3.3.12 Sycamore: Abundance
Volume 3: Living Symbols—Chapter 3.12
When I was a kid growing up in Southern California, we had a big sycamore tree growing in our front yard. It was a great “climbing tree,” as I recall. It had leaves the size of the palm of your hand—the bane of my existence for a few weeks every autumn. This tree wasn’t the biblical sycamore (Ficus sycomorous). The sycamore of scripture is not a cousin to the Eurasian maple or plane tree so common in America. Rather, it’s a large fruit tree common to Africa and the Middle East, bearing a sweet, edible fruit, similar (but considered inferior) to the common fig. It’s called a shiqmah in Hebrew or Sukomoraia in Greek. (The Greek word for “fig” is sukon.)
Remember what I noted a while back about repetition in scripture? It seemed obvious to me that if a single subject is brought up several times, its importance is being stressed. Sycamores don’t show up too often in the Bible, but what struck me is that the same descriptive characterization of the sycamore shows up—virtually word for word—three times. One of them reads: “Thus King Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. And the whole earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind. Every one of them brought his present, articles of silver and gold, garments, myrrh, spices, horses, and mules, so much year by year. And Solomon gathered together chariots and horsemen. He had 1,400 chariots and 12,000 horsemen, whom he stationed in the chariot cities and with the king in Jerusalem. And the king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stone, and he made cedar as plentiful as the sycamore of the Shephelah [the lowland].” (I Kings 10:23-27; cf. II Chronicles 1:15, II Chronicles 9:27)
Under the blessing of God, everything Solomon had, he had in abundance. Whereas sycamores trees grew like weeds in the lowlands of Israel, the cedar was costly and slow growing, harvested from Lebanon and shipped to Jerusalem at great expense. Sycamores were naturally plentiful. A parallel example of the principle is silver, which is compared here to stone: Jerusalem limestone is the stuff the city is built on—and of. It is the very ground beneath your feet, if you’ll dig down a few feet and quarry it. Solomon made silver, a precious metal that must be laboriously mined and smelted, as “common” (so to speak) as the very bedrock of Zion. The point is that under Solomon’s reign, Yahweh provided everything in abundance, in profusion. This economic reality was the spiritual legacy of Solomon’s father, David. It says a lot about what can happen when a nation and its leader are totally and unreservedly devoted to Yahweh: peace, prosperity, and plenty follow. The ultimate example of this phenomenon will be the Millennial reign of Christ, according to scores of glowing prophecies.
Solomon’s prosperity, then, began under David. In I Chronicles 27:25-31, we are even given the names of the men who were appointed “cabinet secretaries” or “czars” over Israel’s vast resources under King David. (Believe it or not, the Hebrew word describing this office—literally meaning “chief, ruler, official, or overseer”—is sar.) “Baal-Hanan the Gederite was over the olive trees and the sycamore trees that were in the lowlands.” (I Chronicles 27:28) Ba’al-Hanan? Wasn’t Ba’al the name of one of Canaan’s most infamous pagan deities? Yes. As a matter of fact, Ba’al-Hanan (which means “Ba’al is gracious”) was also the name of an early pagan king of Edom. What’s a guy with a name like this doing supervising David’s Sycamore plantations?
In all fairness, we don’t get to pick our own names, so the man (who was obviously someone David respected and trusted) didn’t have any say in the matter. But this may be a good time to look into this loaded word “ba’al.” It’s actually a common Hebrew verb simply meaning to possess, own, or rule over. Used as a noun, it describes an owner, ruler, or even a husband, and is thus the basis of the name of the pagan deity Ba’al or Bel, meaning “lord.” We are so used to seeing Yahweh’s name mistranslated as “the LORD,” encountering a rival god named “Ba’al” creates understandable confusion—something Yahweh wished to avoid from the outset.
The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament notes: “One may own (bā’al) a house (Exodus 22:7), or rule over (bā’al) territory (cf. I Chronicles 4:22). A man may take a wife and marry (bā’al) her (Deuteronomy 24:1). A focus on the verb bā’al from the theological standpoint leads to a consideration of marriage terminology employed by God in defining His relationship to His people. ‘For your Maker is your husband (bā’al), the Lord [YHWH] of hosts is His name’ (Isaiah 54:5ff.). In Jeremiah, the existing marriage relationship becomes a motivation for repentance: ‘For I am a husband (bā’al) unto you’ (Jeremiah 3:14, ASV; RSV renders it “I am your master”). In the justly famous new covenant passage the former covenant is described as a broken covenant, a situation which is the more sobering and shocking because ‘I was a husband (bā’al) to them, says Jehovah’ (Jeremiah 31:32, ASV; RSV similar; cf. Malachi 2:11). The future delights which God will have with his redeemed people are stressed in Isaiah where the land is said to be married (bā’al, Niphal), apparently to YHWH. The name of the land, Beulah (passive participle of bā’al), signifies both the intimacy and the joy of YHWH in conjunction with the land. The background which such language gives to the New Testament concept of Christ as the bridegroom or husband of His people, the church, should be obvious (cf. Ephesians 5:21ff.). In any case one must not miss the close covenantal tie which this metaphor suggests, not only of love but of loyalty between God and His people.”
So (getting back on track) it would appear that the real name of the keeper of David’s sycamore groves meant “my ruler (or husband) is gracious.” If we realize that the One in question is actually Yahweh, it all begins to make sense. And if we factor in the principle that sycamore trees are scripturally symbolic of abundance or plenty, then we find that the keeper of David’s trees was well-named indeed. Note that Ba’al-Hanan was also the officer in charge of the King’s olive trees—symbolically, the source of the Spirit. So we are reminded of the words of John: “Whoever receives His testimony sets His seal to this, that God is true. For He whom God has sent utters the words of God, for He gives the Spirit without measure.” (John 3:33-34) The sycamore and the olive tree, it would seem, belong together. The Holy Spirit is present in great abundance—filling, indwelling, and guiding everyone who knows that Yahshua, “his ruler and husband, is gracious.”
The prophet Amos was another who was employed tending sycamore trees—metaphorical of the abundance our God showers upon us. And his second job also entailed doing something fraught with symbolic import in God’s vocabulary: minding otherwise defenseless sheep. So when Yahweh called him to do literally what his occupation had formerly entailed only figuratively, the false prophets of Israel (like Amaziah, who was the priest at Bethel and royal chaplain to King Jeroboam II) were incensed: “And Amaziah said to Amos, ‘O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, and eat bread there, and prophesy there, but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom….’” Amaziah was quite wrong, of course. The only authorized temple stood in Jerusalem, but the ten northern tribes had turned their backs on it, and on the God whose plan it represented, building their alternate reality north of the border. “Then Amos answered and said to Amaziah, ‘I was no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs. But Yahweh took me from following the flock, and Yahweh said to me, “Go, prophesy to My people Israel….”’” In this case the “abundance” of the sycamore metaphor is linked in Yahweh’s narrative to “sheep,” people who would have been lost and helpless were it not for His constant watchful care. In other words, (1) there are a lot of people in the world, and (2) we all need Yahweh. Amaziah’s arrogant reaction was, “Go prophesy someplace else, Amos. We don’t want your kind around here. We’ve got our own king and our own religion: we don’t want to be reminded (by your inconvenient and discomforting presence) that it’s all as phony as a pink three-dollar bill.”
So the sycamore pruner-turned-prophet announced that the abundance Israel had been enjoying was about to get cut back—and Amaziah himself would be proven to be a false prophet. “Dressing sycamore figs” entailed pinching or nipping the buds, a necessary procedure in order for the fruit to ripen. God’s point in recruiting someone of Amos’ profession was that Israel—the northern kingdom—was ripe for judgment, a judgment designed to encourage repentance. They were at the height of their prosperity. They had material abundance, but had become morally and spiritually corrupt (just like sycamore figs, whose “shelf life” is notoriously short). So Amos—who was from Tekoa in Judah (in other words, a foreigner)—delivered the unwelcome news: “Now therefore hear the word of Yahweh. You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel, and do not preach against the house of Isaac.’ Therefore thus says Yahweh: Your wife shall be a prostitute in the city, and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword, and your land shall be divided up with a measuring line. you yourself shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.’” (Amos 7:12-17) This would all be fulfilled a few decades later (in 722 B.C.) when the Assyrians under Sargon II invaded the land.
The front-yard sycamore of my youth apparently did have something in common with the fig-bearing tree of the same name in Israel: it made a good climbing tree, as any boy (or tomboy) in Sunday school can attest: we all related to the story of Zacchaeus, didn’t we? “He [Yahshua] entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man named Zacchaeus.” Jericho sits 850 feet below sea level (an elevation 3350 feet lower than Jerusalem), overlooking the Jordan River valley. If you’ll recall, these lowlands (called the Shephelah in I Kings 10, above) were where sycamore trees were particularly abundant. “He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small of stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was about to pass that way….” The objective of Zacchaeus was to get a good look at Yahshua. This squares perfectly with what we’ve determined to be the symbolic meaning of the sycamore tree—though few of us ever think about the truth being presented here.
But first, some background. Zack had (if I may read between the lines) heard of the works and teaching of the young rabbi, and was in a repentant frame of mind, for his neighbors and countrymen never let him forget for a moment how hated he was for doing what he did. Being a “chief tax collector” (Greek: architelones, the chief or supervisor of the ordinary tax collectors, the telones), he not only collected taxes for the hated Roman occupiers, he also had other publicans working for him, from whose takings he received a percentage. So he was rich, but he knew that at least some of his money was ill-gotten—obtained through extortion, fraud, and creative accounting, all of which was permitted—perhaps even encouraged—by the Romans. (In what may or may not be a coincidence, a Greek verb meaning “to accuse wrongfully, to attack with malicious devices, to extort or exact money wrongfully” is sukophanteo, a word based on sukon—the fig that grows on a sycamore tree. The word comes from the extortion that was often imposed on suspected Athenian fig smugglers: a sukophantes came to mean one who accuses someone falsely in hopes of gaining profit.) Zacchaeus did the job because the money was so good, but his soul was weighed down by his guilt—whether his own or derived from the sins of his underlings. It’s no fun being part of the problem, even if it does pay the bills.
So Zacchaeus climbed a sycamore tree, which, as our theory goes, speaks of abundance. Here, the metaphor works two ways. First, there are thousands of reasons for seeking God’s solution for our sinful predicament. Zack’s was arguably the most obvious; but even the scribes and Pharisees—the most outwardly righteous people around—had good reason to suspect that they were falling short of Yahweh’s perfect standard. I am reminded of the morning prayer: “Father, I have not sinned against you today, and I feel really good about that, for I hate letting you down. But any minute now, that alarm clock is going to go off, and I’m going to have to open my eyes, get out of bed, and face the world. I need Your righteousness within me, or I haven’t got a chance.” Second, there are plenty of opportunities to pray, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” While life lasts, repentance is an ever present option. Yahshua is still walking up your street, knocking at the door of your heart, and making Himself easy to see—“strolling beneath your sycamore tree,” as it were. Don’t take this the wrong way: there is only one way to God—through the atoning sacrifice of His Messiah. But there are a million ways to see Him, if only we’ll look.
The fascinating thing is, Yahshua is looking for us just as hard as we’re looking for Him: “And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today….’” Must? Yes. It’s not enough for us to merely catch a glimpse of the Messiah as He walks by. Seeing the Author of life won’t make you alive any more than looking at a grave will kill you. If we are repentant, as Zacchaeus was, then it is imperative that a deeper connection be made: He must come and “stay at our house,” that is, enter our life and become a part of it. And more than just a part: He must become the center of our life, the One about whom everything else revolves.
“So he hurried and came down and received Him joyfully. And when they [the crowd, led by the religious elite] saw it, they all grumbled, ‘He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner….’” The thought was: a rabbi with prophetic gifts (or merely a modicum of discernment) should have been able to tell who this guy was—a sinner (gasp!)—defined in their eyes as “somebody demonstrably worse than me.” Yahshua, of course, understood what they did not: that every one of them were “sinners,” people who had fallen short of Yahweh’s assessment of how we should live our lives (see Romans 3:23). In this game, a miss is as good as a mile: to be imperfect in one little thing is to define one as a “lawbreaker” (which was sort of the point of the Torah in the first place, explaining why all those animal sacrifices were in there alongside the behavioral instructions).
Christians today brush off the ramifications of Zack’s self prescribed penance, but we shouldn’t. “And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold…." Zacchaeus went right back to the Torah. He didn’t say to himself, Now that I’m on a first-name basis with Jesus, the Law of Moses doesn’t apply to me anymore. All my sins—including the ones that are going to buy me a new country villa next year—are covered by grace. Hallelujah! No, he took God’s word seriously, and literally. Knowing he had personally defrauded people, he promised to repay them precisely as if he had stolen their sheep (see Exodus 22:1)—fourfold. But then, realizing that much of his wealth had been derived from underlings who had in all likelihood extorted money from people in transactions he could neither trace nor set right, he did what he could to rectify the situation: he gave half of his wealth to the poor. In other words, Zacchaeus repented: he changed his mind and changed his ways. And recognizing his guilt before God, he did what the Torah prescribed. He made restitution.
So what was Yahshua’s response? “And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.’” (Luke 19:1-10) He was not saying (as it may sound at first blush) that his new propensity to “toe the Torah’s line” had saved him. Yahshua didn’t call Zacchaeus a “son of Moses.” He called him a “son of Abraham,” someone who never even heard of the Law of Restitution, but who nevertheless trusted Yahweh with a whole heart, demonstrating a faith that was accounted unto him as righteousness. Zack’s willingness—even eagerness—to obey the Torah indicated a newfound trust in Yahweh alone. Money was no longer going to be a god to him; he would never again cheat in order to gain an advantage, for such dishonesty betrayed a lack of reliance upon the Almighty.
Interestingly, the record is silent on the issue of whether or not Zacchaeus gave up his day job—collecting taxes for the Romans. Yahshua didn’t instruct him to do so, as far as we’re told. The provocative (though speculative) conjecture would be that Zack continued doing his job, but cleaned up his act—including that of his employees, the telones who worked for him. He may have reflected that the Romans were going to exact their pound of flesh no matter what. So if Zack quit, some other architelones would simply be assigned to replace him, and things could conceivably have gotten even worse for the people. But the repentant Zacchaeus was now in a position to ensure that the people would be taxed fairly (as fair as these things ever get). That is, he and his men would henceforth collect the absolute minimum they could get away with. This strategy, at least, would reflected the Torah’s emphasis on mercy, though nothing remotely like this was codified in the Law. It’s all a question of who (or what) you trust. The object of Zacchaeus’ trust shifted—when confronted with Yahshua’s holiness—from a fat bank account to an unlimited God, One who uses gold as paving material, so to speak.
The sycamore tree (or something like it) came up again in the context of faith as Yahshua taught His disciples. He was teaching them about the necessity of forgiving others, but since this tenet (though written between the lines) wasn’t blatantly obvious in a Torah-based culture like theirs, they concluded (quite reasonably) that they were going to need more faith in order to comply. So, “the apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ And the Lord said, ‘If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it would obey you.’” (Luke 17:5-6) The “mulberry tree” here is the Greek Sukaminos, sometimes translated sycamore or sycamine. It seems the sukaminos had the form and foliage similar to that of the mulberry tree, but fruit resembling the fig. Apparently, one of these 20-foot high trees stood nearby as Yahshua was speaking, so He used it to illustrate His point. Barnes’ Notes notes: “It [the sukaminos] is easily propagated, merely by planting a stout branch in the ground, and watering it until it has struck its roots into the soil. This it does with great rapidity and to a vast depth. It was with reference to this latter fact that our Lord selected it to illustrate the power of faith.”
But other factors also emerge if we pay attention to the symbolic significance of the elements in Christ’s illustration. (1) The mustard seed is extremely tiny. The message is, “You won’t need much faith (as in “motivation contrary to reason or experience”) at all, though some is required. Remember the “faith” exercised by Naaman the Syrian—minimal but hopeful, just enough to admit the possibility that the God of Israel was real. (2) The mulberry/sycamine, if it can be legitimately included within the sycamore symbol, indicates that something abundant in nature can be moved through the application of a little bit of faith. (3) The fact that the tree in question bore a fruit that was similar, but not identical, to figs tells us that what would be moved through faith would be like Israel in some way. And (4) the destination of the “move” was to be “the sea,” a ubiquitous scriptural metaphor for the gentile world.
Yahshua’s picture, then, spoke of the church, His called-out assembly of believers. It revealed how the church would be spread and what its nature would be. The disciples—who would soon be “apostles” sent out to the nations—wouldn’t need very much “faith” at all, for they would have seen the risen Christ with their waking eyes, and heard Him explain—in His glorified body—how He had fulfilled the entire Torah through His death, burial, and resurrection. So spreading the Good News of His salvation would be as natural as breathing to these “men of little faith.” Furthermore, the church would be like Israel (the fig tree), in a way: they would both receive their marching orders from the same God, Yahweh. But if I may stretch the analogy a bit, the sycamore figs (the church) were of somewhat inferior quality, and had to be eaten fresh or they’d go bad, whereas the real figs (Israel) would keep for a long time if they were carefully dried out. Israel, having rejected her Messiah, would be “dried out”—like a “valley of dry bones,” in fact: see Ezekiel 37. But the sycamore symbol—abundance—as it relates to the church, is made clear through Christ’s mission statement: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) And finally, the “planted-in-the-sea” metaphor informs us of the counterintuitive truth that the church was to be uprooted from its original place within Israel and replanted among the gentile nations, where it would take root and flourish. All it would take is a little bit of faith.
As we have seen before, Yahweh often uses an “attack” against one of His symbols as an indication of the destruction of whatever the symbol represents. In this case, the destruction of sycamore trees would signal a shift from abundance to want, from plenty to famine—whether temporal or spiritual. This shows up in a Psalm by Asaph, a Psalm that begins with a reminder that Yahweh communicates with us through parables and symbols: “Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth! I will open my mouth in a parable. I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of Yahweh, and His might, and the wonders that He has done.” (Psalm 78:1-4)
The whole Psalm is an indictment of Israel, a recounting of how, time after time, they ignored Yahweh’s warnings, failed to heed His instructions, and met His chastisement with contempt. At one point, Asaph recounts how Israel was delivered from Egypt, but in the long run, they didn’t properly respond even to this miraculous display on their behalf, but forgot about God’s power and provision at the earliest opportunity. “They [Israel] tested God again and again and provoked the Holy One of Israel. They did not remember His power or the day when He redeemed them from the foe, when He performed His signs in Egypt and his marvels in the fields of Zoan….” Zoan, a.k.a. Tanis, was a frontier city of Goshen. Zoan would therefore have been in a perfect position to see the difference between what Yahweh was doing to Egypt and how He was simultaneously protecting His people in Goshen. It’s no wonder Isaiah called the princes of Zoan “fools.” (See Isaiah 19:11.)
Some things never change. Asaph goes on to describe the judgments Yahweh brought upon Egypt in response to their stubbornness, their reluctance to release Israel from their bondage. “He turned their rivers to blood, so that they could not drink of their streams. He sent among them swarms of flies, which devoured them, and frogs, which destroyed them. He gave their crops to the destroying locust and the fruit of their labor to the locust. He destroyed their vines with hail and their sycamores with frost. He gave over their cattle to the hail and their flocks to thunderbolts….” The list is neither comprehensive nor in order, but any Israelite throughout their subsequent history should have been awestruck at this reminder of the magnitude of what Yahweh had done for them. The “frost” isn’t mentioned per se in Exodus, but the seventh plague, hail, is after all, a type of ice storm. The word is used only this once in scripture. Some lexicons see this as freezing rain or sleet. In any case, the tropical-climate-loving sycamores of Egypt were destroyed—and with them, the abundance that had characterized the Egyptian economy for centuries on end. It really doesn’t pay to say “No” to the true and living God.
Asaph wasn’t done, nor was Yahweh. “He let loose on them His burning anger, wrath, indignation, and distress, a company of destroying angels. He made a path for His anger; He did not spare them from death, but gave their lives over to the plague. He struck down every firstborn in Egypt, the firstfruits of their strength in the tents of Ham.” (Psalm 78:41-51) How could Israel “not remember His power” when Yahweh had bought their freedom for them at such a terrible price? Such institutional thoughtlessness would seem illogical—even insane. And yet, is that not precisely what the majority of the human race has done with that which the exodus deliverance was designed to foretell? I’m speaking, of course, of our redemption from slavery to sin—bought at an even more “terrible price,” the blood of Christ. Just as Israel’s freedom from temporal bondage was purchased at the price of Egypt’s firstborn (note that the Hebrew word for “Egypt” is Mizraim, who was the son of Noah’s son Ham—Genesis 10:6), the spiritual freedom of the whole human race was secured for us at the price of the death of Yahweh’s “firstborn” (so to speak), Yahshua the Messiah. The parallel usage of “firstborn” and “firstfruits” in this passage reminds us of the significance of the Feast of Firstfruits—the day prophesying and commemorating the resurrection of Yahshua from the tomb.
The slaying of Egypt’s firstborn was the culmination of the process which included the destruction by hail of Egypt’s sycamore trees—symbolic of plentiful abundance in their culture and economy. We should not be unaware that Yahweh tends to repeat Himself, sometimes to the point of ennui, if the lesson is critical to our understanding and well being. God removed Egypt’s abundance in hopes of getting their attention. (The fact that it didn’t work is no reflection on His omniscience or power, only on His longsuffering nature.) He later did the same thing with Israel, and obtained roughly the same result: He had to go much, much farther to get the job done. And I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but the whole scenario is about to be repeated on a global scale: when blood, flies, lice, and frogs don’t bring about the repentance of mankind, Yahweh will once again rain down hail on our sycamore trees, so to speak. John saw it all in prophetic vision: “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!’…And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.” (Revelation 6:6, 8) Okay, sycamore trees aren’t overtly mentioned in Revelation, but what they symbolize—the abundance of God’s blessings our race has been enjoying on this planet—is once again going to be severely curtailed, though this time, the whole earth is going to be affected. God’s point in doing this will be the same as always: to get our attention.
At the end of our section on cedar trees (earlier in this interminable chapter), I addressed the Isaiah 9 principle, in which people (America, for example) express their defiance against Yahweh by refusing to receive His rod of correction in the spirit of humility, opting instead to rebuild what God has torn down, bigger and better than ever. “Ephraim and the inhabitants of Samaria… say in pride and in arrogance of heart: ‘The bricks have fallen, but we will build with dressed stones; the sycamores have been cut down, but we will put cedars in their place….’” Or, translated with The Torah Code secret decoder ring, “That with which we had been blessed by God in such abundance was all very nice, I suppose, but now that it’s gone, we can surely do better in our own strength. We may have hit a few ‘bumps in the road’ (a phrase I borrowed directly from President Obama) but we are too big to fail, and proud of it. Nothing can stop us from reaching our glorious self-assigned destiny.”
Though the players may have changed, the scriptural scenario is identical to what we see in our present world: “But Yahweh raises the adversaries of Rezin against him, and stirs up his enemies.” Rezin was the king of Aram (Syria), and his “adversaries” were the dreaded Assyrians. “The Syrians on the east and the Philistines on the west devour Israel with open mouth….” The point here is that there is invariably more than one enemy to deal with. Sun Tzu’s famous military maximum, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” isn’t necessarily true, in any causal sense. The enemy of my enemy may be my enemy as well (as Russia was to America and Britain in World War II), temporarily neutralized via mutual interest though he may be. But hear me well: dar al-Islam is an ally to no one—not even to themselves. Christians (or Jews) who imagine it to be prudent to ally ourselves with Muslims—even in defense against other “more dangerous” political foes—will find themselves betrayed. If we were smart, our only allies would be others allied to the Almighty. To amend Sun Tzu, “The friend of my Friend is my friend, if our mutual Friend is Yahweh.”
Granted, that leaves us with a very small pool of potential allies. As far as I can tell, there is not a single country left on earth that as a nation honors Yahweh, though His people are scattered all over the globe, hidden in pockets large and small. Ironically, it is nations like Israel and America that are most likely to get sent to God’s woodshed, for like any good father, Yahweh disciplines only His own children. The others are left alone to fend for themselves, which in the long run is far, far worse for them. But Yahweh chastises His people (often by merely withholding His hand of miraculous protection) in attempt to encourage us to repent from our creeping apostasy and apathy—to rekindle our relationship with Him by letting us experience eye-opening setbacks. So when we see defeat after defeat, we must remember why God is letting this happen to us: "For all this His anger has not turned away, and His hand is stretched out still. The people did not turn to Him who struck them, nor inquire of Yahweh of hosts….” There it is. It’s all designed to encourage us to (1) turn to Him (which requires a change of direction on our part) and to (2) enquire of Yahweh. That’s the hard one for people arrogant enough to believe they’ve got it all figured out. Pride will keep us separated from our God more readily than anything else.
The conclusion of the matter is a warning to those in positions of power and influence. And unless I’m mistaken, what Yahweh did with Israel, He is perfectly willing to do to America, if He opines that it might help us arise from our self-induced coma: “So Yahweh cut off from Israel head and tail, palm branch and reed in one day—the elder and honored man is the head, and the prophet who teaches lies is the tail….” Starting with the premise that being “cut off from Israel” is a bad thing, we need to define who, precisely, is suffering this fate. The “head” is equated to both the palm branch (not tamar—symbolic of righteousness—but kipah, the same word used of the palm of the hand, or the hand in general, indicating “doing” or achievement) and the honored man. The “head,” then, is the best, brightest, and most powerful—the leaders of a society. And the “tail” is likened to both a reed (which in Hebrew speaks of something pliable, weak, and of little value) and to a lying prophet, someone who promotes falsehood for profit, especially as seen in a supporting role to the “honored head.”
In other words, the leadership of the nation (any nation) will fall—and not just the figureheads, but their behind-the-scenes minions as well—if they fail to heed Yahweh’s calls to repentance. “For those who guide this people have been leading them astray, and those who are guided by them are swallowed up.” (Isaiah 9:9-16) When we see our “sycamore trees”—our abundance—being sacrificed to hail and locusts (so to speak), we are to take it as a sign that we have fallen (or jumped) out of favor with God—we have come up short of His opinion of how things ought to be. At that point, denial is senseless; heroic determination to replant and rebuild is counterproductive. There’s only one thing to do: repent!