Where Does the Phrase “From the River to the Sea” Come From, and What Does It Mean?

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Where Does the Phrase “From the River to the Sea” Come From, and What Does It Mean?

I grew up in Northeast Missouri surrounded by several creeks which eventually poured into the Mighty Mississippi. Occasionally, we’d get flash floods and some of these creeks would roll over their banks. That’s why for many years when someone would say, “Lord willing, and the creek don’t rise,” my mind would immediately go the rising waters saturating my old stomping grounds.

But some time ago, I was told another possibility. The rising creek wasn’t a reference to a brook outside its bank, but rather an uprising of the Native American Creek tribe. I was entirely ignorant of the Creek tribe, so this meaning didn’t even register as a possibility. Our culture can shape the way we hear and interact with words and sayings.

In the recent conflict between Israel and Palestine, you’ve perhaps heard a phrase shouted at demonstrations. That phrase is “From the river to the sea…” Typically, it ends with “…Palestine will be free.” For some, this phrase might evoke memories of “from sea to shining sea” in America the Beautiful or if you’re Canadian you might think of the motto A mari usque ad mare. For those steeped in biblical language any of these phrases might lead one to Psalm 72:8.

What does it mean for those shouting it in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Does the phrase come from the Bible? If so, is it used correctly?

What Does “From the River to the Sea” Mean?

Surprisingly (or maybe unsurprisingly in our culture of outrage) this very question can spark a lively debate. In recent days, Representative Rashida Tlaib used the slogan “from the river to the sea” in a speech critical of Israel’s role in this conflict. Another representative, Mike Lawler, believed that her use of this phrase was calling for the elimination of Israel. Tlaib responded that the phrase is “an aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction, or hate.”

Which is it? That gets us to the center of not only the conflict but also the origin of the phrase itself.

The river being referenced is the Jordan River and the sea is the Mediterranean Sea. It is a reference to having dominion over this particular stretch of land. That is the heart of the conflict. As I explain this, my intention isn’t to plunge myself into the turbulent waters of this conflict. If anyone assumes it is a simple answer, you’re likely not hearing all the perspectives.

Prior to 1948 this area “from the river to the sea” was under British control. The land was inhabited by a Jewish minority and an Arab majority. Given all the atrocities against the Jewish people in World War II, the UK was tasked with giving a national home to the Jewish people.

In 1948 this area was created as the modern state of Israel. As to be expected, this created a military conflict. Nobody wants to cede land, especially if you’re occupying it. After these wars, much of the area was owned by Israel. Palestinians moved to both Gaza and the West Bank area. Jerusalem itself was divided.

I believe I am oversimplifying a bit here, but it might help us to understand a little more. If you’re a Palestinian then you might argue that you’ve become a prisoner in your own home. Thus, removing Israel “from the river to the sea” would mean freedom for Palestinians. But from an Israeli standpoint this sounds like a call for their destruction.

This is why for some that phrase is a call for liberation, and for other it sounds like a war cry for your annihilation. It all depends on how you view the conflict. My concern, though, is with the phrase itself and how it was used by Senator Lawler. Does this cry come from Psalm 72:8?

Does “From the River to the Sea” Come from the Bible?

“May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth!” (Psalm 72:8).

This certainly sounds at least closely related to the rallying cry. This was the verse cited by Representative Lawler in his speech. But does that phrase actually come from the Bible? Was he quoting the Scripture to say that Representative Tlaib was misquoting it, or was he using it as an example contrasting the popular phrase?

Historically, it seems that the phrase originates from the heightened conflict in the 1960s. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) adopted it upon its founding in 1964. It was a call to return to the borders previously established — essentially attempting to move the clock back prior to 1948 when the Jewish state was established.

I do not believe the origins of the phrase come from Psalm 72:8. However, I do believe the concept behind Psalm 72:8 is informative to the situation.

What Is the Context of Psalm 72:8?

Psalm 72 is a royal psalm. There is some debate as to whether this is Solomon writing it (of Solomon) or David writing it for Solomon. I lean towards David being the author, but either way the point remains. This is a prayer for the prosperity of the king of Israel.

We can see that some of the language of Psalm 72 was fulfilled through Solomon, like the spreading of the kingdom and the building of the temple and the queen of Sheba bringing gifts. Yet, all kings did not bow to Solomon. His kingdom did not stretch to the ends of the earth. Clearly, this is looking for a greater fulfillment. As Allan Harman notes, “Early Jewish thinking took the same viewpoint, as the Targum adds after the word ‘king’ in verse 1, ‘Messiah’.”

Psalm 72, then, is speaking of God’s rule (mediated through the king) that would stretch not only from the place allotted to Abraham, but the language here extends it even further. Similar language is used in Zechariah 9:10:

“I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle-bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.”

The fulfillment of this comes through the Messiah. And I’d also draw your attention to Psalm 72:12-14. If we take this passage to be speaking of the Davidic king ruling over this stretch of land (and even to the ends of the earth), then we must also accept the way in which he rules. It is not through bloodshed and oppression; it is through redemption, where he pities the weak and the needy. The vision of the ruling King isn’t about merely acquiring a stretch of land — it’s about providing Shalom to the ends of the earth. And this helps us in our application for today.

How Does Psalm 72:8 Apply to the Situation Today?

If the rule of Israel, Hamas, Palestinians, or a foreign nation providing aid doesn’t bring about peace and flourishing which resounds to the glory of God throughout the whole earth, then such a ruler is not fulfilling the aspirations of this Psalm.   

The story of the Bible is that none on humanity will fulfill this mighty role. No mere human who sits upon the throne of David will rule as this psalm envisions. We’ll create bloodshed where there ought to be peace. We’ll stare vulnerability in the face and use it for our own sordid ends, rather than providing cover. Of course, this isn’t always true — there are moments where the image of God within us shines through. Yet, none of us will fulfill this perfectly.

Jesus Christ has and does and will. He is the king of the Davidic throne who rules in this way. And peace, lasting and true peace, will come only through His rule and reign.

Oh, about those creeks. Most historians believe that the phrase actually isn’t about the Creek tribe but about the unpredictable rain in Appalachia. The other story is an urban legend. In the same way Psalm 72:8 doesn’t mean what some think it does at first glance — that God is promising this stretch of land to ethnic Israel. But upon further inspection it does speak of God providing not only this land, but a glorious ruling of Messiah through the ends of the earth.

Allan Harman, Psalms: A Mentor Commentary, vol. 1–2, Mentor Commentaries (Ross-shire, Great Britain: Mentor, 2011), 529, 531.

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