Thus says the Lord:
Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals
and make mere flesh their strength,
whose hearts turn away from the Lord.
They shall be like a shrub in the desert,
and shall not see when relief comes.
They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited salt land.
Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes,
and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious,
and it does not cease to bear fruit.
There is an irregular line of ancient, thick-trunked, spreading, live-oak trees in the Temescal Canyon east of my town of Corona. Their presence means that there is water even in the late summer when Temescal Creek goes dry. The water is forced up near the surface by the earthquake fault line running through the canyon and the oaks find it. The pre-Civil War Butterfield Stage route followed this line of oaks on its way from San Diego to Los Angeles because of the water.
Some of those trees are more than 500 years old, far pre-dating European presence in California. Their acorns nourished a thriving Native American population and still nourish wildlife.
Trees display an awesome, ruthless strength in their search for water. Just ask city water department employees who find roots in iron water mains buried deep below city streets. No man could exert that kind of pressure. It takes powerful machinery to dig down and cut into the pipe, but the trees reach down through the earth to find small fissures leaking water. The roots crawl into those leaks and crack the pipes wide open. The same thing happens with thick-walled clay or cement sewer lines.
Desert scrub on the other hand is stunted with a limited opportunity for growth. The shrubs must adapt to the harsh conditions of rock, sand and alkaline or salty soil. Most have shallow root systems that spread out rather than down to keep a tenacious hold against the wind. They typically are isolated and surrounded by bare dirt because of the paucity of nutrients to support life.
Desert plants must store moisture for long periods because what they have must last them for long sun-blasted periods. Many of the plants like cactus bear thorns to ward off herbivores like antelope in their own hard scrabble effort to survive in the wastelands. Drought, unrelenting dryness, is their way of life with no hope for more. Their energy goes into survival. If rain comes the desert plants blossom, but most of the time they just hang on, tough, wiry, and thorny.
The Lord speaks the truth through the prophet Jeremiah that people whose trust is in mere human relationships and who turn their hearts away from the Lord are cursed to survive in fruitless isolation with stunted growth. The creatures never can replicate the life-giving power of the Creator.
The Lord is to those who trust in Him as the water is to the trees. Those who root themselves in the Source do not fear the heat and are drought-resistant. But there is a secret as deep as the underground springs and rivers that keep the oaks thriving even when the land above is tinder dry.
The trees have a need for water and an orientation to grow toward it. So what? The life is in the water itself and all the need and drive there is won’t keep the tree alive if there is no water.
Likewise, we have the need for God and an orientation to grow toward him, but need and orientation alone are not life. The life is God alone. Thus God speaks to Jeremiah of something more than trust in the Lord. He says, “Blessed are those . . . whose trust is the Lord.” The former is the orientation towards God as solution, but the latter is the connection with God as life itself.
The Apostle John speaks of this principle when he writes, “God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son does not have life” (1 John 5:11-12).
Bernard of Clairvaux wrote of this difference between God as solution and God’s presence as our very life in a 12th Century poem that has become the lyric of a famous hymn
Jesus, the very thought of Thee
With sweetness fills the breast;
But sweeter far Thy face to see,
And in Thy presence rest.
Bernard’s lovely point goes beyond mere sentiment. It surpasses our human limitations. To see the face of Jesus and to rest in his presence taps into a life resource that Jesus alone can provide. Bernard draws the principle to a finer point in a later stanza
Celestial Sweetness unalloyed,
Who eat Thee hunger still;
Who drink of Thee still feel a void
Which only Thou canst fill.
This is pure grace that Bernard is writing about. It is mixed with nothing else and available only from Christ and in Christ. The tree that grows is planted by the water. The growing, thriving life of a believer is planted in Christ alone and no place else.
Yet, our bookstores and web sites are filled with “horticultural guides” to the Christian life telling us how to plant, when to plant, how to water, when to water, what grows on the north slopes and south slopes, what to beware of in eastern exposures and western heat, how far to space the plants, when to weed, when to harvest. We denominate ourselves (and each other) conservatives, liberals, moderates, radicals and traditionalists and argue about the composition of theological mulch.
Why do we spend our time worrying about planting times and gardening techniques when Jesus tells us, “I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener. . . I am the vine and you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:1,5)? Obedience to Christ means complete trust, not our full or part-time employment as would-be “spiritual gardeners.” We are saved by God’s grace, “works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:9).
Are we wholly available to God so that he can grow us? That’s the question.
John says, “God gave us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.” Jesus says, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him who he sent.” (John 6:29). The Apostle Paul says that our salvation is by God’s gift alone, “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Eph 2:8,10).
Paul says that it is only by the power of God that evangelism and ministry bear any fruit at all. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor 3:6-7).
In our text, Jeremiah roars God’s Word against the insipid, adulterated, humanistic, self-help religion of apostate Judah–“Cursed are those who. . . make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord. . . . Blessed are those. . . whose trust is the Lord” (Jer 17:5b, 7). I can imagine Jeremiah singing out in our time, “No other help I know, nothing but the blood of Jesus.”
Jeremiah is steeped in the teaching of the Book of Deuteronomy. He knows the warning of Moses to the children of Israel who were milling about, waiting to enter the Promised Land. They had picked up various traditions, perspectives, habits and practices out in the desert. Like the scrub that lived in that rocky environment they put out many shallow roots in the attempt to cling to survival, but they had not tapped into the perennial source of God’s grace.
Moses told them, “You shall not do according to all that we are doing here today, everyone doing whatever is right in his own eyes, for you have not come to the rest and to the inheritance that the Lord your God is giving you” (Deut 12:8-9). It
Moses then tells them that the rest and inheritance of safety and providence that God will give them means that they worship the Lord in the place that he chooses in the manner that he chooses with no admixture of the religions and cultures they are displacing. Their entire focus is to be on “the Lord your (the pronoun states a divine sovereignty over human will) God. In that singular focus they will find life (Deut 12:10-32).
Jeremiah’s “tree planted by the water” is a limited metaphor because the tree has no choice in where it is planted. His point is that we do have a choice where we live, who we trust, and the content of that trust. He takes us beyond placing our trust in the Lord because even that would keep us in the effort of when, where and how to place our trust. The human heart is deceptive in such things,” he notes (Jer 17:9, ESV).
Jeremiah says the blessing is for those to whom trust and God are synonymous; in other words the Lord your God is both the end and the means of our trust. There is no way to develop such a life-giving trust without an unconditional surrender of everything and everyone in our so-called human lives – surrender of the best that we possess as well as the worst that we do.
We are living in the overheated “dog days” of earth’s summer. The heat is on us and fear rises in acrid dryness throughout our world. Who can deny this life-draining fear? Spiritual drought afflicts us. The only hope of sustaining eternal life is rooting ourselves deep into “Christ who is your life” (Col 3:4).
Where am I planted? Into what source am I tapping for life? Who is my trust? Those are the questions that should command our attention.
“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him” (Ps. 34:8).
Under the mercy of Christ,
Please note that the content and viewpoints of Mr. Hansen are his own and are not necessarily those of the C.S. Lewis Foundation. We have not edited his writing in any substantial way and have permission from him to post his content.
Kent Hansen is a Christian attorney, author and speaker. He practices corporate law and is the managing attorney of the firm of Clayson, Mann, Yaeger & Hansen in Corona, California. Kent also serves as the general counsel of Loma Linda University and Medical Center in Loma Linda, California.
Finding God’s grace revealed in the ordinary experiences of life, spiritual renewal in Christ and prayer are Kent’s passions. He has written two books, Grace at 30,000 Feet and Other Unexpected Places published by Review & Herald in 2002 and Cleansing Fire, Healing Streams: Experiencing God’s Love Through Prayer, published by Pacific Press in spring 2007. Many of his stories and essays about God’s encompassing love have been published in magazines and journals. Kent is often found on the hiking trails of the southern California mountains, following major league baseball, playing the piano or writing his weekly email devotional, “A Word of Grace for Your Monday” that is read by men and women from Alaska to Zimbabwe.