“I passed a lazy person’s field, beyond a broken fence; and by the vineyard of someone, devoid of any sense. Sharp thorns had sprung up everywhere, and weeds were all around; the stone wall that surrounded it, was strewn about the ground.” (Proverbs 24:30-31)
This is the twenty-fourth in a series of posts on Proverbs, which I am translating into common meter. The following contains my rendering of Proverbs 24, preceded by a brief reflection.
I have written previously about moving to Maine as a young man in late spring, 1974, and settling onto fifty acres of abandoned farmland with the goal of becoming self-sufficient. It was my intention to follow in the footsteps of Helen and Scott Nearing who in their book “Living The Good Life,”described their life of organic farming and native material home building. I was not a follower of Jesus at the time and therefore unfamiliar with Scripture. But, in one sense, I followed the prescription in Proverbs 24:27, “Prepare your fields by plowing them, and scattering your seeds; and only then construct a house for your domestic needs.” For one of the first things I did was to have a local farmer plow an enormous 100 ft by 100 ft garden plot, which I mostly planted with corn, peas, potatoes, tomatoes, and lettuce.
Things went swimmingly in the garden for a few weeks as small green plants began to appear. However, there was soon another sort of green that overspread the garden plot – a sort of creeping covering that had no respect for my carefully laid out rows and mounded hills. I would later discover that this invader is a particularly tough weed appropriately referred to by the locals as ‘witchgrass.’ It is well named because it is devilishly difficult to control – particularly without pesticides, which I was loathe to employ due to my commitment to the organic method. The only thing to do was to try to rip them out by their sprawling roots. So, early one day I started down a row with fork hoe in hand. Heat and dust arose as I shuffled and scratched my way along, until I suddenly realized I was under attack by black flies – a particular scourge of the region where I had settled. Delivering a nasty bite, they leave a welt that can swell up and itch for weeks. Hot, sore, and bitten I soon called it quits without having make any noticeable difference in the weeds.
I might have stuck with it longer, but it wasn’t just the weeds and insects that were disheartening. As soon as lettuce started breaking through the soil, rabbits appeared and neatly trimmed the tops. Given the size of the garden and my limited financial resources, fencing was out of the question. Other pests too were soon chewing holes in the leaves of the potatoes and tomatoes. The final blow came when a succession of hot days made irrigation essential. The only water on the property was an abandoned hand-dug well several hundred yards away, which meant an almost impossible effort of dipping and hauling water by the bucketful.
Suffice it to say, I soon gave up the labor of the garden. In spiritual terms, I was facing a crisis of believing vs. being. On the one hand, I had the desire and intellectual belief to pursue an organic lifestyle. On the other hand, I could not muster the internal fortitude to be an organic gardener. It is a dilemma that many of us find in various endeavors, not least of which in our spiritual lives. Alan Jones writes, “believing is closely related to being and to our refusal to be. Tears flow when we begin to realize just how deep that terrible refusal goes. Believing is never simply a matter of assent to a doctrine. In fact, it is not primarily that. … To bring believing and being together can be a painful and tearful process.” The Apostle Peter had just such a crisis, when believing that he was faithful, said he would never deny Jesus. Yet before the coming dawn he denied the Lord three times. Who cannot feel pity for Peter when reading, “So he went out and wept bitterly.” (Matthew 26:75)
Now my failure as a gardener was hardly an occasion for tears, nor was it a great spiritual failure as such. Still, my untended garden did reveal a spiritual principle that is captured in Proverbs 24:30-34.
I passed a lazy person’s field, beyond a broken fence;
And by the vineyard of someone, devoid of any sense.
Sharp thorns had sprung up everywhere, and weeds were all around;
The stone wall that surrounded it, was strewn about the ground.
I carefully considered all, these things that I had seen;
And learned a simple lesson from, what knowledge I could glean.
A little too much slumbering, a little too much sleep;
A little folding of the hands, determines what you reap.
For poverty will show up like, a robber in the night;
And scarcity like one who’s armed, and ready for a fight.
Taken literally, one could say that these verses describe my attempt at organic gardening. My garden was soon so overrun with weeds that it could hardly be distinguished from the surrounding field. The overgrown garden in Proverbs 24 is obviously a warning against indolence and is intended to encourage us to work hard or else we will end up with nothing. In other words, we reap what we sow, which pretty accurately describes my fall ‘harvest’ in 1974 of a few smallish potatoes.
But these verses hold a deeper application. Namely, they can be understood as a metaphor for a soul in distress – a soul where weeds are unchecked and where there is no wall to protect it from invaders. Agricultural metaphors appear throughout the Bible to anchor spiritual principles in terms familiar to an agrarian people. Although in today’s world, we are less connected to the soil, the metaphors still resonate. We have no difficulty in following Jesus’ metaphors, and their longer cousins, parables, about planting, growing, and harvesting that he used to explain the spiritual life. Still, for those of us who are not gardeners, we can overlook some of what they have to offer.
Let me suggest three ways in which the soul is like a garden.
First, a garden is hard work, demanding constant care and attention. Weeds, diseases, predators, and drought are ever-present threats to the untended garden, and are quick to gain a foothold if we are inattentive. Similarly, soul work is hard work. Hardly a day goes by when we are not faced with some physical or emotional problem that touches an underlying neurosis or pathology. We allow these to run their course at the soul’s peril. This idea is captured by Paul who wrote, “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” (Ephesians 4:26) It’s easy to believe these words, but much harder to practice them. When I am criticized, it can feel like a black fly bite; when I am cheated, it can feel like the sun burning my skin; and when I am offended it can feel like hot dry dust in my nose.
Humility, compassion, and forgiveness are hard. These do not happen automatically – my automatic response is like that to my garden – follow my flesh. This is why Jesus uses terms such as dying to oneself to describe the process. And it is why the Christian life is one of ongoing growth and conversion, if you will. Again in the words of Alan Jones, “Conversion is not a once and for all event, but a way of psychological and spiritual formation that takes a lifetime. Often the great and first step is confused with the whole lifelong process. Conversion experiences, life-changing though they may be, are but the first step on a long journey.”
Second, a garden grows through natural processes over which we have no control. We can prepare the soil, plant the seeds, water, and cultivate. But no matter how hard we try, we can never make the plant grow. We cannot create any of the raw ingredients nor can we produce life despite our best efforts. Natural life processes are the responsibility of God, who keeps his side of the bargain. In much the same way soul work is not entirely up to me. Indeed, without God it is impossible. When we take steps to deny ourselves, to be less defensive and selfish, and to be more forgiving and generous, God works a miracle in our soul.
There is no getting around it, a bountiful harvest comes when we work cooperatively with God. If we sow to please the Spirit, and persevere in doing what is right and good, then we will reap a harvest. (Galatians 6:8-9). And what is that harvest? It is the spiritual fruit of, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23) God doesn’t produce spiritual fruit in us without our efforts, and our efforts avail us nothing without God. On this, the Biblical record is clear.
Third, a garden takes time to grow. Some plants like lettuce may yield a harvest after a matter of weeks. Others, like rhubarb, several seasons. And some fruit trees up to ten years. In the spiritual realm we are an impatient people, preferring instant conversion – say a prayer and we’re done. But this is simply not born out by Scripture or the experience of the ages.
My sister-in-law, Joanie, is a master gardener who not only believes in the organic lifestyle but lovingly practices it. Every year she faces the same challenges I did in 1974, but with a different outlook and a radically different result. Physically, it is no easier for her than it was for me, but she applies herself in a much different way. Where I hated the dirt and the dust, she loves getting her hands in the soil and working the good earth. Where I dreaded the heat of the sun, she revels at the warmth by remembering the long cold winter that preceded the spring. I am pretty sure that she does not love the insect bites, but has learned to avoid and/or ignore them for the greater payoff of a bountiful harvest.
God promises a bountiful spiritual harvest for those who do the necessary soul work. In the words of the prophet, “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.” (Isaiah 58:9-11)
1 Do not be envious of those,
whose wickedness you see;
Do not associate with them,
or seek their company.
2 For there is violence in their hearts,
destruction in their eyes;
And from their lips there’s devilment,
deceitfulness and lies.
3 Through wisdom is a house put up,
so it will long endure;
By understanding it is made,
to always be secure.
4 Through knowledge every room inside,
is surely filled with care;
With riches that are beautiful,
and treasures bright and rare;
5 A warrior whose ways are wise,
has power, strength and might;
The one who knows and understands,
is strengthened for the fight.
6 For guidance is imperative,
if one must wage a war;
With many thoughtful counselors,
a victory is sure.
7 Now wisdom is too high for fools,
because their minds are weak;
And so when court is being held,
they do not try to speak.
8 The one devising evil plans,
and plotting wicked things;
Will be perceived as one who schemes,
and mischief making brings.
9 For devilish and foolish plans,
are sinful to devise;
And people hate the one who schemes,
who mocks whatever’s wise.
10 If you give up or fall apart,
when trouble comes along;
It surely demonstrates that you,
are really not so strong.
11 Be sure to rescue those in need –
those led away to die;
Yes, hold those staggering towards death,
don’t let them pass you by.
12 For if you say, “I did not know,”
remember there is One;
Who weighs the heart and knows your life,
repaying what you’ve done.
13 My child, find honey where you can,
for it is good to eat;
The drippings from the honeycomb,
upon your tongue are sweet.
14 Now wisdom’s also good for you,
it helps your soul feel right;
And if you get it you will have,
a future hope that’s bright.
15 Don’t lie in wait, you wicked one,
where righteous souls reside;
Don’t plunder or destroy their home,
and what they have inside.
16 Though seven times the righteous fall,
each time they’ll rise again;
Not so the wicked who will trip,
when crises strike at them.
17 Don’t gloat upon your enemies,
when fallen on the ground;
And when they stumble find no joy,
or let your heart abound.
18 For otherwise, the Lord will see,
and surely disapprove;
His anger then will turn from them,
His wrathfulness remove.
19 Don’t let the wicked cause you grief,
or let them worry you;
And don’t be envious of them,
no matter what they do.
20 For wicked people have no hope,
on which they can depend;
And like a lamp wick dampened out,
they too will meet their end.
21 My child have reverence for the Lord,
and fear the king as well;
Do not associate with those,
who rise up and rebel.
22 For rebels face destruction from,
the Lord and from the king;
And who can know what misery,
the two of them can bring?
Further Sayings of the Wise
23 Now here are sayings of the wise,
for living as you should:
The first is that inequity,
in judging is not good.
24 Whoever says to those with guilt,
“I find you innocent;”
Will be accursed by peoples’ cries,
and nations in dissent.
25 But those convicting criminals,
will know prosperity;
They’ll revel in delightfulness,
and blessings all can see.
26 A truthful answer spoken out,
with honesty and grace;
Is like a kiss upon the lips –
a delicate embrace.
27 Prepare your fields by plowing them,
and scattering your seeds;
And only then construct a house,
for your domestic needs.
28 Don’t testify without just cause,
against your neighbor’s sake;
And do not let your words deceive;
or ever falsehoods make.
29 Don’t say that, “I will do to them;
what they have done to me;
I’ll pay them back for what they did,
and act accordingly.”
30 I passed a lazy person’s field,
beyond a broken fence;
And by the vineyard of someone,
devoid of any sense.
31 Sharp thorns had sprung up everywhere,
and weeds were all around;
The stone wall that surrounded it,
was strewn about the ground.
32 I carefully considered all,
these things that I had seen;
And learned a simple lesson from,
what knowledge I could glean.
33 A little too much slumbering,
a little too much sleep;
A little folding of the hands,
determines what you reap.
34 For poverty will show up like,
a robber in the night;
And scarcity like one who’s armed,
and ready for a fight.