Ezekiel's prophecy of a river flowing from the temple is understood spiritually (or figuratively) by some, while others insist it is a prophecy about a literal river which is to exist some time in the future.
Writing about Ezekiel's description of the river flowing from the temple, W. Harris said, "it is pre-eminently the duty of those who have the riches of spiritual knowledge to be the channels of spiritual blessing and life to those who are spiritually ignorant and dead."
When Jesus called Andrew and Peter to become his disciples, they were fishermen. Jesus said, "Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men." [Mark 1:17] No doubt Jesus was alluding to Ezekiel's prophecy about the river flowing from the temple in chapter 47, which has an abundance of fish in it.
Ezekiel spoke of men casting nets in his prophetic river, to catch fish, and Jesus probably interpreted this as a metaphor, representing men hearing the gospel and believing in Him. Jesus gives the waters of life.
Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg commented: "If the fish be the men who have attained to life by the Messianic salvation, the fishers can only be the messengers of this salvation, who gather those who are quickened into the kingdom of God--introduce them into the communion of the church. So also has our Lord repeatedly and emphatically expounded this trait of our prophecy; thus in the words directed in the apostles to all the ministers of the church: "I will make you fishers of men; fear not, henceforth thou shall catch men" (Luke v. 11; in Matt. xiii. 47, etc.)."
The waters of the river bring healing in desert areas through which they flow. However there are certain areas where they do not produce this beneficial effect. These are the marshy and miry places. John Gill interpreted these areas as "the reprobate part of the world, obstinate and perverse sinners, that abandon themselves to their filthy lusts, and sensual pleasures; that wallow like swine in the mire and dirt of sin; are wholly immersed in the things of this world, mind nothing but earth and earthly things, and load themselves with thick clay; whose god is their belly, and who glory in their shame: also hypocrites and apostates may be here meant, who, despising the Gospel, and the doctrines of it, put it away from them, and judge themselves unworthy of everlasting life, and so receive no benefit by it;...etc."
These marshy areas are given to salt, which Gill suggests means they are "made an example of, as Lot's wife was; that others may learn wisdom, and shun those things that have been the cause of their ruin."
Thomas L. Constable, Senior Professor of Bible Exposition at Dallas Theological Seminary, argued that the river of Ezekiel's prophecy is "a real river with life-giving and healing properties," that is also symbolic. He says "it represents the spiritual life and healing that flow to humanity from the throne of God." In that case, I would think, the territory through which it flows, the deserts that are healed and brought to life, must also mean something other than the literal territory that lies within the boundaries of the land of Canaan. In his Notes on Ezekiel, on p. 229, Constable wrote:
God promised Abraham that He would give a particular piece of real estate to his descendants (Gen. 12:7). Later He reiterated this promise and became more specific about its boundaries (Gen. 15:7, 18-21; 17:8; Num. 34:1-12). He also told the Israelites that they would only be able to occupy the land to the extent that they followed Him faithfully (Deut. 7:12; 8:2). If they proved unfaithful, He would not only limit their possession of the land but even drive them out of it (Deut. 28). Ezekiel prophesied that God would bring the Israelites back into the land (36:24-30). He would give them a different attitude, and they would follow Him faithfully. Then they would finally, as never before, enjoy the full extent of the land He had promised their forefathers (cf. Deut. 30). He also promised that they would never lose possession of the land, because they would remain faithful to Him (ch. 39). The assurance of the fulfillment of these ancient promises, which date all the way back to Abraham, concludes Ezekiel. It is a fitting climax to this section assuring future blessings for Israel (chs. 33--48) following the return of God's glory to the land (chs. 40--48).
This section has two main parts: the description of a river that would flow through and heal the land (47:1-12) and the description of Israel's boundaries and tribal allotments during the Millennium (47:13--48:35).
Constable supposed that while the river in the heavenly Jerusalem, described by John in Revelation 22:2, is similar to Ezekiel's river, it is a different one, as the city is in heaven. But, what about Joel's river? Is that a different one too? How does it water the valley of Shittim?
And what about the rivers in Zechariah's prophecy? [Zechariah 14:8] Are these different rivers too? One flows towards the east, and another one to the west.
Is Isaiah's river, where no galley of oars may go, a literal river?
Look upon Zion, the city of our solemnities: thine eyes shall see Jerusalem a quiet habitation, a tabernacle that shall not be taken down; not one of the stakes thereof shall ever be removed, neither shall any of the cords thereof be broken.
But there the glorious LORD will be unto us a place of broad rivers and streams; wherein shall go no galley with oars, neither shall gallant ship pass thereby.
A spiritual or metaphorical river can have properties very unlike literal rivers. Such properties may even contradict the behaviour of natural rivers.
Constable wrote on p. 231:
This river is similar to two other rivers in the Bible: the river that flowed out of the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:10) and the river that will flow in the New Jerusalem during the eternal state (Rev. 22:1-2; cf. Ps. 46:4; 65:9; Joel 3:18; Zech. 14:8). Like the river in Revelation the one in Ezekiel will flow from the throne of God; He is the source of both rivers. However, there will be a temple in the millennial earth, but there will not be one in the eternal state (Rev. 21:22). The river in Revelation also flowed down the street of the city, but Ezekiel mentioned no city to the east of the temple, just one to its south (45:6). It seems that Ezekiel and John saw two different rivers, but the purpose of both rivers was the same. God will be the source of fertility, blessing, and health in the Millennium and throughout eternity.
The river that Ezekiel saw was a real river with life-giving and healing properties. But like the rivers in Genesis 2 and Revelation 22 it also has symbolic significance. Many interpreters spiritualize the entire passage and see no literal fulfillment in the future. It represents the spiritual life and healing that flow to humanity from the throne of God (cf. John 4:14; 7:37-38).
"The river is like the blood of the Messiah from the cross of Calvary that began as a trickle (John 19:34). Finally, the blood, like the river, became a flood of redemption for all people (Rev. 1:5). So the flow from Calvary became a fountain of redemption for all people including Israel (see Zech 13:1-6; Rev 1:5-6). Just so, the water of life that the prophet saw coming from the threshold came forth gently, then began to flow, and finally became a mighty river of life healing all in its wake."
Among the miry marshy areas with stagnant water there lurks the error of insisting upon a literal approach to interpretation of prophecy. This approach is hazardous, because those who adopt that view may completely miss the spiritual meaning of prophecy. It was similar in the early church, when some insisted upon circumcision of the flesh, while failing to understand the spiritual meaning of circumcision.
Literalists tend to apply the promises of God to ethnic Jews, rather than those who are the children of the promises by faith. Ezekiel showed that the marshy areas in the course of the river obtain no benefit from its life-giving spiritual waters.
William Kelly thought the river of Ezekiel's prophecy was a literal one, and distiguished it from the river John described in the heavenly Jerusalem. He said of the river in Ezekiel's prophecy, "It is an earthly scene." So, for Kelly, the prophecy about the river would not apply to him, or to his experience as a Christian. Perhaps Kelly's views are examples of miry swamps, were the waters are salt, and which receive no benefit from the waters.
An ultra-literal view of the river of Ezekiel 47 was presented by the pastor of Middletown Bible Church on his web site. He wrote:
The descriptions of this river are as literal as literal can be. There are clear geographical references made in connection with this river (Ezek. 47:8-10). There are exact distances and depths measured out (Ezek. 47:3-5). The details concerning this river are very descriptive: it flows into the sea (Dead Sea) and the waters become fresh which once was the saltiest body of water on earth. There will be many varieties of fish in a body of water where fish formerly could never live. Fishermen will stand beside it and there will be the spreading of nets. Are we to reject this whole description and spiritualize it and give it some strange meaning according to our own fancy, or should we take it at face value?
When people depart from a literal interpretation they deny the plain sense and they give the text some other sense according to their own lively imagination. It is almost humorous to read the commentaries and see how people spiritualize this river and make it mean whatever they want it to mean. Some say it refers to the "stream of church history." Others say it refers to going deeper in the Christian life ("ankle-deep Christians," etc.). Some think it refers to water baptism. Some say it refers to "vitality flowing forth from Holy Ground," etc. When all else fails, why don't we just let it say what it says? Does God really mean what He says or do we need to take what God says and force our own meaning upon it?
The river is directly connected to the house of the LORD (Ezek. 47:1-2; Joel 3:18), so if a person rejects the literalness of this river they must also reject the literalness of the temple which is described in Ezekiel chapters 40-48. Actually the three (the temple, the river and the animal sacrifices) must stand or fall together.
The detailed description of the river that Ezekiel provided, and its change in depth over a given distance as it flowed out of the temple, are cited as evidence supporting a literal interpretation.
But these details, when compared with the existing topography in the area to the east of Jerusalem, where the river is supposed to flow in the future, should convince all but the most gullible and superstitious person that Ezekiel's prophecy describes a spiritual river, not a literal one. The topography required for the increase in depth over the distance that Ezekiel specified does not fit the landscape there.
The gradient that Ezekiel described implies a fairly gentle slope in the area just to the east of Jerusalem. But this is the very region most affected by the earth movements the prophet Zechariah described!
Zechariah said the Mount of Olives would cleave in the midst, and the two halves of the mountain would be displaced in opposite directions, forming a valley between, and the area of Jerusalem would be raised up. These changes in topography would tend to greatly increase the gradient of a river flowing east from Jerusalem, although a valley through the Mount of Olives could allow a river to flow eastward.
The problems for a literal interpretation are compounded because the prophecies say Jerusalem will be raised up, to become a mountain. This would tend to make the gradient that Ezekiel specified for the river even less plausible.
In fact, prophecies about topographical changes in the area of Jerusalem have the potential to drive literalists mad! Zechariah said,
In that day, saith the LORD, I will smite every horse with astonishment, and his rider with madness: and I will open mine eyes upon the house of Judah, and will smite every horse of the people with blindness.
Psalm 32:9 shows horses represent those with no understanding.
Examples of literalists who unwisely insist upon the contradictory notions of a literal interpretation of Ezekiel's river, and the elevation of Jerusalem to become a mountain, which would increase the gradient in the areas where the river of Ezekiel 47 is said to flow, are dispensationalists Tim LaHaye and Edward E. Hindson. Ironically, their book is subtitled "Understanding the Meaning of Every Prophetic Passage" but clearly they misunderstand the prophecy of Ezekiel's river. In The Popular Bible Prophecy Commentary: Understanding the Meaning of Every Prophetic Passage by Tim LaHaye, Edward E. Hindson [Harvest House Publishers, 2007] p. 213, they wrote:
From the millennial temple there will burst forth a river that transforms the formerly barren and unfruitful Judean lowlands and the Dead Sea region (47:1-12) ... Accompanying the explanation of the topographical changes that have created the mountain of the house of the Lord with its sacred district and holy portion containing the millennial temple is the description of a river of fructified water that will flow from beneath the temple (47:1-12). Briefer accounts of this prophetic event were made before Ezekiel's time by Joel (Joel 3:18, c. 835 B.C.) and after Ezekiel's time by Zechariah (Zechariah 18:8, c. 520-518 B.C.). A comparison of these texts reveals that they are independent of one another, with Joel's text stating "a spring will go out from the house of the Lord to water the valley of Shittim [an area north of the Dead Sea]," and Zechariah's adding that the "living waters" will divide and flow also "to the western sea [Mediterranean Sea]." The changes affected by this river will serve as a constant witness throughout the millennium that the source of blessing is the Lord, from whose house the waters originate.
Patrick Fairbairn gave a reasonable, and balanced interpretation of Ezekiel's prophecy about the temple waters, and he also discussed some of the principles that apply when interpreting prophecy. He outlines the main approaches to interpretation, and the problems associated with them.
What is the river? Jesus showed that the living waters represent the Holy Spirit. [John 7:37-39]
What is the land over which the river flows? The rivers Ezekiel described are confined to the area of the promised land, but the river of Joel's prophecy flows from a fountain in the temple, and waters the Valley of Shittim, east of the Jordan. [Joel 3:18] That was where the Israelites camped, before they entered the promised land. It was where they committed whoredom with the daughters of Moab. [Numbers 25:1]
I suggest the land through which the river flows represents the revelations of God about the gospel. Ezekiel's prophecy about the temple river is part of a larger prophecy, contained in the closing chapters of Ezekiel. The subject is the spiritual temple, symbolic of the church. Ezekiel said the glory of the Lord will fill this house.
1 Afterward he brought me to the gate, even the gate that looketh toward the east:
2 And, behold, the glory of the God of Israel came from the way of the east: and his voice was like a noise of many waters: and the earth shined with his glory.
3 And it was according to the appearance of the vision which I saw, even according to the vision that I saw when I came to destroy the city: and the visions were like the vision that I saw by the river Chebar; and I fell upon my face.
4 And the glory of the LORD came into the house by the way of the gate whose prospect is toward the east.
5 So the spirit took me up, and brought me into the inner court; and, behold, the glory of the LORD filled the house.
The waters flowing from the temple in Ezekiel chapter 47 are generated by the presence of God in His temple, and in his saints. God is called "the fountain of living waters." [Jeremiah 17:13] Jesus spoke of "rivers of living water," which represent the Spirit, which comes from God, and flows from those who believe in Him.
Many revelations were given in the promised land, and further revelations, given to prophets such as Ezekiel and Daniel during the exile, were about the land, and the restoration to come, which is spiritual in nature, not a literal migration of Jews to Palestine, as claimed by dispensationalists.