We get so used to singing “Shall We Gather at the River?” or “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand/I Am Bound for the Promised Land” that we can forget their connection to the real-life land and rivers on which they are based. Here is a quick review.
In Genesis, God called a man named Abram to go “to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1-3). Abram traveled from his home in what is now Iraq to the land of Canaan, now the nation of Israel. Abram (later renamed “Abraham”) settled there, where his son Isaac and grandson Jacob (later renamed “Israel”) also raised their families. In each generation, God promised that this land would always belong to this family line, and that they would become a great nation.
Then there was a twist in the story: Abraham’s great-grandson, Joseph, moved the entire family to Egypt due to a famine in the region. At the time, Joseph was a very powerful man, second in command to the pharaoh who ruled all of Egypt. The family settled there in honor, but… Later generations under a later pharaoh grew numerous enough to be considered a threat. That new pharaoh enslaved them instead of continuing to honor them. This went on for about 400 years, until God called Moses to confront the pharaoh and demand that the people be allowed to return to their homeland.
After about forty years and many adventures, the people — now called “Israelites” — did return to the land that had been promised to their family. The boundary that they crossed to enter their land was the Jordan River. God had honored His promise to their ancestors 1.
Now it came about after the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, that the LORD spoke to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ servant, saying, “Moses My servant is dead; now therefore arise, cross this Jordan, you and all this people, to the land which I am giving to them, to the sons of Israel. Every place on which the sole of your foot treads, I have given it to you, just as I spoke to Moses.Joshua 1:1-3
The Christian’s Story
This history is so integral to the Bible’s story of God’s dealings with mankind via the Israelites — the nation into which Jesus came to be born, to die a sacrificial death for us, and to be raised to life in victory 2 — that “wandering in the wilderness” before “crossing the river” into the “promised land” has become a picture of the journey of a Christian life.
- We make a choice to throw our lot in with Jesus, as the Israelites did when deciding to leave Egypt and when entering into their covenant with God at Mt. Sinai.
- There are years of trials and adventures, as the Israelites had during their time in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan.
- God leads and protects through those trials, as He did with them by providing manna, water, and victory against enemies.
- Notice that He does not necessarily prevent the trials. Instead, He uses the trials as teaching opportunities, giving us a chance to trust Him and watch Him work.
- We continue to sin and rebel, as they did (rather constantly!)…and to be disciplined, as they were.
- But, like them, we are always loved and never abandoned.
- And, like them, we are forgiven each time we turn back to God.
- We come to a barrier, a final transition point, as they did at the Jordan.
- We cross that barrier into an eternal homeland promised to all who follow Jesus.
Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also.John 14:1-3
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.John 11:25-26
One notable feature of that homeland will be another river, the River of Life described by John in the book of Revelation.
Then he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street. On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.Revelation 22:1-2
It can be far too easy for Christians to get caught up in our day-to-day “wilderness wanderings” and lose sight of our destination. It can also be intimidating to think of our death, or to deal with the grief at the death of a loved one. Relating to the Israelites’ journey is a way to help keep our perspective. Regardless of obstacles, we do have a bright future awaiting us, guaranteed by God’s promise.
That’s good news!
While researching “promised land” or “river” songs for this article, I came across a new one. “Promised Land” was written by Christian hip-hop artist TobyMac (co-written with Adam Agee) and released in 2021. It makes the point that the Christian’s promised land is not just “pie in the sky, by and by”. Jesus also gives a relationship with Himself right now. He is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6); He is the promise…and its fulfillment! Not only is the song new to me, but that concept of Jesus as the promised land is a fresh way of describing the relationship. I liked it, and thought that you might also. Here’s a link to the video.
And, here are links to the songs I mentioned at the beginning, “Shall We Gather at the River?” and “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand/I Am Bound for the Promised Land“. And, as bonus, here’s one more that I found: “Jordan’s Banks” by Alabama 3. Enjoy!
Footnotes and Scripture References
- You can read the entire story in the Old Testament, crossing several books. Genesis tells of Abraham through Joseph, starting at chapter 12. Exodus follows Moses and the people as they leave Egypt. Numbers, mostly chapters 11 through 20, describes the time in the wilderness. Finally, the entry to the Promised Land happens in Joshua.
- You can read more about Jesus’ role in these articles, and about His coming via the Israelites here.
- I was not aware at the time, but on the day that I wrote this article, Jeff Cook, the Alabama co-founder who is singing lead on this video, had just passed away. He did indeed stand on Jordan’s Banks that day. My condolences to all those who loved him. We will sing with him again when we all reach the promised land!