Today’s date, November 10th, is one that catches my attention every year. It is the date in 1975 the Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior during a terrible storm. The event is forever ingrained in the memory of those directly affected by it—surviving family members of the crew, friends of the crewmen, fellow shipping crews on the Great Lakes, and even shipping crews of the future through changed and updated safety regulations for shipping. Many who were not directly affected by the tragedy became familiar with it through a ballad written by Gordon Lightfoot, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” The song is largely based on the facts of the event, but there are some details in the song provided through legend and poetic license.
“The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy”
Lake Superior has an average depth of almost 500 feet. At its deepest it is 1,332 feet. The Fitzgerald rests about 535 feet from the surface. The average water temperature during the year is 40 degrees. At its deepest parts it is colder. The verse in the song above has a basis in fact. When a physical organic body–plant, fish, or human sinks to the bottom of a warm body of water, bacteria and other tiny creatures cause decomposition. As this happens tissue bloats and expands, which normally causes objects to rise to the top of the water. In water as cold as the depths of Lake Superior there is little to no bacteria to decompose organic objects. They stay at the bottom of the lake and are preserved for a long time. Therefore the lake never gives up its dead.
That characteristic of large and deep bodies of water is only one of the many reasons that deep water, and the oceans especially still hide mysteries from us. Every year scientists discover creatures and plants in the depths of the oceans that have escaped our gaze and study. During more ancient Biblical times even greater mystery surrounded the watery depths.
In the New Testament the Greek word translated as “sea” is “thalassa”. It generally indicates a natural body of water: an ocean, sea, lake, seashore, or body of water in general. It doesn’t always mean “ocean” in the largest bodies of water on Earth sense. The Sea of Galilee is a freshwater lake and is much smaller than any of the Great Lakes. Yet the fishermen and travelers of Biblical times were very wary of it and its weather and waves. Much more fear entailed as people entered the Mediterranean Sea. It is much larger and deeper, and held creatures in its depths that the Sea of Galilee did not. Reports in ancient times of fearful creatures like the kraken were probably not fanciful fiction but borne by encounters with creatures like the giant squid or octopus. A trip out on a boat or ship, especially on a large body of water brought no guarantee of a safe return home. A thalassa meant uncertainty, lack of control, danger, fear, and possibly disappearance and death to the people of the New Testament period.
“Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.” (Revelation 21:1)
I believe that the sea mentioned in this verse represents the fear and uncertainty people feel for unexpected and unseen danger and death. Some apply a literal meaning to this term, saying that it means that the physical New Earth will have no seas or large bodies of water. I don’t believe this harmonizes well with the other obviously figurative language in the following verses of the chapter. Did John literally see the Holy City “prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (v.2)? He is trying to describe what he saw in the most applicable human terms possible to show the beauty and grandeur of the occasion.
The disappearance of the sea coincides with the second sentence of verse 4: “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” The theme continues in verse 5: “He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’” His “making everything new” doesn’t simply mean our physical home on Earth. It means the entire system in which we exist. We won’t have the separation from God, death, sorrow, sickness, and pain that we face now as consequences of sin. For true believers who have accepted Christ as savior this means being in His presence for eternity as a member of His family. The sea is no more. Hallelujah!
Take heart and be encouraged!