3.3.15 Grasses: Impermanence
Volume 3: Living Symbols—Chapter 3.15
Someone once pointed out to me (in defense of a vegetarian diet) that such luminaries as Leonardo DaVinci, Ghandi, Nicola Tesla, Voltaire, Leo Tolstoy, George Bernard Shaw, and Albert Einstein were all outspoken vegetarians. I retorted, “These men are all dead.” While I recognize the deleterious health effects of too much animal-based food in the diet, my point (besides fulfilling my customary role as provocateur) was that it is pointless to invest too much effort or concern trying to circumvent our inevitable mortality. We are temporary beings: our bodies are going to die, no matter what we eat. We should live as if we know that.
Moses (who lived far longer than anyone else in his generation) mused upon man’s mortal destiny: “You [Yahweh] return man to dust and say, ‘Return, O children of man!’ For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.” God, he says, is on a schedule, like a guard making his rounds. And His plan transcends the life of any man—or all of us, for that matter. The Sabbath principle reveals how many of these “thousand-year yesterdays” there are to be in the unfolding history of our fallen race. God is eternal, but until humanity’s seven-day week is complete, we (our bodies) will be impermanent in form and nature: “You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning: in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers….” There’s our symbol: the life of grass is temporary and fleeting. One moment it is green and vibrant; the next, it’s brown and dry. It’s all a poignant reminder of our own ephemeral mortality.
Though grass will die soon enough on its own, the process can be accelerated: it can be mown down, cut off before its time. So Moses (who witnessed a lot of this sort of thing) notes: “For we are brought to an end by your anger; by your wrath we are dismayed. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence. For all our days pass away under your wrath; we bring our years to an end like a sigh….” If our mortal lives were all there is to it, “a sigh” would be the perfect description of our brief existence. Note that it’s seldom Yahweh who kills us for our sins, although none of them escape His notice: it is we ourselves who “bring our years to an end.”
Though he himself lived to the age of one hundred and twenty, the world’s first actuary noted: “The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble. They are soon gone, and we fly away. Who considers the power of Your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of You?” If we were wise, we all would. A personal reflection: my father didn’t smoke or drink alcohol; he watched his diet, maintained a healthy weight, exercised regularly, and honored God—and he died quite suddenly of a brain aneurism at seventy-eight. My father-in-law, not so much—in any of those criteria. He died, after a long and debilitating illness, at eighty-one. I realize that as surveys go that’s an awfully small sample. Still, I must conclude that if this life were all there is, there would be very little incentive to take care of oneself (physically or spiritually)—or anyone else, for that matter. But this earthly life is not the sum total of our human existence. It is merely the front porch of eternity, the place where we must decide whether or not to ring heaven’s doorbell. And our mortal bodies—though as vulnerable as grass—are the only vessels in which it’s possible to do that. “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:3-12)
Isaiah made precisely the same point: “A voice says, ‘Cry!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of Yahweh blows on it. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” (Isaiah 40:6-8) People are impermanent, but God—and His word—endures forever. If we look at this a bit more closely, we can begin to sort out some specific applications of the principle. Who, exactly, is the “voice” to which he refers? We might presume that it’s Yahweh (who inspired all of this), but technically he’s referring back to an early reference: “A voice cries in the wilderness: prepare the way of Yahweh. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” (Isaiah 40:3) If we can determine who this “voice” is, we’ll be able to get closer to the heart of the issue by examining what else he had to say.
All four Gospel writers identify who the “voice” is. “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….’” In Isaiah’s original Hebrew, the concept of “straight” (yahshar) means to be right, level, straight or smooth, so figuratively, to be upright, just, or lawful—“to be just and in a right state or association to a compelling standard, as a figurative extension of a straight object, not twisted or crooked.” (DBLWSD) So John, in accordance with Isaiah’s prophecy, prepared the way for Yahweh, warning his audience to “be straight with Him.” But who showed up? Who did John identify as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world?” It was Yahshua—a mortal man. So either Yahshua was actually Yahweh in the flesh, or both Isaiah and John were false prophets. There’s no way around it.
Who, then, comprised the “crooked and perverse generation” who were supposed to get their act straightened out in light of Yahweh’s coming? It was the religious elite of the day, the most respected, powerful, connected people in the whole country. “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father,” for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire….’” These guys didn’t really think of themselves as “grass,” ready to wither and fade at the least little puff of breath from Yahweh. No, they were Somebody, the best of the best (in their own estimation). They considered themselves mighty trees—majestic cedars of the forests of Lebanon, or the tall date palms of righteousness in the oasis of Israel. Being sons of Abraham, these religious Jews presumed that their very biological heritage put them in an unassailable position of favor with God. Grass? Not us! But John, not exactly the most politically correct guy in town, took one look at their arrogant pretensions and declared, “All I see here is kindling.”
He went on to say, “I baptize you [i.e., people in general, not the Pharisees] with water [because of your] repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Remember, the “He” to whom John was referring—Yahshua—had been identified in Isaiah 40 as Yahweh Himself. If Matthew knew enough to make the connection, I can guarantee that the Pharisees did too (which is not to say they liked it). “His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear his threshing floor and gather His wheat into the barn, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:1-3, 7-12) That “chaff” is the rough equivalent of the “grass” of which Isaiah had spoken. Since Israel was an agrarian society, there are half a dozen Hebrew words for “grass,” and several of them stress the “ready-to-burn” aspects of dead vegetation—hay, stubble, or chaff.
Peter quoted Isaiah 40 as well. “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God. For ‘All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.’ And this word is the good news that was preached to you.” (I Peter 1:22-25) His point was that although our bodies—our flesh—are as vulnerable and temporary as the grass, we, having been born again into a new kind of life in Christ’s eternal word, have been transformed into “imperishable” beings. Our flesh is still like grass, you understand; it is still subject to our common mortal predicament. But our life, if it has been purified by obedience to the truth of God’s love, is no longer dependent upon our flesh. It is no longer merely bios; it is now zoe as well. Our souls will now live on regardless of what happens to our bodies. So Peter’s admonition to believers here is that they demonstrate the life that abides within them by loving one another.
It’s not that our bodies are worthless, inconsequential, or evil in themselves. That attitude is an artifact of the Gnostic heresy that plagued early Christianity—the idea that one should view material existence negatively, that thought or knowledge is the only thing that really matters. The human body is seen by Gnostics as evil and constrictive, a prison for its inhabitants. Taken to its logical conclusion, it is deemed that what the body does is unimportant (which, of course, leads to the tolerance of all sorts of sin—lasciviousness, drunkenness, gluttony, etc.—because since they happen “in the body,” it doesn’t really matter. Every shred of scriptural doctrine weighs in against this loony idea. The body is, in reality, a vehicle—fearfully and wonderfully made—in which we are given the opportunity to express our free will before God Almighty. It is anything but insignificant.
That being said, it would also be a mistake to treat the body as more than it is—the “be all and end all” of the human experience. As I said, it’s only a vehicle to get us from point A to point B—from conception to corpse. In the sermon on the mount, Yahshua put the whole thing into perspective: “I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” If you think about it, He has thus defined “life” (at least potentially) as something beyond the body—separate from it. The essence of our “life” does not depend on food, drink, clothing, or shelter—though all of these things are necessary for the maintenance of the body. The point is not that we shouldn’t take care of ourselves; it’s that we shouldn’t worry or be concerned about it: that’s God’s job. “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?...” Actually, evolutionists (if they’re philosophically consistent) would insist that we’re not more valuable—that we’re nothing more that high-functioning animals. But Yahweh would beg to differ. We are different—created (at some level) in the very image of God, with the capacity for free will, hence the ability to love.
Birds never go on diets, dye their feathers, or get plastic surgery, and yet they never have “issues” with their appearance. They simply live as well as they can for as long as they can. People, on the other hand, tend to obsess over things they should leave in God’s hands. Is this not idolatry? “Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” Anxiety actually has the potential to shorten one’s lifespan. “And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?...” It isn’t that Yahweh is promising to provide His children fashionable apparel to cover their mortal carcasses (though our temporal necessities are provided). That thing in the Garden of Eden was just a symbol. The sartorial splendor with which He clothes us is not designed for bodies of flesh, but for Spirit-indwelled souls. We will receive “robes of righteousness,” the “fine linen, clean and bright, the righteous acts of the saints” in which the Bride of Christ—the church—was described as wearing in Revelation 19:8. Until then, it doesn’t matter whether you’re wearing a designer suit and thousand-dollar shoes, or a Wal-Mart tee shirt and flip flops. Any “splendor” the world will perceive in your wardrobe will be defined by what they see in your heart and life. There’s nothing quite as ugly as a garment of hatred worn by a “beautiful person.”
So while we are supposed to work to provide for our needs in this world, we are not to obsess over them. “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all....” God wants us to depend on Him while we work to meet our own needs, recognizing that He is the ultimate source of all good things. Compare this to our government. These days they foster a “welfare mentality” because it makes people dependent on them, and dependent people are compliant. (It’s amazing how cheaply some folks will sell their freedom: give ’em food stamps and free cell phones, and they’ll vote for you forever—or at least until you’ve run out of people from which you can borrow or steal.) Our government has attempted to replace God in the lives of its citizens. It has thus made itself into a heathen idol, a false messiah. It’s their choice, of course, to place themselves in competition with Yahweh. But it’s the choice of the people to decide which “god” they wish to follow.
There is, however, one factor that must logically be considered by the chooser (though it seldom is). It’s that “all flesh is grass,” the idea that our bodies are temporary, while God (being Spirit) is not. In light of this, it would seem the height of foolishness to surrender your soul to a human government in exchange for a few cheap trinkets and a break on your taxes. Your government is no more permanent than you are: it makes no sense to depend upon it—especially when Yahweh has declared His willingness to meet our needs if only we’ll trust Him: “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things [that is, the necessities of a mortal life] will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Matthew 6:25-34; cf. Luke 12:22-32) Trouble and anxiety are endemic in the human condition, He says, but they don’t have to define the personal reality of a child of God.
The scriptures spend a fair amount of time pointing out the contrast between grass when it is well watered and when it’s not—dried out, cut down, and thrown into the fire. The same substance (indicative of our own vulnerable condition) can experience either blessing or cursing, abundance or destruction, depending upon our relationship with our Maker. And as with grass, the shift from one state to the other can happen with startling suddenness.
The way it’s supposed to be was described by the shepherd-king, David: “Yahweh is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” (Psalm 23:1-3) The word translated “green” here (deshe) is one of the basic Hebrew words for grass, stressing its state as young, tender, green vegetation. “Pastures” (naveh) actually means “abode or habitation.” The idea is that under Yahweh’s watchful care, our dwelling place is as fresh, safe, and abundant as “green pastures” beside “still waters” would be for well-cared-for sheep.
David also spoke of such “grass” on his deathbed: “When one rules justly over men, ruling in the fear of God, he dawns on them like the morning light, like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning, like rain that makes grass [deshe] to sprout from the earth. For does not my house stand so with God?” David consistently endeavored to rule Israel “in the fear of God.” Although he had a few disastrous lapses in judgment and behavior, his heart always belonged to Yahweh. And God had responded in love: “For He has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure. For will He not cause to prosper all my help and my desire?...” This prosperity is the very condition of which he spoke in Psalm 23—a secure and ordered life in God’s “green pastures.” Notice, however, that he’s not talking about individuals here, but of kings and their effect upon the peoples over whom they rule. A just, God-fearing leader will have a salutary effect upon his people.
And vice versa. David also knew what the converse situation would look like: “But worthless men are all like thorns that are thrown away, for they cannot be taken with the hand; but the man who touches them arms himself with iron and the shaft of a spear, and they are utterly consumed with fire.” (II Samuel 23:3-7) David’s own grandson, Rehoboam, would prove to be just such a “thorn” to his nation. He was so prickly, in fact, a rival (Jeroboam) got out his pruning hook and lopped off ten of Israel’s twelve tribes—all but Judah and Benjamin—leading them down a path of idolatry and error from which they never recovered.
Those ten “lost” tribes (a.k.a. Ephraim, a.k.a. Israel) would suffer the consequences of their choices (as had been predicted in such passages as Deuteronomy 28) at the hands of the Assyrians—who would later come back to try their luck against Judah, the southern kingdom still ruled by David’s progeny. God’s prophet told Judah’s king what He would do with Assyria’s aspirations: “Then Isaiah the son of Amoz sent to Hezekiah, saying, ‘Thus says Yahweh, the God of Israel: Your prayer to Me about Sennacherib king of Assyria I have heard. This is the word that Yahweh has spoken concerning him’…. Have you not heard that I determined it long ago? I planned from days of old what now I bring to pass, that you [Sennacherib] should turn fortified cities into heaps of ruins, while their inhabitants, shorn of strength, are dismayed and confounded, and have become like plants of the field and like tender grass [deshe], like grass [chatsir] on the housetops, blighted before it is grown….” The transformation from deshe (vibrant, healthy green shoots) to chatsir (still green but shallow of root and apt to fade quickly under pressure from the sun or wind) tells the tale. The flat roofs of their houses, which were used as patios or terraces—comfortable outdoor living spaces when the weather permitted (e.g. Nehemiah 8:16, Jeremiah 19:13, etc.)—had a thin layer of soil in which grass would often sprout. But having no depth of root, no reserve of moisture, this chatsir grass couldn’t survive the heat of the day. And neither could Ephraim, without roots in Yahweh, withstand the “heat” of the Assyrian onslaught.
Just because Assyria (or Babylon, or Rome, or any other “tool”) is used of God to chastise His errant people, it doesn’t follow that they are on the right side of the equation. Yahweh holds them accountable as well—especially if they go further than He intended. Assyria in particular was far more brutal—and blasphemous—than was needed to get the job done. So Yahweh tells them, “But I know your sitting down and your going out and coming in, and your raging against Me. Because you have raged against Me and your complacency has come into My ears, I will put My hook in your nose [something the Assyrians themselves were known for in the treatment of their captives] and My bit in your mouth, and I will turn you back on the way by which you came.” (II Kings 19:20-21, 25-28; cf. Isaiah 37:26-29) One cannot help but ponder the successes of fundamentalist Islam against Israel, America, and sanity itself. Yes, they’re grossly incompetent and invariably self destructive; and yet, the political and military inroads they’ve made in Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East over the past few decades cannot be reasonably ignored. But like the Assyrians of old, Yahweh will wait until they have served their purpose, assess whether they’ve been overly enthusiastic in their antagonism against His people, and then deal with them accordingly.
The Psalmist points out that just as apostate Israel was as vulnerable as grass, so are they who trouble her: “May all who hate Zion be put to shame and turned backward! Let them be like the grass on the housetops, which withers before it grows up, with which the reaper does not fill his hand nor the binder of sheaves his arms.” (Psalm 129:5-7) Although I can offer a hearty “Amen” to the Psalmist’s prayer, I’m afraid that “all who hate Zion” in the future will have to be somewhat more robust than the wimpy grass on the housetop if they are to be useful in getting Israel’s attention. I mean, look at the history: in an age in which ninety percent of the world’s known Jews lived in Europe or Russia, Yahweh allowed the rise of Hitler and Stalin. Now that He has given Israel a toehold in the Land, He has permitted the billion and a half Muslims living next door to rediscover their own genocidal (and suicidal) scriptures—resulting in an unprecedented level of mindless hatred against Zion and her God. And still, Israel has not turned in repentance to Yahweh in any meaningful way.
What will it take to open their eyes? How about an Islamic invasion the likes of which the world has never seen—the one described in Ezekiel 38 and 39? When Yahweh has miraculously defeated the Muslim invaders on the mountains of Israel, they’ll finally “get it.” We have His word on that: “All the nations shall see My judgment that I have executed, and My hand that I have laid on them. The house of Israel shall know that I am Yahweh their God, from that day forward.” (Ezekiel 39:21-22) If my prophetic timeline is correct, I’d place “that day” somewhere between late 2028 and mid 2029—during the first half of the Tribulation, and at least seven months before the “abomination of desolation,” which I expect to happen on March 28, 2030, one month before the midpoint of the “time of Jacob’s trouble.” (And yes, the scriptures do give us enough data to pin the date down that closely, if we take The Torah Code seriously.)
The difference between flourishing and withering is a function of how much water is available—water being a metaphor for the restoration and refreshing provided by God’s Spirit in one’s life. Bildad (one of Job’s “miserable comforters”) asked, “Can papyrus grow where there is no marsh? Can reeds [chatsir] flourish where there is no water? While yet in flower and not cut down, they wither before any other plant. Such are the paths of all who forget God. The hope of the godless shall perish.” (Job 8:11-13) Bildad’s observation was well taken, though he was incorrect in attributing Job’s troubles to “godlessness.” The fact is, we’re all like grass; we can all expect to wither and die for our sins—not just those who “forget God.” Our temporal circumstances, the relative prosperity we enjoy (as individuals) in our moral bodies, have little or nothing to do with our relationship with Yahweh. But it’s not as if Bildad was wrong. David, in fact, agrees with him: “Fret not yourself because of evildoers. Be not envious of wrongdoers! For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb.” (Psalm 37:1-2)
That being said, we must all remember our own mortality, and live our lives accordingly. “Wrongdoers” aren’t the only ones whose bodies “fade like the grass.” Physically, we were not designed to last. It is as the Psalmist says: “Remember how short my time is! For what vanity You have created all the children of man! What man can live and never see death? Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol?” (Psalm 89:47-48) No one can deliver his own soul from the prospect of physical death, but Yahweh can: He is perfectly willing (not to mention able) to deliver our souls from the grave—if they have been made alive (at our request) with the indwelling of His Holy Spirit. It’s the rough symbolic equivalent of “watering the grass.”
This train of thought leads us to what may come as an epiphany: there is no point living in fear of anyone on earth, for they are just as just as vulnerable and fragile as you are. Yahweh says, “I am He who comforts you. Who are you that you are afraid of man who dies, of the son of man who is made like grass, and have forgotten Yahweh, your Maker, who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth, and you fear continually all the day because of the wrath of the oppressor, when he sets himself to destroy? And where is the wrath of the oppressor?” (Isaiah 51:12-13) It’s not just a matter of comparative strength, either. Sure, there are people who are more powerful than you on this earth, and if they decide they want you dead, you might die. But all they can kill is your body; they can’t touch your soul—and that’s where the real life is. Yahweh our Maker presides over the status of our essential life, something that can’t be touched, or even perceived, by other mortals.
Paul explains: “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away [like grass without water], our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (II Corinthians 4:16-18) But if the eternal is so much more valuable than the transient, is there any point at all in attending to the issues we encounter in the body? The Gnostics decided there wasn’t—which explains why they ran into trouble. Why? Because by God’s design, the mortal body (our “outer nature”) is the vehicle in which our choices must be made—choices that can (if we choose wisely) lead to the renewal of our “inner nature” through the indwelling and empowering of the Holy Spirit. The body isn’t just “along for the ride.” It’s an essential part of the journey.
Think of it this way: in 1969, we sent men to visit the moon. The rocket ships, orbiters, and landing craft that got them there were essential and necessary to the success of the endeavor—but they weren’t the point. The point was to get the astronauts themselves there and back safely. If NASA could have figured out how to do that without resorting to complicated machinery and mathematics, I’m sure they would have. In the same way (sort of), God uses mortal bodies to house and transport our souls as we explore this thing called Life. Our journey—from womb to tomb—also has “mission parameters,” so to speak: to explore and discover everything we can about our Creator, to come to know Him and love Him, and to pass the “data” along to others, so they can benefit as well. Our bodies are the “spacecraft” in which we’re travelling; they’re designed to get us there and back again. But our souls are analogous to the astronauts themselves: these are the components of our nature that are expected to continue functioning after the journey is complete. And (if I may stretch the analogy), the thing that allows us to do that is the air we breathe, the oxygen that keeps us alive—the Spirit of God (not coincidentally rendered ruach or pneuma—“breath”—in the Biblical texts).
So the Gnostics were wrong. The body is good and useful and necessary (not to mention being a marvelous gift from God), even if it isn’t the point. Like any vehicle, the safety and well being of those within it depend on its integrity. What we do in the body (and with it) reveals how we feel about the “mission” we’re on. Are we serious about it? Do we use the body as a means to reach the goal, or do we act as if it is the goal, hanging drapes in the space capsule, as it were—bringing in a Lay-Z-Boy, a big screen TV, and a fridge full of beer? Do we even remember what the goal is?
Shifting metaphors, Paul likened the whole endeavor to building a house. If we’re believers, we’ve already got a firm foundation—Christ. The question is, what are we building upon that foundation? Is it too made to last, or is it as temporary as our own mortal frames—grass huts, so to speak? “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it.” That is, he had introduced the Corinthians to Yahshua the Messiah, leaving it up to them to finish constructing the house of faith—their own individual lives. “Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ….” There are other kinds of foundations, of course, but they’re not part of this discussion, for he was writing to believers. Theoretically, one could build upon Muhammad, Marx, Mammon, or Man, but those foundations won’t support anything of value—sooner or later, they’ll crumble into dust, destroying anything and everything we may have built upon them. Christ is the only foundation that will hold up under stress; He is the only one who can (and did) “pass inspection,” the only one who follows (and fulfills) the Building Code—the Word of God.
The sure foundation, then, is Yahshua the Messiah. But it remains to be seen what kind of structure we’ll build upon Him. “Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done….” The “day” of which he speaks is the Judgment Seat of Christ (spoken of elsewhere). The “gold, silver, and precious stones” represent lives that, like Christ our foundation, are built to last. That is, they’re things we might do that are calculated to have a positive impact on the world even after we ourselves are gone: witnesses of the truth that can affect future generations, or personal acts of kindness that may be passed on in kind. The “wood, hay, and straw,” on the other hand, are things that—like our own mortal bodies—have no life beyond the here and now. They aren’t necessarily “bad” things, you understand—just things that don’t contribute anything of lasting value to the Kingdom of Heaven. It is even conceivable that “straw” and “silver” could sometimes be the same thing—but done with different motives.
And remember, Paul was talking to believers here: the question being addressed is not whether they’re saved or lost, redeemed or reprobate. It’s strictly a matter of heavenly rewards. “If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” (I Corinthians 3:10-15) The foundation (Christ) will stand no matter what. The issue is how much of what we did with our time will be left standing after the fire of God’s assessment has swept through. Frankly, the amazing thing about all this is that any of it has a prayer of survival. If “all of our acts of righteousness are like filthy rags,” (see Isaiah 64:6) then the only things that will survive the fires of judgment are what we did in the power or inspiration of Yahweh, things we did in obedience to, and faith in, His word.
Furthermore, no one would want to accumulate such “treasures in heaven” so that he could live in luxury, wield personal power, or exude an attitude of pride in the next life. That sort of thing doesn’t really work here, and it certainly won’t work there. All of our rewards, after all, will be the “crowns” we cast before the throne of Yahshua, as we proclaim with the twenty-four elders, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for You created all things, and by Your will they existed and were created.” (Revelation 4:11) But there is a personal benefit to having received heavenly rewards—having done works that didn’t burn up like straw. It’s described in Yahshua’s parable of the talents. The one who is a good steward will receive the opportunity to serve the Master in even more significant ways, while the faithless servant will serve in relative obscurity. “His master said to [the one whose works survived the test], ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’… For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (Matthew 25:21, 29) No one is more “saved” than anybody else, but those who have served faithfully in their mortality will be rewarded in the immortal state with the sorts of things Yahweh Himself considers valuable. Let’s face it: if we don’t want what God wants, if we don’t like what He likes, we’re going to be miserable in heaven.
It bears repeating that there is no correlation (positive or negative) between our “abundance” here on earth and that which we will enjoy in the kingdom. While it is admittedly hard for the rich to avoid relying on their riches, it is equally difficult for the poor to see the spiritual benefit of poverty: his dearth of distraction from God’s miraculous provision. “Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.” (James 1:9-11) The rich and poor alike would do well to remember that they—including their temporal situations—are as temporary as the grass. A poor man’s poverty need not endure one day longer than his mortal life, nor will a rich man’s wealth follow him to the grave (at least in any way he’ll notice). Once you’ve drawn your last breath, all bets are off.
Isaiah compares the life of the godless to grass consigned to the flame: “As the tongue of fire devours the stubble, and as dry grass sinks down in the flame, so their root will be as rottenness, and their blossom go up like dust. For they have rejected the law of Yahweh of hosts, and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.” (Isaiah 5:24) The sobering thing about this is that he’s not talking about the heathen—those idolatrous nations (like Assyria) who didn’t know Yahweh as God, who didn’t want to, and who declared themselves enemies of His people. He’s talking, rather, about Judah, and specifically the inhabitants of Jerusalem (v. 3), who knew Yahweh (by reputation, anyway), had His scriptures, worshiped at His temple, and kept His feasts religiously. (Yes, I’m using the word as a pejorative.) All their pretense of Torah observance—going through the motions while living in iniquity, vanity, apostasy, indulgence and injustice (see verses 18-23) as if God neither saw nor cared—would be met with their destruction. Having “a form of godliness” doesn’t impress God any more than having counterfeit money impresses a Treasury agent.
That being said, Yahweh doesn’t intend to restrict His judgment to His own chosen people. In the end, everyone who has rejected His love will find themselves separated from it. For example, the same prophet writes concerning one of Israel’s neighbors, “My heart cries out for Moab… The waters of Nimrim are a desolation.” In Hebrew, a stark contrast is being presented. Nimrim (a brook in Moab, east of the Jordan River) is a place name meaning limpid or flowing—i.e., transparent, fluid, serene and untroubled. (It has the same consonant root that gives the graceful leopard its name—namer.) But under God’s judgment, it has become dry and barren: “The grass is withered, the vegetation fails, the greenery is no more. Therefore the abundance they have gained and what they have laid up they carry away over the Brook of the Willows.” (Isaiah 15:5-7) Place names pepper this whole passage. I don’t intend to track them all down (though I have no doubt that it would be an illuminating exercise). But I would be remiss if I didn’t point out why Yahweh is seen punishing Moab, turning its once lush and verdant landscape into a withered wilderness. It is Moab’s pride. “We have heard of the pride of Moab—how proud he is!—of his arrogance, his pride, and his insolence; in his idle boasting he is not right. Therefore let Moab wail for Moab, let everyone wail.” (Isaiah 16:6-7) Feel free to mentally substitute the name of Moab with any nation that presents symptoms of the same moral affliction—pervasive cultural arrogance in the face of God. Does anyone come to mind?
If Yahweh was willing to wither the “grass” of Moab because of their pride, what will He do in the post-rapture world, whose arrogance (by all accounts) will make Moab’s look downright modest in comparison? John’s apocalyptic vision included three series or types of judgments—seals of authority opened on a scroll, the blowing of trumpets (indicative of alarm or a call to war), and the pouring out of bowls or vials of God’s wrath upon the earth. A careful study reveals that these three series are not strictly consecutive (like successive bites of a banana), but rather overlap to a great degree (more like the layers of an onion), each one describing the course of Tribulation events from a different point of view. But within each series, the judgments are apparently presented in chronological order.
It’s significant, then, that the very first “trumpet” judgment speaks of the earth’s grass—and everything it signifies—being put to the torch. “Now the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared to blow them. The first angel blew his trumpet, and there followed hail and fire, mixed with blood, and these were thrown upon the earth. And a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all green grass was burned up.” (Revelation 8:6-7) Amid whatever else this might entail, I see thermonuclear war in these verses—“World War III,” if you will. Note that God isn’t necessarily raining fire upon the earth proactively, but is (uncharacteristically) allowing men to freely exercise their own destructive proclivities without any hindrance, restraint, or moderation on His part—something that tells us the Holy Spirit is no longer operating in the earth at this point, which in turn reveals that this won’t happen until after the rapture of the Church has taken place (see II Thessalonians 2:7).
As “trumpets” go, this is some wake-up call. The passage seems to be implying that atomic warfare will affect one third of the earth’s land surface. The Greek word for “earth” here is ge, denoting the ground, arable land, or the inhabited earth—the abode of men and animals. The total landmass of the earth is about 56,890,000 square miles. Call it a coincidence if you want, but the participants of the Magog federation (Ezekiel 38:1-8), plus the parts of Europe within the prophetically significant old Roman empire, plus Russia, plus the United States (whose participation is implied in Isaiah 18) add up to just short of 19,000,000 square miles—precisely one third of the earth’s land surface. This “world war” is almost surely an escalation of the regional Magog conflict described in Ezekiel 38 and 39—itself the last of a long line of genocidal Islamic attacks against Israel. It is closely related to the first four “seal” judgments of Revelation 6, which describe the “four horsemen of the apocalypse,” as they’re popularly known. One quarter of the earth’s total population—over 1.7 billion souls—will succumb to war, famine, and disease—thirty times the horrendous carnage of World War II.
We are told, “All green grass was burned up.” Since the “shooting war” involved “only” a third of the geographical surface of the earth, why (or how) is all the green grass scorched? This could merely mean that “all” of grass within the affected “one third of the earth” was burned. But it seems to me we should look beyond the literal holocaust and consider the symbology. What does “grass” teach us? It’s that everything in the physical universe—including us—is perishable, fleeting, and impermanent. Nothing in Yahweh’s visible creation—nothing—was built to last. It had a beginning, and it will have an end. The only things God made “permanent” are in the realm of spirit—as in, His own nature. We—our souls, that is, the part of us that defines our personal existence—can live forever if (and only if) we are made alive by the indwelling Spirit of Yahweh. This was the point, you’ll recall, of the fourth (and central) holy convocation Yahweh told His people to celebrate. The Feast of Weeks, a.k.a. Pentecost, revealed how our souls were to move beyond being mere “grass”—here today and thrown into the fire the next—by being indwelled by the Holy Spirit, empowered and enabled to dwell forever in the very presence of God. Likewise, the fifth convocation, the Feast of Trumpets, predicts the parallel transformation of our bodies from “grass,” impermanent and vulnerable, to the immortal state—one in which we can relate to God in His natural state. So when it is prophesied that “all green grass was burned up,” we are being given the ultimate reminder of fallen mankind’s natural vulnerability. No one will survive the Tribulation’s horrors without Yahweh’s Spirit.
Given a bit of moisture, however, burned grass grows back, and so it will be in the aftermath of World War III. God uses this fact to highlight His real point—that rebellious men, not innocent grass or trees, are the focus of His wrath. We’re still in the “trumpets” series, so the focus is still on waking people up to the danger of their chosen course of action. But now, we’ve moved beyond removing the restraints of conscience or logic from the inclinations of evil men: now we’re seeing demons sent in to make God’s point for Him: “And the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit. He opened the shaft of the bottomless pit, and from the shaft rose smoke like the smoke of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened with the smoke from the shaft. Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions of the earth….” These aren’t literal locusts, but demons who exhibit locust-like traits: a single-minded determination to devour everything in sight—in this case, the pretensions of men. Nor do ordinary locusts sting like scorpions, but God makes it clear that with this plague, physical torment is involved. Logic, provision, and kindness haven’t brought the world to repentance, so because mankind has almost run out of time, Yahweh brings out the only weapon left in the arsenal: pain.
But the grass, this time, is declared “off limits.” No more subtle symbols: it’s time to get real. “They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. They were allowed to torment them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it stings someone. And in those days people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them.” (Revelation 9:1-6) Call me crazy, but I still see reason for hope here. Those on the receiving end of the locusts’ unwanted attentions are not described (necessarily) as being hopelessly lost—yet. But neither are they allied with Yahweh—they are not “sealed” by God (as are the 144,000 Israelites of Revelation 7, and perhaps other late-comers to Yahweh’s family as well). The lesson God is teaching them here is not the same as that of the first trumpet—that their mortal lives are as impermanent and vulnerable as grass, with all of the admonitions that fact implies. This time, the message is that there is something far worse than the kind of death they’re expecting—the annihilation or dissipation of the soul once it has left the body. This “fate worse than death” is constant, unending torment, experienced not in the body (which will die), but in the soul.
God is warning them—as graphically as possible—not to ally themselves with Satan by receiving the mark of the beast (Revelation 13:17-18). If they do, their souls will be tormented eternally, just as their bodies are now being tortured by these demonic locusts—without the hope of respite or relief that death (as bad as that is) would have offered. The key to the lesson is the duration of their torment: five months. Five is the number symbolizing grace: at this point (after the abomination of desolation, I’d guess), the grace of God, provided through the atoning sacrifice of Christ, is still available, but it won’t be for long. Once they embrace the Antichrist’s lie, all hope is lost: the torment (of the soul this time, not just the body) will continue forever. As I said, our bodies are the vehicles in which our choices must be made. The body will perish like the grass, but our choices will live on forever if the soul is indwelled with an immortal spirit—whether Yahweh’s or Satan’s.
Our contemplation of “grass” in scripture presents a contrast. On the one hand, it indicates our mortal predicament: our bodies are not built to last, even under the best of circumstances. But this reality is compared to and contrasted with the life available to us in Yahweh’s love—a life of permanence and significance. David said it best: “For He knows our frame. He remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass. He flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.” That much we know from experience: nobody gets out of here alive. “But the steadfast love of Yahweh is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him, and His righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep His covenant and remember to do His commandments.” (Psalm 103:14-18) The alternative sounds great, especially when compared to certain death. After all, if God’s love is eternal, then logic dictates that its recipient must be in a position to receive it for as long as He’s giving it: we too must be made “everlasting.” So we should take a very close look at the three stated conditions that promise to convey to us this “steadfast love of Yahweh.”
First, this everlasting love is for those who “fear” Yahweh. Fear? The Hebrew word yare can indeed connote fear, dread, or being afraid. But the concept is broader than that. It also means to revere, to stand in awe of, to show reverence, honor, or respect, or to be astonished. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament notes, “Biblical usages of yārē are divided into five general categories:1) the emotion of fear, 2) the intellectual anticipation of evil without emphasis upon the emotional reaction, 3) reverence or awe, 4) righteous behaviour or piety, and 5) formal religious worship…. In several passages, “fearing” and proper living are so closely related as to be virtually synonymous ideas. It is plausible that this usage of “to fear” as a virtual synonym for righteous living or piety grew out of viewing “fear” as the motivation which produced righteous living.” Although it has become fashionable in Christian circles to stress the “reverence” or “respect” shades of meaning, I would caution against completely ignoring the “being afraid” connotation of the word. We must never forget that Yahweh, though He loves us unreservedly, is powerful beyond anything we can possibly imagine, and He’s not shy about using that power to discipline and chastise mankind—starting with His own children. Let’s put it this way: most English translations are in agreement, wording it “The steadfast love of Yahweh is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him,” or something similar, and John Wycliffe’s 1384 translation was not exactly wrong in phrasing it “…on men dredinge hym.” We must not become so “familiar” and “comfortable” with Yahweh we begin to take Him for granted. He is not “the Man upstairs.” Our God is awesome.
Second, “The steadfast love of Yahweh is from everlasting to everlasting…to those who keep His covenant.” Many covenants between God and man are mentioned in scripture, and their specific terms and conditions vary. But in the end they all boil down to one simple agreement. For our part, we are to trust Yahweh, implicitly and completely. And for God’s part, He promises to abide with us—and ultimately, in us. For us to “keep His covenant,” then, we have to (1) know what He said, at least in general terms. You can’t logically trust someone to offer wise counsel or fulfill His promises if you’re putting your own words in His mouth. God didn’t instruct us to tolerate falsehood in the name of love. He didn’t promise to make us rich, keep us healthy, or help us find our car keys. He did vow to provide everything we’d need for life and godliness—the necessities of a mortal life, for as long as it may last—and to see us through the tribulations we’re sure to encounter in this world. (2) In order to fully trust Yahweh, we must learn not to trust ourselves—our own insight, intellect, or ability. In particular, we should realize that we cannot extricate ourselves from our own sin. Atonement is God’s job, and He has chosen to achieve it through His Messiah. Yes, there is a place for good works in this world, but they’re not to be considered “currency” with which we might buy our own salvation. (3) Trust in God requires humility before Him: we must not think of Him as our peer, but rather as the One to whom we owe our very existence—for so He is. This in turn affects our relationships with our fellow man: It is impossible to be arrogant or cruel or unmerciful toward our brothers and sisters if we’re walking in humility before God.
Third, “The steadfast love of Yahweh is from everlasting to everlasting… to those who remember to do His commandments.” My first reaction to this is, “Uh oh. We’re all in deep trouble.” We don’t flawlessly “do His commandments,” nor do we usually remember what they are, even on our best days. As with “keeping His covenant,” we can’t perform Yahweh’s commandments if we don’t know what they are. “Commandments” here are the Hebrew piqudim—“precepts, directions, regulation, i.e., a principle instructing to do a certain action, which is to be obeyed by all in the same society of the covenant.” (DBLWSD) At the very least, then, David seems to be saying we must know and heed the Torah, and remember (Hebrew: zakar—recall or proclaim, with a focus on responding in an appropriate manner) to perform these statues.
I will readily admit to being more obsessive than the average Christian when it comes to the Torah. I mean, how many other people can you name who have written thousand-page books on the subject, tracking down everything that God told anybody to do in the Pentateuch? Having done so (see The Owner’s Manual, elsewhere on this website), I can tell you with a straight face that most of the Torah can’t be kept in any literal fashion—especially now that the sanctuary and priesthood are no more. Most of it requires a homogenous, close knit agrarian society (such as bronze age Israel) to even be comprehensible. Then add these disconcerting facts: (1) The Torah was given as instruction to Israel alone, not to any of the surrounding nations; (2) Yahshua, while upholding its validity (see Matthew 5:17-19) made it perfectly clear that the spirit of the Law (and not merely the letter) was required—making compliance immeasurably harder to achieve, and impossible to fake; (3) No one (except Yahshua Himself) has ever lived his whole life without violating a single precept of the Torah; and (4) Yahshua’s harshest criticisms during His years of ministry were reserved for the people who came closest to literal perfection in their outward Torah observance: He actually called them the offspring of Satan! At the same time, he welcomed and encouraged the most blatant of sinners who repented before God in reverence and humility, even though they could fall into sin again.
So clearly, there’s more to this than meets the eye. David himself (whose worst moral lapses are recorded in scripture) didn’t even come close to consistently “remembering to do Yahweh’s commandments” in any literal sense. And yet, he joyfully counted himself among the blessed souls who would enjoy “the steadfast love of Yahweh from everlasting to everlasting.” Why? How? Part of it has to be the secondary definition of zakar (rendered “remember”): it also means “to proclaim, to acknowledge.” For all of his mistakes and foibles, it’s clear that David honored Yahweh and His law with his whole heart. That is, even though he committed adultery with Bathsheba—and then had her husband murdered to cover up his crime—David would never have argued that the Sixth and Seventh Commandments weren’t valid, that they had somehow become obsolete, that they didn’t apply to him because he was king, or that he hadn’t actually violated them because of some Clintonesque technicality. Rather, he would (and eventually did) fall on his knees in contrite repentance, acknowledging his sin before the God whom he “feared” in every sense of the word. Actually, David expressed how a sinner such as himself could expect to receive “the steadfast love of Yahweh” in the verses immediately preceding the passage we just read.
David began Psalm 103 by explaining the nature of Yahweh’s forgiveness, the removal of our iniquity from us—not all of us, however, but only those who “fear” God. The Psalm employs an interesting way of communicating this: it’s as if David’s body is having a chat with his soul. That is, the part of him that is by nature as impermanent as grass is giving counsel to the component of his nature that can—under the right circumstances—live eternally in Yahweh’s love. The human body may be the vehicle of free will, but the soul is in the driver’s seat.
So he says, “Bless Yahweh, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name!” Half-hearted, lukewarm religiosity isn’t going to cut it. David is advising his soul to go “all in.” This relationship with Yahweh is to be the all-consuming center of our lives—the thing to which everything else plays second fiddle. “Bless Yahweh, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s….” Let us not skim lightly over this list, for it describes the awesome “benefits” we can expect to receive when we “fear Yahweh.”
First and foremost, He “forgives our iniquity”—He atones (i.e., covers) our sin. This is a key point, for our sin is that which separates and estranges us from God in the first place. It has been that way since the very beginning. Reconciliation between God and man is the whole point of God’s plan of salvation.
Second, He “heals our diseases.” Since the body is speaking to the soul here, let us especially contemplate the “diseases” that plague the inner man—grief, sorrow, bitterness, strife, anxiety, envy, and so on.
Third, he “redeems our lives from the pit”—not sheol (necessarily) but shachat: the sort of hole, trap, or dungeon used to capture and hold wild beasts (or men). It’s not that Yahweh causes us to avoid this pit, you understand; we’re already snared in it, caught by our own sins. Truth be told, we were born there. But Yahweh redeems us from the place: He buys our freedom from the one who enslaved us.
Fourth, Yahweh “crowns us with love and mercy.” This crown isn’t the nezer, the royal or priestly diadem, but the atara—a more general word, often used figuratively to indicate the bestowing of honor, blessing, or authority. Such a crown might (like the Greek stephanos) consist of nothing more intrinsically valuable than a wreath or garland of flowers. On the other hand, Yahweh Himself (in the person of the Messiah) is prophesied to become “a crown” like this to His people, the remnant of Israel (see Isaiah 28:5). So the “steadfast love and mercy” with which God-fearing believers are to be “crowned” will, in the end, be personified by God Himself.
Fifth, Yahweh “satisfies those who fear Him with good,” resulting in renewed strength. The eagle, you’ll recall, represents “the lord of the heavens,” ultimately, Yahweh Himself. So this “satisfaction” occurs the moment we are empowered and indwelled by His Holy Spirit—the prophetic outcome of the Feast of Weeks (a.k.a. Pentecost). And our “youth will be renewed”—physically—when we experience the ageless nature of our immortal resurrection bodies on the ultimate Feast of Trumpets.
David wasn’t through describing Yahweh’s game plan. “Yahweh works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed….” We tend to think of “the oppressed” as a subset of humanity who have gotten the short end of the stick in this world. But in reality, the word (ashaq) includes all of us, for we have all been mistreated, disadvantaged, tormented, or cheated. You may protest, “No, I’m doing alright, thank God. Nobody’s oppressing me at the moment.” Are you sure about that? If you’re a child of Adam’s race, you were born with a nature that ensures you’ll fall short of God’s perfect standard. Actually, we’ve all been cheated, defrauded, and held in bondage by Satan, whether or not we’re aware of this oppression every waking moment. We are besieged by our own fallen humanity. The good news is that Yahweh “works righteousness and justice” on our behalf, terminating our oppression.
How does He do this? “He made known His ways to Moses, His acts to the people of Israel.” As I’ve said ’til I’m blue in the face, the Torah isn’t designed to be a legal code defining the good behavior required to reconcile us to Yahweh (although it does reveal how God expects us to comport ourselves). It is, rather, a preview, a prophecy, of how Yahweh intended to redeem man from our fallen state and restore the fellowship between us. Of course, this is far easier to see from this side of Calvary. But just because our race became estranged from our Creator, it doesn’t follow that His character changed in the process. He is still the same loving, merciful God He always was. If He is angry with us, it is only because He longs for our love—a love that most of us stupid humans, like stubborn and petulant children, refuse to give Him despite all that He has done for us. “Yahweh is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will He keep His anger forever….” Did you catch that? His love is steadfast, enduring, and permanent, while His anger is as impermanent as the grass—it springs up for a season, and then dies off, for it is not really the essence of Yahweh’s nature. His wrath, in point of fact, is merely an artifact—and a temporary one at that—of His love: it’s grief with longing, not vindictive rage.
As strange as it sounds, God’s love compels Him to be “unfair”—to show us mercy when none is due: “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.” If He did, He’d have to kill us all, and He’d be back where He was before He began the whole process of creation—alone and unloved (if only because there were no beings in existence capable of loving). “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so Yahweh shows compassion to those who fear Him.” (Psalm 103:1-13) At the risk of sounding like I’m contradicting scripture (which I’m not), I’d like to point out that Yahweh’s love and compassion is not only for those of us who “fear Him.” He died for all of humanity while we were yet sinners—before we had any idea of what sort of trouble we’d gotten ourselves into, and certainly before we learned to honor God. David is right, however, in that God’s love and forgiveness is only accessible to those who fear Him. For everyone else, the Gift—though purchased, wrapped, and delivered—just sits there unopened: they refuse to receive and enjoy it. Having opened the wonderful Gift myself, I find this attitude incomprehensible.
As I said, grass presents a study in contrasts. As vulnerable and impermanent as it can be, it is also quick to respond to the waters of God’s revitalization. And as we have just seen, the reverence—the “fear”—of God is the handle on the faucet of restoration. It’s the primary factor that determines whether our “grass” will be dry and barren, or lush and green.
Consider a couple of passages from the prophet Isaiah. They present radically different destinies for the same places (but at different times)—in or near the land of promise. First, “The land mourns and languishes. Lebanon is confounded and withers away. Sharon is like a desert, and Bashan and Carmel shake off their leaves. ‘Now I will arise,’ says Yahweh. ‘Now I will lift myself up; now I will be exalted. You conceive chaff; you give birth to stubble. Your breath is a fire that will consume you.” (Isaiah 33:9-11) The historical setting is the invasion of Israel by Assyria—something Isaiah saw with his own eyes. The northern kingdom (Ephraim/Israel) had turned its back on Yahweh from the moment of its break from Judah. Now, some two hundred years later, Yahweh’s patience with Israel is exhausted. He says, basically, “Okay, you’ve refused my water, so you’re dead grass—dried out stubble ready to burn because of your rebellion.” But although Assyria would be the torch in Yahweh’s hand, look who actually “sets fire” to Ephraim: not Assyria, and not even Yahweh, but Ephraim itself. “Breath” here is a loaded word. It not only indicates what they have said and the way they have lived before God in the intervening centuries. The word is ruach—the same word translated spirit. It would not be improper to translate this, “Your spirit is a fire that will consume you.” God doesn’t have to lift a finger to judge mankind. Our own spirit is enough to condemn us.
The tone is quite similar in the next chapter (Isaiah 34). It concerns itself with judgment upon “the nations” (verse 1), beginning with Edom. Those familiar with the broad sweep of prophecy will recognize the events portrayed here as the Battle of Armageddon—including Yahshua’s starting point in the Edomite city of Bozrah (v. 6; cf. Isaiah 63:1-6). Although “grass” per se isn’t mentioned, we see Edom (Southern Jordan) being described as a barren, toxic landscape reminiscent of the scorched “stubble” that Israel became at Assyria’s hand—made so, it seems, in order to be a constant nearby reminder to restored Israel, throughout the Millennium, of what happens to nations who defy Yahweh. “And the streams of Edom shall be turned into pitch, and her soil into sulfur; her land shall become burning pitch. Night and day it shall not be quenched. Its smoke shall go up forever…. Thorns shall grow over its strongholds, nettles and thistles in its fortresses.” (Isaiah 34:9-10, 13)
But during the same timeframe—the thousand-year reign of Yahshua—the story is completely different for restored Israel. (Israel, you’ll note, is upwind of smoldering Edom, the prevailing wind blowing from west to east. I wouldn’t want to be living in Iraq or the Persian Gulf region, downwind of Edom.) Isaiah 35, in marked contrast with the two previous chapters, speaks of “grass” that is perennially lush, green, and well watered because God (as King Yahshua) lives and reigns there: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad. The desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus. It shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing.” What the Israelis have done with the Negev since 1948 is nothing short of mind-boggling, but it’s nothing compared to the verdant glory the land will witness during the Messiah’s Millennial kingdom. “The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.” Remember, these areas (usually spoken of as the “garden spots” of the Levant) were specifically singled out in Isaiah 33 for devastation under the Assyrian onslaught. “They shall see the glory of Yahweh, the majesty of our God….” In case you missed it, the “glory” and “majesty” of Yahweh is found in Yahshua alone. His physical presence, sitting on the throne of Israel, will be what returns the Land to a state of verdant splendor.
So Isaiah offers his beleaguered nation (and us as well) some welcome encouragement as we live through the bad times that must precede the return of Christ: “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you….’” Note that our strength and courage consists of trusting in God to right the wrongs—not in us executing vengeance on the evil world ourselves. Payback belongs to Yahweh alone. “Then [i.e., when He has saved us—after His second coming] the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert. The burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water. In the haunt of jackals, where they lie down, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.” (Isaiah 35:1-7) It’s hilariously ironic, from where I sit. Mankind tries with all its might to make the world a better place. We try our very best to heal disease, safeguard the environment, control nature, and ensure peace—mostly without deference to the God who made us and the world in which we live. We regulate ourselves into virtual slavery in the name of “the greater good.” But everything we do only seems to make matters worse. The only thing we seem to be really good at is making weapons of war so we can kill each other more efficiently. But in these ancient scriptures, the truth mocks our feeble efforts: all we ever had to do to achieve our fantasies of “a perfect world” was to honor the God who built it for us. Would that really have been so hard?
A bit later, Isaiah repeats himself, more or less: “But now hear, O Jacob My servant, Israel whom I have chosen! Thus says Yahweh who made you, who formed you from the womb and will help you: Fear not, O Jacob My servant, Jeshurun [i.e., “upright one”] whom I have chosen. For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour My Spirit upon your offspring, and My blessing on your descendants. They shall spring up among the grass like willows by flowing streams.” (Isaiah 44:1-4) This is one of literally hundreds of prophecies promising the eventual repentance and restoration of Israel as a nation—a biological family (i.e., not some allegorical stand-in, like the church). It is hinted here (and flatly stated elsewhere) that the plot of Land God promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob four thousand years ago will be where this national blessing will be poured out.
Taken together, these promises have, throughout most of history, looked extremely unlikely. Not only has Israel (as a nation) spent only a few hundred years total of their long history in amicable, reverent fellowship with their God, they have spent far more time living in exile outside the Land than within it. Any other people group would have been absorbed into their host cultures millennia ago. (Met any Hittites, Philistines, or Amalekites lately?) The history of Israel in exile is absolutely unique in the annals of cultural anthropology. So prophesying that the children of Israel—all twelve tribes—will be regathered into their own land, will turn to Yahweh their God in repentance, will accept Yahshua as their Messiah and king (after two thousand years of rejection), and will be restored both literally and figuratively to a state of verdant, prosperous enthusiasm, “springing up among the grass like willows by flowing streams,” is not exactly an intuitive call to make. But Yahweh has said this so many times and in so many ways, He must bring it to pass, or be called a liar.
Strangely enough, before Israel experiences restoration like well watered grass in Yahweh’s front lawn, they will themselves be a source of refreshing among the nations where they have waited in exile all these years. Micah, a contemporary of Isaiah, writes: “Then the remnant of Jacob shall be in the midst of many peoples like dew from Yahweh, like showers on the grass, which delay not for a man nor wait for the children of man.” (Micah 5:7) In other words, Israel will prove to be a blessing to the nations among whom they find refuge in exile. When one considers the contributions Jews have made to the gentile world, the pogroms and persecutions that have plagued them over the past two thousand years look positively idiotic. The nations that have blessed them have been blessed, and the nations that have cursed them have been cursed, just as Yahweh promised in Genesis 12:3.
How have we been blessed? Jews living among gentiles have been at the forefront of health care, discovering antibiotics and the structure of antibodies, exploring the origin and spread of infectious diseases, inventing Streptomycin, Valium, the cardiac pacemaker, the defibrillator, and contraceptives, developing the first polio vaccines, and identifying the first known cancer virus. Physics? Jews determined the speed of light, established energy’s equivalence to mass (making nuclear power possible), discovered laws of thermodynamics, and ascertained the structure of atomic nuclei. And how about the cultural props that have shaped life in our everyday world? Sons of Abraham invented the laser, color photography, videotape, instant (Polaroid) photography, holography, stainless steel, the microphone, the sewing machine, denim jeans, traffic lights, the teddy bear, the ballpoint pen, nuclear weapons (oops), lipstick, and my personal favorite, the television remote control. Basically, our civilization would be considerably less civilized had it not been for the contribution of “the remnant of Jacob in the midst of many peoples like dew from Yahweh.”
Once Israel turns back to Yahweh as a nation, and receives her Messiah at His second coming, the healing will begin immediately—to both the land and the people. “For thus says Yahweh: ‘Behold, I will extend peace to her [Jerusalem] like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream….” Jerusalem has known little but strife since the days of David and Solomon. It has been the subject of no fewer than 118 conflicts in its long and turbulent history—captured 44 times, besieged 23, and completely destroyed at least twice. To this day, it is the bone of contention (or as Zechariah put it, a “cup of trembling”) between Israel and Islam. And in the near future, it will be the ultimate military objective of both the hordes of Magog and the armies of Armageddon.
All of this serves to make Yahweh’s Millennial promises that much more remarkable. “And you [Israel] shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her [i.e., Jerusalem’s] hip, and bounced upon her knees. As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you. You shall be comforted in Jerusalem. You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice. Your bones shall flourish like the grass. And the hand of Yahweh shall be known to His servants, and He shall show His indignation against His enemies.” (Isaiah 66:12-14) Every time Zion has “dried up and blown away” like dead grass because of her idolatry, Yahweh has preserved a remnant with which to start over. And even though Israel has been a “valley of dry bones” (see Ezekiel 37) for the past two millennia, God has promised to breathe new life into her. But the restoration we see prophesied here, the comfort, rejoicing, and renewal of Israel, can happen only when Yahweh at last becomes “known to His servants.” Against all odds, it will happen. So David writes: “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of Yahweh’... to give thanks to the name of Yahweh. There thrones for judgment were set, the thrones of the house of David. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!” (Psalm 122:1, 4-6)
And it won’t end there. The peace of Jerusalem will spread outward to the whole world, restoring the vulnerable grass of mankind’s mortal existence until it becomes the lush, green paradise that Yahweh desired for us all along. That’s why Peter could admonish us, “Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that He may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.” (Acts 3:19-21) The “times of refreshing” we crave can’t be conjured up by our own efforts. They will come from Yahweh, through Yahshua, to those of us who fear God—or they won’t come at all.