I started reading in Isaiah 34 this afternoon, and what took me there were brambles.
If you are a lover of animals and the natural world, the Bible has alot to offer you. Rocks, gardens, trees, flowers, snakes, sun moon and stars, rivers and oceans, clouds, grapes, birds, lions, wolves, mountains, valleys, pits. God has something to say through each of them. I love them all.
Isaiah in particular is chock full of all sorts of references to geographical features and species of plants and animals. Some of it is joyful and some violent and deeply sobering. If you have a minute, click over to Isaiah 34, for a start.
The list you’ll find there is quite something. Pelicans! Hedgehogs! Owls! Ravens! Jackals! Ostriches! Hairy Goats! Wolves! And does your heart not skip a beat when you encounter the NIGHT MONSTER?
Be careful though. This is no jolly nature walk. The prophet Isaiah is here warning of God’s judgement against those who defy Him, both within the nation of Israel and outside of it. Animals and other living things in the natural world play a significant role in that picture.
It helps to know a bit of history. At the world’s beginning, God set up a paradise where humans exercised peaceful oversight in the natural world. But Adam and Eve upended that order, all hell broke loose, and the world is not as it should be. The wild things in Isaiah represent the failure of God’s people to exercise dominion.
There are so many living things in Isaiah 34 I hardly know where to start. But the brambles are what brought me here, so to the brambles I go.
My thorny path began in Judges 9, with the Parable of the Trees. Parables are rare in the Old Testament, so we need to stop and take stock here. It is the faithful Jotham who delivers this parable, and like so many of the men God uses, he is a youngest son. Take note: In the Bible, last is often best. And Jotham is last of the last in his family, the youngest of Gideon’s seventy-one sons, in fact. When the rest of his brothers were put to death by the order of the power-hungry AntiChrist Abimelech, Jotham alone escaped.
Jotham may have run away, but this final son is no wallflower. Not long after he dodges death he catches wind that his wicked brother Abimelech is to be crowned king. And when Jotham hears this terrible news, he acts as men should. He climbs the heights of Mount Gerizim and rebukes these kingmakers with a parable.
Jotham’s parable goes like this.
8 One day the trees went out to anoint a king for themselves. They said to the olive tree, ‘Be our king.’
9 “But the olive tree answered, ‘Should I give up my oil, by which both gods and humans are honored, to hold sway over the trees?’
10 “Next, the trees said to the fig tree, ‘Come and be our king.’
11 “But the fig tree replied, ‘Should I give up my fruit, so good and sweet, to hold sway over the trees?’
12 “Then the trees said to the vine, ‘Come and be our king.’
13 “But the vine answered, ‘Should I give up my wine, which cheers both gods and humans, to hold sway over the trees?’
14 “Finally all the trees said to the bramble, ‘Come and be our king.’
15 “The bramble said to the trees, ‘If you really want to anoint me king over you, come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, then let fire come out of the bramble and consume the cedars of Lebanon!’
Jotham is a man after my own heart. Not only is he brave, but he does it with style. His parable dips into rich imagery which all of his audience would have intimately known. The olive tree, full of life, instrument of anointing (Gen.8:11), The fig tree of joy, peace and prosperity (Zech 3:10; Mic 4:4). And then the final among the faithful, the last, the vine of joy and passion (SoS 7:8). In Jotham’s parable, none of these trees will abandon their calling before the LORD.
Before Jotham’s parable, in Judges 8, Gabriel told the people of Israel that “the LORD shall rule over you.” But the people of Israel, Cedars of Lebanon, majestic and beautiful, they wanted a KING! So they went to the bramble king Abimelech, who accepted but with a threat. Take me as king or else I will consume you with fire.
To make sense of this, here is the way: First we go back, and then we go forward.
I start by going back to where things begin, at the Garden of Eden where God curses the ground with thorns and thistles (Gen. 3:18). There are more places I could stop, but not now. So onwards I go, carrying brambles to Isaiah and Hosea for more clarity, where wildness rules, where prickly, pervasive and persistent vines of all sorts crawl in and choke the life out of places of beauty, strength and worship.
Thorns will come up in its fortified towers,Isaiah 34:13 and Hosea 10:8
Nettles and thistles in its fortified cities; …
Also the high places of Aven, the sin of Israel, will be destroyed;
Thorn and thistle will grow on their altars;
Then they will say to the mountains,
“Cover us!” And to the hills, “Fall on us!”
I can’t stop now. I jump ahead to Jesus’s parable of the sower (Matt 13:7-22), where the ‘worries of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth’ choke and stifle the one who has heard the truth. I can go further still, and I will.
But first, I’m called back. God doesn’t just reveal His story through plants and people but also through places. The mountain Jotham chose in Judges was not just any mountain. It’s where Joshua had obeyed God’s Word through Moses and set up a stone as witness to the law (Deut 11:29; Deut 27:12).
It’s where Jacob buried the strange idols and dug a well. And beyond the story of Jotham, it’s at this same mountain, this same well, where our Saviour meets with the Samaritan woman. It’s where Jesus reveals that the true King and Saviour cannot be found at Mount Gerizim.
21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.John 4:15-30
22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.
23 But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.
At the time of the judges, Israel was impatient. They wanted an earthly king, and they chose Abimelech, the bramble king.
Abimelech’s end is a story for another time. For now, this is the ending that matters. At the place where Jotham warned Israel that the bramble king would consume them, there Jesus told the Samaritan woman about another bramble king. A ram caught in a thicket (Gen 22:13). The Creator of the Universe who died in the shade of a bramble crown. Not a bramble king but a conqueror of brambles.
And the light of Israel shall be for a fire, and his Holy One for a flame: and it shall burn and devour his thorns and his briers in one day;Isaiah 10:17-20
And shall consume the glory of his forest, and of his fruitful field, both soul and body: and they shall be as when a standard-bearer fainteth.
And the rest of the trees of his forest shall be few, that a child may write them.
And it shall come to pass in that day, that the remnant of Israel, and such as are escaped of the house of Jacob, shall no more again stay upon him that smote them; but shall stay upon the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, in truth.