Do you long to be fruitful, like a well-watered tree in unsettled times? Do you wish for strength in the time of crisis, and even more to share with others as you bear fruit for the Lord?
On the brink of war and captivity, the prophet Jeremiah used classic Hebrew poetry to tell the tale of two trees planted in the desert: One represents a person who keeps trusting God, one doesn’t. The trusting individual is vital and fruitful, nourished by a healthy root system connected to a stream. This resilient tree grows and adapts to change without fear or anxiety, even when the heat and drought of the desert are intense. This man’s confidence is in the Lord, not his environment.
In contrast, the other tree is dehydrated, fatigued and barren, “like a bush in the wastelands…in a salt land where no one lives.” It is a stark and solitary image of a burnt-out, joyless, empty and disconnected man, blind to “prosperity when it comes” (Jer 17:6). He doesn’t even notice everyday blessings. Two people respond differently to the same heat and drought of the desert.
Jeremiah wept over the fate of his beloved country, Judah. He predicted the destruction of Jerusalem and the terrible events following Jerusalem’s fall when God’s people would be captured by the Babylonians. A national calamity loomed. Yet, even in those unsettled times, God’s faithful remnant would be blessed if they kept trusting Him, instead of turning their hearts away from the Lord.
Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord.
“This is what the Lord says:
“Cursed is the one who trusts in man,
who draws strength from mere flesh
and whose heart turns away from the Lord.
6 That person will be like a bush in the wastelands;
they will not see prosperity when it comes.
They will dwell in the parched places of the desert,
in a salt land where no one lives.
7 “But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
whose confidence is in him.
8 They will be like a tree planted by the water
that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
and never fails to bear fruit” (Jeremiah 17:5-8).
The weeping prophet.
Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet, but he was also the blessed man described in verse 7 and 8. I wonder how this message must have ministered to him personally?
Jeremiah’s audiences were usually hostile or apathetic to his messages. He was ignored, his life was often threatened. He saw both the excitement of spiritual revival and the sorrow of the nation returning to idolatry. Apart from Josiah, Jeremiah saw one king after another ignore his warnings of God’s judgment and lead the people away from God. He saw his fellow prophets murdered and he himself was severely persecuted. He was even thrown into an empty cistern and left for dead. By most standards, this was a deeply disappointing life.
I don’t think any of us can imagine how disheartened and sorrowful Jeremiah must have felt to know God’s deep love of his people, yet to see their rejection of that love. The nation invited disaster because of their callous disregard and disobedience of God. But even when he was tempted to give up, Jeremiah knew that he had to keep going. God had told him, “You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and I will rescue you” (Jer 1:6-8).
Jeremiah could not measure his success or faithfulness by whether people accepted or rejected him. He could not put his confidence in public opinion. God had called him to endure and to keep bringing His messages to the people, even when he was ridiculed and abused. He didn’t adapt his message to suit the people’s desires. He continued to do God’s work even when he suffered greatly for it. Of all people, Jeremiah knew the heat of the desert and the year of drought.
But Jeremiah is among those “commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better” (Heb 11:29-40). He is the ‘blessed man’ described in Jer 17:7-8.
A tree planted by the water.
The prophet’s life is an example of the tree planted by the water. He is an encouragement to believers in all ages to remain faithful and keep trusting God, no matter how inhospitable the desert in which we are planted. The broken, groaning, sin-cursed world we inhabit has been a wilderness since Genesis 3.
The world today is a troubled place. Corruption, strife, illness, wars, immorality, cancel culture, cruelty, oppression, persecution, and financial pressures are bearing down on us. We need to take to heart the warnings and encouragements from Jeremiah’s poem.
In his letter to the Corinthian Christians, Paul urges Christians to learn from God’s Old Testament people as they journeyed through the desert on their way to the Promised Land (1 Cor 10:1-13). He warns his readers and future believers to be careful where we set our hearts.
A bush in the wastelands.
Like the Israelites, Christians will face many blessings and temptations in the heat and drought of the wilderness. Like them, we will be tempted to turn to idols, sexual immorality, ingratitude, doubt, and grumbling. Although we have everything we need for life and godliness (1 Peter 1:3), we will be tempted to turn our hearts away from the living God and to drink from empty cisterns. These leaky buckets will leave us dry and joyless.
Like the Israelites, we too will be tempted to test God’s goodness and may ask cynically:
“Can God prepare a table in the wilderness?” (Ps 78:19.) “Surely nothing will ever change! Surely the dry bones of this marriage can’t be redeemed!” Although we have the Holy Spirit and indescribable blessings, we tend towards unbelief.
Psalm 78 describes how easy it is to forget all that God has done for us and to “willfully put God to the test by demanding the food [we crave]” (Ps 78:18). Despite a miraculous deliverance from slavery and daily provision of water, meat, bread, guidance and God’s presence, the Israelites complained bitterly: “True, he struck the rock, and water gushed out, streams flowed abundantly, but can he also give us bread? Can he supply meat for his people?”
We don’t have to guess what the Lord thought of this cynical, entitled attitude. The Lord was furious with the Israelites, “for they did not believe in God or trust in his deliverance (Ps 78:20-22). Like the Israelites, unbelief is crouching at the door of every believer’s heart, but we must master it.
Here are four questions to ask ourselves about our responses in the desert:
- Do we turn to false gods when we face hardship, as the Israelites did? (1 Cor 10:7; Numbers 25:1-9). From whom do we yearn for approval and fear rejection? What makes us feel rich, secure, and prosperous? Where do we find comfort, hope, and safety? Honest answers will reveal our idols.
- Do we selfishly pursue sin or sexual immorality to distract us? (1 Cor 10:7-8).
- Do we complain and grumble instead of seeing God’s provision all around us? (1 Cor 10:10)
- Do we test God by doubting his sovereignty, goodness, and wisdom? (1 Cor 10:9)
Drawing strength from mere flesh.
Even as Christians, our human tendency is to rely on ourselves: our talents, wealth, health, business acumen, training, intuition, feelings, and goodness. We breathe in the air of independence and self-reliance. “I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul”. We like to feel in control. But God calls this mere flesh. It cannot sustain us in the desert heat.
It is only when the sun beats down on us and the year of drought saps us of all our strength that we get to see if we are truly trusting in the Lord… or drawing strength from mere flesh. It is when we have a difficulty that is far beyond our ability to endure, a situation so desperate that we despair even of life itself, like Paul describes in 2 Cor 1:8-9, that we are forced to see if we are really relying on ourselves, or on God who raises the dead.
Far beyond our ability to endure.
Whatever the nature of Paul’s thorn in the flesh, he desperately wanted to get rid of it. It was no mere inconvenience. He longed for the eject button to escape the torment of his fleshly ‘thorn’. Yet, God allowed this adversity to remain, not only to curb any tendency for pride in Paul’s heart, but also to teach him to rely on Christ alone.
Paul had plenty of natural strength to draw from—intellect, knowledge of Scripture, Jewish pedigree, divine revelations, extraordinary insight, morality, and philosophical knowledge. But like you and me, the Apostle Paul had to learn to humbly depend on God’s grace and to “delight in his weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10).
If God is going to use us, He will make sure that we know our dependence on Him. He will often remove the very thing we feel so confident in, so that we will see the empty fountain for what it really is. The desert will expose what food and drink sustains our lives and where we place life-anchoring, life-directing trust. Regardless of the faith we profess, God will show us where we functionally seek refuge. Adversity is the crucible which forces us to depend more on the Lord, so that we will be more useful to Him.
Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me…Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Apart from our union with Christ and total reliance on Him, we can do nothing that glorifies God. We need to know our thirst.
A third tree.
Jeremiah spoke of two trees, but there is a third tree—the cross on which our Saviour died. Anytime we are tempted to doubt God’s love and provision for us, we need to look to the cross of Jesus Christ. We need to reason with ourselves:
If God loved me enough to provide his own Son to die for me when I was his enemy, surely he loves me enough to care for me now that I am His child? (Rom 8:32)
Didn’t He say that whoever trusts in Him will never be thirsty again? (John 4:13)
Hasn’t God given us his Spirit, so that we will overflow with streams to refresh others? (John 7:38-39)
Isn’t Jesus the Rock from which the water of life gushes? (1 Cor 10:4)
Is Christ not the good Shepherd who leads his sheep beside quiet waters and restores our thirsty souls? (Ps 23:2; John 10).
Isn’t He the Lamb at the centre of the throne, who will one day lead us to springs of living water and wipe away every tear from our eyes? “Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat” (Rev 7:16-17).
Streams in the desert.
Even now, we have many streams in the desert to refresh us, most crucially, God’s Word, prayer, and fellowship with other believers. These are the streams of grace that God has provided to stay connected to Christ, our life source.
“Blessed is the man [whose] delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season, and whose leaf does not wither. What he does prospers (Ps 1:1-3)…The Law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul” (Ps 19:7).
God’s sovereignty and love do not mean that we should not expect adversity. But God will never allow adversity that is not ultimately for the good of His children. He wants us to remain vital and fruitful amid the desert heat, promising that “His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of him who called us by His own glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3).
If we depend on Christ, we will persevere in faith. We will be equipped for more effective service, so that we can come alongside others in their times of trouble (2 Cor 1:4). We will continue to produce the fruit of the Spirit—Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22-23). And our spiritual root system will strengthen, as we learn to drink deeply from the fount of every blessing.
This year, no matter what the conditions in the desert, let’s commit to be a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream.