Posted by: rcottrill | April 15, 2011

Shall We Gather at the River?

Words: Robert Lowry (b. Mar. 12, 1826; d. Nov. 25, 1899)
Music: Robert Lowry

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

In Revelation 21:1-4, we’re told that God will create a new heaven and a new earth, at which time the heavenly city (New Jerusalem; cf. Heb. 12:22) will come down to earth, and the Lord will abide in the midst of His people forever. The river in the city, referenced in Montgomery’s hymn, is described as part of the scene in Revelation chapter 22.

Some believe all of the imagery of the book of Revelation is merely symbolic. However, as the old commentators used to say, “If the plain sense makes good sense, seek no other sense.” There seems to be no valid reason not to understand the description of the heavenly city as both. That is, to see it as a real city of incredible beauty, whose features also have a symbolic significance.

Revelation 22:1-5 gives us John’s description of what he saw. The modern versions are likely correct in taking the first part of vs. 2 as the end of the statement in vs. 1. The NIV has: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city.” In the passage, we are given ten wonderful features of New Jerusalem:

1) The “river of the water of life” is there, an eternally refreshing stream, apparently flowing out from under the throne of God. Montgomery has it “by the throne” (CH-1), which I suppose it was. But John was more interested in the source.

2) The street of the city mentioned seems to be the main concourse. Significantly, it leads to the throne of God, in front of which is a huge level assembly place, paved with transparent gold (cf. Rev. 4:6).

3) The “tree of life” will be there. This tree appeared in Eden (Gen. 2:9). But after Adam and Eve sinned, they were cut off from it, lest they eat and live forever in their sinful state (Gen. 3:22-24). Its twelve varieties of fruit are said to be for “the healing of the nations.” Since there will be no pain or death in the heavenly kingdom (Rev. 21:4), it seems best to understand the Greek word (therapeia, which gives us the English word therapeutic) as indicating a reenergizing, or some kind of enhancement of physical powers.

4) “No more curse” will be found there. The curse placed upon creation after our first parents sinned, will be gone completely and forever (Gen. 3:14-19).

5) “The throne of God and of the Lamb” will be central to the city, as it always has been. It was the first thing John saw, when he was caught up into heaven (Rev. 4:2-3).

6) “His servants shall serve Him.” What our service will entail, we will learn at the appropriate time. But we can be sure it will be both thrilling and rewarding.

7) “They shall see His face.” There will be instant and intimate communion with God, as we forever enjoy His smile of favour.

8. “His name shall be on their foreheads.” Our identity as the saints of God will be evident to all, including the angels. We belong to Him and will be at home in the heavenly kingdom.

9) “There shall be no night there”–because the glory of God and the Lamb (Christ) will flood the city with light (Rev. 21:23).

10) They shall reign forever and ever. The saints are designated as “a royal priesthood” (I Pet. 2:9), and “kings and priests” (or, “a kingdom of priests,” Rev. 1:6), and as joint heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:17), “we shall reign on the earth” (Rev. 5:10).

In his wonderful hymn, Robert Lowry mentions a few more things that believers will experience. We’ll lay our burdens down, and receive robes of white (cf. Rev. 19:7-8), and crowns indicating our faithful service (CH-3). These crowns will be cast at the feet of Christ (perhaps many times), as we acknowledge all we have accomplished is by His grace (Rev. 4:10-11). We’ll talk together and have great times of fellowship, and we’ll worship God together (CH-2). Our lives will be happy (CH-5), and filled with singing (CH-4). What a wonderful prospect!

1) What are some of the things that will be different in the heavenly kingdom from what we experience now?

2) Imagine you are able to sit down and have a long talk with some saint of former times. Who would you like to meet (other than the Lord Jesus)? And what questions would you like to ask?

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal


  1. Robert,
    Thanks for your encouraging comment. Enjoyed your essay as well.
    Hymns walk with me daily. I am glad to discover your website.
    Good questions to ponder. Blessings this Holy Week. ~ MLE

    • Thanks for the encouragement Maja. Drop by any time. 🙂 And have a joyous Easter season. He is risen!


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