3.1.9 Honey: The Sweet Life
Volume 3: Living Symbols—Chapter 1.9
Honey: The Sweet Life
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what honey is all about. Honey tastes sweet, so its literal sweetness is employed in scripture as a symbol for things that can figuratively be described as “sweet.” We’ll find it instructive to track down what these things are—or are not—by God’s definition.
About a third of the plants we eat are functionally related to the production of honey. That is, pollination by honeybees is an important (and sometimes essential) step in the growth of many of the fruits, nuts, seeds, and green vegetables that people like to eat. Without these foods, the quality of our lives, at least from a dietary standpoint, would not be nearly as rich and enjoyable as it is. And if we read between the lines, we can see even from the creation account that God intended us to have broad dietary diversity: “And God said, ‘See, I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food. Also, to every beast of the earth, to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, in which there is life, I have given every green herb for food.’ And it was so. Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good. So the evening and the morning were the sixth day." (Genesis 1:29-31) The biosphere of which we are a part is vast, complex, and symbiotic. And honeybees play a disproportionately significant role in how it all holds together.
Thus honey, the sweet product of their activity, is a ready symbol for what is good, sweet, and abundant in this life when things are working as God desires. It represents the “sweet life” that Yahweh intended for us to enjoy as mortal human beings living on the earth—delicious blessings that in scripture are inextricably linked to our heeding His word and walking in His statutes. I realize this flies in the face of some folks’ long held traditions of grim religiosity, where poverty and suffering are seen as virtues, and guilt is a weapon used to club our humanity into dour submission, but God wants us to be happy, fulfilled, well fed, relaxed, confident, and joyful—in this life, not just when we “get to heaven.” I’m not saying we shouldn’t mourn our sin, seriously consider our shortcomings, and constantly examine what effect our behavior is having on our relationship with our heavenly Father. But having done all that—and having come to terms with the fact that our sins, once confessed, are forgiven, atoned, and put behind us—we should “taste and see that Yahweh is good.” We should learn to enjoy His company, giving thanks for the simple pleasures He has bestowed upon us in this life. That is what honey represents.
The sweet life has nothing to do with living in luxury, ease, or frivolous pleasure. It has more to do with learning to appreciate what God has done for us, no matter what our circumstances happen to be. Consider Moses’ poetic description of Yahweh’s calling and care for Israel (who, if you’ll recall, are a metaphorical microcosm of all mankind, those who are invited to share and reciprocate God’s love): “Yahweh’s portion is His people, Jacob His allotted heritage. He found him in a desert land, and in the howling waste of the wilderness; He encircled him, He cared for him, He kept him as the apple of His eye. Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that flutters over its young, spreading out its wings, catching them, bearing them on its pinions, Yahweh alone guided him, no foreign god was with Him. He made him ride on the high places of the land, and he ate the produce of the field, and He suckled him with honey out of the rock.” (Deuteronomy 32:9-13) God’s provision isn’t couched in terms of bare subsistence or “survival mode,” even when we’re going through the wilderness. He knows how to take care of those who are His. Even when Yahweh’s blessings are not quite what we expected, or not exactly what we’re used to, they still taste like honey: remember the miraculous “bread from heaven” God provided for forty years in the wilderness? “Now the house of Israel called its name manna. It was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.” (Exodus 16:1) Sweet!
The “honey” metaphor didn’t stop at the borders of the Land, of course. The sweet life awaited Israel on the other side of the Jordan: “For Yahweh your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing.” (Deuteronomy 8:7-9) Moses had never actually seen the Land, of course, but Joshua and Caleb had—decades before these words were spoken. The honey mentioned here indicates a land prepared by God, a land of verdant pastures and agricultural abundance—hints verified by the eyewitness accounts of figs and pomegranates, which rely to some extent on the work of honeybees.
Time and again, the Promised Land is described as “a land flowing with milk and honey,” as in this passage: “You shall therefore keep all My statutes and all My rules and do them, that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out. And you shall not walk in the customs of the nation that I am driving out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I detested them. But I have said to you, ‘You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey.’” (Leviticus 20:22-24) A proposition—a clear choice—is being presented here, one fleshed out in a dozen similar passages. The objective is the Promised Land, a.k.a. the sweet life Yahweh has in store for us. The Canaanites had had centuries (while Israel waited in the wings in Egypt) to turn from their “detestable customs,” but they would not. So the land was about to “vomit them out” like a bad burrito. And Israel was to be given a chance to be proven worthy of the “land flowing with milk and honey.” What was the price of admission to the sweet life, the price of continued occupation in the place of Yahweh’s blessing? It was “keeping His statutes.”
We tend to see this as a contract, a bargain: “Thing A (the Land) is being traded for Thing B (obedience).” But I think the truth may be more fundamental, more visceral. As we have seen, the Promised Land is symbolic of a believer’s walk in faith—his rest in Yahweh’s provision. At the same time, Yahweh’s “statutes” are a complex symbolic picture of the means He planned to use to redeem mankind from our sinful state—a pantomime ultimately fulfilled or performed in the life and mission of Yahshua of Nazareth. Boiled down to their essentials, they instruct us to love and honor Yahweh and love our fellow man as much as—and in the same way that—we love ourselves. Seen in this light, getting the “land of milk and honey” to live in is not so much a barter arrangement with God—an exchange of goods and services—as it is a matter of choosing sides, of forming alliances.
The “sweet life” (as God defines it) is where Yahweh lives, and it’s a package deal: you can’t have the Promised Land without embracing the promise. However, nobody’s forcing you to live there. You can remain in Egypt if you like. Sure, it’s bondage, but you were born there, and you’ve grown used to it. Besides, there’s plenty of leeks, garlic, and fish there to make your breath stink—something you’ve rather come to enjoy. Or you could wander around in the wilderness until you drop in your tracks. Prevailing “wisdom,” after all, insists there are big, scary giants in the Land. If you’re not convinced Yahweh is able to give you victory, why take the risk? Or you could head for Babylon instead, the land of false gods and false hope, where power, sex, and money are there for the taking if you’re ambitious and clever enough to seize them. It’s not exactly the sweet life, of course, but at least there’s enough booze and adrenaline to keep your mind off what you gave up to come here. Who needs honey, anyway? There’s enough artificial sweetener in Babylon to knock the edge off the taste of the wormwood. Just don’t read the warning label—it causes cancer of the soul. Yes, the choice is entirely up to us: “Those who hate Yahweh would cringe toward Him, and their fate would last forever. But He would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.” (Psalm 81:15-16)
If you do enter the Promised Land, however, you’ll find that not everything is sweet there. “No grain offering that you bring to Yahweh shall be made with leaven, for you shall burn no leaven nor any honey as an offering made by fire to Yahweh. As an offering of firstfruits you may bring them to Yahweh, but they shall not be offered on the altar for a pleasing aroma.” (Leviticus 2:11-12) The Torah’s sacrifices represent the price of admission—our admission—to the Land of Promise. Though life here is sweet for us, we must never forget that there was nothing sweet about the sacrifice Yahshua endured for our sakes. But His bitterness made our lives sweet; His death bought us life. Isaiah prophetically described Him as “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief…” who was “wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities.” Honey is thus entirely inappropriate as part of a burnt offering.
The rather surprising thing, to my mind, is not that we get to enjoy sweetness at God’s expense. It’s that we actually become sweet in His eyes. Solomon’s torrid allegory tells us how Yahshua really feels about us: “How beautiful is your love, my sister, my bride! How much better is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your oils than any spice! Your lips drip nectar, my bride; honey and milk are under your tongue; the fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon.” (Song of Solomon 4:10-11) Love (on God’s part, anyway) is apparently not only blind, it’s completely lost its senses—all of them. Hallelujah!
We fallen creatures tend to see life as “sweet” when we’re rich and famous, or when our carnal desires are satiated, or even when we aren’t being threatened, coerced, or abused at the moment. But God presents the sweet life (as symbolized by honey) in slightly different terms. For example, “The law of Yahweh is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of Yahweh is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of Yahweh are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of Yahweh is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of Yahweh is clean, enduring forever; the rules of Yahweh are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.” (Psalm 19:7-10) Six interrelated things are described as being “sweeter than honey” here. (1) The law of Yahweh, the Torah—the teachings, instructions, and decisions of God, revealing His plan, His agenda. (2) His “testimony” (Hebrew: ’edut) is a “statute, stipulation, regulation, i.e., a principle of contingent; a particular point of law, having authority to give consequences for not keeping, with a possible focus that these commands serve as a warning, urging, or witness to the covenant agreement.” (Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains) In other words, this is an admonition or warning with legal force—an ordinance. (3) God’s “precepts” (Hebrew: piqqud) are directions or regulations that instruct us in what to do. It’s from the root verb paqad, meaning to exercise oversight over a subordinate, to attend to, look after, or care for someone. (4) A “commandment” is a mitzvah, an order, authoritative directive given as an instruction or prescription to a subordinate. A mitzvah specifically includes the written legal conditions that comprise a binding contract. (5) The “fear” of Yahweh (the Hebrew noun yir’ah) isn’t restricted to terror or a state of anxiety, as it sounds in English (although the word allows these contingencies). Basically, it means reverence, a state of piety and deep respect toward a superior—even worship, an act or speech displaying profound reference. Yir’ah is a confession of awe, that which causes wonder or astonishment. Whether or not literal fear accompanies these responses depends upon someone’s relationship (or lack of it) to the One causing the awe. And (6) a “judgment” (Hebrew: mishpat) is the act of legally deciding a case, the dispensing of justice, or the rendering of a sentence.
Several factors are common to all six of these “sweet,” desirable, and valuable things. Although all of them have potential downsides in the hands of false gods or the men who promote them, they are all seen as positive and beneficial when coming from or relating to Yahweh. They all highlight Yahweh’s natural position of authority, lordship, and sovereignty over His subjects: He alone has the right to “order us” to do things. And that “us” includes not only Israel or the household of faith, but the whole human race—indeed, the whole of creation: His rules govern it all. But these precepts are only “sweet” if we obey them. There are natural negative consequences for violating God’s commandments. He seldom has to go out of His way to punish us when we go astray. You can try all you want to break the law of gravity, but don’t blame God for your inevitable downfall—or the hard ground that comprises your “penalty.” The precepts commanded in God’s word, whether practical or purely symbolic, are all there for our benefit, for our understanding, for our enhanced quality of life—in this world. We ignore or flout them at our own peril and to our own detriment.
Solomon too likened the sweetness of honey to wisdom—the beginning of which is the reverence of Yahweh: “My son, eat honey, for it is good, and the drippings of the honeycomb are sweet to your taste. Know that wisdom is such to your soul; if you find it, there will be a future, and your hope will not be cut off.” (Proverbs 24:13-14) As honey is to the taste buds, wisdom is to the soul—that part of our being that makes our bodies alive. In other words, a life without wisdom is bitter and unfulfilling. As Thomas Hobbes would have put it, the natural state of man (what I’d define as living without the wisdom and counsel of Yahweh) is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
To my mind, it’s no coincidence that the longest Psalm—and the longest chapter in the Bible—is the one extolling the benefits of honoring God’s Law. So we read, “How sweet are Your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! Through Your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way.” (Psalm 119:103-104) Wisdom and understanding are parallel concepts, both of which are as sweet to our souls as honey is to our tongues. And the vehicle of our understanding—how we come to obtain it—is God’s own instructions, recorded for us in the Bible.
Moreover, we are in a position to extend the sweetness we’ve tasted in God’s Word to those around us. “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.” (Proverbs 16:24) The word translated “gracious” here has nothing to do with the technical definition of grace (i.e., unmerited favor—the Greek charis) we’re so familiar with from our New Testament studies. This word (the Hebrew no’am) simply means pleasant, kind, delightful, or beautiful. Once again, we see the dichotomy between the dour, judgmental, dismal religion Christians so often practice, and the sweet, pleasant reflection of Yahweh’s love that we are commanded to display as we walk through this world. Don’t worry: God knows exactly what’s going on, and He’ll deal with it all in His own good time. A harsh, judgmental demeanor on our part won’t fix anything. Just because there’s evil in the world, we don’t have to go around angry all the time. As the saying goes, you can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar. Note also that Solomon also says that these pleasant words are “health to the body.” Speaking them does as much physical good for us as it does our hearers. Being sweet to people lowers our own blood pressure, wards off our dyspepsia, and generally makes us feel better.
In moderation, honey is healthful for the body, but it’s easy to overdo it. As Solomon said, “It is not good to eat much honey, nor is it glorious to seek one’s own glory.” (Proverbs 25:27) When my kids were little, my wife and I determined that we weren’t going to “do” Halloween like everybody else. But we smelled a learning opportunity for our children. We made it a “family night,” laid in a supply of good quality candy, and for this one night of the year, the kids were allowed to eat all the sweets they wanted—no limits, no rules. Make yourself sick if you want: it’s your choice. But know this: poor choices carry their own consequences. It didn’t take them long to learn the wisdom of moderation in all things. Sweetness can, under certain circumstances, have a downside.
What starts off sweet doesn’t necessarily end up that way. Two of God’s prophets, Ezekiel and John, were given very similar instructions (both in visions) telling us that very thing. They were both told to eat something that tasted like honey, but there was a bitter spiritual “aftertaste.” In Ezekiel’s case, he was told to “‘Eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.’ So I opened my mouth, and He [apparently a theophany] gave me this scroll to eat. And He said to me, ‘Son of man, feed your belly with this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.’ Then I ate it, and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey.” That’s the way the Word of God is: the wisdom it imparts is (as Solomon noted) sweet to the taste. But sometimes—often, in fact—it imparts “bad news,” warnings and admonitions that portend disaster if not heeded. And such was the case here. “And He said to me, ‘Son of man, go to the house of Israel and speak with My words to them. For you are not sent to a people of foreign speech and a hard language, but to the house of Israel—not to many peoples of foreign speech and a hard language, whose words you cannot understand. Surely, if I sent you to such, they would listen to you [as Jonah discovered]. But the house of Israel will not be willing to listen to you, for they are not willing to listen to Me. Because all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart.’” (Ezekiel 3:1-7) The message wasn’t going to seem so sweet when Israel’s stubborn refusal to heed it got their sorry assets hauled off to Babylon in chains. About the only thing about Ezekiel’s job that would remain sweet was this fact: “But if you warn the righteous person not to sin, and he does not sin, he shall surely live, because he took warning, and you will have delivered your soul.” (Ezekiel 3:21)
Exiled on the Island of Patmos, John received very similar instructions in a vision: “I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll. And he said to me, ‘Take and eat it; it will make your stomach bitter, but in your mouth it will be sweet as honey.’ And I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it. It was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it my stomach was made bitter. And I was told, ‘You must again prophesy about many peoples and nations and languages and kings.’” (Revelation 10:9-11) John found it “sweet” that Yahweh was—in the vision he was being shown—wrapping up human history, keeping all the promises of the Old Testament prophets, and revealing how the Messiah’s kingdom would become reality upon the earth. But at this point in the story, only half the carnage of the Last Days had been described: all the horrific details concerning the Antichrist’s reign, the seven bowl judgments, the fall of Babylon, Armageddon, the final rebellion, the Great White Throne, and the lake of fire still had to be recorded. It was a miracle John didn’t develop a bleeding ulcer from the stress of witnessing the vision. But that’s the way God’s Word always is: sweet good news for those who receive it, and bitter bad news for those who reject it.
The ultimate choice between the two things was announced by John the Baptist, of whom it might be said that his diet as a shaggy wilderness prophet mirrored the challenge of his message: “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of Yahweh; make his paths straight.’ Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.” (Matthew 3:1-4) Now there’s a contrast for you. Honey, like the Word of God, is sweet to the taste, comparable to wisdom for the soul. But locusts, though Kosher (see Leviticus 11:22) are—let’s face it—bugs, not the kind of thing you’d normally want to eat if you had a choice. The best that can be said about them is that they’re an “acquired taste.” So the contrast inherent in John the Baptist’s locusts-and-honey diet mirrors the good-news/bad-news scrolls that Ezekiel and John were told to eat in their respective visions.
This observation is borne out in the prophetic passage from Isaiah, quoted by Matthew: “Comfort, comfort My people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from Yahweh’s hand double for all her sins.” There’s the dichotomy again. The tender comfort of knowing your struggle is at an end and your sins have been forgiven is set in stark contrast to a double portion of wrath from the hand of Yahweh. The factor that determines which fate is ours is our willingness (or not) to heed the message of hope and admonition: “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare [or, A voice cries in the wilderness: ‘Prepare….’ The punctuation isn’t supplied in the Hebrew] the way of Yahweh; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Note that John heralded the coming of Yahweh, but it was Yahshua who physically appeared. Their identities are, well, identical. The rest of the prophecy is Millennial in character—things King Yahshua will achieve when He returns to reign in glory over the earth. “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of Yahweh shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of Yahweh has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:1-5) Don’t assume it will never happen just because it hasn’t happened yet. Whether you consider this news sweet or bitter depends, of course, on whose “side” you’ve chosen. If you don’t really want God in your life, then this is the worst news imaginable. But if you crave his presence with your whole being (as I do) then this sounds sweet indeed.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one recent honey-related development, for it puts us squarely in the cross-hairs of Last Days prophetic fulfillment. I mentioned earlier in this segment that about “a third of the plants we eat are functionally related to the production of honey. That is, pollination by honeybees is an important (and sometimes essential) step in the growth of many of the fruits, nuts, seeds, and green vegetables that people like to eat.” But perhaps I understated the case. There’s more to this than what goes directly into the normal human diet. We could do without macadamia nuts, watermelons, and zucchini (and dozens of other things, including honey) if we had to, although our quality of life would be diminished with each loss. But we eat animals too, and what they eat is also affected by the presence or absence of bees—alfalfa, clover, buckwheat, and soybeans, for example. The blessings of the Promised Land, “milk and honey,” are related concepts, for even cows depend to some extent on how well honeybees do their jobs.
What does all of this have to do with prophecy? In the Olivet Discourse, Yahshua warned us about what to expect as the end of the age drew near: “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray.” Check. “And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet.” Check. “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.” Check. “And there will be famines and earthquakes in various places.” Check, and check. “All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.” (Matthew 24:4-8) Famines? They’re a recurring (or constant) feature of life in much of the world, of course, and we’re used to hearing about them on the evening news. They’re the inevitable result of drought, war, and poor political leadership. (Stalin and Mao killed scores of millions of their own citizens with nothing more sinister than “central planning” based on errant Communist political theories.) But in very recent times (only the past five years, as I’m writing these words) an ominous new threat has begun to emerge, a threat that could bring famine to parts of the world that have never known it. Like America.
I’m talking about the strange and largely inexplicable disappearance of honeybee populations, a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD. Some areas (notably California) have reported up to a seventy percent decline in the number of bees. There are any number of theories as to why CCD is happening, from pesticides, to pollution, to pests, including viruses and fungi. Some of the more creative doomsday theorists have blamed cell phone radiation or the genetic modification of crops. I personally wonder if the earth’s weakening magnetic field (by which bees navigate their way back to the hive) may have something to do with it.
Now factor in this. In John’s apocalyptic vision, he saw this scene: “Now I watched when the Lamb [Yahshua] opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, ‘Come!’...When He [Yahshua] opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, ‘Come!’ And I looked, and behold, a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, ‘A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!’” (Revelation 6:1, 5-6) All sorts of basic foodstuffs are going to be in such short supply, they’ll become horrendously expensive. But what does it mean not to “harm the oil and the wine”? As it turns out, neither olive trees nor grapevines depend on honeybees for the development of their fruit. Could it be that we’ve stumbled upon a central cause of the severe and deadly famine of the Tribulation years—the disappearance of the honeybees? Albert Einstein is said to have remarked that if the honeybee were to disappear altogether, mankind would live for only four more years.
One thing is absolutely certain. From rapture day until the prophesied return of Yahshua in glory, earth’s “sweet life” will be gone. No honey, no Holy Spirit, no hope. I beg you: don’t be here when that happens.