The new sermon series, begun last Sunday, is based on a word of exhortation from the Apostle Peter, in 2 Peter 1:1-8, and I introduced the symbol of a tree to represent the kind of solid, fruitful Christian life Peter is encouraging us to have.
This image is not something Pastor Connie and I made up. Two different Old Testament writers use the metaphor of healthy trees to describe people who have a good personal relationship with God. One is found in the very first Psalm, which is like a summary introduction to all the following psalms in the Old Testament song book. The unknown author writes about people who trust God:
They are like trees planted by streams of water,
Which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper. (Psalm 1:3)
The other passage is found in the prophecy of Jeremiah to God’s people in exile:
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. (Jeremiah 17:8)
These two poetic images were written in approximately the same time period, four or five centuries before Christ, and as similar as they are, it’s not believed that one is quoting the other. Maybe it was a common analogy used by spiritual teachers during this difficult time of captivity and repression to encourage people to turn to the Lord and be rooted in him. In both contexts, the life of trust is contrasted with the tendency people have to try to change their circumstances by struggling and forming alliances with selfish and assertive people around them (cf. Psalm 1:1-6, Jeremiah 17:5-6).
What both the Psalmist and the Prophet Jeremiah are telling us is that we need to make sure we’re planted in the right place. As Southern Californians, we understand the challenge faced by all living things in the Middle East desert, where the people of the Old Testament lived, of being where the water is. To be healthy, a trusting tree needs to be planted as close as possible to a constant supply of “running water”. A seasonal arroyo makes it difficult for all but the most hardy, drought-resistant species (like the “shrub in the desert” of Jeremiah 17:6). Some scholars see in terms like “running water”, or “streams of water” a reference to the aqueducts that were built to supply a continuous water flow for agriculture, rather than waiting in dependence on limited, seasonal rains. In fact, one Jewish commentator* has suggested that since the trees in both passages are intentionally planted in such strategic locations, we might even translate this a re-planting, or transplanting. So, maybe for us, as modern readers, we should read these words as an encouragement to be transplanted through spiritual conversion.
Jeremiah emphasizes in a very subtle, but profound way how total our trust in the Lord needs to be. In verse 8, just before the tree metaphor, he says:
Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.
I had to read that twice to be sure it wasn’t a misprint. Why did he say the same thing twice? I even looked up the Hebrew. Here’s what I found: Jeremiah is intentionally repeating the same words, but he makes a subtle change the second time. Look closely. To paraphrase: If you trust the Lord, you’re blessed. If he is the very definition of trust for you, you’re super-blest. You’re rooted in him, and you have no backup plan.
— Pastor George Van Alstine