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Occasional Letters: Sermons from the Soil

D Newell, Glasgow

During those moments of enforced waiting at railway stations or airports, to exercise my increasingly sluggish memory I occasionally compile mental lists – of Handel’s operas and oratorios, of Dickens’s novels, of the people in the assembly of my childhood. Old schoolteachers form a good subject. That list always starts with my first teacher, Mrs Christmas; her entire class of five-year olds sat on the edge of their seats earnestly hoping for a glimpse of her father. She it was who introduced us to the joys of reading by means of a book about a farmer called (improbably) Old Lob. Many who started school in the early 1950s will remember him. As well as his cattle, Old Lob (and I have checked this on Google) had a dog called Mr Dan and a cat called Miss Tibbs. I suppose it could be said that my generation encountered the mysteries of books and barnyards in one go. Certainly in Bible times Israel was meant to improve its spiritual literacy by considering the art of husbandry. Take for example Isaiah 28, a chapter which solemnly announces God’s "strange work" of disciplinary judgment upon His own people.

Here’s the context. God was about to intervene to judge both the northern kingdom of Israel (here called Ephraim) and the southern kingdom of Judah, centred on Jerusalem: "Woe to the crown of pride, to the drunkards of Ephraim…hear the word of the Lord, ye scornful men, that rule this people which is in Jerusalem" (Is 28.1,14). Judah might boast in its comparative orthodoxy and loyalty to the Davidic dynasty, but it still merited divine reproof. Verses 3 and 18 use the same language of utter destruction ("trodden down") to describe the fate of both kingdoms. For Israel disaster came with the Assyrians in 722 BC, while Judah survived only another 150 years or so before falling to the Babylonians. Squeezed uncomfortably between the great empires of the north (Assyria and Babylon) and the south (Egypt) Judah foolishly tried to play them off against each other. Placing their hopes in international diplomacy, her leaders negotiated an alliance with Egypt (Is 30.1-2). That might make sense in worldly terms, but Judah was supposed to be God’s people, resting wholly in Him. With graphic bedroom imagery Isaiah mocks their false confidence: "the bed is shorter than that a man can stretch himself on it: and the covering narrower than that he can wrap himself in it" (Is 28.20). You make your bed and you lie on it. Trouble is, to trust in mere men is to discover that the bed in which you hoped for a cosy night’s rest is too short and the blankets too small. And there is little worse than shivering through the long hours of darkness on an uncomfortable mattress. With both kingdoms thus facing inevitable peril, Isaiah introduces his extended agricultural parable of consolation:

"Give ye ear, and hear my voice; hearken, and hear my speech. Doth the plowman plow all day to sow? doth he open and break the clods of his ground [all day long]? When he hath made plain the face thereof, doth he not cast abroad the fitches [dill or caraway seed], and scatter the cummin, and cast in the principal wheat and the appointed barley and the rye in their place? For his God doth instruct him to discretion, and doth teach him. For the fitches are not threshed with a threshing instrument, neither is a cart wheel turned about upon the cummin; but the fitches are beaten out with a staff, and the cummin with a rod. Bread corn is bruised; [but] he will not ever be threshing it, nor break it with the wheel of his cart, nor bruise it with his horsemen. This also cometh forth from the Lord of hosts, which is wonderful in counsel, and excellent in working" (vv.23-29).

At this point I had to stand on a chair to reach a little cluster of rather dusty books high on my shelves, books designed to illustrate life in Bible times. They were a purchase from many years back and I had almost forgotten their existence. But Bible students should not overlook such aids. For those who are interested, titles which, for me, illuminated Isaiah 28 include E W Heaton’s Everyday Life in Old Testament Times (1956), a superbly readable summary, as long as one is alert to the author’s seriously defective view of Biblical inspiration and authority. Just as helpful but far sounder theologically is Fred Wight’s Manners and Customs of Bible Lands (1953, updated by Ralph Gower, 1987), while A Van Deursen’s Illustrated Dictionary of Bible Manners and Customs (1967) is a deceptively slender but densely packed collection of excellent line drawings with concise explanations. These books are organized topically. James E Freeman’s old Manners and Customs of the Bible (reprinted 1997), on the other hand, moves systematically through Genesis to Revelation, dealing with ancient Israeli customs as they occur. Young believers ought to invest in at least one of these books in order to sharpen their understanding of Middle Eastern Biblical background.

From Isaiah’s parable we learn that God has built spiritual principles into the natural world: He created the visible to illustrate the invisible. We should not be surprised, for "the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen" (Rom 1.20). Features of daily life, including agriculture, are therefore designed to educate us in godliness. Although Isaiah mentions only three, each of the seven key processes in grain cultivation has spiritual significance: ploughing (Lk 9.62), sowing (Mt 13.3), reaping (Gal 6.7), threshing (Hab 3.12), winnowing (Ps 1.4), sifting (Lk 22.31), and grinding (Is 3.15). A Biblical world-view detects "tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything". It follows that, like the farmer, God has a programme (Is 28.26,29). "Wonderful in counsel, and excellent in working", He has endowed His creatures with the intelligence to cultivate the earth: "For his God doth instruct him to discretion, and doth teach him". Even an ignorant town dweller instinctively senses the wisdom behind the agricultural year. Ploughing is not the farmer’s constant labour; he also sows seed. And he arranges his crops appropriately: smaller aromatic seeds like dill or cumin are sown in one spot, cereal crops like wheat, barley and rye in another. Nothing is capricious or accidental. How much more does God organize His ways with His people! David grasped that truth. "Though I walk in the midst of trouble, thou wilt revive me: thou shalt stretch forth thine hand against the wrath of mine enemies, and thy right hand shall save me. The Lord will perfect that which concerneth me" (Ps 138.7-8). These words form an Old Testament equivalent of Paul’s principle that "all things work together for good to them that love God" (Rom 8.28). Not, mark you, "many things", or even "most things", but "all things". How comprehensive and comforting! Such a verse should grant the believer a good night’s rest.

Further, God has a purpose (Is 28.24-25). The farmer ploughs in order to sow, and sows in order to harvest fruit. That is to say, ploughing and threshing, which might appear violent and damaging, are in the long term beneficial. The Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary puts it like this: "As the husbandman does his different kinds of work, each in its right time and due proportion, so God adapts His measures to the varying exigencies of the several cases: now mercy, now judgments; now punishing sooner, now later…His object being not to destroy His people any more than the farmer’s object in threshing is to destroy his crop". It’s back to Romans 8: "all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son" (vv 28-29). Don’t miss the apostle’s definition of what constitutes the "good". Without v.29 we might be tempted to believe that all things are working for, say, our material prosperity, or our physical health, or our temporal comfort. But no: the specific good in view is conformity to the image of God’s Son. The ultimate goal is spiritual. And to encourage us to surrender to this goal we should note that farming is a precision task (Is 28.27-28). Just as the farmer exercises scrupulous care in harvesting different crops, beating the smaller seeds with sticks but treading out the larger cereals with oxen and a threshing sledge, so God deals with different people according to their varied needs, for "he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust" (Ps 103.14). The British farming industry may currently be in the doldrums, but God’s ways with His people are never out of season. The sufferings of the coming Great Tribulation will produce in Israel a grand harvest of repentance; and even now, although "no chastening [discipline] for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby" (Heb 12.11). In both Testaments divine discipline has in view fruitfulness for God. Never forget: however tough our circumstances, our all-wise God knows exactly what He is doing with us.

To be continued.

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