Horatio Spafford wrote his famous hymn, “It is Well with My Soul” in 1873 following a long string of tragedies in his life which include the death of his 4-year old son, financial losses in the Great Chicago Fire, and the loss of his four daughters in a sinking ship. The first stanza of this hymn is:
When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
The words of the hymn recognize that even though we may encounter trouble and trials in our lives, God is sovereign in all our circumstances. Ultimately, He is the victor, and regardless what happens, we have assurance of eternity with Christ.
In the very first line of the hymn, Spafford writes about a, “peace like a river”. In the context of the hymn, Spafford recognizes life has its calmer moments as well. But where does that phrase come from, and what does it mean?
This phrase comes from a couple verses in the book of Isaiah (48:18 and 66:12). This book of the Bible is written to the nation of Israel to warn them of the consequences of their rejection of God. They will lose everything they have gained in life, and will be taken captive by a foreign nation. The possession of land was a central part of God’s covenant with Israel, so to lose their land had tremendous implications. In the latter chapters of the book, though, the prophet assures the people there is a coming good which will follow their time of discipline.
In this phrase from Isaiah, realize first of all that the word “peace”, the Hebrew “shalom” is not about an emotional feeling of calm and serenity. It is about an overall state of being in which all aspects of life are in harmony. Certainly, calm and serenity may be found in the midst of such a situation, but it is not necessarily the case, and it is not the objective.
So, in what way is peace like a river? If you are standing on the banks of a river, the surface of the water may appear to be smooth and calm, but the important thing is that it is moving, and moving with great power. Rivers produce great changes in the land – constantly carving away at the banks and altering its own course. For God to promise that he would “extend peace to her like a river” meant not only a restoration of harmony, but that they would once again be a part of all God is doing in the land. God is on the move!
The second part of Isaiah 66:12 also promises that God will extend “the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream.” Simply put, he is referring to the flooding which occurs during a spring runoff. We typically associate great harm and damage to flooding, but to an agricultural community this is understood as a great benefit. This type of flooding does two things: it deeply waters the land next to the river, and brings a fresh supply of nutrients to the soil. An overflowing stream is associated with great abundance in life. In scripture, abundant living has less to do with material wealth, and more to do with having joy and fulfillment in life – realizing humanity as God originally intended it to be.
Our western, post-modern culture has narrowed the idea of peace to simply an emotional state of calm, and has set it up as an ideal for life. But this kind of peace is not what God intends for us. God desires for our lives to be characterized in harmony as a result of following His ways: seeking to do what is right, and helping others in need. “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) In doing so, we become part of the greater work God is doing in history. Such a peace should be the desire of our souls.