God as a Flowing River

Program Music and Narrative

There is a certain type of music, well past its heyday (think of it as aged cheese, not stale bread), called program music. Program music is an attempt to “musically render an extra-musical narrative.” Quite a feat—the capacity itself is surely part of the qualitative leap from apes to humans! In other words, in program music, the timbre, texture, tempo, dynamics, etc. of the music combine to render a narrative, a story. (With all the current enthusiasm for narrative theology, it should come as a welcomed surprise that musicians during the Romantic period were already exploring the narrative potential). Rather than being told what the song is about by the lyrics, the composition itself, in toto, speaks.

If the song were about love, for instance, rather than telling a story through the words, as Bob Dylan would, in say, “4th Time Around”, program music attempts to tell a story without the words. Hector Berlioz was the master at this. In his Roméo et Juliette, the dialogue of the two lovers is not sung; it is given to the orchestra. As with Dylan’s lyrics, the story told by the music is depictive without being unsophisticated. Through the music we are brought to imagine various scenes unfolding. The listener experiences a sensory translocation from the purely auditory to the visual. The listener becomes an active participant, almost a cast member, in the developing narrative, rather than a passive member of the audience. Rather than merely being acted on by the emotional tenor of the music, the listener himself acts, imaginatively, in the dramatic development of the story.

Probably the most famous instance of this genre is Hector Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique, which would appear in any Intro to Western Music class. If you’ve never listened to it before, you should. You’ll see what I mean.

Another famous piece is Bedřich Smetana’s Vltava. The Vltava is the longest river in the Czech Republic. Smetana’s piece conceptualizes the movement of the Vltava through woods and meadows and as it passes a wedding and ancient castles. It then picks up speed and crashes into rapids. Finally, it widens, calms and vanishes into the distance.

The entire story is conveyed in the river.

The Story of the River in the Bible

It turns out that, in some sense, God composed the Bible in a similar way.

The Bible tells the story of God’s flowing.[1]

Just like the Vltava, there is a river that courses through Scripture. It tells the story of God’s move among man and within man. It begins its flow in the undisturbed rest of the garden of Eden (Gen. 2:10-14) and empties eternally into the holy city, New Jerusalem (Rev. 22:1-2). If we sample various passages of the Bible, we can find this river flowing through changing scenes—a garden, a wilderness, the good land, a house, a city, all the earth, and all the believers in Christ. David says, “The river of God is full of water” (Psa. 65:9). In each scene this river has its special characteristic and reference, but together these passages tell the story of God’s move in His Trinity for man’s salvation.

14 Verses That Tell the Story of the River of God:

1) And a river went forth from Eden to water the garden, and from there it divided and became four branches… –Gen. 2:10

2) You shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it so that the people may drink… –Exo. 17:6

3) …You cause them to drink of the river of Your pleasures. –Psa. 36:8

4) There is a river whose streams gladden the city of God… –Psa. 46:4

5) Therefore you will draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation. –Isa. 12:3

6) Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters, and you who have no money; come, buy and eat; yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. –Isa. 55:1

7) For My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew out for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, which hold no water. –Jer. 2:13

8) Then He brought me back to the entrance of the house, and there was water flowing out from under the threshold of the house to the east… And every living creature which swarms in every place where the river goes shall live, and there will be very many fish when this water comes there. And the water of the sea shall be healed, and everything shall live wherever the river comes. –Ezek. 47:1, 9

9) And in that day living waters will go forth from Jerusalem… –Zech. 14:8

10) But whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall by no means thirst forever; but the water that I will give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into eternal life. –John 4:14

11) He who believes into Me, as the Scripture said, out of his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water. But this He said concerning the Spirit… –John 7:38-39

12) But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately there came out blood and water. –John 19:34

13) For also in one Spirit we were all baptized into one Body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and were all given to drink one Spirit. –1 Cor. 12:13

14) And he showed me a river of water of life, bright as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb in the middle of its street. And on this side and on that side of the river was the tree of life… –Rev. 22:1-2

These 14 verses take us from cover to cover in the Bible, conceptualizing God, His intention, and His salvation as living, flowing, potable, pleasurable water.

The Symbol of the River

All this leads me to wonder about biblical symbols and the appropriateness of language to speak about God. Why does the Bible choose a river to portray God and His salvation?

Source, Course, Flow

First off, every river has three features—a source, a course, and a flow. From the above verses, it’s apparent that the biblical authors utilize all three features in their conception of God as a river. They speak of “the fountain of living waters”, “the springs of salvation”, and the “flow” of “rivers of living water.” Erik Konsmo says that Athanasius connects these verses to “form a collection of water images that link the persons of the Godhead.”[2] Witness Lee echoes this:

This river of water of life is a symbol of God in Christ as the Spirit flowing Himself into His redeemed people to be their life and life supply.[3]


Another aspect of the appropriateness of the river as a conceptualization of God’s move among man is its continuity. Past history is not left behind but brought forth in the flow. The river, with its resistless current, picks up what’s in its path and carries it to its destination. The destination of the river of God is eternal life (John 4:14) in the New Jerusalem. This river never stops flowing because its source is the eternal Father (Isa. 9:6), its course is the I AM (John 8:58), and its flow is the eternal Spirit (Heb. 9:14). A river gets at what the Trinity actually is—an eternal dispensing, an eternal flow of essential intercommunion.

Life Supply

Finally, a river is a conveyance of the most primordial element of life—water. Ancient civilizations sprang up around rivers for good reason. Humans can only survive 3-5 days without water. We need water for basic life functions like circulation, respiration, and converting food to energy. After oxygen (another symbol of the Spirit), water is the body’s most important nutrient. This portrays God’s desire in His economy to be life to man. Man is in need of more than a judicial solution to his sin; he needs an organic solution to his spiritual death. Even before man fell, God’s eternal purpose was to have man receive the life of God for His expression. It’s no accident that this river is constantly described as “living water.”

In these three aspects of a river, the persons of the Triune God, the move of God, and the eternal intention of God are all profoundly typified.


1. Witness Lee, Life-study of Exodus, p. 492
2. Erik Konsmo, The Pauline Metaphors of the Holy Spirit, p. 75
3. Witness Lee, The Spirit, p. 38

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2 thoughts on “God as a Flowing River

  1. Pingback: 20 Symbols of the Spirit | life and building

  2. Pingback: 20 Symbols of the Spirit | conversant faith

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