite was also linked with the anticipation of the gift of water that was expected to flow from Jerusalem upon the establishment of the kingdom of God, as fulfillment of the prophecies of Ezekiel, Joel, and Zechariah.  With such rich associations with God's past, present and future salvation, it is not surprising that the water libation was performed with intense joy, accompanied with dancing and singing as the waters were drawn from the pool, to the point that, as the Mishnah tells us: "He who has not seen the rejoicing at the Simchat Beit Hashoevah, has never seen rejoicing in his life."[17]

Jesus: the Bearer of the Water of Life

It is recorded in the gospel of John that in the days of his public ministry Jesus of Nazareth went up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles.  Noteworthy are his words on the last day of the feast:

On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, "If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water." (Jn 7:37-38)

The "last day" of the feast referred to by John is ambiguous, for the festival proper counts seven days (Deut 16:13), but an eight day, a Sabbath, is counted in Lev 23:34-36.  The "great day of the feast," however, is generally considered to denote the seventh day, the Hoshannah Rabbah (the Great Supplication).  Hoshanna Rabbah was already known in the days of the temple as the day of the final sealing of judgment which had begun a few weeks earlier at Rosh HaShanah.  On the last day of the feast in which God judges the world for rainfall, after the hot and dry months of the summer, the people's prayers for rain reached their climax.  On that day the priests processed around the altar not once but seven times.  In addition, as the name of the day indicates - the "great supplication for salvation," it was also the height of the feast's eschatological expectation which included prayers expressing hope for the speedy coming of the Messiah.

It is within this context that Jesus cried out to the crowd on that day and announced that he himself is the source of living waters, and whoever "drinks from him" will in turn see living waters flow from his heart.  To elucidate this mysterious saying, John adds an explanatory comment immediately after Jesus' words:

But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:39)

The identification of the water with the Holy Spirit, already clear in Isa 44:3-4[18] and in the Talmud passage above referring to the water libation of Sukkoth, is made explicit here by John.  Jesus had already used the image of living water referring to the Holy Spirit a few chapters earlier in the same gospel, when speaking with the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well:

Jesus answered and said to her, "Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life." (Jn 4:13-14)

Jesus is therefore promising the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to those who "drink from his water."  Yet what passage of scripture is Jesus referring to when he says "as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water'" (John 7:38)?  These words do not reflect exactly any one passage of the MT or LXX, but they do hint at several other passages that we have already examined.  Given the context of the Feast of Tabernacles, one thinks first and foremost of the water which came out of the rock struck by Moses, or the passages in Isaiah which promise the soul of the just to become a fount of living waters.  Yet the passage alludes most clearly to our passage in Ezekiel of the living waters flowing out of God's temple (and to the parallel passages in Joel and Zechariah).  It seems fair to assume that, by uttering these words, Jesus identified himself with Ezekiel's temple.  This is consistent with other sayings of Jesus in the gospel of John where he declares himself to be the "true temple":  "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." (John 2:19). As John makes clear, "he spoke of the temple of his body" (John 2:21).  Jesus, therefore, is applying to himself the living stream of Ezekiel's temple, claiming that the river of life will not come out of a physical structure but rather out of himself.  He could well have said to his hearers, concerning Ezekiel's prophecy, the same words which he had said elsewhere: ""Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:21).  The waters of the Feast of Tabernacles, the water flowing from Ezekiel's temple, and the water from the rock of Moses, are to flow from his heart.  It is no wonder that Paul elsewhere interprets Moses' rock to be Christ himself: "For they [the Israelites wandering in the desert] drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ." (1 Corinthians 10:3).

In other words, the Incarnation of Christ, where "the Word became flesh and dwelt [Gr. eskenosen = tabernacled] among us" (Jn 1:14) is being likened to God coming to dwell in His Temple - the body of Jesus - in majesty.  The healing waters flowing from God's house on his holy mountain not only were to bring to life the arid desert and salty waters; they were also to quench the thirst of weary souls and effect onto them the outpouring of God's Spirit (See Isa 44:3-4, 58:11 above; also Ezek 36:25-26).  Thus in the light of Ezekiel's temple and of Isaiah's prophecies, Jesus' miraculous works of physical healings, forgiveness of sins, and his calling people to reconcile themselves with God and with each other takes on a whole new meaning as the spiritual and allegorical application of the healing waters giving new life to the soul.  By extension, Jesus, as new spiritual temple, becomes the new source of the waters of Eden and the way back to paradise.

Ezekiel's Temple and Christian Eschatology in the book of Revelation

If Jesus attributes to himself the healing and resurrection power of Ezekiel's healing streams, how is this to affect Christian eschatology?  Is there still room for a physical temple out of which will flow a healing river such as the one described by Ezekiel? The heavily veiled language of the book of Revelation, traditionally attributed to the same John who wrote the fourth gospel, abounds in Temple symbolism and imagery.  The word "temple" itself appears 16 times in the book.  However, all of these occurrences use the Greek word "naos," denoting the Temple's holy sanctuary and often used in the New Testament to refer to the spiritual temple of the body (cf. 1 Cor 6:19, Eph 2:21), and not the more common "hieron" which denotes the physical structure of the Jerusalem Temple. 

The entire setting of John's vision in revelation is described as a heavenly, cosmic temple which includes an altar (8:3-4), priests (4:4), lampstands (1:12, 2:5), incense (5:8, 8:3-5), and a sacrificed lamb (5:6).  In addition, God's temple is described as if it were an actual place: one can enter into it (3:12); the saints serve God day and night within it (7:15); it can be measured (11:1); it has a court for the gentiles (11:2); it contains the ark of the covenant (11:19); angels come out of it (14:15, 17); it is filled with smoke (15:8), and a great voice resounds out of it (16:1, 17).

The book of Revelation also borrows a number of ideas characteristic of Ezekiel, such as the cherubim (Ezekiel 1, Revelation 4), the eating of a scroll (Ezekiel 3, Revelation 10), the war of Gog and Magog (Ezekiel 38, Revelation 20), the New Jerusalem (Ezekiel 40-48, Revelation 21), and the river of living water (Ezekiel 47, Revelation 22).  The last two themes, of course, are the ones that particularly interest us.  The creation of "a new heaven and a new earth," along with the appearance of the glorious New Jerusalem descending out of heaven from God (21:1-2) is the culmination of God's salvation in human history.  There, redeemed humanity will finally find rest from their toilsome journey, dwelling in God's presence where there will be no more suffering or death, and where they will freely drink from the "fountain of the water of life":

Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God.  And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away...  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give of the fountain of the water of life freely to him who thirsts. (Rev 21:3-6)

Like Ezekiel, John sees this vision from the top of "a great and high mountain" (Rev 21:10), having already mentioned Mount Zion as the place where the Lamb of God stood (14:1).  Thematic material from the gospel of John is also present, with a strong allusion to Jesus' words uttered at the Feast of Tabernacles.  Jesus, now portrayed as the Alpha and the Omega, and the Lamb in the midst of the throne, will lead the saints to "living fountains of waters," thus fulfilling Isaiah's prophecies of quenching the thirsty.  This role of divine comforter and protector has already been described in an earlier chapter of the Apocalypse:

[The saints] shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat; for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes." (7:16-17)

The glorious, heavenly New Jerusalem which appears in chapter 21 of Revelation, however, is dramatically different in one important respect from the former earthly Jerusalem - and from Ezekiel's vision: it does not have a temple. 

But I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city had no need of the sun or of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God illuminated it. (Rev 21:22-23)

This is also a striking contrast with the book of Revelation itself up to this point, which, as we have seen, made clear allusions to God's temple.  Here, however, there is no longer a need for a temple, for God and the Lamb are the eternal temple of the New Jerusalem, which will be illuminated forever by their eternal glory.  How then do we reconcile the presence of a heavenly temple in the earlier chapters of Revelation with its absence here? It could be that John is portraying a real transformation - the disappearance of the visible temple - with the coming of the eschaton and of the heavenly Jerusalem.  Or, it could be that the previous references to the temple (which, as we have said, use the word naos - spiritual sanctuary rather than hieron[19]  In any case, quite in contrast to the various levels of sanctity in the earthly temple (and in Ezekiel's temple), there will be no more separation between secular and sacred areas, between God's people and God himself in the New Jerusalem.  The shekhinah which had abandoned the Temple and the Holy City during the time of Ezekiel's ministry will permanently return to become the eternal dwelling place of God's people.  It is the ultimate fulfillment of God's promise to establish his sanctuary and dwelling place in their midst forever (Ezek 37:26-28) - physical temple building) were already figurative ways of describing God's dwelling (God himself!) - rather than a separate structure distinct from God.

Finally, John's last vision is most reminiscent of Ezekiel's temple and the Garden of Eden:

And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb.  In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.  And there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him. (Rev 22:1-3)

As we contemplate this idyllic crystal river of water of life, we note the similarities and differences between Ezekiel's and John's visions, and how John has skillfully woven Ezekiel's vision with the Garden of Eden tradition, with ideas from other prophets and with New Testament Christological ideas.  Both visions portray the gushing forth of miraculous waters endowed with healing powers from the throne of God.  In Ezekiel these waters flow from a physical temple; in Revelation they flow out of God himself, who along with the Lamb is the New Jerusalem's eternal Temple.  Aware of the gospel's interpretation of Jesus' promise of the waters of life as the Holy Spirit (Jn 7:37-39), the author of Revelation makes strong Trinitarian allusions here: the crystal river of life, the Holy Spirit, will flow from God the Father, and from the Lamb, God the Son, to effect the healing of the nations.  As in Ezekiel's vision, abundant trees which bear fruit each month grow on both banks of the river.  Yet here the identification with the Garden of Eden is not implicit as in Ezekiel but clearly explicit with the reference to the tree of life and the end of the curse of suffering and death (21:4, 22:3).  Moreover, whereas the healing power of Ezekiel's stream is mostly confined to nature, to the desert and to the waters of the Dead Sea, John, on the other hand, discards the physical imagery and emphasizes the spiritual healing and reviving of souls as prophesied by Isaiah and applied by Jesus.  Finally, whereas Ezekiel's healing stream was strictly confined to Israel's borders, John's vision is entirely universalistic: the pure river of water of life will bring healing to the redeemed of all nations who desire to drink from the fountain of life.

And the Spirit and the bride say, "Come!" And let him who hears say, "Come!" And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely.  (Rev 22:17)


In summary, the healing power of the stream flowing out of Ezekiel's temple, originally expressed in physical and natural terms to describe the national, eschatological healing and blossoming of the land of Israel, was strongly influenced by the themes of the Garden of Eden and Jerusalem / Mount Zion as the dwelling place of God.  As we have seen, these two themes, along with the third, connecting theme of waters as source of healing and salvation, are so interwoven in the psalms and prophets that they virtually become indistinguishable one from another: Jerusalem and the Temple were commonly considered to be identical with Eden in ancient Israel, and the way to return to the lost paradise.  Anticipating the New Testament, Isaiah even associated the waters flowing from Zion with physical healing and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, themes that became dominant in the Feast of Tabernacles' water libation ceremony.  Against this background, Jesus appropriated to himself the entire symbolism of Sukkot and of Ezekiel's temple by making himself the "fountain of living waters" who would heal and revive through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit those who would "drink from him."  Finally, the book of Revelation synthesizes all of these themes and remolds Ezekiel's temple in light of Jesus and the New Testament revelation, presenting to us the New Jerusalem in which God himself, with the Lamb, is the eternal temple out of whom flows the crystal river of the Holy Spirit, irrigating the tree of life whose leaves are for the universal healing of the nations in the new and eternal paradise.

© Copyright 2007 Catholics for Israel

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[1] Darr, The Book of Ezekiel, (NIB), p. 1595.

[2] Zimmerli, p. 511, see also Tuell, in God who Creates, p. 178.

[3] The theme of water is as dominant in deutero-Isaiah as in Isaiah 1-40; no distinction between them will be made here; rather, the final text of Isaiah will be considered as a unity.

[4] Lawrence E. Stager, Jerusalem as Eden, in: BARev 26:03, May/June 2000.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ronald S. Hendel, Getting Back to the Garden of Eden, in: Bible Review, 14:06, Dec 1998.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Eichrodt, Ezekiel, p. 585.

[11] Eichrodt, Ezekiel, p. 585.

[12] Darr, The Book of Ezekiel, p. 279.

[13] Mishnah Rosh hashana, 1:2.

[14] T. Bab. Rosh hashana, 16b.

[15] Mishnah Sukkah 4:6, 9.

[16] T. Zebachim 110b.  J. Succa, 55a. Bereshit Rabba, sect. 70. fol. 62. 3. & Midrash Ruth, fol. 32. 2.  See John Gill's commentary on John 7:37.

[17] Mishnah Sukkah 5:1.

[18] "For I will pour water on him who is thirsty, and floods on the dry ground; I will pour My Spirit on your descendants, and My blessing on your offspring."

[19] The only exception to this would be the passage in Rev 11:1-2 where John is told to measure the temple; the context here indicates that it could refer to the physical temple of the earthly Jerusalem.


Leslie C. Allen, Ezekiel 20-48 (WBC), Dallas: Word Books, 1990.

George R. Beasley-Murray, John (WBC), Waco: Word Books, 1987.

Lawrence Boadt, Ezekiel, in: The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1990.

Daniel I. Block, The Book of Ezekiel, (NICOT), Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.

Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII (AB), New York: DoubleDay, 1966.

K.P. Darr, The Book of Ezekiel, in The New Interpreter's Bible, vol. VI, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001.

K.P. Darr, The Wall around Paradise: Ezekielian Ideas about the Future, VT 37 (1987) 271-79.

W. Eichrodt, Ezekiel, A Commentary, Tr. C. Quin from 1966 German edition. OTL. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970.

John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible, electronic edition.

Ronald S. Hendel, Getting Back to the Garden of Eden, in: Bible Review, 14:06, Dec 1998.

Jacob Milgrom, The Water Libation in the Festival of Booths, in: Bible Review 12:6, Dec 1996.

Lawrence E. Stager, Jerusalem as Eden, in: Biblical Archaeological Review 26:03, May/June 2000.

Steven Tuell, "The Rivers of Paradise: Ezekiel 47:1-12 and Genesis 2:10-14", in: William P. Brown and S. Dean McBride Jr. (eds.), God Who Creates (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2000), 171-189.

Ben Witherington III, Revelation (New Cambridge Bible Commentary), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Walther Zimmerli, Ezekiel 2 (Hermeneia), Philadephia: Fortress Press, 1983.

André Villeneuve est professeur agrégé d'Ancien Testament et de langues bibliques au Grand Séminaire Sacré-Cœur de Détroit, Michigan. Il a obtenu son doctorat à l'Université hébraïque de Jérusalem et sa licence en Écriture Sainte auprès de la Commission Biblique Pontificale à Rome. Il est l'auteur de Divine Marriage from Eden to the End of Days (2021) et directeur de Catholiques pour Israël.

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