Oceans, Rivers, and Other Two-Sided Biblical Images in Worship Songs

Zac HicksSongwriting6 Comments

Two Thirds of Our Globe (and worship songs, so it seems)

It’s high tide for nautical themes in worship songs. “Oceans”-makers, Hillsong Worship, have another album out, OPEN HEAVEN / River Wild. The title track alludes to the outpouring of the Spirit prophesied in Joel and bridges the connection to what happens in worship. There are a couple of metaphors running through the song–prominent biblical imagery for the Holy Spirit: fire and rain. The Bridge gets to the center of the aquatic theme:

Living water
River wild in me
Immerse me
In Your mercy
Open heaven
Crashing over me
Restore me
In Your glory

I love the cross-pollination of biblical metaphors. I hear hints of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels and Revelation (“living water”), Hebrews’ language for God (“consuming fire”), and lots of pneumatology (“fire,” “burn,” “rain,” “flood”), baptismal language (“Immerse me”). There’s a kind of under-the-surface Trinitarianism haunting the song, whether or not the songwriters had that in mind. I’m grateful for that.

Oceanic Psalms

I was recently reading Psalm 88, and I was reminded, though, that the nautical imagery of Scripture is more broad than some of our worship songs may lead us to believe. Now, we can grant that there are plenty of worship songs, recent and fairly recent, that have highlighted sea-storm imagery as a picture of suffering, uncertainty, and doubt (e.g. Elevation’s “Last Word,” Hillsong’s “Cornerstone,” even “Oceans” to a degree), but I’m referring here more specifically to the biblical pictures of waves crashing and bodies of water overwhelming and overtaking us. Psalm 88 shares a different perspective on what that experience is like:

You have put me in the lowest pit,
in the darkest depths.
Your wrath lies heavily upon me;
you have overwhelmed me with all your waves.
(Psalm 88:6-7, NIV)

It reminds me of another Psalm that we often take out of context and put on it a positive spin when the Psalmist’s experience is anything but positive. After talking about his downcast soul, the Psalmist exclaims:

Deep calls to deep
in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and breakers
have swept over me. 
(Psalm 42:7, NIV)

A Double-Edged Sword

Scripture’s maritime themes are actually a wonderful illustration of the way God works in our lives. Water, over and over again, is used as a two-part sign. The same split Red Sea that heraled the redemption of Israel came crashing down, drowning Egypt in God’s holy condemnation. The imagery of water-changed-into-something is simultaneously a sign of blessing and future joy (think of Jesus turning the water into wine at Cana), and judgment of sin (think of Moses turning the water into blood). Noah’s flood was both condemnation and liberation. Baptism itself is a gruesome murder scene (drowning the Old Adam in death) before it is freedom (resurrection in Christ’s life) (Rom 6). 

Paul has labeled this dialectic, this Scriptural understanding of the two ways God’s Word comes to us, the “letter” and the “Spirit.” He says, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6). This “letter” is “the ministry that brought death…engraved in letters on stone…the ministry that condemns men” (2 Cor 3:7-9). This “Spirit” is “the surpassing glory” of “the ministry that brings righteousness” (2 Cor 3:9-10). The Reformers, picking up on this and taking cues from the way Paul uses this dialectic in other passages like Romans 3 and Galatians 2, labeled these two voices “Law” and “Gospel.”

The Naked God

I think Paul’s theology of Law and Gospel is helpful when we think of employing Scriptural imagery like “oceans” and “rivers” (and “fire,” for that matter) in our worship songs. We need to be remember that being immersed in the flood of God’s presence is first terrifying (Law) before it is comforting (Gospel)…just ask Isaiah. We need to remember that asking God to “consume me” is first judgment (Deut 4:24; Heb 12:29) before it is grace (Eph 5:18). “Immanuel” (“God with us”) was for the prophets a frightening reality before it was a comforting one. 

And a song like “Oceans” teeters there, exposing what Luther called Deus nudus (“the naked God,” or “the hidden God”), that mysterious and frankly scary side of God that we barely understand: “You call me out upon the waters / the great unknown / where feet may fail.” Granted, the song is more about Peter, faith, and trust in the midst of uncertainty, but you hear in those lines a nod to oceanic themes being something other than just a warm, cozy blanket.

Let’s Round Out the Imagery

My encouragement with this post is to allow the Psalms to offer course corrections and fill out the Scriptural voice. In any era, and on any bandwagon (or yacht, as it were), we’ll always inadvertently forget a few important items at port once we set sail into the great unknown. Those of us who write, think, and live in the modern worship era need to be aware of a few blind spots when it comes to worship and some of the more negative, heavy, and weighty realities of the Christian’s life before the face of God. I’m thinking here of confession, lamentation, suffering, etc. 

My hope is that there will be a few brave, influential songwriters who will write some oceanic songs that sound more like Psalms 42 and 88, so that we can be more fully immersed in our experience of the letter and the Spirit and give voice in our worship to all the fears, doubts, concerns, and burdens that we all bring to the table when we gather for weekly worship.

6 Comments on “Oceans, Rivers, and Other Two-Sided Biblical Images in Worship Songs”

  1. Thanks for this post! I'm wondering what you think of "Waterfall" by Chris Tomlin? It seems to grasp a little bit for those bigger, transcendent thoughts ("running wild and free") but is definitely a pretty positive take on the metaphor. Just came to mind as, at the very least, a seldom used nautical metaphor from Scripture. Thanks!

  2. Joseph,

    Great example. I should have mentioned that song. It is yet another example of the positive idea of the nautical metaphor. Besides the use of the word, "waterfall," it doesn't add much to the imagination of the language beyond the other nautical themes in worship music. Those are my best thoughts! Thanks for the interaction.


  3. Great post! Really appreciate your insights and perspective. I just want to point out (in a friendly way) that the word "nautical" means "of or relating to sailors, ships, or navigation." I think "aquatic" or "marine" would be more correct. =)

  4. Another great post Zac! If it's helpful to the conversation, here's a song our church recorded earlier this year that uses water imagery throughout the verses to theologically explore some of the more raw emotional range for which I sense you're advocating. Here's a sample:

    When waves of grief crash over me
    And pain and doubt assault my soul
    The blood of Christ remains my plea
    He fills with joy through His Gospel

  5. Travis: Love it!
    Grammar Dude: Thanks. I've actually made some changes to tighten up the vocabulary a bit.

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