Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Threshing Sledge and Cart Wheel

To the best of my recollection, I have never planted anything in my life. In an urbanized society where everything green you will ever need is already on the shelves of the local supermarket, I never had to. The plants I have cared for around the house from time to time were bought already potted and needed little more than the occasional watering.

I killed a few of those too, but that’s a different issue.

The Incompetent Agrarian

I don’t think I’m alone in my incompetence at all things agrarian. A good friend at work is a terrific gardener, and regularly brings in excess produce to share with the rest of us. And my brother in law is definitely that rare creature today, a man of the soil. But these are the exceptions. The vast majority of people I encounter daily have never grown anything more challenging than their Mastercard balance.

This being the case, we may find little relatable in the Bible’s frequent use of farming imagery. That’s a shame, because soil and the things that grow therein are often used to illustrate God’s dealings with his world and with his people. Agriculturally-inclined or not, we all have an interest in how that works.

Methods and Mastery

There’s a passage in Isaiah on this subject that I find fascinating:
“Give ear, and hear my voice; give attention, and hear my speech. Does he who plows for sowing plow continually? Does he continually open and harrow his ground? When he has leveled its surface, does he not scatter dill, sow cumin, and put in wheat in rows and barley in its proper place, and emmer as the border? For he is rightly instructed; his God teaches him.

Dill is not threshed with a threshing sledge, nor is a cart wheel rolled over cumin, but dill is beaten out with a stick, and cumin with a rod. Does one crush grain for bread? No, he does not thresh it forever; when he drives his cart wheel over it with his horses, he does not crush it. This also comes from the Lord of hosts; he is wonderful in counsel and excellent in wisdom.”
Here we learn that human farmers are able to successfully grow things and keep themselves — and us — from starving to death because of the wisdom of God, who is the original Tiller of the Soil. “His God teaches him” and “This also comes from the Lord of hosts,” says the prophet. We need not imagine this knowledge has historically been passed to the world’s farmers by direct revelation or the prophetic word. The average man with a hoe in his hand looking to produce a crop probably thinks of his instinct about what to do next as being nothing more than common sense, his daddy’s advice or accumulated experience.

All the same, every successful farmer owes his wisdom to God. His methods follow a divine pattern whether he is aware of that or entirely oblivious to it. If they don’t, he won’t produce a crop at all.

Not a Farming Manual

But this passage is not really a farming manual. Rather, farming is an allegory for the way God disciplines his people, as we will see if we observe the context. Isaiah is addressing divided Israel, first in Ephraim and then in Jerusalem, as they await the coming of great foreign powers determined to sweep them away.

In its immediate application, the passage deals with the Assyrian invasion of Israel and its subsequent siege of Jerusalem. The text is not just prophetic but also predictive — and very distantly predictive — leaping forward in time to a period in which “the multitude of all the nations” will surround Zion. That has yet to occur, though current events suggest many ways it might come to pass in very short order.

But regardless of the time and place to which we apply Isaiah’s words, it is God’s discipline of those who claim to be his people that Isaiah has in view. To these largely insensate masses in Israel (whom he compares to dissipated alcoholics on yet another bender), God is saying in effect, “It’s not the Babylonians or the Assyrians or even Gog and Magog who are doing this to you: it’s me. I am plowing and sowing the spiritual territory that belongs to me in order to produce a harvest of righteousness.”

Two Things About Discipline

Here God tells us two things about his disciplinary methods:

1.  God’s methods vary across time. “Does he who plows for sowing plow continually? Does he continually open and harrow his ground?” The answer to these rhetorical queries is No, he does not. There is most surely a time for leveling, but also a time for scattering, sowing, arranging and bordering. God’s intentions in the disciplinary process are always constructive, even if the current course in our spiritual education seems especially painful.

And of course the weeds in the field will always take exception to how rigorously it is plowed or how diligently and selectively it is harvested. That is their nature. But foreign invaders are hardly the farmer’s concern. It is his crop that matters.

2.  God’s methods vary according to what he is trying to produce. “Dill is not threshed with a threshing sledge, nor is a cart wheel rolled over cumin, but dill is beaten out with a stick, and cumin with a rod.” The discipline applied is appropriate to the character of the crop. Dill and cumin are tiny and tender, and could not bear the threshing sledge or cart wheel. A stick or a rod will suffice to get the job done. Likewise, the cart wheel is appropriate for grain, but the farmer stops well short of crushing the heads of grain entirely.

A Variety of Methods

I had the privilege of raising three children, all of whom are very different from one another. The eldest was perpetually pushing the boundaries and was of necessity the hardest hit by discipline. The middle child responded better to carrot than stick. The youngest was so sensitive to my wishes that his lip would tremble at the thought of having done anything he shouldn’t.

Would you thresh that with a sledge or crush it with a cart wheel? I wouldn’t.

Likewise, the way I disciplined my children when they were small and unable to understand the moral or physical hazards of their behavior was very different from the way I disciplined them as they aged. When they were small, the point of discipline was simply to stop the bad behavior; to ensure the fork no longer went tines-first into the electrical socket. That was good enough at the time. As they grew older, the object of discipline became to help them understand the nature of their guilt and to become more fully aware of the repercussions of their actions on others, including God. To do that, methods had to change. Sometimes punishments were more severe, depending on the offense and the degree to which the offender had deliberately offended.

Wonderful in Counsel and Excellent in Wisdom

I can’t claim to have been exceptionally good at discipline. Most of us develop similar instincts, particularly to the extent we allow our natural parental impulses to be guided by scripture. Still, just like the farmer in the field, if we end up accomplishing anything of eternal value, it is because we have learned our methods from Heaven, for God is “wonderful in counsel and excellent in wisdom.”

I imagine if you think hard about God’s disciplinary dealings with you over the years, you’ll come to much the same conclusion.

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