This prophecy of the end times describes the multitudes among the nations who will visit Jerusalem and worship God there. Take note of the verb used at the end of the verse to describe this gathering of the nations in Jerusalem: and all the nations will stream to it.
The Hebrew verb used here is naharu. The u at the end of the word is the conjugative third person plural, “they.” The word nahar means stream. This is the same word as the noun nahar, meaning “stream” or “river,” found throughout the Bible. For example:
A river – nahar – emerged from Eden to water the garden; and from there it would part and would become four headwaters. – Genesis 2:10
To sum up this point: the Hebrew word nahar means “stream” both as a verb – “to stream,” “streaming” – and as a noun.
Nahar is always people streaming
This verse in Isaiah 2 is one of only four verses in the Bible where nahar is a verb meaning to stream or flow. The others are Jeremiah 31:11, Jeremiah 51:44, and Micah 4:1. The last of these is an almost word-for-word quote of our verse. In all four verses, the verb “to stream” is used metaphorically to describe people streaming towards a certain location. Interestingly, nahar is never used as a verb to describe the literal streaming or flowing of a liquid. This verb is used only to describe human activity, metaphorically likening it to the flowing water of a river.
Of course, there are much simpler and more conventional ways to describe large numbers of people gathering in a certain place. The examples of mass traveling and congregating in the Bible are too numerous to mention. Therefore, we must ask: what exactly is being implied by the verb “to stream” when used to describe the multitudes among the nations who will make pilgrimages to Jerusalem to worship the God of Israel at the end of days?
Streaming = Natural and Perpetual
Water flows naturally. Unlike the movement of people or animals, no will or choice causes water to flow. It is drawn by an unseen natural forces. It is beyond instinct. It is simply the nature of water to flow. Furthermore, the force that causes rivers to flow does not ever stop. Unlike the wind or the tides, rivers neither pause nor change direction.
Now we can understand Isaiah’s choice of this verb to describe the millions among the nations who will stream to Jerusalem at the time of the restoration and rebuilding of Israel. Isaiah is saying that these pilgrims will feel naturally drawn to Jerusalem by an instinctive force, rather than by rational free will. They will not be merely deciding to travel to Jerusalem; they will flow there naturally, as water flows downstream. And like the waters of a great river that never stop, the flow of people from the nations will not cease. Once it begins, it will be endless.
Another meaning of nahar
Interestingly, the Hebrew verb root nahar has another meaning in the Bible. In addition to the four verses mentioned above, there are two more verses where this verb appears, but with a different meaning.
Then you shall see and be radiant – nahar -; your heart shall thrill and exult, because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. – Isaiah 60:5 (ESV)
Those who look to him are radiant – naharu -, and their faces shall never be ashamed. – Psalm 34:6(5) (ESV)
In these two verses, the verb nahar is translated as “to be radiant.” Just as we saw with the use of nahar as a verb meaning “to stream,” nahar – “to be radiant” – refers only to people who are described as radiant and not to objects that radiate light or energy.
It is highly unusual for a verb root in Hebrew to have two completely different meanings without any change in the vowels. Linguists of Biblical Hebrew assumes that there must be an underlying relationship between the variant meanings of a single root. In fact, for one of these verses, the translations in English disagree regarding the correct meaning of the word nahar in the verse. To illustrate, here are the original King James version and the New King James version of Isaiah 60:5.
Then thou shalt see, and flow together – nahar -, and thine heart shall fear, and be enlarged; because the abundance of the sea shall be converted unto thee, the forces of the Gentiles shall come unto thee. – (KJV)
Then you shall see and become radiant – nahar -; And your heart shall swell with joy; Because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you; The wealth of the Gentiles shall come to you. – (NKJV)
I would like to suggest a relationship between these two meanings of the word nahar. Like a river naturally flows downstream, something that is radiant does not choose to be radiant. It simply radiates because of what it is. Radiance is not a choice. It is the natural effect of a certain state of being. Furthermore, radiance is a flow of light that emerges from an object that is radiating.
The Radiance of Pilgrims to Jerusalem
To sum up, the verb form of the Hebrew word nahar, the word for “river,” means to flow naturally regardless of the conscious decision of that which is flowing. This word is used in the Bible to describe the flow of people or the flow of the spiritual light emanating from people who are described as radiant.
Based on this dual meaning of the verb nahar, I would like to suggest that this play on words may have been part of what Isaiah was describing in our verse.
As we explained above, by describing the nations as streaming to Jerusalem Isaiah was saying that in the end times, the millions among the nations who come to Jerusalem to worship God will do so instinctively. They will feel drawn to Jerusalem naturally. This is a powerful image. People have a natural draw to their own homeland, to the place they were born or raised, or where they have some historical connection through family or ethnicity. What would make multitudes among the nations feel instinctively drawn to Jerusalem, a place they have never been and to which they have no ancestral connection? The answer is simple: faith in God.
It is faith in the Bible and the God of Israel that produces an instinctive draw to come to Jerusalem and connect to God in His holy city. At the same time, alluded to by the alternate translation of nahar, this faith causes those pilgrims to be radiant, illuminated by their journey to the mountain of the house of the Lord in Jerusalem.
The flow of millions from among the Nations who visit Jerusalem each year in our times is a fulfillment of this verse. These pilgrims are drawn to Jerusalem by an instinctive force rooted in their faith in the God of Israel. And their visit leaves them radiant, alight with the spiritual illumination they derive from their pilgrimage to the mountain of the Lord in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki serves as Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, and he is cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast