I love swimming but only in pools. There’s something about the mirky darkness of the open waters that freaks me right out. When I swim in lakes or oceans, I have to consciously remind myself that there’s no green sea monster that will pull me down with its seaweed hands. Sometimes I let my imagination get the better of me, and I swim back to shore as fast as I can.
Believe it or not, my “irrational” fear is quite biblical. Well, not really. But the waters or the sea were used as an image in the ancient world to represent evil and chaos. Whenever we see this image in the Bible, we need to consider the possibility that there’s something more to what the author of that passage is trying to say.
So where does the Bible come out and say this? Well, it’s not like there’s a verse that states, “Waters represent chaos.” The authors didn’t have to write it explicitly. Instead, we see it implicitly all over Scripture. It’s similar to the way we know that wolves in fairytales are usually the bad guys. The context of the time and genre guide our interpretation of the text.
In the beginning, before God created time, space, and matter, there was water. “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Genesis 1:2). Does this mean that God didn’t create the water? No. Water here is illustrating the darkness of nothingness.
Years later, all of humanity had turned away from God and destroyed His creation. Only Noah was deemed to be righteous. Noah and his family were chosen to preserve life as the waters from heaven and the springs of the Earth erupted to engulf the world that rejected God. Creation became chaos in the waters of destruction.
In the time of Israel, as God led His people out of slavery in Egypt, Israel found themselves between the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s army who were trying to bring them back. God showed up and opened the waters of the Red Sea so that Israel could walk across on dry ground. And when the army came in pursuit, God closed the waters on top of them, swallowing them up in a sea of judgement.
There are multiple instances in the Psalms as well as in Job that speak of monsters from the sea, including, believe it or not, Leviathan. Later, in Revelation, the beast (representing the empire of the day) whom the dragon (representing Satan) summons to terrorize Earth, comes out of the sea (Revelation 13)!
The profundity in all of these examples isn’t the imagery of the sea and water that represent chaos and evil, as that was normal for its day. Instead, we need to pay attention to how the Bible depicts God in relation to the sea and its monsters.
Right from the beginning, we read about a God who is not subdued or changed by chaos. The Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters (Genesis 1). And once God decided what He would make, He separated the land from the waters and called it good. God created a beautiful world out of nothing. God brought order to the chaos.
Throughout Scripture, God is always seen as being in charge of the sea and whatever beasts may come from it. In God’s response to Job (Job 41), God questions him, and in the end it’s clear that only God is in control of nature and the beasts (e.g. Leviathan) that lurk beneath the waters.
The image of the waters take on a more realized meaning once Jesus comes on the scene. In a few accounts, the disciples find themselves on the lake and they get caught up in a storm. In one case, Jesus speaks “be still” and nature listens (Matthew 8). In another case, Jesus walks right on top of the water (Matthew 14). These stories are more that just impressive miracles. They are meant to link Jesus to God, to show us that Jesus and the Father are one.
Finally, we return to the end of Scripture, where the outcome of the beast from the sea in Revelation is no surprise to those who have read through the Bible and seen the power of God over evil. God destroys the beast and the dragon and brings about the new creation. As John describes the vision he sees of the new heaven and the new Earth, he makes a point to say, “There was no longer any sea” (Revelation 21:1).
We figure out very quickly in Scripture that God is Lord and we are not. We live in His created world - a world in which we have free will to choose to follow God or not. And because we have consistently chosen not to, we find ourselves surrounded by chaos. Some of it we can explain, but a lot of it we can’t. We don’t know why some things happen, and there’s no easy way around it.
The God of the Bible never suggests to us that chaos and evil don’t exist. Instead, we hear a constant stream of messages that remind us that God walks with us in the valleys of the shadow of death (Psalm 23). Even when the mountains fall into the heart of the sea around us, God remains our refuge and strength (Psalm 46).
Our task isn’t to do away with evil and chaos. We aren’t in control. Until Jesus comes back to make all things new, we will never experience perfection. We will walk through the waters of chaos in our lifetime. And as we do, God reminds us that He is with us, that He is still in control, and that in the end, He will make all things right. It’s a trust we need to learn, not through our understanding, but through our experience with God. God invites us to lean on Him, to give our lives to Him, and to trust in the one who stands atop chaos.
My hope is that this knowledge allows us to read these stories and passages like Isaiah 43:1-2 in a new light.
But now, this is what the Lord says—
he who created you, Jacob,
he who formed you, Israel:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.