Idiom: “Many Waters”
By Karen Thompson Fourth in a Four-Part Series
Idiom: “a language, dialect, or style of speaking peculiar to a people.”
Idioms are expressions that a group of people share in common. The size of the groups sharing unique expressions can vary in size. The group could be as large as a nation of people. Or the group could be as small as an IT (Information Technology) department at your job. If you’ve ever tried to have a conversation with computer technicians, you quickly learn they have their own set of unique expressions.
One time the IT department at work sent out an all-staff email informing us of something they thought we needed to know. But their email was filled with IT jargon—expressions that only they knew. Their intention was to inform, but because the recipients didn’t understand their shared idioms, they only created confusion. Confusion is the result when a person uses idioms that are not common to all.
That reminds me of an article I recently read about a couple on their wedding day. The groom, Kyle, was from America. His bride, Patricia, was from Ireland. Though they both spoke English, their cultural idioms were vastly different. It took a long while before Kyle was able to understand his bride and her family. So Kyle got the idea to create a translation guide for his guests coming from America to Ireland for the wedding. For fun, he created a list of expressions someone might say at a wedding. He quoted an Irish expression and then gave the American equivalent beside it. He put the list on the tables at the reception. It was a hit with everyone, and, as they say, it went “viral.”
Kyle’s List of Wedding Idioms
Irish: That speech was gas. He was absolutely brilliant. What a legend.
American: OMG that speech was sweet. He crushed it. So epic!
Irish: Fair play to the chef. He did a grand job with the spuds. They’re deadly.
American: Props to the chef. The potatoes were dope. They’re lit!
Irish: Ye are having a whale of a time at Kyle and Patricia’s wedding. Some craic!
American: This wedding is so totally awesome. Insanely hype!
Irish: What’s the craic, lads? Fancy a pint?
American: What’s up, bros? Down for another brewski?
Irish: Up Tipp! Gwarn Tipp!
American: Let’s go, Yankees!
Irish: You are some eejit. Stop acting the maggot. He is only codding ya like.
American: Idiot! Are you for real right now? You’re not serious?
Irish: I’m knackered so I am. I could conk out. I am just banjaxed!
American: I am so freaking exhausted. I might bail, totally wiped out.
Just as Kyle had to interpret Ireland’s idioms so he could communicate with the Irish, so must the Bible student interpret the Bible’s idioms so he can understand God’s Word.
The Bible idiom we’re going to look at in this post is “many waters.”
The expression “many waters” is used many times in the Word—both Old Testament and New. In Revelation alone, it’s used four times. For instance in Revelation 1:15, John described the voice of God as the sound of many waters: “And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters.” Then Revelation 19:6 talks about the voice of a great multitude sounding like many waters: “And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters….”
But the way it’s used in Revelation chapter 17, it takes on a more significant importance. There are many details and facets to the scenario of the great whore riding upon the beast, and the expression “many waters” is just one detail among many that must be interpreted. It would take too much space in a simple blog to discuss every aspect of the scenario of the whore and beast, so for now, our discussion will be limited to the expression “many waters.”
The chapter opens up with one of the seven angels that poured out the seven plagues speaking to John, saying:
“Come hither; I will shew unto thee the judgment of the great whore that sitteth upon many waters: with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication” (Rev. 17:1–2).
The great whore sits on many waters. The interpretation of the term “many waters” is not a mystery. We know what the expression means because the angel proceeded to interpret the vision for the apostle John. The angel gave John the interpretation for “many waters” in verse 15:
“And he saith unto me, The waters which thou sawest, where the whore sitteth, are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues.”
The term “many waters” simply means many nations, peoples, and languages. I think a modern-day equivalent for the term many waters could be “the sea of humanity.” If you understand the reason why the idiom “many waters” is used to describe many peoples, nations, and languages, it helps you to more fully understand the verses in which this phrase is used. It’s in the book of Isaiah where we find a more in-depth meaning. Isaiah was speaking about a multitude of people when he said:
“Woe to the multitude of many people, which make a noise like the noise of the seas; and to the rushing of nations, that make a rushing like the rushing of mighty waters! The nations shall rush like the rushing of many waters…” (Isa. 17:12–13).
In just those two verses alone, he made three comparisons of a multitude of peoples sounding like water. First, he said the multitude of many people makes a noise like the seas. Secondly, he said nations make a rushing of mighty waters. And, lastly, he said the nations “shall rush like the rushing of many waters.” The Hebrew word translated as “rushing” is sha’own and it means “roar, din, crash, uproar.” Thus, we discover the reason why the phrase “many waters” is used to denote many nations, peoples, and languages is because, collectively, the noise, or roar, that a multitude of people makes is similar to the sound of the “rushing of many waters.”
This definition helps us understand John’s description of the voice of God as many waters and what it must have sounded like. And it helps us understand Revelation 19:6 when it says the voice of the great multitude sounded like many waters. The voice of the multitude was literally the sound of different peoples from different nations speaking different languages all at once.
In these instances of the expression “many waters,” the emphasis is on the sound—what many waters “sounds” like. Let’s look at an example where the phrase “many waters” is used when the emphasis is not on the sound.
In the book of Numbers, we see Balak, king of the Moabites, fearful of the children of Israel. Motivated by fear, he requested the prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites so he would be able to easily drive the Israelites out of the land. But every time Balaam opened his mouth to curse the Israelites, a blessing came out instead. In Numbers chapter 24, Balaam used the term “many waters” in a vision he had about God’s future plans for Israel:
“How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel! As the valleys are they spread forth, as gardens by the river’s side, as the trees of lign aloes which the Lord hath planted, and as cedar trees beside the waters. He shall pour the water out of his buckets, and his seed shall be in many waters… (Num. 24:5–7).
In verse seven, the word “seed” means offspring. So when we read the phrase “his seed shall be in many waters,” we know it to be an expression that means the offspring of Israel will be so numerous they will live in many nations and speak many different languages.
Now let’s go back to our verses in Revelation chapter 17 in which the expression “many waters” is being used in connection with the great whore and the beast. Let’s look at the verses again:
“I will shew unto thee the judgment of the great whore that sitteth upon many waters: with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication.”
Thanks to the interpreting angel, we know many waters means many peoples, many nations, and many languages. Now let’s see what the interpreting angel had to say about the great whore:
“And the woman which thou sawest is that great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth” (v. 18).
The great whore is actually a city! And this city, according to the angel, is about to be judged. Knowing that the great whore is actually a city, we can better understand the phrase, “the whore sits on many waters.” The whore “sits” on many waters. The action of “sitting” simply means the city has a relationship with the many waters—the nations of different peoples speaking different languages. The next verse confirms this idea:
“With whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication.”
These kings are the “many waters” on whom the whore sits. The kings are her “lovers” with whom she had committed fornication. What this verse is saying is that this city had wrong relationships with these nations! And this city, the great whore, is about to receive judgment for the wrong relationships she had with these particular kings.
Before the city receives her judgment, God will issue a warning to His people to leave the city so they do not receive the punishment meant for her:
“And I heard another voice from heaven, saying, Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues” (Rev. 18:4).
Her judgment will be twofold (Rev. 18:6). She will be burned down by fire (Rev. 17:16; 18:8), and she will suffer a violent earthquake that will split the city into three parts (Rev. 16:18–19). Thus, the city, the great whore, is brought to an end.
I’ll leave you with one last bit of food for thought.
A fun fact about the makeup of the human body is that it is comprised of 60% water. This factoid provides us with a more literal meaning for the expression “many waters.” When you consider the multitudes of people on the earth and the fact that their bodies are made up mostly of water, the expressions “sea of humanity” and “many waters” take on a more literal expression, don’t they?
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