Throughout the scriptures, one plant—the tree—is employed over and over again to illustrate, to teach, to make sure things take root. We see that in Psalm 1 and in Jeremiah 17. In those scriptures, we human beings are compared and contrasted with our woody friends.
I am far from a botanist. The number of trees I can identify is not great. A maple leaf adorns the flag of Canada. Oaks shed acorns. Pine trees produce those lovely needles. As for palm trees, who doesn’t know what they look like? Just think, the first church Banu and I served was in Nebraska, the home of Arbor Day! (Arbor is “tree” in Latin.)
Regarding Arbor Day: in most states, it falls on the final Friday of April. The Arbor Day Foundation website reports, “In the last 50 years, [we have] planted and distributed nearly 500 million trees in more than 50 countries around the world to fight global issues facing humankind. And we’re just getting started.” That’s a hopeful reality.
I have a love-hate relationship with black walnut trees. Those of you who are familiar with them might have similar feelings. They make excellent shade trees. It’s really appreciated on those beastly hot summer days. However, they have a dark side. Their roots, leaves, and walnut husks contain the chemical juglone, which is toxic to many plants. It gives the black walnut trees plenty of elbow room! Plus, when they fall, those walnuts make a huge mess.
If I had to think of a particular tree to compare with humans, it just might be the black walnut. Like us, they deal in blessings and curses. (At least, to our way of thinking.)
Trees in general, though, share an important characteristic with us. Professor of forest ecology Suzanne Simard says they “communicate with each other in cooperative ways that hold lessons for humans.” They are linked to other trees “by an underground network of fungi that resembles the neural networks in the brain.” They share information and even warn each other of danger, such as peril from predatory insects.
She says we have much to learn from trees. I couldn’t agree more.
Moving on, I have often said, “This is one of my favorite psalms.” The same can be said here. Psalm number one, kicking off the book, gets things going the right way. It presents the two ways, the two paths in life—that of the wicked and that of the righteous.
Put in those kinds of terms, it looks like everything is cut and dried; everything is locked in place. Still, it’s been said, “This most wisdom-like of the Psalms is not claiming that there are no shades of gray in our commitment and walk of faith. People are complex; life is not so simple. Rather, this psalm strives to depict the two ways and their consequences for us in all their stark reality. At any one moment we find ourselves moving in one direction or the other, moving toward an ultimate destination.”
There is always the possibility and reality of correction, of choosing another path. There is always the possibility of repentance, which as I’ve said before, means “turning back” or “changing one’s mind.”
Now, let’s see what those trees are up to.
Something to notice is that the psalmist and Jeremiah approach those trees from different directions. The psalmist starts with blessing. “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked… They are like trees planted by streams of water…” (vv. 1, 3). However, the wicked “are like chaff that the wind drives away” (v. 4).
The prophet does the exact opposite. He starts with doom and gloom, no doubt reflecting how his life has tended to go. (He’s warned his people about their own wickedness. Consequently, they have not been happy with him.) “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength… They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes” (vv. 5-6).
But then there’s a light in the darkness. “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord” (v. 7). And what is their blessing? “They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream” (v. 8). Sending out its roots. Remember how we just learned about the trees, using their roots in that web of fungi, collaborating with each other in sharing life-giving information of an arboreal nature?
However, there is something of consequence here. As with the trees and their roots, so much goes on beneath the surface. Can we see that among ourselves? How much of blessing and cursing goes unnoticed? What does it take for us to see past the obvious? How often do we pray for the Lord to extend blessing, to extend shalom? How often do we see random people and pray for their best? I wonder how many times others see us and pray for goodness to envelop our lives? I wonder how many times that has happened for me?
There is a sense of caring for these trees. Again, in the psalm, the blessed ones “are like trees planted by streams of water.” And again, the prophet speaks of “a tree planted by water.” They haven’t simply appeared in what seems to be a lush environment; they have been planted. They have been transplanted. The loving, divine gardener is eager to see them flourish. They’re given all they need.
The wicked are different. They are left to fend for themselves. The psalmist says they “are like chaff that the wind drives away” (v. 4). They are “dust in the wind,” to borrow a phrase from the band Kansas. Jeremiah declares they are “like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes” (17:6). They will live in a land of salt.
Both the righteous and wicked will be exposed to drought. The dry times are coming. The shrub won’t see any relief. It won’t see when the good comes. It will wither away. It will choke on salt.
The righteous, however, will survive—even thrive. That tree has no fear of the heat. Its leaves stay green; it continues to bear fruit.
Putting it a different way, Jesus says our “Father in heaven ‘makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.’” Rain is sent on the just and the unjust.
William Holladay tells us, “It is not a fair world: the signs and rewards of faith are motives for our gratitude when they are present, but we cannot always count on them. It still makes a difference, Jeremiah says, whether one has a trust in Yahweh or not, even those who trust and those who do not trust may both lack water.”
In case it hasn’t already become abundantly clear, there is very much the element of choice.
When Jeremiah speaks of the unjust as shrubs in the desert, he says, “They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.” One translation doesn’t say they “shall live,” but “since” they live in the parched places. If you want to consign yourself to the great wastelands, you’re welcome to do so.
How often do we insanely choose what kills us? We often incorporate it into our lifestyles. Do we eat too much? Do we drink too much? Do we spend too much time just sitting around? Do we avoid exercise? Do we buy too much? Do we waste too much? Do we hurt the environment? Do we not love God and neighbor?
Don’t worry though, in verse 9, the good Doctor Jeremiah presents his diagnosis. “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it?” Who indeed can understand it?
The word for “heart” is all-encompassing. It includes the mind, the will, the heart, the understanding, the inner nature. It is everything we are! We can be some devious little critters.
And this all-encompassing heart is perverse. The word in Hebrew ( אׇנַשׁ, `anash) is better translated as “weak” or “sick.” The New English Bible says the heart is “desperately sick.” It is the human condition. We are desperately sick. We need to be healed.
The apostle Paul has a similar thought. “I do not understand my own actions,” he confesses, “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Ro 7:15). He cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” He is a mystery to himself, as are we all. Then Paul has a new awareness and celebrates, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (vv. 24-25).
Who can understand our innermost being? It is the Lord.
That’s a good thing, because like a partridge hatching another bird’s eggs, so are we when we take what is not ours. We become the opposite of those trees relaying blessing and health and life to each other. We’re like the emerald ash borer. We destroy the ash trees which are destined to be chopped down.
Do we deprive others of blessing? And as I sometimes say, “What would that look like?”
I had a little help envisioning that. I asked a friend for some reflections. Depriving others of blessing is similar to cursing them. It means not encouraging them to share their gifts and abilities. It means ignoring them. It could go as far as telling them they’re dumb or ugly or worthless.
How different it is to bless and to be a blessing. It is to lift the other up. It is to affirm them in their hopes and dreams. It is to discover the joy of the Lord together.
“Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.”
 William L. Holladay, Jeremiah 1 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 493.
 New Jerusalem Bible, Jeremiah 17:6