I saw, then, that they went on their way to a pleasant river; which David the king called “the river of God”, but John, “the river of the water of life.” Now their way lay just upon the bank of the river; here, therefore, Christian and his companion walked with great delight; they drank also of the water of the river, which was pleasant, and enlivening to their weary spirits: besides, on the banks of this river, on either side, were green trees, that bore all manner of fruit; and the leaves of the trees were good for medicine; with the fruit of these trees they were also much delighted; and the leaves they eat to prevent surfeits, and other diseases that are incident to those that heat their blood by travels. On either side of the river was also a meadow, curiously beautified with lilies, and it was green all the year long. In this meadow they lay down, and slept; for here they might lie down safely. When they awoke, they gathered again of the fruit of the trees, and drank again of the water of the river, and then lay down again to sleep. Thus they did several days and nights. Then they sang—
Behold ye how these crystal streams do glide,
To comfort pilgrims by the highway side;
The meadows green, beside their fragrant smell,
Yield dainties for them; and he that can tell
What pleasant fruit, yea, leaves, these trees do yield,
Will soon sell all, that he may buy this field.
So when they were disposed to go on, (for they were not, as yet, at their journey’s end,) they ate and drank, and departed.
After Christian and Hopeful ponder the meaning of the pillar of salt, warning them to guard their hearts and flee from sin, they come to the bank of a pleasant river. This is more of God’s gracious provision for His pilgrims. God is faithful, not only to warn us of His wrath against sin, but to comfort us with His mercies in Christ. His Word not only implores us: “Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die…?” (Ezekiel 33:11); but also, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
The river represents the peace and joy that God abundantly supplies us in Christ. It is the assurance and delight that refreshes and revives our hearts as we meditate on the riches God has given us in His Son. It is through Christ alone that we can draw near to God and enjoy His presence.
We see all through the Scriptures this pleasant river pointing us to Christ.
In Genesis 2 a river flows from the place where God communes with man—the Garden of Eden:
“Now a river went out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it parted and became four riverheads” (Genesis 2:10).
In Psalm 65 King David sings of the Temple where God manifested His presence in the Old Testament:
Blessed is the man You choose,
And cause to approach You,
That he may dwell in Your courts.
We shall be satisfied with the goodness of Your house,
Of Your holy temple.
Later in the psalm he rejoices in the “river of God” as evidence of God’s gracious care for His people:
You visit the earth and water it,
You greatly enrich it;
The river of God is full of water;
You provide their grain,
For so You have prepared it.
The people of God can rest in safety on the banks of this river.
The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
The firstborn of the poor will feed,
And the needy will lie down in safety;
I will kill your roots with famine,
And it will slay your remnant.
Bunyan draws much of his imagery of the river and its banks from Ezekiel, where the river flows from the Temple.
Then he brought me back to the door of the temple; and there was water, flowing from under the threshold of the temple toward the east, for the front of the temple faced east; the water was flowing from under the right side of the temple, south of the altar. He brought me out by way of the north gate, and led me around on the outside to the outer gateway that faces east; and there was water, running out on the right side.
And when the man went out to the east with the line in his hand, he measured one thousand cubits, and he brought me through the waters; the water came up to my ankles. Again he measured one thousand and brought me through the waters; the water came up to my knees. Again he measured one thousand and brought me through; the water came up to my waist. Again he measured one thousand, and it was a river that I could not cross; for the water was too deep, water in which one must swim, a river that could not be crossed. He said to me, “Son of man, have you seen this?” Then he brought me and returned me to the bank of the river.
When I returned, there, along the bank of the river, were very many trees on one side and the other. Then he said to me: “This water flows toward the eastern region, goes down into the valley, and enters the sea. When it reaches the sea, its waters are healed. And it shall be that every living thing that moves, wherever the rivers go, will live. There will be a very great multitude of fish, because these waters go there; for they will be healed, and everything will live wherever the river goes. It shall be that fishermen will stand by it from En Gedi to En Eglaim; they will be places for spreading their nets. Their fish will be of the same kinds as the fish of the Great Sea, exceedingly many. But its swamps and marshes will not be healed; they will be given over to salt. 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” (Ezekiel 47:1–12).
This vision is repeated by the apostle John as he describes the “river of water of life” flowing from the throne of God in the final chapter of Revelation:
“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” (Revelation 22:1–2).
Here is Christ with His people, “the tabernacle of God is with men” (Revelation 21:3). In Bunyan’s story, Christian and Hopeful are not yet at the Celestial City, but their meditation on the beauty and glory of Christ are a taste of heaven on earth.
It is Jesus who has brought God near. He is the source of living water, the fountain of life. He is Immanuel, “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). The Old Testament anticipates the joy of His coming:
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.
In that day it shall be—
“The Lord is one,”
And His name one.
And it will come to pass in that day
That the mountains shall drip with new wine,
The hills shall flow with milk,
And all the brooks of Judah shall be flooded with water;
A fountain shall flow from the house of the Lord
And water the Valley of Acacias.
Therefore with joy you will draw water
From the wells of salvation.
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.
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.
There is a river whose streams shall make glad the city of God,
The holy place of the tabernacle of the Most High.
Just as God nourishes and replenishes the earth with rivers of water, He revives His people with rivers of His pleasure and grace. God’s pleasure and grace come to us through Christ. Jesus declares Himself to be the source of living water and He invites us to come and drink.
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.” 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 7:37–39).
Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water” (John 14:10).
It is in Christ that our souls are fully satisfied. In Him is all we need. In Him we can rest and find peace. Bunyan describes his own spiritual refreshment meditating on Christ and the gospel:
Now had I an evidence, ‘as I thought, of my salvation’ from heaven, with many golden seals thereon, all hanging in my sight; now could I remember this manifestation and the other discovery of grace, with comfort; and should often long and desire that the last day were come, that I might forever be inflamed with the sight, and joy, and communion with him whose head was crowned with thorns, whose face was spit on, and body broken, and soul made an offering for my sins: for whereas, before, I lay continually trembling at the mouth of hell, now methought I was got so far therefrom that I could not, when I looked back, scarce discern it; and, oh! thought I, that I were fourscore years old now, that I might die quickly, that my soul might be gone to rest (Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, 128).
Bunyan was amazed that Christ would suffer and die for him. He knew himself to be sinful and wretched. Yet he found the abundant mercy and love of God in Christ to be a peaceful, pleasant river. He was among the blessed whose—
… delight is in the law of the Lord,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
He shall be like a tree
Planted by the rivers of water,
That brings forth its fruit in its season,
Whose leaf also shall not wither;
And whatever he does shall prosper.
Believer, drink deeply from this pleasant river! Delight in God’s Word. Meditate on its promises. The gospel affords an invigorating taste of heaven, even as we press on in our journey here on earth. May God lead us often to the banks of this river to refresh and encourage our weary souls.
A Guide to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress
See TOC for more posts from this commentary
The text for The Pilgrim’s Progress and images used are public domain
Notes and Commentary ©2017 Ken Puls
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version (NKJV) ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.