This is what the Lord says— your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: “I am the Lord your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go. If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river, your well-being like the waves of the sea. Your descendants would have been like the sand, your children like its numberless grains; their name would never be blotted out nor destroyed from before me.” Leave Babylon, flee from the Babylonians! Announce this with shouts of joy and proclaim it. Send it out to the ends of the earth; say, “The Lord has redeemed his servant Jacob.” They did not thirst when he led them through the deserts; he made water flow for them from the rock; he split the rock and water gushed out. “There is no peace,” says the Lord , “for the wicked.” – Isaiah 48:17-22
As a river scientist, this verse is particularly interesting. It contains a phrase that I confess I did not know occurred in Isaiah “If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river, your well-being like the waves of the sea”. I assume this is where the phrase “peace like a river” came from. It was made famous by the Horatio Spafford hymn “it is well with my soul” written after several tragic events in his life. It is also the title of a book by Leif Enger called “peace like a river”. Here are the lyrics that Horatio Stafford wrote back in 1876.
When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
A google search defines peace as “freedom from disturbance; quiet and tranquility”. Both the natural water features that God compares to peace, the sea and rivers, are hardly free from disturbance. The peace that God is promising here is clearly different than simply a lack of conflict or disturbance. So what is the peace that God is speaking about? Perhaps it will be helpful to explore the features of rivers and the sea to see if we can better understand what God means.
What attributes do rivers possess that make them a good metaphor for the peace that comes from God? Rivers are actually quite variable in size and nature. Some rivers are very small and docile while others are powerful and scary. Rivers like the Colorado river at flood stage would hardly be what most people describe as peaceful. The same river can actually transform from being gentle and calm to being mighty and dangerous. It sounds almost like the dual nature of God, the lion and the lamb.
In order to successfully navigate great rivers it helps to 1) be prepared with the right equipment, and 2) have experience and training on a lot of rivers so that you can make good choices about choosing a line. The right equipment from a spiritual perspective is, according to God in this passage, a person who “paid attention to my commands”. So the right equipment for our souls is knowledge of God’s commands and obedience to them. “River running experience” from a spiritual perspective is gained by attempting to faithfully follow God no matter where He leads and what rapids we encounter along the way.
Each time we navigate a rapid with God we learn a bit about how God can care for us and carry us like a son or daughter. His care may not look like what we think of as “peace”. Part of our learning process may actually involve going for a swim through a patch of whitewater. That was the experience for Horatio Spafford. He lost his four daughters to a tragic accident at sea. He reportedly wrote the song “it is well with my soul” as he passed by the very spot that they were lost. He had “peace like a river” amidst what must have felt like a drowning rapid.
The sea is rarely a calm place. The sailors on wind-powered vessels dreaded “calm seas” because they could not get anywhere without wind, but the same wind that makes the boat move creates waves that, when large enough, can destroy the boat — the lion and the lamb. It is almost as if God’s interaction with our souls is like the wind. We need it to move toward Him but it also creates waves that at times can feel rather scary and dangerous. So to have “your well-being like the waves of the sea” is to trust that our well-being is ultimately in God’s hands whether the waves are large or small. Job certainly experienced wave upon wave in his life, yet he seems to have been able to trust his well-being to God, and in the end God took him where he needed to go.
The passage ends with a reminder of God’s provision of water from a rock in the desert (Exodus 17:5-7), and a stark warning: “There is no peace,” says the Lord , “for the wicked.” So no matter how hard we seek peace in our lives, or between nations, we will not find it apart from God.
Prayer: God grant us peace like a river. Help us to know that when we encounter waves and scary patches in life that you are with us and we have but to rest in You to have peace.