From the River to the Western Sea

Coco had wondered whether a lengthy introduction would be wise, as Coco has been reliably informed on several occasions that a lengthy introduction, as well as being long-winded, normally puts potential readers off so that they do not become actual readers but merely passers-by, but having learned a lesson of late of one who did precisely that in order to avoid provoking the wrath of the censor, which in his case would have been the Roman governor of his gaol, Coco thought perhaps that he too should seek to avoid his wrath, but by placing this introductory paragraph to the introduction he has probably rather more drawn his attention to the possibility that what is about to be said may be more than a little controversial, though if you, dear reader, carefully read you will note that that there is not a single note of controversy about it at all.  The argument is clear; it is precise; it is too the point; it is not rambling; it does not stray; it is compelling, to the point and it leads to an inescapable and unavoidable conclusion which many may wish to avoid.

With that in mind then Coco wishes to report that whilst we were victualling one evening a friend made reference to the pining for the fjords, which was offered by the pet shop owner as the substantive reason for the rather undesirable state of the parrot which had been brought back in to the shop. Coco failed to hear the reference to the Monty Python sketch, but instead heard and was reminded of an ancient Chinese poem which expresses the pining of the beloved in this way:

How few by moonlight find their tryst
but pine alone by stranded trees.

Zhang Ruoxu (660-720 AD) wrote this delightful work quite some years ago. There is a copy here on this blog, but it is certain that there are many other copies of it available on line. You can hear in the poem the longing of the beloved for the return of her husband. We hear the same expression of longing at the end of the Song of Songs, where Solomon put these words into the mouth of the Beloved after her husband has departed:

Make haste, my beloved,
And be like a gazelle
Or a young stag
On the mountains of spices.
Song of Songs 8

There is delight even in listening to this Chinese ode read in a tongue which you do not understand for you can hear the rhythms and cadences of it so clearly and artfully worked in the construction of the lines. Even when we take into account that mistakes may well be made in a modern reading, for the expression of languages changes over the years. If, as it has been suggested, that the French spoken in Quebec is much more likely to sound like the French that was spoken by the French kings than the French that spoken in Paris today, then the language and tones of the English language as spoken in New England may well be much more appropriate for the expression of Shakespeare than any of our contemporary British dialects. We only need to remember that Summer is ycumen in is not a song for the ending of spring but rather for the height of summer to know that we cannot take for granted that we would correctly understand all that was said and written, nor indeed know how to vocalise and stress our own language as it was spoken even five hundred years ago correctly – we must remember that the past is a foreign country – but even allowing for such difficulties this poem as read by Google in modern Mandarin, and not the Mandarin of thirteen hundred years ago, contains much to show the beauty of the work and the skill of the writer. How much more it would if we could but hear his own contemporaries intone it.

But it was not of the references to the pining that came to mind, but rather more to where the gentleman had gone. These words come immediately before the beloved expresses her pining:

The moon sinks down into the mist
which parts the rivers from the seas.

Have you ever thought about what it is that separates the river from the sea? Where does the river cease to be the river and become the sea? We know that moving downstream we must travel from the river to the sea but we cannot say where that transition takes place, we only know that has taken place after it has occurred. We may want to say that the translation happens when the water becomes salty, but that does not explain all rivers. Many may indeed become salty, by reason of tidal influx long before they reach the sea. Some are so powerful in their flow that the sea itself is fresh water where they leave the land. The poet alone can answer the question for us. There is a mist, not just any kind of mist but a special one into which the moon sinks down. It is this that suggests to the poet where to find the the boundary between the river and the sea. And so we may say in passing from the river to the sea we must enter this mist.

From the river to the sea has taken a new meaning today, but we see that the poet Zhang Ruoxu used the expression a thousand years ago. Indeed when we enquire further we find that the expression is older than that. It was first used two thousand years before, earlier even than when our beloved Shulammite yearned: Make haste, my beloved, and be like a gazelle or a young stag on the mountains of spices. We find it in Moses where he is speaking to the Hebrews in the wilderness:

Every place on which the sole of your foot treads shall be yours: from the wilderness and Lebanon, from the river, the River Euphrates, even to the Western Sea, shall be your territory.
Deuteronomy 11:24

This is, you may note, not simply a reference to the Jordan, but beyond the Jordan to the River, that is to say, the Euphrates. It was not until Solomon that that became a reality, as we read in the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel:

So Solomon reigned over all kingdoms from the River to the land of the Philistines, as far as the border of Egypt. 1 Kings 4
So [Solomon] reigned over all the kings from the River to the land of the Philistines, as far as the border of Egypt. 2 Chronicles 9

That the land of the Philistines is specifically mentioned here is significant and entirely congruent with the special place that they had. The Philistines were not to be one of the nations to be removed by Joshua from the land. That special place continues to be seen, though obscurely, in the Chronicles from time to time.

Whether or not the present occupants of Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, and Gath are descendants of the people who lived there three thousand years ago is not part of this discussion. They may be, they may be not. There have been many movements of population in the nations from the River to the Western Sea, some voluntary but many involuntary in the intervening period; we would have great difficulty to unravel the knot of past generations. It is however clear that there are a people who occupy this place.

So we see that from the river to the sea is an ancient phrase, not a modern one. We have seen that including our first record of it being used that it has been used in three different ways, and Coco is sure that there are many other ways in which in it has been and may be used other than these. Where it has reference however to a location what we need to note is not the actual location of the land but what it represents. For the Hebrews it represented the fulfilment of a promise made to Abraham, expressed as a land flowing with milk and honey:

Therefore you shall keep every commandment which I command you today, that you may be strong, and go in and possess the land which you cross over to possess, and that you may prolong your days in the land which the Lord swore to give your fathers, to them and their descendants, ‘a land flowing with milk and honey.’ For the land which you go to possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come, where you sowed your seed and watered it by foot, as a vegetable garden; but the land which you cross over to possess is a land of hills and valleys, which drinks water from the rain of heaven, a land for which the Lord your God cares; the eyes of the Lord your God are always on it, from the beginning of the year to the very end of the year. Deuteronomy 11:8-12

Moses here contrasts the land with the land of Egypt out of which they had come. What he is expressing is the same longing which has been in the hearts of men since the day on which Adam fell. It is a longing for a better place. We find Lamech saying: This one [Noah] will comfort us concerning our work and the toil of our hands, because of the ground which the Lord has cursed Genesis 5:29. It was not however to be as Lamech thought or hoped for Noah saw the greatest cataclysm that this world has ever yet seen since the fall.

Adam toiled as he sowed the seed in the field, just as the Hebrews did in Egypt. Work, which had been given for our good, had become a hardship. We became slaves to it finding in it toil rather than pleasure – though let Coco not be accused of saying that there is no element at all of pleasure in work. There is still a remnant of it for those who are able to find it. The people in Egypt longed to be released from the toil of their slavery to Pharaoh. Do we not today also? The expression of this longing is found in Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home. It is not just the slaves’ expression of longing to be free, but rather a reference to the Lord’s chariot coming to take Elijah out of this world to a better place. It is an expression of the desire of all men, the longing to be home, the hiraeth of the Welsh.

So we are brought back to the pining not to the pining of the dead parrot but rather to that of our Chinese lady for the return of her mariner husband, and to that of the Shulammite for her king to come as a gazelle over the mountains of spices. The Chinese lady saw the river as a barrier for her mariner. The Shulammite saw the mountains in an entirely different way. They are delightful mountains, they are mountains of spices. What a contrast, but the contrast derives from the difference in their relationship with their Lord and who he is. For the Shulammite he is the supreme commander. He is in charge of all things. Nothing could ever really separate her from his love for all things are his. We hear this expressed at the end of the John’s revelation. So we come back to John as well, who provided Coco with the excuse for the long introduction. The king speaks:

I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last.

And just as Moses had done, John adds a reference to obedience: Blessed are those who do his commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the city. And provides a warning (Moses did also, but Coco did not include above, if you read the words in the book you will quickly find it): But outside are dogs and sorcerers and sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and whoever loves and practices a lie.

I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you these things in the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, the Bright and Morning Star.

And the Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely.
Revelation 22

Three thousand years ago the Shulammite cried out, as a representative of the people of God, expressing the pining of our hearts for the return of the king:

Make haste, my beloved,
And be like a gazelle
Or a young stag
On the mountains of spices.

A thousand years later the Lord replied: “Surely I am coming quickly.” (v20)

Truly, he is coming to take us, not to the land from the River to the Western Sea, but to the land that is actually flowing with what the milk and honey of Moses represent, to his eternal kingdom. In that day the pining shall be over. We shall work with him in work that is no more toil, and we rest with him.

Amen! Even so, come Lord Jesus!

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